Craig Hazen asks: “can atheists be good without God?”

Craig Hazen encourages Christians to challenge the New Atheists on their claims of being good without God (and claiming that God is a moral monster, too). How are they helping themselves to objective morality on atheism, so that these statements are more than just their personal opinions?

Hazen writes:

The primary technique the new atheists have adopted for dealing with the issue of the origin or grounding of the moral law is obfuscation. The new atheists are very fond of saying, “We don’t need God to be good.” Indeed, they often say that atheists, agnostics and skeptics often lead more wholesome lives than lifelong professing Christians. Now, theists should not be fooled by this. Our response should be, “Of course you don’t need God to be good — we’ve never claimed that you do.” You see, it is not knowledge (epistemology) of the moral law that is a problem — after all, the Bible teaches that this law is written on every human heart. Rather, the daunting problem for the new atheist is the nature and source (ontology) of the moral law. Here are some questions you can ask Richard Dawkins the next time you sit next to him on a bus:

• If everything ultimately must be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, help me understand what a moral value is (does it have mass, occupy space, hold a charge, have wavelength)?

• How did matter, energy, time and chance result in a set of objective moral values? Did the big bang really spew forth “love your enemy?” If so, you have to help me understand that.

• What makes your moral standard more than a subjective opinion or personal preference? What makes it truly binding or obligatory? Why can’t I just ignore it? Won’t our end be the same (death and the grave) either way?

The old atheists did not want to have to face questions like these, so they simply denied the reality of objective moral values. The new atheists have thrown the door open. Let’s not make it easy for them. Let’s ask the hard questions in a winsome and engaging way.

Where does the standard that allows atheists to “be good” come from on atheism? And where does the standard that allows them to judge God as evil come from on atheism?

Comedy: atheists making moral demands on atheists

I think that this article on The Other McCain is relevant to Hazen’s essay. The article explains the latest scandal in the atheist blogosphere: A 30-year old divorced atheist feminist tried to impose objective moral obligations on another atheist who hit on her in an elevator.

Excerpt:

There is nothing wrong with “don’t do that” as advice. The guy’s approach was clumsy and creepy. But it seems obvious, to me at least, that he was merely exhibiting a deficiency of social skills, rather than predatory menace.

While we cannot rule out the possibility that the guy is a serial killer with the bodies of 11 victims buried in his backyard, I’m inclined to believe he was just awkward and clueless. It was 4 a.m. and, in the famous words of Mickey Gilley, “The women all get prettier at closing time.” What was this guy’s blood-alcohol content? Was he at the beer-goggles stage where he saw Watson as Ingrid Bergman and thought he was Humphrey Bogart?

Well, as Watson says, “don’t do that.” But it’s a huge leap from “don’t do that” to a very broad and general accusation of misogyny and a complaint about being sexualized.

What set off the big brouhaha amongst atheists and feminists, however, was when Dawkins showed up in the comments of a blog to belittle Watson’s complaint by comparing her unpleasant elevator experience to the sufferings of women in the Islamic world. Once the feminists started screaming for blood, Dawkins’s fellow atheists were only too happy to throw him under the bus. The reaction was as if Dawkins himself had hit on Watson.

This is one of those episodes where the totalitarian impulse of feminism is glaringly apparent. Feminists ferociously suppress dissent and seek to impose a conformity of thought, so that anyone within the movement who expresses doubt about the dogma and the agenda is condemned as a heretic.

But I wanted to address the issue of atheism and morality in my comment to McCain’s post:

It’s hilarious to me that a woman can be an atheist, think the universe is an accident, think that there is no objective moral law based on a design for how humans ought to be, and then prescribe criteria for male behavior as if it is not just her personal opinion, but is a shared, objective standard that men should adhere to.

If the universe is an accident, then whatever is, is right. If matter is all there is, then there is no way that the matter “ought to be”. Matter just is.

Here’s Dawkins himself:
“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.”

