Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 2

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

The blind leading the blind. Gassed, John Singer Sargent, 1919.
The blind leading the blind.
Gassed, John Singer Sargent, 1919.

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. 

  1. H. Allan Orr, “The Science of Right and Wrong,” The New York Review of Books.
  2. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape. 
  3. Sam Harris, “Science Can Answer Moral Questions,” TED Talk, 2010.
  4. William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris, Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural
  5. Orr, “The Science of Right and Wrong,”
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10 thoughts on “Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 2

  1. Hi Russell,

    Thanks for writing these interesting blog posts. I’ll say that I do not agree with nearly everything you’ve written but I’ve found them genuinely interesting nonetheless. Forgive me in advance if I’m retreading old arguments as I haven’t read every comment.

    To me, this is the crux of the difference in our beliefs: as a person who does not believe in any gods, my morality is based on observable evidence. Your morality, which seems to be based on one of the Christian bibles, requires one to follow the moral instructions in said bible.

    I’m not super familiar with the work of Sam Harris so I’m not trying to defend his beliefs, but one thing you wrote really stood out to me. Quoting from above, “Again, Harris retreats to our collective knowledge that human life is valuable.” This is precisely the difference between secular morality and religious morality. Secular morality relies on observation and evidence to make judgements on what is right and wrong. Our “collective knowledge” is what gives weight to saying that murder/rape/etc are wrong.

    Religious morality seems to rely on the instructions that are provided within respective religious texts. A Christian follows the instructions within the Bible, a Muslim follows the instructions in the Koran, etc. From the point of view of the religious believer, whether these instructions are actually moral or not is basically secondary. Slavery, honor killings, etc are all “moral” so long as they are in the instructions.

    Yes, it is difficult to quickly explain why murder is wrong from a secular perspective. But that is because you have to make the case with the huge amount of evidence we have accumulated over human history. You seem to be under the impression that this is a weakness in the secular position, when it’s actually its greatest strength.

    Yes, it is easy to point to a short passage in the bible to show why murder is wrong. But just because a “moral fact” in the bible has the benefit of brevity, does not make it correct. I would trust a moral fact that has an incredible amount of evidence behind it as opposed to a moral fact that is only supported by three or four passages in a 2000 year old book.

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’m guessing you would claim that the Christian god is what gives your morality weight, as opposed to the words in a book. But there again you are hamstrung by a lack of evidence.

    We have plenty of evidence supporting what is right and wrong in human life. There is currently no evidence to support the idea that any gods exist, which therefore strips religious books of their respective truth claims regarding the nature of reality.

    No, there isn’t a morality particle or some other singular piece of solid evidence that says murder is wrong. Morality is similar to mathematics in that regard. There is no math particle that says 1+1=2. But through thousands of years of research and investigation, humans now have developed incredibly advanced mathematics that were previously unknown. Does this mean math is relative and subject to preference? No, despite there being no evidence for math. It is something incredibly powerful and descriptive and precise despite that humans have more or less invented it. And certainly there will be more and more branches of math that will be developed in response to various human endeavors, similar to how morality has developed over time.

    Once again, thanks for your blog posts. Hope you’re having a good Sunday.

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    1. Hi John, thanks for the comment.

      You seem to be missing my point when you argue that “We have plenty of evidence supporting what is right and wrong in human life.” I agree whole-heartedly that we can perceive and experience the existence of moral facts. This should be the starting point of our discussion. The question is, what worldview can make sense of this? You suggest that the existence of moral fact is explainable in a purposeless, meaningless universe. I have shown that the existence of moral facts is unintelligible from the perspective of the atheist worldview. The Christian worldview is the only one that can make our moral experience coherent.

      It seems your argument is simply that human consensus about what is right and wrong determines moral truth. This is clearly not the case, as this would mean slavery (which you mistakenly imply the Old Testament endorses) was “right” during the colonial period, and that murdering children for convenience was “right” in ancient Greece. We know neither is true.

      Thanks.

