Atheists, Morality, and Blind Indifference

As I write this, a terrorist has exploded a bomb at the Boston marathon, killing some and wounding many dozens more. I recall after the 9/11 terrorist acts in Washington, afterward some people were driven toward God and some were driven away. Those driven toward God were reminded of the need for comfort and guidance. Those who were driven away often spoke of the problem of evil, asking how God could have allowed such tragedy.

This blog has spoken many times of the problem of evil (just search for evil or morality in the search box). Christians are often put on the defensive, supplying answers to questions about God, good, power, and evil. Some accept these answers, some do not.

However we view the Christians’ answer, it is far superior to the atheist explanation for the grounding of morality. While we all know that every atheist has a system of morality, they do not have a sufficient explanation for the grounding of that morality. Popular atheist spokesman Richard Dawkins, speaking at a national rally in Washington, explained his position quite clearly, saying “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” He did not completely believe this, of course, for in the same short talk he blamed religion for being evil, having just said that evil does not exist.

But if we were to be consistent with Dawkins’ first statement, then the universe has, at bottom, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. This might be interesting discussions in the ivory tower hallways of distant discussion, but is inadequate to discuss right after a funeral. No, it is even worse, for to say, on the day of a funeral of a murdered loved one, that there is no evil and no good, is a horrible morality worse than anything an Old Testament God could be accused of, for it not only says that every dastardly deed is not evil, but tells us we should look on it with blind indifference. I trust Dawkins and his followers do not truly believe this, nor should they.

I trust Dawkins would look on terrorist acts and say that when he made his speech in Washington he did not intend for that to apply. But if it does not apply to evil acts, then where does it apply? Perhaps the statement only applies to “sort-of” evil acts, or to only certain evil acts but not others, or to some surface good but not ultimate good. In any case it would appear quite difficult to have blind pitiless indifference only sometimes and other times show compassion.

A much more satisfactory explanation is that of Aquinas, who, 750 years earlier, told us that we cannot have a better without having a best, we cannot distinguish between greater and lesser goods without having an ultimate good to measure them against. We therefore hold that both good and evil exist, and that we, as part of the universe, ought not be pitiless.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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30 Responses to Atheists, Morality, and Blind Indifference

  1. Nate says:

    What makes one thing more “red” than another? Do we have a cosmically-determined definition of “red?”. Or do we, through experience, have a common notion of what red looks like?

    I think morality works in much the same way. We don’t need a cosmically-determined definition of “evil” to know that the attack in Boston was evil. We have the power to define evil in our own society — in fact, that’s exactly what has happened with every society throughout human history. There are some things we agree are evil today that weren’t considered such a thousand years ago. And vice versa.

    And if we compare this idea of evil to what the Bible teaches, I think it’s the Bible that falls short. At least no one I’m aware of thinks God commanded the bombings in Boston. The same can’t be said for some of the horrors recorded in the Old Testament, which as a Christian, you probably don’t consider evil.

    • humblesmith says:

      We do indeed learn that a thing is more or less red by experiencing it, but we can only do so by having a concept of what is maximum. If we did not have a concept of maximum, we would not be able to tell which is more and which is less. If we did not have a maximum, we would be forever locked into a series of unconnected individual experiences, unable to compare them or make universal conclusions. So the instance of making a determination of an individual item is done by experiencing that item, but the only way we can make that determination is to have a series of items (a set, if you will) and have something that is the maximum member of the set to compare it to.

      So for goodness, we have to have a maximum good, or we cannot determine that individual acts of goodness are more or less good. If this is denied, as you have suggested, “we have the power to define evil in our society” then we cannot define evil for the society next door, and we end in pure situational ethics.

      But every human has a sense that some things are wrong across all societies….a universal sense of good. Even if we were to not consider what individual acts are wrong, just the fact that we all have a sense that the other society does wrong things is evidence that we have a universal sense of good and evil. This is why Dawkins is inconsistent.

      As for the Old Testament commment, as the post states, this seems to be the favorite red herring to shift focus away from the fact that atheism has no grounding for morality. Even if the Old Testament were wrong, it does not explain the worse problem atheism has. If you truly believed consistently, you’d have to say that the Old Testament is neither good nor evil. You can only say anything is evil by borrowing from theism and assuming a universal good.

      • Mike says:

        Of course atheism has a grounding for morality. Certain moral actions will lead to either an increase or a decrease in unnecessary suffering – and that will be an objective fact that supersedes all cultures and human opinions. So the commanded genocide and slavery of the bible clearly increased unnecessary suffering at the expense of thousands.

        Don’t tell me that only theism can tell good from evil. Religion gets all of its morality from man – that’s why every religion invented incorporates the moral norms of the society it was invented in at the time it was invented. So if you look at Mormonism, it incorporates racism towards black people because that existed in America at that time. If you look at Christianity, it incorporates slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death homosexuals, some adulterers, witches, unruly children – things we all consider immoral now – why? Because these were the moral norms at that time.

        And how do you know something is good or evil epistemologically? What methodology do you have available for discerning good from evil to you that I as a non-believer am devoid of?

