Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Atheism's Moral Dilemma

Lincoln Mullen has a review in Books and Culture of Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.

In the course of his review, Mullen makes a point which I think needs to be clarified. He writes that:
The most common charge that Christians level against atheists is that they have no morals.
He might be correct that this is a common charge, but even so, the moral problem that Christians (and theists in general) have with atheism is not that atheists don't have moral values but rather that they have no ground for making moral judgments beyond their own subjective preferences.

Take a concrete example. A tobacco company lies about the danger its product poses to the consumer. A theist would say that such deception is objectively wrong because it violates the will of the Creator who commands that people be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness - a command that imposes a clear moral duty not to harm people.

The atheist may also be outraged that the tobacco company has lied to people about the hazards of using its product, but the only reason they could have, if atheism is true, for condemning the company's behavior is that they simply don't like it. If an atheist were to respond to this by insisting that it's just wrong to hurt people, the question then needs to be asked, "Why is it wrong?" If atheism is true then we are here as a result of a blind, impersonal, evolutionary process, and blind, impersonal processes cannot impose a moral duty on anyone to do anything. Nor can such processes prescribe or proscribe behavior, nor pronounce a behavior wrong in any meaningful moral sense.

Lots of thoughtful atheists have admitted this. Consider the following quotes by thinkers all of whom are, or were, atheists:
  • What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler was right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question. ~ Richard Dawkins
  • What’s moral is what you feel good after and what’s immoral is what you feel bad after. ~ Ernest Hemmingway
  • This philosopher (Joel Marks is speaking of himself) has 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 my 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. ~ Joel Marks
  • Morality is nothing but the sum total, the net residuum, of social habits, the codification of customs....The only immoral person, in any country, is he who fails to observe the current folkways. ~ Margaret Sanger
  • For the secular man there's no answer to the question, why not be cruel. ~ Richard Rorty.
  • The attempts to found a morality apart from religion are like the attempts of children who, wishing to transplant a flower that pleases them, pluck it from the roots that seem to them unpleasing and superfluous, and stick it rootless into the ground. Without religion there can be no real, sincere morality, just as without roots there can be no real flower. ~ Leo Tolstoy
  • Communism abolishes all eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality. ~ Karl Marx
  • 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. ~ Charles Darwin
  • As evolutionists, we see that no justification (of morality) of the traditional kind is possible. Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends . . . 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 illusory inasmuch as it persuades us that it has an objective reference. This is the crux of the biological position. Once it is grasped, everything falls into place. ~ E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse
  • Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear – and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death....There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will.... ~ Will Provine
  • I would accept 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. ~ Richard Rorty
So, the problem atheism has with morality, as the theist sees it, is not that atheists can't choose to adopt the sort of values of which society approves. Of course, they can. The problem is that they wouldn't be wrong in any meaningful sense had they chosen to adopt completely opposite values. Their choice is purely a matter of personal preference, like choosing to paint their house brown instead of green.

Thus, it's puzzling when atheists adopt the view that they hold to a superior morality than that of Christians as Mullen asserts in a later passage:
Listen carefully to the debate on contemporary issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and you will hear moral reasoning on both sides; when atheists, agnostics, or "nones" take a position, they do so out of a conviction that their morality is superior to that of traditional Christianity.
The most the atheist can claim, however, is that, on the Christian's own assumptions, the atheist's views on these issues might be closer to what God wills than are the Christian's views, but in order to make this claim the atheist has to piggyback on the theist's belief that both God and objective moral duties exist.

Moreover, the atheist cannot say that the theist is wrong in holding the views on these issues that perhaps he does. The most the atheist can say is that the theist's views are inconsistent with what he professes to believe about God's moral will. Of course, it may be true that the theist is not acting consistently with his fundamental moral assumptions, but that doesn't make those fundamental assumptions wrong, and it certainly doesn't make them inferior to the atheist's values which are grounded in nothing more authoritative than his own tastes.

This is the point I seek to make in my novels In the Absence of God and Bridging the Abyss. An atheist, if he's to be consistent, can either give up the pretense of holding to some non-arbitrary moral standard and admit that he's just making his morality up as he goes along, or he can admit that he believes that right and wrong are not merely matters of subjective preference but are real, objective features of the world. But, if he admits that, then, to be consistent, he'd have to give up his atheism and become a theist. He has to do one or the other, or he could simply do neither and admit that he prefers to live irrationally, which is the option many atheists apparently settle upon.