New Ethics and Atheist Newbies

The Necessity of Atheism?

Pardon my cough when I see titles like Good without God being hailed as “trendsetting.” Not only is the title overworked and the subject matter stale, but the author manages to get through the entire discussion without so much as tipping his hat to the theologian who pioneered the debate almost a generation ago, Cambridge University’s Don Cupitt.

To be fair, it is possible the author never read Cupitt. American learning is almost as parochial and inward-looking as it was in Emerson’s day when the sage, in his exceedingly dull 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, tried to argue that American scholarship (still the object of ridicule in Europe) would be concerned mainly with “Nature.” So, we in this nation, especially perhaps scholars, are part of a proud tradition of not paying attention to foreign scholarship and are more prone than Europeans to claim squatter’s rights to ideas developed by others, elsewhere, often long ago.

Whatever the case, to write a book about ethics without God and not to cite Don Cupitt’s The New Christian Ethics strikes me as plainly negligent, to the point of being out of touch with the topic. A bit like writing a book on the history of the Statue of Liberty without mentioning Frederic Bartholdi.

This out-of touchness is something I have been battling for years. The problem with Atheist Newbies (as good a beginning of a carping sentence as you could want) is that they are too little aware that the battle they think they are fighting was fought over a century ago, fought by theologians in liberal trenches (not atheists in foxholes) and for better or worse won by the forces of reason—if not exactly the battalions of unbelief.

I suspect that is why they spend so much time battling old believers–ranging from DMS’s (Dead Medieval Scholastics) to MILFs (Multiple Illiterate Leadheaded Fundies) because for the most part their work shows no currency with the serious strands of contemporary theology, social ethics, or even of philosophical dialogue with theology. This isolation from theology also nurtures a strong tendency among the Newbies to assume that they were at the station ahead of theologians who had actually caught the train days before them.

Of course there is no need to keep current if you have determined to win against the religious losers and claim that there are no other intellectual positions worth fighting against. It happens to be true that a great deal of modern theology is not worth bothering with. But that is doubtless true of books in general. Not to know the history of theological Destruktion since Kant, Coleridge and Schleiermacher ruled the waves is simply to claim poverty as privilege.

Which brings me to Don Cupitt. Cupitt was the unwitting source of my greatest disappointment many years ago when I was offered a place to read theology at Caius College, Cambridge, and decided to go the City of Dreaming Spires instead.

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

To be blunt, there was no one quite like Cupitt at Oxford, though a few came close. In 1988 he published a modest volume called The New Christian Ethics. The book was a follow-up to his highly controversial, absolutely marvelous little book called Taking Leave of God. (1980).

Taking Leave of God had taken what theologians sometimes call a non-realist position: God is a conglomerate of expressions about god, but not the same as any individual expression nor any total of these expressions. In this sense, God is not “real,” and so any idea that this God has given moral commandments to the human race is untrue.

Like a lot of non-realists, I prefer to say that God is not real instead of saying “I do not believe in God,” or more confidently, “There is no God.” I have no idea whether there is any god that equates to any idea or expression of god. How could I? When I say “God is not real, “ I simply mean that there is not now nor has there ever been a being equivalent to the descriptions of the divine being in sacred scripture and Christian (or any) theology. I am not saying that Christian theology is deficient and some other person’s theology is “right.” I am saying that while I cannot rule out the possibility of God, I can rule out the historical descriptions of him and the rules of conduct thought by some religious people to emanate from him. It’s odd how close this is to atheism, but the atheists I know are the last to admit it.

The idea of the unreality of God gets us beyond the existence question in a healthy linguistic way, because it means that there is no way to experience the reality of God in the way we experience the reality of the world. We know that the historical, traditional descriptions of God are man made. We know this as fact.

The commandments of the Bible and Quran are man-made as well. They are ideas that were used in antiquity to flesh in the idea of God as lawgiver and sovereign over the customs and conduct of human beings. Almost certainly, they are the work of a professional class–priests, prophets, royal sycophants and bureaucrats.

With the collapse of the biblical-realist idea of God, which happened in theology beginning in the nineteenth century, the idea of “divine command” ethics was washed away as well. For many contemporary theologians it does not matter that a great many errant and usually unrefined voices still defend the “reality” of God, the basic soundness of the biblical view of God, or the general “wisdom” (if not the details) of divine command theory. It should matter however that these voices are evidently the only ones of any interest to Atheist Newbies and matter as well that the most vocal critics of religion don’t really seem to care about making the careful distinctions that would, if ignored, sink them as experts in any other field–especially the sciences. The moral is, it is easy to be a critic in a field in which you’re an amateur.

