Two Atheists Walk into a Bar
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 book 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. Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson contend that “We need something to spur us against our usual selfish dispositions. Nature, therefore, has made us (via the rules) believe in a disinterested moral code, according to which we ought to help our fellow…. [E]thics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”2 Notice the equivocation: “as we understand it.” They don’t know this. Furthermore, even if our genes evolved to do this (and there is no empirical evidence that they have), it does not mean that we are obligated to do what they have “fobbed off on us.” Evolution is not about cooperation. It’s about the survival of the fittest.
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? The Declaration of Independence mentions “the pursuit of happiness.” One person’s happiness could be another person’s dread. How do we know? The Declaration of Independence gives us a hint by stating that we are endowed by a “Creator with certain inalienable rights.” There are moral boundaries to life, liberty, and happiness. We are not at liberty to do what we want to do because it makes us happy.
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 all 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 me 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.3
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.
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 everyone 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.4
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.
Your banner is 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). [↩]
- Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “Evolution and Ethics,” New Scientist, 208 (October 17, 1985), 51. [↩]
- William Provine, “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?,” Origins Research, 16:1/2 (1994), 9. [↩]
- “Scientists, Face It! Science and Religion are Incompatible,” The Scientist (September 5, 1988). [↩]