Atheism and the Problem of Objective Morality

Question:

“Hello there. I am an atheist, and I actually enjoy following your page. I do not agree with almost anything you post, but, it’s nice to see you, and your followers opinion. One question, how is it that religious people say that one can’t be moral without religion or God? Here in Denmark we aren’t very religious, but somehow our country is taking care of our week, elderly and students. Is that not being kind to your neighbour?”

Hi, Christian. Great question.

I think it would be incorrect for religious people to say that atheists can’t be moral without religion. Most intellectual theists do not actually argue this line, and for good reason. The real contention, however, concerns the ontological stature of morality: what is the metaphysical nature of it?

Theorists have posed alternative theories to answer this metaphysical question. The most widely held (as well as assumed) position is that of moral realism, or objective morality.  Objective morality, for instance, says that certain behaviours and actions are either objectively good or evil. It is objectively evil to rape and murder people. It is objectively good to tell the truth and to act kindly and compassionately to others. This type of morality is thus not a matter of personal preference (which constitutes another theory proposed, such as moral subjectivism) but that is rather true and binding independent of one’s view of them, or whether or not one chooses to follow them. Philosopher William Lane Craig makes an analogy to Nazi annexation of the world (1). The idea that genocide would constitute an objective moral evil would still apply even if the Nazis, who viewed the the Holocaust as something objectively good, were successful, and managed to not only take over the entire world, but also brainwash the entire world’s population into believing what they did was objectively morally good. Objective morality isn’t affected by how many people view something over and above something else.

As many have argued, the problem for the atheist who possesses moral convictions is that objective morality does not exist on his or her worldview. Thus, for the atheist like yourself, Chris, you do not have a basis from which to make both objective moral claims and arguments, although atheists make them all of the time. Even you seem to think that you can by saying that in Denmark many atheists are doing morally good things such as taking care of the old, sickly, and the future generation of students.

But why can’t atheists make objectively meaning moral claims or hold to objective morality? The reason is because the atheistic worldview (whether that be naturalism or materialism or any other atheistic philosophy) cuts off any transcendent standard from which one is able to both objectively and meaningfully judge actions in relation to their moral value, and make moral claims. Without God, or something transcendent, or some transcendent moral law giver, there can be no transcendent standard which binds all human beings.

Objective morality therefore does not, and cannot, exist on atheism, as most atheist philosophers will affirm. Philosopher Julian Baggini, for example, stated that,

“If there is no single moral authority [i.e. if there is no God, then] we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves… that means that moral claims are not true or false in the same way as factual claims are… moral claims are judgments [that] it is always possible for someone to disagree with… without saying something that is factually false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error” (3).

The atheist philosopher Richard Taylor was also honest enough to observe this challenge saying that,

“The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone” (2).

What the atheist is then left with is moral subjectivism, which means that morality has been reduced from anything transcendent to those subjectively constructed ideals of what one person, group, population, or country deems moral as opposed to immoral. By consequence, morality becomes a matter of personal opinion, no more than personal taste. For the atheist, a moral claim is simply a claim stemming from his personal opinion which will conflict the personal opinion of someone else. Perhaps an example would illustrate this.

Most atheists would likely believe the taking care of the elderly is a moral good, but some cultures have been known to practice senicide, the deliberate killing of the elderly for whatever reason they see fit. The atheist view that senicide is morally evil cannot be said to be objectively superior to the view of any other culture that both condones and practices it. Neither can the other culture which condones it look at the atheist and deem his view of the practive of senicide as being morally inferior.

Essentially this subjectivism whittles down morality to subjective preference no different to the fact that one person might like vanilla ice cream while another favours the strawberry kind. According to prominent atheist philosopher Michael Ruse that you believe senicide is morally evil is an “illusion fobbed” off on to you as a result of sociobiological conditioning (4).

This raises an additional issue for atheists. While affirming that some things are objectively evil or good, they do not and cannot live consistently with this view. Take the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, for example. In his book River Out of Eden he stated that,

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (5).

This is a very deep philosophical statement in which Dawkins claims that the words “good” and “evil” are meaningless in the objective sense. Why? Because the world, on atheism, will not allow for it. But Dawkins, in what appears to be in contradiction to this statement, has has a lengthy career of accusing religions, religious faith, and many religious believers of being evil, and opposed to reason, science, and intellectual progress. Dawkins is thus swimming in contradiction. What is this contradiction? It denotes how the atheist while on one hand explaining away objective morality will then live his or her life making moral claims that he believes should be taken objectively. If he didn’t believe so, then making moral claims are pointless. The famous writer C.S. Lewis saw that this undermined his atheism, which ultimately resulted in his conversion to Christianity. Upon realization he asked,

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” (6)

The point that Lewis made was that there were no grounds for him, while being an atheist, to meaningfully call some thing objectively evil (“cruel and unjust“) because there was no such standard (“straight line“) for him to do so. Even worse, Lewis realized, was that should this be the case then how could he use evil and suffering as an argument against God? He realized he could not, ans so he considered the theistic alternative. Lewis found that theism rooted objective morality in God because God’s own perfect nature provided the transcendent standard against which we can judge all actions and decisions. If one had this standard, then it made sense for theists to argue that senicide is a moral evil, and that looking after and taking care of the elderly is an objective good.

References.

