New Atheism and morality

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Craig Hazen wrote about New Atheism and morality:

It’s been fascinating to watch the very vocal and prolific new atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, make a case for objective morality. The phrase “objective morality” is a way of indicating that some behaviors are right (truth telling, kindness, tolerance) and some behaviors are wrong (rape, murder, racism) — for real. Morality is not just a matter of personal preference and choice (akin to liking peanuts better than almonds), but rather laws that are real and true and binding no matter what one thinks about them or whether one chooses to follow them.

The reason it has been fun to watch the new atheists defend this idea is because atheists of an earlier generation (such as J.L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell) thought it folly to do so. Classic atheists from the mid-20th century were very reluctant to grant that there was an objective moral law because they saw that it was just too compelling for believers to take the easy step from the moral law to God who was the “moral law giver.” Accepting a real objective moral law would be giving far, far too much ground to the Christians and other theists.

In my view, this shift in attitude toward moral values among the new atheists is an indicator that our work in Christian apologetics and philosophy has had an impact. I can’t count the times when in forums on various college campuses more traditional atheists and agnostics have had to squirm under the questioning from me or my colleagues about basic moral questions.

“Is it wrong to torture babies for fun?” “Is it wrong to treat a person as subhuman because she has darker skin?” As you can imagine, if an atheist were to answer “no,” or “well, it depends,” or “I prefer not to do these things, but how can I judge others,” to these questions he would be running into some real trouble with the audience. Whether the audience is filled with conservative Christians or radical unbelievers, people in our culture have an aversion to those who waffle or dodge on such fundamental and obvious moral values.

I think the new atheists got tired of being in such a public relations conundrum, so they began embracing basic morality as some sort of natural feature of the physical universe. They now tend to maintain that there are objective morals, but that these morals did not come from God. Is it wrong to torture babies for fun? Of course it’s wrong, says the new atheist. Goal accomplished. No more looking like an uncaring monster on stage in debates with Christians.

On the one hand, I think the new atheists have been helped in public discourse by their recent adoption of rudimentary moral values. One rarely feels now like one is being addressed by an amoral scoundrel when a new atheist is speaking in public. On the other hand, the new atheist now suffers from a problem that the old atheists would have quickly warned them about: How in the world are we going to explain where these objective moral values came from?

...the daunting problem for the new atheist is the nature and source (ontology) of the moral law. Here are some questions you can ask Richard Dawkins the next time you sit next to him on a bus:

• If everything ultimately must be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, help me understand what a moral value is (does it have mass, occupy space, hold a charge, have wavelength)?

• How did matter, energy, time and chance result in a set of objective moral values? Did the big bang really spew forth “love your enemy?” If so, you have to help me understand that.

• What makes your moral standard more than a subjective opinion or personal preference? What makes it truly binding or obligatory? Why can’t I just ignore it? Won’t our end be the same (death and the grave) either way?[1]

The author and poet Michael Robbins declares about the morality of new atheist Richard Dawkins:

Nietzsche’s atheism is far from exultant—he is not crowing about the death of God, much as he despises Christianity. He understands how much has been lost, how much there is to lose.

. . . Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority if the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)

. . . The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments.[2]

The Ravi Zacharias International ministry declares about New Atheism and morality:

Though the chorus of voices decrying belief in God has been humming in the ideological background for centuries, it seems to have reached a crescendo with the emergence of a movement that has been dubbed the new atheism....

A good example of a claim against religion that does not sit well with the facts of reality is issued in the form of a challenge to the believer to “name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.”(1) We are expected to agree that no such action or statement exists, and then conclude that morality does not depend on God. The problem is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The fact that a non-believer can utter moral statements and even act morally does not logically lead to the conclusion that morality does not depend on God, much less that God does not exist. This challenge misunderstands the believer’s position on the relationship between morality and God.

The believer’s claim is that the world owes its existence to a moral God. All human beings are moral agents created in God’s image and are expected to recognize right from wrong because they all reflect God’s moral character. The fact that human beings are the kinds of creatures that can recognize the moral imperatives that are part of the very fabric of the universe argues strongly against naturalism. Unlike the laws of nature, which even inanimate objects obey, moral imperatives appeal to our will and invite us to make real decisions on real moral issues. The only other parallel experience we have of dos and don’ts comes from minds. Thus when the atheist rejects God while insisting on the validity of morality, he is merely rejecting the cause while clinging to the effect.

