The New Atheism and Morality
Posted by J.M. Njoroge on June 9, 2008
Though the chorus of voices decrying belief in God has been humming in the ideological background for centuries, it seems to have reached a crescendo with the emergence of a movement that has been dubbed the new atheism. The trademark of this new brand of atheism is its vitriolic attack on religion. To its advocates, religious beliefs are not only false; they are also dangerous and must be expunged from all corners of society. The pundits of the new atheism are not content to nail discussion theses on the door of religion; they are also busy delivering eviction notices to the allegedly atavistic elements of an otherwise seamlessly progressive atheistic evolution of Homo sapiens. Given the rhetoric, one might be forgiven for thinking that some new discoveries have rendered belief in God untenable. Curiously, this drama is unfolding in the same era in which perhaps the world’s leading defender of atheism, Antony Flew, has declared that recent scientific discoveries point to the fact that this world cannot be understood apart from the work of God as its Creator. This is no small matter, for Flew has been preaching atheism for as long as Billy Graham has been preaching the Gospel. Unlike Flew and others, the new atheists seem to forget that the success of their mission hinges solely on the strength and veracity of the reasons they give for repudiating religion. Venom and ridicule may carry the day in an age of sensationalistic sound bites, but false beliefs will eventually bounce off the hard, cold, unyielding wall of reality. A good example of a claim against religion that does not sit well with the facts of reality is issued in the form of a challenge to the believer to “name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.” (1) We are expected to agree that no such action or statement exists and then conclude that morality does not depend on God. The problem is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The fact that a non-believer can utter moral statements and even act morally does not logically lead to the conclusion that morality does not depend on God, much less that God does not exist. This challenge misunderstands the believer’s position on the relationship between morality and God. The believer’s claim is that the world owes its existence to a moral God. All human beings are moral agents created in God’s image and are expected to recognize right from wrong because they all reflect God’s moral character. The fact that human beings are the kinds of creatures that can recognize the moral imperatives that are part of the very fabric of the universe argues strongly against naturalism. Unlike the laws of nature, which even inanimate objects obey, moral imperatives appeal to our will and invite us to make real decisions on real moral issues. The only other parallel experience we have of dos and don’ts comes from our minds. Thus when the atheist rejects God while insisting on the validity of morality, he is merely rejecting the cause while clinging to the effect. Without God, morality is reduced to whatever mode of behavior human beings happen to favor either because of their genetic makeup or conventional accords. There is no action that is objectively right or wrong. Rape, hate, murder and other such acts are only wrong because they have been deemed to be so in the course of human evolution. Had human evolution taken a different course, these acts might well have been the valued elements of our moral code. Even Nazi morality would be right had the Nazis succeeded in their quest for world dominance. Unless the world contains behavioral guidelines that transcend human decisions and genetic determinism, there is no reason why anyone should object to such conclusions. Though some religious people do not live up to the moral principles they espouse, it is not true that genuine religious devotion makes no difference to one’s moral commitments. It is missionaries, and not atheists, who regularly give up their own comforts and accept unbelievable amounts of pain and suffering to better the lives of societal outcasts, not just through preaching but also through education, technology, and humanitarian relief. Our failure to live up to what we know to be right provides empirical evidence for the need for God’s intervention in our lives. Those who insist that objective morality makes no difference to human autonomy still expect morality to guide the behavior of others. That our society is saturated with transcendent moral sentiments accounts for the popularity of some television programs that arrest our attention night after night. Perhaps ninety percent of the shows depend exclusively on our ability to apply objective moral standards to the actions of the characters. Should the Judeo-Christian moral bank close its doors to our cultural psyche, the bankruptcy of human-centered morality would eventually send our spiritual tentacles scouring for an alternative transcendent anchor. Thus were the new atheists to succeed in their quest, the result would not be the elimination of religion but the entrenchment of a different religion. As Ravi Zacharias has warned in his new book The End of Reason, eventually, the real choice for the West will not be between Christianity and atheism but between Christianity and another religion. Beware of ethical naturalists bearing moral gifts.
1) Christopher Hitchens, “An Atheist Responds,” The Washington Times (Saturday, July 14, 2007).
J.M. Njoroge is associate apologist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.