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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Atheism and Morality

Numerous times on Sunday mornings we have had occasion to take a look at Romans 1.  I’ve noted more than once that “there is no such thing as a true atheist.”  vv18-20 reveal that God has made Himself known to man through the things that He has made, so that man is without excuse for not worshiping Him. In spite of this, man seeks to suppress that knowledge of God.
So everyone knows that there is a God.  And even the self-proclaimed atheist demonstrates this everyday.  One of the clearest ways is through living his life presupposing absolute moral standards.  Though he may deny they exist, he lives as if there is objective good and evil.  And he is right to do so – it is patently self-evident that objective morality exists. 
But what do we mean by objective?  When we say that something is objective we mean that it is independent of what people think or perceive. 
Here’s an example.  I love olive loaf.  Always have.  (For some reason, its getting harder and harder to find, though.)  Let’s say I go to the deli and ask for a pound of olive loaf.  The gentleman behind the counter is going to cut slices of olive loaf for me and weigh it on a scale.  That scale is going to measure the weight of the meat based on an objective standard: a pound is 16 ounces.  It will do me no good to say to the olive loaf man, “that doesn’t look like a pound to me.”  It doesn’t work that way; a pound is 16 ounces, regardless of anyone’s opinion.  We presuppose such objective standards all the time.
Likewise, there is an objective standard of good and evil, a standard which we presuppose all the time.  For example, we would say that the actions committed by Jeffrey Dahmer – which included drugging 17 men and boys, sexually assaulting them, strangling them, skinning them, dismembering them, keeping their heads and hands in the freezer, making hamburgers out of their flesh, and eating them – we would look at those things and say, “that is evil,” even if Jeffrey Dahmer thought it was good.  Evil is evil regardless of anyone’s opinion.
There is also an objective standard of good.  We recognize that saving a child from starvation is good. It is good whether or not anyone believes it to be so. We recognize good and evil because there is an objective standard of good and evil, which we presuppose, or assume, in our daily lives.  The question is what is the foundation for that objective standard?
The Bible teaches that God Himself is the unchanging, universal, objective, and absolute standard of morality.  God created man in His own image (Gen 1:27).  In doing that, He wrote His law, which is an expression of His own moral character, on the heart of man, in the form of the conscience (Rom 2:14-16).  Everyone intuitively knows right from wrong, because everyone has a conscience because everyone is created in the image of God.  Without God, there would be no objective standard of morality.
When the atheists decry something or someone as immoral or evil, what basis do they have for doing that?  I would propose that they have no basis for doing that, at least no basis consistent with their materialistic worldview.  They are forced to work within the framework of naturalistic evolution, where there are no immaterial values. There are just genes, which program organisms to do whatever necessary to survive and propagate the species. 
Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous and ardent atheists of our day, recognizes this when he says, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference… We are machines for propagating DNA… It is every living object’s sole reason for being.”[1]  In other words, Dawkins follows his worldview to its logical conclusion: evolution provides no objective standard for good and evil.  
So how does he explain morality?  Essentially, Dawkins says that our morality has its roots in evolution, but he admits that the morality based on evolution is inadequate to ground the moral norms of modern society. But this begs the question: if evolution provides no objective standard for good and evil, how does he know it’s inadequate?  You see, he cannot account for an objective standard, but he can’t reason without one.
Dawkins recognizes this is a problem and so he declares that now our morality can be described as a “changing moral zeitgeist.”  That is, what is right and wrong in society is the result of a mysterious consensus that shifts over time.  In other words, what is good and evil is good and evil because we all agree about it.  Dawkins further says that this consensus moves in a consistent direction that most of us would judge to be an improvement.  But again, that begs the question: an improvement according to what standard?  If good and evil are a matter of consensus, how can we say that one consensus is better than another consensus since the consensus itself is what determines what is good?  If Dawkins was being consistent, he wouldn’t say that any morality is better or worse than any other, he would just call them different. 
The notion of morality by consensus becomes obviously preposterous when we apply it to real life.  According to Dawkins’ theory, what Jeffrey Dahmer did was evil because of some mysterious ballot box – it is a consensus that such things are evil.  And it is conceivable that the consensus will shift over time such that there may be a day in the future when people will look back on Dahmer’s actions and think, “What a fine young man.”  But that’s crazy.
Further, a “changing moral zeitgeist” cannot explain the outrage that all people – including atheists – express over the rape, torture, and murder of a child. How does the average person react over such events?  “Hey, you shouldn’t do that…it’s contrary to the consensus”?   NO!  We are outraged because we know intuitively that such things are objectively EVIL!
There must be an objective, absolute standard of morality.  Otherwise any kind of moral judgment is completely groundless.  The atheist’s problem is that he cannot account for that objective standard within his own worldview.  But if you read closely the writings of prominent atheists, you will notice that they cannot do without it.
So even when an atheist claims that the God of the Bible is evil, a God whom he claims does not even exist, he presupposes an objective standard of morality that only the existence of God can explain. 

[1]Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books/Harper Collins, 1995) 132-33.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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