New Atheism Has a Real Problem with Morality

Michael Robbins has written a review of a book and uses the review to criticize the New Atheists and this greatly upset the militant atheist activist Jerry Coyne, who posted with a 3800 word reply that once again whines about atheists being “bashed.”

I’d like to focus on a small part of the dispute, as it nicely summarizes the New Atheist’s ability to deal with atheism’s morality problem.

Coyne provides the following quote from Robbins:

Nietzsche’s atheism is far from exultant—he is not crowing about the death of God, much as he despises Christianity. He understands how much has been lost, how much there is to lose.
. . . Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority if the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)
. . . The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments.

That analysis is spot on. So how does Coyne respond?

Wrong again. Morality exists because a). we’ve evolved to have feelings of right and wrong and b). on top of our evolved emotions is overlain a veneer of secular morality derived from our preferences about how we should behave if we want a fair and harmonious society. As for us not being miserable and serious enough, life is too short, and there’s nowhere to go after it’s over. Many of us are perfectly happy with a secular morality, and don’t spend time bawling about its supposed “metaphysical grounding.”

That, in a nutshell, is the New Atheist response. Let’s now see just how weak it is as it collapses like a house of cards with some mild probing.

First, notice how Coyne reframes the problem to hide from the seriousness of the problem. Coyne thinks he need only explain how “morality exists.” But that ignores the problem that Robbins raised – if atheism is true, morality is incoherent.

Let’s look at Coyne’s first response:

a). we’ve evolved to have feelings of right and wrong

So? And we’ve evolved to have wisdom teeth crammed into our jaws. How does the atheist know that these feelings of right and wrong are not simply vestigial traits? In fact, it would seem Coyne and the New Atheists adopt a position that entails the vestigial nature of morality. They tell us that we have also evolved this illusory sense of self. They tell us that we have also evolved this illusory sense of free will. Thus, there is no “I” that has a free will. And as a consequence of that atheist position, they tell us there is no such thing as moral responsibility. For that too is an illusion. So if our sense and feelings of self, free will, and moral responsibility are all illusions, it stands to reason these evolved feelings of right and wrong are likewise illusions. Since feelings that are illusory in essence can hardly qualify as a “foundational authority,” Robbins is correct and Coyne is wrong.

b). on top of our evolved emotions is overlain a veneer of secular morality derived from our preferences about how we should behave if we want a fair and harmonious society.

So, on top of these illusory feelings of right and wrong, we lay a “veneer” of secular morality that is rooted in “preferences” about how we “should” behave. There are many problems with this “argument,” so let me just focus your attention on one.

A veneer of secular morality rooted in subjective preferences hardly counts as “foundational authority,” meaning that Coyne again fails to refute Robbins’s point. In fact, that morality is anchored to such a subjective foundation means that secular morality is not significantly different from a cultural dress code. The “veneer of secular morality” is just a way for the collective to impose order and conformity on a population of individuals. And if secular morality is nothing more than that, we get to the core problem with atheism – the dress code known as morality simply ceases to be important. That is, if an atheist believes X is wrong, they can easily ignore and dismiss it if it becomes inconvenient to refrain from doing X.

We have already seen a concrete example of this. Richard Dawkins believes that eating meat is wrong. He even compares the eating of meat to owning a slave!

Yet Dawkins continues to eat meat. As I explained before:

Richard Dawkins, leader of the New Atheist movement, acknowledges he is behaving immorally and willingly continues to behave as such. He thinks eating meat is wrong, yet he does it all the time. His empathy tells him he is wrong, yet he has no serious desire or motivation to stop his unethical behavior. He only claims the willingness to change if first everyone else does. And then he would only cease his immoral behavior because he wouldn’t want to be viewed as a bad person.

So this concrete example indicates atheists do have a real morality problem. There is no reason to think Dawkins is the only atheist who freely chooses to adopt an immoral lifestyle. His atheism seems to lead to this conclusion: Yes, it’s immoral. It’s a shame. Maybe someday I’ll stop being immoral. If you do first, that is. In the meantime, it’s just not that important.

And Dawkins is not alone. Sam Harris, drawing upon his own atheism, likewise thinks it is wrong to eat meat. And guess what? That doesn’t stop him from continuing to eat meat.