Source:
http://www.physics.ucla.edu/~chester/CES/may98/dawkins.html

You can’t derive a prescriptive morality if nature is just about survival of the fitness. Either we are moral agents endowed with consciousness and free will (which requires a non-material soul) OR WE ARE ANIMALS. And animals are not moral agents. The customs and conventions of different social groups in different times and places in history are not objective moral duties. They are just like culinary customs and dress styles. And you can’t accuse anyone of being immoral on that kind of relativistic view. The worst she could say is “I don’t like it” or “that person is acting unfashionably”. She can’t say that anything is WRONG.

And I also thought this comment to McCain’s post was pretty funny:

There’s a possibility here that you’re overlooking, which is that the young lady might just have wanted for people to know–in a shrill, scolding, disapproving, school-marmish kinda way–that somebody was attracted to her. Because otherwise, you know, we would probably assume that nobody is.

Indeed. It makes me laugh when atheists assert that marriage, which is built on self-sacrifice and moral obligations, is somehow compatible with the view that morality is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes”, as atheist Michael Ruse says. Atheists reduce morality to personal opinions and cultural conventions that vary by time and place, and then they demand that other people act according to those preferences and conventions. “[They] laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in [their] midst. [They] castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful”, as C.S. Lewis argues in his essay “Men Without Chests”.

Recall the study that showed that Christians who attend church regularly have vastly lower divorce rates than average. Maybe that’s because they are constantly reminded in church that morality is rooted in God’s character, and not a figment of their imaginations that can be vetoed for selfish gain? That might be a helpful bit of knowledge to have in your worldview if you’re considering marriage, you know. Love requires that the idea of self-sacrifice be rationally grounded in some sort of objective design for the universe and us. You can’t get love from selfishness. You can’t get marriage from survival of the fittest. Not rationally, anyway. And when the chips are down, and obligations clash with self-interest, reason has a major part to play in determining how we will act. Either you ground morality or you cave in to selfishness, and marriages don’t last when you have no reason not to be selfish.

By the way, the best article refuting evolutionary explanations of morality is written by Mark D. Linville. It’s in the book “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“.

Hmmn, I wonder where this link goes.

This post was linked by:

18 thoughts on “Craig Hazen asks: “can atheists be good without God?””

  1. I think Greg Koukl nailed this when he recently said that atheists talking about being moral is like someone saying, “I can read but I don’t believe in writers.”

  2. This is totally missing the point.

    Morality (or Ethics) arises from our mutual interactions with each other and has a strong evolutionary history pre-dating humans. Chimps, Bonobo’s and many other animals show signs of a ‘do unto others’ rule. Animals gained these traits via the necessity/advantage of living in larger groups. If you study some behavioural biology you will soon get it. Even some colonies of single cells exhibit traits that facilitate group living (don’t kill a cell of my type; Provide nutrients to cells of my type).

    There is no need for a ‘foundation’. Existing (whereever we draw the arbitrary line) traits such as mothering in mammals can be seen as facilitating group living and thus primitive morality. Morality is a by-product of social evolution.

    1. Yes, that’s your atheistic view of morality – it’s conventional and varies by time and place, like clothing styles. To be “immoral” on atheist is the same as wearing unfashionable clothes. There is no more to it than that. And if you are powerful enough not to care about the consequences of being unfashionable, then there is no REASON to be moral. You’re a chimp, and you do what you see the other chimps doing. It’s monkey see, monkey do morality. And it resulted in 100 million dead innocent people in the 20th century alone, not even counting abortion.

      Meanwhile, Christians stop slavery and abortion with out authentic prescriptive objective morality. We think morality is REAL. You think it’s an ILLUSION.

  3. • If everything ultimately must be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, help me understand what a moral value is (does it have mass, occupy space, hold a charge, have wavelength)?

    • How did matter, energy, time and chance result in a set of objective moral values? Did the big bang really spew forth “love your enemy?” If so, you have to help me understand that.

