This first appeared as an article titled, Why There Is No Such Thing In a Good Atheist on huffingtonpost.com and churchismessy.com It is reposted with revisions.
If you’re an atheist (whatever that word means these days), you’ve likely had to stomach your fair share of being told that you aren’t a good person or that you have no morals. It must be frustrating, if not infuriating to be labelled as morally inferior. While I do insist that there’s no such thing as a good atheist, I don’t mean what you’re probably thinking.
Before our budding love fest continues, allow me to set the table and clarify what I mean by atheist and why there aren’t any good ones. There are four major questions that every philosophy, religion or approach to life attempts to answer.
- Origin: where did it all come from?
- Meaning: does my life have purpose and value and what’s the source?
- Morality: how should I live and where do moral rules come from?
- Destiny: where am I ultimately headed?
We are all united by these questions, and yet we’re divided by our answers. When I use the word atheist, I mean someone who is persuaded that the answers to these questions are something other than God, gods or the supernatural. If that viewpoint is true and reasonable, it seems that there are three absolutely necessary commitments that every atheist must affirm.
- The universe is knowable. It is observable, intelligible and science allows us to understand the laws that strictly govern it.
- The universe is material. It is fundamentally matter, space, energy and time.
- The universe is impersonal. It does not have a consciousness or a will, neither is it guided by a consciousness or will.
Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to the reasonableness of atheism. Though a bitter pill to swallow, anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are actions that can be known and explained, though utterly unattached to objective meaning or moral value. Why? Because reality is ultimately impersonal and purely material. How could moral truth come from impersonal matter?
Let’s be clear. Some things are deeply meaningful to you. Yet, that deeply stirring and self-assuring perspective couldn’t possibly accurately describe reality. For humanity to have objective meaning and for there to be objective morality, such things would be true even if no one knew them, agreed with them or followed them. Just as the Pythagorean Theorem was true before Pythagoras discovered it or anyone knew it. In a universe that is impersonal and material, all claims to meaning and morality are human inventions.
A good atheist, that is a consistent atheist, recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him good in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist because there really is no objective good.
At this point that you might run to Sam Harris as atheism’s great defender of objective morality. With all due respect to the brilliant Mr. Harris, he’s a bit over his skis. Sam Harris pretends to derive objective morality from science. When, in truth, he just assumes that well-being is a moral imperative. Only after hoisting that unscientific assumption does he employ science.
For those of you who think you’re about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following:
Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose. Jean-Paul Sartre
Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans. William Provine
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 Dawkins
No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history’. Edward O. Wilson
These men may not speak for you. They do, however, to speak to the logical conclusions that are necessarily true if God is not an answer to the major questions asked above.
Based on the non-negotiable commitments of atheism, the only logical conclusion is that objective morality is merely a happy fiction. But I’ve never met an atheist who’s managed to live this way. All the atheists I’ve known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality. How is this explained? In a Hail Mary like attempt to reconcile their assurances of atheism with the inescapable sense of objective morality haunting us all, two possible answers are heralded.
- Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution.
This is a two-pronged attempt at justifying moral claims. First, a sense of morality evolved to ensure human survival. Much like an eye or tooth, morality is necessary for the human race to continue. If this were true, for any claim to be moral it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So, it could easily and reasonably be argued that compassion for the dying or prolonging the life of the diseased and handicapped is immoral. As grotesque as it is, this could even justify rape. Consider the following from a government official in India.
This [rape] is a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong. Babulal Gaur (Home Minister responsible for law and order in the BJP-run central state of Madhya Pradesh)
If you immediately balk at this quote because it comes from distant country, you might want to check you latent xenophobia and racism. His culture is much older and his country much larger than ours. That viewpoint, backed by institutional authority, will shape the lives of millions. If you continue to cling to atheism and simultaneously want to erupt with moral rage, I have a question. How could evolutionary based morality elevate your viewpoint over his?
Morality in this view can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth claim that it’s always wrong to rape women.
The second prong of this theory, morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. We could only critique behavior within our society, never the behavior of other ones. Because morality is the construct of a social group it cannot extend farther than a society’s borders nor endure longer than a society’s existence.
Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code, but the ones who intend to change it. Consider the absurdity of that. Those who fought for marriage equality were immoral up until the Supreme Court ruled their way. With the thud of a gavel, they became moral and their opponents immoral. In this view, morality amounts to little more than majority. It’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.
An evolutionary foundation for morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to rape women or kill those who don’t affirm a national religion. Thus far atheism looks a bit wobbly, but it’s not down yet. It has yet another punch to throw.
- Morality is logical.
Atheists who take this route start in a position of checkmate without realizing it. First, there’s the temptation is to pervert this conversation into a debate about whether atheists can be moral. Of course they can! That is not the question. The question is how can we make sense of or justify moral claims if we play by the rules that atheism demands?
Morality may be logical, but logic does not equate to morality. Logic tells us how to think, not what to think. The only way to make a logical, moral argument is to presuppose morality and meaning to start with. Try making a logical argument that slavery is wrong without presupposing morality. It is impossible! A woman wrote to me with her attempt at doing just that. Her claim was that slavery is logically wrong because it diminishes other human beings. The problem is that argument presupposes human dignity. In the strict framework of atheism outlined above, what reason is there to ever assume human dignity?
All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are not only superior to contrary views, but objectively true imperatives. That is, we must behave in ways that either agree with or promote human thriving, happiness and dignity. Where do those rules come from in a material, impersonal universe? If you say they come from us, then they are by definition subjective. They are only true and binding so long as we agree.
If you insist they are true, even if people don’t agree, you must demonstrate why that is the case. The strict framework of atheism does not allow for starting with moral assumptions. So any person arguing for options 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.
Some well-intentioned, extremely intelligent atheists have argued that moral laws exist in much the same way that the Laws of Logic exist. Set aside the philosophical difficulties with that faith statement, and let’s assume that’s true. There’s a massive difference between a scientific law, like gravity, from a law related to logic or morality. You can’t violate a scientific law. That’s a description how things work.
A law for logic or morality relates to how things should work. But, you don’t have to follow it. You don’t have to be logical. You can be illogical. I’m sure some reading this would accuse me of being exactly that. A moral law is the same. Should a conceptual, moral law, floating in the ether, that is objectively true and binding, be proven to exist—it doesn’t matter. The only consequences for breaking it would be the ones we make up and impose on ourselves. It’s an imperative without enforcement. People who are smart enough, powerful enough or rich enough evade consequences all the time.
Intelligent people ask serious questions. Serious questions deserve serious answers. There are few questions more serious than one I’m asking. How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? A religion, philosophy or approach to life that can’t answer this question doesn’t deserve you. Why would you adhere to a view of everything that only has room for some things?
One sign that your viewpoint may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself—becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question. Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism which he contends is true.
If your viewpoint, if your philosophical or religious commitment can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality)—it’s not worth your allegiance. This realization may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Whatever you believe. You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.
 Ravi Zacharias, Taken from a lecture he gave in Salt Lake City in 2014
 “Jean-Paul Sartre,” Wikiquote, accessed August 18, 2016, http:// en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jean-Paul_Sartre.
 William Provine, ‘Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics,’ MBL Science 3 (1988), 28.
 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York 1995), 133.
 Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass. 1978), 2.
 Reuters, accessed August 18, 2016, http://news.trust.org//item/20140605115109-3byfp/%3Fsource=fiOtherNews3