Philosophy Can Debunk Myths About Atheism

Philosophy Can Debunk Myths About Atheism March 13, 2011

by James Gray

Many people are taught many strange things about atheists. For example, supposedly atheists can’t be moral, can’t have a source of “meaning” in their lives, and can’t attain knowledge. Many atheists will say that they are being misrepresented by theists because they believe morality, meaning, and knowledge can exist without God. The theist might say, “You’re just being irrational. It’s impossible to have morality, meaning, or knowledge without God!” We need philosophers to study the evidence and justification for various beliefs so we can know whether God is required for these things or not—but philosophers have already been doing so. I will not prove that morality, meaning, and knowledge are possible in a godless universe, but I will discuss one atheistic worldview (atheistic emergentism) that seems compatible with these three things. Philosophers can defend this worldview in much greater detail than I can here. I will not prove that morality, meaning, or knowledge exists; but I see no reason to think these things could only exist if God does.

Before I begin, it should be noted that the theist’s claim—that God is required for morality, meaning, and minds—is an extreme position. We have no reason to believe this claim unless it is supported by very strong evidence. It’s an extraordinary claim and it requires extraordinary evidence. The fact that atheistic emergentism is a plausible worldview that can have morality, meaning, and minds can debunk the theist’s extreme claim. The theist must prove that atheistic emergentism is impossible or we will have no reason to agree that God is required to have moraliy, meaning, and minds.

I will briefly discuss atheistic emergentism; then I will discuss if morality, meaning, or knowledge requires God.

What is atheistic emergentism? It’s is a form of physicalism that states that everything is physical and natural rather than supernatural, but it also says that some things are “greater than the sum of their parts.” Rather than saying that only atoms and motion exist, the emergentist can say that some things exist because the right “material conditions” have been met. For example, the human mind seems to exist because we have a brain, but it is more than just the brain itself. It is greater than the sum of its parts. To say that the mind is physical or natural doesn’t mean it’s a solid object. This is an overly-restrictive understanding of these terms. The mind is quite strange and wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it’s a soul. One philosopher who advocates an emergentist explanation of the mind is John Searle.

An opposing view to emergentism is eliminative materialism, the view that only atoms and motion are real. The eliminative materialist could say that the mind is nothing but the brain and the brain is nothing but atoms and motion.

One claim against atheism is that atheism can’t account for the human mind. This is not a popular argument against atheism because it is so absurd, but Jason Dulle implies this argument when he asks, “What can explain the origin of the soul: an immaterial, conscious, personal, and rational substance? From whence could it come? Surely it cannot be a material source. Material things only producer material things, are not conscious, are not personal, and are not rational.” Dulle says that the mind isn’t compatible with naturalism by definition. He decides that solid objects seem physical and the mind doesn’t, so the mind must be some other kind of entity. Dulle seems to assume that atheists must be eliminative materialists and he ignores the possibility of emergentism.

1. Does morality require God?

Many theists think morality comes from the nature of God or his commands. They say that the atheist can’t have morality for various reasons. For example, it is argued that morality requires rational altruism, but they don’t think we can demand altruism without God. Without God, we merely evolved like the other animals and we have no choice but to be selfish.

An eliminative materialist might be unable to account for rational altruism because people would just be a cluster of atoms in motion; and it’s unclear how such a being could be rational, moral, or conscious. However, we can reply that if rational altruism is possible, then it is possible because we have rational minds. The mind is more than just the brain and is capable of wonderful things. It is plausible to think that we could try to help a strangers at our own expense simply because we think the strangers’ lives have value. The motivation for such a decision could come from “empathy” and many have suggested that empathy evolved to encourage mutually beneficial behavior.

Moreover, we could have evolved the ability for rational altruism, even though it enables us to break free from selfishness (and become a reproductive disadvantage). Perhaps I can use empathy to motivate altruistic behavior even when I don’t expect any benefit in return. Not everything we evolve is guaranteed to give us a reproductive advantage at every moment and some of our evolved traits can even be a reproductive disadvantage on occasion. For example, we evolved to enjoy eating sweet foods, but that enjoyment can lead to unhealthy eating habits. Our enjoyment probably gave us a reproductive advantage in the past, but it doesn’t always provide an advantage anymore.