    • What makes your moral standard more than a subjective opinion or personal preference? What makes it truly binding or obligatory? Why can’t I just ignore it? Won’t our end be the same (death and the grave) either way?

    Last, first: when I was a competitive distance runner, I knew that the end result was the same, no matter how hard I worked: i would cross the finish line tired, gasping for breath, and aching. The question was, why work harder in the interim? Obviously, some of the result would change, if you didn’t define the result as narrowly as “crossing the finish line”.

    Likewise, we all know that we are mortal, but life can be more pleasant, happier, and better for ourselves and others if we give of ourselves during the time. We have all benefited from what other people have given us – our parents, who gave us life and nurtured us from the start – so it’s no great logical leap to say that giving to others makes things better. The “Christian” response is incredibly amoral and devoid of any connection to reality: life on earth is NOT static. America is proof of that – a country with a quality of life that far surpasses almost anything else on earth, in any time period in the world.

    (Of course, this also leaves open the idea that the ONLY reason that Christians do anything is because they are afraid of being punished. Any moral philosopher would tell you that pleasure/pain is far below “because it’s the right thing to do” or “because it helps other people” on the moral scale.)

    1. You’re wrong. Christians do the ‘right’ thing because they have been given a new heart by God. Non Christians wouldn’t know what that feels like, so they have to just ‘go with the flow’ of most of society. But Christians have the heart of God, they really do care for others, and especially the eternal life of others. Christians want to see others in heaven, not hell for eternity. And that is a good and sincere thing that must come from the heart of God…because it sure doesn’t ‘come naturally’.

  4. You need to replace ‘monkey see monkey do” which is more like imitation (also very important for social learning; see Franz De Waal) with ‘Monkey Feel (empathise) monkey do”. In short, many animals (particularly mammals) have an evolved capacity to ‘feel’ what other beings ‘feel’ through our empathetic faculty. This allows the ‘do unto others’ rule to emerge between animals with this capacity. My reason to be moral is that I can feel the pain I am causing to others.

    This is far from being a fashion, it is much closer to a natural moral law. I certainly don’t view it as an illusion. The pain of other beings is as real as my own and should be avoided if possible.

    I see a lot of evidence that the morality in the bible and other sacred texts is also biologically/socially constructed. There is also a lot of evidence of cherry picking by adherents. If these are not the sources of your ‘real’ morality, then who decides what is moral and what is not? The thousands of interpretations of Christianity give a big indicator of the socially constructed nature of such ‘morals’. Slavery is a perfect example of this re-interpretation/construction. When all Christian nations and the bible once accepted slavery, how did we come to see this practice as immoral?

    As another example, using our empathy, we have also come to see the falsehood of homophobia (a practice derived only from religion and othering). There is no reason based on empathy that can reject homosexuality. Any look through the eyes of empathy reveals a practice that does not hurt the person involved in it and has no effect on those around that person. In short, homosexuality poses no threat to society or members of society and is therefore not immoral. It is our evolved faculty for empathy that allowed us to come to this conclusion.

    Your attitude about Atheist morality is also not supported by the evidence. All social scientific research to date has found atheists to be very moral individuals. Adding to this, Atheists have been involved in many human rights movements over the last century and therefore the connection between religion and morality is very questionable.

    Religion does not have a monopoly on morality. The only ‘foundation’ necessary is our evolutionary history.

    Even if you say that God is the foundation for morality, I am left with the question, what God? or which God? How is it that so many societies that do not worship your God have managed to create relatively moral and prosperous societies?

    1. How does a subjective experience of empathy create an objective moral obligation? Stalin was a consistent atheist, and he evolved empathy. But he decided that he preferred to pursue his own pleasure at the expense of others. It’s impossible to say that is wrong on atheism because there were no objective moral obligations in his way. The minute you say to him “you ought to do this based on your feelings of empathy”, it’s just your word against his. Personal preferences. He has feelings, you have feelings.

