Atheistic Morality

A few years’ back David Robertson wrote a terrific little book as a riposte to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The book is a series of letters. His eighth letter is found online here.

‘My fear is that once society as a whole accepts your basic presuppositions (that there are no absolutes in morality, that morality changes and that human nature is genetically determined) then it is a slippery slope to the kind of atheistic societies that the world has already seen (such as Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China)’ p96 The Dawkins Letters.

With this quote Robertson takes us to the heart of his eighth letter. This is no detached philosophical reflection. This is reality. At least it could be. And that’s the point. Atheism has nothing to say to stop it. In attacking the myth of godless morality Robertson makes two telling points.

1. The atheistic account of morality is woefully incoherent

The atheistic case for Darwinian morality rests on three pillars.

a. Being moral or being good is defined as being altruistic. We’re genetically pre-programmed to be altruistic to people who are genetically most like us.

b. We’re also altruistic because that way we end up in a virtuous circle where the recipients of our altruism end up reciprocating our altruism. It’s like a ‘win-win’!

c. We gain superiority over our peers when we gain a reputation for altruism. And this, presumably, has spin offs in terms of survival of the fittest.

Robertson suggests that there are four problems with this moral framework.

1. it’s selfish

Fundamentally this version of morality is all about me. Jesus located the heart of the human problem in the self centeredness of the human heart [Mark 7]. But the Bible nowhere argues that this should provide the basis of our moral reasoning. On the contrary, the Bible’s moral teaching aims to deliver us from the selfishness of human appetites and decision making. But the basis of atheistic morality is selfishness.

2. it’s deterministic

Atheism argues that we’re only good because we’ve been genetically pre-programmed that way. There’s no room for decision, volition and responsibility. It’s not really me making a moral decision. It’s my genetic pre-disposition. And I can’t be blamed for that. Take it up with my genes. So if this were the case then there are no grounds for human accountability. Of course, we don’t want to be naïve and deny that our genes have some influence on our decision making. But we do make decisions for which we are culpable. The trouble with the atheistic model of morality is that it doesn’t accord humanity with the responsibility that we observe or require for ruling some behaviour illegitimate.

3. it’s relativistic

Atheistic morality is secular. The moral standards of atheism are not absolute. Therefore everything is ‘up for grabs’. That’s pretty frightening. As Robertson notes, ‘if there is no ultimate standard then we are left with anything goes, might is right, or the whims of a changing and confused society’. That’s not an entirely inaccurate description of where UK Government legislation is currently heading. The chickens are coming home to roost.

4. it’s illogical

Darwinian philosophy cannot logically and consistently argue for morality because there’s no such thing as good or bad. Read these words from Dawkins’ the Blind Watchmaker, ‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference’. Now read that again. It’s chilling. But it’s also illogical. Neo-Darwinism has no rational basis for being good. Atheistic philosophers realise this and so they’re running around trying to plug the gap and come up with a rationale for godless morality. But it’s an exercise in futility.

In contrast to the incoherence of the atheistic morality there’s Christianity.

2. The Christian account of morality is compellingly coherent

Presumably Dawkins knows that the incoherence of the Neo-Darwinian account of morality is atheism’s Achilles heel. And he tries to conceal that with a vehement attack on the Christian account of morality. Tactically it’s astute. But in all honesty it’s deceptive. His biggest issue with Christian morality is the Bible, which he deals with in chapter 7 of The God Delusion. But it’s not his only issue. He cites the example of immoral acts by Christians which discredit the claim of morality. There are two easy counters to this argument. First, Jesus would not have us be immoral. Secondly, the immoral acts of some who profess faith shouldn’t tarnish everyone who does. But Dawkins also has an issue with Christianity’s big stick approach to keeping us on the straight and narrow. He doesn’t put it in those terms of course. He’s an academic and so he cites Einstein who said, ‘If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed’. Robertson points out that, ‘The Bible recognises that human beings are complex and that we need a system of checks and balances to help us’. And so he asks Dawkins a series of rhetorical questions. ‘Would you like the police to be removed from Oxford? Do you think that students at your university should be threatened with punishment if they cheat? Or should they be given higher degrees if they do better than their peers? Surely if your students are only studying and not cheating because they fear punishment or have hope for some reward they are a sorry lot?’ If Dawkins was opposed to the threat of punishment as a means of motivating behaviour then he’d answer in the negative. But of course he won’t. Once again he’s hoisted on his own petard. Having defended Christian morality against false charges Robertson then goes on the attack and shows its strength.

1. Christian morality explains evil

The Bible tells us what we already know to be true of ourselves; we’re messed up. The real issue in the morality debate is why people are evil. Christianity has an answer; the answer. But Dawkins’ version of morality is naively optimistic. He assumes that we’ll all end up like middle class Oxford dons. But he can’t explain why we shouldn’t end up like middle class Nazis. The Bible does, and it calls it sin.

2. Christian morality explains the universe

Quoting CS Lewis’ essay ‘Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe’ Robertson argues that atheism cannot account for the universal moral impulse and a universal sense of moral guilt. Lewis asks where we get this awareness of wrong and right from if it’s not from the divine creation of the universe.

3. Christian morality explains me

The GK Chesterton quote is wonderfully evocative. I think I heard it every year at Christian summer camp. In a letter to the Times newspaper he wrote, ‘Dear Editor: What’s wrong with the world? I am. Faithfully yours, GK Chesterton’. It makes the point that the Bible explains that the evil that caused the holocaust is present in each one of us. Robertson’s point is that atheism has no grounds for morality. Christianity does. But is there’s no such thing as absolute right and wrong then nothing is ruled out and everything, everything is permissible. That this is the case is supported by some of the central figures of atheistic ethics and philosophy.

Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, argues that mentally impaired babies have no greater rights than certain animals.

Bill Hamilton, a Professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford, argued for a radical programme of infanticide, eugenics and euthanasia in order to save the world.

Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian zoologist and animal psychologist who founded ethology or the study of animal behaviour, was an enthusiastic Nazi.

J.B.S Haldane, geneticist and evolutionary biologist who was one of the founders of population genetics, was a committed Stalinist.

R.A. Fisher, the evolutionary biologist and geneticist who created the foundations for modern statistical science, argued that civilization was threatened because upper class women weren’t procreating at a sufficient rate.

These are not peripheral figures or straw men constructed in order to caricature a position with which Christianity takes issue. These guys are front and centre. They were advocates of extreme social views. Dawkins ignores them.


But before we move on from this we must be clear on one thing. Christians are not moralists. We believe in morality because the Bible does. But the Bible doesn’t give us a set of laws to observe. It gives us a saviour to trust. We know that our moral transformation comes not through our behaviour but through our belief in Jesus Christ. He dealt with our immorality on the cross and he deals with our morality through His Spirit.

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