Atheism and Objective Morality

Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium

I’ve been having an interesting exchange with someone using the screen name Atheist Advocate about the nature of morality. The conversation began on Twitter, and AA wrote a reply on his blog, and I’m posting my response to his blog post here. I appreciate AA’s thoughtful engagement on these issues.

Although AA denies it, I still believe, as I said in my extended tweet, that he is conflating moral ontology with moral epistemology. He writes, “it seems pointless to call God ‘maximally good’ unless we know what good means outside of God. It seems like the only way that trait would make sense. . . . I think my analogy deals with the nature of humor, and asks if we can define humor simply in terms of a comedian’s jokes / nature etc, without having an independent idea of what humor is.” (For the full context of the analogy, see the extended Twitter post.)

We can note that he mentions the term nature (which concerns ontology), but conjoins this concept with questions about knowledge of “what good means outside of God,” the definition of humor (his analogy for goodness), and “an independent idea of what [good] is.”

But these are clearly two different things. What it is that grounds moral facts is different from our ideas of good and evil, and our definitions of them. We can acquire many ideas about morality, but this has no bearing on where the basis of morality resides.

If this were the 19th century and we were discussing the basis of the meter, the ground of the meter would be the official meter bar in France. If AA and I were in Europe at the time, our ideas of a meter might come from distances we had traveled, from signs we had seen, and the like, but the foundation and basis of that length just was that bar located in France. In the same way, God’s nature just is the basis and foundation for good. Given that God is the ground of all reality, it makes sense that this includes morality.

Interestingly, AA seems to hold that for goodness to make sense, it has to exist outside of human beings, and presumably any being. But if so, where does it reside? Presumably AA doesn’t believe in some type of Platonic realm where goodness exists “out there.” But if objective good does exist, it must have an ontological grounding—something that provides an ultimate explanation for its existence.

In this light, it appears to be a contradiction for AA to claim that, in effect, morality resides within human beings “in the physical firing of neurons in our brains.” To be consistent, AA would have to hold that goodness can’t be internal to human beings, but must exist “as something outside of” them—as humor only makes sense if it exists outside of the comedian.

But can human beliefs, based on firing neurons in the brain, provide a basis for morality? Since the firing of neurons are simply physical events determined by impersonal, deterministic laws of nature, the answer is clearly no. Firing neurons are no more value-determining than a rain shower, a cough, an avalanche, or the earth’s orbit around the sun. These events simply are, and one can’t derive an ought from an is (at least on atheism). The fact that zebras have four legs, for example, can’t tell us whether this is good, bad, or indifferent. It’s simply an existing state of affairs—like the firing of neurons.

AA links to an article on Desirism intended to address this problem, but note what the article states: “Desirism states that the reason this type of ‘ought’ [a truly moral ought] cannot be derived from ‘is’ rests on the fact that it does not exist. It is not real. It is a fictitious or mythical ‘ought’.”

And that is exactly the point I was making about morality on atheism—it’s an illusion, a set of assertions without justification. And this is because there is no ontological basis for it. Nothing “out there” on atheism makes it the case that some actions are really right, and some really wrong. To support this point, I quoted a number of atheist thinkers saying essentially the same thing. To reiterate, I’ll reproduce a few of them here.

• “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, No evil and no good; nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
– Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.
• “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral.”
– Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism, p. 65.
• “If there is no single moral authority we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves … [and] that means that moral claims are not true or false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error.”
– Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, pp.41-51.

To these we could add Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson: “In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is produced by evolution but is not justified by it because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance. . . . Unlike Macbeth’s dagger, ethics is a shared illusion of the human race.” “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Philosophy of Biology, ed. Michael Ruse (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 316.

These atheist thinkers are exactly right—on atheism, there literally is no right and wrong; thus, any moral judgment is nothing more than a matter of opinion (whether one person’s or most of the world’s population). Yet, one of our deepest intuitions as human beings is that some things really are good and some evil. As humans, we truly apprehend an immaterial realm of moral truths. This is because we are made in God’s image, and have been created with the proper faculties to discern good and evil. Thus, objective morality fits well with a theistic worldview, but finds no place in an atheistic worldview. Christian theism explains our moral experience, but atheism can’t.

I welcome AA’s further thoughts and comments.

