Many years ago I took a sequence of college philosophy classes from a likeable atheist. I found the ethics course most interesting. Every time it came to the question of why the professor believed something to be right or wrong, he could say only that it “seemed” to him to be best, it “seemed” to him to help the most people. In other words, it always boiled down to his personal preference. Thirty of us sat in that ethics class, all with our own personal preferences, many fluxing with the current of popular culture…
Choosing moral behaviors because they make you feel happy can make sense, in a Bertrand Russell/Sam Harris sort of way, but what if it makes you feel happy to torture animals or kill Jews or steal from your employer?
“You misunderstand,” someone says. “We atheists do not base our morality on personal preferences, but on the judgments of society as a whole, on what benefits the most people.” But how does this help the argument? What if in our class of thirty students, sixteen of us really wanted to kill the professor? Would that be good? Or what if the majority of an entire nation thought it best to liquidate one portion of that population—would that be good?…
Nor does it help to claim the authority of some group of “elites” who supposedly have a finer moral sense. History teaches us that elite groups tend to call good whatever it is they’re inclined to do.
If there is no God who created us for an eternal purpose, and no God who will judge us; if there is no God who has revealed his standards and no God who informs our consciences—then surely any morality we forge on our own will ultimately amount to a mirror image of our own subjective opinions that will change with the times.
To say that the Holocaust or child abuse is wrong is a moral judgment. But such a judgment has no meaning without a standard to measure it against. Why are the Holocaust and child abuse wrong? Because they involve suffering? Because other people have said they are wrong? Feeling it or saying it doesn’t make it so…
We have only one basis for good moral judgments: the existence of objective standards based on unchanging reference points outside ourselves. Personal opinion falls far short.
After all, Nazis and rapists have their opinions too.
If there is no God, then there can be no objective standards of right and wrong. All we are confronted with is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, the bare, valueless fact of existence. Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the by-products of socio-biological evolution and conditioning. In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God.
As one contemporary atheistic ethicist points out, “to say that something is wrong because . . . it is forbidden by God, is . . . perfectly understandable to anyone who believes in a law-giving God. But to say that something is wrong . . . even though no God exists to forbid it, is not understandable. . . .” “The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.” (Richard Taylor)
In a world without God, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.
–William Lane Craig, The Absurdity of Life without God
The nonexistence of God is nothing more than a nonsense option. The categories of good and evil themselves require some sort of transcendent standard. What makes things good? What makes things evil? Atheists have, by and large, given up on the idea of an absolute standard of morality. After all, spiritual emptiness and the nonexistence of anything outside of the simple material universe is no way to come up with an ethical system. Morality is cultural preference (which cannot be said to be right or wrong) and fundamentally relative. It takes on (to be generous) the same authority as Wisconsin speed limits on a Nevada highway at night.
People are raped in this world, and rape is evil. Because evil exists, there must be no God. Because there is no God—no authoritative standard over creation—the badness of rape downgrades to a mere matter of societal taste. Ethnic cuisine, ethnic ethics. In God’s absence rape is no longer fundamentally evil. In our country, you’ll get confined to a cell (if caught and convicted), but that just means we enforce our taste, not that our taste has any real authority over anyone else. In other societies, girls have been passed around and traded like baseball cards. Is that right? Is that wrong? You like exploitation; I like apple pie. The two discussions exist on the same plane. There’s no such thing as moral and immoral. In this country, we eat gyros. In this one, we eat pizza. And we’ll give you a ticket for jaywalking. . . .
I’ve watched the Discovery Channel. I’ve enjoyed the Discovery Channel. But in that world, if I want to reproduce with you (or tear you limb from limb) I just need to be bigger and stronger than you are. You look pretty small and a little sickly. Shall I feed you to my young? Why not? Cannibalism might not be condoned in your culture, but it has a long and storied tradition in mine. Are you saying that your culture is superior, that it is somehow right while mine is wrong? You’re being a racist, but likely you’re still small, and even racists taste good in casserole. . . .
True atheism is nonsense. If there is such a thing as beautiful, such a thing as good, or even such a thing as bad, then there is a transcendent standard that determines which is which. An atheist can say that society prefers mothers to murderers, but he cannot say that this is as it should be. Tell us what is, by all means. But without God, you cannot tell us what ought to be.
An atheist can tell us that he is a good person. I believe he has never stolen a lawn mover or murdered his wife. I believe him. What he cannot tell me is what is fundamentally wrong about lawn mover theft and wife killing. He will try, but he can’t change the fact that in his world there is no such thing as fundamental wrongness.
Let the man with the biggest armies and booming voice make the rules. Jews and gypsies and homosexuals be damned.
I don’t like that picture. I look at the world and I see beauty. I see love and loss, birth and death, joy and sorrow. I see a world where color exists, and in enormous generosity we were given eyes to see it. This is a world where bread makes a smell as it’s baked, and we just happen to have noses to smell it. Color, smell, sound, taste—these are things that could have gone unnoticed; we could have been senseless in this reality, careening around like so many spattering particles. Were our noses invented first, or the smells? Our eyes, or the sights? Breasts, or desire?
We have been created as recipients. I look at the stars, at the stars, at the grass, at my fat-faced children, at my fingernails, and I am oppressed by gratitude.
I have been given a belly so that I might hunger. I have been given hunger so that I might be fed.
I look in the atheist’s mirror. I look at his faith in the nonexistence of meaning. I look at this preaching and painting. I see nothing but a shit-storm.
Why should I walk through that door? Why would I live in your novel?
Historically, one of the most attractive features of atheism has been its claim to stark realism. No matter how unappealing a godless universe may turn out to be, atheists claim to be committed to adhering to the truth at all costs. However, in this essay, I would like to show that at the very heart of atheism are several extremely unexpected paradoxes, areas in which atheism is shown to be in tension with a commitment to realism and a life consistent with truth…
I want to summarize the paradoxes I believe are inherent to the atheism.
1. Truth-seeking. If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.
2. Moral reflection. Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).
3. Moral motivation. If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).
None of these observations imply that atheism is necessarily false or that Christianity is true. But I hope that they do cause atheists some serious reflection. At least in these three areas, there is a conflict between the general perception that atheists live a life of realism, facing the truth about reality squarely, and the philosophical and psychological reality of atheism itself. In contrast, Christianity not only provides a basis for the idea that truth is of intrinsic value, but provides resources to enable the Christian to conform his beliefs and behavior to the truth. I would like to gently suggest that those who value truth-seeking and realism should consider whether atheism can justify or support either of these ideals.