        • humblesmith says:

          You know, Mike, I guess I’ll have to keep repeating this forever: Atheists do indeed know good from evil. The first premise of the moral argument for God is that all people do indeed know good from evil. The argument I’ve made several times in this blog is that atheists do not have sufficient basis for their morality. The entire point is ontological, not epistemological. The argument is that you do know good from evil, you just have to borrow from theism to have a basis for it.

          And your first point, that certain moral actions lead to increase or decrease in suffering, assumes the moral stance from the beginning that we ought not suffer, which is the entire point you’re trying to prove. And again the best you can do is criticize the Bible rather than explain the atheist position that we start with “nothing but blind indifference” and end up saying we ought not suffer.

          • Mike says:

            I’ve given you a foundation for the objectivity of moral values. I have not at all tried to dodge any ontological foundation for morality. Morality is founded in nature, in the in real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of our moral actions hold the objective foundation. No deity required.

            I am in no way forced to borrow from theism to know this. Theism actually ruins morality because every religion ever invented contains within it, moral commandments that do harm others. So are we obligated to harm others? For example, Leviticus 20:13 commands that homosexual acts be punishable by death. Is this morally right and obligatory?

            And the increase and decrease in suffering is merely a fact that I am asserting. From this fact, we can derive a moral value system. And yes I do say that we ought not to increase suffering, because it’s also a fact that if we did that, society as a whole would be better off. Isn’t a moral system founded on evidence and reason better than one founded on an appeal to authority, which is what you’re doing? Why am I obligated to obey the bible if I don’t believe in god and if we cannot confirm the positive benefits to society of doing so?

            Finally, the mentally handicapped, psychopaths and sociopaths cannot physiologically make moral decisions that a regular normal free moral agent would. So how does that fit into your theistic worldview of god’s plan? If the purpose of this world is for it to be populated by free moral agents, who can make moral decisions and be held accountable for it through god’s grace, then why is it that hundreds of millions of people alive today cant even make moral decisions? Call it god’s flaw.

  2. Bethany says:

    Thank you for writing this post. I think that is an important point about where the two philosophies you mention logically lead.

    • Bob Vance says:

      If you wish to only associate yourself with those who agree with you, I would argue that your quest for knowledge seems to be more about affirmation of your world views. You didn’t need to ban me from your site. A simple “Not interested in a discussion with you” would have been enough. Good luck.

      • humblesmith says:

        You have not been banned. Comments with links get caught in the spam filter until I get around to reviewing them. With my busy schedule, sometimes this takes a while.

        • Bob Vance says:

          Sorry – that comment was meant for Bethany.

          “http://bethanywrotesomething.wordpress.com/ is marked private by its owner. If you were invited to view this site, please log in below. Read more about privacy settings.”

  3. I cannot see how the lack of an ultimate good or evil preclude a person from judging something to be good or evil. There seems to be a gaping logical chasm there.

    • humblesmith says:

      If you deny this, then you must explain how to get gradations along a continuum without the continuum to measure against. Any time we measure objects as “more” and “less,” we have to have a third thing, the scale, to use to measure them against. Without the scale, you cannot measure one as more or less than the other. If you have a scale, you have a maximum along the scale.

      Therefore if we measure something as more or less good, we have to have a standard of good to measure them against. This standard has to have an ultimate good or it is not a standard.

      Of course, all this is still avoiding the main point of the post, which is that the atheist has no grounding for his system of morality, and if we take statements like that of Dawkins at face value, then it is far more egregious and insufficient than anything Christians have ever been accused of.

      • @joesw0rld says:

        All that is needed to judge is a standard, which everybody has. Why would an ‘ultimate good’ be necessary?

        Everybody has subjective standards, and there are various objective standards springing from things like culture, upbringing and tradition.

        The morality of atheists is grounded in these things, as is everybody else’s. No ultimate standard is necessary or evidenced.

      • Nate says:

        Humblesmith,

        To further prove Joe’s point, if we got our ultimate standard of morality from something like the Bible, you wouldn’t feel compelled to rationalize the brutality of the OT, because it wouldn’t seem like brutality at all. It would seem completely moral, simply because “God” commanded it. But because you do feel that it (at least on the surface) seems immoral to command the slaughter of infants and children, you are obviously getting your morality from the same cultural and social norms that the rest of us do. No deity required.

        • humblesmith says:

          Neither of you have rationalized the pure relativism that self-refutes your position. Further, it would appear you haven’t dealt with the original post because your position has no answer for it. The best you can do is continue to criticize Christianity.

          • Well, as a relativist, pure relativism does not refute my position. Nor does it prevent me from judging something to be good or evil. My questions are;

            Why would that prevent me from passing judgement? (It doesn’t seem to, because I can.)

            What do you mean by “sufficient explanation of the grounding of that morality”, and why are the various (cultural, traditional) groudings insufficient?

            Why is an “ultimate good” necessary in order to have a standard? Take for example the various trading laws of different countries, they are various standards, measuring the same thing, contain no “ultimate” good, and yet we judge by them regularly.

