An atheist may not claim, as Dostoevsky intimated that, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
However if an atheist did make such a claim there would be no rational basis to contradict him.
An atheist may not claim, as Dostoevsky intimated that, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
However if an atheist did make such a claim there would be no rational basis to contradict him.
One ongoing contention by atheists is that God is unnecessary to ground morality because humans are naturally social and interdependent creatures who have inherited these characteristics from their evolutionary forebears. As evidence for this contention they often point to examples of certain social behaviors in apes and monkeys, our presumed nearest non-human cousins. We’ll ignore certain nasty behaviors by such animals (and why such behaviors aren’t equally ‘moral’ by this estimation) for now and examine instead a concept that is generally seen as moral in the Christian West – fairness.
In an August post called Where does morality come from? A demonstration with monkeys atheist and evolutionist cheerleader Jerry Coyne (who seems to be a big fan of these sort of studies) attributes the reactions of a capuchin to not receiving a grape in exchange for a rock during the course of an experiment to the monkey’s sense of ‘fairness’, a characteristic he considers to be a basis for morality:
This video is about as powerful a refutation I’ve seen of the notion that our morality is given by God rather than either evolved or a product of our culture. This is taken from a wonderful TED talk by Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of several popular books. His talk is called “Moral behavior in animals”, and is witty and full of insights (you can also watch it here if you don’t have the right Flash player).
Do watch the whole talk, as you’ll learn a lot about “morality” in our mammalian relatives, and there are several nice videos. In the one I show below, two naive capuchin monkeys display what looks for all the world like a reaction to “unfairness” (the video appears about 3/4 of the way through de Waal’s talk). As de Waal notes, cucumbers are okay food for the monkeys, but they really like grapes (de Waal claims that monkeys like food in proportion to its price at the supermarket). A pair of capuchins can see each other getting cucumbers and grapes (they have to give the experimenter a rock before they get a piece of food).
See what happens when one of them is given a grape for his rock, and the other a cucumber. Remember, this is the first time these monkeys have been subject to this procedure:
So in the estimation of Jerry Coyne the capuchin’s reaction is an offense to the monkey’s sense of fairness. How does he know this? Because the monkey appears to be reacting in a manner a human might act when they are frustrated by being treated unfairly. And from this appearance he comes to the conclusion that this sense of fairness humans concern themselves with can be understood to derive from our animal ancestors and we can dismiss with God.
Now its possible monkeys have some idea of fairness. It’s possible other animals do. I have a Golden Retriever that gets petulant when I don’t take her with me when I run an errand. The response is similar to that of a three year old that declares it’s “Just not fair” that they didn’t get to go to the park. There is no reason why I as a Christian would deny the existence of such sensations in animals – but is such frustration really the basis for our moral notion of fairness? This is where I think comparisons start to break down.
Fairness in humans of course is a much more idealistic concept than mere frustration at unexpected treatment. We have entire social and political system designed specifically to ensure fairness. We even have symbols of fairness like Lady Justice, a symbol which goes back to the Ancient Egyptians. It is the notion that there is an underlying moral order against which actions should be evaluated without regard for the individual conducting the actions. So the human notion of fairness or the closely related concept of justice is not merely an innate reaction, but a sense that there is way the world ought to be and certain circumstances contradicted this ideal. There is no evidence capuchins are motivated by such ideals.
Of course, Jerry Coyne is inclined to see the rudiments of these ideals in the grasping of a monkey for a grape because he has a belief system which is supported by interpreting monkey responses this way. Though he would call such observations scientific, the reality is such experiments are far from empirical since we have no idea what is happening in the minds of these animals as they react. Both Coyne’s ideas about what fairness is and how he interprets such reactions are highly subjective. Indeed these sorts of experiments have soiled the scientific reputations of other researchers like Marc Hauser who bet his career on interpreting the motivations of monkeys and ended up resigning his position at Harvard due in part to the inherently interpretive nature of such studies.
