The New Atheism and Morality

Friends,

I am providing a link to the website of Ravi Zacharias and an essay called The New Atheism and Morality. Among the arguments espoused by atheists is one that suggests ‘morality is possible quite apart from the reality of God.’ In other words, atheists claim that their morality, moral as it no doubt is, does not require a transcendent God in order for it to be moral or for they themselves to be, indeed, moral people. They can, it is argued, still be people of mercy, grace, peace and a whole host of other virtues and neither belief in God nor the reality of God is necessary for such virtues to be present in their lives. So the author, JM Njoroge, writes:

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.

He points out, next, the logical conclusion to this way of thinking:

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 our 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 happen to favor either because of their genetic makeup or conventional accords. 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 and genetic determinism, there is no reason why anyone should object to such conclusions.

The point is that the human will is not sufficient enough to make such moral decisions. The fact that ‘religious people fail’ and ‘unreligious people succeed’ at morality is not, then, a valid argument against God. If one were to examine the evidence, what conclusion would he come to? Would we think, given this climate, that human beings are in fact capable of making moral choices apart from God? We have trouble making moral choices in concert with God! The point here is not that Christians fail or that atheists succeed. The real point is: Where did that which determines our success or failure come from in the first place? Mere naturalism? Mere ‘I-gotta-good-feeling-about-thisism?’ The human heart? Pshaw!

There has to be someone or something guiding and determining our code of conduct otherwise we are all rogues. In and of ourselves, we end up with unguided anarchy and we have seen where that ends up in this world, in the wrong hands, and what happens to those who stand in the way.

This is a short essay, but worth the 5 minutes or so required to read it.

jerry

For further reading on this subject of the New Atheism, see the following essays published in the March/April 2008 issue of Modern Reformation. (Some links may require a subscription to MR or the MR website.)

Skepticism, Agnosticism, Atheism: A Brief History of Unbelief

God Does Not Believe in Atheists

If God Exists, Why Doesn’t He Prove It?

The Challenge of the New Atheism

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  1. The entire point of Hitchen’s challenge – the basis of your article – is to point out that the belief in God is clearly not a prerequisite for moral behavior. It was never intended to be a disproof of God. You can’t disprove God the same way you can’t disprove any other baseless, random assertion.

    You started out by saying that just because we don’t need to believe in God to be moral, that this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist – which is a fair point. But then you turned around at the end and said this:

    There has to be someone or something guiding and determining our code of conduct otherwise we are all rogues. In and of ourselves, we end up with unguided anarchy….

    When actually, we don’t. I’m not just an atheist. I’m an anti-theist, and I find that I manage to do a better job in terms of moral behavior and conduct than many proclaimed Christians (discounting, of course, the whole blasphemy thing).

    You can’t even argue that I’ve borrowed my morality from Christianity. I actually set my moral precepts according to a blend of moral philosophies from throughout history. Take three parts from the Greek and Roman philosophers, add a dash of Nietzsche, mix one part Game Theory and two parts cognitive psychology, season with innate human empathy and then finish it off with a healthy topping of what I’ve found to work through personal trial and error.

    You’ll notice that at no point to I delve into the apocryphal concoctions of religious pretexts… And so far, I’m doing just as well – if not better – than the majority of proclaimed Christians.

    The entire point is that it is clear that belief in God is clearly not a prerequisite for moral behavior, and even the most casual glance at the history of religion will show that such a belief is no guarantee of moral conduct either.

    Once again, I concur that this doesn’t prove the nonexistence God, and it doesn’t prove that God doesn’t give us our morality and reason for precisely the purpose that belief in Him won’t be required for moral action. It doesn’t have to disprove these things, because the challenge was not even intended to dismiss the notion of God’s existence in the first place.

    If you want to take on Hitchen’s best dismissal of God, it goes like this: “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

  2. Morality apart from God has been discussed quite a bit on a agnostic/atheist site I read. Many seem to believe that God has nothing to do with morals and is in fact immoral.

  3. Che,

    You wrote:

    “You can’t even argue that I’ve borrowed my morality from Christianity. I actually set my moral precepts according to a blend of moral philosophies from throughout history. Take three parts from the Greek and Roman philosophers, add a dash of Nietzsche, mix one part Game Theory and two parts cognitive psychology, season with innate human empathy and then finish it off with a healthy topping of what I’ve found to work through personal trial and error.”

    Two questions:

    1) Where did all these get their ideas from? Upon what did they base their own personal codes? (And Nietzsche?? Have you see his moral code? Follow his code and you are likely to end up like him: Insane.)

