/ atheism and morality / Gentle Reformation

One Converstion To Have With An Atheist - With Answers

The atheism of today is a strange brew.  Many of the more vocal proponents have a kind of eat their cake and have it too approach.  They want to be nice atheists, champions of morality and meaning, while yet maintaining that we are nothing more than biological accidents in an otherwise unimaginably unlikely incident of space and time.

The view is paradoxical, to say the least.  And it baffles me.

But it also frustrates me.

I can understand unbelief.  It’s a stance of the heart and mind, a set of convictions undergirding a worldview.  While I firmly disagree with the tenets of atheism, I don’t think proponents of the view should be illogical.  They can draw consistent and clear conclusions from their core presuppositions.  What frustrates me, however, is the tendency to hijack atheism with warm and fuzzies- warm and fuzzies that sound good, but fail to comport in a meaningful way with their viewpoint.

I must have something specific in mind here.  And I do.

I was recently directed to an article by Greta Christina, a well known proponent of free-thought.  The blog post is entitled, “9 Questions Not To Ask Atheists – With Answers.”  Here Christina succinctly details common questions that “make atheists feel second class- and make you look like a jerk.”

Numbered among the 9 or so questions that irritate atheists is the issue of morality.  The question succinctly stated goes like this:

“How can you be moral without believing in God?”

While it is true that there may be some who phrase the question in this manner, I have found that a good number of atheists intentionally frame the matter along these lines, so that they can knock an underhand pitch out of the park.  For when the question is posed in this manner, the inconvenient problem of grounding morality is covered up with distractions.  It’s the “Hey, look over there!  A Squirrel!” approach.  Answers are provided that don’t really get at the nub of the issue.

An example is in order.  Here’s how Christina replied to the above question:

“Atheists are moral for the same reasons believers are moral: because we have compassion, and a sense of justice. Humans are social animals, and like other social animals, we evolved with some core moral values wired into our brains: caring about fairness, caring about loyalty, caring when others are harmed.”

The answer is straightforward.  Evolution has implanted within us a moral compass.

Now the frustration I feel doesn’t primarily stem from the atheistic perspective advocated (though, like I said, I believe it is wrong), but rather my frustration stems from the tendency of atheists to gloss over the more pressing or fundamental issues of morality.  Instead of tossing an underhand pitch, it would be nice to see some honest and open wrestling with the inevitable implications flowing out of the pat answers routinely provided (And here I’m not picking on Christina, per se, but I’m thinking of atheists at large).

To get at this, allow me to adopt an atheistic framework and engage in an imaginary conversation.  I’ll interact with another atheist, a pretend one that shares Christina’s basic outlook.  What I’m intending to demonstrate is the hollowness of trying to champion morality in an atheistic universe.

I begin: “Nice article, but I have a few questions.  I’m just not getting how you think your answer provides a sunny explanation.”

“How so?”

“Well, you’re obviously concerned about the morality of atheism.  You want to maintain that atheists can be moral.”

“That’s true.”

“But isn’t that neither here nor there?  I mean, sure, atheists can perform acts that some have decided to call ‘moral.’  But why care?  It’s just a human convention, something our particular species has labeled for the sake of identity; the pasting of a term to a particular behavior.  But it’s not like there are really moral facts or objective morality.”

“Well, as you know, that’s disputed even among atheists.”

“Sure, it’s disputed.  But come on.  It’s a game of semantics.  We all know that morality is ultimately baseless.”

“Maybe so, but look.  Morality is a fundamental part of being human; we have an innate grasp of its underpinnings.  It’s hard-wired into us- part of our nature.  We have a sense of justice and compassion and loyalty, to just name a few.”

“Oh, sure, but so what?”

“What do you mean, ‘So what?’  That’s everything!”

“Yes, it is everything.  But because it is everything, it’s nothing, really.”

“Um, no.”

“Really?  Ok.  Why is what I just said offensive to you?  Why should I care?  Is it because we as humans should care about truth?  Wait, ignore that.  We’ll go too far afield.  Let me say this:  Why should I care whether or not these moral impulses are in me?  You and I both know that they have arisen out of a nearly boundless range of biological possibilities.  So yeah, we have some instincts.  But other creatures don’t share them.  And we didn’t have to possess these particular ones.  They could have been totally different.  And, actually, come to think of it, I don’t much care for them.  Why not just evolve into what I want to evolve into?  After all, why would I subject myself to the subjective impulses of others?”

“It’s called morality, sir, one of the things that distinguishes us and forms a crucial component of human society.  You can’t deny that.  It’s fundamental to being human.  Humans are societal creatures that need to function together.”