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  2. “You seem to be missing my point when you argue that “We have plenty of evidence supporting what is right and wrong in human life.” I agree whole-heartedly that we can perceive and experience the existence of moral facts. This should be the starting point of our discussion. The question is, what worldview can make sense of this?”

    Ok, sorry, I guess I didn’t understand what you were asking. Though, I think what I’ve written covers this territory. I’ll guess your answer to your question is that there is a god which gives us the ability to perceive morality? Again, this is a position which has no evidence to support it.

    A secular worldview makes sense of our ability to perceive moral facts through evidence and investigation. I certainly couldn’t give you all the exact reasons how humans are able to perceive morality (a secular worldview suffers from long explanations) but it’s some fascinating combination of biology and accumulated knowledge over the course of thousands of years. Importantly, this is something we can actually investigate and learn about. We can learn about how/why our brains are able to perceive morality; perceiving our perception, if you will.

    Again, don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but if you’re going to claim that a god allows you to perceive morality or gives rise to your morality then your position isn’t currently supported by any evidence. There’s currently no evidence for the existence of any gods nor evidence for our ability perceive/communicate with gods.

    “You suggest that the existence of moral fact is explainable in a purposeless, meaningless universe. I have shown that the existence of moral facts is unintelligible from the perspective of the atheist worldview. The Christian worldview is the only one that can make our moral experience coherent.”

    Yes, it is explainable. Again, not easily or briefly but it is explainable. I’m making an honest effort but I don’t see how you have shown that it’s unintelligible. Moreover, I don’t see how you’re sure that the Christian worldview is any more valid than any of the other thousands of religions that are out there; they all have the same lack of evidence to support them.

    “It seems your argument is simply that human consensus about what is right and wrong determines moral truth.”

    No, that’s not my argument. I deliberately didn’t use the word consensus for this reason. Consensus has nothing to do with evidence. A consensus can be correct if it totally relies on evidence or it can be correct totally by accident. But it can easily be wrong especially if it relies on something else like a single religious book.

    This is why I brought up the math analogy. Math has a certain immutable logic even though there isn’t a math particle. And even though the logic is ultimately immutable it still has taken a long time to understand it as well as we currently do. There may have been periods in history when humans were simply ignorant of math or thought they were correct about math but they were actually wrong. And it took diligent investigation in order to improve our perception of it and get closer to what is actually right.

    This is similar to morality. Obviously humans have done many morally horrible things and with hindsight it’s totally appropriate to look back and say a given action is wrong or right. It’s because we have used evidence and investigation to advance our understanding of morality. There certainly will be times in the future when we think we are right but eventually come to understand we are totally wrong. And it won’t mean that we were right at that time, it will just mean that we unfortunately didn’t have all the evidence to know we were wrong.

    “This is clearly not the case, as this would mean slavery (which you mistakenly imply the Old Testament endorses) was “right” during the colonial period, and that murdering children for convenience was “right” in ancient Greece. We know neither is true.”

    And as I just said, we know slavery and infanticide are wrong from all the evidence accumulated over thousands of years that showed us those things do no good. I don’t know enough about the specific passages in the bible to debate you point by point, but again, the moral authority of the bible isn’t currently supported by evidence. If the bible is correct about certain moral judgments, it’s probably because whoever wrote the bible was drawing from the accumulated moral knowledge of that time; not because a god told them what to write.

    There may come a day when the Christian god reveals itself and your moral authority will then become supported by evidence. But until that day comes, killing adulterers or suspected witches will make no moral sense.

    Thanks again.

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    1. For a detailed explanation for how the atheist worldview fails to supply the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of moral facts, please see part 1 of this series. You continue to tell me that this is incorrect, and that an atheistic worldview can explain moral fact through “investigation and evidence.”

      This is not a sufficient explanation. What evidence? Interpreted how? Interestingly, you explain that morality is like the immutable laws of logic. I plan to argue in a future post that logic is inexplicable from the atheist’s worldview as well. If atheism is true, how can there be immaterial, unchanging, universal laws of thought? How could we be “obligated” to follow such immaterial laws in a meaningless universe? No need to respond to these claims, I’m saving that for a future post as I previously mentioned. I’m curious to hear how you answer my first question above. If there is no external moral law-giver in which moral truth rests, then what we call “right” or “wrong” are just preferences induced by our biology and aren’t factual statements.