    2) So, you are a pragmatist? As long as it ‘works’ it’s OK? That’s a great means of determining right and wrong. Even so, upon what standard do you base what ‘works’ and what ‘doesn’t work’?

    That’s thoughtful.

    jerry

  4. Samuel Skinner

    Trust me- you don’t want to argue with Ubiquitous Che. The man dances until you have no idea what you where arguing about in the first place- rather impressive.

    As for your objections to him…

    1)The Greeks obviously did not get their beliefs from Christianity- the Greek morality that we got passed down was based on the polis and logic. Or, in short, the community. Nietzsche got his ideas in reaction to Christianity and Game Theory is a description of how to act in certain situations when confronted by other people.

    Nietzsche went insane because his brain was screwed up, not his morality. If you look at what he thought (I use the notes- trying to read him is like slogging through mud) you find that he thought things like ambition, self assertion and the like- he hated self righteousnous and subservience. Sort of reminds me of the humanists in psychology- achieve your potential and don’t be held back.

    2) Well, if it causes unhappiness it is bad, and if it causes happiness it is good. You might attack this as being too simplistic, but remember- it is impossible to say the opposite- or any deviation- is true.

    Pragmatism is a good idea- things that work in reality tend to reflect reality (truth for science) and tend to be… well, things that work in reality.

  5. The Greeks got their ideas from the different and competing schools of philosophy that arose from the need to overcome the myths of their past. Their ideas were the result of the mind applied to nature. It should be noted that they got a lot of things wrong. The Romans got their ideas largely by following in the footsteps of the Greeks. They got slightly less wrong than the Greeks. Nietzsche got his ideas by obliterating all values that had already been created, and taking a good, honest look at what that kind of world looks like where the highest peak of the tallest mountain is indistinguishable from the lowest crevice of the deepest abyss.

    You’ll note that I just said ‘a dash’ of Nietzsche. He made a couple of really good points, but I by no means have taken everything he said as being a good idea – indeed, it was taking already existing systems of morality at their face value that Nietzsche was arguing against in the first place. To simply agree with everything he said would not only show a profound lack of understanding of what Nietzsche was on about, but would also be of grievious insult to his brilliance. And sure, he went insane – but genius and insanity have ever been uneasy bedfellows.

    Game Theory extended from the warped and paranoid mind of John Nash, and has been elaborated on by many people since then. One of the greatest findings since then was done in a study by a computer scientist and an evolutionary biologist… Their names escape me at the moment. I’m at work, but I have the book at home that gives an overview of their work. Essentially, they lay out the fact that Game Theory predicts two ‘stable’ models of approach – the Cutthroat Bastard and Tit for Tat. They showed how that, of these two ‘stable’ models, Tit for Tat has a chance of overcoming Cutthroat Bastard, but Cutthroat Bastard has no chance of overcoming Tit for Tat.

    This is particularly interesting, because the theistic preoccupation with the ‘moral anarchy’ that theists think results from the atheistic/naturalistic worldview seems to stem from the – not unreasonable – fear that without the guiding force of religion, we’d all be doomed to be Cuthroat Bastards. The two scientists (whose names I will find for you when I get home) gave a very strong argument for why, in most cases, Tit for Tat will win out.

    On reflection, I do have to admit that cognitive psychology does share it’s earliest roots with religion – but that religion is Buddhism, which is itself an atheistic practice. But it has come a long way since then, and you really have to look hard to see the resemblance. Essentially, Buddhism makes a couple of good points and then backs it up with superstitious nonsense. Cognitive psychology takes those same good points, then shows the real reasons why they work by supporting them with empirical science… But once again, cognitive psychology is built upon equal parts the Buddhist theory of mind and behavioral psychology. Behavioural psychology is built upon Freudian psychoanalysis. For the most part, Freud was original – but it is arguable that without Nietzche, there would have been no Freud. In much the same way Nietzche was original – but it is also arguable that without Kant, there would have been no Nietzsche. And while Kant was original, it is arguable that without the philosophy of the Greeks and the Romans there would have been no Kant.

    Funny how it all ties in together, doesn’t it?

    As for human empathy, regardless of why we have it – I’m very strongly convinced it is the result of the evolution of our capacity for social cognition – it is a fairly undisputable fact of the matter that we do actually have it. I find no more difficulty in relying on my innate empathy without absolute knowledge of its origin than I find when relying on my legs without knowing precisely how the cells in my legs were formed.

    And then there is, quite simply, what I’ve found to work through trial and error. So I’m something of a pragmatist. If something doesn’t work, it’s not OK… But it should be pointed out that this doesn’t work both ways.