So as you can see, morality is just not that important to Dawkins and Harris. They think it is very wrong to do X, yet have no problem continuing to do X. It’s just not that important to them.

This form of blatant hypocrisy and lack of concern about behaving in a moral fashion makes sense if you consider their atheism. To them, morality is just another brain illusion that persists today as nothing more than a veneer of societal preferences. Thus, the belief that X is wrong has very little meaning or significance, making it easy to ignore. This would explain why hypocrisy, at all levels, is so common among the New Atheist leaders.

Coyne’s final point is this:

As for us not being miserable and serious enough, life is too short, and there’s nowhere to go after it’s over. Many of us are perfectly happy with a secular morality, and don’t spend time bawling about its supposed “metaphysical grounding.”

Here Coyne is admitting that New Atheists are content with superficial thinking. This, of course, makes sense given that his points a) and b) were rooted in shallow thinking (the reason it was so easy for someone like me to knock them down). And this is one of the primary reasons I could never go back to being an atheist – I could never be satisfied with the shallow, superficial approach to reality that is entailed by such atheism.

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22 Responses to New Atheism Has a Real Problem with Morality

  1. I think you meant “New Atheists” in the title?

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks. Corrected.

  3. Kevin says:

    This argument is simply impossible for Gnus to refute. All bad behavior is equally encoded in our genes, and it is objectively no different to give in to such an impulse as it is to eat when we feel hungry. Sociopathy is a normal variant of human behavior just like homosexuality, which they will never fail to defend, but they hide behind majority opinion (or simply their own opinion if they aren’t the majority) and use such subjective “authority” as a basis to morally condemn that which they don’t like.

    There is zero rational basis for moral outrage under philosophical naturalism.

  4. To make it short: Let’s assume that atheism is right and morality incoherent. So what? That means that your morality is, too. Something will not stop to be true just because you don’t like the implications. As long as you cannot prove that there ARE absolute objective moral values, there’s no argument you are making, just observations.

    Of course, in reality, it’s a little bit more complex and people have invested deeper thoughts into morality than your superficial ones you are offering here and that only prove that you didn’t invest much time to look at the topic but are just cultivating your prejudices.

  5. ccmnxc says:

    AM, well morality tends to be one of those properly basic things for some (though obviously not all) people. They would as soon believe that morality is contrived as they would believe that solipsism is true. Of course, there would also be the legions of New Atheists who, in the same, breath, deny that morality is in any way objective or grounded and at the same time, claim moral superiority to theists. So often, it feels like they deny objective morality when God is at the end of the syllogism then immediately shift back to moral realism when it suits them. If you deny objective morality, great. That means then, that I can expect not to see any claims of moral wrongdoing on any of our parts coming form you?

    Furthere, of course it is more complicated than a simple blog post can explain. That doesn’t mean that Mike hasn’t actually bothered to look at anything more than a cursory case study of metaethics. Of course, maybe you have a better solution, nihilism aside, that you can put forward instead of complaining about how Mike is being unsophisticated and lazy. I’m interested to see what it might be.

  6. Shecky R says:

    Consistent ethics are very hard to carry out… the atheists of which you write simply recognize that reality. I also believe eating meat is unethical but do it on occasions. I’ve also been known to watch TV, see a movie, or otherwise entertain myself, during time that could’ve been spent helping others in a homeless shelter, or soup kitchen, or just picking up litter from the street… I consider THAT too (the entertainment/fun) UNethical. “Ethics” is choosing to help those less fortunate instead of focusing one’s life selfishly around one’s own material/monetary/emotional happiness, as most all of us do; basically akin to selflessness, ala perhaps Mother Teresa.

    You want to preach morality while supporting a church that spent centuries abusing young children, and luring males into the hierarchy with the winking promise of easy access to children… only when the monetary cost of such behavior became too great have they chosen to finally alter their ways (while paying off litigants with the bounty of cash and real estate hoarded over all those years instead of dispensing to those in need).
    Once you’ve plucked the log from your own hypocritical eye, and foregone your own materialism and self-focus, THEN maybe you can talk to others about morality. We are ALL sinners (almost EVERYday of our waking lives)… you seem mightily upset that Dawkins et.al essentially recognize that.

