Am I perpetuating a myth when I say that atheists cannot establish a basis for morality? I do not believe I am. It’s not that atheists cannot be moral. Of course, they can. But they cannot be good without God, for “morality” is derived from religious belief.
(Note: By “religious belief” I mean any idea that cannot be rationally derived, which is how most atheists define religion.)
As it stands, I have never come across any atheist who could explain a so-called rational, non-religious basis morality. Usually, their replies are moralistic and very religious (an irony which hopefully alludes no one).
I am lately reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. As I read, I am constantly asking myself, “Absent God, what is the basis for morality?” Why are the evils he enumerates “evil”? The author constantly declares this or that to be immoral, but why? (The greatest evil, incidentally, is faith.) He is so convinced of his ideas that he actually blames the Jews for the Holocaust, for they, too, perpetuate the evil of having faith. (As I read that section of the book, I became physically ill, and that has only happened once before in my lifetime.) To be sure, Harris does not blame only the Jews for the Holocaust, just everyone who believes in God — and even, strangely, those who do not, but who derive their ideas from those who do. I will soon show that he, too, is guilty of this “crime.”
Establishing a Basis for Morality
What, under atheism, is the basis for morality? What is evil? And what is good? If we accept that there is no God (or god — however you like it), then what constitutes morality? Absent God, humans are merely biological beings, operating by whatever naturally acts upon them. I’m not sure the terms “good” and “evil” even apply. Are not “good” and “evil” philosophical constructs? Absent God, are not these philosophical constructs merely words? What bearing do these values have upon the natural world. Is an earthquake that kills tens of thousands “evil” because it kills tens of thousands of people? Or, is it simply a natural occurrence upon, and the values of “good” or “evil” are irrelevant?
The same reasoning can be applied to the Holocaust. True, millions were exterminated in concentration camps, but, absent God, why should that be termed “evil”? An atheist might respond that people were murdered, to which I will reply that “murder” is a moral construct. Absent God, people were simply killed. Animals kill other animals all the time, and I have never heard it said that one animal murdered another. An atheist might respond that animals kill for food, i.e. they have a reason. Well, the Nazis killed for territory. They, too, had a reason.
C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity that the greatest argument against atheism is the sense of morality we all seem to possess. Lewis arrived at this conclusion while he was an atheist. As an atheist, his argument against God was that so much evil existed in the world. But then he began to wonder where this sense of moral indignation came. Ultimately, he decided that God must exist, because of this sense of right and wrong.
An atheist might say that this doesn’t actually prove God exists. Well, it did for Lewis, and, anyway, that is not my point. My point is, absent God, atheism cannot establish a basis for morality. (I do not even know why they try.)
The Most Obscene Irony
Strangely, arguments for atheism are moralistic and even religious. Generally, their arguments run this way: there is much evil in the world (usually, this is followed by a very detailed account of man’s inhumanity to man); a good part of that evil is conducted in the name of God; faith, then, is the source of evil; and, we are morally obligated, as rational beings, to reject theism (faith). I’m left wondering why a mere biomass is “obligated” to do anything.
I have never found an atheist who answers this question, but neither do I expect them to. In truth, they cannot answer it — certainly not by natural laws. Science does not allow us to ask why something occurs, it simply observes that some thing has occurred (any “why” question really only relates to the mechanisms behind the event). It’s not that atheists do not attempt to answer the question. I have read a number of books and essays written by atheists, and I know that they do. Unfortunately, they never apply the same rules to their arguments as they do to destroying religious arguments. One almost senses an unwillingness to be so utterly impolitic as to simply state that there is no basis for morality. Their responses are generally vague and designed to merely tug upon the heart-strings of the reader, leaving the reader to believe that morality has not been abandoned altogether.
Here are some responses I’ve found on the Internet:
You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer [note: the author is responding to an essay published in the Washington Post]. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you’ve overlooked. Call it what you will – empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness – but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others – a mentality of “I win, you lose” – is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle. — source: The Basis for an Atheist’s Morality
Morally speaking, it really shouldn’t matter whether any gods exist or not — the happiness and suffering of others should play an important role in our decision making either way. The existence of this or that god could, in theory, also have an impact upon our decisions — it all really depends upon how this “god” is defined. When you get right down to it, though, the existence of a god can’t make it right to cause people suffering or make it wrong to cause people to be more happy. If a person is not a sociopath and is genuinely moral, such that the happiness and suffering of others really matters to them, then neither the presence nor absence of any gods will fundamentally change anything for them in terms of moral decisions. — source: Myth: Atheists Have No Reason to be Moral, No Basis for Morality
Why should the “happiness and suffering of others” play a role in our decision-making? Why should I care? For that matter, why don’t other biological organisms care about the “happiness and suffering” of other biological organisms? Am I to assume that hyenas, tearing a nearly-born calf from the womb of its mother (look it up on the Internet), are “evil.” After all, the calf and the mother suffered intensely. (Alas, even here I am guilty of moralizing, for I don’t believe the hyenas felt anything except the satiation of their hunger.)
How are we to determine what actions contribute to the “sum total of human happiness”? (What is a “sum total” anyway?) I believe the Nazis would have been very happy if they had been able to annihilate the Jews. Certainly, the Jews would not have been, but might the “sum total” at least come out equal?
Strangely, in the end, atheists resort to the same arguments as the religious. Good is good, and evil is evil. A more rational mind would utterly dismiss these terms. Eventually even, scientists will discover the biochemistry behind all emotions and feelings, further demolishing the notion that morality can be determined absent God, or that it even exists… absent God.
Postscript: I have been asked in the past why I believe atheists can be good. Well, it’s because I believe God exists. Whether one believes in God or not has no bearing. If God exists (here I speak philosophically), and if God is good and just, then morality is universal. But being good, absent God, is relative — atheists do an excellent job explaining how evil man is — so “being good” is, sadly, not much of an achievement.
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