Atheists often present their worldview in hope to make it seem appealing. For example, they commonly refer to themselves as rationalists, freethinkers, and give themselves all sorts of titles in hope to convey the impression of intellectual superiority. They also try to monopolize science and play it off against religion and belief in God. This suggests that they wish to be the ones known for the employment of evidence and reason, and so on. But despite these attractive claims, how appealing is atheism really? I believe that atheism lacks appeal for the reason that it cannot be lived out consistently. When I say that a worldview cannot be lived out consistently I mean to say that a specific individual ascribes to the worldview x, is convinced of the truths x, but cannot live out in practice the truths that x posits about reality, and that the way the individual acts and behaves is in contrast to x. Here I look at just three major reasons why, after years of engaging atheist literature, I believe this to be the case.
When I refer to atheism, in almost all cases I specifically mean philosophical naturalism and philosophical materialism, the two most commonly held atheistic philosophies on behalf of atheists.
1. The Denial of Objective Meaning & Purpose in Life.
Most people I know want to live meaningful lives, and this includes atheists. Many people hope to live a life that ultimately makes a difference to the world and to other human beings. Perhaps one even hopes to be remembered in some way for the hard work they put into certain projects after they die. But, on atheism, is there really any meaning to one’s existence at all?
I would argue not. On atheism the universe exists simply because it exists, and there is no ultimate objective purpose for why it does. The difference with some religions is that they invest the universe with spiritual and theological significance, and our decisions in the here and now have eternal significance beyond the universe itself. But atheism proposes the exact opposite of this. On atheism we exist by chance alone (there was no supernatural being who created us, or the universe, for any purpose), and we will cease to exist when we die. On such a view no ultimate meaning can be attached to our lives, and it would not have mattered if we did not exist in the first place. Everything that the human race has ever discovered and all the remarkable achievements we’ve made (from the sciences to the philosophies and all in between) will face the same fate of extinction.
But don’t atheists live meaningful lives? Not beyond what they can give themselves. On atheism we might be able to create the subjective illusion of meaning. This is the sort of meaning we attach to self-fulfillment in our moments of pleasure and work. However, we should not confuse this with objective, ultimate meaning and purpose. If we remove God and religion from the picture we lose the transcendent standard that grounds our existence with any objective meaning and purpose.
This is a tough pill to swallow. On one hand the consistent atheist creates subjective meaning for himself while being cognitively aware that when the human person is reduced to its constituent elements he or she possesses no more significance than any other life forms on the planet, including the likes of mosquitos, cows, or dogs. Yet atheists still operate as if they are engaging in meaningful activities. Richard Dawkins, an atheist and public science intellectual, made a career out of scientific discovery. However, on his atheism any and all discoveries and achievements made by him and others possess no ultimate significance and are doomed to extinction like everything else. I believe that this makes atheism, if consistently applied to one’s life, unlivable. After all, imagine waking up each day having to face this reality.
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. 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.”
-Richard Dawkins (1)
“At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.”
-Peter Atkins (2)
2. The Denial of Objective Morality
I recall a harrowing narrative penned by the Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas in his History of the Indies (1561):
“They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”
De las Casas informed his readers about events taking place during the colonization of the West Indies and the evils perpetuated against its indigenous populations by the invaders, and I suspect that what the invading conquistadors did to these babies and their mothers was no less than a moral atrocity. I would venture to call it evil. I think most people would agree and suppose that what was committed by the colonialists was a grievous crime, and an act no less than evil.
But how would such be viewed on atheism? As we’ve seen above, if atheism is true, and if we’re no more than chance products with no ultimate meaning and purpose in life, it seems irrational, if not impossible, to claim that any acts are really evil. Similarly, it is equally absurd to claim that any acts are really good. Rather, what we are left with is an indifferent universe within which some creatures get hurt and others get lucky. Probabilities and chance ultimately deal the cards and creatures are forced to play with them. For instance, the babies and their terrified mothers chronicled in the account by de las Casas just got an unlucky deal. Reading back on such accounts we might feel their pain and loss, and feel that what happened to them was evil, but on atheism these are just feelings that are explained by our superior cognitive faculties giving off these senses.