1. Craig, W. 2007. Our Grasp of Objective Moral Values. Available.

2. Taylor, R. 1985. Ethics, Faith, and Reason. p. 83-84.

3. Baggini, J. 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. p. 41-51.

4. Michael R. 1985. ‘Evolution and Ethics’ in New Scientist. p. 51-52.

5. Dawkins, R. 1995. River Out of Eden. p. 131–32.

6. Lewis, C. 1997. Mere Christianity. p. 36.

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17 responses to “Atheism and the Problem of Objective Morality

  1. Here’s the truth: you DO NOT need Christianity to have a working moral or ethical framework, but you DO need some idea of God. Even if it’s the sort of remote uninterested God of Aristotle, or the more subtle God of Plato, or even another religion like Zoroastrianism or even some form of Hinduism–you need SOME idea of God, something outside your own faculties, to do it.

    Christians sometimes make the mistake of leaping to “therefore read the Bible and do that” as their response. That’s irresponsible in a lot of ways, because there are so many conflicting schools on Biblical interpretation. But there ARE good ethical systems BASED on the Bible. I’m a fan of Thomist Natural Law. There are others.

    But no one in history has put together a solid and coherent ethical or moral framework without invoking some idea of God. It can’t be done, it appears.

      • Why is “transcendent” a necessary qualification? For all practical purposes isn’t “regular” or, if we must, “non-transcendent” morality functionally identical? And, if so, why make a distinction?

        • It is a necessary qualification if one wishes to hold to objective morality. If we don’t, we need to explain our moral experience that tells us some acts are morally evil as opposed to good. Transcendence is necessary because without it we are left we subjectivism, as I explained. Transcendence provides the standard that would apply to all people independent of what people think. On subjectivism nothing is in of itself morally good or evil. Morality is then just opinion.

          • Theists are apt to devise their own individual subjective idea of God. Even within congregations each individual has a subjective view of God that may conflict with the person in the pew next to him. Certainly, there are wide ranging differences within faith traditions and across different religious groups. One can easily show that the character of the God one believes in is wholly subjective for each individual. This being so, how does one determine this “objective morality?” Isn’t their personal interpretation of a “transcendent” morality also “just their opinion”? Further, if as you say, “Without God, or some transcendent moral law giver, there can be no transcendent moral standard,” and any deity can serve that purpose as you infer and Max in his reply above expands on, doesn’t that mean that whatever one believes is acceptable and thus is entirely, utterly subjective? If that is your argument, why invoke a deity at all?

            • That there exists an objective moral standard and that there also exist many interpretations or approximations of that moral standard is self-evident and in no way undermines the assertion that there exists an objective moral standard, whether or not we can fully and completely define and agree on it. Without a God, there is no way to claim that an objective moral standard exists. That human beings disagree about what that moral standard is, is beside the point in this case.

              • Thank you, Barry, for your response. I agree with you that it is self-evident that there are “many interpretations or approximations” of an objective moral standard. However, that an actual objective morality exists is by no means self-evident since any interpretation or approximation is categorically subjective. What is self-evident is that theists and non-theists alike develop and operate within their personal moral framework in exactly the same way. “That human beings disagree about what [an objective] moral standard is…” is precisely the point – it is, as you perhaps inadvertently illustrated, essentially what James Bishop characterizes as, “just an opinion.” To claim that an objective morality exists, whether or not it actually does, is what is beside the point since merely making the claim is functionally irrelevant for all practical purposes. If the best we and our fellow human beings can hope to do is to attempt to divine 😉 it for ourselves, that would be subjectivism, right?

              • Nonsense, our preferences do not determine good or evil, because we don’t know the circumstances of everything and every intent a person has, because we don’t know everyone’s thoughts. But God does, so knows best how to get someones attention to recognize their faults according to what we’ve done. And many people have different ideas about what is right and wrong, or if morality is an illusion or not. There’s no way to test and experiment with a persons intentions to determine empirically if it’s the correct standard for morality. Secular morality is contradictory.

              • This is in response to Eric Breaux. Thank you, Eric for commenting on this subject. Please correct me if I’m wrong, I understand you to be agreeing with Max Kolbe, James Bishop, Barry, above, and myself that, “…people have different ideas about what is right and wrong”, and that, there is no way to “…determine empirically if it’s the correct standard for morality.” Except that, “…God does, so knows best how to get someone’s attention…”

                Max, Mr. Bishop and Barry also suggest that one need not appeal to any specific deity, but that one must hold a belief in a supernaturally powerful god. This belief can be in any generic deity, not necessarily the Christian God, in order to impart a necessary ”transcendent” quality to one’s moral framework and thereby provide it legitimacy. Otherwise, one is not able “…to have a working moral or ethical framework…” (Kolbe). To clarify, do you also agree with this assertion?

                I don’t think anyone in this thread claimed that our “preferences” determine good or evil. And, I’m not sure why “…the circumstances of everything and every intent a person has,” would be a requirement for determining good or evil. My contention is just that theists and non-theists alike come to understand morality by essentially the same method. As such, there is fundamentally no distinction between a “transcendent” morality and a “regular” or non-theistic based morality.

                If you are willing to explain further, I would very much like to understand, if as you say, there is “…no way..to determine empirically if it’s the correct standard for morality,” how you come by the knowledge of this single “correct standard.” And, could you be more specific about why, “[s]ecular morality is contradictory.” Contradictory to what and how so?

                Thank you for your response.

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  4. I’m interested as to how determined that god was good? To do so, surely you need a standard to compare god against where this standard was independent of god? What is this standard that you are using?

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