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.

New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics – January 2013


God & Morality: Four Views – Edited by R. Keith Loftin (InterVarsity, 2012) **

Is morality dependent upon belief in God? Is there more than one way for Christians to understand the nature of morality? Is there any agreement between Christians and atheists or agnostics on this heated issue?

In God and Morality: Four Views four distinguished voices in moral philosophy articulate and defend their place in the current debate between naturalism and theism. Christian philosophers Keith Yandell and Mark Linville and two self-identified atheist/agnostics, Evan Fales and Michael Ruse, clearly and honestly represent their differing views on the nature of morality.

Views represented are 1) naturalist moral non-realist, 2) naturalist moral realist, 3) moral essentialist, and 4) moral particularist.


Reason & Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (5th ed.)  Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (OUP, 2012)

Reason and Religious Belief, now in its fifth edition, explores perennial questions in the philosophy of religion. Drawing from the best in both classical and contemporary discussions, the authors examine religious experience, faith and reason, the divine attributes, arguments for and against the existence of God, divine action (in various forms of theism), Reformed epistemology, religious language, religious diversity, and religion and science.

Revised and updated to reflect current philosophical discourse, the fifth edition offers new material on neuro-theology, the “new Atheism,” the intelligent design movement, theistic evolution, and skeptical theism. It also provides more coverage of non-Western religions–particularly Buddhism–and updated discussions of evidentialism, free will, life after death, apophatic theology, and more. A sophisticated yet accessible introduction, Reason and Religious Belief, Fifth Edition, is ideally suited for use with the authors’ companion anthology, Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Fourth Edition (OUP, 2009).


God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with PainEdited by Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr. (InterVarsity, 2013)

The question of evil—its origins, its justification, its solution—has plagued humankind from the beginning. Every generation raises the question and struggles with the responses it is given. Questions about the nature of evil and how it is reconciled with the truth claims of Christianity are unavoidable; we need to be prepared to respond to such questions with great clarity and good faith.

God and Evil compiles the best thinking on all angles on the question of evil, from some of the finest scholars in religion, philosophy and apologetics, including

  • Gregory E. Ganssle and Yena Lee
  • Bruce Little
  • Garry DeWeese
  • R. Douglas Geivett
  • James Spiegel
  • Jill Graper Hernandez
  • Win Corduan
  • David Beck



From Morality to Metaphysics: The Theistic Implications of our Ethical Commitments – Angus Ritchie (OUP, 2012)

From Morality to Metaphysics offers an argument for the existence of God, based on our most fundamental moral beliefs. Angus Ritchie engages with a range of the most significant secular moral philosophers of our time, and argues that they all face a common difficulty which only theism can overcome.

The book begins with a defense of the ‘deliberative indispensability’ of moral realism, arguing that the practical deliberation human beings engage in on a daily basis only makes sense if they take themselves to be aiming at an objective truth. Furthermore, when humans engage in practical deliberation, they necessarily take their processes of reasoning to have some ability to track the truth. Ritchie’s central argument builds on this claim, to assert that only theism can adequately explain our capacity for knowledge of objective moral truths. He demonstrates that we need an explanation as well as a justification of these cognitive capacities. Evolutionary biology is not able to generate the kind of explanation which is required–and, in consequence, all secular philosophical accounts are forced either to abandon moral objectivism or to render the human capacity for moral knowledge inexplicable.

From Morality to Metaphysics


Mappings the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of EverythingGerald Rau (InterVarsity, 2012)

What are the main positions in the debate over creation and evolution? Why do they disagree? Can the debates about origins and evolution ever be resolved? Gerald Rau offers a fair-minded overview of the six predominant models used to explain the origins of the universe, of life, of species and of humans. He aims to show the contours of current debates both among Christians and between Christians and non-theists.  He accomplishes this by not only describing the options on origins, but by exploring the philosophical assumptions behind each and how evidence is counted corresponding with each model.  He also notes the limits of a scientifically gained knowledge. Readers will not only become better informed about the current debates on origins but better thinkers about the issues at stake.


