Anti-theists avoid morality question

Recent years have seen an influx of anti-religious publications in the Western world, as well as a growing audience for such publications. From Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” to Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great,” anti-theistic works have poured into bookstores as atheists in the United States and elsewhere have taken on a more strident tone in public discourse. Unfortunately, their approach has been one characterized more by noisy rhetoric than reasoned arguments, and they have particularly failed in their attempt to present a coherent system of morality that in no way rests on a belief in the supernatural.

Of course, Christians and other theists have raised the objection that naturalistic materialism — the notion that only the physical world exists — can provide no foundation for morality. That’s not to say that naturalists cannot behave morally, but merely that they can have no real and consistent reason for behaving morally. As this has been a long-standing and widespread objection to naturalism, it would seem only reasonable to expect atheists to devote careful attention to the question of morality.

What one will find in much of the recent anti-religious literature, however, is not a meticulous justification of naturalistic morality, but instead a flick of the wrist and a dismissal of the issue. At least, this is what we find in Sam Harris’ latest book, “Letter to a Christian Nation.” With a brief mention of vague psychological principles and a couple utilitarian-sounding platitudes, Harris dodges the objection as though it were not worthy of much attention.

Christopher Hitchens does make an effort, albeit a feeble one, to justify naturalistic morality, arguing that “ethical imperatives” are “derived from innate human solidarity.” If nothing else, the very vagueness of this claim should give us pause. Richard Dawkins attempts to explain morality in terms of our genetic makeup, contending that we have inherited certain “altruistic” genes. The problem with all of these nonreligious explanations of morality is that while they may tell us where our sense of morality came from (e.g., our genes, psychological principles, innate human solidarity), they do not tell us why we truly ought to be moral — why we should give any heed to our sense of morality at all.

If we were to ask Dawkins why a rapist ought not to rape, I imagine we would be a bit disappointed if he retorted, “Because our genes tell us not to.” Obviously, some other gene or physical force (if we assume naturalism) must be compelling this rapist to commit the crime, and Dawkins can give no reason why this rapist should follow the altruistic instinct rather than the instinct to rape. Perhaps Hitchens will chime in, “We’re all in this together; we’ve just got no choice but to do what is good for society.”

But the fact is that we do have a choice. C.S. Lewis puts the matter nicely: “If a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no good replying, ‘in order to benefit society,’ for trying to benefit society, in other words being unselfish (for ‘society’ after all only means ‘other people’), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour.” Naturalism can say nothing to the wealthy businessman who exploits the poor and lives in luxury to the end, nor to the traitor who accepts a bribe and gets off scot-free. All we can say is, “You ought not to have exploited the poor,” “You ought not to have accepted the bribe,” and naturalistic materialism gives no basis for this ought.

Ultimately, there are two fundamental questions about morality: Is it real, and if so, where does it come from? If naturalistic materialists answer the first question in the negative, then they have nearly forfeited the game — I think all of us would rightly say that murder, for instance, is truly wrong, and that helping others is truly right.

Thus, most naturalists, including those mentioned above, would reply in the affirmative. The problem then becomes the second question: Where does this morality come from? What are these phenomena called right and wrong? Sure, Darwinian evolution might be capable of producing a number of altruistic-seeming instincts, but what is this idea of altruism in the first place? What is the measuring stick against which we measure our various instincts?

Until they argue convincingly for a naturalistic foundation for morality, anti-theists like Dawkins and Harris would do best to admit with Ivan Karamazov that “there is no virtue if there is no immortality” — or, more to the point, there is no morality if there is no God.

Bryce Taylor is a freshman in Silliman College.


  • Vimut

    What the believers fail to understand is that morality is a social and not religious issue. Moreover, morality is a dynamic feeling which changes with times and culture. For example - in the Church of Latter Day Saints marrying more than one person was not considered immoral but would be considered now. Jesus Christ consorting with a prostitute may not have be immoral at that time whereas now the very mention is blasphemous.

    There may or may not be the so called "altruistic genes" but we do have the Darwinian survival instinct which instructs us to preserve our own genes and survive as a species… hence condemnation of murder, rape etc. by the collective society.
    Mass murders, wars etc are brought about not by atheists but by men who profess to be religious! Religion and irrational behaviour are causing suffering and death on humanity on similiar scales as natural calamities.