If you are an atheist — or at least find yourself sympathetic to those that claim to be — then you are most likely familiar with the term New Atheist. If you are not, it refers to a new type of skeptic who has emerged in the past several years, who not only believes there is no God but who is also particularly hostile to those who do.
Renowned biologist Richard Dawkins is quoted as saying, ““I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils.” Likewise, neuroscientist and author Sam Harris describes religious faith as an “uncompromising misuse of the power of our minds” which “forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity,” and that being a man of perfect faith is “a terrible thing to be.”
What is particularly interesting about the new atheist is his unmistakable sense of moral outrage over faith. Faith is not something that is simply not preferable; no, it is wrong, even evil. But wrong based on what? In a world where there is no more than the observable universe, what meaning does right and wrong possibly have? To be sure, an atheist, if he is consistent, cannot possibly be any good, not because he is not able, but because good does not exist.
Think of it: If the atheism that Harris and Dawkins hold to is true, absolutely true, then it matters little how your neighbor chooses to live, or what they choose to believe.
But are we saying that atheists are not capable of being moral? Of course not. To be clear (and somewhat repetitive), the atheist is just as capable of being kind and generous and courageous (and whatever virtue you wish to add) as the person who believes in God. What we are saying rather is that in a world where God does not exist, there is no good. In such a world, we can conform to any code of behavior we wish to define, whether it be based on our upbringing or evolutionary past. But ultimately, it is meaningless.
As an illustration, imagine a different world, where evolution on its unguided and indifferent evolutionary course bestowed us with very long necks, and also deposited within us the odd belief that holding our heads as high as possible was the right thing to do. And imagine that that was the extent of our understanding of what is “right.”
And just as in our world, there were many of us who believed holding one’s head high was right because there was an invisible entity who held his head higher than all of us, and it is what He wanted.
But others, more educated and enlightened, came to realize that there was no such entity. But when challenged, they insisted they were just as capable of holding their heads high as the rest of us, even better at it than some of their Entity-believing peers. Or, that holding one’s head to the side was actually the right thing to do — and they condemned those who did not.
Now I ask you: Would such claims of the long-necked enlightened have any meaning?
And yet, in our world, this is exactly what we see. The new atheist protests he does not need to believe in God to be good (hold his neck high). He also condemns faith as wrong and evil because it is the opposite of scientific rationalism (“holding one’s head to the side”). The one thing we do not observe the new atheist doing is the very thing that seems most logically consistent: Responding that whether he is capable of being good or not is irrelevant, since ultimately the moral pose we choose to assume is pointless.
Think of it: If the atheism that Harris and Dawkins hold to is true, absolutely true, then it matters little how your neighbor chooses to live, or what they choose to believe. Even the worst atrocity — induced by religious extremists or an atheistic regime — is merely an unwanted exchange of matter and energy.
So what do you think? If there is no God, is there such a thing as moral standards? If so, how did they come about, and by want scientific means do we know they exist? If not, why should we choose to live in any manner that is virtuous or what one might call moral? Lastly, what is your moral code for living, and why? I welcome your comments.
18 thoughts on “Atheists Cannot Possibly Be Any Good”
First of all, God exists. There really is no doubt. So I find it difficult to assume that he doesn’t – even for the temporary purpose of entering into this debate – because it makes me feel that I am betraying Him somehow.
However, many years ago I fancied myself to be enlightened and declared myself an atheist. I do remember those days and the arguments that I, ignorantly, proffered against the Lord. None of these really need to be brought into this discussion.
Moral “standards” do not exist without a belief in God. Look around the world at different cultures both now and throughout history. Morals are determined, and enforced by, those in control – local “government.” People either adhere to what is dictated to them to be the proper way to behave or die resisting it. Following “moral standards” keeps you alive long enough to procreate and give birth to children that you teach these self-same “moral standards” to. This propagates the theory of what the ruling society considers to be correct behavior.
When a new regime comes into power, they kill off everyone who believes in the old regime and start a new “moral” code.
Thanks, shangreene for the comment. Regarding your discussion of moral ‘standards’, so would the concept of right and wrong exist if societies did not exist (or enforced no morality)?
Not a chance. It is groups of people – the weak who need the protection of the strong and the wise who teach the young – that create these concepts for their continuing survival. If everyone were allowed to run amok, then none would survive. God knows this and has provided us with guidance – like The Ten Commandments, for example – to live by.
Which God exist???
and to your comment on morality without God. Morality existed and predates the bible,….check it out here….http://findingtruth.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/816/
Thanks thebiblereader for checking in. As far as which God: For the sake of argument, Any Divine Intelligence will do, since any is denied by scientific naturalism.
As far as moral code pre-existence, let us just hope they do not pre-date an eternal Creator 😉
God was around long before the Bible and He was in regular communication with mankind, too. I spoke about the connection between God and morality, not the Bible and morality. Of course the concepts of morality predate the Bible, but NOTHING predates God.
I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks!
1) If you think the arguments of the “new atheists” are really all that new, then you are kidding yourself.
2) You assume that God is a necessary component of any attempt to make sound moral decisions. I see little up there in the way of an attempt to establish the claim, less still that you understand just how complicated that argument would really be.
This is sloppy at best, not very thoughtful.
