Atheists and the Quest for Objective Morality
By Chad Meister
In a recent documentary entitled Collision, leading atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian theologian and pastor Douglas Wilson go on the road to discuss and debate this question: “Is Christianity good for the world?” It is a fascinating discourse covering a host of issues, but one theme continues to emerge throughout the narrative: whether atheism can provide a justification for morality. Atheists often make the claim that they can live good moral lives without believing in God.
Atheists often argue that they can make moral claims and live good moral lives without believing in God. Many theists agree, but the real issue is whether atheism can provide a justification for morality. A number of leading atheists currently writing on this issue are opposed to moral relativism, given its obvious and horrific ramifications, and have attempted to provide a justification for a nonrelative morality. Three such attempts are discussed in this article: Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s position that objective morality simply “is”; Richard Dawkins’s position that morality is based on the selfish gene; and Michael Ruse and Edward Wilson’s position that morality is an evolutionary illusion. Each of these positions, it turns out, is problematic. Sinnott-Armstrong affirms an objective morality, but affirming something and justifying it are two very different matters. Dawkins spells out his selfish gene approach by including four fundamental criteria, but his approach has virtually nothing to do with morality—with real right and wrong, good and evil. Finally, Ruse and Wilson disagree with Dawkins and maintain that belief in morality is just an adaptation put in place by evolution to further our reproductive ends. On their view, morality is simply an illusion foisted on us by our genes to get us to cooperate and to advance the species. But have they considered the ramifications of such a view? Each of these positions fails to provide the justification necessary for a universal, objective morality—the kind of morality in which good and evil are clearly understood and delineated.
Hitchens brings this challenge to believers: “Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.”1 Another atheist, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, offers a list of “pretty good” atheists—including, he says, Thomas Edison, George Orwell, Marie Curie, and Mark Twain—and notes that they “led exemplary lives of service,” contributed greatly to the social good,” and were “kind, considerate, altruistic, and caring.” He argues that “surely someone on this long list of atheists passes muster. That is enough to refute the claim that all atheists are immoral.”2 Daniel Dennett adds that “I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t believe in reward in heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do.”3
What’s fascinating about these claims is that they miss the real issue at hand…
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