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.

Book Review — The Passionate Intellect


  • Hardcover: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (July 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christian Book Distributors
  • Alister McGrath’s Website

    I recently had the opportunity to review Alister McGrath’s The Passionate Intellect. The book, subtitled “Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind,” explores the practice of Christian theology and its relevance to the modern church and to Western culture. It is based on lectures and addresses given over the course of several years by McGrath, a Christian apologist and theologian who has gained public recognition as a speaker and author. Dr. McGrath’s credentials as a former atheist and an accomplished academic theologian with doctoral degrees in molecular biophysics and divinity give him a unique perspective in discussions of science, atheism, and Christianity.

    The first chapters of The Passionate Intellect primarily discuss the functions of theology as an aid to faith and understanding for the individual and the benefits of theology for the Christian community. The combination of the academic writing style and the subject matter made this part of the book a difficult read; analysis of a field of study is, to me, less engaging than the field of study itself. However, McGrath communicates very clearly his passion for a relationship with God that transcends intellectual understanding. Theology for McGrath is not merely a dry study of the history or meaning of God’s actions in this world, but a pursuit that should “leave us on our knees, adoring the mystery that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.” He advocates a theology that is rooted in a personal desire to know God more deeply, is useful to the church, and that informs apologetics and evangelism. For the church as a whole, he argues that theology can hold the church to a dynamic orthodoxy, making religious truth accessible to a changing culture while remaining faithful to original apostolic teaching.

    From these first chapters, McGrath moves into a discussion of engaging with our culture. For me, McGrath’s strength lies in these subjects; he tackles the supposed conflict of science and religion, the implications of Charles Darwin’s ideas, and the “new atheism” with thoughtfulness and an impressive command of both history and the natural sciences. He criticizes the dogmatic assumptions inherent in the arguments of scientific atheists, particularly Richard Dawkins, who argue that good science is incompatible with religion. In this section, McGrath devotes a well-balanced chapter to the implications of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species for the Christian faith. In my opinion, the most fascinating chapter in the book follows the chapter focusing on Darwin. In chapter nine, “Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution,” McGrath describes the conclusions that Augustine (354-430 A.D.) drew after much reflection and study of Scripture regarding God’s creation of the universe. Of course, Augustine was not responding to Charles Darwin or his work (Augustine predated Darwin by fifteen hundred years or so), but his conclusions are remarkably applicable to the current creation debate.

    The last several chapters focus on the new atheists’ metaphysical and sociological arguments, and their intellectual heritage. McGrath thoroughly addresses the new atheists’ assertion that “religion poisons everything,” a sound bite coined by Christopher Hitchens (2007) asserting that religion is responsible for most of the social ills in the world. This popular argument most commonly blames violence (particularly wars, terrorism, and abuse) on religion. The author dismantles the argument piece by piece, drawing from history, philosophy and sociological research to support his case.

    Alister McGrath is reasonable and meticulous when discussing the history and sociology of Christianity, enthusiastic about science, and passionate regarding the prospect of a life spent getting to know God. The Passionate Intellect is the product of a believer who expresses his faith with intellectual integrity and a remarkable command of the historical and scientific evidence. This book is a valuable resource for Christians seeking to clarify their thinking on the issues at the intersections of science, modern atheism, and Christianity. The Passionate Intellect is confirmation that a vibrant intellectual life is fully consistent with a deep faith in God.

    — Reviewed by Desmognathus.  A follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.  Desmognathus now blogs at Fish Nor Fowl.

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Top Posts of 2010

    Below are some of the Cloud’s top posts of 2010.  Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read, comment, or critique. May you know and love God more and more in 2011!

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    Further Critiques of the “God Delusion”

    The God Delusion

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    I’ve made reference to several fine critiques of the new atheists and their books (for example, here, here, and here), but I am always happy to add more—especially from those who are outside the evangelical fold, which hopefully serves to show that our own (similar) critiques aren’t simply payback in kind.  The one below comes from H. Allen Orr, a biology professor at the University of Rochester, in the New York Review of Books.

    “Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins’s work, I’m afraid that I’m among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.

    The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.

    The result is The God Delusion, a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).”

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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.


    Does Religion Promote Dissension and Conflict?

    Temple of St Vladimir. It was turned to bus st...
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    It can, and sometimes does, but so does politics, ideology, race, and gender.  Atheists often caricature religion as the most corrosive force on earth, but as Alister McGrath points out, this is sociologically and historically naive.

    Suppose [Richard] Dawkins’s dream were to come true, and religion were to disappear.  Would that end the divisions within humanity and the violence that ensues from them?  Certainly not.  Such divisions are ultimately social constructs which reflect the fundamental sociological need for communities to self-define and identify those who are “in” and those who are “out,” those who are “friends,” and those who are “foes.”

