THE ATHEIST’S DILEMMA REGARDING SOMETHING CALLED ‘EVIL’
Given an atheistic or even an agnostic starting point, how can someone be outraged by evil? Without God, being outraged over the presence of evil is a subjective notion borrowed from the Christian worldview. “If God is nothing,” according to Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), “everything is permitted; if God is nothing, everything is a matter of indifference.”1 Greg Bahnsen stated it this way: “The question, logically speaking, is how the unbeliever can make sense of taking evil seriously—not simply as something inconvenient, or unpleasant, or contrary to his desires…. On the unbeliever’s worldview, there is no good reason for saying that anything is evil in nature, but only by personal choice or feeling.”2
This type of thinking has trickled down to the law where legal positivism rules the courts. “Legal positivism holds that there is no necessary connection between law and morality and that the question of what is and is not law can be identified by reference to social facts and need not involve moral assumptions.”3 How could there be given the operating premise that those standing before the court are animals whose origin is a chance one and whose evolution is a violent struggle for survival?
The person who murdered 50 Muslims in New Zealand was committed for the survival of his species. He’s made this point clear in his manifesto. In a sick but logical way he was attempting to justify his actions. What outside transcendental source of ethics can be used against his thinking and actions that hasn’t first been borrowed from a biblical view of morality but officially barred from consideration?
Thomas H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” said as much in 1893, writing that “Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of many have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before” Darwinism. He goes to write that one day we may “arrive at an understanding of the aesthetic faculty; but all that understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the forces of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.”4
And little has changed since 1859 when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published.
If ethics is simply an adaptation that evolved over by natural selection, then we acquire another reason to thin it has no compelling justification. Ethics had no being, no ontology beyond what whatever our genes and brains and environment generated to keep the social world functioning. Darwinian metaethics thus further weakened the case for an objective foundation for ethics.5
What philosophy of value or morality can the atheist offer which will render it meaningful to condemn some atrocity as objectively evil? If according to Feuerbach, “Man is man’s only God”—Homo homini Deus—then Hobbes’s dictum, “Man is a wolf to his fellowman”—Homo homini lupus—eventually becomes the law of a society. Who are we to object or be outraged when accidents of nature (what we call human beings) maim and kill other accidents of nature in a world governed (if such a word can be used) by chance?6 For example, although atheists are “morally outraged” by slavery, “If we are all biological accidents, why shouldn’t the white accidents own and sell the black accidents?”7
Sam Harris, writes in his Letter to a Christian Nation, the sequel to his bestseller The End of Faith, “While we do not have anything like a final, scientific understanding of human morality, it seems safe to say that raping and killing our neighbors is not one of its primary constituents.”8
Mr. Harris ought to take up his unsupported conclusion with Randy Thornhill’s and Craig T. Palmer’s thesis and their book A Natural History of Rape published by MIT Press (2000). He might also want to establish a dialog with David Buss, author of The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill (2005). Why object to the worldview of one of Charles Manson’s followers or the man who murdered 50 Muslims in New Zealand if God does not exist?
Whatever is necessary, you do it. When somebody needs to be killed, there’s no wrong. You do it, and then you move on. And you pick up a child and you move him to the desert. You pick up as many children as you can and you kill whoever gets in your way. That is us.9
On what grounds can the unbeliever object? Atheists must assume something of God’s moral character to make a case against God in light of the existence of evil. “The unbeliever,” Bahnsen writes, “must secretly rely upon the Christian worldview in order to make sense of his argument from the existence of evil which is urged against the Christian worldview!”10 In the end, the unbeliever uses stolen credentials (Christian presuppositions), establishes himself as the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge, and then takes his seat in the jury box to render a verdict against God.
None of this is designed to demean atheists who claim they are just as good as anyone else. That’s not the issue. It’s being able to account for goodness and evilness given certain underlying presuppositions. But we are justified in putting their arguments on trial since they’ve seen fit to put God’s existence on trial. In an interview, Vincent Bugliosi, author of the books Helter Skelter and Outrage, when he was asked whether he believed in God, stated, “If we were in court, I’d object on the ground that the question assumes a fact not in evidence.”11 The evidence is there, but Mr. Bugliosi has set the ground rules for what he will accept as evidence. If the evidence does not fit his operating presuppositions, then for him it is not evidence. John Frame answers such flirtations with wholesale autonomy in an unbending manner:
Unbelievers must surely not be allowed to take their own autonomy for granted in defining moral concepts. They must not be allowed to assume that they are the ultimate judges of what is right and wrong. Indeed, they should be warned that that sort of assumption rules out the biblical God from the outset and thus allows its character as a faith-presupposition. The unbeliever must know that we reject his presupposition altogether and insist upon subjecting our moral standards to God’s. And if the unbeliever insists on his autonomy, we may get nasty and require him to show how an autonomous self can come to moral conclusions in a godless universe.12
Mr. Bugliosi consistently criticized the prosecutors in the O. J. Simpson trial for not raising crucial points of evidence. One wonders why he nowhere deals with the argument that if there is no God then there is no morality or a call for outrage when personal sentiments (like his own) are offended.
The world is in crisis. Presidents and Prime Ministers have long ago abandoned a biblical view of the world claiming that it’s archaic. As a result, its rejection has released the worldview of Cain (Gen. 4:8) on this world with no moral brake to rebuke it.
- Feodor Dostoyevsky, The Devils (The Possessed), trans. David Magarshark (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953), 126. Quoted in Vincent P. Miceli, The Gods of Atheism (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1971), 141. [↩]
- Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1996), 169–170. [↩]
- Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice, and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 68. [↩]
- Thomas H. Huxley, “Evolution and Ethics,” Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899), 80. [↩]
- James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 78. [↩]
- See Barbara Reynolds, “If your kids go ape in school, you’ll know why,” USA Today (August 27, 1993), 11A. [↩]
- James Scott Bell, The Darwin Conspiracy (Gresham, OR: Vision House, 1995), 64. [↩]
- Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 24. [↩]
- Sandra Good quoted in Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1974), 462. [↩]
- Bahnsen, Always Ready, 170. [↩]
- Quoted in Bugliosi, Outrage, 247. [↩]
- Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 169. [↩]