Some Thoughts on ‘Morality Without God . . .’

Let me begin by stating clearly that this is not a review of Mr. Armstrong’s well received book, Morality Without God.  For I have not yet had the pleasure of reading his book and do not wish to mislead anyone into thinking that I have.  Nevertheless, the topic at hand is, according to the editorial reviews I’ve read, a prominent theme in Mr. Armstrong’s book.  More importantly, the issue is commonly espoused in the writings of the ‘New Atheists’ and evident in the writings of other popular humanist thinkers as well (e.g. Greg Epstein).  The basic form of the argument runs something like this: atheists can do good things (i.e. be moral) without reference to some Deity; hence, there is no need to believe in God in order for someone to be moral.

For the record, I think this is a great argument!  Atheists can, in fact, do moral things without reference to a deity; and, atheists who do good things do so without holding a belief in God (a statement, I should think, is rather obvious).  Christians should not simply affirm this fact but embrace it whole heartedly and with joy.  Why?  Because the fact that Atheists can do moral things proves what we Christians have been saying all the time—namely, that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.

You see, the ethical dilemma facing Atheists has never been a matter of whether or not someone who denies God’s existence can do moral things—the dilemma has always revolved around how someone who denies God’s existence can justify the existence of morality in the first place.  There are three primary ways that atheists have responded to this dilemma: (1) to reject the true existence of any and all values; thus removing the problem of morality from the table, (2) to deny that morality is objective and reduce morality to a set of norms arbitrarily adopted by an individual or a society, (3) to maintain that morality is objective and claim that we understand it and explain it by means of science.   But are any of these responses satisfactory?

Let’s begin by analyzing the third response—which is ardently advocated, in some form or another, by the so called “New Atheists.”  The idea that science can provide answers about the nature of morality—namely, that science provides sufficient justification for belief in objective morality—is simply mistaken.  Science can provide us with tons of information about what human beings and societies do, how the brain works, how creatures evolve over time, and what type of nervous system a mammal has; sadly, it fails to provide one shred of information about what human beings ought to do.  In other words, sociologists can tell us what a billion nonreligious people believe about morality; but they can’t tell us what a billion nonreligious people ought to believe about morality.  A neurologist can give me a physiological description of pain, but he can’t tell me—by utilizing the study of neurology—why inflicting unwarranted pain on others is morally reprehensible.  Sadly, science simply can’t provide the justification we are looking for.

Option two fairs no better.  Followers of option two insist that morality is real but maintain that it’s not objective.  Rather, they argue that morality is merely an arbitrary convention adopted by an individual or a society.  In other words, morality is said to be totally subjective or relative.  The problem with this view of morality is that, intuitively, most people don’t believe the brutal rape and murder of an eight year old child is wrong simply as a matter of personal preference or because society deems it wrong; rather, they believe it’s wrong because such heinous acts ought not to be done–which is simply to say that certain actions are objectively evil no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live.  If morality is objective, and I believe everyone (aside from a handful of sociopaths) believes that it is, then to define morality in terms of the conventions of individuals or societies hardly provides us with justification for accepting objective morality.  Sadly, option two also fails to provide the justification we are looking for.

Frankly, the first option is the only option fully consistent with the atheistic worldview.  One should simply recognize and accept the fact that values do not exist.  There is no such thing as evil or good—there are merely physical events and observers who assign values to physical events.  Like those in option two, all notions of morality are completely arbitrary—entirely dependent upon the observer or on a society.  Unlike adherents to option two, followers of option one fail to acknowledge the importance of subjective values and certainly don’t believe that morality is real.  Rather, they view adherence to any set of values—any socially contrived moral system–as either weakness or folly.  After all, why does it matter what I think is good or bad? – For “I” am simply a temporary configuration of atoms which will soon dissipate and quickly be forgotten.  There is no life after death and no one to whom I must answer; there is no overarching meaning or purpose to existence; hence, there is no morality.  The only thing that is important is my will to power.

Obviously, if you accept option one you don’t have to justify the existence of objective morality—for such morality, upon your view, does not exist.  However, this hardly addresses the problem we set out to solve; namely, how atheists who do good things justify the existence of “good things.”  So, option one also fails to provide the justification we are looking for.

