In his recent critique of Francis Collins, the Christian Evangelical and geneticist recently appointed by Obama to head the National Institutes of Health, Sam Harris referenced the slides from one of Collins’s speeches. I want to take two posts (but possibly more if there are comments or if I otherwise have extra relevant ideas on the topic) to address this one assertion from Collins’s slides which is peculiarly pregnant with problems:
If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?
In the next two posts I am going to tackle the question of whether or in what ways morality is an “illusion” and evolution has “hoodwinked” us if morality evolved (like us) by accident. Collins’s formulation of the charge that we need God to have morality is a peculiar one which deserves to be treated all by itself. Before getting to criticisms of his idiosyncratic formulation in the next two parts of this series, in this post I want to start by addressing the general tactic of trying to claim that without God we can have no morality as it is employed by more than just the eccentric Francis Collins.
What I find most troubling about this argument is that when someone argues that we need their particular faith (or faith in general) in order to have an objective basis for morality, (s)he is trying to force a non-believer into a diabolical choice—accept what you have no reasons to believe or abandon your acknowledgment of morality. Now for this argument even to work, the believer is relying on the fact that the allegedly morally ignorant non-believer is responsive to moral concerns, that the non-believer wants to believe in morality. So, the argument already proves that what it claims is impossible is actually real—that someone can have a concern for morality and a recognition of it without any faith.
But the charge supposedly goes deeper—the well-meaning atheist concerned with having morality supposedly lacks justification for his moral claims when he lacks faith. So, the argument cannot be that atheists have no knowledge of right and wrong but that the atheist lacks a justification for acting and thinking as thought morality has any objective foundations. But what is the justification that the believer offers for believing that there is an objective foundation? The alleged justification is an appeal to God’s existence and moral governance. But is this an objective justification? No, this requires an in-principle unsupported subjective acknowledgment of the supreme authority of specific religious traditions’ texts, presumed prophets, apostles, historical teachings, etc. So, the argument is that faith—a subjective, foundationless religious guess held to be authoritative—can somehow transmit objectivity to morality.
If faith appeals themselves require no further externally produced justification, why can I not just go ahead and have faith that morality is real and that our minds have evolved to see its truth the same way that our minds have evolved to luckily discover the law of non-contradiction? In fact, I don’t even need to rest that thought on faith but can make the analogy as an intuition that is at least grounded in a reasoning process of analogy rather than arbitrary guess.
So, if faith and subjective guesses ground belief in God, why not just let them ground belief in morality itself, which is all the atheist is trying to believe in anyway? And why wouldn’t the atheist look into the objective arguments for the objectivity of morality if at all possible rather than just take the subjective religious solution that infects his belief in morality with its unjustified faith dimension? Why shouldn’t the atheist, even if she is unconvinced that she knows of an objective basis for beign moral, hold to her belief in morality provisionally, for pragmatic reasons and then go about the difficult work of developing an honest and accurate metaethics?
Put more simply, if all religious faith will give her is another unjustified reason to believe in morality, what does it add to her already unjustified adherence to morality? And if morality is what she’s really after (and it must be or you wouldn’t try to entice her to faith with morality as your carrot), then why would she prematurely abandon the pursuit of objective reasons for being moral, especially if she becomes aware of sophisticated investigations into the rational sources of justification of various moral ideals and practices that have happened throughout the centuries and with particular gusto in the last two secular centuries of philosophy? Why would she ignore the possible routes to an objective justification that involve neither unjustified superstitions nor infantalizing divine command theory attitudes towards morality’s origins, nature, and justification?
For these reasons, the honest atheist who already does not buy either the metaphysical case for the existence of God, the ethical argument that the metaphysical God somehow is necessary for or otherwise explains morality, or the claim that special revelation is authoritative, has no reasons to suspend all those qualms out of a desperate fear of losing morality. She is free to investigate rationally and not buy the religious lie that the only choices are surrender of reason or surrender of morality.
So, I think the Christian apologist’s charge that the atheist should become a believer out of concern for moral justification fails. But what is more troubling to me is what the appeal itself tells us about the believer who makes the charge.
