Jerry Coyne’s Evolution of Morality

by K. Gabriel Pagel

good without GodI found Dr. Coyne’s article, As Atheists Know, You Can Be Good Without God, to be a fascinating and engaging read. His story about instinctively helping the Federal Express delivery man was instructive as well as heartwarming. The article was articulate and I found much of it impressive.

However, I do not think Dr. Coyne has adequately critiqued the theist’s view of morality. While much of what he writes is emotive and seems to be true at first glance, he has either chosen to ignore, or has not fully understood the theist’s true position. Either way, the position he has so thoroughly knocked down has turned out to be a straw-man, while the true nature of the theist’s argument is alive and well.

A Misunderstanding of the Theist’s View

Coyne begins by explaining that many theists point to instinctual morality as evidence for God’s existence. He then argues the theist says evolution could not give instinctual morality, “for if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts.” He explains how many theists believe immorality is “laid at the door of Charles Darwin.”

While Coyne is right in his assertion that theists believe morality comes from God, I think he has attacked a straw man in saying theists believe immorality is the fault of Darwin, and that beasts would act like beasts. Some theists may believe that people would behave as beasts without God, and that may be true, but Coyne has taken on a very weak position here.

Thinking theists do not argue that atheists, like Charles Darwin, are immoral, but instead that if they are right that there is no God, that everyone, atheist and theist alike, is amoral. See, our view is that there is no such thing as morality if there is no transcendent grounding for these things we call morals. It is not that all atheists are bad, or that we would behave immorally if we evolved from beasts, but instead that none of us would have a standard to argue about what is right and wrong and wouldn’t know the difference between behaving “red in tooth and claw” and not, because there would not be any standard to differentiate between the behaviors without God.

A False Dichotomy

Dr. Coyne uses a familiar example in his attempt to show God is not necessary for the existence of morality. Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma, as it is often called, tries to show a problem in God’s commanding of morality. One side of the dilemma is that if God arbitrarily picks how we should behave, then he can change this anytime, meaning the good behavior was never truly good to begin with. On the other hand, if the morals we should follow are truly good and even God himself is subject to them, then they are to be followed, not God. According to Coyne, this dilemma shows that God cannot be the ground of morality. At first glance, his idea seems to be hard for the theist to overcome.

However, Plato’s dilemma is a false dichotomy. There are more than just the two options Plato has given us. A third option is that God has given these moral commands, not arbitrarily, and not because he is subject to them, but instead because morality is completely wrapped up in his character and personality. In other words, morality is the way it is, because God is essentially the way he is. Morals cannot change because they are an essential part of his nature, nor are these morals more important or essential than he, because they are wrapped up in his existence.

Dr. Coyne also accuses the Christian and Jewish God of sanctioning, even ordering, “immoral acts in the Old Testament.” He furnishes numerous examples of God’s immorality. Lack of space and time prevent a thorough defense of all of these examples, but it is not true that “Christians and Jews pass over” these passages with “judicious silence.” There have been numerous Christians who have endeavored to answer these types of objections. Not the least of which is the recent work by Paul Copan in Is God a Moral  Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. I refer Dr. Coyne to this work for many of these answers.

In response to Dr. Coyne’s idea that “religiously based ethics have changed profoundly over time,” I fail to see this as evidence for his point. The followers of God can be wrong about ethics just as much as anyone else, thus when someone misinterprets the Bible to defend immorality, it is not the ethics that have changed, but instead our understanding. Thus, when God’s people truly follow God’s moral system, many of them fought to see justice (i.e. William Wilberforce and others in regards to slavery). Coyne then makes the assertion that “secular improvements” forced religion to “clean up its act.” What were these improvements? It is easy to assert this, but he does not provide any evidence of such occurrences.

A Rocky Conclusion

In conclusion, Coyne explains that evolution and secular reasoning are supposedly enough to account for the morals we exhibit and follow. He explains our “big-brained” animals have reasons to behave nicely towards other like minded, bodied, and specied individuals. He explains that we need to throw out trivial ideas about what we “eat, read or wear,… or whom we have sex with” for more important “matters of genuine moral concern, like rape and child abuse.” After all, “isn’t it better to be moral because you’ve worked it out for yourself—in conjunction with your group—the right thing to do?”

Unfortunately, Coyne has fallen into a very common problem here. He has confused epistemology and ontology/metaphysics. He has explained very well that we can know what needs to be done, and that there are certain things that are really wrong (rape and child abuse), but he has not given a satisfactory reason for why this is the case.

I agree, rape and child abuse are wrong. However, Coyne has said we get it by evolutionary genetics, and maybe by figuring it out in conjunction with our group. While these explanations might be adequate in explaining how we know what is right and wrong, they are woefully inadequate in explaining why these actions are actually right and wrong. In other words, while he has shown reasons we might recognize rape and child abuse as wrong, he has not given us a reason that this recognition is the truth.

The examples of evolution and secular reasoning are not capable of grounding true morality. For example, if my group comes to the conclusion through secular reasoning that rape is wrong, but another group decides it is not only ok, but a preferred action to propagate their lineage, how can I argue against their idea? I might just be able to say “my group does not prefer rape,” but can I actually argue that it is wrong according to evolution or group consensus?

On the other hand, if rape is wrong because it contrary to the way God created the world, in accordance with his nature, then we have a universal grounding as the source for the knowledge that rape is actually wrong.
The idea that we can figure this out apart from some such source is wrong.

Because God is needed as the ultimate ground for morality, if he does not exist it is not clear that anyone, atheist or theist, can be good without God.

K. Gabriel Pagel is a Bible and History teacher at Upland Christian Academy in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He occasionally maintains posts at his blog Bringing Back the Tao

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