Posted on Apr 10, 2009 by Tom Gilson
An open letter to Alonze Fyfe, “The Atheist Ethicist.”
CC: Any atheistic, agnostic, or skeptical reader with an interest in ethics
You have remained strangely silent on the matter of reading opposing views, after I have asked you several times (starting here; also here and here) whether that is something you have made your practice. I raised the question because you had said theistic faith was evidence-free and unreasoning, and I suggested a set of authors for you to read in rebuttal of that opinion. Because of your silence, I wonder now more strongly than ever whether you have done much serious reading in theism.
Not long ago Nick Matzke (recently of the National Center for Science Education) challenged me for not having read “the basic references on the morality/evolution/human nature topic.” Though actually I’ve read a fair amount of secular ethical theory, I had not read evolutionary-based ethical theory. I responded with a trop to the library to obtain the two books he’d recommended, via interlibrary loan. This was the outcome, so far at least.
So today I challenge you with a list of theistic reading that’s much shorter, and more to the point of your chosen subject area: to read some of the best standard works on theistic ethics. I don’t see how you can be an “atheist ethicist” without understanding the contrasting view.
Where to begin? The standard on Christian ethics is of course the New Testament. It is the center and source of Christian belief on the topic, and it is also where we read the life of the man many through the ages lived the life that shines as the most ethical ever lived, with the greatest ethical teaching. I’m going to suggest a few pages to you to start with, actually:
- The Sermon on the Mount, Mathew chapters 5-7, and the parallel in Luke 6.
- The trial of Jesus Christ (commemmorated today, Good Friday, in the Western church), in Luke chapters 22 and 23, and John chapters 18 and 19. In both of those locations you might as well keep reading and see how it comes out, since you’re so close to the end of each of those books at that point anyway.
- The life of Christ in its shortest written expression, the book of Mark.
- And finally from the original source, the ethical teaching of Paul, in the book of Romans. Much of Romans is about how to live an ethical life, in view of the acknowledged difficulty of remaining consistent in it (see chapter 7). I can guarantee you’ll find Romans a distinct intellectual challenge, and specifically a challenge to your opinion that theists do not reason through their beliefs.
- Because of the external references and allusions in Romans, you’ll need a commentary (most people do) to guide you through. This one by F.F. Bruce, a top NT scholar, would be a great choice.
Once you get through this, I would suggest you add to it C.S. Lewis’s very short (still not asking a lot of you) but powerfully argued book The Abolition of Man, for a more contemporary treatment of ethical questions in context of atheism. His Mere Christianity, a modern classic, would also be very good.
Am I asking a lot of you? Actually, if you do not do this you are not asking enough of yourself. You really can’t write on atheistic ethics without knowing the contrasting views. I’m not asking anything of you that I haven’t done myself, anyway. I don’t read everything anyone suggests, obviously, there’s a limit; but I’ll rarely take a position of knowledge on a topic without having read the best on both sides of it. Frankly, when I’ve skipped that step, I’ve been called on it, as with Nick Matzke above. That’s to be expected, and it’s entirely fair.
The list I gave you has multiple items, but it won’t add up to more than maybe forty to sixty (estimated) pages of reading in the Bible, plus a commentary for reference and two relatively short books. It’s hardly a beginning, really, for someone who claims some knowledge on ethics in context of the atheism/theism question. You owe it to yourself, really; without it you seriously truncate your own expertise.
I’ll look forward to hearing back from you on this. Again, if this is the kind of thing you’ve already done, I’ll be interested to hear that, too.
With warm regards,