    . . . . A series of significant binary oppositions are held to have shaped Western thought—such as “male-female” and “white-black.”  Binary opposition leads to the construction of the category of “the other”—the devalued half of a binary opposition—when applied to groups of people.  Group identity is often fostered by defining “the other”—as, for example, in Nazi Germany with its opposition “Aryan-Jew.”

    . . . . The simplistic belief that the elimination of religion would lead to the ending of violence, social tension or discrimination is thus sociologically naive.  It fails to take account of the way in which human beings create values and norms, and make sense of their identity and their surroundings.  If religion were to cease to exist, other social demarcators would emerge as decisive . . . [As they did, for example, during the French Revolution and in the Soviet Union.]

    Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, has made the significant point that religions were implicated in some human tragedies such as holy wars.  While rightly castigating these—a criticism which I gladly endorse—Shermer goes on to emphasize that there is clearly a significant positive side to religion:

    “For every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported . . . . Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.”

    — Alister McGrath, “Is Religion Evil,” God is Great, God is Good (IVP, 2009), 129-131.

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    Richard Dawkins’s Defective Understanding of Religion

    The God Delusion

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    A recent post mentioned Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion as an example of the way the New Atheists present their arguments against God’s existence. These New Atheists often show such a disdain for religious thought that they seem not to bother to understand the beliefs that they criticize. As The Nation states in a favorable article about four New Atheist books, including Dawkins’s, “They show little understanding of religion or interest in it.”

    That lack of understanding is one of several serious flaws in The God Delusion. Dawkins tries to refute the popular arguments for God’s existence, and presents his arguments against God’s existence. Many of these arguments are misinformed or not logically sound. He makes no bones about his lack of respect for religious people in general: “What works for soap flakes [marketing] works for God, and the result is something approaching religious mania among today’s less educated classes.” That attitude toward the other side of the issue doesn’t seem to encourage thoughtful debate.

    Dawkins’s main attempt to prove that the universe was not created by a God is as follows: He proposes that any intelligence complex enough to design anything must have taken a long time to evolve, therefore must appear late in the timeline, and so (voila!) could not have designed the universe in the first place. There are several fairly obvious objections to this reasoning:

    1. Many Christians believe (and there is scriptural support) that God created time along with the universe, and is therefore outside of time. This is not an esoteric view, or a new one.

    2. Almost no one believes that the creator God is a biological creature subject to natural selection. Most Christians do not believe that God is physical. There is no reason to accept Dawkins’s assumption that any intelligence that exists, anywhere, inside or outside of our universe, must be physical or must have evolved by Darwinian means.

    These objections are based on fairly common points of view, yet they are not addressed.

    In some cases, Dawkins actually makes his case worse by ignoring the obvious. In a section denouncing the “argument [for God] from personal experience,” he says:

    “On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun ‘tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude’, are harder to write off. […] It may seem improbable that seventy thousand people could simultaneously be deluded, or could simultaneously collude in a mass lie. […] But any of those apparent improbabilities is far more probable than the alternative: that the Earth was suddenly yanked sideways in its orbit, and the solar system destroyed, with nobody outside Fatima noticing.”

    Visions are, well, visions – no one claims that they are actually occurring in a physical sense (except perhaps inside the brain). Omitting such an obvious, mainstream interpretation of the event and claiming that those who accept the Fatima event believe that the solar system no longer exists doesn’t help his case.

    The passages in TGD that cite scripture are particularly badly reasoned. He omits or misinterprets important passages and does not seem to be aware that the Bible authors recorded some events that they considered bad. For example, he describes a wrenching story in Judges 19 about a woman being raped and murdered in a strange city and uses it as an example of the misogyny of scripture, implying that the Bible condones such actions; however, he strangely omits any mention of the last verse of the chapter, which contradicts his point: “Everyone who saw it [the body of the murdered woman] said, ‘Such a horrible crime has not been committed since Israel left Egypt. Shouldn’t we speak up and do something about this?’” (Judges 19:30, NLT)

    Dawkins believes that religion is evil because it sometimes motivates evil actions. Although Dawkins implies that the evils done by various religions are reasons not to believe in any God, he doesn’t believe that the good things done by religions are reasons to believe in God. He says, “When I pressed him [obstetrician Robert Winston], he said that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims.” I agree – but I would add that the fact that some religious people lead bad lives does not have much bearing on the truth of a religion. It’s not possible to fairly weigh the overall good and evil done as a result of any religion. The question isn’t, “Do I like religion X?” or even “Will religion X make me a better person?” The question is, “What is the truth?”

    – Cloud of Witnesses thanks Desmognathus for this guest post.

    Desmognathus is a follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.

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