      Finally, God has revealed himself in the person of Christ and the scriptures in which his life and works were recorded. But you (like me before Christ) have chosen to reject him by making your own fallible reasoning your ultimate standard of truth rather than the word of the God who created you. We can’t ultimately know anything unless we begin our reasoning with the revelation of the God who knows everything.

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  3. I know you said there’s no need for a response but if you’ll allow me one more reply, I would appreciate it. Despite our opposing points of view, I’ve genuinely enjoyed our interaction so far.

    “This is not a sufficient explanation. What evidence? Interpreted how? Interestingly, you explain that morality is like the immutable laws of logic. I plan to argue in a future post that logic is inexplicable from the atheist’s worldview as well. If atheism is true, how can there be immaterial, unchanging, universal laws of thought?”

    Because the laws of thought, such as mathematical logic and moral logic, are abstractions derived from observations of the world around us. (Side note: it isn’t my position that atheism is true. My position is that there is currently a lack of evidence to support the claim that any gods exist and therefore it makes little sense to base ones morality on the idea that the Christian God exists.)

    Anyway, if you have a pen and a piece of paper, the human mind can create an abstraction that we call numbers and therefore create the idea that you have two things. Again, there is no math particle which says there are two things; there’s only a pen and a piece of paper which have no inherent relation to each other. The logic is immutable because you would be hard pressed to claim that you have three things or four things. If someone is crazy they could claim to actually have two pens and five pieces of paper but it would be at odds with the evidence. Or one could merely be ignorant of the concept of numbers and not understand, but neither of those cases defeats the underlying logic. So even though the logic only exists in ones mind, it’s incredibly difficult to defy it because it’s based on observation.

    Similarly, if I said I kidnapped and ate ten babies yesterday you could verify that’s a horrible, morally bad thing to do. There isn’t a morality particle to say its bad but, again, based on observation you can make a moral fact. The primary observation would be the incredible pain and suffering I just caused the parents for no reason, among many other reasons. Here, my mind would create a moral abstraction that says kidnapping and eating babies is wrong and it would be based on observation.

    You could construct a hypothetical scenario in which eating ten babies would be morally good but it would be just that: hypothetical. If I was crazy, I could claim it that it was a really morally good thing to do because the babies were aliens who were going to take over the world. Though I would have no evidence to prove it. Or, I could be psychopathic and have no experience of morality and killing babies would mean nothing to me. But again, none of those examples defeat the underlying moral logic.

    “How could we be “obligated” to follow such immaterial laws in a meaningless universe?”

    We aren’t obligated to follow them. That’s why high school students get wrong answers on math tests and why people kill each other for no reason. But again, just because people aren’t obligated to follow these kinds of laws, it does nothing to defeat the laws.

    “If there is no external moral law-giver in which moral truth rests, then what we call “right” or “wrong” are just preferences induced by our biology and aren’t factual statements.”

    Sorry to repeat myself, but people can prefer to not follow math or morality but it’s very hard to escape that 1 + 1 does not equal 3 or that eating babies is wrong. Yes, our biology and collective knowledge is where we get our morality but it’s also derived from observation of the world around us which makes it possible for us to make moral facts.

    “Finally, God has revealed himself in the person of Christ and the scriptures in which his life and works were recorded.”

    Muhammad’s life and works were also recorded, as were Joseph Smith’s life and works. Yet you don’t seem to believe either of them were particularly special. Once again, your claim has a lack of evidence to support it. Unless you have some newfound wealth of evidence which verifies that the Christian God exists and Jesus was his embodiment. In which case, I would be incredibly interested to see that evidence as would billions of other people.

    “But you (like me before Christ) have chosen to reject him by making your own fallible reasoning your ultimate standard of truth rather than the word of the God who created you. We can’t ultimately know anything unless we begin our reasoning with the revelation of the God who knows everything.”

