Triablogue: a funeral for atheism

The Poached Egg linked to this striking post on Triablogue. (H/T Please Convince Me)


If there is no objective morality, then why are they arguing for anything? It’s not as if you’re supposed to be an atheist. Absent objective moral norms, there’s nothing you’re supposed believe or disbelieve.

Likewise, atheists not only admit, but insist on the fact that evolution is blind. It has no prevision or purpose. Brains weren’t made to think. Yet they still act as if their brains were made to think.

Likewise, they admit that what we value has no intrinsic value. Evolution has programmed us to project value on certain things. But that’s an illusion.

We value love. We value our parents, kids, spouse, and friends. Yet there’s nothing objectively right or good about loving friends and family. That’s just brain chemistry. The indifferent effect of a thoughtless process conditioning us to feel that way.

Pull its string and the doll cries. It doesn’t cry because there’s something worth crying about.

Atheists cry when a loved one dies. Yet they can retrace the process. They can see the pull-string. They can see evolution tugging their string. They don’t cry because the death of their loved one actually means anything. They cry because blind evolution pulled their string. A doll’s prerecorded cry at the demise of another doll.

They can see evolution take the doll apart. They can see evolution operating on themselves. They dissect themselves. Peel back the layers. Cloth. Metal. Plastic. A pile of parts. The more you look the less you find.

Atheists act as though these are throwaway concessions that don’t cost them anything in the long run. That having admitted that atheism has these consequences, it’s time to resume the argument. Get back to the issue at hand. Having another beer.

But there’s nothing more to say. At that point the atheist is sitting on a pile of spent rounds.

It’s like a doctor telling a man he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He has 2 weeks to live. Having got that out of the way, let’s get back to what he plans to do with the rest of his life.

But there is no “rest of his life” to plan for. At most, he can make funeral arrangements. Pick a coffin. Pick a tombstone. Prepay the florist. Buy a cemetery plot. Choose an epitaph.

Atheism ran out of road miles ago. There’s nowhere left to go. That’s the end of the line.

The argument that Hays makes seems to be that if there is no objective morality, then discovering the truth and persuading others of the truth and living according to the truth are no longer morally right.  Therefore, we have no moral obligation to do any of these things, on atheism.

The author, Steve Hays, engages with atheists who object to this argument in the comments to the post.

8 thoughts on “Triablogue: a funeral for atheism”

  1. Wintery,
    Did you see this essay I wrote a while back? It’s a summary of what I call the moral-transcendent argument for the existence of God. I’ve used it several times and I’ve never received a plausible answer. In the end, most atheists will admit that it is not objectively’ good’ to seek the truth and that they have no grounds for urging others to seek the truth.

  2. Thanks for the link, though it’s painful to see atheism misrepresented as moral anti-realism, and moral anti-realism misrepresented as nihilism, and …

    But perhaps I should have my discussion with the author of the original post. Incidentally, do you agree with most of the arguments you link to here, or are you just sharing arguments you find interesting?

    1. Are Dawkins etc. misrepresenting atheism below, Katie:

      “Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. “
      – Cornell University evolutionist William Provine, in a debate with Phillip E. Johnson

      The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory. (Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

      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. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

  3. Not all atheists have the same views of morality. Imagine if someone quoted a member of the Westboro Baptist Church and concluded that this is the view of all Christians! Sam Harris, for instance, is a moral realist – he thinks that there is an absolute moral law which we can understand through science.

    But even atheists who don’t believe that morality is a universal law, like the laws of physics, believe in morality. So to your quotes above, I would respond:

    1) The statements in the quote are controversial even among atheists. As I said, many are working on theories of ethics that don’t rest in a belief in God. Certain understandings of “free will” are impossible, but other understandings of free will certainly exist. I find the evidence for a deterministic universe convincing, so I believe in free-will-within-causality. As for ultimate meaning – most atheists would likely agree. We create our own meaning and significance in life – it’s not handed to us.

    2) This is literally true, but does not mean what you think it does. Like sight, and love, and beauty, morality arose through evolution. That does not mean we should reject it. Understanding the origins of morality is irrelevant to whether someone is a moral realist or anti-realist. Saying “morality comes from evolution” is not a rejection of morality, and people who assert it aren’t any more likely to behave immorally (for evidence, look at the Scandinavian countries, which have nearly 100% of the population accept evolution, and yet have crime rates only a fraction of those in the United States).

    3) Right. DNA doesn’t care. But WE do. For me, the realization that the universe wasn’t on my side – that there was no one there to make sure things turn out all right – that death was permanent – was a powerful call to behave MORE morally. If I hurt someone, there’s no guarantee they’ll get better. If, driving carelessly, I kill someone, they won’t enjoy an eternity in paradise.

