In the last post, we examined a claim against atheists concerning morality and found that it rested on a confusion between ontology and epistemology. These terms may not roll off the tongue, but they can help us get where we’re going.
Let us speak a bit more plainly, though. This claim of the Christian is not only confused, but dismissive. Lacking any intellectual gravity, it seems to be more of a social compulsion (“Believer good, atheist bad.”) than a true challenge.*
Not to be outdone, our third atheist from a few posts back suffers the same kind of confusion. Here is one who thinks that science answers all questions about morality, and who stands rather self-satisfied while his interlocutor waits for an answer.
Let’s first formulate a claim which captures this confusion. It goes something like this:
Science, specifically evolution, perfectly explains human morality. We know what is good because evolution has selected for behaviors which promote the good.
And, if pushed: The good is whatever promotes human well-being and causes the least amount of harm.
Now, like we did with our Christian’s rookie mistake, let us trim the fat and examine what remains. Bear in mind the difference between ontology and epistemology.
The question is, what is the Good? We are asking this atheist, “What is the ground of human morality, the basis for moral ontology?”
The closest we get to a direct answer is a description of what is good: That which promotes human well-being and causes least harm. This sounds eminently reasonable…but that’s it.
Look again: What makes this a ground for morality? It is clearly not – it is more an observation, a summary, rather than a reality upon which all of our morality is based.**
Moreover, the atheist usually pitches this as a reasonable idea, one which we could expect him to come up with. And if he can do that while lacking a belief in God, well then there’s no reason we need God after all!
Obviously something is askance here, even if one cannot immediately put her finger on it. But here it is: He is still dealing in epistemology. This is not an ontological statement at all, and we can demonstrate this straight away.
We may ask, “Why is that good?”
After all, why is human well-being objectively good? Perhaps it only seems good to us, since we are driven to survive and perpetuate the species. It is an effective mode of behavior if we want to achieve survival – but now we are only talking about wants, not objective realities.
Why not prefer the good of ants, and work toward the elimination of human beings for their benefit? Why not prefer lifelessness, and work toward the destruction of our planet for that end?
No, we have not reached the ground yet, even after we have dealt with Science and evolution. But you will know you have landed when you ask why a thing is good, and the thing you are asking about is the Good.
*As in other posts, I’ll suggest again that the more modest claim would be stronger. Rather than saying, “Atheists cannot be moral people,” one might say, “Atheism tends to confuse a person’s moral epistemology” or, the claim we’ll be examining, “Atheism provides no ground for objective morality.”
**Not only that, but this stance suffers some absurd results. A classic example is that such a stance justifies the killing of an innocent little girl, if somehow, by her death, millions of people are made a little bit happier.