Religious leaders love to talk about how atheists can’t be moral and yet surprisingly few religious leaders have actually taken the time to study the philosophy of ethics. Many haven’t even bothered to crack an introduction to moral philosophy book. The latest pseudo-intellectual anti-atheist propaganda comes from Pastor Rick Henderson. I apologize in advance to the lengthy of my rebuttal.
In his Huffington Post article, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,” Pastor Rick attempts to define his straw man atheist, quote mines a handful of popular atheists, and then attempts to spout out a bunch of “logical” conclusions about how atheists can’t account for morality.
Pastor Rick starts his magnum opus by attempting to read the reader’s mind – Always a great start for someone claiming divine knowledge:
“You clicked on this post for one of two reasons. Either you're hoping that I'm right or you know that I'm wrong.”
In my case, it was the latter. Well done, Pastor Rick. Let me try. If you are reading this it is because you either agree with my title or you don’t. Wait a minute; there are no other options to the binary question. Pastor Rick continues:
“Allow me to issue a challenge. I contend that any response you make will only prove my case.”
Okay, consider you case proven then, because I am about to respond. But before I do, let me assert without any argument or evidence that any counter-response will prove me right and you wrong. So there! This is the type of childish claims made by religious leaders desperate to hold on to their strangle hold on people in an internet age when any assertion they make can be Googled or looked up on Wikipedia.
Let’s define the term “worldview.” I’m going to go with Wikipedia on this instead of just making up my own definition like Pastor Rick:
“A comprehensive world view (or worldview) is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society's knowledge and point-of-view.”
For a fundamentalist religious believer, it makes sense to have a “worldview,” but for everyone else, life is just a bit more complicated. Most people don’t orientate their worldview based on one book or identity. Yes, I am an atheist but that isn’t all that I am nor is my atheism or “materialism” the filter I use to see the world. While I do acknowledge that reality is all that is real – as the word suggests, I don’t think I would go as far as to call that my “fundamental cognitive orientation.”
Next, the author creates the straw man in which he will attempt to strike down:
“Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations…” (The universe is purely material, The universe is scientific, and The universe is impersonal.)
Not really, no. Atheists can believe in all sorts of supernatural/spiritual crap as long as that crap doesn’t include a deity. I have met many atheists who aren’t very scientific minded at all, but reject the concept of a god for reasons aside from the fact that it is a slap in the face of science. There are also atheists out there who don’t know anything about the universe or even care to know about the universe. They don’t think the universe is personal or impersonal, they just don’t care. The fact is that the only necessity that an atheist has to express is the lack of belief in any deities.
To be fair to the pastor, most atheists – especially those who are in the greater atheist movement do fit his three pronged expression of atheism, but they are by no means a necessity for all atheists. For the sake of argument, I will cut him some slack on this one. You got me Pastor Rick, I do indeed hold the view that the universe is made of stuff, that we can analyze that stuff and try to make sense of it, and that it doesn’t give a damn about what my favor Television show is or what I ate last night for dinner.
Now let me clarify this a little bit. I don’t think I am going out on a limb in claiming that there isn’t some magical hidden aspects to reality that cannot be experienced in any measurable way. That’s what we are talking about when we claim that the universe is made of stuff or that it is purely material. We are simply claiming that there is no literal magic in the universe. Harry Potter’s wand is just a stick.
The universe is scientific in the sense that it is what it is and that human beings have created a method for better describing the universe and how it works. It isn’t that the universe works the way science wants it to work; it is that science has evolved to more accurately understand the way the universe actually is. If the theory of gravity suddenly failed us, we would investigate why that might be. What other factors might have caused gravity to no longer work the way we would expect. We would use the method of science to figure it out. If the universe was completely random and anything could happen at any moment including the suspension of what we call natural laws, then life couldn’t exist… or at least couldn’t exist for very long. We certainly wouldn’t have been able to learn anything about the universe since the universe would be completely random and there would be nothing that could be learned. The fact that people across the world can read this article is evidence that science works.
