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.