UPDATE: Welcome readers from the the Western Experience! Thanks for the link, Jason!
Last week, I posted a list of 13 questions that Christians could use to get discussions going with their atheist friends. We got 10 responses to the questions. Yesterday, we took a look at the minimal requirements for robust, prescriptive morality. Today, we’ll evaluate atheism, as represented by the 10 respondents to the survey, to see whether the minimal requirements are rationally grounded by atheism.
1) Objective moral values: NOT GROUNDED
All ten respondents stated that moral values have no mind-independent existence. In other words, they are purely subjective. Eight of the respondents thought that each person should decide for themselves what is moral for them, and 2 thought that each person should act in accordance with the arbitrary social conventions of the culture where they lived. Those standards change over time and in different places, of course. They are arbitrary.
2) Objective moral duties: NOT GROUNDED
All ten respondents said that there was no such thing as objective moral values, and so there can be no objective moral duties either. Most people said that their own preferences were the source of subjective moral values. But a duty owed to oneself can be canceled when things get difficult. The best attempt was the social contract answer, but this fails because the social contract is arbitrary. There is no reason to limit your happiness because of an arbitrary social contract, so long as you can escape the social consequences of disobedience.
3) Moral accountability: NOT GROUNDED
Nine respondents did not believe in God. The one who did believe said that God did not care about our actions. Therefore, there is no accountability for the decisions we make. So long as we can avoid the consequences for violating the arbitrary fashions of the time and place where we live, nothing will happen to us if we put our happiness above the needs of our feelings of “empathy” for others.
4) Free will: NOT GROUNDED
All ten respondents were materialists, and therefore did not believe in minds or souls independent of the material that makes up the body. Therefore, everything that humans do is fully determined by the genetic programming and the sensory inputs. To expect moral choices or moral responsibility on atheism is like expecting the same from a computer. Physical systems don’t have free will. There is no “ought to do” for lumps of matter that are not designed by anyone for any specific purpose.
5) Ultimate significance: NOT GROUNDED
All ten of the respondents were materialists, so life ends in the grave for them. Scientists have discovered that in the future, the amount of usable energy, such as the heat and light emitted by stars, will run down to zero, the “heat death of the universe”. What this means is that the entire universe will become cold and lifeless at some point. Humans are therefore doomed to extinction no matter how they act.
On atheism, there is no reason for an atheist to constrain his pursuit of happiness. If he does take into account the needs of others because of feelings and emotions (“empathy”), he is acting irrationally. Feelings are not logical arguments. There is no such thing as a “moral” action on atheism, all actions are undertaken for pleasure or personal preference.
In the survey results, none of the ten respondents could oppose slavery on rational grounds, none of the ten respondents could perform self-sacrificial acts on rational grounds, and none of the ten respondents could explain why murder was wrong, on rational grounds. They may have chosen the right alternative, but only based on emotion, not on reason.
As Greg Koukl argues, morality is not rationally grounded on atheism. Now, it is true that atheists act inconsistently in ways that seem to be moral. This is because:
- Judeo-Christian morality is still floating around in out Western society, even though it is on the way out due to materialist persecution of public religious expression and the Judeo-Christian theology that grounded morality
- Regardless of what materialism says, God made the universe with objective moral values, and humans with free will, so even if people say that morality is relative and that they are machines, they may still act inconsistently to do the right thing, since their views are mistaken, especially if the costs are minimal
But when the heat is really on, they will cave in to their desires. Rational grounding is needed in order to do the right thing when there are consequences for doing the right thing.
You can get the full story on the requirements for rational morality in a published, peer-reviewed paper written by William Lane Craig here. You can also hear and see him present the paper to an audience of students and faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2008. The audio is clipped at 67 minutes, the video is the full 84 minutes. There is 45 minutes of Q&A, with many atheist challengers.
The video of this lecture is the best material you can get on this issue, and the Q&A from the hostile audience is vital to the lesson. More debates on atheism and morality can be found on the debate and lecture page.
You can find a post contrasting the morality of an authentic, consistent Christian with an authentic, consistent non-Christian here. A post examining how atheism is responsible for the deaths of 100 million innocent people in the 20th century alone is here. A post analyzing the tiny number of deaths that religion was responsible for is here.