Saturday, January 19, 2008

Southern Ohio Theological Society: The End Has Come

Not too long ago I posted a message about my article that was published in the Southern Ohio Journal of Theology. Sadly, the organization folded recently. It really is a shame, but the guys in charge just didn't have the time to see to their own responsibilities and keep the Southern Ohio Theological Society running as well. I'm bummed about it for two reasons: 1. My sole article published on a site other than my own is now kaput, and 2. I will never get to write for the Journal again.

Since their website has been emptied of its content, I don't think they'll mind if I go ahead and republish my article "A Hollow Imperative" here. Enjoy:

A Hollow Imperative: Why Atheist Moral Theory Fails

Moral instruction makes up a good portion of the Bible’s content. Jews and Gentiles alike have used it to understand why we do not murder, and why we do assist the poor, among other things. As Christians, I dare say we are glad to have this solid ground upon which to stand when it comes to the grounding for moral behavior. In fact, we have for a long time held that God’s existence is necessary for grounding morality.

Opponents of theism, however, are eager to claim the territory of morality for their own. This comes as no surprise, as there are very few people who would say, “Yes, on my worldview rape and murder are perfectly acceptable,” and those who do say so we incarcerate for our own safety. It should therefore be even less of a surprise that the recent spate of atheist literature would have lengthy sections on the grounding of morality. I think, though, that the arguments they marshal ultimately prove insufficient.

One of the most popular of the recent atheistic books is Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation. Harris builds his case for morality without God early in the book. On page 8 he states "questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering."[1] This gives us a clue as to the sort of moral reasoning he will use a few pages later.

In the section titled "Real Morality" Harris explains his view of morality further. He writes, "…for there to be objective moral truths worth knowing, there need only be better and worse ways of seeking happiness in this world."[2] There are a few questions we can ask here to see if Harris' assertion is true.

First, we need to examine what Harris means by 'objective.' I think the relevant definition for 'objective' here is "existing outside of and independent of the mind."[3] In other words, Harris does not believe that atheism saddles him with moral rules that vary from person to person. If we grant Harris' premises this might be true, but I think there is an aspect of objective morality he ignores to the detriment of his argument. We will examine this below, but let us first move to question number two.

The second question is, what is Harris' definition of 'happiness?' 'Happiness' is not a simple, pleasant feeling for Harris. Rather, 'happiness' is "a deep sense of well-being" which can be achieved through loving others. Harris says this psychological reality is "an objective claim about the human mind, about the dynamics of social relations, and about the moral order of our world" (emphasis in original).[4]

We need to notice something here. Harris has claimed that he believes in objective morality through seeking happiness, but I think there is a subtle difference in the meaning for ‘objective’ he uses and the one that is commonly assumed. There is a sense, for most people, that if a 'moral truth' is objective it should not only be true from person to person now, but from the beginning of humanity to the end, and this is not something Harris can claim. Given evolution, it is possible that the best ways of seeking happiness for human beings may change. What is moral today might not be moral in the far flung future. It is true that love provides a sense of well-being today, but perhaps we will one day evolve to the point where satisfying our blood-lust would do the job best. Does it make sense to call such a moral system 'objective?'

There is also some question as to why we should even accept happiness as a measure for morality at all. This important question is ignored in most atheistic writing on morality that I have encountered. How does the fact that love produces a sense of well-being obligate me to love anyone, including myself? It cannot because you cannot establish a moral rule based simply on the current state of human psychology. We can always as 'why?' one more time, and this is where Harris' system begins to fall apart.

Atheists, however, have more than one argument up their sleeves. If focusing on happiness does not provide a basis for morality, perhaps biology can. In January of 2007 Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of the Psychology Department at Harvard, wrote an article in Time Magazine in which he sought to anchor morality in what he called, “the biology of consciousness.”[5] The bulk of the article focused on the attempts of scientists to indentify the human consciousness strictly within the activity of the brain. In other words, there’s no need to posit an immaterial soul because physical features of the brain and its functions will explain everything.