However, the most important thing about Cupitt’s ethics is that he regards the end of realism (the end of the belief in the reality of the God of the Bible) as a turning point in human history. Rather than setting up a straw-man opposition between the “truth” of science (and any ethics emanating from “scientific reason,” whatever that is) and the falsity of religion (with its God-driven, rule based, non-negotiable edicts), Cupitt sees the end of God as a challenge that confronts everyone: the atheist may consider herself free of it, but her obsession with continuing to play with tin solders contradicts her freedom. The Christian, Jew, Muslim on the other hand must begin by acknowledging that the challenge has not been met, and that they may still be infatuated with ideas they have never taken the time to question or examine:

The end of the old realistic conception of God as an all-powerful and objective spiritual Being independent of us and sovereign over us makes it now possible and even necessary for us to create a new Christian ethics. It is we ourselves who alone make truth, make value, and so have formed the reality that now encompasses us.”

Cupitt’s position is far more radical than it seems—radical precisely because he is not saying what I take the Atheist Newbies to be saying–that is, if they are arguing a kind of ethical détente between believers and nonbelievers consolidated in the paralytic slogan, “It is possible to be good without God.”

Cupitt is saying that it is not only (or primarily) the atheist who must learn to do without God-based ethics. Believers do not have the option to choose a reality of godly proportions and christen his commandments as the divine will as a cover and support for their morality. He is saying that everyone, including believers, must learn to be “good” without a God who is not real in the first place, who has never spoken—and not just not to atheists–and certainly not to the modern mind.

This is optionless ethics, where an atheist will find no opportunity to exchange the fixed certainties of religion for the discovered truths of science as an alternate source of ethical reassurance.

“There is no bedrock and nothing is fixed, not my identity nor my sexuality nor my categories of thought, nothing… There is no external measure or value or disvalue– and therefore our life is exactly as precious or as insignificant as we ourselves make it out to be.”

In his work, Cupitt has always been clear that there is a strong religious argument against religious ethics and against the objective existence of God. Religious argument against God? Yes, certainly. It shows through vividly in those faiths that profess an absolute loyalty to an absolute ruler who reigns from the heavens. In Christianity and Islam, the idea that God exists primarily to tell us what to do, knows what we do, and reacts by punishing and rewarding what we do, is prominent if not primary. It is not only repressive; it so limits the idea of the freedom of human beings that this sort of God cannot really desire choice as part of his plan for salvation: salvation would necessarily (and actually does) mean salvation from the structures he imposes on his own creatures.

Cupitt dismisses with a stroke of the quill the turbid debates of two millennia concerning freedom and bondage of the will and says that they are a conceptual overwrite of a scriptural tradition that precludes them—inveigled in from philosophy, planted in Eden, but with no convincing root system. “An objective God cannot save anyone. …The more God is absolutised, the more we are presented with the possibility of living under the dominion of a cosmic tyrant who will allow nothing, and least of all religion, to change and develop.”

The unreal God of the Christian tradition is nothing more than humanity setting limits on its own self-understanding by projecting such a tyrant and his rules as restrictions on human freedom. Nowadays, Cupitt argues, “the nature of language dictates what can and cannot meaningfully be said of anything, God included.”

As to the thesis that it is possible to be “good” without God: The more radical proposition is that a morality based on choice and freedom is only possible once the reality of God has been sacrificed to a deeper understanding of our own humanity.

6 thoughts on “New Ethics and Atheist Newbies

  1. Thank you for this essay, and for a new author to read; well, two authors, you and Donald Cupitt. I am eager to obtain Cupitt’s books. I have been a lifetime atheist and have gone through all the stages of atheism, from “who cares” to angry “New” atheist- although the angry & new was twenty years ago!

    I found your blog via, I think Planet Atheism.

  2. There is not now nor has there ever been a literal being equivalent to the descriptions of the divine being in sacred scripture and Christian (or any) theology, but the descriptions withstand allegorical interpretation, and some of the descriptions seem plainly to be deliberate allegory.

  3. I really like your assessment of Cupitt’s invaluable little book. The real shame is not only that the title ‘Good without God’ is not attributed, but that it is used in a far inferior way. I appreciate God is not real rather than God does not exist although I wouldn’t be surprised if the distinction was lost on some people from the MILFs to the newbies. MILFs I rather like too – might borrow it. (Don Cupitt is the spitting image of my first world religions lecturer, Jim Veitch)

    And that, said Pooh, is that.


  4. Pingback: New Ethics and Atheist Newbies « The New Oxonian

  5. “So, we in this nation, especially perhaps scholars, are part of a proud tradition of not paying attention to foreign scholarship”

    Ah well now Mr Casaubon wasn’t an American. (He also wasn’t real [I don’t mean Isaac, obviously] but never mind that.)

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