Last modified on 9 April 2019, at 05:20

Atheism and moral relativism

Moral relativism is a branch of philosophical ethics that believes that morality is subjective, based on the location and time period in which the majority of people in those cultures agree is moral and immoral. As such, moral relativism has been naturally at odds with Biblical truths and common sense throughout human history, well before the Ten Commandments.

Dr. Phil Fernandes says concerning atheism and moral relativism:

Nietzsche preached that a group of "supermen" must arise with the courage to create their own values through their "will to power." Nietzsche rejected the "soft" values of Christianity (brotherly love, turning the other cheek, charity, compassion, etc.); he felt they hindered man's creativity and potential....

Many other atheists agree with Nietzsche concerning moral relativism. British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once wrote, "Outside human desires there is no moral standard." A. J. Ayer believed that moral commands did not result from any objective standard above man. Instead, Ayer stated that moral commands merely express one's subjective feelings. When one says that murder is wrong, one is merely saying that he or she feels that murder is wrong. Jean-Paul Sartre, a French existentialist, believed that there is no objective meaning to life. Therefore, according to Sartre, man must create his own values.

There are many different ways that moral relativists attempt to determine what action should be taken. Hedonism is probably the most extreme. It declares that whatever brings the most pleasure is right. In other words, if it feels good, do it. If this position is true, then there is no basis from which to judge the actions of Adolf Hitler as being evil. [1]

The evolutionist and agnostic Richard Dawkins said in an interview: “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question."[2]

The Christian apologist William Lane Craig declared:

...to say that the Holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil, even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was good, and it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone who disagreed with them, so that everybody thought the Holocaust was good.”[3]

On the other hand, the evolutionist and agnostic Richard Dawkins said in an interview: “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question."[2]

Larry Taunton, the interviewer wrote, regarding Dawkins' Hitler comment:

I was stupefied. He had readily conceded that his own philosophical position did not offer a rational basis for moral judgments. His intellectual honesty was refreshing, if somewhat disturbing on this point.

Dawkins proceeded to cite the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement as examples of Western moral advancements, but would not credit Christianity in the slightest.

“Now you have to remember where I am from,” I objected. “Birmingham, Alabama—the home of the civil rights movement. Many there would argue that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was motivated by his Christian convictions. And what of William Wilberforce?”

But Dawkins would have none of it. Christianity, in his view, had contributed nothing worthwhile to Western civilization, morally or otherwise. Moral advances—and, curiously, he did consider them advances—were matters for further scientific inquiry.[2]

See also: Richard Dawkins' commentary on Adolf Hitler

The Christian apologetics website Wintery Knight indicates about atheism and moral relativism:

I sometimes get a lot of flack from atheists who complain that I don’t let them make any moral statements without asking them first to ground morality on their worldview. And that’s because on atheism morality IS NOT rationally grounded, so they can’t answer. In an accidental universe, you can only describe people’s personal preferences or social customs, that vary by time and place. It’s all arbitrary – like having discussions about what food is best or what clothing is best. The answer is always going to be “it depends”. It depends on the person who is speaking because it’s a subjective claim, not an objective claim. There is no objective way we ought to behave.

The whole point of atheism is to pursue pleasure without the bonds of morality – there is no other reason to do anything on atheism except for the pleasure it gives you. You do fashionable things to feel good getting praise from your neighbors, and you do unfashionable things in private to make yourself feel good and you hope that no one who is powerful enough to hold you accountable ever finds out. There’s no way you were made to be.[4]

See also: Atheism and hedonism

Objective morality and the existence of God

See also: Religion and morality and Atheism and the problem of evil and Atheism and morality

Christian apologists commonly argue that objective morality exists and that objective morality is dependent on the existence of God.[5]

Not possessing a religious basis for morality, which can provide a basis for objective morality, atheists are fundamentally incapable of having a coherent system of morality.[6] See also: Atheism and morality

For example, atheists have been the biggest mass murderers in history (see: Atheism and mass murder). Dr. R. J. Rummel's mid estimate regarding the loss of life due to atheistic communism is that communism caused the death of approximately 110,286,000 people between 1917 and 1987.[7]

New Atheism and objective morality

See also: New Atheism and morality and New Atheism

Craig Hazen wrote:

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?[8]

Atheism and the problem of evil:

See also: Theodicy

See also

Notes

  1. Dr. Phil Fernandez, Web article: Refuting Moral relativism, Institute for Bible Defense (Web article is no longer online. Pages 120-121 of the book God, Government, and the Road to Tyranny: A Christian View of Government and Morality By Phil Fernandes, Eric Purcell and Rorri Wiesinger relates the same thoughts of his former web article.[1])
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 http://byfaithonline.com/page/in-the-world/richard-dawkins-the-atheist-evangelist
  3. Does objective morality depend upon God?
  4. The Seven Fatal Flaws of Moral Relativism by Christian apologetics website Wintery Knight
  5. Paul Copan
  6. Paul Copan
  7. Rummel, R. J. (November 1993). "How many did communist regimes murder?" University of Hawaii website; Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War. Retrieved July 19, 2014.
  8. Can We Be Good Without God? by Craig J. Hazen, Biola University