Open Question to All Atheists: Can You Answer This?

In a recent editorial commenting on “New Atheists” Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, Michael Gerlson presents the following purportedly unanswerable objection to atheism:

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted. “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: “To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I’m going to do whatever I please.” C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

Interested readers can read the entire editorial to read the rest of the argument….

Rather than comment on this directly, I’ll leave this as an exercise for the (nontheistic) reader: can you answer this?

LINK (HT: Ebon Musings)

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17962563301878515376 Leaglebob

    Man has a dual nature, we have a herd (social) instinct and a rogue (hedonist) instinct. We feel good when acting within these instincts. Which one predominates in any given situation will heavily enfluence our actions and pleasure derived therefrom.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05706612777000855361 Jamie G.

    I’d answer by saying that atheism isn’t meant to answer these kinds of questions. But just because atheism doesn’t specifically answer this question, as compared to secular humanism, doesn’t mean anything. It’s a straw man argument.

    Now, I’d love to see them make more comments on secular humanism, or any other secular system of ethics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01898478961169607232 MARK

    Atheism does not guarantee bad behavior any more than religion guarantees good behavior. Atheism simply removes one mechanism by which bad behavior becomes socially acceptable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16624603521338516156 DFB

    Exactly, Mark! Given the history of religion’s so-called “morality,” Mr. Gerson has got a lot of nerve pretending that he’s got himself a better reason to behave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06633446488532417951 greg

    I’ll bite. Michael Gerlson only contemplates people as individuals. In that regard, yes, we act in self-interest, possibly to the detriment of other individuals. But it doesn’t end there. As intelligent social beings, we form societies, or ‘communities of purpose.’ These collectives act in collective self-interest, often overriding individual self-interest, which explains why somebody can give of themselves for a greater cause without the need for religious belief.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13551684109760430351 Hume’s Ghost

    I never ceace to be amazed at what some consider to be a devastating argument against atheism. Gerson says the following is the theistic position:

    “We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it.”

    Allright then, how abot this:

    “We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the people we love and respect require it, and because it will make the world we live in a better place for those we love and respect.”

    I, mean, f@ck. It takes … what? 3 seconds of thought to figure out that the world would be a miserable place to live in if everyone treated each other like crap. Do you really need a mythological deity conceived of some 6-8 thousand years ago to tell you that?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    Greg, good answer!

    I’ll take a more philosophical approach.

    ——————————-

    As I understand it, Gerlson’s question is with regards to defining morality and the enforcement of it. I’ll start with some statements with respect to morality.

    (1) There is no God.
    (2) Morality is a purely sentient construct of humans.
    (3) Enforcement of morality is up to us.

    My position contradicts Gerlson’s who asks us to make two assumptions:

    (1) “Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.”

    (2) Given that morality is not a reasoned construct, it must originate from a greater sentient source.

    I don’t see the need for either of his assumptions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    My reply to the author (which I sent by e-mail):

    You wrote:

    “But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and
    a range of other less desirable traits.

    “So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts?”

    Because if we made a habit of indulging in our bad instincts, then our lives would tend to be nasty, brutish and short, to steal a phrase from Hobbes. Now you gave a partial answer to this reply:

    “Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the
    self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives.”

    Yes, *some* are good at the self-centered exploitation
    of others, but for that minority to be successful, the majority has to be reasonably civilized. In a world where the law was the law of the jungle, even those self-centered ones wouldn’t be as successful, because they’d have to spend so much energy being constantly on guard. In the end, the alternative to morality is chaos and a reduced ability for most of us to survive and thrive.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03743116454273042629 Sheldon

    “Yes, *some* are good at the self-centered exploitation
    of others, but for that minority to be successful, the majority has to be reasonably civilized.”

    J.J. Ramsey,
    Very nice response. Perhaps it has been said already, but what I would say to this character:

    What evidence do you have that religion is actually functioning the way you suppose it is? Why is it that some of those who are so adept at self-aggrandizement employ religion as a vehicle to do so?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11024288136513475968 Richard Rosalion

    I’d respond to your question with another one (as jamie q says, the question’s a straw man, anyway):

    Christians don’t get their morality 100% from the bible, they make decisions about which parts of the bible to ignore (say, the moral implications of eating shellfish). If Christians can do it, what makes you think atheists can’t?

    (I make no suggestion that this is my argument – I think Dawkins mentions this in the God Delusion as well)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    Another perspective from PositiveLiberty”

    “Religion serves to make the inferiors accept their station in life, while the superiors — those who are in on the secret — will do their utmost to make sure that they believe the noble lie. The superior men (and, Plato seems to think, the inferiors too) will reap the benefits of religion’s enslavement, an enslavement that the superiors know to be founded on a lie.”

    In effect, is this not what Gerlson is asking Atheist to do … accept “the nobel lie” for the benefit of the inferiors and superiors?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17047791198702983998 bpabbott

    more thoughts from an anonymous friend of mine …
    —————————
    I find this discussion of an “unanswerable objection to atheism” totally inane.
    1) Atheism is simply a philosophy based on the application of rational analysis, which concludes that based on available evidence there is insufficient evidence to justify any belief in the existence of supernatural all-powerful beings.
    2) Whether this rational reasoning leads to a conclusion that may have negative consequences for human society, is irrelevant to the deduction process, and it cannot affect the result of that reasoning, i.e. if the evidence does not justify a belief in supernatural beings, then we must accept that conclusion, good or bad.
    3) I would challenge the assumption that religion encourages “good” morals in human society. Historically, the more pious a nation, the more brutal and cruel it has been to those who challenge its dogma. Many thousands of people through the ages were burned alive, or had their skin peeled off while alive from such morally-guided religious states.
    4) The major three religions in the world all take the Old Testament to be the word of their supernatural being (“god”). It is a disgusting piece of literature filled with murder, sodomy, rape, enslavement, slaughter, infanticide, and more. It is unthinkable that anyone could argue that a life philosophy based on such a work could be a positive force for the basis of human society.
    5) All religious cults seek to persuade their followers to act irrationally, since they ask them to throw their logic away and believe things that they not only have no evidence to believe, but to believe things that conflict completely with their experience of the world, i.e. walking on water. Irrational behaviour is extremely dangerous as it opens people up to manipulation. From then on, followers will accept and do anything they are told to do in the name of religion, without question.
    6) The effect of religion in human societies is to reinforce the old divisions of tribal loyalties and competition. Two children are separated at birth as being different, and consequently regarding the other as inferior. It makes warfare much easier to justify.

    I could go on with much more, but I had better get back to work

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16060980744675990412 Transplanted Lawyer

    Human nature accomodates both good and bad moral impulses, but theism dilutes the moral credit deserving for those who commit good deeds.

    If fear of divine retribution, or the reward of eternal paradise, is the primary reason that you refrain from murder, rape, and theft, then I submit that you are not a particularly moral person at all despite your outwardly and minimally good behavior. If, on the other hand, you treat others well for no other reason other than the inherent goodness of treating others well, then you are truly a moral person.

    The theist might object that the civilization-enabling view of morality is merely a form of enlightened self-interest. But even if this is a point the theist can score, the enablement of civlization through morality is at least a more sophisticated and enlightened world view than the theologial carrot-stick approach advocated by Gerlson, which casts Yahweh in the role of master holding a newspaper in one hand and a cookie in the other and reduces humans to somewhat more complex versions of trainable dogs.

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