Without God, morality is reduced to whatever mode of behavior human beings agree on. There is no action that is objectively right or wrong. Rape, hate, murder and other such acts are only wrong because they have been deemed to be so in the course of human evolution. Had human evolution taken a different course, these acts might well have been the valued elements of our moral code. Even Nazi morality would be right had the Nazis succeeded in their quest for world dominance. Unless the world contains behavioral guidelines that transcend human decisions, there is no reason why anyone should object to such conclusions.[3]

William Lane Craig writes:

First, we should distinguish between moral values and duties. Values have to do with whether something is good or bad. Duties have to do with whether something is right or wrong. Now you might think at first that this is a distinction without a difference: “good” and “right” mean the same thing, and the same goes for “bad” and “wrong.” But if you think about it, you can see that this isn’t the case. Duty has to do with moral obligation, what you ought or ought not to do. But obviously you’re not morally obligated to do something just because it would be good for you to do it. For example, it would be good for you to become a doctor, but you’re not morally obligated to become a doctor. After all, it would also be good for you to become a firefighter or a homemaker or a diplomat, but you can’t do them all. So there’s a difference between good/bad and right/wrong. Good/bad has to do with something’s worth, while right/wrong has to do with something’s being obligatory.

Second, there’s the distinction between being objective or subjective. By “objective” I mean “independent of people’s opinions.” By “subjective” I mean “dependent on people’s opinions.” So to say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is good or bad independent of whatever people think about it. Similarly, to say that we have objective moral duties is to say that certain actions are right or wrong for us regardless of what people think about it. So, for example, to say that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right, and it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them so that everyone believed the Holocaust was right.

With those distinctions in mind, here’s a simple moral argument for God’s existence:

If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Therefore, God exists.

3.1. Premises 1 and 2

What makes this argument so compelling is not only that it is logically airtight but also that people generally believe both premises. In a pluralistic age, people are afraid of imposing their values on someone else. So premise 1 seems correct to them. Moral values and duties are not objective realities (that is, valid and binding independent of human opinion) but are merely subjective opinions ingrained into us by biological evolution and social conditioning.

At the same time, however, people do believe deeply that certain moral values and duties such as tolerance, open-mindedness, and love are objectively valid and binding. They think it’s objectively wrong to impose your values on someone else! So they’re deeply committed to premise 2 as well.

3.2. Dawkins’s Response

In fact, Dawkins himself seems to be committed to both premises! With respect to premise 1, Dawkins informs us, “there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA . . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being.”16 But although he says that there is no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference, the fact is that Dawkins is a stubborn moralist. He says that he was “mortified” to learn that Enron executive Jeff Skilling regards Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene as his favorite book because of its perceived Social Darwinism.17 He characterizes “Darwinian mistakes” like pity for someone unable to pay us back or sexual attraction to an infertile member of the opposite sex as “blessed, precious mistakes” and calls compassion and generosity “noble emotions.”18 He denounces the doctrine of original sin as “morally obnoxious.”19 He vigorously condemns such actions as the harassment and abuse of homosexuals, the religious indoctrination of children, the Incan practice of human sacrifice, and prizing cultural diversity over the interests of Amish children. He even goes so far as to offer his own amended Ten Commandments for guiding moral behavior, all the while marvelously oblivious to the contradiction with his ethical subjectivism!20

In his survey of arguments for God’s existence, Dawkins does touch on a sort of moral argument that he calls the Argument from Degree.21 But it bears little resemblance to the argument presented here. We’re not arguing from degrees of goodness to a greatest good, but from the objective reality of moral values and duties to their foundation in reality. It’s hard to believe that all of Dawkins’s heated moral denunciations and affirmations are really intended to be no more than his subjective opinion, as if to whisper with a wink, “Of course, I don’t think that child abuse and homophobia and religious intolerance are really wrong! Do whatever you want—there’s no moral difference!” But the affirmation of objective values and duties is incompatible with his atheism, for on naturalism we’re just animals, relatively advanced primates, and animals are not moral agents. Affirming both of the premises of the moral argument, Dawkins is thus, on pain of irrationality, committed to the argument’s conclusion, namely, that God exists.[4]

New atheist Jerry Coyne and morality

The atheist Jerry Coyne speaking at a 2013 atheist meeting entitled The Amazing Meeting (TAM). TAM is an annual meeting.

