Last week, I happened upon a Twitter discussion between Justin Brierley, who hosts the Christian radio show in the United Kingdom called Unbelievable?, and an atheist named Tom. The topic: the nature of morality, good, and evil. I couldn’t resist jumping in.
What Do We Do With “Good” and “Evil?”
If the phrase “the problem of evil” sounds familiar, you have likely heard it raised by atheists and skeptics as an objection to the existence of God. Namely, how could the claims that “a good God exists” and “evil exists in the universe” both be true at the same time?
Yet, Tom attempted a different route to disprove God’s existence by denying the existence of objective morality altogether.
— Tom T. Atheist (@TomTheAtheistOn) June 19, 2017
The nature of Twitter made it difficult to follow the argument being made by Tom and several of the other atheist interlocutors who would join the conversation, but Tom’s argument ultimately resembled most atheistic arguments that focus on morality.
Atheism’s Attempt to Debunk Morality
The first question for a claim like Tom’s should be: “How does one who claims that morality does not exist make sense of humanity’s deep, moral sensibility?” Several atheists who argue along these lines make an appeal to evolution and the development of empathy.
Just to be clear, empathy is defined as:
Since human beings experience empathy (the argument goes), we are able to build societies and establish ground rules for how we should treat one another. These ground rules then become “morality.” Given this atheistic/naturalistic perspective, morality does not exist per se.
Morality is really only the language that we use to describe certain behaviors. We label “good” those behaviors that are beneficial for human flourishing, and those which are negative for human flourishing are called “bad” (or “evil”).
This line of reasoning sounds appealing, especially to those who hold to an evolutionary view of human origins. Yet, even conceding the point about this description of the development of empathy and morality, the argument has at least one major flaw.
The Argument’s Misfire
The argument appears to commit what is known as the genetic fallacy; simply because one might be able to describe the origins of a concept does not mean that the merit of the idea has been either established or destroyed.
The atheist can claim, “Human beings developed empathy throughout the course of evolution, and our ability to empathize with others enabled us to build societies.” This explanation assumes that human flourishing is a good thing, but questions about the damage humans do to the environment has led some to argue that it is not.
Secular ethicist Peter Singer even called empathy a potential trap in his review of Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy:
Empathy and other emotions often motivate us to do what is right, but they are equally likely to motivate us to do what is wrong. In making ethical decisions, our ability to reason has a crucial role to play. (emphasis mine)
Upon what basis, however, are we using our reason to navigate through complex questions about morality? We don’t just reason about such claims in a vacuum.
The Practical Implications of Atheistic Subjectivity
Materialism, naturalism, or physicalism typically understand the universe to be completely and totally devoid of any purpose or design. World renowned atheist Richard Dawkins makes the point rather clearly about what this means for morality in River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, 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, nor any justice. (emphasis mine)
The ground upon which we might establish moral claims has been completely obliterated within this Darwinian view of life. Sure, the atheist can claim that empathy and a moral sense improves humanity’s chances at survival, but try explaining that to the next powerful dictator who would spit on empathy to make a move for power.
If he succeeds in destroying “empathetic humans” in creating his new world order, was he right or wrong to behave in the way that he did? Let’s assume that, though he lacks empathy, he is no imbecile and that he actually succeeds in creating a sustainable regime by controlling energy, the economy, and the population.
Has he done anything wrong even though he has destroyed countless lives and trampled over individual liberty in order to accomplish his ends of creating this “sustainable society?”
Consider Hitler’s Germany. For all of its horrific brutality, Hitler’s war machine came pretty close to winning WWII because of the Third Reich’s cold-hearted efficiency. Had an accident of history or the accident of “blind physical forces and genetic replication” allowed him to succeed, would he have been morally wrong in doing so?
Under an atheistic view, the answer to that question would seemingly have to be either “indifferent” or “yes because the fittest survived.”
Finding the Ground
Darwinism’s “pitiless indifference” affords humanity no effective moral response to totalitarianism. To be sure, if atheistic Darwinism is true, then human beings who ascribe to these views of “herd morality” or “slave morality” are ripe to be overthrown by a Nietzschian ubermensch, or “over human,” who would shed such pathetic views of morality and move society forward unencumbered by such meagre ideas like “good” and “evil.”
Without an Arbiter who is supreme over and Creator of all Reality, then Michel Foucault was right; all attempts at defining truth are merely moves made to achieve or maintain power.
But, if instead of defining truth on our own, human beings are creatures designed to discover that Arbiter’s Truth, then the game changes substantially. Morality is no longer a semantic exercise crafted as a power grab, but rather an operation in uncovering the Truth of the universe.
Yet, what if that Arbiter is not actually a Person? What if the Arbiter is merely the naturalistic forces of “pitiless indifference?”
If that were the case, then the ground would actually be air. Reality itself would have no ultimate foundation whatsoever; it would be a sheer accident. All appearances of design would be illusory, and yet, there are agents within this supposedly purposeless universe who crave purpose and eagerly seek to find or, if possible, create it.
Pathetically, those agents scramble and writhe to create meaning where none could possibly exist. After all, if one hasn’t created the universe, then one is only a finite particle within that universe’s domain. Only a fool would think it possible to ever control that which has generated him.
But what if that Arbiter actually is a Person who has a mind, a plan, and a design? If a personal Arbiter has created the universe, then we might finally discover the ground for morality and even reality itself.
Now, has anything been proven from this line of reasoning? If we’re talking about the nature (or even the existence) of the Arbiter, then no, nothing has been proven.
But it does seem that it has been clearly demonstrated that both purpose and morality are rendered subjective, meaningless non-factors in the universe without the existence a supreme, personal Arbiter or Creator–namely God.
So, if God does not exist, then what precisely is the point of making an argument against that God’s existence?
If the believers in God actually have a perspective that seriously hampers humanity in some way, there is still no way that even a flourishing humanity could survive the eventual heat death of the universe.