Moral practice and non-belief

By Giles Fraser
26 Jun 2008

I always seem to be offending atheists. The other evening, it was because I questioned what someone meant when he described himself as a “practising” atheist. What, I wondered, was being practised, and what sort of practice was it?

The person I was talking with thought I was suggesting that you could not be moral without being a Christian. Atheists do seem to be overly sensitive about that one. Actually, I was not suggesting that. But I do wonder how one can be moral without being involved in “a practice”.

My worry about the way many atheists describe the process of moral decision-making is that it seems to boil down to a sense of moral instinct, informed by a few formulas of general benevolence: i.e. do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Often, there is much talk about being a “good person”.

This seems so naïve, underestimating the extent to which human beings are able to deceive themselves into believing they are doing the right thing, when they are simply doing what they want or what makes them happy.

Christian moral decision-making begins with a strong sense that we often try to fool ourselves, and thus we need some external check. Going to church, regular prayer, reading from scripture, specific times to meet and challenge each other’s moral instincts: all these are forms of external practice which offer checks against the dominance of my own internal moral intuitions. Original sin requires a more robust account of moral epistemology than simply a feeling that one is doing the right thing.

In the crucial paragraph 202 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, he writes: “It is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’: otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.”

The ground-breaking genius of the private-language argument is to understand that the internal lives of human beings — meaning, moral intuitions, and so on — make sense only because they are held together by forms of public practice. Shared patterns of behaviour are an essential requirement for the generation of meaning.

Many of the atheists I get into discussion with seem content to perform an internal self-audit of their moral dispositions. Of course, atheists are often part of other traditions — political ones, for instance — that can generate public checks against self-deception. But, simply as atheists, they have little to perform this task.

Perhaps that is what comes of having a moral vision shaped by little more than what one is against?

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(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney, and an occasional lecturer in philosophy. This article originally appeared in The Church Times and is reproduced with acknowledgement.

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