Hearing theories like the one mentioned above disturbs many people, and with good reason. It doesn’t take long for us to grasp that if there is nothing that exists beyond this world, if there is neither an afterlife nor a God who waits for us there, then anything is permissible. There would be no reason to hold back from simply taking what you want.

Pinker, like the other atheists, wants to deny this common conclusion.
In order to do so he tries grounding morality in the biology of consciousness. The argument goes like this: As we study the brain we see that our neurological equipment works in the same way as other beings. Since this is the case we should realize that others have the same ability to suffer that we do. Therefore, we should recognize that we should treat them basically as we would want to be treated. Pinker claims that this would overcome the tendency to ignore the fact that other people are sentient beings.

Unfortunately, Pinker’s approach suffers from at least two difficulties. The first is that any sort of appeal to biological sameness is unlikely to yield lasting practical results. This strategy has been tried before, which, ironically enough, Pinker himself points out by quoting Shakespeare’s line, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Tragically, this rhetorical question did not matter for the millions of Jews who died during World War II. If we can ignore what we experience immediately, namely that all ethnicities have basically the same physiology, then how much easier will it be to ignore information that is mediated to us through a machine?

Pinker’s approach also suffers from what I consider the chief problem of establishing morality upon atheistic premises: He stops asking why. In answer to the question, ‘Why be moral?’ he responds, ‘because we all have the capacity to suffer.’ He stops there, but pressing on reveals the inadequacy of his position.

Let’s ask why one more time. Even if we grant that the activity of the brain shows our similar capacities for suffering, why does the fact that we all have the capacity to suffer mean that we ought not to cause others suffering? Pinker might respond that it shows that all humans are fundamentally the same, but why should any sort of sameness be the criterion? Pinker’s attempt founders because moving from any biological fact to a moral imperative ultimately proves impossible.

Dealing with the arguments of men like Harris and Pinker is a worthwhile task, but any survey of the recent activity of atheist thinkers would be incomplete without referring to the man who might be the leading popular proponent of atheism in the world: Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and he has written numerous popular works promoting evolution and atheism. He is a capable scientist and a good writer. His book The God Delusion has received much acclaim and has been read widely. What theory of morality does Dawkins propose in those pages?

Dawkins turns to Darwinism for his answer. This should come as no surprise since evolutionary biology is his wheelhouse. In fact, in one of his two chapters on morality (“The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?), Dawkins says little about the nature of morality other than a proposed Darwinian origin for things like altruistic impulses. Should it bother Christians that an internally coherent theory about the evolutionary emergence of morality exists? I suggest that there is not. If given enough time you or I or anyone with a creative mind could develop any number of internally coherent moral theories, but that will not make the theories true. Forgive my impertinence, but Dawkins never explains why we should treat these theories as anything but interesting works of fiction. Perhaps it might serve as a comfort to those who already agree with Dawkins, but why should it be the least bit compelling for those of us who do not?
There are a number of fronts upon which atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Pinker are attacking. However, we can say with confidence that they all fail to give a satisfying account of morality. All three men try to move from a physical state of affairs—whether a supposed point in evolution, the fact that love brings a greater sense of well-being than hate, or how our brains happen to work—to moral obligation. If we ask why one more time, we see that their language of ‘should,’ ‘ought,’ and ‘must’ rings hollow.

[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 8.
[2] Ibid, 23
[3] The Merriam Webster Dictionary (Merriam Webster, Inc.: Springfield, MS, 1994), 507.
[4] Harris, 24.
[5] Steven Pinker, “The Mystery of Consciousness” Time Magazine January 19, 2007

[1] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 8.
[2] Ibid, 23
[3] The Merriam Webster Dictionary (Merriam Webster, Inc.: Springfield, MS, 1994), 507.
[4] Harris, 24.
[5] Steven Pinker, “The Mystery of Consciousness” Time Magazine January 19, 2007


Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Pinker, Steven. “The Mystery of Consciousness,” TIME, January 19, 2007,,9171,1580394,00.html

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