How do atheist scholars justify morality on atheism in debates?

I want to tell you that the easiest topic to debate with non-Christians is the foundations of morality. Here’s a primer:

  1. If atheism is true, matter is all there is. Your actions are biologically determined. So there is no free will. As Dawkins says, there is only DNA and you dance to its music. Period. If there is no free will, there are no moral choices and no moral responsibility. Moral actions are not rationally justifiable on atheism.
  2. If atheism is true, humans are accidents with no intrinsic value. Any value that is assigned to humans is arbitrary, and arbitrary standards do not constrain the will of rational people when it is not in their best interest and/or they will not be caught (e.g. – Stalin).
  3. If atheism is true, there is no ultimate accountability for moral evil. Being good or evil is irrelevant to where you end up, and where humanity ends up. (The heat death of the universe). Being good when it requires self-sacrifice is irrational, on atheism.
  4. There are only 2 reasons to be moral on atheism. If you get pleasure out of following these made-up rules or if you avoid punishment. That is not what theists mean by virtue. Acting in the way you were designed to act in order to achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia.
  5. Etc.

Try absorbing some of these actual public debates with real scholars and see for yourself:

  1. From Christianity Today, a written debate: Douglas Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens
  2. From the University of Western Ontario, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs. Kai Nielsen
  3. From Schenectady College, a transcript of a public debate:William Lane Craig vs Richard Taylor
  4. From Franklin & Marshall College, William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz (audio, video1, video2, video3, video4, video5, video6, video7)
  5. From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, William Lane Craig vs. Louise Antony (audio1, audio2, video1, video2)

These debate links are courtesy of ChristianJR4. Where’s your blog, JR4? Come on, man! Get with it! If you other readers agree with me that he should start his own blog, then e-mail me or comment about it, and I will see that he is appropriately castigated for his slacking.

If you want to learn about these issues at a deeper level, there is also a good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic are here and here. The first one is about whether atheists can use a made-up standard to judge God for his perceived moral failures, the second one is on whether meaningful morality is rational on atheism.

UPDATE: Welcome visitors from Truthbomb Apologetics! Thanks for posting about my blog, Chad! New visitors from Truthbomb may be interested in my posts in the apologetics category.

6 thoughts on “How do atheist scholars justify morality on atheism in debates?”

  1. “Your actions are biologically determined. So there is no free will. As Dawkins says, there is only DNA and you dance to its music. Period. ”

    Er, you can actually feel it. Hormones are a truly blatant example.

    Note that determinism includes nurture as well and we have seen how well people can be programmed.

    “If there is no free will, there are no moral choices and no moral responsibility.”

    Prove it. You are confusing free will with choice.

    “If atheism is true, humans are accidents with no intrinsic value.”

    Well, some of us ARE planned…

    “Any value that is assigned to humans is arbitrary,”

    Not really. Humans tend to value humans because they are human.

    “(e.g. – Stalin). ”

    Stalin believed he was a good guy. He acted in the best interests of the USSR- which was not always good for everyone else around him. Of course, he was insanely paranoid, which lead to… “problems”.

    “Being good when it requires self-sacrifice is irrational, on atheism. ”

    You are assuming people don’t things other than purly material benefits.

    “Acting in the way you were designed to act in order to achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia. ”

    That assumes design.

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  2. I absolutely cannot follow the argument that you are stating.

    Like Samuel above me stated, you are confusing free will with choice.

    Being a father, I would do anything to protect my children and so would most parents; ranging from giving them the last cookie in the fridge to the ultimate sacrifice if it meant their survival in some sense.

    So whether you are agnostic or an atheist would not play a role in just being a decent person, with or without any real or imagined consequences. IMHO

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    1. Ok, the argument is more subtle than that. It’s not a question of whether you can do something. You can do whatever you want and so can theists. It is a question of the grounding of moral rules. What are they? Are they real, or are they just preferences or social conventions? If they are not real, and doing the right thing does not matter, ultimately, then why should you perform acts of self-sacrifice?

      The real question is not can you do the right thing. The real question is: why is it rational for you to do the right thing?

      Try this post and see if it makes more sense to you.

      And don’t forget, on atheism, matter is all there is, and you need to provide me an explanation of how it is that a purely material being is able to have free will. On atheism, you are a computer made out of meat – you don’t make free choices just like computers don’t make free choices.

      And thanks for your comment. No one doubts that you choose to do right. What I am posing to you is not an argument about you personally. It is an argument about whether atheism offers the RATIONAL grounding for moral rules and moral behavior. You can be good. But is it rational for you to be good, on atheism? Thanks again for such a thoughtful and polite comment. Don’t hesitate to follow-up, I’m here.

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  3. As an atheist, I’ve pondered this question a good deal.

    I don’t have definitive answers, but I can tell you my working conclusions:

    1. Morals are not ‘real’ in the sense that a chair is real, or a computer is real. Morals are, in fact, subjective. Made up. Heck, even if God were real, HIS morality would be made up and subjective…even if he had the power to force it on everyone else.

    2. I don’t give a damn if morals are subjective. I have morals. I apply them consistently. I generally judge people by my morals, although I’m not one of those douchebags who thinks it’s okay to go forcing his morals willy nilly on anyone I please. Some people -hate- my morals and think they’re horribly immoral. Others agree with me, and we tend to get along pretty well. I congregate with the ones I get along with, and avoid the ones I don’t. Nuff said.

    3. For a long time, I was a hard determinist. After studying quantum physics extensively, I’m not so sure anymore. I don’t think that ‘free will’ is definitely impossible with matter. I also don’t think it’s an absolute requirement for moral accountability. Who cares if what I do is decided by some…weird…hazy…Thing, called free will, or by deterministic processes? If free will exists, then I am that will, and I am accountable for myself. If free will does not exist, then I am a deterministic process, and accountable for myself. I’m not terribly concerned with the issue.

    4. Humans have no intrinsic value. The universe doesn’t care. In fact, nothing has intrinsic value. This shouldn’t be a foreign concept; what’s the second best known theory of economics, besides supply and demand? The theory of subjective value. The value of something, anything, is driven by what an individual evaluates its worth to be. Nothing more and nothing less.

    5. There is no ultimate accountability for being evil. That’s true. Mind you, if you’re -too- dastardly, someone will nab you someday, but you can be a real -jerk- and get away with it. Big deal. Don’t like someone else’s actions? What are you going to do about it? Me, I mostly don’t care. If someone is being too much of a douchebag, I’ll embargo them — socially, economically, etc. If they’re actively hurting, defrauding, or otherwise initiating coercive force against someone else, if I have the ability, I’ll step in and put an end to it. I’ll also pay for / support others who do the same. Let’s face it, in real life, that’s all that we get.

    6. There are only 2 reasons to be moral, as an atheist. To maximize pleasure (increase pleasure for doing the right thing, avoid displeasure from doing the wrong thing), and to avoid punishment. That’s really true. It’s actually the same in the Christian system — it’s just that the punishment is doled out all at once at the end of time for the most minor of infractions in a really nasty way.

    It’s good that you recognized so many basic truths about morality. The fact that they seem to be problematic to you is disappointing, if understandable.

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