If you’re a New Atheist don’t have a conniption. Questions like this often arise in debates about atheism and morality; it is important to clarify why some theists believe that morality provides evidence against atheism. But of course you can (and almost certainly do) condemn genocide and barbarism. A moral horror of events like the Holocaust seems hard-wired into our souls – indeed the perpetrators themselves struggled to justify their deeds and many suffered severe psychological trauma as a direct result of their actions. Conceivably, we do not need to provide evidence or argument to know that sadistic cruelty is wrong –such a belief is basic and foundational.
The theist’s real question is: “can atheism provide a good, persuasive argument for the existence of objective moral values?” After all, you cannot condemn the Holocaust as an objective moral evil if you do not believe in objective morality. It seems to me that this presents New Atheists with a significant problem. For a value to be objective it must meet four conditions[i]. First, the value claim must either be true or false. Second, the value must be universal. If something is good, it is good everywhere and always. Third, the value cannot be the product of our desires. Bloodshed does not become good because a society decides to worship war; bravery does not become bad because we prefer life and comfort to compassion and sacrifice.
Finally, to be objective in the intended sense, the value must also be part of the “furniture of the universe.” Goodness and rightness must be as real as electromagnetism and gravity. Theists have no problem accounting for objective values. They are rooted in God and his desires. Evil is irrational and chaotic; it seeks to destroy, corrupt and pervert. A perfectly rational creator simply could not desire evil. Goodness, then, is what reflects God and what God desires. To put that another way, as the rational creator of everything else that exists, God is identical with the greatest good. Our obligations are rooted in the commands of God (which can be discovered through conscience, reflection and revelation).
New Atheism seems wedded to “scientism” and “naturalism”; therefore it has little room for objective moral values. Scientism is the belief that the physical sciences can exhaustively describe everything that is real. “Naturalism” is the belief that the space-time world is all that there is; the world is merely particles and the void. Values like “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong” and “beautiful” can’t be measured or quantified and they are not composed of subatomic molecules. It is difficult to see how moral values could exist in such a universe. As Michael Ruse[ii] puts it:
I think the substantive ethics, claims like “love your neighbor as yourself,” are simply psychological beliefs put in place by natural selection in order to maintain and improve our reproductive fitness. There is nothing more to them than that. They have no ultimate backing.[iii]
But why can’t atheists ground objective morality in facts about human experience? Couldn’t we simply define the “bad” as “that which causes the greatest amount of suffering” and the “good” as “that which causes the greatest amount of pleasure”? One immediate difficulty is that this conception of the good puts the dignity and rights of the individual person at risk: what if the suffering or elimination of a minority could bring about a utopian existence for the majority? That’s not a persuasive moral vision.
Furthermore, this utilitarian conception of “the good” struggles to provide any moral guidance whatsoever. It is impossible to give “the greatest amount of pleasure” any meaningful content, because there is no way to measure and compare the relative worth of a bewildering variety of human experiences. How do we measure and compare the pleasures of walking on the beach to enjoying a cup of coffee? Is it better to enjoy Mozart or Picasso? Dickens or a sunset? Music or ice cream? Bravery or compassion? There is no unit that we can use to give each experience a specific value.
We cannot use “pleasure” to establish the nature of the greatest good or even to recommend one course of action over another. But, instead of measuring pleasure, naturalists could number the satisfied preferences of rational agents. So, the more rational agents who have their goals satisfied, the better the world is. But there clearly are intelligent, thoughtful agents with bad desires. Why prefer altruism to selfish capitalism? Why should the desires of a moral saint be preferred to an amoral politician? It is absurd to put egoism on a par with sacrificial love; but it is question begging to assume that the latter is more rational than the former.
Perhaps New Atheists could argue that moral truths are what an ideal observer, who is well-motivated, and who has all the relevant facts, would desire for each of us. So we simply imagine what this observer would want, and that gets us a definition of the good. But if we don’t live in a moral universe, how do we know that virtues like courage and compassion, justice and mercy, won’t always be in conflict? That is, why should we assume that an ideal observer could ever reach a conclusion about the best course of action if our universe was not designed with morality in mind? And how can the imagined desires of a hypothetical observer have any authority?
Indeed, is there any moral authority in the universe if the New Atheists are correct? Are there any moral duties? Morality is meant to “override” other considerations; it does not make suggestions, but imposes obligations.Suppose one way of life is objectively more desirable than all the others. Why should I be obligated to pursue that life if it interferes with my own desires? If I have no purpose, and if there are no consequences for ignoring moral values from time to time, why shouldn’t I pursue selfish pleasure when it is convenient? Why shouldn’t a society place profit above justice? In the absence of God, who do we have duties to when no-one else is watching?
Evolution also creates difficulties for New Atheists because they consider it an unguided, purposeless process. Suppose there are objective moral values; perhaps they exist in some Platonic realm or supervene on logical truths. How could humans have knowledge of these moral truths? Natural selection might favour cognitive systems that gave animals an accurate picture of the physical world. But what possible reproductive advantage could knowledge of abstract moral truths bring? In fact, knowledge of the good might be a considerable disadvantage (apart from anything else, it would be a waste of cognitive equipment).
We could easily have evolved a completely different moral system ; we might have evolved to honour cruelty and hatred. Again, Michael Ruse outlines the implications of the conjunction of evolution and atheism for ethics:
So what I’m suggesting is that we humans could as easily have evolved a completely different set of substantive moral norms. This poses a difficulty for those who want to claim that morality has some objective justification, that is to say the “moral realists.”[iv]
As we noted above, objective values are universal. If callousness is objectively evil, it would remain evil even if we had evolved a different set of moral desires. Or if callousness is an objective virtue that we all should nurture, it would be a virtue no matter what our evolutionary history. Now, why should we assume that we just so happened to evolve to believe in values that are objectively morally true? God could shape our natures to moral ends; but in God’s absence these values would have no power to shape or move matter. If New Atheism is true we should be sceptical of all our moral beliefs.
At most, New Atheists can say that the Holocaust does not meet with their own moral approval; it does not fit with their own subjective moral values. Perhaps they can add that it was irrational– although most would want to say it would be unspeakably evil to murder six million even if it was beneficial for the rest of the human race. New Atheism cannot make room for morality – it can only endorse the cultural tastes of its founders. If there is more to morality than cultural trends and genetic hardwiring New Atheism cannot explain it.
[i] William Wainwright Religion and Morality (Kindle Location 727). Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ruse is not a “New Atheist” but is certainly wedded to naturalism.
[iii] In God & Morality: Four Views ed. R. Keith Loftin. (Kindle Locations 639-641). Kindle Edition.
[iv] God & Morality: Four Views ed. R. Keith Loftin. (Kindle Locations 651-653). Kindle Edition