    It’s because life is so fragile, and the universe so indifferent, that our obligations to each other are so great. I love my neighbor more than ever, knowing that there’s no God to love him. I donate more to charity. I buy food for homeless people. I treasure time with my family. It’s because the universe isn’t fair that we must be. That’s the sentiment Dawkins was trying to articulate here, though I find it’s as hard for theists to understand the empowering emotion of ultimate responsibility as it is for atheists to understand the emotion of faith.

    1. If you watch Sam Harris’ debate with William Lane Craig, what you find is that his preference for “human flourishing” is arbitrary, and he offers no defense of why his opinion should be favored over anyone else’s opinion. In short, he is a moral relativist, albeit a confused one. What he considers good and bad is really just whatever makes the majority of people feel good.

      The debate:

      The best way to assess an atheist is to put them in a debate. Then the truth comes out.

      Just FYI, on atheism, you are a machine out of meat. You have no more consciousness than a computer processing inputs and producing outputs – no consciousness and no free will:

      Furthermore, if evolution is how you got here, then your brain has no interest in truth, but on in survival and reproduction, which undermines your reasoning processes completely:

    2. 1. “We create our own meaning and significance in life… ”

      And if that meaning and significance happens to be embracing orthodox Christianity, why would atheists care? They have their meaning and significance and I have mine. So why does religion bother them?

      Or what if my meaning and significance is Islamism and I find its greatest fruition in killing infidels such as atheists? Certainly, atheists would not be amenable to it and may even fight back, but on what basis would they invalidate it?

      An atheist may respond that a murderer has no right to murder, but there is no substance to saying so. A murderer has the power to do so, and within the framework of evolution, that’s all there is to it.

      2. ” Like sight, and love, and beauty, morality arose through evolution.”

      No, they didn’t. What arose through evolution is beings that perceive things as being lovely, beautiful or moral. But there is no reason that these beings arose at all and no reason to think they will continue to think things are lovely, beautiful or moral.

      In fact, evolution offers no basis upon which to adjudge things lovely, beautiful or moral. Evolution simply produces beings (or not) that ascribe them. But that’s just random.

      Which invalidates the idea that morality can come simply from evolutionary processes. There are behavioral patterns that have emerged from evolution that may gain atheists’ approval, but so what? Mass murderers are equally the product of evolution, and so are cannibalistic cultures and the Taliban. Evolution is not a mind, it’s merely a process and all outcomes are equally its product. There is no basis within evolution theory to claim that one outcome is “better” than another, including reproductive advantage. Evolution does not care whether individuals or whole species or whole planetfuls of species reproduce or not. Live, die, evolution does not care.

      Your citation of Scandinavian countries’ morality does not support your argument. The moral basis of their cultures is Christianity. Their pre-Christian moral standards, were, ahem, different.

      3. “DNA doesn’t care. But WE do.”

      But there is no reason for you to care. It’s merely your choice, and your ability to make that choice arose from evolution. But equally valid is someone’s else’s ability to choose to grab everything he can while he’s still alive no matter the pain or suffering it causes others. On what possible basis can you adjudge him lesser than you? All evolutionary outcomes are equally valid (and even to say they are “valid” is to make an unjustifiable value judgment on the outcomes. Outcomes simply are, and that’s that, they are not really “valid” or “invalid.”)

      What if this other fellow fathers 20 children and you only three? Can you claim any moral superiority over him when the only “morality” that possibly has any basis in evolution is reproductive success – and, as I’ve said, evolution itself doesn’t even care about that?

      After all, Ghengis Khan, hardly a paragon of the virtues you have chosen, is said to be the ancestor of 175 million living men in Asia alone. Seems from an evolutionary basis, his choices worked pretty well for him.

      4. “It’s because life is so fragile, …”

      No, it’s not. There have been about 50 billion species on earth in its history and life is still doing fine. Species come and species go, but evolution does not care. And life itself goes on.

      “… and the universe so indifferent… ”

      A statement for which there is no evidence at all.

      “… that our obligations to each other are so great.”

      Evolution lays upon us no obligations of any kind. You consider yourself obligated to others. So what? See number 3, above.

  4. Much the same argument can be made to the argument that God does not exist because there is so much evil in the world. Well, if there is no God there is no evil, either, and no goodness – these are meaningless value judgments made, without basis, on mere events that happen at random. And to characterize them as either good or bad, evil or virtuous, is likewise a mere event that happened at random.

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