My late friend Christopher Hitchens used to have plenty of effective arguments in his armoury when debating about God. Among his best was to point out to his opponents that even if they managed to prove to him that a divine creative being existed they still had “all their work ahead of them” to demonstrate that Moses received his commandments on Mount Sinai, Jesus was born of a virgin or that a seventh-century tradesman received any visits from an archangel.
In recent years, as the ‘new atheism’ wave of the 2000s has begun to relax into something else, I have occasionally wondered about adding an addendum – almost a rejoinder – to Hitchen’s intellectual battering ram. Which is to point out what a growing number even of new atheists are becoming willing to admit.
There has been a presumption among some atheists in recent years that a rise in secularism or atheism did not necessarily mean that there would be any meaningful change in the morals or ethics held in the societies that were losing faith. They could accept that certain vices might go, but rarely consider that any meaningful virtues would be lost.
That countries such as Britain are becoming increasingly atheistic can hardly be denied. For instance a British Social Attitudes survey published last year found that 53% of British adults described themselves as having no religious affiliation. Since the figure in the same survey in 2015 was 48%, this showed not only that in 2017 for the first time most British people had no religious affiliation, but that five percent had abandoned it in two years alone. That is a trend which – were it to continue, rather than level – would see the evisceration of religion from the UK in less than 20 years.
Yet the unwillingness to acknowledge that a shift in religious affiliation is likely to also bring about a shift in ethical and moral attitudes is curiously fixed. Perhaps people intuit that it might be the case but avoid dwelling on it, for fear that it might drive people back towards religious conformity.
Still, an interesting story from The Atlantic shows that there are some people at least who are aware of the potential void that might be left if religion departs at the rate it currently is, especially among the young. MIT has decided to appoint a ‘humanist chaplain’ to help MIT students with the ethics of tech and assist the next generation of entrepreneurs with some of the ethical challenges they are going to face in their careers.
The Atlantic piece quotes from this chaplain – one Greg Epstein, who has been the humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005. In his interview, Epstein reflects on his time at Harvard:
In these 14 or so years of experience that I’ve had, the single biggest thing I think we as humanists and human beings need to look at when we’re training young leaders today is the need for more attention to human values in science, technology, and business. The world is being reshaped before our eyes, and we’re not ready on campus, because we don’t have an ethical footing from which to teach.
This is a brave and mildly disturbing concession, with significant consequences. A reminder that it is not enough to claim that ethics are self-evident because – as Rabbi (Lord) Jonathan Sacks once put it – “they self-evidently are not self-evident”.
It is particularly significant that MIT should seek to tread into this space. Because, of course, the shifting of the tectonic ethical plates of a society at precisely the same moment as tech opens up the possibility of major societal alterations is something that is going to need serious and sustained attention. Already the average teenager has in their pocket a device which could do more damage to them (as well as, if they use it right, an unprecedented amount of good) than anything most of their parents could have imagine.
A phone is bought to put parent in touch with child. But the same device puts the child in touch with the world, and a development that was meant to alleviate the worry of a parent can end up accelerating it. Likewise, tech did not come up with information-sharing apps after thinking through all the possible personal and moral qualms that such developments might throw up. They came up with the technology and then their users discovered some of the unexpected downsides.
When social media platforms such as Twitter were created they were intended to be a means to communicate more swiftly and effectively with people around the world. Almost nobody predicted that the most striking early trend on Twitter would be a slew of famous and unknown people across the world destroying their careers and engaging in witch-hunts against total strangers for reasons justified and unjustified.
Social media may have been expected to make us happier and more connected. But it has made many people more isolated and unhappy than ever. And anybody who is surprised by that can never have considered the crooked timber of humanity that nearly every generation before this one accepted as something like fact.
Naturally all this will be exacerbated in the years to come by the fact that it will continue to be young people – the people with the least life experience – who will be responsible for the most technological innovation. MIT’s hire shows that some people are beginning to realise some of the challenges that this will pose. Many good things may well come from it. But it is also an interesting concession to the fact that (to alter Hitchens’s phrase) even if you cannot or do not believe in a deity, all of your work on ethics is still before you.