Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Atheism and Morality
What do atheists think about morality? Many would say, nothing in particular. Atheism is nothing more than lack of belief in a deity. It implies nothing about anything else, so they say. The claim, however, deserves to be examined closely.
What do atheists think? We can take as our authority on the subject Mr. Dan Barker. A former evangelical preacher turned atheist, he is now the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the largest organization of atheists and agnostics in America. During his Christian days he attended Azusa Pacific College, a Christian institution of higher learning located in California, and worked for a number of years as an evangelist and Christian musician. Since becoming an atheist he and his first wife (who remains a committed Christian) divorced, and he married Annie Laurie Gaylor, the other co-president of the Foundation and the daughter of Anne Gayor, who is herself a distinguished atheist. Mr. Barker travels widely and frequently engages in public debates with leading Christian apologists. His book, godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists, comes with the enthusiastic endorsements of such well-known figures as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
Thus Mr. Barker is uniquely positioned to discuss both sides of the issue.
The book is both entertaining and informative. Mr. Barker tells us a great deal about contemporary atheism. He explains to us, for instance, the meaning of the word "atheist": "It turns out that atheism means much less than I had thought. It is merely the lack of theism. It is not a philosophy of life and it offers no values. It predicts nothing of morality or motives" (p. 97). He goes on to say that even though atheism, per se, implies nothing about morality, most atheists do, in fact, "want to go beyond zero" and "embrace a positive philosophy such as humanism, feminism or another naturalistic ethical system. Or, they will promote charity, philanthropy, learning, science, beauty, art – all those human activities that enhance life." But he is careful to add, "But to be an atheist, you don't need any positive philosophy at all or need to be a good person. You are an atheist if you lack a belief in a god" (Ibid.).
Make no mistake about it, Mr. Barker reassures us that most atheists are indeed good people. "Since leaving fundamentalism I have noticed that contrary to what I used to preach, most atheists seem to be deeply concerned with human values" (p. 99). But how do they reconcile this deep concern with their non-belief in God? What is the basis for their ethics? Mr. Barker tells us "We atheists find our basis for morality in nature" (p. 213). He says "Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean that they are 'objective' . . . Most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and these consequences can be objectively measured" (p. 213).
Mr. Barker goes on to qualify this statement somewhat: "Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that morality exists in the universe – that it is a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word 'morality' is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds" (p. 214). But this involves Mr. Barker in a contradiction. Do values refer to something in the real world, or do they only exist in the mind? Do they describe objective reality or do they not?
How, then, can Mr. Barker objectively justify values "by reference to the real world"? He claims that it is because "actions have consequences, and the consequences can be objectively measured." But the devil, as they say, is in the details. First of all, how does he conceive of "the real world"? He tells us: "'Nature' . . . means something. Darwinism shows us that all living organisms are the result of a natural evolutionary process. We have been fashioned by the laws of nature" (p. 219). He then proceeds to explain how evolution works: "It is design by extinction, but the way a changing environment automatically disallows organisms that happen not to be adapted, leaving the 'fittest' behind, if any" (Ibid.). Perhaps global warming is nature's way of "automatically disallowing" the human race as "not adapted"! But to continue: "We are not above nature. We are not just a part of nature. We are nature. We are natural creatures in a natural environment" (p. 220).
One would think that any "naturalistic ethical system" would lead straight to Social Darwinism. But then Mr. Barker tells us, "Humanists think we should do good for goodness' sake, not for the selfish prospect or reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment" (p. 220). We are relieved that Mr. Barker wishes to extricate himself from the law of the jungle, but we fear that he has taken an irrational leap of faith here. Why would any rational, thinking human being, being persuaded that Mr. Barker's description of nature is accurate, not want to pursue good "for the selfish prospect of reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment"? After all, on Mr. Barker's scheme of things, isn't life all about preserving self?
Mr. Barker practically admits that atheists have no rational basis for the kind of altruism that he advocates. Describing the good deeds that atheists actually do perform, he says "Whatever the moral motivation may be it likely originates in a mind that is deeply concerned with fairness and compassion, love for real human beings and concern for this world, not merely a rational approach to truth that rejects arguments for a supernatural being" (p. 100). He tells us that "To be moral, atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no cosmic code book directing our actions" (p. 214). Quite remarkably he tries to argue that "Compassion is, after all, a characteristic of being human . . . We are not corrupt, evil creatures" (p. 216). But just previously he had said, "Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an 'instinct' because many appear not to have it – it seems optional" (p. 215). So what is Mr. Barker's answer to them? Aside from the criminal justice system he says that we "can choose to actively exhort others to join us in expressing our innate feelings of altruism and compassion" (p. 216). Ah, once a preacher always a preacher! The only problem here is that it is hard to see how Mr. Barker can exhort anyone to a life of virtue if there is no real, objective, universally binding rule of conduct and there is an immediate benefit to be gained by being selfish.
It is undoubtedly true, as Mr. Barker tells us, that most atheists want to embrace "a positive philosophy such as humanism, feminism or another naturalistic ethical system." The problem is that they can do so only by not applying "a rational approach to truth that rejects arguments for a supernatural being." In the final analysis humanism and feminism rest on no surer foundation than Christianity. If one is fantasy and self-delusion then they all are. And an "naturalistic ethical system" involves the difficulty of deducing an "ought" from an "is." My dog does not engage in moral ratiocination; he simply pounces on the prey.
In the end there is no morality apart from God.
You might also enjoy:
A Scientific Basis for Morality?
Letter to a Unitarian Minister