Atheism and Morality – Can they meet?

If you want to infuriate an atheist, here’s a quick and easy solution: offer the opinion that atheists can’t be morally good. Even more, if you want to lead an atheist right up to the edge of apoplectic infuriation, tell him or her: “You can’t be good without God.”

The science vs. religion debate can generate some pretty animated conversations. And the more specific question of morality seems to generate some of the strongest feelings on both sides – often more heat than light. This particular blog post represents one brief exploration of that contentious question: Can atheists be good?

My answer to the question is, in the first instance, a resounding YES. At one level it’s a simple matter of logic, since what has been done can be done. We all know of good atheists: ipso facto, atheists can be morally good.

Indeed, I don’t doubt that an atheist could live a life that is morally superior to that of religious believer. An atheist may demonstrate a more loving attitude toward her spouse, or a more generous attitude with his money, or greater courage in the face of fear. Without believing in a supernatural source of morality, an atheist can live a life that is morally superior to someone who believes in just such a source.

Having said all of this, however, there is a huge question hanging over this discussion. We have said that the atheist can be morally good, but we haven’t explained how we decide what counts as morally good. We have said that generosity and courage and a loving attitude represent moral goodness, but haven’t explained how we reached that conclusion. Here is the basic question we are asking:

right-way-wrong-way1When we say that some action or way of being in the world is good, what is the basis of that judgment?

How do we decide whether some action or impulse is morally good?

In the wonderfully straightforward language of the elementary schoolyard: “Who says?!”

It’s to this deeper question that I think atheists are going to have a very hard time providing any kind of answer. And let me be clear that the point of this blog post is not to defend my own particular, religiously-defined understanding or moral goodness.  Rather, it is to suggest that atheists often get away with cheap and easy answers to these hard questions.

Where to start? To keep it simple, I’ll shape my reflections around a short article written by Jerry Coyne. He is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and is author of the book Why Evolution is True. The short article I’m responding to was published by USA Today in 2011, and is representative of the basic argument often offered by atheists. The title is “As Atheists Know, you can be good without God,” and it can be found here.

Here is Coyne’s introductory answer to the question of where morality comes from:

Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviours that look all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many others behaviours, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors. 

From this it is evident that the atheist inhabits a contemporary world in which altruism, sympathy, and fairness (“behaving nicely” as he puts it further down) are considered morally good behaviours. And in order to provide some grounding for these moral values, Coyne points to the fact that such behaviours and attitudes have developed as part of human identity through our evolutionary past. Even more, these behaviours have been in some sense ‘programmed’ into us through our developmental history. Coyne is saying:

 evo2_2210436bWhen we look into the mirror of primeval humanity, we see ourselves – and we are good!

But the desperate circularity of this argument is obvious. Even before looking back into our biological and evolutionary history, Coyne has already decided that altruism, sympathy, and fairness are morally good, or desirable, in the human. But the deeper question is: On what basis has he decided these things are morally good –or, that these should be praised and fostered? Where does this prior judgment arise from?

In wrestling with how we should live and act, it is no kind of solution to say: “Well, from the earliest stages human life has evolved or developed in this way.” In fact, a logical and appropriate response to such a statement is: “So what?” That humans might have developed a sense of altruism, fairness, or generosity early in their evolutionary past, or that such behaviours are in some sense ‘built in’ to us, does not answer the question of why we should continue to express such attitudes or act in such ways.

As we all know, it is entirely possible to choose a different kind of life. It is possible to choose a life in which we manipulate family members, exercise raw power over the vulnerable, or pursue our own pleasure. In fact, there are plenty of instances, past and present, where individuals and societies have pursued just these forms of life. What Coyne fails to appreciate is that individuals and communities need deeper reasons to choose one way of life over the another. The kinds of reasons Coyne is at a loss to provide.

Here it’s also interesting that Coyne ignores other, less desirable aspects of human sociality – aspects equally rooted in our early development and identity. For example: bullying, cheating on sexual partners, or even sexual violence. To argue that we should suppress or discourage such behaviour because we know it is immoral simply begs the question: On what basis do you insist they are immoral? Just because someone says so?

