Atheism And Ethics

November 9, 2011

“On your account I am one set of complex chemical reactions secreting something that I falsely believe to be arguments to another set of complex chemical reactions who falsely believes that he is reading them . . . if you apply reason and self-criticism to an atheistic examination of ethics, you should discover within ten minutes that there aren’t any . . . You are a hodge-podge of neuron-firings looking into an abyss which you only think you understand. You don’t really understand it because you are not thinking at all, but rather doing what chemicals always do under those conditions and at that temperature” (Letter From a Christian Citizen, pp. 98-99).

(HT: Blog and Mablog)

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7 Responses to “Atheism And Ethics”


  1. “if you apply reason and self-criticism to an atheistic examination of ethics”

    I don’t examine ethics atheistically. I examine them as a human who doesn’t like to be harmed and wants to keep that going.

  2. Mark Says:

    I too appreciate the “Golden Rule” as well (Matt 7:12). I don’t like to be harmed and want to keep that going.

    That said, I like Wilson’s quote because it captures the incompatibility of the idea of objective right and wrong with an atheistic worldview. If we’re accidents, or if we’re simply the result of mechanistic processes, then there is no objective basis for right and wrong. As I said, I like your ethical view (“I examine them as a human who doesn’t like to be harmed and wants to keep that going.”) but if we’re simply accidents or the result of a mindless mechanistic universe, then there’s room for very different ethical views. If I’m the guy with the biggest guns, the idea of survival of the fittest might appeal to me. Then, there would be no good (objective) reason for me not to take your lunch by force. After all, I’d merely be one accident taking another accident’s lunch.


    • “That said, I like Wilson’s quote because it captures the incompatibility of the idea of objective right and wrong with an atheistic worldview. ”

      Okay.

      I don’t view a morality based on a strong being saying ‘do this’ to be particularly objective either, only in part because I don’t believe that being exists. But I see no reason for right and wrong to be necessarily objective, other than convenience. Studying history shows us people of differing values and morals fighting for dominance.

      Using reason, I think I’ve come up with the best morality so far. Is it objectively ‘the best’? I don’t know. But it’s better at keeping to what I value than any other morality I know of.

      “then there’s room for very different ethical views.”

      Well, there’s unlimited room for differing views. I don’t care what your views are, only your actions. So hold whatever views you like. If your actions conflict with the things I value, then we will have conflict.

      “Then, there would be no good (objective) reason for me not to take your lunch by force.”

      No objective reason, no. But plenty of pragmatic reasons. The fact that I will fight you and may overpower you and take your lunch. The fact that I have a collection of people who all don’t want their lunches taken, and will join with me to prevent you from doing it. Etc. And if the pragmatic reasons aren’t good enough, then I’m glad I live in a place that will do all it can to lock you away.

  3. Mark Says:

    Why do your values matter? People have used “reason” to justify every conceivable crime. If there isn’t an objective standard then my reasons and values are as good as yours. Put differently, yours are no better than any villain in history. Who is to say your morality is best? There is no standard.

    As you imply, when it comes right down to it, what matters is who has the biggest stick. The people with the big stick get to determine the standard. If a people feel it’s wrong to take someone’s lunch, then there will be negative repercussions for lunch-stealers. It is group survival of the fittest. If the group with the biggest stick says that Jews should be eliminated then it will be okay to terminate Jews. If the “collection of people” think it’s wrong to provide medical services to people over 78, then the poor lunks who are 79 are just going to have to deal with their pain and premature death. Violent evolutionary theory becomes the mechanism for determining ethics. You and I both know that story has been played out over and over again in history.

    From a theistic vantage point, it is satisfying to know that there is an objective standard and that one day things will be made right.


    • “Why do your values matter?”

      Why do they matter to who?

      They matter to me because they make me happy and help me stay healthy. I don’t particularly care if they matter to anyone else, unless they take steps to harm me.

      “If there isn’t an objective standard then my reasons and values are as good as yours.”

      Incorrect.

      There is no objectively ‘best’ move in the game of chess. But there are some moves that are better than others, some that are equally as good as others, and some that are worse than others. Just because there is no best move doesn’t mean we can’t determine how good the others are. It comes back to what we value.

      If you and I value the same things (and I bet that you and I value a lot of the same things…our own lives, for starters), then we can determine through reason and observation what actions are better than others at keeping those values intact.

      “As you imply, when it comes right down to it, what matters is who has the biggest stick.”

      No. That would be YOUR morality. It’s based on who has the biggest stick…which would be your god, and the stick would be hell.

      “If the group with the biggest stick says that Jews should be eliminated then it will be okay to terminate Jews.”

      Two things: who would it be okay for? Not the Jews, certainly.
      And clearly the group that felt that way didn’t have the biggest stick, because we defeated them in WWII.

  4. Mark Says:

    We simply disagree on our presuppositions (faith systems). You see value in your happiness and health. I say given the unintentionality of an atheistic worldview, nothing matters. Your brief happiness and health might work to get you through this tragedy filled life but in the end it is all meaningless. You might joyously delay the inevitable but in the end, the whole enchilada simply goes dark. In my view, this is where your chess analogy breaks down. With chess there is at least an ultimate goal that might help determine the best move. In an atheistic universe we’re all accidents (or, mindlessly determined by the way the universe just happened to be formed) heading toward annihilation. That said, my reasons are as good as yours because in the end we all get to the same place. Nothing matters. It all goes dark.

    I do see that both jail and war are expressions of the big stick. I’m unclear as to why you’d suggest that you don’t see that this is your view. Frankly, whether it is your view or not, it is the people or the person with the biggest stick who gets to determine the rules whether it is your view or not.


    • “I say given the unintentionality of an atheistic worldview, nothing matters.”

      First of all, I don’t have an atheistic worldview. I have a worldview that includes atheism.

      And what you think my worldview says doesn’t matter. It only matters what I think it says. And to me, things matter because I want them to. I don’t care if they don’t matter to some deity, because I don’t believe it exists in the first place.

      “In an atheistic universe we’re all accidents (or, mindlessly determined by the way the universe just happened to be formed) heading toward annihilation”

      Which makes every second so much more precious.


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