Misunderstanding Faith

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A mistake made by some Christians and most skeptics is believing that religious faith, or faith in God, is blind faith.  But biblical faith is not a leap into the dark, but a leap toward the light.  As Greg Koukl nicely summarizes:

“Faith [on this mistaken view] is religious wishful thinking, a desperate lunge in the dark when all evidence is against you.  Take the leap of faith and hope for luck.  Curiously, none of the biblical writers understood faith this way.  Jesus tells his naysayers, ‘Though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me’ (John 10:38 NASB, emphasis added).  Peter reminds the crowd on Pentecost that Jesus was ‘a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22 NASB).

“Paul writes that the evidences from the natural world for God’s eternal power and divine nature ‘have been clearly seen,’ so much so that those who deny Him ‘are without excuse’ (Rom. 1:20).  Later he says that if we believe in a resurrection that didn’t really happen, we have hoped in vain and ‘are of all men most to be pitied’ (1 Cor. 15:19 NASB).  No religious wishful thinking here.

“So let’s set the record straight.  Faith is not the opposite of reason.  The opposite of faith is unbelief.  And reason is not the opposite of faith.  The opposite of reason is irrationality.  Do some Christians have irrational faith?  Sure.  Do some skeptics have unreasonable unbelief?  You bet.  It works both ways.”

Is God Just a Human Invention, Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Kregel, 2010, p. 30 (Kindle edition)

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Bertrand Russell’s Search for God

Español: Bertrand Russell en 1970

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Bertrand Russell’s daughter, Katharine Tait, made the following poignant observations about her father and his lack of belief in God.  Although Russell’s own willful rebellion certainly played a role in his lack of belief, believers can learn an important lesson from his experience, and be reminded that our actions as those who represent Christ have a profound impact on those around us. 

“I could not even talk to him about religion. . . . I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life.  I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be in vain.  But it was hopeless.  He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding. . . . I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God. . . . Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it. . . . Nevertheless, I picked up the yearning from him, together with his ghostlike feeling of not belonging, of having no home in this world.”

— Katharine Tait, My Father, Bertrand Russell (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 189.

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The Rage Against God

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“The difficulties of the anti-theists begin when they try to engage with anyone who does not agree with them, when their reaction is often a frustrated rage that the rest of us are so stupid.  But what if that is not the problem?  Their refusal to accept that others might be as intelligent as they, yet disagree, leads them into many snares.

“I tend to sympathize with them.  I too have been angry with opponents who required me to re-examine opinions I had embraced more through passion than through reason.  I too have felt the unsettling lurch beneath my feet as the solid ground of my belief has shifted.  I do not know whether they have also experienced what often follows—namely, a long self-deceiving attempt to ignore or belittle truths that would upset a position in which I had long been comfortable; in some ways even worse, it was a position held by almost everyone I knew, liked, or respected—people who would be shocked and perhaps hostile, mocking, or contemptuous if I gave in to my own reason.  But I suspect that they have experienced this form of doubt, and I suspect that the hot and stinging techniques of their argument, the occasional profanity and the persistent impatience and scorn, are useful to them as they once were to me in fending it off.

“And yet in the end, while it may have convinced others, my own use of such techniques did not convince me.”

— Peter Hitchens in The Rage Against God, 12, 13.

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Atheism as Parasitic on Christianity

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“The secular myth continues with a page drawn from the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon:  Christianity destroyed classical civilization and brought on a Dark Age.  Civilization escaped the Dark Ages only with the rise of the Renaissance man and science.  Secular thinking helped shake off the shackles of religion and created the modern world.  Today only the vestiges of organized religion prevent humankind from achieving its full potential.  Helping “sell” this story is the promise that secularism finally will allow total personal freedom, especially in the area of sexuality.  This is a point that [Christopher] Hitchens makes explicit at the end of his jeremiad God Is Not Great.

“. . . The good news for Christian theists is that Hitchens’s story is simple to the point of being simplistic, and they have a better story to tell.  The basic story is this: the combination of Greek philosophy and Christianity produced Christendom, which has produced most of the great goods of our world.  Christendom provides a home for both reason and meaning.  It balances law and liberty.  It makes love the central motive for human action and a reasonable God the end of that love.

“While Christians often fail, the basic ideas of Christendom keep pulling humanity back from the brink of utter tyranny or ruinous social chaos.  Christian failures create secularists, who often serve as useful in-house critics of Christian inconsistencies.  Moderate secularists often make useful and important subsidiary contributions to institutions created by Christians, such as hospitals and universities.