** Descriptions provided by the publishers.

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On Doing Your Homework before Critiquing

Several commenters were surprised by Michael Ruse’s judgment of the overall quality of the New Atheist’s argumentation, which I referenced in a recent post.  This was the meat of Ruse’s rebuke:

But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. . . . Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

Similarly, Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books surmised,

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

And Roman Catholic theologian John Haught observes in a Salon interview,

My chief objection to the new atheists is that they are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology. They talk about the most fundamentalist and extremist versions of faith, and they hold these up as though they’re the normative, central core of faith. And they miss so many things. They miss the moral core of Judaism and Christianity — the theme of social justice, which takes those who are marginalized and brings them to the center of society. They give us an extreme caricature of faith and religion.

Rather than spelling out the details here of where the New Atheists often go wrong—at least in relation to arguments for God’s existence—I highly recommend William Lane Craig’s recent article on that topic available here.  An informative (and technical) exchange between Craig and Daniel Dennett on arguments for God’s existence is available on audio here.

Speaking in a different context, but applicable to those authors mentioned above (who are obviously intelligent and capable, but lacking in this area), Ben Witherington writes:

Might I suggest that before you go pontificating on matters about which you are ill informed, that you do a little research first? . . . I suggest you . . .  [not write] again until you have something well-informed, carefully researched, peer-reviewed, and of general value to the public to say.

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Atheist Philosopher Michael Ruse Sizes up the New Atheists

Michael Ruse posted this article last year, but his insights are still spot on.   A few of his incisive criticisms . . .

I am not a devout Christian, yet if anything, the things said against me are worse. Richard Dawkins, in his best selling The God Delusion, likens me to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser of Hitler at Munich. Jerry Coyne reviewed one of my books (Can a Darwinian be a Christian?) using the Orwellian quote that only an intellectual could believe the nonsense I believe in. And non-stop blogger P. Z. Myers has referred to me as a “clueless gobshite.” This invective is all because, although I am not a believer, I do not think that all believers are evil or stupid, and because I do not think that science and religion have to clash.

Let me say that I believe the new atheists do the side of science a grave disservice. I will defend to the death the right of them to say what they do — as one who is English-born one of the things I admire most about the USA is the First Amendment. But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. . . . Conversely, I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist. Let me say that again. Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.

(HT: Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society)

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Philosophy Word of the Day – Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996)

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the most influential book in modern philosophy of science, Kuhn argues that scientists work within and against the background of an unquestioned theory or set of beliefs, something he characterizes as a ‘paradigm.’

Sometimes, however, a paradigm seems to come unstuck, and it is necessary that a new one be provided.  What makes Kuhn’s positions stimulating and controversial is the central claim that there can be no strictly logical reason for the change of a paradigm.  As in political revolutions, partisans argue in a circular fashion from within their own camps.

Expectedly, this claim was anathema to old-fashioned rationalists like Karl Popper, for whom science is the apotheosis of sound and logical defensible thought.  Paradoxically, however, Kuhn and Popper are both evolutionary epistemologists, seeing essential analogies between their (very different) views of scientific change and the evolution of organisms.”

Michael Ruse in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995)

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Atheist Philosopher Julian Baggini on the New Atheism

A number of atheist philosophers have distanced themselves from the rhetoric and writings of the New Atheists (e.g., Michael Ruse).  Atheist philosopher Julian Baginni criticizes the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris) of the new atheism for treating religion as worthless, failing to be self-critical, and neglecting to recognize the limits of reason.  Here are some notable excerpts:

All this, I think, has been unhelpful in many ways. In short, the new atheism gets atheism wrong, gets religion wrong, and is counterproductive.

The new atheism, however, is characterised by its attacks on religion. “There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds,” wrote Richard Dawkins, quite typically, quoting approvingly Stephen Weinberg, who said, “for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” Hitchens goes so far as to explicitly say that “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist.” This antitheism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.

A second feature of atheism is that it is committed to the appropriate use of reason and evidence. In order to occupy this intellectual high ground, it is important to recognise the limits of reason, and also to acknowledge that atheists have no monopoly on it. The new atheism, however, tends to claim reason as a decisive combatant on its side only. With its talk of “spells” and “delusions”, it gives the impression that only through stupidity or crass disregard for reason could anyone be anything other than an atheist. “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” says Dawkins, once again implying that reason and evidence are strangers to religion. This is arrogant, and attributes to reason a power it does not have.

For these reasons, I am not happy about the public rhetoric of the new atheism, which has the most powerful effect on how people perceive people like me. Anyone committed to the proper use of reason and evidence should use both to see that this rhetoric matters, whether they like it or not, and modify their approach accordingly.’

Thanks to ID.Plus

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