Atheist tend to cherry pick such studies. Because they have an a priori commitment to naturalism, they are forced to believe that human morality must have been the product of evolutionary development from ape-like ancestors. So any animal behavior that slightly resembles a human action motivated by a moral precept is interpreted as evidence for this notion. Of course, atheists tend to ignore studies that that indicate our presumed ape relatives actually have little interest in fairness, like the one recently published in Biology Letters aptly titled, Theft in an ultimatum game: chimpanzees and bonobos are insensitive to unfairness. In the study researchers set up a scenario where the apes could choose to leave a portion of grapes for the group mates. This is what Professor Keith Jensen, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences observed:
“In each scenario one ape had to choose whether to steal the grapes or leave a portion of grapes for the other. We found that consistently they would steal the food without taking into account whether their action would have an effect on their partner. Neither the chimpanzees nor bonobos seemed to care whether food was stolen or not, or whether the outcomes were fair or not, as long as they got something. Our findings support other studies of chimpanzees but also extend these to bonobos. Both apes have no concern for fairness or the effects that their choices may have on others; in stark contrast to the way humans behave. We can therefore conclude that our results indicate that our sense of fairness is a derived trait and may be unique to the human race.”
Presumed similarities between the behavior humans and apes always lead atheists to conclude they are related, but the opposite is never true – when their behaviors so obviously diverge, atheists never take from that fact that humans have instilled in them something unique that was not merely the result of naturalism.
But then again atheism is never a product of evidence.
I am always surprised how often atheists of even the most sophisticated variety miss the mark when it comes to discussions on morality. The question really isn’t whether a particular behavior can be explained or understood ‘naturally’, the question of the ages is can human behavior rise above nature?
Interestingly Jesus addressed that very question when He said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
We can easily explain the way Nazi’s treated people via naturalism, but a transcendent morality is necessary to explain the actions of the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
There is an interesting article in Education Forum a publication of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, The author Dr. Stephen Anderson reports the reaction of students in his class when he shared with them the details of the case of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan woman was mutilated by her in-laws for fleeing her abusive husband. Time magazine had done a cover story on her, featuring her horrifically scarred face absent a nose on the cover.
When Dr. Anderson presented this to his students in his senior philosophy class during a discussion on making moral judgments he made a startling discovery – the students couldn’t bring themselves to criticize Bibi’s mutilators:
But I was not prepared for their reaction. I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a diﬀerent culture. They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no conscious-ness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”
As a teacher, I had to do something. Like most teachers, I felt uncomfortable with becoming too directive in moral matters; but in this case, I could not see how I could avoid it. I wondered, “How can kids who have been so thoroughly basted in the language of minority rights be so numb to a clear moral offense?” Where are all those “character traits” we inculcate to address their moral formation? You know them — empathy, caring, respect, courage—the wording may vary among boards, but we all know the script.
My class was “character developed” and had all the “traits” in place. They were honest – very frank in their views. They had empathy — extending it in equal measure to Aisha and to the demented subculture that sliced her up. They were accepting — even of child mutilation. And they persevered — no matter how I prodded they did not leave their nonjudgmental position. I left that class shaking my head. It seemed clear to me that for some students—clearly not all — the lesson of character education initiatives is acceptance of all things at all costs. While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”
Any many ways this incident shows the vacuity of what passes for secular morality. I am often told by atheists that ‘morals’, such as they are, are a product of our natural inclination to feel empathy and our evolutionary tendency toward cooperation – but as Dr. Anderson notes, neither of those traits is particularly ‘moral’ in and of itself. Absent a truly objective moral framework such traits could just as easily result in the moral weakness we see pictured above. True moral courage requires a clear ability to ascribe inherent value to individuals and a sense of confidence in the right based on transcendent eternal values. Those values can be derived from the teachings of Christ, but they cannot be derived from either nature or mere reason – and it is increasingly clear the ongong secularization of our culture is eviscerating the moral sensibilities of our children.
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently wrote this in reply to his fellow New Atheist Jerry Coyne:
During my debates on morality I point out that all of the good teachings in the world religions (which show up in all of them) are really HUMAN values: peace, love, cooperation, and so on. Those values transcend religion, and are in fact the values we use when we are judging from the outside whether we think a particular religion is good or not.
