U.S. News and World Report (11/5) recently ran an article titled The New Unbelievers in which the unbelievers in question said some pretty unbelievable things. Here are a few examples:
[Richard Dawkins] and the other new atheists are more interesting when they challenge the unexamined confidence some believers have in the adequacy, if not the necessity, of religion as a guide to the good and moral life. At the very least, the new atheists make a compelling case that moral and socially productive behavior is in no way dependent on religious belief.
Indeed, Dawkins, [Daniel]Dennett, and [Sam]Harris argue that religious beliefs, particularly those derived literally and selectively from religious texts, can lead to behavior that is dubiously moral according to universal principles of right and wrong. The killing of innocents in the name of holy war is only the most obvious instance. Discouraging the distribution of condoms in societies plagued by AIDS on religious principles is another. "Religious people are able to talk about morality without thinking about suffering," says Harris.
Dennett, by contrast, extends a conciliatory hand to believers so long as they are willing to subject any purported God-given moral edict to "the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command."
Well let's subject the above to the full light of reason. These skeptics maintain that there are universal moral principles that exist independently of God which we can use to evaluate what Christians believe about right and wrong, but they don't say what these principles are. What exactly are they and are they really independent of God?
Presumably, one such principle is that cruelty is morally wrong, but, if so, why is it? What is it about cruelty that makes it wrong? Is it that it hurts people? Why is hurting people wrong? Is hurting people wrong because I wouldn't want someone to hurt me? Of course I wouldn't want to be hurt, but that's no reason why I should not hurt someone else if I can.
Perhaps our skeptic friends would reply that we shouldn't hurt others because if we get caught we'd be punished. Quite so, but then this is a prudential, not a moral, reason why I shouldn't be cruel. If I could be cruel and get away with it there would be nothing immoral about doing so.
The problem for the atheist is that there can be no moral obligation apart from something or someone who has the authority and power to impose that obligation, but the atheistic materialist denies the existence of any such entity, and instead, like a magician finding a coin behind a child's ear, seems to simply pull moral obligation out of thin air.
They may deny this and point out that the consensus among humans is that cruelty is wrong, and therefore it must be, but even if they could know what the consensus is, since when is right and wrong established by whatever the majority believes? What if the majority of people held that atheism is wrong (which it does)? Would Dennett and Dawkins abandon their atheism and bow to that consensus?
Perhaps they would insist that cruelty is wrong because it stifles human fluorishing, but why is that a reason for it to be wrong? Where in the vast reaches of the cosmos do they find the principle that we are obligated to enhance the well-being of others? What reason can they give me why I should not instead adopt the principle that I should enhance my own well-being at the expense of that of others? What makes that principle less moral than the alternative? Is it just that people don't like it as much?
The fact of the matter is that when an atheist starts talking about universal moral principles to which we should all adhere it's about as meaningful as a politician making a campaign speech. Such principles can only exist if there is a universal mind which weaves them into the fabric of creation. If no such mind exists then neither does moral obligation. Morality becomes a matter purely of one's own tastes, preferences, and biases. Moral disputes are like disputes about whether anchovies on a pizza are better than sausage.
When Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris declaim about the moral horror of killing innocents in a holy war they are saying nothing more than that they don't like killing innocents, just like they don't care for anchovies on their pizza. That's nice, but it's a far distance from telling us why killing anyone is actually wrong. This they don't do, because, quite simply, on the assumption of atheism, they can't.
Finally, there was this reliable old irrelevancy often trotted out by religious skeptics to achieve rhetorical ambush of unsuspecting Christians:
Dawkins and other atheists charge that the religiously intense "red" states have higher rates of violent crime and social breakdown than do the liberal "blue" states.
No kidding. This is surely a surpassingly dumb observation. Dawkins apparently believes that those states in which Bush carried a slight majority of the 50% of the people who troubled themselves to vote are filled with more "sinners" than those states in which Kerry won the votes of a slight majority of the 50% of those who went to the polls. What, though, does the political orientation of a state have to do with the crime statistics from that state? It is not, after all, as if everyone in a "red" state were a Christian. Nor is it as if the people who voted for Bush (about 25% to 30% of the eligible voters) are both Christian and criminal.
The question we should ask Prof. Dawkins is not which candidate won the state's electoral votes, but rather who, exactly, in the state is committing crime. When we look at the loci of criminal activity in the U.S. we find them to be invariably concentrated in urban areas and these, even in red states, are overwhelmingly "blue". And, I suspect, overwhelmingly atheist.
Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris flatter themselves that they are among the "brights" in our society. They are the intellectual luminaries, they would have us believe, by whose light the rest of us can, and should, seek to make our way in the world. Unfortunately, the arguments they shine on our path are pretty low-wattage.