  7. I can hear modernists saying “You moralists! You and your ‘high ground.’ Pffft.”

  8. Michael says:

    As long as you cannot prove that there ARE absolute objective moral values, there’s no argument you are making, just observations.

    I’m pointing out that when Coyne responds to Robbins as “Wrong again,” it is Coyne who is wrong.

    Of course, in reality, it’s a little bit more complex and people have invested deeper thoughts into morality than your superficial ones you are offering here and that only prove that you didn’t invest much time to look at the topic but are just cultivating your prejudices.

    I was clearly responding to what Professor Coyne offered up.

  9. Michael says:

    Consistent ethics are very hard to carry out… the atheists of which you write simply recognize that reality.

    This is not an example of someone trying to behave ethically, only to find themselves failing repeatedly because of our sin nature. This is an example of two men who willfully behave unethically (according to their own value systems) and have little problem with that, given they make no effort to change their ways.

    You are missing my point. Yes, they believe eating meat is immoral. Dawkins even equates it with owning a slave. But that’s just mental masturbation for them, as they make no effort to translate those beliefs into action, telling us they think such morality is not important.

    Once you’ve plucked the log from your own hypocritical eye, and foregone your own materialism and self-focus, THEN maybe you can talk to others about morality. We are ALL sinners (almost EVERYday of our waking lives)… you seem mightily upset that Dawkins et.al essentially recognize that.

    You are hallucinating. I merely note that Michael Robbins’s point about morality is correct and explain how both of Coyne’s responses fail. That you’d rather change the topic indicates my analysis is correct.

  10. Mark Plus says:

    Did the billions of people who have lived and died without ever hearing about christianity and its “prior metaphysical commitments” even consider the grounding of morality a mystery or a problem?

    I suspect they had more pressing things to do than to worry about such abstractions.

  11. Crude says:

    Did the billions of people who have lived and died without ever hearing about christianity and its “prior metaphysical commitments” even consider the grounding of morality a mystery or a problem?

    You mean the other people who had their own metaphysical commitments, and often believed in God besides?

  12. Sizzle-d says:

    Atheists seem to think moral good is determined by self desire or group think. Sorry to bust their bubble but morality is neither selfish or group thought, if that were the case, cannibals carry the prize.

    Somehow, cannibals are more more “moral” than any true atheistic society could ever be.

    An atheist or group of atheists that think something is bad/good just because they “feel” that way or “feel” it hurts/benefits another is no better than a mental patient or group of mental patients who think it’s wrong to call the boogeyman a monster.

    After all, in a truly atheistic worldview, it’s “survival of the fittest”

  13. Sizzle-d says:

    @Shecky R, sinners in an atheistic worldview?

    Are you hallucinating or just purely Selectively Ignorant on the fact that “sin” does not exist in atheistic worldview?

    To a true atheist, what is is what is “good” and what is “good” is what is even though the concept of “good” and “bad” also doesn’t exist. It’s only an illusion.

  14. @ Mark Plus: Don’t you have more pressing matters to attend to than to visit a website whose beliefs and philosophy you clearly don’t agree with let alone respect?

  15. TFBW says:

    I suspect they had more pressing things to do than to worry about such abstractions.

    That’s new. An argument from lack of personal interest.

    You can suspect that all you like, Mark. Duly noted. Get back to us when you have some sort of reasoned case for or against something.

  16. Kevin says:

    Did the billions of people who have lived and died without ever hearing about christianity and its “prior metaphysical commitments” even consider the grounding of morality a mystery or a problem?

    I suspect they had more pressing things to do than to worry about such abstractions.

    Christianity is a proper noun and is thus capitalized. It’s hard to take you seriously when you appear to be quite uneducated. Second, the billions of people who never knew about quantum mechanics, and who never considered it a mystery or a problem, and who had more pressing things to worry about, do not at all invalidate the truth of quantum mechanics.

    Apathy is not a measure of truth.

  17. Peter says:

    Did the billions of people who have lived and died without ever hearing about christianity and its “prior metaphysical commitments” even consider the grounding of morality a mystery or a problem?