Finally, the universe is impersonal. Let’s put this in the context of religious history. There was a time when religious believers held that the Earth was the center of the universe and that God created the entire universe just for us. We have since learned through science – although I don’t know if the good pastor would agree – that we are not the center of the universe. In fact, the Earth is one tiny planet orbiting an average sized star in the corner of an average sized galaxy. We are a fraction of a grain of sand orbiting a single grain of sand on a vast beach that we call the universe and while I hope that someday humans will begin to travel outside our tiny solar system and visit other worlds, it is doubtful that we could ever visit all of them. If a deity made the entire universe just for us, it is a ridiculous waste of space. If God exists, he is terribly inefficient. And then there is the problem of evil. If the “universe” is personal, then the “universe” is a real jerk. I mean there are diseases everywhere and our human bodies are so frail and susceptible to elements. Millions of people are born with deformities and many would die shortly after birth if it wasn’t for the scientific advancements we have made in medicine and health. Even with those scientific advancements many still die cruelly and needlessly.
Now that we got the preliminaries out of the way, we can move on to the main assertion:
“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.”
Here I am going to have to disagree with the dear pastor – mainly on the subject of the meaning. While it is true that these events are meaningless to the universe -- which as far as we know isn’t a conscious being capable of assigning meaning, these events do have meaning to us. Let me put it this way; a rock couldn’t care less if a tree falls in the woods, but the squirrel that lives in that tree certainly does care. For that squirrel, the tree falling is not meaningless at all. A young girl being rescued from sexual slavery has meaning to me. In fact, any person being rescued from any kind of slavery has meaning to me. Do you know what else has meaning to me? The fact that passages of the Bible support both sexual slavery and slavery in general has meaning to me. That’s one of the reasons why I argue against religion in the first place.
And here comes the projection:
“At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.”
No, morality is humanities use of empathy and compassion to form social contracts which allow use to thrive as a society and individually. It isn’t any more delusional than any other human construct. As human beings evolve socially, we evolve ethically. As we expand our definition of “the tribe” we extend our empathy further and further. This in turn allows us to feel compassion for more and more sentient creatures. The goal is to make life better! I guess someone who views all human beings as wretched, evil sinners could look at this as protecting us from a “cold sting of despair,” but I see it as human beings evolving into better human beings.
Psychic Henderson returns to predict that atheists will call him out on his straw man:
“For those of you who think you're about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following:..”
…A handful of cherry picked quotes from a few atheists one of whom is Richard Dawkins. Here is the thing; I don’t really care. This is an attempt to argue by authority and yet there is no authority here. Dawkins isn’t the Pope of atheism. That aside, I completely agree with all three of these quotes within their proper context -- a context that the author doesn’t even seem to understand.
“Based on the nonnegotiable premises of atheism, these are the only logical conclusions.”
Actually, I think I just negotiated those premises away. Still, Pastor Rick is going to limit my options with his limited conclusions. Please, proceed.
Either, “Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution.” Or “Morality is logical.”
Now to blow the pastor’s mind; I submit that both are true. Humans are social creatures. Talking about the first of his “logical conclusions,” Henderson asserts:
“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.”
While we evolved to have morality so that we could better work together as a tribe to survive; our morality has also evolved. Our tribe has grown and become much more complex. Now, we feel empathy for those who are dying because we know that we ourselves will someday die. As a result, we can extend our compassion for those who are suffering and/or dying. Mentally handicapped children aren’t going to slow down the tribe and prevent us from escaping a predator anymore. On the other hand, these children are part of our tribe and so we can easily extend our compassion to them. Contrary to the biblical belief that women are chattel created by God to serve man’s needs, I see women as fellow human beings with equal rights to mine. I won’t want to be raped and so my compassion obviously informs me that rape is immoral. On the other hand… the Bible doesn’t have a single commandment outlawing rape. Am I to understand that God places a higher priority on not working on the Sabbath than on not raping a woman? Of course, God does order Moses to rape and pillage (Numbers 31:17-18), so I guess Pastor Rick is pro-rape… under certain situation. I guess he must believe that morality is relative to God’s whim.