    1. Everything that is OK works. (this is a tautology)
    2. Not everything that works is OK.

    If a recent mother with a young child crows about how cute her baby is, and I think that the baby in question is an ugly (but no doubt adorable) little thing, I find no problem in lying about this to the mother on the grounds that it makes her happy and keeps the social environment going smoothly. This strikes me as OK, and it should be duly noticed that an attribute of something that is OK is that it works.

    On the other hand: Consider that I had a girlfriend for whom I felt great affection, and she were to ask me if I loved her – and I did not. Lying to her would, much like the recent mother above, make her happy and keep the social environment going smoothly – but here, I would instinctively object to such a lie on moral grounds. So although this would ‘work’, that – in and of itself – doesn’t make it OK.

    Hmm… I’d intended that to be a short reply. Something went a little bit wrong, there.

  6. Che,

    It sounds to me like you think that morality, then, is little more than the byproduct of evolutionary processes. I sort of get what you are saying.

    This history is nice, long, and well rehearsed. However, and this is the bottom line: Who decides what ‘works’? Who decides what is ‘OK’? Even if you decided to ‘lie on moral grounds’ (ie., the keep the environment ‘going smoothly’ ) who decides what that ‘moral ground’ is? You cannot simply continue to trace the history of morality back, and back, and back, and back as if you were merely breaking down an atom to protons, neutrons and electrons, and then breaking each of those down, and so on and so forth.

    Every evolutionary biologist will tell you that man is not eternal. That is, we have not always been on the planet. We have, according the evolution, evolved from lower species (I know it is a little more complicated than that, but the point is that ‘man’ in his current shape has not always been in his current shape). So, trace it Kant back to Neitzsche back to Rome back to Greece back to Buddhism back to cro-magnum man if you want, but eventually you are going to run out of ‘men’ to trace it back to. Eventually, you need a concrete standard of what is right and wrong. Simply connecting the dots through history is simply inadequate because it never tells me where the first man in the evolutionary chain got his ideas. Seriously, did the first ‘man’ kill someone in order to determine that killing someone was ‘not ok because it did not work’?

    Or did the first man who killed someone learn that killing (in the sense of murder) was wrong because someone told him it was wrong?

    How do I know that killing is wrong if I am the first man in the evolutionary chain? And you can put forth the same scenario for everything that man has ever determined is ‘not ok’ or ‘doesn’t work’ whether it is murder, stealing, lying, raping, or whatever.

    Does that make sense?

    thanks again for pleasant, insultless, non-condescending, adult conversation.

    jerry

  7. Trust me- you don’t want to argue with Ubiquitous Che. The man dances until you have no idea what you where arguing about in the first place- rather impressive.

    Ha! That made my day! Thanking you kindly. 😀

    Man… I have to get back into the habit of responding to the threads in my own blog. I’ve been really slack about that.

    Or did the first man who killed someone learn that killing (in the sense of murder) was wrong because someone told him it was wrong?

    How do I know that killing is wrong if I am the first man in the evolutionary chain? And you can put forth the same scenario for everything that man has ever determined is ‘not ok’ or ‘doesn’t work’ whether it is murder, stealing, lying, raping, or whatever.

    Does that make sense?

    Yeah, it does – and I do have an answer. As Samuel will no doubt verify, I always do. 😛

    However, I’m going to do something very unusual for me. I’m going to go over my source material again, so that when I do try and give that answer, hopefully it won’t be quite as rambling a discourse as is usual. The idea I’m trying to get across is simple enough on its own. The trick lies in trying to show how something like ‘Tit for Tat’ can come about without the need for design – which I suppose is what this whole discussion was inevitably going to boil down to.

    thanks again for pleasant, insultless, non-condescending, adult conversation.

    It’s one of the interesting things I’ve noticed that, when approaching someone in the atheist/theist debate, people on either side are usually astonished to come across someone from their opposition who carries themselves with ajectives like that.

    Theres some good evidence floating around that the mindless insulters and shriekers on either side are really just reacting to one another. It’s almost like there’s two arguments going on, simultaneously. On the one hand, we have atheists (some of whom are polite and some of whom are not) arguing with theists (some of whom are polite and some of whom are not), and then on the other hand we have polite people in the discussion (some of whom are atheists and some of whom are theists) and impolite people in the discussion (some of whom are atheists and some of whom are theists).

    Wow. That was verbose. But the point I’m making is that there’s some good common ground for the polite members of both the atheist and the theist camp to band together and get a bit stern with the impolite members, both externally and internally to their own ‘side’ of the issue – in which case, I would have more in common with yourself than with a petty, insulting, and narrow-minded atheist, which is precisely as I would rightly hope.

    😀




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