Morality and Naturalism

Richard Dawkins and fellow God-hater Christopher Hitchens say they will prosecute the Pope for crimes against humanity. They say his handling of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church warrants such action. They want the Pope arrested when he arrives in Britain in September.

It is not my intention here to wade into this particular abuse controversy. All child sexual abuse is deplorable and should be fully prosecuted. However, there has been plenty of propaganda going around concerning this. Two quick facts need to be borne in mind:

One, priests who engage in such behaviour are a tiny minority of all priests. Most priests are decent men who are not in the least involved in such activities. Two, perhaps as much as 90 per cent of such abuse is homosexual in nature. But that is the stuff of another article.

Here I am not seeking to defend the Catholic Church. What I do wish to look at is the nature of naturalistic ethics in general, and Dawkins’ take on morality in particular. Atheists – like anyone else – are right to be morally outraged by something like child abuse. But the legitimate question arises: why, given their worldview?

If naturalism is true, and we are all simply the product of nature, of blind evolution, and of genetic determinism, then how do genuine moral concerns arise? If atheists think theists have a problem with evil, it seems that they at least have a problem with goodness.

As Boethius asked in the sixth century, “If there is a God, whence proceed so many evils? If there is no God, whence cometh any good?” In the Judeo-Christian version of events, both good and evil can be explained. It seems much more difficult to account for either in the reductionist worldview of atheism and naturalism.

In the world of naturalistic evolution, morality is hard to account for. We simply have the given of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. We only have an “is” and not an “ought”. Atheistic evolution can only be descriptive, not prescriptive. Consider what Dawkins says about morality.

He rightly admits in River Out of Eden: “Theologians worry away at the `problem of evil’ and a related ‘problem of suffering.’ … On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Yet because he is made in God’s image, and lives in a moral world created by a personal, moral law giver, Dawkins cannot experientially accept the logical implications of such a position. He readily admits to this in an interview: “I have all the right emotions against injustice. I do have a strongly developed sense of good. But as a biologist I haven’t a very well worked-out story where that comes from…”

Or as he said in The Selfish Gene, “I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave.… My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. . . . Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.”

In another interview he said similar things: “No decent person wants to live in a society that operates according to Darwinian laws. I am a passionate Darwinist, when it involves explaining the development of life. However, I am a passionate anti-Darwinist when it involves the kind of society in which we want to live. A Darwinian State would be a Fascist state.”

So he seems to be in a bit of a pickle here. There is no supernatural reality. All we are stuck with is nature alone. But he does not like what nature dishes up. In raw nature, that which is “good” is whatever promotes survival. How do we go from the “is” of nature to the “ought” of morality in such a scheme?

Dawkins rightly wants to condemn child abuse and other moral evils, but I do not see how his own worldview provides any justification for this. Indeed, recall that back in 2001 Darwinists Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer wrote a book applying evolution and naturalism to the issue of rape.

In A Natural History of Rape (MIT Press) the authors argued that rape is “a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage,” just like “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck”. This is the logical outcome if you embrace naturalistic evolution as the only way to explain morality.

In The God Delusion Dawkins again makes the case for living in an unselfish fashion – in other words, living a life contrary to how our genes are directing us. He says that things like altruism, kindness, empathy and pity are “misfiring, Darwinian mistakes; blessed, precious mistakes”!

But as Chad Meister states, “this has very little to do with what we generally understand to be morality – with real right and wrong, good and evil. On Dawkins’s schema, one is kind to his neighbor because he’s been preprogrammed by his genes to do so (at least some individuals have been so preprogrammed; others perhaps not), and he’s been so programmed because acting this way confers evolutionary advantage. It’s not that it is a universally binding moral value to be kind. We simply call it ‘morally good’ because our genes have, through eons of evolutionary struggle, gotten us to believe that it is so.”

John Haught also finds Dawkins’ solution unhelpful: Dawkins “is faced with the even more daunting task of showing how one kind of misfiring is better than another. . . . As long as he formally insists that all virtue can be accounted for ultimately in a purely natural and specifically Darwinian manner, the question remains as to where along the way the values he appeals to in his attack on religion acquired their authority.”

Peter Williams puts it this way, “Evolution might account for our having certain moral feelings about actions, but it can’t objectively prescribe that we objectively ought to pay attention to those feelings because they correspond to an objective moral ideal (where, in a naturalistic metaphysics, can one fit such a thing as an objective moral ideal?). Nor can it obligate us to pay attention to them, because only persons can prescribe or obligate behaviour, whilst a wholly naturalistic evolutionary history is impersonal.”