Christians, on the other hand, have an answer to the question of why we ought to do what is good; and, in fact, why it is that anybody (whether atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever) can do good.  The answer is rooted in the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.  The fact is, we were created with the innate ability to discern right from wrong—to comprehend the natural law woven within the fabric of creation.  Furthermore, being made in the image of God, human beings are truly valuable and it is, therefore, objectively wrong to mistreat, lie to, abuse, steal from, or murder another human being.  Being made in the image of God also means that we have free will, that we were made for the purpose of directing our will towards the good (which is objectively grounded in God’s very nature), and that  we are, in fact, capable of doing so.

Now, the fact that atheists deny God’s existence and scoff at the notion that God  has anything to do with morality, has little effect on their ontological status as human beings.  In other words–one does not fail to be made in the image of God simply because he denies God’s existence.  It is this very truth which explains why atheists can and will continue to do good things.

Advertisements

The Georges Méliès Dilemma or Some Theological Reflections on Hugo

I recently watched the movie Hugo with my family and was pleasantly surprised by it’s uncanny combination of humor, wit, and drama (and even more surprised by several scenes which brought tears to my eyes).  Having grown up watching classic films, I was particularly fond of director Martin Scorsese’s magical reenactment of the production of the first silent movies.  All in all, it was an inspiring film filled with adventure, mystery, and good story telling.  What stuck with me the most, however, was the underlining philosophical message of the film.  Namely, its emphasis on the meaning of human life, and the utter futility of a life lived without purpose.

In the film, one of the characters, former silent film director Georges Méliès , lives in utter despair because he feels that his life is without purpose.  Once a groundbreaking silent film maker, Méliès now lives in obscurity and relative poverty, running an old toy shop in Paris’ central train station.  He has lost, or so he thinks, all of his life’s work and believes that his many great accomplishments were ultimately meaningless.  One scene which powerfully depicts the feeling of utter despair and pointlessness Méliès is wrestling with, shows all of his films, which he was forced to sell to a chemical company, being melted (thousands of hours of hard work and incredible amounts of imagination destroyed in a matter of seconds) and the remaining chemicals being used to make, of all things, high heels.  The image of such incredible art being destroyed and transformed into something so mundane left me with a profound sense of how utterly pointless human existence is without God.

Like Méliès’ beautiful and imaginative films, humans are finite bundles of matter whose ultimate fate is death and dissolution.  Upon our deaths our bodies will rot, totally dissolving, and all of the atoms which currently comprise us will eventually be scattered throughout the universe–perhaps a piece of you will end up in a pair of high heels like Méliès’ films.  One ancient philosopher, known as the Preacher, wrestled with such thoughts: “for the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.  They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)

Indeed, all is vanity if there is no objective purpose to life.  There is no ultimate meaning to the endless motions and recombinations of atoms–to the endless strivings of human beings with their art and their science and their culture–if God does not exist.  However, the Bible teaches that the world does have an objective purpose; that human life is not futile; that we are, in fact, intrinsically valuable, being made in the very image and likeness of God, and endowed by our creator with a specific purpose (Gen. 1:26-31).  We are to have dominion over, to have power over and tend to, our Fathers creation, to do this by loving God with all of our being and loving each other in the same way that we love ourselves (Luke 10:27-28).  Sin is simply a degradation of this purpose which literally destroys our lives–human beings, intended to persist without death, to be free from pain and suffering and united with their Creator, find themselves corrupted and dying (like one of Hugo’s broken machines). 

As the Wisdom of Solomon states:  “for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wisdom 2:23-24).  The good news is, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provides us with hope that our finite being might ultimately participate in the infinite Being of our Creator.

You see, the only way out of the Méliès dilemma, the only true escape from despair, is Jesus–the logos who became flesh for us men, and for our salvation, to give us  new life and a purpose; to restore the brokenness, which is humanity, to the fullness of what it was intended to be. 

New Look . . . Same Great Taste!

Welcome to my new blog!  In the coming year I look forward to sharing my heart with you as I wrestle with some of the seminal issues facing our generation.  My aim is to discuss a wide range of topics – anything from Nietzsche to lederhosen is fair game – and to keep you informed about various musical and writing projects I’m working on.  To be frank, the title of this blog is a bit misleading: my web site certainly has a new look, but I hope it will be far more tasteful, more thoughtful, and more diverse, than it ever was in the past.  Until next time . . .