Blogging the EPS Conference 3

November 24, 2010

Another breakout session I attended was by Dr. Frank Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He spoke on Natural Rights and the New Atheists, primarily discussing how New Atheism undermines the notions of moral rules and inherent rights. I have been following the writings of Dr. Beckwith for sometime having blogged about an analysis of his on gay marriage a few months back and so it was great to see him in person. This particular discussion was as thorough as I had hoped on the topic.

He began by noting an inherent contradiction in the atheist position. He did so by way of noting how New Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins adopt the language of purpose and meaning while denying that it exist. The example he cited for Dawkins was from The God Delusion where Dawkins laments the fact that geologist Kurt Wise had surrendered a promising secular career in science because of his adherence to Biblical truth. Dawkins writes:

….I find that terribly sad; but whereas the Golgi Apparatus moved me to tears of admiration and exultation, the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic–pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. All he had to do was toss out the bible. Or interpret it symbolically, or allegorically, as the theologians do. Instead, he did the fundamentalist thing and tossed out evidence and reason, along with all his dreams and hopes.

Beckwith pointed out that this situation is only and ‘sad and contemptible’ if one believes that it is wrong not to live up to one’s talents and abilities – a belief that only makes sense if one believes we have an intrinsic purpose or design to live up to and that some morality prompts us to live up to that purpose. Of course Dawkins believes in no such purpose and so to lament one not fulfilling it is itself irrational.

From their Beckwith went on to make the point that if moral rules or rights exist, they are not physical – thus they defy empirical observation. According to the New Atheist rationale then, they do not exist. To contend rights do exist is to deny a materialistic and naturalistic view of reality. I find this interesting considering the consistency with which atheists will assert the ‘right’ of homosexuals to marry – if atheism doesn’t exist, not only do homosexuals not have a right to marry, no one else does either! They can’t even argue it on the basis of ‘equal rights’ because it is an assertion of inherent good or rights which cannot exist in the atheist worldview. All talk of objective inherent rights is nonsense when proffered by an atheist.

Beckwith went on to respond to the notion that morality and rights might be a product of evolution, and thus are inherent to us humans as social beings – the problem with that view is that the tendency to suppress rights and dominate others could as easily be justified by the same rational, and so there is no particular force in such an argument for rights.

Ultimately the existence of morality and rights is best explained as a product of intelligent intent – that we were designed to live a certain way and best do so when we can flourish according to that design. And that the adoption of certain morality and respect for certain rights best allows us to live in accordance with that design. This was the motivation for the assertions in the Declaration of Independence and subsequent adoption of the US Constitution – and interestingly, other human rights charters. The concepts of rights and moral duties are unintelligible apart from the concept of God, and New Atheism either contradicts itself by adopting the language of rights and responsibilities, or undermines these notions all together.