Commenter ECM sent me this post from Uncommon Descent about the is-ought fallacy, and the difficulties that atheists have grounding morality on worldview in which only material things exist. The post is written by Barry Arrington. He is summarizes an argument based on some of the comments from an earlier post.
Barry introduces two assumptions:
(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.
(2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.” Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.
Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an “ought.” And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.
This makes sense to me. If only matter exists, and the whole universe is an accident, then where would an atheist get this idea that the current arrangement of matter ought to be any other way? Matter just is. This concept of “ought to be” is totally alien to an atheistic worldview where everything is matter, because moral obligations are non-material.
The article goes on: (I added the number 3)
Add a further uncontroversial assumption: (3) an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic.
Basically, he is saying that an action is permissible so long as there is no moral obligation against that action. Can you see what’s coming? (I added the number 4)
We’ve conformed to standard principles and inference rules of logic and we’ve started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded. And yet we reach the absurd conclusion: (4) therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action.
And let’s be clear about why this is bad for atheists:
If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan “if atheism is true, all things are permitted.” For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.
Let me just add one more point. How are we supposed to be morally obligated to perform any action if we are pure matter? Meat machines don’t have free will. We would just be strings of dominoes falling forward, with no choice whether to fall or not. And even if we could somehow choose, our choices have no ultimate moral significance.
So, what does morality mean to atheists, then?
A while back, I listed some quotes about morality on atheism, taken from atheists who have actually thought through the consequences of atheism for rational moral behavior.
Here is a quotation from Richard Dawkins:
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, or any justice. The universe that 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… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Of course, atheists can sense the objective moral standard that God has built into every person. But their materialist worldview undercuts the meaningfulness of moral values, moral duties and moral accountability. And people just don’t act morally once morality has become irrational for them. Acting morally is hard.
What ends up happening to atheists is that they only do the right thing for pleasure, or to avoid social punishments. Once the pre-supposition of materialism has destroyed the rationality of morality, it becomes impossible for atheists to answer the question “Why be moral?”. Any atheist who continues to act morally is living inconsistently with their own worldview – and that is not sustainable in the long run.
Atheistic assumptions wear down the awareness of the moral law that atheists started out with, so that they begin to advocate for obviously immoral things, like the suppression of freedom of inquiry. Eventually, the guilt becomes so strong that they exchange authentic moral values like chastity and sobriety for cheap narcissistic fads like recycling and yoga.
The case of William Wilberforce
Consider this article from the Wall Street Journal about the abolitionist William Wilberforce.
In fact, William Wilberforce was driven by a version of Christianity that today would be derided as “fundamentalist.”
…William Wilberforce himself, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1770s and as a young member of Parliament soon after, had no more than a nominal sense of faith. Then, in 1785, he began reading evangelical treatises and underwent what he called “the Great Change,” almost dropping out of politics to study for the ministry until friends persuaded him that he could do more good where he was.
And he did a great deal of good…[h]is relentless campaign eventually led Parliament to ban the slave trade, in 1807, and to pass a law shortly after his death in 1833, making the entire institution of slavery illegal. But it is impossible to understand Wilberforce’s long antislavery campaign without seeing it as part of a larger Christian impulse. The man who prodded Parliament so famously also wrote theological tracts, sponsored missionary and charitable works, and fought for what he called the “reformation of manners,” a campaign against vice.
Even during the 18th century, evangelicals were derided as over-emotional “enthusiasts” by their Enlightenment-influenced contemporaries. By the time of Wilberforce’s “great change,” liberal 18th-century theologians had sought to make Christianity more “reasonable,” de-emphasizing sin, salvation and Christ’s divinity in favor of ethics, morality and a rather distant, deistic God. Relatedly, large numbers of ordinary English people, especially among the working classes, had begun drifting away from the tepid Christianity that seemed to prevail. Evangelicalism sought to counter such trends and to reinvigorate Christian belief.
…Perhaps the leading evangelical force of the day was the Methodism of John Wesley: It focused on preaching, the close study of the Bible, communal hymn-singing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Central to the Methodist project was the notion that good works and charity were essential components of the Christian life. Methodism spawned a vast network of churches and ramified into the evangelical branches of Anglicanism. Nearly all the social-reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries–from temperance and soup kitchens to slum settlement houses and prison reform–owe something to Methodism and its related evangelical strains. The campaign against slavery was the most momentous of such reforms and, over time, the most successful.It is thus fitting that John Wesley happened to write his last letter–sent in February 1791, days before his death–to William Wilberforce. Wesley urged Wilberforce to devote himself unstintingly to his antislavery campaign, a “glorious enterprise” that opposed “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” Wesley also urged him to “go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
Wesley had begun preaching against slavery 20 years before and in 1774 published an abolitionist tract, “Thoughts on Slavery.” Wilberforce came into contact with the burgeoning antislavery movement in 1787, when he met Thomas Clarkson, an evangelical Anglican who had devoted his life to the abolitionist cause. Two years later, Wilberforce gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament.
…This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in “For the Glory of God” (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor. When chattel slavery, long absent from Europe, reappeared in imperial form in the 16th and 17th centuries–mostly in response to the need for cheap labor in the New World–the first calls to end the practice came from pious Christians, notably the Quakers. Evangelicals, not least Methodists, quickly joined the cause, and a movement was born.
William Wilberforce believed that slaves were made in the image of God – that they were embodied souls who could be resurrected to eternal life. Wilberforce believed that the purpose of human life is to freely seek God, and to be reconciled with God through Christ. He wanted all men and women to have the opportunity to investigate and respond to God’s self-revelation to them.
You can read more about Wilberforce’s beliefs here and his public activities here. And you can still see modern-day abolitionists, like Scott Klusendorf, acting out their Christian faith. Only today they’re called pro-lifers.
A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally grounding prescriptive morality is here.