New Atheism’s Moral Meltdown

by Saints and Sceptics

A little while ago, Jerry Coyne replied to our critique of his approach to ethics. We’re not at all convinced by Coyne’s response, which essentially reduces to a rant about religious fundamentalism. Let us restate our case for the sake of clarity. Moral values seem quite at home in a theistic world-view; moral values do not fit in the New Atheist’s world-view. Therefore, any theist -be they merely a philosophical theist, or Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian – has a better explanation for morality than Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or their acolytes[i].

We provide evidence for Christianity, and arguments for Christian faith, elsewhere on our website. [ii]And we are not very interested in advancing a political programme; we are much more concerned that people come to the Son of God for personal forgiveness and new life. Mr Coyne can reject our concerns as nonsensical; but that won’t help him explain morality. So we’ll look past most of the bluff and bluster in his reply, and focus once more on the central issues.

To explain morality is to explain principles of value and conduct. There is a wide consensus that moral principles have at least five traits. They are obligatory– they tell us what we ought to do in a given situation; they guide our actions. Such obligations are overriding – they take precedence over other considerations, be they aesthetic, legal, or political. They are also universalizable –they apply to all who are in relevantly similar situations; if it is immoral for Coyne to “kick an innocent dog” then it is immoral for everyone “to kick an innocent dog.” If there is an exception to that rule – perhaps we might be allowed to kick an innocent dog to save its life – then the exception counts for everyone in a relevantly similar situation.

Moral principles must be liveable – they must be able to motivate us to change our behaviour.  Moral principles must be convincing and plausible. The life they prescribe must be achievable[iii]Finally, moral principles are deep– they do not only prescribe acts and evaluate consequences. Moral principles also deal with our characters, our motives, our goals, the communities in which we live and the traditions that shape us. Now, Coyne might be able to explain the origin of moral feelings – call these “passions for the common good.” He might explain how such passions are good for the species. He might be able to explain how reciprocal altruism benefits the individual organism.The difficulty for Coyne, and New Atheism in general, is moving from moral feeling and social utility to deep, universally binding principles.

Suppose we have a fear of spiders; possibly, this fear has served the human race well in the past. However, it does not serve us well in our present circumstances.  Furthermore, the beliefs incorporated in our fear are false: the spiders of Ireland are a harmless bunch. Our fear is irrational and inappropriate. Now, as we’ll see, Coyne denies that humans have moral responsibility. This means that most of our moral feelings – feelings of duty, guilt, obligation, shame, honour, praise – incorporate beliefs which are false…

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New Atheism’s Moral Meltdown – Saints and Sceptics