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.