An atheist named John Gray wrote a piece in the radically leftist UK Guardian that’s been getting a lot of attention from Christians.
Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. [. . .] Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values. To be sure, evangelical unbelievers adamantly deny that liberalism needs any support from theism. If they are philosophers, they will wheel out their rusty intellectual equipment and assert that those who think liberalism relies on ideas and beliefs inherited from religion are guilty of a genetic fallacy. Canonical liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant may have been steeped in theism; but ideas are not falsified because they originate in errors. The far-reaching claims these thinkers have made for liberal values can be detached from their theistic beginnings; a liberal morality that applies to all human beings can be formulated without any mention of religion. Or so we are continually being told. The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism.
Here’s Maverick Philosopher to explain why the atheist has this intuition:
Consider equality. As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically. By no empirical measure are people equal. We are naturally unequal. And yet we are supposedly equal as persons. This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment. Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end. A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit. For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil. A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person. And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons. Thus in his third formulation of the Categorical Imperative in his 1785 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. (Grundlegung 429)
In connection with this supreme practical injunction, Kant distinguishes between price and dignity. (435) “Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity.” Dignity is intrinsic moral worth. Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite — in that no price can be placed upon it — and the same for all. The irreplaceability of persons is a very rich theme, one we must return to in subsequent posts.
These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form. But what do these pieties have to do with reality? Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?
Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure. We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.) We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents. But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living ‘Martian’ animal). And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious? Are they not just highly complex physical systems? Surely you won’t say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value. Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex? And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of ‘creation’ because we happen to be these critters.
If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal. What then is a person? And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?
When it comes to discussing morality, we aren’t interested in what people can do if they feel like it. We are not interested in feelings at all. We are interested in whether a worldview provides a rational grounding for the moral value of human beings, and the moral duties we have towards other human beings.
1) Objective moral values
There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.
2) Objective moral duties
Moral duties (moral obligations) refer to the actions that are obligatory based on the moral values defined in 1). Suppose we spot you 1) as an atheist. Why are you obligated to do the good thing, rather than the bad thing? To whom is this obligation owed? Why is rational for you to limit your actions based upon this obligation when it is against your self-interest? Why let other people’s expectations decide what is good for you, especially if you can avoid the consequences of their disapproval?
3) Moral accountability
Suppose we spot you 1) and 2) as an atheist. What difference does it make to you if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?
4) Free will
In order for agents to make free moral choices, they must be able to act or abstain from acting by exercising their free will. If there is no free will, then moral choices are impossible. If there are no moral choices, then no one can be held responsible for anything they do. If there is no moral responsibility, then there can be no praise and blame. But then it becomes impossible to praise any action as good or evil.
5) Ultimate significance
Finally, beyond the concept of reward and punishment in 3), we can also ask the question “what does it matter?”. Suppose you do live a good life and you get a reward: 1000 chocolate sundaes. And when you’ve finished eating them, you die for real and that’s the end. In other words, the reward is satisfying, but not really meaningful, ultimately. It’s hard to see how moral actions can be meaningful, ultimately, unless their consequences last on into the future.
Atheism can ground none of these. Christian theism grounds all five of them.
And it’s because of this fact that people look on atheism as a flight from morality, rather than a serious grappling with the moral life. When Christian theists hear about stories like Dr. Richard Carrier announcing that he’s been cheating on his wife, who supported his atheistic ministry for years while he did essentially nothing productive, we are not surprised. He’s only following the advice of Dr. Richard Dawkins, who is a big advocate for adultery. And then there is atheist apologist John Loftus – adultery is what got him started in atheism.
Self-sacrificial, incumbent morality makes as much sense on atheism as astrophysics makes to fishes. It’s a complete reduction of the question “what ought I to do in order to be good?” to “what pleasurable things can I get away with doing in this time and place?” Anything. Goes.