Can Atheists Account for Morality?
If there is no God, can there be morality? I’m not asking whether atheists are moral people and do moral things. They do, but by what unimpeachable and ultimate standard? An atheist might say that certain laws are good for the advancement of the species. But let’s not forget that as an evolved species (according to atheism), we got here “red in tooth and claw.” We evolved upward through violent means. We ascended the evolutionary ladder on the weaker evolutionary elements going back to the first signs of organic life that struggled to survive. Why has that process suddenly become immoral? Famed atheist Richard Dawkins wrote in his The Selfish Gene, “We — and that means all living things — are survival machines programmed to propagate the digital database that did the programming.”
According to Dawkins, the goal of genes is to survive so they can be passed on to the next generation. The Selfish Gene has been described as “a disturbingly persuasive essay arguing that living things are little more than corporal vessels impelled to heed the primal dictates of selfish genes hellbent on their own replication and propagation.”1 These “selfish genes” don’t have a moral compass. They are like the Terminator. Their only goal is to survive and replicate and pity the poor organism that stands in their way.
On what unimpeachable and ultimate standard should we keep the unfit alive? What is the source of that unimpeachable and ultimate standard? It must be physically based because we are matter-only entities. There’s no morality written in our DNA, and even if there was, there is no one or no thing that demands we follow it resulting in eternal consequences if we don’t.
Notice the argument doesn’t say that atheists don’t prove things, or that they don’t use logic, science or laws of morality. In fact, they do. The argument is that their worldview cannot account for what they are doing. Their worldview is not consistent with what they are doing; in their worldview there are no laws; there are no abstract entities, universals, or prescriptions. There’s just a material universe, naturalistically explained (as) the way things happen to be. That’s not law-like or universal; and therefore, their worldview doesn’t account for logic, science or morality. But, atheists, of course, use science and morality. In this argument, atheists give continual evidence to the fact that in their heart of hearts they are not atheists. In their heart of hearts they know the God I’m talking about. This God made them, reveals Himself continually to them through the natural order, through their conscience, and through their very use of reason. They know this God, and they suppress the truth about him. One of the ways that we know that they suppress the truth about him is because they do continue to use the laws of logic, science and morality though their world view doesn’t account for them. — Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen, closing argument in “The Great Debate” with Gordon Stein (1985).2
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A few years ago, a group of atheists ran an ad campaign with this banner:
“Relax: hell does not exist, or heaven either, enjoy your life.”
Who defines what gives someone joy and on what basis?
Two atheists walk into a bar…
First Atheist: I noticed your banner that I should enjoy life because there’s no hell. Do you mean that after death there won’t be a God to judge me for what I do or don’t do while I am alive?
Second Atheist: Yes. In fact, there won’t be anyone or anything to judge you and me. There’s no karma or transmigration of the soul. As the song says, “All we are is dust in the wind.” Furthermore, God is a fictional character that humans created a long time ago to give meaning to life before there was science. When something in the world could not be explained, humans attributed the unknown to supernatural entities like gods and devils, spirits and sprites. Since the advent of science, we know that only matter matters. If it can’t be seen under a microscope or its properties can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist. Invisible beings like gods, ghosts, and goblins can’t exist in a world that is now defined by the physical sciences.
First Atheist: So if I can’t see it or examine it, it does not exist. If a claimed entity does not have any physical properties, it does not exist.
Second Atheist: Yes. Science has come a long way to remove many religious superstitions of the past. They’re still with us, but our organization is working overtime to eliminate every vestige of religion and the supernatural from our world.
First Atheist: I’m so relieved. All my life I was taught that there was a divine being who brought the world into existence, expressed His character in a specific moral code, and one day would judge me based on how I measured up to that moral code. So you’re saying that no such entity exists and I’m free to enjoy life on my terms. I want to be sure about this. There’s a lot riding on your belief system.