    It most likely would not have been a problem to them. Very few of them would have been atheists, and whatever ethical or religious tradition they followed, it would have grounded morality in something. Not everyone would have been personally interested in tracing it, but they would have known that if they wanted to there would have been wise men they could ask, or the writings of great thinkers they could consult, which would have directed them in their search for truth.

    I suspect that most of them would have been very skeptical of some “thinker” who told them that morality was incoherent and had no basis in objective reality. The implications would have been a strong hint that nonsense was being peddled.

    But let’s assume it’s true: morality is just a veneer built on subjective feelings and sentiments that evolved randomly. It might be as “useful” as opposable thumbs or as dispensable as an appendix, but it is just an accident that it happens to exist at all, and we have no rational basis for treating it as reliable or normative – at least no basis more rational than blind tradition or pragmatism. What then?

    Obviously we still need some form of morality if we are to continue living with the degree of social organization necessary to produce such things as computers and antibiotics. For morality to “work” it needs to be authoritative. That means it has to at least seem to be based on something more substantial than mere squeamishness at the sight of spilt blood. Only something which is objective, or feels objective, has enough authority. Peer pressure or group opinion won’t do it. Who respects someone who does something just because everyone tells him to do it, and can’t give a reason?

    If authoritative bases for morality are all illusory, then for pragmatic reasons we just have to make do with an illusion. This means that Christian morality, even if it is based on an illusion, is at least no worse than the alternatives available. Certainly it has to be better than an atheism that proclaims, at least in principle, that morality is just a post-hoc rationalisation of prejudices and gag reflex.

    But it gets worse. For society to function, the basis its morality has to be protected even if it is illusory. Traditionally, loose cannon thinkers who questioned the basis of morality were denounced as heretics and met a suitably bad end as a warning to others. It may be this behaviour had a certain survival value. Perhaps tolerant societies who suffered a heretic to live succumbed in the struggle for existence to other, more dogmatic societies who did not. Perhaps the impulse to burn at the stake is even encoded in our genes to some extent?

    Regardless, Dawkins seems to have opened up the possibility that a truly rational judge might have to condemn him, even if that judge (secretly) sympathised with him and shared his unbelief. We who agree that somehow, morality is something real that stands above us and holds our standards to a higher standard, are free to disagree.

  18. Peter says:

    Theists have the thorny problem of explaining why, if God exists, there can be evil. Their answers tend to be partial, less than convincing, and only believed by other theists.

    Atheists have the even thornier problem of explaining why, in a wholly naturalistic universe, there can be good. The fact that this universe is usually seen as Darwinian, makes the problem worse. Again, the answers tend to be partial, less than convincing, and only believed by other atheists.

  19. Mike Silva says:

    A key issue, it seems to me, comes when anybody refers to their morality to punish another. In a nutshell, atheists can put a person in prison for life, and they can’t justify why? What if the “crime” was not even considered a crime at all by the one convicted? They impose a particular morality on this person, without being able to justify their right (not their power, but their right) to do so.

  20. Peter says:

    In theory, a purely naturalistic universe means that a criminal couldn’t conceivably have chosen differently because they didn’t really choose their actions at all. Hence the concept of justice is incoherent. You can send someone to jail for theft, but not because they “deserve it” in any real sense as most people would understand it.

    What you can do is jail them as a deterrent. The offender may not have the capacity to deserve punishment but they will respond to their environment. So from this point of view, “justice” is really a kind of coercive behaviour-modification therapy.

    As CS Lewis pointed out you don’t need to be “guilty” of anything to be subjected to therapy, so strictly speaking you would want to identify the criminals BEFORE they commit their crime and “treat” them pre-emptively.

    Of course in practise, naturalists and their philosophical allies rarely reach these conclusions because we simply can’t conceive of ourselves as the automata that their worldview suggests it is. Hence we have the spectacle of confirmed determinists saying things like “You needn’t have said that” in response to a bad book review, as happened some time back.

    In the same way, theoretically Darwinism made teleology obsolete. But in practise we use teleological descriptions in biology all the time. We just don’t seem to be able to get our head around what a heart is, without thinking that it’s “for” pumping blood, or that an eye is “for” seeing.

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