At the very most, Coyne can fairly argue that there is some chance we will exhibit some impulse toward altruism and sympathy and fairness (since these impulses are in some sense ‘built in’ to us). And he can also argue that such impulses can be supported and perpetuated in human society. But this isn’t nearly the same as arguing that we should act in this way – or why such behaviour must be preferred. As the philosophers say, there is a massive gap between is (what is the case) and ought (what we ought to do), and Coyne tries to bridge that gap by a slight of hand.

Moving on to the second source of morality identified by Coyne, he argues that society can build upon evolved aspects of human identity by way of rational reflection. He puts it this way: “Secular reason adds another layer atop these evolved behaviors, helping us extend our moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives — even to animals.” At one level this is mere truism since it’s not apparent how humans could build on something that isn’t part of human identity.

But even here, our earlier objection must be reiterated. The question is: Why should society extend its moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives, or to animals. What’s the argument for doing so? Coyne hasn’t bothered to make one – and it’s not at all obvious whether he has anyplace to ground such an argument.

Jules de Balincourt - untitled billboard (dystopia)

Jules de Balincourt – untitled billboard (dystopia)

What Coyne fails to recognize, again, is that human societies require deep reasons to extend sympathy and fairness and compassion beyond our own kin and clan. Further, every culture, historically speaking, has formulated such moral ideals on the basis of deeper metaphysical or theological commitments about human identity and community. David Bentley Hart illuminates the objection I’m formulating when he asks:

Why do [atheists] imagine that a world entirely purged of faith would choose to be guided by moral prejudices remotely similar to their own?

That’s exactly the assumption that Coyne is making. That after all of the historical, religious, and metaphysical scaffolding has been pulled down, he will end up with precisely the moral framework he finds embodied in late-modern, western culture. In this vein, Coyne’s appeal to the Denmark and Sweden as bastions of moral uprightness is nothing short of laughable. He suggests, in fact, that the religious and metaphysical traditions of these countries are somehow inconsequential for their present moral lives – inconsequential to the cultural, personal, and moral development of each citizen. But such an argument shows an astonishing inattentiveness to culture and history.

Picking up on David Bentley Hart’s point, it seems that the rationalistic and evolutionary framework of atheism can offer only a minimalistic and sterile account of identity and morality. The atheist assumes that the emergence of human life in the universe is a biological long-shot – but that, given the sheer vastness of the universe, this biological long-shot has been realized in our little corner of the universe. The atheist also assumes that human life and identity are the result of natural selection – that certain adaptive traits have been privileged over time, leading eventually to the form of life that is the modern human being. And, features of human identity such as friendship and altruism are, therefore, simply adaptive traits – evolutionary happenstance – mere byproduct of the fact that there is something rather than nothing.

Otherwise put: The origins of human life, and its present form, are bare facts of the universe – neither good nor bad – neither something to be celebrated nor bemoaned. They simply are. In fact, the origins and present form of human life are a matter of great indifference in the universe.

Let it be clear that I’m not disagreeing with the view that human life (all life, in fact) has arisen and developed by way of evolution. My point, rather, is that since modern, rationalistic atheism refuses the existence of meaning outside this reductionistic framework, they are cut off from the metaphysically rich traditions of language and morality to which they constantly appeal.

Based on atheistic assumptions, the most that can be done is to offer bare, sterile, and almost mathematical facts about life and the universe. So much for the language of beauty and goodness and virtue and law – which in every human culture have been metaphysically rooted and defined, and to which the atheist no longer has right of appeal.

So much for morality!

This much I do not doubt – that the atheist can be morally good. But this statement owes its truthfulness to an account of human life and morality that the atheist himself cannot sustain.


One thought on “Atheism and Morality – Can they meet?

  1. “they are cut off from the metaphysically rich traditions of language and morality to which they constantly appeal.”

    No we’re not.

    We simply realize that the understanding of the universe and our origins have nothing to do with morality. Morality comes from an understanding of harm and benefit.

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