This is of course the sort of gobbledygook one hears often from New Atheists. At the very first his assertion is based on an absurdity. There is no such thing as a ‘human value’; humans value many things – love, happiness, wealth, power, sex, ambition, equality, etc. Some value some of those over others. People differ about which values are legitimate and which aren’t. Christians don’t claim they invented their values, merely that they provide a logically consistent basis for preferring some values (like peace, love, and cooperation) over others, like aggression, hatred and selfishness. Atheism of course provides no basis for preferring one set of values over another.
Because there are no such things as ‘human values’ the idea that we ‘judge’ whether a religion is ‘good or not’ is ‘bass ackwards’ as they say. Different people judge various belief systems (religious or otherwise) based on the values they hold but how they got those values to begin with isn’t merely a product of being ‘human’. Invariably, as we explore where the values individuals came from we end up looking at culture and history – and this always leads us back to religious beliefs. Atheists haven’t created or adopted any values that didn’t emanate from an earlier religious foundation and any values they do adopt are merely a matter of personal preference, not an objective consideration.
So Barker is begging the question here – to say that certain values ‘transcend’ religion is to say that there must be some source of values that preceded religion. This is problematic because the very things that distinguish us as human – our consideration of values and morals, our spiritual capacity and the fact that we produce and are the product of culture are intertwined. To say values transcend religion is like saying that biological ‘life’ transcends respiration; proving this false is as easy as putting a pillow over someone’s face.
So once again we see an atheist not only confused about what Christians claim, but confused about the origin and definition of values all together.
One criticism I have occasionally faced is that I am a mere critic of atheism (particularly from the viewpoint of skepticism of material and natural explanations) and that I don’t actually attempt to defend the truths of Christianity. There are several reasons for this; one of the main reasons being that my time is limited and I have to pick my battles, the main battle currently being addressing the claims of the New Atheists. Another reason is as a former agnostic and skeptic of religion I see clearly the intellectual weaknesses of materialism, naturalism and scientism that inform modern atheism. And to be completely frank it is simply so easy to point out the internal contradictions of New Atheist claims that doing so is as irresistible as spiking a volleyball that has been gently lobbed at few inches above the net. One can barely help but to swat it back into the other court.
Nonetheless I have become increasingly interested in the Christian truths that promote human flourishing. The reality is that Christianity has given, and continues to give a better foundation for human health, wealth and lasting happiness than any other system of belief (or lack of belief). The importance of Christian values is evident in the history of Western culture and it’s even more evident when Christianity is absent from a culture. I have decided to call this category Transcendent Truths a place where I will occasionally consider a truth from Scripture or Christian tradition that has transformed our society and the way we live.
Perhaps the primary transcendent truth derived from Scripture has to do with the concept of Imago Dei – or the ‘Image of God’. It is a concept that comes to Christianity through Judaism, specifically from the book of Genesis:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
– Genesis 1:26 – 27
From this text, some aspects of what it means to be made in ‘the image of God’ are obvious. We are the dominant creatures on the planet, we have a responsibility for nature and we are unique amongst the planet creatures in not merely being biological, but also reflecting the immaterial nature of God. Other aspects also seem apparent – that we have reason, that we have a moral will or conscience, that we have spiritual natures. But where this has a practical consideration in Scripture has to do with our inherent worth – that we have a value that transcends our mere biology our physicality. This becomes apparent when God communicates to Moses the first law in Genesis 9:6
Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man.
– Genesis 9:6
For Christians, the relationship between human worth and the image of God is even more direct. The teachings of Jesus make a clear connection between how believers treat ‘the least’ – the poor, the stranger, the physically ill and their association with Jesus Himself.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
– Matthew 25:35 – 40
Whether or not one believes God exists or gave humans moral precepts is irrelevant to understanding the essential importance of these texts. From these doctrines grows a clear foundation for the belief that all persons are worthy of preservation and protection. Some might consider this a universal human value, but it is important to note that historically that hasn’t been the case for most cultures. For most of human history the prevailing value has been a casual indifference to human life. Whether we consider slavery or wars of choice to advance power or wealth or merely indifference to the basic needs of others, the overwhelming inclination of humans is to treat others not according to a measure of inherent value but according to one’s or one’s groups own needs or desires.
