From the new issue of The Classical Teacher Magazine
The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once told the story of a cave in the East in which, for many years after the death of Buddha, visitors could still see his shadow:
God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be cast.— And we—we still must vanquish even his shadow!Nietzsche was wrong about the death of God, but he was realistic about what the rejection of God implied, and he despised those who rejected God but refused to accept the logical implications of that unbelief. He may have been wrong, but at least he was consistent. In particular, he reviled those who rejected Christianity but refused to give up Christian morality. He sarcastically called such people “Englishmen,” because he saw the English of the Victorian period in which he lived as especially guilty of acknowledging the shadow of Christian morality in the wake of the death of the God in whom alone such morality could be justified.
One wonders what choice words Nietzsche would have for the new breed of atheists who now populate the bestseller lists. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great are just several examples of the spate of books by prominent modern atheists, known as the “New Atheists,” that have climbed the bestseller charts with surprising ease over the last two or three years, all of whom purport to reject God, but who nevertheless cling to a form of Christian morality.
Nietzsche is not alone in his assumption that religion and morality are intimately bound together. It has long been assumed by most people that their moral beliefs are dependent upon religious conviction. “If there is no God,” asserts Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamozov, “then everything is possible.” A belief in morality, they think, must be undergirded by a belief in God.
But the New Atheists beg to differ. Morality, they say, has no need of God.
One of the most common problems in argument is agreeing on the question that is really in dispute. There are two ways in which this can be a problem. The first is when the terms are not clear. When we ask whether morality requires a religious foundation, for example, we should be very clear on what we mean by “morality.” Which virtues are we talking about when we ask this question?
There were, in fact, moral beliefs before Christianity came along. There are two kinds of virtue: the cardinal (or classical) virtues: Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Courage; and the theological (or Christian) virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. The first four, the cardinal virtues, not only can be sustained without explicit religious belief; they in fact were. They arose in a world, not without religion, but without religions that said much about morality.
The cardinal virtues have also been called the “practical” virtues. They had mostly to do with getting along in life. The most familiar examples of this were Aesop’s Fables. Aesop was reputed to have been a Greek slave in a Roman household, and the ethics in his stories have to do exclusively with the practical virtues. Faith, Hope, and Charity are absent, but the practical virtues, particularly Prudence, are there in abundance. The tortoise knows the virtue of patience and determination and wins his race with the hare; the crane learns that, in serving the wicked, there is no reward; the boy who cries wolf learns that honesty is the best policy.
All these cases involve sheer self-preservation. This is of the essence of pagan morality: it is exclusively self-preservative or at least self-gratifying (and usually applied only to other members of one’s tribe or race). There is nothing wrong with the practical virtues, as long as we acknowledge them to be incomplete. They may be said to be “rational” virtues in the sense that we can identify reasons for practicing them; namely, that they will help us make it through life with less pain and more pleasure.
But there is nothing in Aesop like the parables of the Good Samaritan, or the Lost Sheep, or the Prodigal Son. The theological virtues are completely different from the practical or classical virtues in this: there is literally no practical reason for them. What purely self-preservative reason is there to act selflessly? Why love your neighbor if you can take from him and benefit yourself? Why would any shepherd, looking to benefit himself, lay down his very life for his sheep?
It is theoretically possible for the practical virtues to be rationally justified without a belief in God. But this is not the case with the theological virtues. The theological virtues cannot survive the abandonment of religion. And yet the New Atheists want to say that they can.
The problem with the atheist’s argument is that it confounds these two kinds of morality—the practical and the theological. A case in point is their argument that morality can be explained through a Darwinist view of evolution: morality, they say, has survivability value. Those who are moral are more likely to survive than those who aren’t. Therefore, those who are more moral are morely likely to survive than those who are less moral.
But how can evolution explain why we should treat others with selfless charity? How can evolution explain the survival value of seeing a beaten and half-dead man at the side of the road who cannot possibly do anything for us, and treating his wounds and taking care of him, and then giving two silver coins to the innkeeper and saying, “look after him”? How can this be said to have any survivability value, and what rational reason can we point to that justifies going and doing likewise?
Evolution cannot explain this.
The second problem in trying to determine the question at issue has to do with how the question is stated. The question is whether an atheist can rationally justify moral belief. The question is not whether athiests can be moral. This is a completely different question.
When, in his chapter, “The Roots of Morality: Why are We Good?,” Dawkins argues that morality is the product of evolution, he completely confuses the two questions. His argument is designed to explain why people are good; not why they should be good. It explains the physical cause, but does not provide the logical ground of their (or our) good behavior. It doesn’t provide a rational ground for being good; it only provides a historical explanation (and not a very convincing one) for why, in fact, we sometimes are.
But the process by which an act comes about can tell me nothing about whether or not it was a good or bad act, since bad acts are brought about by a process just like good acts are. I can explain the physical factors leading up to the Holocaust just like I can explain the physical factors leading up to Mother Theresa’s mission to the poor in Calcutta, India. But the chronology of these two events can tell me nothing about why one is bad and the other is good.
The past arrangement of molecules may tell me something about why I feel a certain way, but it tells me nothing about why I should feel a certain way.
New Atheists like Dawkins are either confused themselves about these distinctions, in which case they are not qualified to talk about morality, or they are clear about the distinctions but are counting on their listeners themselves being confused about them, in which case they are being deceptive.
If I am faced with a situation like that of the Good Samaritan, and I see a man lying by the side of the road who needs help, I can get no help from the argument of Dawkins and the neoatheists. Their theory can tell me nothing about whether I should help the man or whether I should simply go on about my business and not trouble myself with helping him. I can do either one and be justified in knowing that my genes have made me do it.
There are only two logical positions a person can hold on the issue of religion and morality. Here is the Christian argument:
If God does not exist, then morality cannot be justifiedNietzsche and existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre agree to the first, or “major” premise but supply a different second, or “minor” premise, and take the argument in a different logical direction:
But morality can be justified
Therefore God must exist
If God does not exist, then morality cannot be justifiedBoth of these arguments are equally logical: the Christian performs what, in logic is called a modus tollens, which is a way of reasoning negatively backwards; the existentialist performs what, in logic, is called a modus ponens, which is a way of reasoning affirmatively forwards. Both reasoning negatively backwards and reasoning affirmatively forward are logically valid.
God does not exist
Therefore, morality cannot be justified
The existentialist understands his predicament, which is why existentialists like Nietzsche and Sartre rejected Christian morality (and meaning and purpose) outright. They were wrong, but they were intellectually consistent.
The New Athiest, however, tries to deny the obvious. He questions the major premise: “If God does not exist, then morality cannot be justified.” He wants to have his philosophical cake and eat it too. But, as we have seen, he can find no competent argument to justify moral beliefs such as charity, but he holds them anyway.
He is an “Englishman.”