He goes on to quote agnostic philosopher Anthony O’Hear who says of Dawkins, “this particular Darwinian is quite unable to explain why we have an obligation to act against our ‘selfish’ genes”.

As Edgar Andrews says, “If our world is the product of amoral forces, and if man is simply cosmic flotsam scattered on the shores of time, then morality (including Dawkins’ longed-for generosity and altruism) simply does not exist. . . . To their credit, older atheists like Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre and Camus recognized this and saw that it led logically to nihilism or, at best, to absurdity. The ‘new atheists’ (who want us to call them ‘brights’) seem oblivious to the obvious.”

I am glad Dawkins disapproves of child abuse. His conception that this is an objective moral wrong makes perfect sense in the theistic worldview. But it makes no sense whatsoever in his own. Thus he is simply stealing the moral capital from theism as he rails against genuine evil. Perhaps one day he will see the logical contradictions of his own position, and either embrace theism or renounce his groundless moralism.

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21 Replies to “Morality and Naturalism”

  1. Very good point, Dawkins has no explanation for why some mistakes are more blessed and precious than others. He can’t help but make a moral judgement of which he can’t explain the origin, because to do that would be admitting that he’s subject to God’s moral judgement.
    I’m praying for that man.

    Thanks for an excellent article,
    Dominic Snowdon, NSW

  2. Good article, Bill. Has any thinker logically derived a coherent, liveable code of ethics from Naturalism or Materialism? Naturalism is a Tower of Amoral Babble. From Ayn Rand and her “Objectivist” followers you get Selfishness as a norm. From Nietzsche and company you get Nihilism and Narcissism. From Dawkins and company you get Selfish Genes orchestrating “altruism” mediated by imaginary memes. And from Dialectical Materialism, the least respectable member of the Naturalism family, we got ethics subordinated by definition to the Party disguised as the State. It’s all bunkum and they are all whistling in the secular dark.

    If Dawkins is so concerned about child abuse why isn’t he investigating the gay movement some of whose members have openly supported paedophilia in the form of man-boy “love”, as the ILGA affair showed? If he wants to arrest the Pope why doesn’t he want to arrest officials from NAMBLA? Why didn’t he investigate his fellow Humanists Vern Bullough and Edward Brongersma when they were alive?

    John Snowden

  3. Thanks Dominic

    Yes we do indeed need to keep praying for the new atheists, and hope that some see the light, as Antony Flew has at least partially done.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. I am reminded of the statement of C.S. Lewis:

    “When men say ‘I ought’ they certainly think they are saying something, and something true, about the nature of a proposed action, and not merely about their own feelings. But if Naturalism is true, ‘I ought’ is the same sort of statement as ‘I itch’ or ‘I’m going to be sick’. In real life when a man says ‘I ought’, we may reply, ‘Yes, you’re right. That is what you ought to do,’ or else, ‘No, I think you’re mistaken.’ But in a world of Naturalists…the only sensible reply would be, ‘Oh, are you?'”

    Murray R. Adamthwaite

  5. John, you asked “Has any thinker logically derived a coherent, liveable code of ethics from Naturalism or Materialism?”

    Not really. One has to first arbitrarily define something desirable (by some people) or practical (according to some people) as “good,” and then it more or less gets off the ground after that initial fudge.

    Humanist luminary Paul Kurtz felt compelled to coin some new terms, which boil down to the same thing: “eupraxsophy” and “lifestance” (the latter a sort of preferential alternative to worldview).

    Had you asked whether nature ever proffered any moral obligation or duty – which is probably the key component of classical and intuitive morality – it’s really just a flat out ‘no.’

    Peter Grice

  6. “If God does not exist anything is permissible” (Ivan Karamazov). Basically, Dawkins is wanting to have what he perceives as the “good things” that have proceeded from Judeo-Christian morality, without having to pay the “price” of assenting to belief (and hence acknowledging subjection to a higher power/authority (it’s the same old “Humanist” trick, all you want for no cost, what I call Stand-Alone Ethics).
    John Thomas, UK

  7. How much has the intellectual repute of atheism fallen since the days of serious thinkers to today’s mental midgets and intellectual hucksters? The atheists of yesteryear, like A. J. Ayer, J. L. Mackie, Quentin Smith and even Bertrand Russell, were all serious thinkers that tried to wrestle with the problems that their materialism created (such as what to do with first-person mental states like qualia and intentionality). Not to mention they were first rate philosophical thinkers.