“At their worst, evangelistic secularists are destructive cynics parasitically living within Christian-built structures and undermining their philosophical and theological basis for existence.”

— John Mark Reynolds in Against All Gods: What’s Right and Wrong about the New Atheism, 102-103.

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William Lane Craig Debates Richard Dawkins

It’s a well-known but unfortunate fact that Richard Dawkins has refused to debate Bill Craig.  But, coincidentally, he did this past weekend and Dr. Craig provides some of the details on his website (it may be necessary to login to view this).  A Spanish-dubbed version of the debate is on YouTube, but the English version is said to be coming soon.

Along with the debate details, Dr. Craig observed that the workshops held at the conference – “La Ciudad de las Ideas” (City of Ideas) in Mexico – were marked by three themes.  These intellectual currents are the same ones that characterize much of our culture and institutions of higher education.  The first two I believe are corrosive to rationality and truth-seeking while the third is naïve.

(1) Naturalism. There was no cognizance of God or even of religion’s contribution to culture and humanity—though, to Professor Roemer’s credit, there was, after all, our debate! But the other conference presenters took no recognition of the supernatural. Human beings were repeatedly treated reductively as purely physical mechanisms. A person was treated as just a network of neurons. This led to the bizarre view, repeated several times, that the worldwide web (whose inventor, by the way, was one of the presenters) is a huge collective brain, almost a sort of super-person. The day before the debate Richard Dawkins delivered a hateful screed against religion, denouncing “the evil of faith.” About 40% of the audience gave him a standing ovation. I was glad that most people had the courage to stay seated. The audience, at least, was not as secularized as the conference presenters.

(2) Scientism. The unspoken assumption throughout the conference was that science, and science alone, is the way to truth and knowledge. It’s not just that religious knowledge was excluded. Rather any and every question, even questions that are properly philosophical, was considered only insofar as it could be addressed scientifically. Apart from our debate, no one even questioned this unspoken scientism. So when Dawkins claimed that we should not believe anything except on the basis of (scientific) evidence, no one seemed to notice that his position was self-defeating, since the claim that we should believe only what can be scientifically proven cannot itself be scientifically proven! At this conference, as in Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design, scientists were taken to be “the torchbearers of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

(3) Utopianism. There was a pervasive sentiment that science and technology are the savior of mankind and are about to usher us into a golden age. I couldn’t help having misgivings about the brave, new world they described. For example, Michio Kaku said that the internet will be embedded in contact lenses that will project images directly into our retinas. So, he said, if a student doesn’t have a date for Friday night, he can create an image of the most beautiful girl imaginable, download a movie, and watch it with her. I found something pathetic about this scenario of a student, alone in his room, cut off from contact with a real person, living in his imaginary world. This is progress?

* Update: The full audio of the debate is now up at Apologetics 315, and the English video is here.

* Update:  Rabbi David Wolpe, who along with Dr. Craig and Dr. Doug Geivett defended the proposition that the universe has a purpose, gives his account of the debate at the Huffington Post.


Dawkins and Company Fail to Engage

I and other contributors to Cloud of Witnesses have observed before that the most visible leaders of the new atheism fail to properly represent religion and fail to engage the most articulate, sophisticated arguments for God’s existence and the rationality of Christianity.  Now Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, joins the throng of critics who have pointed this out, in a post at the New York Times Opinionator blog.

Religious believers often accuse argumentative atheists such as Dawkins of being excessively rationalistic, demanding standards of logical and evidential rigor that aren’t appropriate in matters of faith. My criticism is just the opposite. Dawkins does not meet the standards of rationality that a topic as important as religion requires.

The basic problem is that meeting such standards requires coming to terms with the best available analyses and arguments. This need not mean being capable of contributing to the cutting-edge discussions of contemporary philosophers, but it does require following these discussions and applying them to one’s own intellectual problems. Dawkins simply does not do this. He rightly criticizes religious critics of evolution for not being adequately informed about the science they are calling into question. But the same criticism applies to his own treatment of philosophical issues.

. . . . [T]hose, like Dawkins, committed to believing only what they can rationally justify, have no alternative to engaging with the most rigorous rational discussions available. Dawkins’ distinctly amateur philosophizing simply isn’t enough.

The entire article presents a fine critique of Dawkins’s arguments for atheism.

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