Second Atheist: Yes. As our banners say, “Relax: hell does not exist, or heaven either, enjoy your life.”
First Atheist: I’m so glad you said that. Your banner caught my attention and makes my life worth living. I have a purpose for living in the now. Any guilt I had is gone. Now give all your money and the keys to your car. I also want the PIN numbers to all your accounts. If you don’t do what I say, I’m going to blow your brains out.
“Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.” — William Provine,3 atheist and evolutionary professor of history of biology at Cornell University
Second Atheist: We are free to enjoy life as long as our enjoyment does not infringe upon the rights of others.
First Atheist: Who says? On what basis is this true and obligatory?
Second Atheist: It’s common decency.
First Atheist: Who gets to determine what’s decent?
Second Atheist: It’s wrong to steal and murder.
First Atheist: No. At this moment in time, it’s unlawful to steal and murder. Laws are social conventions that are a holdover from our superstitious religious past. Survival of the fittest is the true basis of non-religious evolutionary origins. Laws are constantly changing. That shows that there are no eternal moral absolutes. As atheists, we can’t prove that moral absolutes exist since no one has ever seen a moral absolute or has been able to study one. They’re like the phantasms we dismiss as being unreal.
“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. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.” — Richard Dawkins4
Second Atheist: But there all kinds of moral absolutes that can be studied.
First Atheist: Show me one. You said that only the physical is real. God is not a material entity that can be studied by the standards of science, so He cannot exist. That’s what we atheists claim. Show me the physical laws against murder and stealing. Of course, you can’t because they don’t exist given our materialist assumptions.
Second atheist: Reason tells us that murder and stealing are wrong.
First Atheist: That’s the best you can come up with? Reason? I think it’s very reasonable to take your stuff because I’ll enjoy all of its benefits. Your sign tells everybody to enjoy themselves. This is how I want to enjoy myself. Anyway, whose version of reason should I follow? Yours? It seems reasonable to me to take your stuff since you aren’t really being consistent with your belief system. You’re holding on to the remnants of religion and the fictional worldview that it spawned. Every so-called tyrant (atheism can’t say if anything is tyrannical) believed he was being ultimately reasonable. Adolf Hitler didn’t believe he was being irrational. Neither did Lenin or Stalin, and they killed (not murdered) millions for what they claimed were very rational reasons. The French fought a revolution for the absoluteness of reason. Guess what? They took people’s stuff and killed people in the name of reason and called it “virtue.”
Second Atheist: But civilization depends on laws and morality.
“No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life.” — William Provine5
First Atheist: A consistent atheist cannot account for meaning, morality, or rationality. If there is no judgment after death, then there is no difference between Adolf Hitler who killed 6 million Jews or Sir Nicholas Winton who organized the rescue of more than 600 Jewish children from the Nazi death camps. At death, given atheist assumptions, they are equal, nothing more than dust in the wind.
Mao Zeong and Josef Stalin would argue that they were working for a world that they believed would bring the most joy for themselves and those like them. . . . Now that I think about it, I don’t like this atheism thing. If I can rob and kill you with no eternal consequences, then other people can do the same to me.
“Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species of the Order Primates, akin nearly or remotely to all of life and indeed to all that is material.”6
Your banner is pretty stupid. You need to think through your belief system before you end up like atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. “In 1995 she was kidnapped, murdered, and her body mutilated, along with her son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair, by former American Atheist office manager David Roland Waters.”
Waters must have said to himself, “Relax: Hell does not exist, or heaven either, enjoy your life.”
- “Revolutionary Evolutionist,” Wired Magazine (July 1, 1995). [↩]
- You can listen to Dr. Bahnsen’s closing argument here. [↩]
- William Provine, “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?” Origins Research, 16:1/2 (1994), 9. [↩]
- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995), 133. [↩]
- “Scientists, Face It! Science and Religion are Incompatible,” The Scientist (Sept. 5, 1988). [↩]
- George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press,  1967), 344–345. [↩]