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Huffpost blogger's embarrassing opinion on atheists and morality

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Pastor Rick Henderson is a pastor and a self-styled "blogger and grace addict." He recently penned an op-ed for the Huffington Post Religious Blog which is so wrong about so many things that it deserves rebuttal. Entitled, "Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist," it would probably more appropriately read, "Why It Is a Bad Thing for Untrained Bloggers to Write About Evolution." Beyond the blatant classism and implied justification for oppression of atheists, it's just painfully wrong about science.

Let's begin:

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

Actually, atheists share only one tenet, which isn't even a worldview in itself: "There is (or probably is) no god." That's it. That is the entirety of the definition of an atheist. An atheist is free to believe that there are spirits, ghosts, vampires, aliens, non-material ferrets that excrete universes, ESP, psychokinesis, and any number of things which may or may not be material or natural. Just no gods. The word is quite simple. "A" is the negation of "theist," which is "person who believes in god(s)." So point 1 is wrong, as are points 2 and 3, which follow logically from point 1. (Give the author props for that.)

Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.

The author has apparently equated "impersonal" with "meaningless." Why he might have done so is beyond me. I have impersonal relationships with any number of people every day, from waitpersons to pharmacists to traffic police, and each of those interactions have meaning.

A good atheist -- that is, a consistent atheist -- recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality.

An atheist must do this only if he does not recognize the leap in logic from "impersonal" to "meaningless." Ironically, Mr. Henderson is about to get one baby step from destroying his own position, but for a lack of scientific understanding.

In a Hail Mary-like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, two possible answers are launched.

1. Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution.

He's right that morality is the result of evolution. He just doesn't seem to know it. In fact, evolutionary theory predicts morality much more precisely than the Bible. Christian... um... theory... doesn't explain why people are sometimes bad, and it doesn't explain why step-parents abuse adopted children more often than they abuse their own. It doesn't explain why human mating across history has been linked to resource availability, and it doesn't explain why most humans both love and despise monogamy. Evolution explains all of these things.

[A] sense of morality evolved to ensure human survival. Much like an eye or tooth, it is necessary for the human race to continue. If this were true, for any claim to be moral, it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children.

Not quite. Morality evolved in many animals because non-zero sum math is more efficient at propagating species than zero-sum math. In short, animals survive better when they work together than when they go it alone. And by the way, morality began to evolve at least as early as pond scum, and lots of animals have it.

Part of the difficulty Mr. Henderson seems to be having is that he misunderstands both evolution and morality. He has probably been raised to believe morality is a set of rules. God doesn't want you to do this. He wants you to do that. That's not what it is, of course. Instead, morality is a complicated and overlapping set of evolutionary behaviors and the emotions that accompany them. We want to protect our young, but the young are a burden because they are not productive. Similarly, our aged can slow us down, but they are fonts of wisdom. We want to have many offspring by many people to ensure diversity, but we also want to keep a good thing when we've found it. We want to be fair to everyone, but we realize that others are not always fair. These are moral dilemmas precisely because morality isn't a list of do's and don'ts.

Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it's always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.

Well, Mr. Henderson, I'd suggest that you're on shaky ground here. Your Bible and the God it portrays clearly order the rape of women and the killing (if not torture) of children. Maybe you skipped that part?

By contrast, secular governments were responsible for things like UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, and in America today, it is the secularists who are fighting tooth and nail for the rights of women to control their own bodies. The evidence seems stacked against you.

Evolutionary theory tells us that non-zero sum mathematics are not 1 for 1 exchanges. A person is not just a "diseased child" and a woman is not just a vagina. Each individual contributes to a society in many ways, and a species harms itself if it picks one trait at a whim and begins eliminating its own. Similarly, when one haphazardly rapes women, women tend to get very angry, and men are forced to either subjugate them or kill them. We've seen how that ends up, and it wasn't pretty. Oh, and it was in your Bible. Remember the entire Old Testament? And how your god had to reformulate the plan?

Second, morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness.

Didn't you just say that morality was about survival of a species, and that we must kill children and rape women? That's not conducive to happiness in any universe I know of. Morality didn't develop for productivity or happiness. It developed for survival. As it turns out, happiness is the emotion evolution developed to motivate us to do moral things. We are happy when we behave morally, so we behave morally more often. It doesn't work all the time because morality is contradictory. We are happy when we get stuff for ourselves, and we are also happy when we give stuff to others. Sometimes, the wires cross, but on the whole, humanity today is much nicer to its own than it has ever been before. We're getting better at the same time that we're getting less religious.

Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code but the ones who intend to change it. This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral -- that is, until they become the majority and institute change.

This idea presumes that all cultures thrive equally, and it is in defiance of evolution. Evolution explicitly predicts that some will thrive and some will fail. Those that have failed the most frequently have been totalitarian, oppressive, abusive, and opposed to human autonomy and dignity. While Scandinavia, Canada, and most of Western Europe have experienced over half a century of peace, oppressive regimes like the Soviet Union and much of the Middle East have been in constant turmoil. The evidence is in the happiness and prosperity of the citizens.

So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don't affirm a national religion. It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.

To be precise, your view of atheist morality doesn't provide good answers, but it's not a view held by most atheists. At least most atheists in the First World (which, by the way, is where you find the overwhelming majority of atheists).

Atheists who take this route start in a position of checkmate without realizing it. First, the temptation is to pervert this conversation into a debate about whether atheists can be moral. Of course they can. That is not the question. The question is how we make sense of moral claims if we play by the rules that atheism demands.

Wait. What? Of course atheists can be moral? So, why are we doing this ludicrous exercise?

Morality may be logical, but logic does not equate to morality. The only way to make a logical moral argument is to presuppose morality and meaning to start with. Try making a logical argument that slavery is wrong without presupposing morality. It is impossible.

Why would I bother with such an absurdity? I do not have to presuppose morality because evolution predicts and explains it. Nor do I have to presuppose evolution because science demonstrates that it is true. Nor do I have to presuppose science because science's predictions are proven because... they work.

All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views. The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points. So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.

Of course an atheist framework allows for these starting points because atheism and science are compatible. Science tells us quite clearly that societies which begin with the dignity of humanity and the goal of individual and collective happiness are the most successful. No vague hand-waving is necessary. It's true, Mr. Henderson, that when the Bible was written, it was impossible to make a moral argument without presupposing morality, but we've learned quite a lot since then. I would encourage you to avail yourself of some of that learning.

If your worldview can't makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it's not worth your allegiance. This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Whatever you believe. You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.

Coming from the guy whose religious apologists have been bending themselves into pretzels trying to explain the Bible's endorsement of slavery, misogyny, child abuse, rape, torture, genocide, and oppression, I can understand why this might seem a daunting task. For someone who has but read a science book or two on the origins of morality, there is no dilemma.



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