    The esteemed philosopher Roger Scruton also laments the fall from nobility that the new atheism has heralded:

    ‘The new humanism spends little time exalting man as an ideal. It says nothing, or next to nothing, about faith, hope, and charity; is scathing about patriotism; and is dismissive of those rearguard actions in defense of the family, public spirit, and sexual restraint that animated my parents. Instead of idealizing man, the new humanism denigrates God and attacks the belief in God as a human weakness. My parents too thought belief in God to be a weakness. But they were reluctant to deprive other human beings of a moral prop that they seemed to need.’

    I also enjoyed this quote from a more sensible athiest which confirms what I thought of the New Atheism which, like the Left, does not have much of a substantive position of its own but relies on pulling down the opposition for its cause and content. It is a negative thesis, a parasite in short;

    ‘The antitheism of the four horsemen is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water, Julian Baggini writes.’

    Damien Spillane

  8. The heathen rage because, generally speaking, atheists are far more self-righteous and hypocritical than Christians….they claim to be open minded and complain about us “forcing our views down their throats”, however they demand their views are taken seriously and cry discrimination if we ignore, or decry their opinions, let alone ridicule them!

    Andrew Munden

  9. Can you explain a meme for me please? Is it a form of altruistic, moral gene? Has Dawkins, or anyone else ever isolated one in a lab? If they haven’t, how can they be sure they exist; precisely the point they use in attempting to show that God cannot be known as a purely scientific fact.
    Your comment about paedophilia being 90 percent homosexual is interesting. Its obvious that the gays have infiltrated the Church (for which the Church is culpable), indulged their lusts and then proceeded to cry shock, horror at the situation they have precipitated. One has to admire them in a perverse sort of way.
    Dunstan Hartley

  10. Thanks Dunstan

    Dawkins calls it a “replicator,” a “unit of cultural transmission”. But even he seems to be backing away from the idea now. It is simply a reckless philosophical construct, lacking in any empirical validity. But any wild concept will do for atheists as long as it is not God. Sorry, but I just don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Atheist and Philosopher of Biology Michael Ruse doesn’t pull his punches:

    “But I think first that these people do a disservice to scholarship. Their treatment of the religious viewpoint is pathetic to the point of non-being. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. …I am indignant at the poor quality of the argumentation in Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and all of the others in that group.

    …I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist. Let me say that again. Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.”

    Peter Grice,

  12. Bill

    We have two problems

    1.To respond to the new atheists we need to articulate a sometimes complex answer. This is spoken into a culture that has little ability to understand anything to complex. The spin doctors seem to capture the masses so our message is sidelined.

    2.The Church universal is so immersed in this culture that it also has few champions to articulate a response let alone even understanding what a response looks like. This was illustrated a few weeks ago on Q & A

    More power to your arm Bill!

    Peter Hall

  13. Why do the heathen rage.

    We know we have to preach the gospel to all the world but Jesus never said that we could make all the people believe in either him or his father, just that all should hear the word and decide. In Mathew Jesus talks about sowing the good seed in the field that he defines clearly as the world. He talks about the tares (weeds) being the children of the evil one so there are some who will never believe in Jesus as the good shepherd or live by his ways.
    -I know my sheep and my sheep know me-
    The question we should consider is why do the Christians rage (or not). In essence we have the Book, we have the saviour and we know the way and we know the story and we know the eventual outcome of at least this generation.
    So we have no need to rage but we do have a responsibility to spread the word by our light which should never be hid. However this earth at this time is not heaven and no matter what we do it will never be so until the harvest comes and the new heaven and earth prevail.
    In a more recent scenario we had what was called the second world war and in that war there was at least a distinction that we were fighting a war against evil. It was not directly a religeous war although some aspects existed, It was not a war over resources but it was a war initially of good over evil. It was a war with a relatively clear objective. Today wars are often political or about oil or about power or about changing or maintaining regimes and often bear no resemblance to good versus evil.
    In that respect the christian heart is not in the fight because it is not a good fight and now we also are becoming the enemy and the object of hatred by the heathen. But we won’t dissapear until we are all killed and the remnant of our seed is gone. This must be and so we hold fast without rage waiting for the meeting with our God.
    The heathen have nothing yet they rage hoping to mould the world and it’s people to their ideals of hopelessness and greed for a short period. Unfortunately their story has no ending, no redemption and very little love. It is a do as you want world without guidelines and without restraint which will ultimately overwhelm its architects.
    Then perhaps they may cease to rage and cry out for the one they have denied for so long.