    To be perfectly honest I’m not entirely sure what this part means. I think I’m trying to be very receptive to any evidence that is presented to me. I haven’t rejected Christ because I’ve never met him. It’s hard to reject something that I’ve never had the chance to reject. Again, there’s no evidence supporting the idea that the Christian God created me or created anything at all. Unfortunately, everything in that final paragraph of yours seems to be complete conjecture.

    To conclude, I remain totally uncompelled by religious morality because it seems to be divorced from observation. We could turn the world into a horrible place but so long as we were following the rules in the religious book, then it wouldn’t matter that the world was horrible. To me, it seems that Christian morality is principally concerned with getting its followers into heaven and the actual state of the world is secondary.

    I still feel very secure in how I think about morality because it is based on observation of the world around us. Basing one’s morality on the idea that a god exists means that you are basing your morality on something we have never verified or observed. Basing one’s morality on evidence means you are invested in actually making the world verifiably better for other people.

    I’m guessing I’ve done nothing to dissuade you from your position but I hope that I’ve fairly and comprehensively stated my position. I’m looking forward to your future posts. Thanks so much for the conversation!

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    1. Thanks for the response, I plan to write some future articles on many of the topics you have discussed, so I will keep my comment focused on the topic of this post.

      You wrote that we can “verify” that eating babies is “morally bad.” How does one verify this? You say that it is based on the observation that it causes pain and suffering, but how do you verify that causing others pain and suffering is morally wrong? Remember that we both agree that it is true that causing senseless pain and suffering is morally wrong, but if atheism is true, this is unintelligible. Our lives are a cosmic accident resulting from time and chance acting on matter. There is no purpose, meaning, or value to our lives, and it is therefore completely at odds with atheism to believe there is an immaterial, universal, moral law external to our own preferences.

      You seem to admit this when you concede that from the atheist perspective, our biology and socio-cultural conditioning results in our moral preferences. This does not make them true and false statements, only preferences. The person who eats children is driven by his biology and socio-cultural conditioning. How do you know that his preference to cause suffering to others is morally wrong? You seem to just assume it, which is circular reasoning.

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  4. “Thanks for the response, I plan to write some future articles on many of the topics you have discussed, so I will keep my comment focused on the topic of this post.”

    Great, I’m genuinely looking forward to them.

    It seems you’re uncompelled by evidence that is presented to you in the observable world around us. It is very instructive that you think you need a supernatural reason to claim that senselessly eating babies is morally wrong. You’ve made my point that religious morality does not seem to be concerned with what is morally good or bad in the observable world but is primarily concerned with following rules in ancient books.

    “You wrote that we can “verify” that eating babies is “morally bad.” How does one verify this? You say that it is based on the observation that it causes pain and suffering, but how do you verify that causing others pain and suffering is morally wrong?”

    As I stated, we verify it with observable evidence. I said that the primary reason is that it causes pain and suffering, among numerous others. Other reasons: it helps nothing and no one; you deprived those children of the joys of life; you deprived other people from the all the good things those children would have done; on and on. As I said, this is all evidence you could use to show its morally wrong. But you’re seemingly not interested in that and seek the approval of a god which has no evidence of its existence.

    “Remember that we both agree that it is true that causing senseless pain and suffering is morally wrong, but if atheism is true, this is unintelligible.”

    I’m actually not entirely sure that we do both agree that senselessly causing pain and suffering is wrong. Do you think you should gouge out your own eye if it causes you to sin? Do you think you should kill sorceresses? Do you think you should kill disobedient children? Do you think you should return a slave to its master? I think these things are wrong because I rely on observable evidence that shows they’re wrong. You seem to not be interested in that evidence and are more interested in what your book says.

    “Our lives are a cosmic accident resulting from time and chance acting on matter. There is no purpose, meaning, or value to our lives, and it is therefore completely at odds with atheism to believe there is an immaterial, universal, moral law external to our own preferences.”