      These feelings evolved by a chance process, any other biological habit. Why should we choose to obey our feelings when it conflicts with our self-interest? People who are married with children divorce all the times, and hurt their children. Do you know why it’s not wrong on atheism? Because they can. Because they are strong enough to not care about their children. Because they are pursuing pleasure and there is no objective moral standard to tell them that pursuing pleasure and hurting others when it suits them is wrong.

    2. How is it that so many societies that do not worship your God have managed to create relatively moral and prosperous societies?

      The moral argument for God does not say one must worship the Christian God in order to live or develop a moral lifestyle. God has stamped us with a moral nature, i.e., made in His image. The theist is not saying that belief in God is necessary to act morally, but that the existence of God is necessary for objectivity of morality.

  5. “Why should we choose to obey our feelings when it conflicts with our self-interest?”

    My answer is that we often don’t…

    …whether we are Christian or Atheist, and that’s why social construction occurs between us, so ‘We’ can decide what is moral at that point (though not always successfully as in many examples we can point out). To me, morality is variable (perhaps situational), look around you, people (of any persuasion of thought/religion) decide what is Ok based on the situation and there are varying degrees of ‘pain’ that you can cause an other.

    What if the parents being together was really bad for the children. I have heard of many children who would be better off if their parents were divorced. The decision to divorce is complex and based on many factors including the continued welfare of the children (whether the parents stay or go). Divorce has consequences for people around you, just like any other action. Its another ‘do unto others’ situation albeit a very complex one that is not easily resolved (usually involving more than 3 people).

    You have a very biased and unsupported view of how Atheists actually act, I think you should attempt to either meet some Atheists (without being confrontational) or read some research on what we know about Atheists, instead of stereotyping.

    The evidence shows that Atheists do act morally in the same proportions (if not higher) than other ‘denominations’ and that other religions manage to be moral too. So my question for you is this:

    How do they do this if the assumption that your God is necessary for morality is actually true?

    1. Alan,
      The question is not ‘Do Atheists act moral?’, but ‘What is the foundation for morality if one is an Atheist?’

      The answer is ‘Nothing.’

      Why do Atheists then act moral? 1)They live in a society dominated by Christian concepts. 2)There is a natural moral law built into all of us which even the Atheist is aware of. 3) Going to jail, or being the target of public disdain really is painful. 4) Some Atheists wish to prove that they can be moral without God. 5) Some Atheists create moral theories, that even while such theories have huge holes in them, are persuasive to the person who wants to be persuaded.

      Roxanne,
      That is your opinion. Conan the Barbarian would have laughed at you.

      …What is good in life? To hear the lamentations of your enemies’ women…

      1. “They live in a society dominated by Christian concepts.”

        Atheism is not restricted to the west, there are other religions in the world and therefore not every Atheist is exposed to Christian concepts.

        “There is a natural moral law built into all of us which even the Atheist is aware of.”

        Yes and it is an evolved process that requires no foundation but that of evolution and biology.

        “Going to jail, or being the target of public disdain really is painful.”

        yeah sure… But for anyone right? Where is the necessity for a foundation here (beside that of society)

        “Some Atheists wish to prove that they can be moral without God”

        Of course we do, how would you like to be called immoral?! And the truth is that we can be, we are proving it everyday.

        “Some Atheists create moral theories, that even while such theories have huge holes in them, are persuasive to the person who wants to be persuaded.”

        What makes a religious moral theory immune to this claim? Personally I think that religious moral ideas (including that of a ‘foundation’ which just allows powerful people to make up whatever rules they want) are far inferior to those that have been developed under secular cultures.

        1. You say the moral law “is an evolved process that requires no foundation but that of evolution and biology.” Really?

          Then is God the source of evolution and biology? :)

  6. Atheists need to be reminded that “being good” never gets anyone to heaven.

    They just need to be asked what is the source of their choice to be good? Where do they think their desire to do ‘right’ (vs wrong) comes from? Are they just programmed by the big bang to either be good….or bad?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s