1. The believer likely thinks that morality is either dependent on God’s arbitrary commands, meaning that might makes right and that there are no objective reasons, apart from God’s capricious will, to think anything right or wrong. And even believers who explicitly disavow this view implicitly accept it whenever they claim the Old Testament accurately depicts God’s will where it describes his desires. In those places where we see God commanding genocide, the only way to accept those actions as those of a morally acceptable God while denouncing genocide in our own time is to be a relativist or a divine command theorist who thinks that God’s power allows him to command genocides and make them morally correct by the sheer force of his will.
2. The believer, if she is not a divine command theorist (and if is able to denounce the Old Testament genocides as not really God’s will in order to prove sufficiently that she really is not, not even implicitly) might mean when she claims that we cannot have justified knowledge of morality without God simply that our reason is insufficient to know moral truth even though that truth is objective and not dependent on God’s will. In this case, moral truth would be eternal and something even God is subject to recognize but mysteriously God would have made it inaccessible to us without his intervention so that poor atheists, scientists, and philosophers investigating the world without faith are just doomed to discover this eternal truth through natural reason. Maybe the reason for this is the alleged “darkening of our minds” by original sin that Calvinists cite Romans 1 to prove has made apparently obvious truths inaccessible to us.
In that case, I simply stand with Galileo and say, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Even as an atheist not entirely sure of the exact justifications of morality itself, I can tell that within moral terms it is wicked for God to punish those who most scrupulously use their natural endowments for discovering truth by withholding precisely from these people the justifications of morality. It would be further unfair to then instead offer the reasons behind morality only to those who believe in things without justification. Why is God punishing those who restrain their wills to only believe that for which they have careful evidence and for which they can give an adequate justification to all who ask? Why would he favor those who declare morality to have no objective evidence of its goodness and who try to convince others that if they do not believe without evidence too that they’d might as well go become immoral? And this brings me to my most important charge against those who insist without faith there can be no justification for morality:
3. The believer who insists you must have religious faith or be an immoral or amoral nihilist cares less about morality than about his faith such that he tries to take morality hostage and exploit the atheist’s allegiance to morality in order to force her to submit to his community’s belief demands. A genuine devotee of morality first and foremost would advance his arguments for the objectivity of morality and, in his more desperate argumentative moments would seize on whatever possible indications of its objectivity he could find. Someone who is emotionally connected to a particular belief will resort to all the available plausible reasons to support it and, in his less scrupulous moments even grasp for the less and less plausible ones. And often, any argument will serve our desired conclusion.
What we see in the case of he who argues that without God there can be no morality, is that the believer who argues this is desperate to defend and protect not morality but faith. The faith and allegiance to its community are so important that self-proclaimed protectors of morality are willing to actively persuade non-believers that there are no objective reasons to believe in morality on their current “worldviews.” They are so desperate to demand you submit to their claims on subjective faith-based grounds that they are willing to run the risk that you wind up accepting the truth of their claims that there is no objective moral truth while still rejecting their demand for faith. In other words, completely unlike genuine apologists for moral objectivity, these believers who hold it hostage for the sake of faith willfully attempt to persuade those who do not believe that they have no reason to believe in morality and that they have to accept it without reasons—through faith, and not just through faith in morality, but even more complicatedly, through faith in God, the incarnation, the resurrection, etc.
They are willing to risk the atheists who do not make the subjective leap of faith will embrace nihilism and immorality as their only other options. While professing to believe in a hyper-objective form of morality (which, again, their moral equivalence about the God’s Old Testament actions utterly belies), they show complete disinterest in the numerous possible corroborating rational theories of moral justification and discovery which would actually have potential to bolster their claims in objective morality. They would rather convince themselves they have a cudgel for threatening the non-believer with nihilism and immorality than actually believe that they had a way to convince non-believers of moral truths without any need for those non-believers to acknowledge their faith.
This shows their ultimate indifference to morality as completely secondary to their fanatical insistence that community membership and faith are the only things that really matter in life. They want to give the secular world two choices, convert or collapse into nihilism. They don’t want to pursue a common endeavor for building moral agreement even among those who don’t share their faith. They want to believe that their faith alone is absolutely necessary for peace and morality. And they are willing to hold hostage peace and morality to force conversion of atheists who care enough about morality itself that they are willing to sacrifice their standards of rational justification.
For more on the problems with Francis Collins’s particular challenge to atheists’ ability to formulate a constructive ethics without belief in God, see my post on the question, Are Sex and Morality “Evolutionary Tricks”?