“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”
― John Steinbeck,
In part 1 of this series, we looked at how the atheist worldview directly contradicts our experience of reality. Despite my explicitly stating the contrary, this has lead some readers to think I am arguing that atheists cannot hold moral beliefs. This is not the case. Rather, the problem I am exposing is that those moral beliefs are in contradiction to the atheist’s own view of reality.
Previously, I demonstrated that from an atheistic perspective, ethical claims can only be understood as matters of personal preference. To believe that there are true and false statements about how humans should act can only be considered an illusion. For many atheists, this is too hard to swallow. They recognize that human experience paints a very different picture of reality- one in which moral truths exist. They also recognize the impossibility of living life consistently with this belief. In order to deal with this problem, many atheists try to make moral truth intelligible within their worldview. They want to have their cake and eat it too.
Neurobiologist Sam Harris is one of the figureheads of what is often called “New Atheism.” He has published, presented, and debated his view that no external moral arbiter is necessary to make moral facts intelligible. (1)
In his book, The Moral Landscape, Harris explains that “Questions about values– about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose– are really questions about the well being of conscious creatures.” (2) The experiences of these conscious creatures, Harris claims, can be scientifically understood as helping or hindering their flourishing. Thus, moral facts reduce to scientifically observable facts about the experiences of conscious beings. (3)
If we grant Harris that human well-being can be scientifically measured, and also grant him that it is true we should pursue human well-being, then it follows inescapably that moral truths exists and science can determine them.
Yet sharp readers will have already noticed that Harris has an enormous problem with his argument. At its foundation, Harris begins by assuming the moral fact that we should pursue human well-being. Harris is supposed to be proving that moral facts exist, and yet he’s appealing to a moral fact as a premise of his argument. This is a textbook example of circular reasoning.
Now of course we all know that human well-being is something we should pursue as a species. The problem is that our experience of this moral fact does not comport with the atheist worldview. Recall for a moment that if atheism is true we are nothing more than complex clumps of stardust: A cosmic accident with no real meaning, purpose, or value. When we make claims such as “we should not eat babies because that would harm our species,” we are only expressing a fact about our mental state, not a fact about reality. Our moral beliefs are nothing more than sociobiological preferences that have no truth value.
Yet Harris, in an irrational contradiction to his own worldview, begins all of his reasoning by simply assuming as fact that human life should flourish. How does he justify this? He doesn’t. In fact, he seems to intentionally avoid the subject. In a debate with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, Harris was asked by his opponent why we should care about human flourishing if atheism is true. Harris waved off the question, responding “we have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” (4)
In his detailed review of Harris’ book, the New York Review of Book’s Allan Orr observes the same pattern. Harris believes that those “like serial murderers, who would champion some perversely eccentric conception of the good are so far outside the conversation that they needn’t be refuted, only ignored.” (5)
Again, Harris retreats to our collective knowledge that human life is valuable. Human flourishing is good. Serial murder is wrong. These claims are not in dispute. The question Harris avoids is how these statements can be true if our existence is ultimately devoid of any true meaning and purpose. His assumption of their truth is the very thing his atheist worldview cannot account for. By holding the value of human life to be self-evident and justification of this belief unnecessary, Harris stands firmly on capital borrowed from the Christian worldview.
Harris’ problem is not a lack of intelligence or philosophical training. His problem is one of sin. Romans 1:21-22 reads “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Harris, a brilliant neurobiologist, is blind to a fundamental contradiction between his own atheist worldview and the moral truths he knows exist. He claims to be wise, and has been reduced to foolishness.
- H. Allan Orr, “The Science of Right and Wrong,” The New York Review of Books.
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape.
- Sam Harris, “Science Can Answer Moral Questions,” TED Talk, 2010.
- William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris, Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?
- Orr, “The Science of Right and Wrong,”