2. Does meaning require God?

Many theists think that life would have no meaning without God. There would be no “intrinsic value.” Nothing would be good “just for existing.” Some people say that, “the universe doesn’t care about anything” and “we have no reason to believe that human beings are special if God doesn’t exist.” The belief that nothing has any intrinsic value for the atheist is tied to the objection that atheists have no way to “ground morality.” If nothing has intrinsic value, then it’s unclear why morality is rational. It seems rational enough to want to help others at our personal expense if the people we help have inherent worth, but it’s not so clear why it’s rational if they don’t.

Not all atheists believe in intrinsic value or the inherent worth of human life, but I find it plausible. It generally seems better to exist than not. A universe with lots of happy people in it seems better than a universe without people. Certainly if the atheist thinks that only atoms and motion exists, then there is no room for intrinsic value, but the emergence theorist could say that meaning (intrinsic value) could emerge into existence just like our minds given the right material conditions. In fact, intrinsic value seems to only exist because minds exist. My life has value because I have a mind and pain is bad precisely because it exists as a bad sort of mental state.

The existence of intrinsic value does not entail that the universe cares about us. The universe is not a being with thoughts or desires, but intrinsic value doesn’t require any thoughts or desires. Suffering seems like it is bad before anyone experiences it and decides they dislike it. In fact, people seem to dislike it precisely because it’s bad rather than the other way around.

3. Does knowledge require God?

One of the more shocking claims that some theists have made is that knowledge couldn’t exist without God. Many theists think that knowledge is a product of the soul—an immaterial entity capable of transcending the material world to help us understand the truth. Theists sometimes say that atheism would entail that our mind is merely a product of evolution and that the ability to attain knowledge would not necessarily provide us with a reproductive advantage. (Similar arguments were given by both Luke Nix and Jason Dulle.)

I find it incredibly plausible that we can attain knowledge—sufficiently justified true beliefs—even if our knowledge is limited and fallible. However, I don’t think God has to exist for it to be possible to have knowledge. We can have beliefs, so it’s not surprising that at least some of our beliefs can be true. We could have some true beliefs by chance if nothing else. The real issue is how it’s possible for us to have justified beliefs. Why is it possible for us to reason about which beliefs are appropriate? Again, rationality seems to be a product of our mind and the traits we inherit from evolution do not always provide a reproductive advantage. Moreover, I find it plausible that an ability to be rational could be a reproductive advantage quite often. Rationality helps us think in terms of concepts, detect deception, achieve goals, create natural science, and so forth. This all seems very helpful for survival.


In general, the theist’s outrageous claims against atheism are based on misrepresentations of atheism by assuming that all rational atheists must accept “eliminative reductionism.” These arguments are extreme because they require us to accept that it’s impossible for atheism to be true given various “facts” about reality. We shouldn’t accept this sort of an impossibility unless every atheist worldview is incompatible with the “facts,” but the theist rarely attempts to prove that. Instead, the theist takes the most extreme and implausible of atheist worldviews and proves it to be inadequate rather than discussing relatively plausible worldviews, such as atheistic emergentism. It’s like assuming someone is an idiot with terrible beliefs and then using those terrible beliefs against the person.

I think one of the reasons that theists think that theism is so much more rational than atheism is precisely because they don’t really understand atheism. They think atheism requires absurd commitments that it doesn’t. If theists knew that atheism is compatible with very plausible worldviews, then more people might become atheists.

Emergentism is compatible with both theism and atheism. Even if God exists, I find the emergentist explanations to be more plausible than the “supernatural” explanations given by many theists. The fact that we have minds because we have brains is plausible given the connections scientists have found between the brain and mind. A brain dead person does not seem to have a mind. The fact that our brains evolved without the interference of God is greatly supported by our current biological evidence. There is no evidence that God interferes in evolution. The fact that intrinsic value exists because minds exist is plausible given our experiences of happiness, suffering, and our own existence.

Guest Contributor James Gray has an MA in philosophy, manages the Ethical Realism blog, and is the founder of the Philosophy Campaign.


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