Another blog post about atheists and morality. Before I start, let me respond to the inevitable criticism that always seems to come up. I affirm that atheists teach morality; I deny that atheists are nessesarily immoral. OK, I said it. I always have to say this because so many people, theists and atheists alike, don’t grasp the central point of the moral argument. We’re not saying that atheists are immoral; quite the contrary, we’re saying they can’t help but be moral, for there is a universal moral law. The moral argument says that atheists are moral,, but they have no grounds for their morality outside of a moral law giver. But I digress…….I just want to repeat again: I affirm that atheists teach morality, as do all other cultures, Christian and non-Christian.
Now today’s post is taken from one that C. S. Lewis expressed, most likely much better than me. But here goes:
If I have a tree in my yard, I might say this is a “bad” tree. But when I say it is a bad tree, I would mean that it didn’t make shade, or it was shaped wrong, or smelled bad, or leaned over my house. But one thing I would not mean is that the tree was morally bad, for we do not hold that trees have morals. If the tree dropped a limb and killed the bratty neighbor kid, we would not hold the tree morally responsible. We would understand why the tree grew the way it did if we understood the natural forces upon it….wind, rain, sun.
However if I were to kill the bratty neighbor kid myself, I would be held morally responsible, for we hold that people ought not do such things. But wait a minute, where did we get this idea of “ought?” If all that exist are natural forces, would they not act on me as well as the tree? Are we not taught that somewhere earlier in the biological system, there was a chance mutation on some cell, and the branch that resulted in the tree went one way, and the branch that resulted in me went the other? Therefore what is the fundamental difference between me and the tree? The naturalists tell me that nothing exists but molecules in motion, and B. F. Skinner tells me that I am the result of a long series of stimuli and responses, and that I act the way I do because of the natural forces that have shaped me. Philosopohical naturalists agree, and tell me that all that exists are natural forces and I really don’t have free will, but are merely the result of a very complex system of natural causes, all without any purpose or reason. (see www.centerfornaturalism.org) No spirit, no soul, no true free will, nothing but molecules in motion.
So where did we get this idea of “ought?” When we mix vinegar and baking soda on the kitchen counter, we get a reaction and we might say that it is wasteful, but we don’t say that it is morally good or morally bad. When the tree limb falls and kills someone we might say that we don’t like it, but we can’t say that the tree did something morally wrong. But suddenly when I do something, I’m told that I ought not act that way, that I did something evil.
Philosophers call this the “is/ought” problem. By defining what is, we can never get to what ought to be. The natural scientists tend to not grasp the significance of this. Can “ought’ be explained by measuring it with an instrument, or by complex thought patterns? Perhaps our brains and social conventions grew so that we began to believe that group rules were morals? Well, no, this still does not explain ought. We do not believe that social rules are merely conventions, we believe certain acts are objectively wrong. Back to our tree: what is the difference in a bad tree and a bad person? Both are following the rules that shaped them, yet we call one OK and the other responsible. We cannot get to ought by measuring what is.
So unless the atheist naturalists can explain the existence of the whole idea of ought, they can never have a basis for morality. Any system of morality based on naturalism is hanging in mid-air, without any grounding, or else they are sneaking God in the side door and calling Him something else. The most they can say is “I don’t like this” but can never say “This is wrong, it ought not happen.” But we know they all do claim that some things are truly, trancendently evil, ought not happen, and this is not just their opinion. For example, every last one of them feels that it is wrong for me to steal their stuff. If you find someone who thinks it OK for me to steal their stuff, get them to send me their address and tell me when they’re not home. By claiming that the sense of “ought” is only from natural forces the atheist loses all grounding for his position that the morals in the Bible are wrong. The atheist seems to always be pointing to the Old Testament, saying Joshua “ought not” kill the Canaanites. Too bad, old chap. Without explaining ought, which atheism cannot do, all you can claim is that you do not agree with the Bible, but you cannot say you have a basis for why it is objectively morally wrong.
So what do we make of this? Atheist naturalists have no basis for morality, but all of them do indeed have a system of ethics. They attempt to explain all this away by claiming some sort of motivation for survival, but this too only addresses “is” and does not address “ought.” Why ought an animal want to survive? Why is it “wrong” to want to die? The existence of morality as a concept can only be explained by a transcendant moral law, given by a mind, from which none of us can escape. If you would like me to introduce you to the universal moral lawgiver, I would be glad to do so. He’s actually quite a nice once you get to know Him.