The December 2008 issue of Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society has an article by Gary Habermas that evaluates atheistic teachings, especially those of popular authors Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. In responding to Harris’ claims that atheism can have objective morality, Habermas includes the following statement:
“I wonder if philosophically-inclined atheists cringe when they read Harris’s words. In discussions of ethical theory, one will almost never find philosophical atheists who argue for absolute ethical standards. The chief reason they deny intrinsically grounded, absolute ethical standards seems to be rather obvious: objective moral standards cannot be expected to result from an atheistic, evolutionary system grounded in the impersonal principles of the improbably but chance development of life. Rather, atheists almost always argue that societies develop their own morality, often declaring that the underlying principles are something like those of pragmatic utilitarianism. But on atheism, no ethical principle is intrinsically right or wrong, and morality is not objective.”
“At the very least, Harris seems unaware of the philosophical discussions within his own worldview and uses his terms carelessly and without the proper precision. But if he insists that he indeed has strong grounds for his claims that morality is objective in nature, he cannot explain this sort of ethics within his atheistic system. Further, theists will rejoice because his concession has actually backfired into granting the most important premise in the construction of a moral argument for God’s existence.”
I think Habermas is correct. The atheists who admit that their system provides no morality at all are at least consistent. The ones who try to build a case for objective morality must live with an inconsistency. They claim we are but mere piles of molecules, arranged by chance over time. But how can one pile of molecules do something “wrong” to another pile of molecules? There is something deep inside us that screams out that, by golly, some things are just evil, and some things just ought to be done. But as soon as we claim something is evil, or some other thing “ought” to be done because it is right, then we have to explain where we got this idea of evil or oughtness. For when we use these terms we’re not saying that I just don’t like what you’re doing to me, but that what you’re doing is truly evil. And we’re saying that some things ought to be done because those things are truly good, not that it just feels good to me, or helps me reproduce.
So I’ve always been facinated by the atheists idea of defending moral absolutes. They take up a host of social causes because they are right, but then turn around and say that humans are nothing more than a pile of molecules in motion. Find a gaggle of atheists and pose the question “Do you believe in moral absolutes?” To those who say no, ask them if it’s OK to slowly torture little puppies to death for fun. To those who say such things are wrong, ask them on what do they ground their morality? For if we are mere accidents of nature, what differnce does it make what one being does to another being? Forces of nature, such as gravity, can act universally and absolutely, but we don’t say that these things are “right” or “wrong.” As soon as anyone introduces “ought” or “wrong” then they have snuck God in the side door and called Him something else.
(I must always end these statements with the same notation: We are not saying all atheists are immoral. Nothing could be further from the truth; there are many very decent atheists. What we are saying is that they have no philosophical grounding for their morality, and when they hold things to be right and wrong they are inconsistent at best. )