It’s been fascinating to watch the very vocal and prolific new atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, make a case for objective morality. The phrase “objective morality” is a way of indicating that some behaviors are right (truth telling, kindness, tolerance) and some behaviors are wrong (rape, murder, racism) — for real. Morality is not just a matter of personal preference and choice (akin to liking peanuts better than almonds), but rather laws that are real and true and binding no matter what one thinks about them or whether one chooses to follow them.
The reason it has been fun to watch the new atheists defend this idea is because atheists of an earlier generation (such as J.L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell) thought it folly to do so. Classic atheists from the mid-20th century were very reluctant to grant that there was an objective moral law because they saw that it was just too compelling for believers to take the easy step from the moral law to God who was the “moral law giver.” Accepting a real objective moral law would be giving far, far too much ground to the Christians and other theists.
In my view, this shift in attitude toward moral values among the new atheists is an indicator that our work in Christian apologetics and philosophy has had an impact. I can’t count the times when in forums on various college campuses more traditional atheists and agnostics have had to squirm under the questioning from me or my colleagues about basic moral questions.
“Is it wrong to torture babies for fun?” “Is it wrong to treat a person as subhuman because she has darker skin?” As you can imagine, if an atheist were to answer “no,” or “well, it depends,” or “I prefer not to do these things, but how can I judge others,” to these questions he would be running into some real trouble with the audience. Whether the audience is filled with conservative Christians or radical unbelievers, people in our culture have an aversion to those who waffle or dodge on such fundamental and obvious moral values.
I think the new atheists got tired of being in such a public relations conundrum, so they began embracing basic morality as some sort of natural feature of the physical universe. They now tend to maintain that there are objective morals, but that these morals did not come from God. Is it wrong to torture babies for fun? Of course it’s wrong, says the new atheist. Goal accomplished. No more looking like an uncaring monster on stage in debates with Christians.
On the one hand, I think the new atheists have been helped in public discourse by their recent adoption of rudimentary moral values. One rarely feels now like one is being addressed by an amoral scoundrel when a new atheist is speaking in public. On the other hand, the new atheist now suffers from a problem that the old atheists would have quickly warned them about: How in the world are we going to explain where these objective moral values came from?
The primary technique the new atheists have adopted for dealing with the issue of the origin or grounding of the moral law is obfuscation. The new atheists are very fond of saying, “We don’t need God to be good.” Indeed, they often say that atheists, agnostics and skeptics often lead more wholesome lives than lifelong professing Christians. Now, theists should not be fooled by this. Our response should be, “Of course you don’t need God to be good — we’ve never claimed that you do.” You see, it is not knowledge (epistemology) of the moral law that is a problem — after all, the Bible teaches that this law is written on every human heart. Rather, the daunting problem for the new atheist is the nature and source (ontology) of the moral law. Here are some questions you can ask Richard Dawkins the next time you sit next to him on a bus:
• If everything ultimately must be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, help me understand what a moral value is (does it have mass, occupy space, hold a charge, have wavelength)?
• How did matter, energy, time and chance result in a set of objective moral values? Did the big bang really spew forth “love your enemy?” If so, you have to help me understand that.
• What makes your moral standard more than a subjective opinion or personal preference? What makes it truly binding or obligatory? Why can’t I just ignore it? Won’t our end be the same (death and the grave) either way?
The old atheists did not want to have to face questions like these, so they simply denied the reality of objective moral values. The new atheists have thrown the door open. Let’s not make it easy for them. Let’s ask the hard questions in a winsome and engaging way.
Craig J. Hazen is the director of Biola’s M.A. in Christian apologetics and M.A. in science and religion programs. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.