Atheism Cannot Account for Objective Morality
(This post originally appeared at AtheistConnect.)
AtheistConnect published several posts recently concerning the question whether it is necessary to posit the existence of God to provide a cogent account for objective morality. For the reasons briefly stated below, among others, I argue the affirmative: God is necessary to provide an account of objective morality and, accordingly, atheism necessarily cannot provide such an account.
Even if we accept that it’s true that there is no point in being moral if there is no God, this wouldn’t be an argument against atheism in the sense of showing that atheism isn’t true, rational, or justified. It wouldn’t provide any reason to think that theism generally or Christianity in particular is likely true. It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally.
The suggestion that “It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally” is a worthless statement. Man is the sort of being that has both a moral intuition, and a rational faculty that demands an account be given for his beliefs—including his moral intuition. These are non-negotiable preconditions with which all persons approach the world, and for which an epistemological and moral framework of the world must give an account. Atheists’ response to the problem of morality, however, is either to deny man’s moral intuition (e.g., by positing “morality” is nothing more than the calculated pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain), or to deny the need for a rational account of that moral intuition (e.g., by arbitrarily replacing religious morality disfavored by atheists, and replacing it with secular humanist morality). Thus, although atheists claim to reject transcendental reasoning, they fail to give anything resembling a cogent, rational account for man’s moral intuition in its place.
Worse, atheists often purport to take advantage of the gaps in their own reasoning by arguing that theists are clearly wrong to suggest that atheism implicitly rejects objective morality, and thus cannot establish a basis for mounting moral condemnation of, for example, the Holocaust or 9/11. To the contrary, the argument goes, atheists do acknowledge objective morality, and even behave morally, generally speaking. But this is misdirection. In fact, the theist’s fallacy in making this argument is to assume that atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview when, in reality, they do not. The theist’s unsound argument thus runs as follows:
- Since having rejected the existence of God, atheism has not provided a suitable alternative account for objective morality.
- Intellectual consistency requires rejecting that for which no suitable account has been provided.
- Atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview.
- Thus, atheists reject objective morality.
Of course, the reason this argument fails is because premise (3) is false: atheists either are intellectually dishonest, or they simply don’t understand that their worldview cannot account for objective morality. Again, one might say “I don’t believe in God” as a glib expression of one’s anti-authoritarianism and wide-eyed skepticism, but it actually means something very severe—particularly if it also means “I do not believe in anything that transcends empirical phenomena.” This is a profound claim that tears down important metaphysical underpinnings of one’s view of the world, including the intellectual framework necessary to account for objective morality. If the maker of such a statement has any interest in talking seriously about such ideas, he will have to posit an alternative theory of reality that can account for them.
But nothing like this has come forth from atheism’s ranks. The drab statement quoted above about “logical possibilities” concerning God and morality is effectively the sum and substance of all atheism has to say about objective morality. In discussions of moral philosophy, then, atheism is, at best, intellectually irrelevant.