The Christian apologetic article New Atheism’s Moral Meltdown indicates:

A little while ago, Jerry Coyne replied to our critique of his approach to ethics. We’re not at all convinced by Coyne’s response, which essentially reduces to a rant about religious fundamentalism. Let us restate our case for the sake of clarity. Moral values seem quite at home in a theistic world-view; moral values do not fit in the New Atheist’s world-view. Therefore, any theist -be they merely a philosophical theist, or Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian – has a better explanation for morality than Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or their acolytes...

To explain morality is to explain principles of value and conduct. There is a wide consensus that moral principles have at least five traits. They are obligatory– they tell us what we ought to do in a given situation; they guide our actions. Such obligations are overriding – they take precedence over other considerations, be they aesthetic, legal, or political. They are also universalizable –they apply to all who are in relevantly similar situations; if it is immoral for Coyne to “kick an innocent dog” then it is immoral for everyone “to kick an innocent dog.” If there is an exception to that rule – perhaps we might be allowed to kick an innocent dog to save its life – then the exception counts for everyone in a relevantly similar situation.

Moral principles must be liveable – they must be able to motivate us to change our behaviour. Moral principles must be convincing and plausible. The life they prescribe must be achievable. Finally, moral principles are deep- they do not only prescribe acts and evaluate consequences. Moral principles also deal with our characters, our motives, our goals, the communities in which we live and the traditions that shape us. Now, Coyne might be able to explain the origin of moral feelings – call these “passions for the common good.” He might explain how such passions are good for the species. He might be able to explain how reciprocal altruism benefits the individual organism.The difficulty for Coyne, and New Atheism in general, is moving from moral feeling and social utility to deep, universally binding principles.

Suppose we have a fear of spiders; possibly, this fear has served the human race well in the past. However, it does not serve us well in our present circumstances. Furthermore, the beliefs incorporated in our fear are false: the spiders of Ireland are a harmless bunch. Our fear is irrational and inappropriate. Now, as we’ll see, Coyne denies that humans have moral responsibility. This means that most of our moral feelings – feelings of duty, guilt, obligation, shame, honour, praise – incorporate beliefs which are false.

Furthermore, such feelings might not suit our current circumstances (we might be able to climb the career ladder by being a little more ruthless; we could ease our workload if we cheated a little more). So moral obligation seems inappropriate and irrational on Coyne’s worldview. Coyne cannot explain why anyone living through life’s lonely emergencies, or in Hobbes dog eat dog state of nature, or the palace of Machiavelli’s Prince, should pay the blindest bit of attention to his or her moral feelings. In fact, Coyne presents them with very good reasons to set morality aside and do whatever it takes to live to fight another day. Our point is not that atheists will inevitably indulge themselves in the excesses of moral nihilism; the point is that Coyne’s account has failed to explain why morality is obligatory, over-riding and universal.

Nor can Coyne explain why we should develop moral virtues. Why should care for the good of the species? I won’t be around to see it prosper. And suppose the good of the species really reduces to the good of genes or other replicators? Isn’t that a good reason to ignore the moral passions whenever they suggest an inconvenient course of action? And why should I allow those pesky moral passions to over-ride my other passions? It might be fair to listen to another’s argument carefully; but suppose I have a passion for caricaturing the views of anyone who has the temerity to disagree with me? Why shouldn’t I indulge the latter passion? Why should I consider the passion for fairness to be binding?

At the end of the day, in Coyne’s world our evolved moral passions serve no deep purpose.[5]

Commenting on New Atheism and morality the Shadow To Light blog declares:

A veneer of secular morality rooted in subjective preferences hardly counts as “foundational authority,” meaning that Coyne again fails to refute Robbins’s point. In fact, that morality is anchored to such a subjective foundation means that secular morality is not significantly different from a cultural dress code. The “veneer of secular morality” is just a way for the collective to impose order and conformity on a population of individuals. And if secular morality is nothing more than that, we get to the core problem with atheism – the dress code known as morality simply ceases to be important. That is, if an atheist believes X is wrong, they can easily ignore and dismiss it if it becomes inconvenient to refrain from doing X.

We have already seen a concrete example of this. Richard Dawkins believes that eating meat is wrong. He even compares the eating of meat to owning a slave![6]

See also

External links


  1. Can We Be Good Without God? by Craig J. Hazen, Biola University
  2. Know Nothing: The true history of atheism By Michael Robbins
  3. The New Atheism, Ravi Zacharias International website
  4. The New Atheism and Five Arguments for God by William Lane Craig
  5. New Atheism’s Moral Meltdown, Answers for Saints and Skeptics website
  6. New Atheism Has a Real Problem with Morality