“Like I said, I agree that it’s part of being human.  But why care?  Morality isn’t fixed.  It’s a human convention.”

“Civil society depends on it.  Human relations rely on it as well.”

“So...  Tell me why I should care?”

“Well, I suppose you don’t have to care.  But here’s the thing.  If you start committing crimes, you’ll be locked up.  And like I said in my blog post, I won’t want to be your neighbor.  Friendships are based on social contracts.  You don’t poison your friends or sleep with their lovers.”

“True.  I would be locked up.  But that doesn’t change the nature of the situation.  It’s just one segment of our species frowning upon the actions of another.  Morality is ultimately an illusion.”

“Well, if you don’t want to be moral, that’s your prerogative.  It’s wrong though.”

“Once again, why?”

“Because we are human.  We know... we feel good and bad about our behavior.  Some things are good, some things aren’t.”

“Ah, but don’t you see that we’re getting ready to round the corner again?  This all becomes circular.  At the end of the day, you and I both know that morality is relative.  Don’t you remember the words of Alex Rosenberg?  In his book The Atheists Guide to Reality, a work that certainly seeks to shatter our persistent illusions, he writes,

‘What is the difference between right and wrong, good and evil?  There is no moral difference between them.  Why should I be moral?  Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.  Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory?  Anything goes.’

Anything goes.  So look.  Let’s be honest.  When we talk about atheists being moral apart from God, we really don’t mean much.  All we’re saying is that there’s a vague notion of what should or should not be done given circumstances X, Y, and Z.  But it’s just a malleable suggestion at best.”

“I still think you’re downplaying instinct too much.”



“Besides, look at where we’re at now.  We are humans.  We have taken evolution by the reigns now.  We are in control.  I’m not just any old stupid animal bound by its instincts.  I can personally evolve.  I can choose.  I’m the master of my destiny.  So are you.  And really, in many ways, life is now all about doing what we want to do.  If you want to cherish certain human behaviors or movements of the will that some have chosen to label as moral, then fine.  And if you can get enough people together who agree with you, you can form a group.  And if the group becomes large enough, you can form a nation.  Such is the way of we humans.  But make no mistake, governments don’t have the morality question figured out.  They just make rules, some of which help, some of which hurt or annoy or burden.  As for me, yeah, I don’t want to go out and torture a small child.  It feels repulsive to me.  But once again, I’m not going to confuse my relative and subjective feelings with objective morality.  It’s just a feeling, a particular collision of chemicals in my brain.”

“So tell me again how you navigate life?”

“I’ll give you a straight answer.  I recognize consequences.  And since I’m not a big fan of pain, I try to live in such a way as to minimize it.  At times, that means being sociable.  At other times, giving someone the finger feels way better.  Since I know there are no rules, ultimately speaking, I try to contend with physics the best I can.  Driving into other cars hurts.  So I seek to avoid that.  Eating lots of food is yummy, but it can clog my arteries.  I like feeling loved too, so I try to find someone to share that emotion with... until of course, that feeling is gone.  Then it’s time to move on... or if, after weighing out the options, I think the advance of another woman is worth capitalizing on.  At the end of the day, it’s all about weighing options in the scales of my desires.  Those are ultimate, ultimately.  Will this adversely affect me?  Or in the case of doing something altruistic, is the desire to do it greater than some other desire?  If failing to do it will make me feel bad, then maybe I shouldn't do it... or maybe I should just brush it off, recognizing the feeling for what it is: An implanted evolutionary impulse that will more than likely change in the coming eons.  So can atheists be moral without believing in God?  Sure.  We make up the rules.  So we can say we’re being moral.  But unfortunately, those rules don’t mean much.  So it’s hard to feel especially peppy about it all.  And that’s why I don’t feel compelled to blow the trumpet of atheism.  The trumpet does in fact make a sound, but it’s not a good one.”

For some audio recommendations illustrating the futility of morality in a godless universe, I would point you to the following:

Paul Kurtz – Ethics for the Nonreligious (Note how they never quite get around to grounding anything) http://www.pointofinquiry.org/paul_kurtz_ethics_for_the_nonreligious/

For the disturbing perspective of a consistent nihilist, check out this discussion on the radio show and podcast Unbelievable: http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/30ab174a-de7f-4a6f-8796-e95630e0b6aa.mp3

For an interesting and uncommon approach to morality by a Christian, check out Peter S. Williams’ lecture: The Meta Ethical Argument for Theism. http://www.apologetics315.com/2010/07/meta-ethical-argument-for-theism-mp3.html