Thanks, danielwalldammit for stopping by! My responses in brief: 1) Nah, I don’t. Not sure why they have been dubbed the “new” atheists, but I would guess it does not have to do with their arguments but rather their hostility to religious faith. 2) I actually do not, but affirm the opposite: “To be clear (and somewhat repetitive), the atheist is just as capable of being kind and generous and courageous (and whatever virtue you wish to add) as the person who believes in God.” The question I pose, rather, is whether such moral decisions for the atheist would be sound from their own perspective. If I were an ardent scientific atheist as Dawkins is, for example, and thought “I am going to make it a point to treat others with respect, for this is the right thing to do,” I do not know what would keep me from thinking this is nonsense, since such a truth is neither verifiable or defensible. Hope that makes sense.
I would love you here your thoughts on these questions 🙂
I think the term “new atheist” is really just the fact that in recent years, atheists have been more open than usual. Just the fact that they are speaking has been misconstrued as “hostile”. Just look at the reactions to the atheist billboards. They are not hostile by any means, but have been deemed hostile by many Christians. To many, an atheist openly saying “I don’t believe in God” is taken as an attack on beliefs and considered “hostile”. I can’t speak for all theists because I know not all perceive it this way, but the majority, at least what the media likes to publish, deem it as hostile.
You bring up a good point, though I would have difficulty going so far as to say there is not an element of hostility toward religion and faith in general in their writings — a point I draw out in the above post, since this position implies a moral component which I consider incompatible with a scientific naturalist philosophy. (see here for a secular definition of new atheism).
That said, it is an undeniable fact that people’s feathers get ruffled when anything controversial is declared publicly, whether “I don’t believe in God” in a predominantly god-believing society, or for that matter, “I believe Jesus is the Son of God” in a predominantly atheistic one. Atheists and theists share at least this much in common 🙂
I will agree that some are hostile, but we cannot label the whole based on a few. Hostility is defined on the receiving end, so if someone deems it as hostile, to them, it is. I believe the term “new atheist” could be misleading in the sense that it implies, in a way, that new atheists or the new (current) atheist position is hostile. This is not entirely true, as I said, because not all are hostile. The current era of atheists are merely more outspoken. A new atheist who is in fact hostile should be defined as radical or extremist, in the same way that you would use radical (insert religion here) to define someone who misconstrues their belief to the point that it is hostile. We use the term radical Islam to define someone of Islamic religion who is more inclined towards violence or “jihad”. If “new atheist” should define atheist hostility then “new christian” should define those who are hostile towards other beliefs as well. When you look at it, the number of actual hostile people in atheism or christianity is small. You are one of the many Christians I know who ARE respectful and not hostile, so it would be unfair to you and the vast majority to receive a label based on the actions of a few.
What’s “ethic” is of our own; What’s “moral” is society’s general thinking. In that way, ethics define personal character and beliefs, and morals are part of a social system in which those ethics are applied. Someone may, for example, think that it is correct and just to apply the Death Penalty, so, to them, it is ethical to apply such thing. But if they live in a country where the law says it is illegal to apply a Death Penalty, doing such a thing would be morally wrong, even if that person doesn’t seem to see what the big fuss is about.
With that being said, I think that yes, moral standards exist even if the society in itself doesn’t believe or even know about the existence of God, because morals are based in a system.
God says that we should be live accordingly to the land’s laws – which would be morally correct (Romans 13:1-7), but also says that we must only do so if it doesn’t go against our Christian ethics (as in the story of the 3 men that did not bow down to a false god just because they were told to, and when Daniel did not stop praying to God even though he wasn’t allowed to do so by the authorities).
Romans 13:1-7: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
Also, I’ve made a post that discusses how everybody has faith, despite believing or not in God. If you’re interested, here’s the link: http://mysterytopursue.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/does-truth-exist/
Really enjoyed your comment, mysterytopursue. Will check out your post and thank you!
I’m having a little trouble with your ‘long necked, holding heads up’ analogy. Frankly, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, as you posit no outcomes from the act of holding one’s head in various positions. For us to discuss the morality of holding our head higher, or to the side, we need to know what harm is caused by either doing so or not doing so.
If holding one’s head higher is harmful to others, it is morally bad. If it’s somehow beneficial to others, it is morally good. If it has no real effect on others, it’s morally neutral—in which case the choice to do it or not is merely a matter of personal taste.
Thanks Daz for stopping by. I believe your question reveals your particular view on morality, which is an outcome-based, or pragmatic view.
But I would ask: Even “if holding one’s head higher is harmful to others,” does that make it necessarily morally bad? Or equally, if it somehow benefits others, does that make it necessarily morally good? It may make it undesirable, or desirable, say for those it harms or benefits, but that does not make it necessarily a moral issue. Morality as I understand it concerns itself with what ought be done, not simply a descriptive for what will minimize damage.
However, it would be both if I believe and live by the truth, “that which prevents, or minimizes harm is morally good, and that which causes harm is morally bad.” But to the scientific atheist, holding to such a belief would be completely arbitrary and ultimately meaningless, since in his view, the only thing that exists is matter, and we are products of mere chance.
Thanks again for your comments.
It’s the essence of the golden rule. Treat others as you wish to be treated. I would not like to be harmed, therefore it is in my own interest to help foster an environment where people don’t do unnecessary harm. I like to be helped, therefore I should help foster an environment where people help each other.
This argument requires no instructions from outside the system—from a god, as you’d say—merely the principle of enlightened self-interest.