Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Has Dawkins Lost?

An article in the British Spectator titled Dawkins Has Lost discusses how the militant anti-religion of so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins seems to have run its course and no longer has the cachet it once did.

I don't know whether that's true, but if it is it's doubtless largely due to the fact that the arguments of people like Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others were so manifestly implausible, ill-informed, and philosophically untenable as to, in the end, invite derision even from their fellow naturalists.

In any case, there was one line in the article that many readers might gloss over without thinking to question but which really should be examined. It was this:
In previous generations, the atheist was keen to insist that non-believers can be just as moral as believers. These days, this is more or less taken for granted.
Actually, this is a bit simplistic. It's certainly true that atheists can live by the same moral values as anyone else, but that's such a trite assertion as to be hardly worth making. The crucial point is that, on atheism, any values one chooses to live by are arbitrary and subjective. An atheist can choose to live a life of kindness or he could choose to be selfish. Neither is more "right," in a moral sense, than the other. On atheism, selfishness is not "wrong," it's just different.

Here are some of the questions that need to be asked in our discussions of issues like this: If atheism is true why would it be wrong for me to just live for myself? If there really is no transcendent personal moral authority (TMA) why would it be wrong to adopt a "might makes right" ethic of life? In what sense would anyone be wrong to do whatever they can get away with doing? If death is the end of our existence then what does it even mean to say that any act, no matter how horrific, is wrong? What does the word "wrong" even mean if our moral sense is just a product of blind, purposeless evolutionary forces?

Most of us recoil from thinking that the massacres of children, the torture of political opponents, the ecological degradation of the planet, or even simply lying to one's friends and family are not actually wrong, yet, given that there's no TMA, no existence beyond this one, it's hard to see how they're anything more than merely behaviors we don't like or approve.

Most atheists, however, including, presumably, Richard Dawkins, would affirm that cruelty is objectively wrong, that selfish acts like refusing to save a life when it would cost us nothing to do is objectively reprehensible. But if they're correct about that, as most of us believe they are, then perhaps they should reexamine their denial of the TMA.

Philosopher Joel Marks puts the matter straightforwardly in his Amoral Manifesto. He writes:
[I had] been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t....The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality....I experienced [a] shocking epiphany that religious fundamentalists are correct; without God there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality....Even though words like “sinful” and “evil” come naturally to the tongue as, say, a description of child molesting. They do not describe any actual properties of anything. There are no literal sins in the world because there is no literal God....nothing is literally right or wrong because there is no Morality.
My novel In the Absence of God (see link at upper right) is largely devoted to this very theme. If people are going to reject God and still live consistently with their convictions, they're pretty much going to have to agree with Marks - and numerous other atheist philosophers - who are admitting that their choices are not really a matter of right or wrong but simply expressions of a personal preference with which they feel comfortable.

Charles Darwin, for example, wrote in his autobiography that:
One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life…only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best.
And philosopher Richard Rorty put it like this:
I would accept [philosopher] Elizabeth Anscombe’s suggestion that if you do not believe in God, you would do well to drop notions like “law” and “obligation” from the vocabulary you use when deciding what to do.
The unbeliever who makes moral judgments, who talks about a "moral law" or "moral obligation" is simply talking nonsense. He should give up thinking that some behaviors are morally better or worse than others or he should give up his unbelief. He can't reasonably hold on to both.