Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 3

“Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him.” Proverbs 27:22

The_Intervention_of_the_Sabine_Women
The Rape of the Sabine Women, Jacques-Louis David, 1798.

This series began with a simple question: Which worldview can make sense of our experience of reality, the Christian or the atheist? As human beings, we experience moral facts. We recognize questions like “is murdering children is wrong?” have true and false answers.

In Part 1 of this series, I explained that the existence of these moral facts cannot be accounted for within an atheist worldview. If atheism is true, we are nothing but complex clumps of stardust. We exist in a purposeless universe driven by the blind forces of time and chance acting on matter. There is no right or wrong way for clumps of stardust to behave. Therefore, anything that looks to us like a moral “fact” must really be a biological illusion. Yet our experience of moral facts persists in such a way that even those who deny they exist cannot live consistently with that belief.

The Christian worldview supports the existence of moral facts, and grounds moral truth in the universal, unchanging, and perfect goodness of our creator (Psalm 77:13, Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6). Christianity succeeds in explaining reality where atheism fails.

In this article, I will state and respond to the seven most common objections to this argument. I’ve done my best to accurately state these objections, and many of them are nearly exact quotes.

  1. “I’m an atheist and I act morally. We don’t need to believe in God to know what is right and wrong.”

This is the most common misunderstanding between Christians and unbelievers on this topic, and it is responsibility of the Christian to properly frame the argument in order to avoid this confusion. Though misguided, the objection is essentially correct. All mankind has at least some capacity to recognize moral facts and act in accordance with them (Romans 2:15). Most atheists demonstrate their recognition of certain moral facts (i.e. theft is wrong) while simultaneously rejecting God.

This objection mistakenly assumes the argument is saying “belief in God is a prerequisite for behaving morally.” But that’s not correct. The argument is that the existence of God is a prerequisite for the concept of moral truths to even be intelligible.

2. “I don’t agree with your premise that moral facts exists. Morality is just an abstract concept.”

This is an admirably honest position for an unbeliever to take. Rather than trying to have his cake and eat it to, he follows the atheist worldview to its logical (and uncomfortable) conclusion that moral questions such as “is raping and murdering a child wrong?” have no true or false answers.

The problem with this objection is that no one lives or thinks consistently with this view. Ask this unbeliever if he considers it wrong to murder children, and he will naturally agree, as this would conflict with his own stated moral preferences. But what happens when some other person actually does prefer to rape and murder children? He would naturally condemn this behavior as wrong, and argue that we should not commit such acts (who wouldn’t?).

But judgements of this nature only make sense on the Christian worldview, and are in fact incoherent and irrational on the atheist worldview. Consider this simple logical deduction based on the beliefs held by the atheist in this example.

  1. All moral beliefs are individual preferences
  2. Individual preferences, by definition, cannot be right or wrong.
  3. Therefore, the belief that it is morally acceptable to murder children is neither right nor wrong.

In short, by denying that moral facts exist, the unbeliever admits moral questions have no right and wrong answers. To judge another person’s behavior is then to conflate preference with fact, and to ascribe your own personal moral preferences to others who are not obligated to share them. This is logically equivalent to telling a person she is wrong for enjoying chocolate ice cream because you prefer vanilla. Thus, this view also fails to explain our moral experience, leaving the unbeliever in complete contradiction to his own worldview.

3. Moral facts are grounded in what our entire society views as acceptable behavior, not God.

The existence of moral facts is simply inexplicable on atheism, yet the tension between atheism and our experience of moral facts leads unbelievers to attempt to ground morality in, well, nearly anything. One such claim is that widespread acceptance and agreement upon moral norms somehow makes them matters of fact.

Let’s be very clear here, it can be a fact that “most people consider it wrong to euthanize the elderly.” This is a fact about what people believe. It does not follow from this that euthanizing the elderly is factually wrong, which is a factual claim forming the content of their belief. Did you catch that distinction? If it sounds complicated it’s not. Let’s phrase it this way: Just because a large number of people believe something doesn’t make it true.

Society’s agreement on certain moral norms does not make those moral norms factual. For example, If what is morally right and wrong is determined by consensus within an society, moral truth is fluid. In the colonial Americas, it must have been morally right to enslave Africans and force them to work on cotton fields.This is of course absurd. Thus, societal consensus cannot be the basis of the moral facts we experience.

