Of the many points of contention existing between atheists and theists, the topic of morality frequently takes center stage. Theists often insist that without a god to anchor objective moral obligations and duties, humans are free to behave anyway they please. Atheists counter that they too espouse ethical positions, and that to ground morality in a mythical god does nothing to address the problem of ethics in a post-Christian world. The debate ultimately turns upon the origins of morality and whether these origins provide sufficient reason to compel morally responsible behavior.
No one denies that atheists routinely behave ethically; in many cases their behavior is identical to that of theists, and the Christian community ought to acknowledge their sincere desire to live responsibly. What remains uncertain is the legitimacy of their intellectual justification for privileging any one moral system over another. While we may certainly commend atheists for their eagerness to seek goodness over evil, we must gently remind them that their worldview makes no allowance for the existence of objective moral duties, and if they oppose theism they must also relinquish any claim to a pervading moral reality.
Why Bother Arguing?
This tactic is difficult for even some Christians to understand. Isn’t it enough that atheists are trying to do good? Shouldn’t we encourage them to behave ethically and stop quibbling over philosophical nuances? All valid points, but I think it absolutely essential that we demonstrate the inability of the prevailing secular models – namely materialism or secular humanism – to provide a cogent account of one of the most fundamental concerns confronting humankind: ethics. When the atheistic paradigm is shown to fall short of satisfying our need to order our interactions with one another, the intellectually honest atheist must chose to either abandon ethics altogether, or to reconsider theism. Driving the debate toward this dichotomy seems to me both compassionate and intellectually responsible.
The Problem of Objective Moral Duties
Are atheists really in such a philosophical predicament? Let us quickly consider their limited options. Given secular naturalism, materialism, physicalism or any similar atheistic worldview which precludes the existence of anything beyond corporeal matter, an atheist must derive his or her moral system from the physical processes and chemical interactions which constitute the material world. The primary mechanism responsible for practically all of these phenomena, claims the materialist, is natural selection. If the atheist wishes to provide a credible argument for the existence of objective moral duties she must not only show how natural selection produces ethical inclinations in human beings, but also demonstrate why we ought to continue abiding by those conditioned behaviors even after we have discovered their contingent, biologically derived origin in a random process of mutation. The problem is that we can easily imagine how the environmental constraints which allegedly shaped the evolution of humankind could have been different, which would have resulted in a different ethical impulse other than the one we experience now. In other words, there is nothing at all necessary about morality if its origins reside in natural selection. Morality, as defined under this naturalistic model, might change with the evolution of the species, and no compelling argument for its universal application is available.
Alternatively, the atheist might argue that the human being’s capacity to reason has enabled her to make decisions which benefit the species as a whole, and that each of us is morally obligated to behave rationally in order to secure an orderly, just civilization. Reason is certainly a powerful resource by which to evaluate contending ethical claims, but only when working in the service of an explicit goal. Only when atheists posit a goal, such as securing social harmony, promoting equality or perpetuating the species can they then apply reason to determine how to achieve it. But an end goal, or teleology, is precisely what is missing in any naturalistic account of the universe. Science and natural selection offer no indication of there being any goal to its processes, only random, directionless replication of DNA. Without a goal to focus our ethical behavior, any atheistic preference for one moral system over another reflects an arbitrary whim and cannot be defended philosophically.
Nowhere Left to Turn
What else can the secular naturalist offer in defense of objective moral duties? Unfortunately, nothing else remains but a frighteningly indifferent universe which allows for no distinction between any sorts of behavior, ethical or otherwise. And while it’s true that I have simplified the arguments to permit a quick overview, we need only turn to one of atheism’s preeminent thinkers to arrive at the same conclusion. In his final book before his death, Richard Rorty wrote, “There is however nothing in existence to which our moral convictions should try to correspond. […] The answer to the question ‘Are some human desires bad?’ is: No […] There is no such thing as intrinsically evil desire.” This refreshingly candid confession by a world-renown atheistic philosopher promotes the only intellectually consistent position atheism has on offer, moral relativism.
The sooner atheists confront the unsettling consequences of their position the sooner they are likely to turn to theism for answers. Christians have a responsibility to exemplify compassion when debating atheists, but we can also leverage the intellectual inconsistencies of their moral prejudices to draw them into a deeper consideration of theism.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)