Moving on to conclusion two:
“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. A woman wrote to me with her attempt at doing just that. Her claim was that slavery is logically wrong because it diminishes other human beings. The problem is that that argument presupposes human dignity.”
We are human beings therefore we presuppose human dignity. Human dignity is in our self-interest. Being social is our evolutionary advantage just as it is for ants and bees. Here is the problem, ants and bees don’t have brains as complex as we do. They are pretty simplistic -- eat, build, procreate, and repeat. We evolved a bit differently so our morality has evolved to fit our complexity. Slavery is logically wrong because it diminishes our dignity. Our mirror-neurons allow us to empathize with the slave and so our compassion for the slave logically follows from our empathy and our morality logically follows from that. But if we view all of humanity as slaves to the Lord God, then who cares? The fact that someone is a slave must be God’s will and Thy will be done, right?
I could end this right here. This rebuttal is certainly long enough as it is… but I think it might be fun to turn this whole thing around on the “good” pastor – I mean, can there really be a “good” Christians? Where do Christians get their morality from? It sure isn’t from the Bible. After all, the Bible has a whole lot of stuff that no modern day moral believe actually follows or beliefs. No one is getting stoned to death for adultery for example. People work all the time on the Sabbath and I don’t see any Christians calling for their executions and yet that one was even in the Ten Commandments – you know God’s top ten rules that were so important that he literally wrote them in stone.
Now I’m going to put on my psychic hat and predict that Pastor Rick will claim that Jesus fulfilled “the law” and that the Old Testament doesn’t apply any more. Well, that is certainly one interpretation, but it is a selective one.
It seems that God wasn’t so clear about what is morally right and wrong after all. Consider that so many Christians disagree about moral issues like abortion, homosexuality, the role of women, and many other issues. We really need to ask, how do we know what God commands? That is the real problem with believing in deities, you never really know what they want. From what I can tell, God seems to communicate by one of two ways, either by divine revelations or through divine texts.
When it comes to divine revelation things get pretty problematic pretty quickly. You will find that there are often stories in the news of someone murdering their child because they had a divine revelation. How can you tell if someone had a divine revelation or is just crazy? There really is no objective way. Borrowing Pastor Rick's psychic cap again, I predict he will claim that all divine revelations must match up with scripture which brings us to the second way God seems to communicate.
Divine texts like the Bible have a whole new set of problems. The Bible was written a long time ago and we don’t even have the original verses. Over the years, the individual texts have been recopied over and over again complete with people’s deliberate and accidental changes. People seem to have revised the texts to fit their own personal philosophies, beliefs, or situations. Plus, people have also miscopied and mistranslated words as the text moved from language to language and copy to copy. As a result, people’s religious frameworks have become entirely dependent on their interpretation of inaccurate “Holy Scriptures.” With so many changes and translations and interpretations of the divine holy book, it is impossible to really know what God truly desire if God even had anything at all to do with the writing of the Holy Book in the first place.
Even if we could deal with those issues, the problem doesn’t get any better. God allegedly defines objective morality and this causes a host of other problems. What if God changed his mind? The pastor might argue that God wouldn’t change his mind because God is perfect or God is his character or some such nonsense. But the Bible claims in numerous places that God does change his mind. But that too is beside the point. The real issue isn’t whether he will change his mind, but rather whether he could change his mind if he so desired? If God did change his mind, then morality would change with God. This doesn’t seem very "objective" to me. In fact, it sounds a lot like moral relativism. If God declared tomorrow that rape was now morally good, I really don’t think it would be so, but if God is indeed the moral grounder, the moral law giver, etc., than all morality is relative to God’s whim. So where is this objective morality? It seems like for Christians like Pastor Henderson, morality can change on a mere whim and we might not even know it unless God divinely reveals it to us.
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