New Atheism Has a Real Problem with Morality

Shadow To Light

Michael Robbins has written a review of a book and uses the review to criticize the New Atheists and this greatly upset the militant atheist activist Jerry Coyne, who posted with a 3800 word reply that once again whines about atheists being “bashed.”

I’d like to focus on a small part of the dispute, as it nicely summarizes the New Atheist’s ability to deal with atheism’s morality problem.

Coyne provides the following quote from Robbins:

Nietzsche’s atheism is far from exultant—he is not crowing about the death of God, much as he despises Christianity. He understands how much has been lost, how much there is to lose.
. . . Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority if the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)
. . . The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments.

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That analysis is spot on. So how does Coyne respond?

Wrong again. Morality exists because a). we’ve evolved to have feelings of right and wrong and b). on top of our evolved emotions is overlain a veneer of secular morality derived from our preferences about how we should behave if we want a fair and harmonious society. As for us not being miserable and serious enough, life is too short, and there’s nowhere to go after it’s over. Many of us are perfectly happy with a secular morality, and don’t spend time bawling about its supposed “metaphysical grounding.”

That, in a nutshell, is the New Atheist response. Let’s now see just how weak it is as it collapses like a house of cards with some mild probing.

First, notice how Coyne reframes the problem to hide from the seriousness of the problem. Coyne thinks he need only explain how “morality exists.” But that ignores the problem that Robbins raised – if atheism is true, morality is incoherent.

Let’s look at Coyne’s first response…


New Atheism Has a Real Problem with Morality | Shadow To Light