The major shift in this thinking came with the introduction of Christianity to the pagan world. Infused with the Jewish idea of the image of God which was reinforced by the teachings of Jesus, the morality of early Christians stood in stark contrast to the pagan world around them. As C. Ben Mitchell, Professor of Bioethics and Contemporary Culture relates in his essay on the impact of the Christian notion of human worth, Legatees of a Great Inheritance: How the Judeo-Christian Tradition Has Shaped the West, Christianity immediately had an impact on human rights in the Roman world in a number of different ways – from the treatment of infants, the elderly and slaves to dissension from the gladiator culture. As Christianity spread and influenced the West its values spread with it, by ebbs and flows like an endless series of waves which slowly shapes a beach.
And the influence of this concept was influential long after the inception of the early church. A derivation was encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence when the American Founders argued that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
It was carried further in the work of the abolitionists who opposed race based slavery. A snapshot is seen in the dissent of Justice McLean from the notorious Dred Scot opinion when he claimed:
A slave is not a mere chattel. He bears the impress of his Maker, and is amenable to the laws of God and man, and he is destined to an endless existence.
It was the motivation for people like G.K. Chesterton when he voiced one of the few objections to eugenics laws which were to later inform the destructive racial policies of Nazi Germany:
“If man is not a divinity, then he is a disease. Either he is the image of God, or else he is the one animal which has gone mad.”
– G.K. Chesterton. – George J. Marlin and Richard P. Rabatin. “G.K. Chesterton and Eugenics.” Fidelity Magazine, June 1990, pages 33 to 43.
And this idea of Imago Dei was reiterated powerfully several decades later by Martin Luther King Jr. as spoke about the importance of the image of God when considering the civil rights of African Americans:
You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God… We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”
– Martin Luther King, from his speech, “The American Dream” Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965.
And this concept continues to motivate Christian’s work to protect and preserve the poor and the powerless, from leading the fight against human trafficking, to saving children in the Ethiopia from native superstition, to being international leaders in disaster relief.
There is of course no way to attribute intrinsic and universal worth to humans via the materialism or naturalism of atheism. In fact atheists take pains to diminish human exceptionalism; they see our genetics, biology and ability to reason as mere derivations of attributes found in the rest of the animal kingdom. We don’t reflect purpose and perfection of a Creator, but are the product of incidental forces which were shaped by an effort to survive. From a purely material view there can’t be a universal human quality – our intellect and physical capabilities vary widely.
And the impact of secularism on modern society becomes obvious as one considers how such a trend has diminished our capacity to appreciate the inherent worth of humans. Secularists argue for respecting the rights of women while pushing for greater freedom to access to pornography and prostitution. They use our modern medical technology to destroy humans in the womb, often as the result of tests which show them disabled in some way then while demanding that the disabled be treated with dignity and respect. Secularists decry ‘bullying’ while denigrating those who they disagree with as stupid, deluded, and dangerous.
Invariably those who dismiss theistic basis for human worth that transcends the material reject the only certain grounding there is for respecting and preserving all human life. As a result they reject the essential foundation for human flourishing, that which directs our resources and laws toward the preservation and protection of all human life.
Unlike atheism, in Christianity there is a sound and logically consistent basis to argue for intrinsic human worth and to promote such human flourishing. Respect for human life emanates directly from the Judeo-Christian belief that humans are made in the Image of God. This has been made evident by history of the West both in its flourishing in association with the Church, and its current decline as it abandons the faith of its fathers.
If the sight of British youths mindlessly burning down the homes of mothers and their children doesn’t kill the notion in some atheist’s minds that humans are inherently cooperative and altruistic, I don’t know what will.