The intellectual challenge for atheists, as is admitted by atheist scholars, is that if one removes God from the equation then one by definition removes the transcendent moral standard and laws set by God. Obviously, if God does not exist, as they believe, then there can be no such transcendent moral standard, and thus we have to create these laws ourselves. The problem is that this view of morality slides into moral relativism. For example, on relativism, given that moral values and duties are relative, one cannot really deem the behaviours of other tribes, people, and nations as morally inferior. If one nation wishes to stone homosexuals for their orientation, another nation, which seeks to upheld the human rights of homosexuals, cannot deem such behaviour as morally inferior to their own. Or consider the example of the colonization of the West Indies. If atheism is true, then it is only my subjective opinion that genocide, or throwing babies off of cliffs, or burning them alive in boiling water are moral evils. But the conquistadors had a very different view of the matter. They thought they were doing a morally good act, and why not have some fun in the process? On atheism I cannot say that what they did was morally evil in any objective sense for my moral views possess no more significance than theirs.
This is undoubtedly a point of tension in the lives of atheists. They know that by consequence of their naturalistic and materialistic philosophies that objective moral values do not exist yet they continue to make an endless stream of moral judgments. They do this despite these moral judgements possessing no ultimate significance whatsoever.
“In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate… Ethical codes work because they drive us to go against our selfish day to day impulses in favour of long-term group survival and harmony… Furthermore, the way our biology forces our ends is by making us think that there is an objective, higher code to which we are all subject… ethics is a shared illusion of the human race.”
-Michael Ruse (3)
3. The Denial of Freewill
On atheism only particles and physical forces exist. But if that is true, then human beings don’t have free will because our actions are completely determined by the laws of physics. Despite the fact that we feel that we possess freewill all of our decisions in life are attributable to some other factor (genetic, environmental, and biochemical) that preceded it. We might think we have freewill but on atheism this is just a very powerful illusion akin to the illusion that some acts are objectively morally evil. This rejection of freewill is what is known as determinism, a philosophical view that appears inescapable on naturalism and materialism.
The implications of such a view are significant. For example, there is the obvious difficulty of moral judgement. For instance, if freewill is an illusion then no perpetrator of a crime, whether that crime be rape or hurling babies from cliffs, could rightfully be convicted of the crime. If someone is to be convicted of a crime he has to be responsible for it. To use another example, imagine if two friends, John and Tom, are mountain climbing and a sudden gust of wind blows John into Tom which results in Tom falling to his death. It would be unreasonable to hold John morally responsible for Tom’s death for Tom’s demise was a result of external factors beyond John’s control that resulted in John knocking Tom off of the cliff. John did not decide to murder Tom. I believe this analogy applies to our decisions on determinism. If an individual’s decisions have been determined by factors other than herself then she cannot be held morally responsible for them. A leading proponent of this view is the atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris reasons that on determinism,
“we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility… You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise” (4).
I engaged Harris’ essay with much interest in which he grapples with the implications. He uses the example of a family assaulted by thieves. The thieves break in, murder the family, burn down the house, and flee the crime. Harris explains that our condemnation of this act is predicated on the belief that these thieves had the choice to abstain from committing the crime. Harris, however, contends that given determinism and the determining preceding factors that resulted in these men committing the crime, the men actually had no “choice” but to commit it. Harris says that if he were in the shoes of one of these men he would too have committed the crime for there is simply no alternative. Harris makes sure his readers know that he condemns such behaviour, but such condemnation seems entirely irrational on atheism and philosophical determinism which deny that both freewill and objective morality exists.
“Everything that has or will happen was determined at the big bang — and given that our brains are part of the physical universe, free will does not exist.”
-Graham Lawton (5)
“In fact, outright atheism remains a minority confession, and the modern Western world has witnessed the proliferation of alternative ‘spiritualities’ of various kinds,” and a major reason for this is that “Many, it seems, are dissatisfied with atheism as the ‘final truth’ of the human condition.”
-Gavin Hyman (6)
1. Dawkins, R. 1995. River Out of Eden. p. 131–32
2. Atkins, P. Quoted by Dawkins, R. 1998. Unweaving the Rainbow. p. ix.
3. Ruse, M. 1985. Evolution and Ethics. In New Scientist. p. 51-52.
4. Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. p. 44.
5. Lawton, G. 2011. The Riddle of Free Will Goes Unsolved.
6. Hyman, G. 2007. Atheism in Modern History. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. p. 33.