    Where do you get the idea that our lives have no purpose or meaning? Enjoying life, doing good, helping others. This isn’t interesting to you? You need a deity to say that what you’re doing has meaning? I don’t know if you have a family but they mean nothing to you unless a deity says they do?

    There is no evidence to say that the overall timespan of the entire universe has a purpose but that says nothing about the content our individual lives. Again, I think I clearly demonstrated that there can be laws which are immaterial but also immutable and therefore not subject to preference. One can prefer not to follow them but you can’t prefer to change the laws themselves.

    “You seem to admit this when you concede that from the atheist perspective, our biology and socio-cultural conditioning results in our moral preferences. This does not make them true and false statements, only preferences.”

    This makes me think you didn’t really read what I wrote. I very specifically addressed that they’re not preferences. Again again, one can simply prefer to not follow them but that doesn’t do anything to laws themselves.

    “The person who eats children is driven by his biology and socio-cultural conditioning. How do you know that his preference to cause suffering to others is morally wrong? You seem to just assume it, which is circular reasoning.”

    No, I’m doing literally the exact opposite of assuming, as I’ve demonstrated numerous times by now. In fact, you have clearly stated that your argument is based entirely on assumption. To quote from your past blog post:

    “To be a Christian is to hold a worldview in which God’s revealed Word is our ultimate authority and the starting point of our reasoning.

    Moral truth is grounded in the universal, unchanging, and perfect goodness of our creator (Psalm 77:13, Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6). The character of God is the moral standard that all of our actions are measured against. Human life was created in his image (Genesis 1:27) with intrinsic value and dignity (Luke 10:25-37), and acts such as theft, rape, murder, and assault all violate God’s standard.”

    How can you claim this is anything other than assumption? You’re assuming all of this is true because it says so in an old book. I hope to remain very available to evidence that says a given action is morally right or morally wrong. That is the opposite of assuming. You claim to get your moral authority from the Christian God, for which you have absolutely no evidence at all. You’re the one doing the assuming.

    Thanks again for the debate. Take care.

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    1. Thanks John,

      You wrote: “It seems you’re uncompelled by evidence that is presented to you in the observable world around us.”

      You haven’t presented any evidence that moral facts exist. You have presented your personal opinion that we should not eat children because it causes suffering, deprives children of life, etc. It is indeed a fact that eating children causes suffering, loss of life, pain, etc. This does not establish as fact that this behavior is wrong. All we have established is that you don’t prefer it.

      I’m not appealing to God’s commands as a way of determining that eating children is wrong. I recognize that eating children is wrong, just like you do, and also recognize that this belief is unintelligible if atheism is true.

      You wrote: “Where do you get the idea that our lives have no purpose or meaning? Enjoying life, doing good, helping others. This isn’t interesting to you? You need a deity to say that what you’re doing has meaning? I don’t know if you have a family but they mean nothing to you unless a deity says they do?”

      Atheism holds that your existence is nothing but the product of time and chance blindly acting on matter. This means, by definition, your existence has no purpose or meaning. Whatever values you personally prefer have nothing to do with this fact. If you disagree I will point you in the direction of atheists like Richard Dawkins who agree with me.

      You wrote: “Again, I think I clearly demonstrated that there can be laws which are immaterial but also immutable and therefore not subject to preference. One can prefer not to follow them but you can’t prefer to change the laws themselves.” I agree, but now you have to explain how in an unguided universe that was not created for human life we find immaterial and immutable laws of morality that apply to humans. This is not a view that atheism can explain or support.

      You wrote: “You’re assuming all of this is true because it says so in an old book. I hope to remain very available to evidence that says a given action is morally right or morally wrong. That is the opposite of assuming. You claim to get your moral authority from the Christian God, for which you have absolutely no evidence at all. You’re the one doing the assuming.”

      Actually, since you’ve read my blog you recognize that we are both assuming something about the nature of reality. I’m assuming God exists and his revealed word is my ultimate standard of truth. You’re assuming your own powers of reasoning are a sufficient ultimate standard of truth. By definition, ultimate standards of truth are broadly circular. This isn’t a problem as long as we recognize it.

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