    Dennis Harold Newland

  14. Dennis, when was there a recent war “about oil”? And what “must be”? Your theology sounds fatalistic. We don’t know when the end will be, so shouldn’t assume it will be in our generation, and furthermore, where does it say in the Bible that at the end of the age all Christians will be “killed and the remnant of our seed [will be] gone”? I may have misunderstood you here, but I get tired of the frequent references by some that the church has only persecution and mediocrity to look forward to.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  15. Ewan.
    Read fully and understand Jesus’s explantion of the parable in Mathew 13: 24 to 43. There are children of the devil. Also Matt 24 Vs 14 and Matt 13 Vs 24 to 43 and Revelations Chapter 12 vs 17. The killing of the remnant that worship God/Jesus. Jesus said that some of the his desciples should not see death until the end of this generation. God said go forth and REPLENISH the earth.
    This generation is not specifically mine or yours but the entire human generation from Adam until the end. Evil and greed is building on a grand scale and if you look at what’s happening in America and in Bills articles you will see that Christians and their churches are heading for persecution. Religeous instruction is no longer taught in many western schools nor are prayers allowed other than the personal ones they can’t yet stop. The Kuwait Iraqi war in my view was all about oil and who had it. Why else would Iraqis blow up the Kuwaiti wells other than to stop it falling into American hands. I could go on but this is Bills site email me if you prefer at Bills discretion.

    Dennis Harold Newland

  16. Ewan
    One more See Revelation Ch 6 Vs 9 – 11.
    Also be glad that we must finally face persecution for what better way is there to demonstrate our faith. So many in other countries are already doing this. There is no need for sadness for if the church were never persecuted in any way then our job would be done. Jesus said be faithfull unto death and I will give you a crown of life. What a prize that will be. Is it any wonder that the heathen rage?
    Dennis Harold Newland

  17. Folks, you’re assuming that since nature is amoral, without belief in a supernatural god people have no way to form a coherent morality. As an atheist, I see two problems with your argument here.

    First (and oldest) of all, there’s Euthyphro’s dilemma. “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” You’re assuming the latter. Put into monotheistic terms, you’re saying that there is no moral standard other than God’s will. Which means that anything could be good or bad, depending on whether or not God commands it. This seems to be the opinion of some of the Old Testament writers–just take a look at some of the genocides endorsed by Yaweh in the OT. There are other problems associated with the dilemma as well, but I don’t want to bore you. For the interested:

    (If you assume the first: that goodness is loved by God because it is good, then you’ve just undercut your argument that belief in God is necessary to human morality, because you’ve admitted that goodness is a quality that can be chosen by God, and thus it can be chosen by humans as well.)

    The second problem I see is that you’re ignoring the fact that Dawkins is talking about the process of evolution and the action of genes, and that has bugger-all to do with human morality. Human morality is based on empathy, reciprocity, concepts of fairness and justice. (As a matter of fact, these things clearly evolved, as Dawkins has lately admitted. Empathy and reciprocity can be seen in other social animals. But for the sake of argument let’s ignore that). The overarching process simply doesn’t have to provide the model for human behavior. I think this has something to do with Hume and not being able to derive “ought” from “is”, but I have only a layperson’s knowledge of philosophy and this post is long enough already, so I shall leave you.

    Stacy Kennedy

  18. Thanks Stacy

    As to Plato’s famous dilemma, you and he commit the logical fallacy known as the false dilemma. This involves a situation in which two alternative points of view are held to be the only options, when in reality there exist one or more other options which have not been considered.

    The biblical Christian rejects both options on offer. One makes morality arbitrary, while the other puts moral law over and above God, making him subservient to it. Biblical Christians offer a third alternative: God’s very character is the source of goodness. His very holy, pure and perfect character is the basis of right and wrong.

    Your second objection I deal with in the article. There is a long-standing philosophical tradition which talks about ‘ought’ not arising from’ is’. Description does not lead to prescription. Materialistic Darwinism cannot even account for such non-material goods as fairness and justice and other virtues you mention.

    The moral cannot arise from the amoral; the personal cannot arise from the impersonal; moral obligations do not exist unless there is objective moral law, and that can only come from a personal transcendent moral God. I already cited some atheists who basically agree to all this.

    And morality is not mere reciprocity. The “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” is of course found in the world. But real morality includes things like genuine altruism, and doing good to others without the slightest hope of getting something in return. All people like Dawkins can talk about is “reciprocal altruism” which is really kinship back scratching. Sacrificial love to strangers cannot be accounted for under materialistic evolutionary theory. As “evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr admitted, “altruism toward strangers is a behaviour not supported by natural selection.”.

    But I write about this elsewhere, eg:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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