*Can life be the product of random, mindless forces & still have meaning? Can (or should) atheists have morals? Are we just advanced computers dancing to our DNA? What’s a “humanist” anyway?*
(This continues my response to an article titled “Church without God – by Design” about the Humanist Community at Harvard University, an “atheist church.”)
At the Humanist Community, as we’re told in the article, each service has a message. On the day the writer attended, “Chaplain” Epstein spoke on compassion. We’re also told acceptance is a regular subject matter. So, what’s going on here? What’s up with all this love and peace stuff, and what’s a “humanist” anyway?
The term “humanist” is becoming a popular term for self-identification among atheists for a number of reasons. First, they want to distance themselves from the negative stereotypes often associated with atheists. Often, atheists are stereotyped as depraved and narcissistic. More recently, many atheists also want to distance themselves from the so-called New Atheist movement – spearheaded by writers like Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and, everyone’s favorite atheist, Richard Dawkins – known for angry, aggressive, and bigoted verbal assaults on all things religious.
Additionally, many atheists don’t like the label “atheist” because it defines them by their unbelief. Since God doesn’t exist – according to their view – why should they be labeled for not believing in a non-existent thing? To them, it’s no more absurd than being labeled an aunicornist (for not believing in unicorns) or an asasquatchist (for not believing in sasquatch).
As I pointed out in Part 1 of my “Atheist Church” series, all groups with shared beliefs have those in their group who are more intolerant or more tolerant to those outside their group, whether religious or not, and atheists are no exception. Unlike the New Atheist movement, humanists want to be the peacemakers and bridge-builders of the atheist community – a kinder, gentler atheism.
So, humanists don’t believe in God (but don’t want to be defined by this), and they want everyone to know they highly value compassion, kindness, and morality. And, like much with the Humanist Community, it’s hard to criticize and not come off as a bully. Yet, we must be honest: if one takes atheism to its logical conclusion, things like compassion, acceptance, and morality are meaningless.
I’ve often come across arguments from atheists that go something like this:
Christians say atheists are immoral because we don’t believe in God. It’s disturbing that Christians need the wrath of God hanging over their heads to behave. Christians are only moral because they fear God. I am moral without God.
I thought the same way when I was an atheist. But atheism taken to its logical conclusion eliminates meaning and morality. Yes, there are hypocrites who call themselves Christians and behave morally solely because of the fear of God, and there are those who mistakenly believe Christianity is only about behaving yourself so you’re not sent to hell. But Christianity understood correctly and taken to its logical conclusion leads to meaning, compassion, and worth.
This idea was explored in an online discussion I had primarily with an atheist who I later learned preferred to be called a “secular humanist.” The discussion began when a mutual friend, a Christian, posted a comment on Facebook asking his Christian friends to refrain from stereotyping all atheists as immoral. When I joined the dialogue, the post had received many responses from both theists and atheists.
In response to some of the comments, I explained that the good news of Jesus Christ was not “Be good or you’re going to hell” or even “Be good and you’ll go to heaven.” I explained that this was a major misunderstanding about Christianity. Where we spend eternity has to do with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins and whether we accept that gift or not. No one earns his or her way into God’s presence. I also posted that I agreed that stereotyping all atheists as immoral is wrong, but I finished with the following comment:
“…I was once an atheist (with morals), but I will say atheists do have the challenge of explaining why they have these morals and how they fit into their worldview. For example, if we are only physical creatures, and passing on our genes is the motivation of our existence, then rape could be considered an acceptable way of doing this, and I know of no one who believes rape is moral. I’m no philosopher, so maybe there’s a big hole in that idea that I’m missing, so I’m interested in hearing peoples’ thoughts.”
I immediately received pushback, but I didn’t feel like my point was being understood, so I reiterated that I agreed that atheists could be just as moral as anyone else, but that atheists can’t explain why they have morals. The secular humanist said that doing good is its own reward; it gives you a good feeling inside. Interestingly, he also brought up that humans have an innate sense of morality.
I wrote in reply:
“…I appreciate your comments. Someone can’t argue someone else into being a Christian (esp on Facebook), so I’m not trying to do that… Still, I don’t think my “why?” questions are being addressed. Why does doing “good” things make you feel good? By what standard are they “good”? You said we have an innate sense of good & bad, but why do we have it? I’m not asking these questions, hoping you will suddenly answer “God!” I really want to know, so I can understand your view of the world.”
The idea of being moral to make the world a better place for your children and grandchildren was brought up. I thought this was the strongest point in the secular humanist’s favor.
“…But the question still remains: “Why?” Again, if we’re just physical creatures whose only motivation is to pass on our genes, then isn’t the best thing I can do for my kids is make sure they have a lot of sex? If it’s all about genes, why do firefighters risk their lives to help perfect strangers? Why are people willing to die for their friends? Why care if a species goes extinct or a bus of children (none of your own, of course) die in a horrible traffic accident?”
Much of the pushback were the same arguments already addressed, so I wrote:
“For much of this discussion I feel like we’re stating the same thing, which is that we have an innate sense of morality. We both agree on that. We also agree that one does not have to be a Christian to have this innate sense of morality. Further, you admit that you do not know where this innate sense of morality comes from.
“Following this innate morality and not knowing why is illogical. Why do we call a soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his platoon heroic? Really, when you get down to it, it’s illogical; did the dead soldier benefit from his act? It’s especially illogical if he has no idea why he did it. Just like gun rights advocates point to the Constitution as a higher law, many philosophers believe our innate sense of morality points to a higher law, and if there is a higher law, there must be a higher authority. The Bible confirms that ALL people have this moral law in their hearts*, and this moral law points towards God.
“…I’ll just say this and leave it here for now: When I was an atheist, I considered myself moral, similar to yourself, but I found when I applied the naturalistic philosophy to my life, it did make me less moral, especially in the sense of making me much more self-centered. Yet, this revolted some innate sense in me. Life makes much more sense with God, and since I’ve become a Christian, Jesus Christ has made me a better man.”
(*Romans 2:14-15: “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law [of God] do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.”)
This post is not about my debate, but about humanists at the “atheist church” preaching compassion and acceptance as moral truths. But if life is just the product of random chance, as atheists believe, then morals are illusions. Meaning and morals can’t come from blind, directionless, mindless forces.
If we are simply at the mercy of the physical, then all our beliefs and feelings are just chemicals firing off in our brains. Freewill is an illusion. We live only by impulse and reaction, not decision. Thus, the love I feel and have vowed for my wife is an illusion. At worst, my “love” towards her is wholly selfish for what I receive from the relationship. At best, my “love” makes me want to treat her well and make the world a better place so my genes have a better chance of spreading. But this is still not love. Unconditional love, meaning, and morals cannot come from life if life was created by random chance and if we’re just flesh robots and advanced computers.
Richard Dawkins, everyone’s favorite atheist, wrote, “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.” But Dawkins also famously wrote, “The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” So, which is it? Life has meaning or life is meaningless? You can’t have it both ways.
So, where I would much rather have some humanists over on a summer night for some beers and board games than the super-villain-like Dawkins, I still have to say the same thing to my secular humanist friends: You can’t have it both ways.
NEXT: Atheist Church. Seriously. (Part 3) Dear Nothing, Thanks For Something.