Tackling the new atheists

In one of my recent articles on heretical ideas I noted that a) I’m an atheist, and b) I don’t think there is any way to divine morality. This puts me at odds with most of the “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who argue we can have morality without God.

There’s an interesting article in the Spectator by a writer named Theo Hobson. He is presumably religious and takes a rather snippy tone to atheists. But I think he makes some points that complement my own and his piece is worth reading if you need something philosophical to curl up with.

In these paragraphs he points out something I’ve thought about. New atheists dismiss faith, but their insistence that some kind of moral rule can be ascertained sounds an awful lot like faith itself.

The trouble is that too many atheists simply assume the truth of secular humanism, that it is the axiomatic ideology: just there, our natural condition, once religious error is removed. They think morality just comes naturally. It bubbles up, it’s instinctive, not taught as part of a cultural tradition. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins tries to strengthen this claim using his biological expertise, arguing that humans have evolved to be altruistic because it ultimately helps their genes to survive. But in the end, he admits that no firm case can be made concerning the evolutionary basis of morality. He’s just gesturing with his expertise, rather than really applying it to the issue at hand.

Here’s his muddle. On one hand he believes that morality, being natural, is a constant thing, stable throughout history. On the other hand, he believes in moral progress. To square the circle he plunges out of his depth, explaining that different ages have different ideas of morality, and that in recent times there has happily been a major advance in our moral conventions: above all, the principle of equality has triumphed. Such changes ‘certainly have not come from religion’, he snaps. He instead points to better education about our ‘common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution’. But biological science, especially evolution, can be used to authorise eugenics and racism. The real issue is the triumph of an ideology of equality, of humanism. Instead of asking what this tradition is, and where it comes from, he treats it as axiomatic. This is just the natural human morality, he wants us to think, and in our times we are fortunate to see a particularly full expression of it.

It’s interesting that he argues that new atheists feel moral truth is “instinctive.” I tackled this very premise in my article.

Another New Atheist, Sam Harris, hints at something similar in this Big Think video when he says (after arguing that we don’t need God for morality) that we have “some very serviceable intuitions about what good and evil are.” The problem, however, is that feelings and intuitions (programmed into us via evolution or not) are not a logical means from which we can define moral behavior. Most of us would agree that proposing the murder of a 10 week old baby feels wrong, but that doesn’t mean it can be logically shown to be so. We can even construct scenarios where killing the baby is the right thing to do for the greater good (say, the baby is the carrier of a deadly disease that cannot be allowed to spread). In such cases, killing the baby might be the right thing to do (according to conventional ethics) but I think we all know that it would still feel awful to carry out the act. From that we must conclude that feelings/intuitions are not a trustworthy source of divining morals.

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