4. Moral facts are grounded in our evolutionary biology, not God. 

Like our last objection, this view conflates the origin of a belief with its truth value. Even if it were a fact that our biology makes us feel that “setting people on fire is wrong,” it does not follow that “setting people on fire is wrong” is a true statement. It’s simply a biologically driven preference for one behavior pattern over another.

But there is a bigger problem here. From an atheistic worldview, all of our actions are driven by our biology. The individual who believes it is acceptable to set others on fire is acting in accordance with his biology just as much as the individual who believes those acts are evil. Like the rest, this view fails to provide the external moral standard by which we evaluate behavior: It fails to account for the universal, unchanging, obligatory nature of morality that we experience in every day life.

5. Moral facts are grounded in what is or is not in the rational self-interest of our species, not God. 

Like the previous examples, it may be a fact that we believe it is right for humans to behave rationally, but this does not make “it is right for humans to behave rationally” a factual statement.

As lofty as this objection sounds (who wouldn’t want to act  rationally?) it completely fails to account for our experience of moral facts as something external to our opinions and preferences. The claim here is that what is moral is rational, and the reason a behavior is morally wrong is because it is irrational. Eating babies, for example, would be a conflict between a person’s actions and his reason for acting, and therefore irrational and morally wrong.

The problem here is that the unbeliever has no basis to ascribe factual values to his claim that we should behave rationally. It is simply an expression of his personal preference. This means the question “should human beings behave rationally?” is not one with true or false answers. This is significant, because the unbeliever has defined moral value as exactly equal to the quality of rationality. If “we should behave rationally” is not a factual statement, it follows necessarily that “we should not eat babies” is not a factual statement, just a preference.

6. Moral facts are grounded in the threat of physical force. Saying we “should” do something  is actually an “or else.”

This view might seem a bit desperate, but in debating atheists on morality it has come up more than once. While threats of physical force, imprisonment, and legal ramifications can certainly influence behavior, we all recognize that these consequences themselves do not determine what is right and wrong. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is illegal for women to drive, yet we know that this does not make women driving morally wrong any more than Inida’s lack of punishment for marital rape makes the practice morally right.

7. Your argument is circular because it is based on the unproven assumption that God exists.

This objection might sound like it has some teeth, but it actually helps to highlight the problem the atheist faces. First, a circular argument is one in which an argument’s conclusion is also a premise in that argument. The atheist argues that by assuming moral facts exist, we have already assumed that God exists, thus beginning with what we are trying to prove.

But the premise of the argument in question is not “God exists.” The premise is that we have a common experience of reality that includes the existence of moral facts. This is readily accepted by atheists like Sam Harris who would clearly deny the argument’s conclusion. This premise can also be accepted by those who claim our experience of moral facts is simply an illusion. If you can accept the premise and deny the conclusion, the argument is not circular. It’s that simple.

So why does the unbeliever see circularity where there is none? Within the unbeliever’s objection is a tacit admission that the existence of moral facts necessitates the existence of the God of the bible. He recognizes that this conclusion follows inescapably from the premise and simply treats the premise as “God exists” in his mind as a sort of shorthand, making it a de facto circular argument.

In reality the atheist is rejecting the premise itself, because he knows what follows necessarily from it. This of course leads to the endless contradiction between the atheist’s claimed disbelief in moral facts and his own personal moral convictions and behaviors (see bullet 2 for a refresher).

Conclusion

Because the atheist worldview fails to comport with our experience of reality, unbelievers who hold to this view have only three options. The first is to attempt to ground the moral facts we experience in any number of concepts other than God. This is an exercise in futility, as nothing in an atheistic universe will ever provide the preconditions necessary to make the existence of moral facts intelligible. The second option is to deny the moral reality we experience and to live as walking contradiction, holding to a worldview that treats as illusory the same moral concepts the unbeliever holds to be true in every day life. This is the definition of irrationality.

The third option is to abandon the atheist worldview. If this were any other subject, that might be easy, but atheism is really just a symptom of a much greater problem. It is not an intellectual rejection of God, but an emotional one. This emotional rebellion against our creator leads to a “futile” and “foolish” heart (Romans 1:21), one that will tolerate self-contradiction and intellectual folly simply to maintain defiance against God. The unbeliever that refuses to reject the atheist worldview doesn’t need more convincing or a better argument for God. He needs to pray for forgiveness for rebelling against God and to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord.

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