Paul Bloom's essay on morality and atheism in today's issue of Slate should be of interest to all those (myself included) who identify as both atheists and as "moral" people. Though some of his conclusions seem sound and useful (atheists are less happy and less generous than religious people because they are excluded from communities), I had a lot of problems with his logic.
Most troublingly, Bloom treats "morality" as if it were a transparent and self-evident category. He summarizes several studies that code certain behaviors (giving change to homeless people on the street, giving blood) as "moral" and accepts these definititions uncritically. What makes giving change to the homeless an intrinsically moral act? I have a personal policy of not giving change to the homeless or cans to canned food drives — instead, I donate a sum of money to the Greater Boston Food Bank (donate here). It is tremendously more efficient to give cash to an organization that buys food in bulk and distributes resources to the areas of greatest need than it is to pass out quarters or donate food you bought at retail price. Am I then acting immorally when I fail to give change to the homeless? I would argue that I have made a good moral choice that actually involved some effort and reflection rather than relying on impulse.
Similarly, the studies Bloom cites do not distinguish between a "moral" action and the system of ethics behind that action. In one study, participants were given $10 that they could either keep or choose to share with a stranger. Half of the subjects were primed with a religiously-themed word search and ended up giving away more money than the control group. Bloom, in agreement with the researchers, interprets this study as evidence that "religious people are nicer because they believe that they are never alone." Other research cited by Bloom suggest that "people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around." I don't know what definition of "generous" he is using, but I would refer him to my favorite Bible story: Mark 12:38-44.
Since Bloom is a professor of psychologywho specializes in child development, he is no doubt familiar Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Last time I checked, doing the right thing because you know someone is watching (and, implicitly, threatening punishment for bad behavior) doesn't rank very high on that scale. Even if a religious person follows the instructions outlined in Matthew 6:1-6 and hides his/her good works from the world, he/she still believes that God is watching and will punish or reward accordingly. Is that really altruism? Within an atheistic system of morality, no one is watching you and any charity must spring from another source, such as self-interest (if I am kind to others, they will be kind to me) or a commitment to social justice.*
So what is morality? Are there particular actions that are moral and others that are not? If you perform the "moral" actions, do your intentions matter? Isn't it possible that more than one decision can be morally correct in any given situation?
I don't mean to argue that atheists are necessarily more moral than theists. But I am supremely annoyed whenever I see these questions posed in ways that specifically privilege a theistic definition of morality without bothering to interrogate the terms involved.
*P.S. I think a commitment to social justice is demanded by the type of atheism I embrace. I believe that there is no afterlife and thus, no justice in the afterlife, so we better demand justice on this earth. While many theistic worldviews (particularly Christianity) put a lot of value on the afterlife, I think that everyone just has this one, short, fragile existence, and that makes life so much more precious.
Update: Darn. P.Z. Myers responds to this essay as well and, as usual, much more eloquently than I. Also, like a good, morally upright person, he focuses on points of agreement with Bloom and moves the discussion in productive directions (How can atheists build community?) rather than bellyaching.