          • humblesmith says:

            Since the self-refuting nature of relativism is a bit off-topic for this post, I’ve attempted to explain it in another post. See here: http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/relativism-is-self-refuting/

            As for the grounding of morality, as the post states, if we hold that the universe (which by definition includes everything in the universe) has no evil and no good, then we have no grounds for morality, since there is no evil and no good. Dawkins would then hold to blind pitiless indifference, as he stated. Such a position takes away any grounding for morality, and any ground for juding anyone else evil or good. If we say that we have a grounding for morality, whether it be cultural or traditional, then we have denied blind indifference, and held that there is evil and good. This is an either/or: either the universe shows no good and no evil, or it does show evil and good. This is a fundamental principle of logic (the law of excluded middle). The only possible way out is to say that evil exists in some sense but not others, but the original statement was categorical and applied to the entire universe. If we say some morality exists but not others, the original statement by Dawkins is denied.

            As for your last question, “Why is an “ultimate good” necessary in order to have a standard?” the answer is rather straightforward. If we have a standard, such as a ruler, a measure, or anything that measures objects against a standard, then by definition that standard must have an end to the standard. All standards have a range, or a level of tolerance, or a guage…..that is what a standard is…if there were no end, there would not be a standard. If we are to talk about a thing being clean or dirty, we can only have meaningful conversations if we have a concept of a dirt-free thing. Even if we were to say “all things have some degree of dirt, none are perfectly clean” we still have not changed the issue. Even if we can only achieve a practical measure of “almost clean” we still have an ultimate in our standard, and “almost clean” is our ultimate acheivable. But even “almost clean” is still only meaningful if we have a standard of “totally clean” to measure it against. If there were no “totally clean” we would not be able to meaningfully discuss the concept of “almost clean”……it would be a meaningless term.

            In the end, when we deny the ultimate good, who is God, we end up in self-refuting circles.

  4. Mike says:

    It’s funny. The terrorists were motivated by guess what – religion. Yes that’s right. Religion. Their “objective” morality allows the killing of nonbelievers in the name of god. The only way a divine command theorist like you could disagree with them, is to say their god isn’t real. But if their god is real, you’d have to believe killing in the name of god is objectively right. I have no such obligation.

    • humblesmith says:

      If funny how you keep misrepresenting my position but not responding to the post.

      • Mike says:

        Misrepresenting? You’re characterizing all atheists by the words of Richard Dawkins, as if he’s the spokes person for hundreds of millions of atheists around the world. Would it be fair if I paraded a Calvinist and said he represents what all Christians think? No! You must distinguish the fact that SOME atheists think like Dawkins, but not all of us. Atheism is diverse when it comes to ethical philosophy, and Dawkins is no philosopher, he’s a biologist.

        And, if you took his words in contexts you’d know that the “blind pitiless indifference” he’s speaking about is from the perspective of nature – not man. Nature is indifferent, as it always is, but man need not be indifferent to the plight of human and animal suffering. That’s what makes us human.

        • humblesmith says:

          So you’re saying that there is something about humans that is not part of physical nature, and that we can generate actions without a prior cause? I hope so, because if you are, you’ve just proven the main premise of the theist’s position. If you’re not, then we are right back to where we started, which is that humans are part of physical nature and all things in nature are due to physics and chemistry, which is “nothing but” blind pitiless indifference.

          • Mike says:

            Absolutely not, we are indeed fundamentally all physics and chemistry, but there’s a difference between a human and a rock. Humans are alive, they can respond emotionally and physically to their environment, they can suffer and die, rocks cannot. If you cannot tell that difference, you need to reboot your brain. Furthermore, there is nothing supernatural required in order to respond emotionally and physically to the environment.

          • humblesmith says:

            You should get up to date on what is taught by naturalists about human freedom, which is denied flat out. Search for my posts that mention the Center for. Naturalism. If the universe is causally closed, as is claimed, there is no room for humans being fundamentally different than their environment. Or so the naturalists / materialists would claim, and we would deny.

          • Mike says:

            Are you telling me that a naturalist has to deny that life exists? Hell no. How could we search for life on other planets if that’s so? A naturalist doesn’t have to commit to determinism. I don’t. But I’d like to know what evidence do you have that matter is not causally determined?

          • humblesmith says:

            Regarding the concept of “causally determined” I presume you are dealing with whether all matter and actions, people included, are predetermined by natural causes. This is what is taught by naturalists / materialists. This involves the question of whether agency exists, and I did an eight part series defending human agency against causally determined naturalism. Part 1 was for Christians, so I’d suggest you begin with part two:
            http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/the-argument-against-agency-part-2/

            You might also try here:
            http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/if-naturalism-how-then-free-will-how-then-morals/

  5. Bob Vance says:

    This topic seems to have already been brought up, so for the sake of those who may read this one but not my comment at http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/is-evolution-a-sufficient-explanation-for-morality/ I will repost here.

    Groups that accepted stealing would not flourish as well as groups that punished it. Eventually, over time, all groups would learn that stealing is bad for the group. Stealing, like murder, are bad for society. A group cannot arbitraily change that. It would be a universal truth [and as such, would be fully "grounded".]

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