Morality in the Atheistic Worldview

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  • April 22, 2010

Last week, we hosted an event called Collision. About twenty of us gathered to watch a film documenting the debate and philosophical exchange between atheist Christopher Hitchens and evangelical Doug Wilson. Siby led the night for us and I’ll let him give the recap. While there were so many interesting conversations in the room that followed the film, the one that stands out to me the most a week later is the issue of morality. How does morality work in the atheistic worldview? I’m not asking a question that hasn’t been asked before or making a point that hasn’t already been made by more brilliant minds. Never having taken a course on philosophy, I’m new to the game and thinking through it afresh.

If there is no God, no moral law-giver, no external standard by which we are to live, how do we conclude what is moral and what is immoral? How do we decide on what is right and wrong? How do we choose between our varying internal impulses? How do we distinguish between good and evil? If we are the result of Darwinian natural-selection, then why are we called to live in ways that are different than animals? If only the strong survive, why care about the poor, the weak, the oppressed? Why do we honor the person who sacrifices personal safety and even sacrifices self for the sake of a weaker person? Where does that fit in with natural-selection? Has natural-selection wired in us this moral ethic? And if so, are we comfortable in saying that we will eventually evolve past it? That when it no longer profits our species to care for the weaker brother, that we will be okay with ignoring him or even in actively destroying him?

In my brief experience, there are generally two responses to such inquiry. One is to take a defensive posture and begin listing all the moral atheists and all the immoral theists throughout history. Example after example is given of religious people who are responsible for great evil in the world. The Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11 and other horrific moments in history are all cited as examples of evils perpetrated by religion. But the problem is that while this is all true, it’s merely clever maneuvering; a slight-of-hand kind of trick. It doesn’t address the real issue, but evades the question. The theistic worldview does not posit that there are no moral atheists or that there are no immoral theists. Not at all. A theist will gladly acknowledge that there are numerable kind, loving, peaceful, generous, moral people who do not believe in God. A theist will further concede that there are numerable unkind, unloving, hostile, harsh, immoral people who believe in God. (Though of course, to be fair, an atheist would have to concede the same – namely that there are plenty of good people who believe in God and plenty of bad people who don’t. History certainly verifies that much.) However, that doesn’t answer the question of morality for the atheist.  It doesn’t speak to the ultimate source of morality in the atheistic worldview. The problem is that words like kind-unkind, loving-unloving, peaceful-hostile, good-evil, have no objective meaning in a worldview based on natural selection. The non-theists’ dictionary has no entries for such words. The atheist who is consistent with his worldview, though he recognizes goodness when he sees it, has no ground in which to define it or to call for it. Likewise, the atheist who is consistent with his worldview, though he recognizes evil when he sees it, has no ground in which to define it or speak out against it. The question is on what ground does morality  ultimately stand in an atheistic worldview?

The other response to this inquiry is to answer it, but to do so in a way that is highly unsatisfactory. For example, well-known atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins states,

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. 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. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

That’s a scary proposition isn’t it? What I respect about this statement is that it seems to follow atheism to its logical end. That if there is no God, if there is nothing but electrons and selfish genes, if there is no purpose – then there should be no thought of justice, of good, or of evil. To hold onto an atheistic position to it’s logical conclusion is to conclude that there is no good and no evil. The Holocaust, genocide, racism, rape – if Dawkins is right, the atheist ultimately has no firm ground to call any of this evil or to call for it to stop. To be consistent with his worldview, an atheist is doomed to “pitiless indifference.” The non-theistic or atheistic worldview necessarily leads to nihilism. Rational consistency demands it. Yet it is puzzling that most non-theists do not live this way. They are not consistent with their worldview – thankfully. Rather they strongly believe in things as though they were good and in things as though they were evil. To be immoral in the Christian worldview is a violation of its precepts. To be immoral in the atheistic worldview is logically supported.

Doug Wilson said in the film that he agrees with many of the denunciations that Hitchens makes and considers reprobate many of the things that Hitchens does. Only, he does not see the moral framework that gives Hitchens the footing on which to make any denunciations or consider things reprobate. “You have a good house, but no foundation. It’s just sand under there.” Well said.

I’ll end with this. One of the striking things about the film was the cordial and even friendly relationship between Hitchens and Wilson. They have two completely different worldviews. They differ passionately on virtually every point. And yet, they seem to enjoy one another. It was a good look at what we’re trying to get at with nights like the one we hosted. Our hope is to come to the table with our convictions, dialogue about them passionately seeking to win the other, treat each other respectfully, and to leave as friends.

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About Ajay Thomas

Ajay lives in Philadelphia with his wife Shainu and their kids Hannah and Micah. He is responsible for preaching and vision as a pastor at Seven Mile Road.

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