Atheism and Ethics

Before the last Canadian federal election, I signed up with the excellent conglomerate of bloggers known as Blogging Tories. This collection of Canadian bloggers provided a means for me to keep up to date on the latest election issues observed from a political perspective that I share. Since the Conservatives have assumed the government of Canada, I haven’t been on Blogging Tories as much. Every once in a while, however, I do check it out to see what’s going. Recently as I scanned the various blogs, I noticed one called The Atheist Conservative. Interested as I am both in conservative politics and atheism, I commented on the blog – although due to time restraints and a terrible connection, I haven’t followed up with any responses.
Right now I’m sitting in a downtown coffee shop and it dawned on me that I should see what The Atheist Conservative has been saying of late. There is no doubt that Lore Weaver (pseudonym) is an intelligent person and has a number of thoughtful posts.
One post dealt with Richard Dawkins and discussed the relationship between morality and atheism. In it he expressed his disgust with the “bigotry” that is directed towards atheists by the religious, “It insults me that there are people out there who believe that atheists have no moral code.” I posted a comment, but then, unfortunately, never went back to check out how Lore replied. In my comment I asked him where he thought morality came from if not from God. I indicated that I find ethics to be one of the hardest things for atheists to account for.
Lore kindly responded to my question by recognising that he (or she, I’m not sure because of the pseudonym) did not know where morality came from. “A lot of it is just common sense” he said. He believes he is a good person, but isn’t sure why that is. I appreciate the honesty, because I don’t think that atheism can actually provide the answer.
In my comment I agreed with him strongly that it is wrong to argue that atheists can’t be moral; an argument which is both ludicrous and beside the point. Of course atheists can be moral. Surely there are atheists that live a more consistently moral life than some Christians – Lore has had some fun pointing out Ted Haggard’s hypocrisy, which may be a case in point. My question to him had nothing to do with questioning the morality of atheists, but how does an atheist account for such morality.
Towards an answer, Lore referred me to Dawkins’ recent book The God Delusion, where the esteemed Oxford professor has argued that morality comes from an evolved “meme.” The issue of the scientific validity of a meme is not relevant to what I’m about to say, so I will merely point the reader to Alister McGrath on memes here. Even if a meme is scientifically plausible, which I don’t believe it is, my concerns still stand.
If morality is a product of evolution, a number of questions arise that make this position difficult for the atheist.
First of all, Lore assumes the solidarity of humanity as a species regarding morality. He says, “If we didn’t evolve to help our fellow humans, would humans have survived at all?” We humans somehow, somewhere agreed to moral living as a means of aiding the evolutionary process; all for the betterment of our species. But is this really the case? Does recent history bear this out? I’m sure that Nazi Germany considered itself as part of the greater human community helping us progress when it massacred millions of Jews. So too did Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and Imperial Japan. All involved in these recent atrocities were part of the human species, and wanted to better the world through violent (I would say immoral) means. Though they might have thought they were helping humanity along (i.e. the Nazi’s thought that those they exterminated were lesser beings), surely Lore would agree that they were not. But whose standard of morality is the correct one? Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Lore Weaver’s? If we’re all part of the human race, and are all working towards our evolutionary growth, shouldn’t there be one standard way of accomplishing this end? If there are multiple ways of accomplishing it, are some good and some bad? Who decides and how? Are we all really unified as humans looking toward the great end of higher evolution?
Be that as it may, I’m not really concerned to press that point too much. This is a flaw in Lore’s thinking, but I’m sure if pushed to the wall, he may change his mind. Rather the Achilles heal of his, and all atheist argumentation, when it comes to ethics has to do with evolution itself.
This brings me to my second point: if morality is merely part of an evolutionary process, ethics are then reduced to biology. Morals cannot be viewed as objective, universal standards or laws, that apply at all times in all places. Rather they are merely biological reactions that occur within the human being, not unlike the process of digestion. Now, it may seem reductionistic to compare my decision not to kill my neighbour with the burp I let out after drinking a soda, but there is a reasonable comparison. If I my moral action is determined by my biological make-up, my standard of morality is not the same as anybody elses. Just as my fingerprints are unique, so too is my morality. Because we all would have different moral standards, how do we determine which is right and which is wrong? I may be biologically determined to believe that abortion is morally wrong, but Lore may be biologicall determined to believe that abortion is morally right (see here). Who is right on this and who isn’t? By what standard? I appeal to the God of the Bible who decreed that it is wrong for one human to murder another. If the appeal is merely to evolution, we get nowhere because my evolutionary process dictates one set of morals, and maybe Lore’s dictates another.
The third problem is somewhat related to the second. When it comes to morality, if atheism is true, why should one care about right and wrong? If our current human condition is only part of the process and we’re only hunks of flesh and bone with some organs and muscles, my significance is that of any other animal. Is our significance any greater than the ant I may have stepped on while walking to the coffee shop? By what standard does Lore appeal to when he tells me that I should care about the well-being of other animals? Why shouldn’t I seek to get ahead in the world by kicking others down the evolutionary ladder? I’m an ant amongst other ants struggling for personal survival.
In the Christian view of things, all humans are significant because they are created in God’s image. Their dignity is directly related to the fact that they image their Creator. Alongside this is the fact that humans are also redeemable, and though they have fallen in sin, they also have the propensity to be redeemed by placing their faith in the Son of God. Dignity is related to God, therefore it is wrong to commit murder. This is the standard I appeall to.
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