Are Atheism & Morality Compatible? (part 1)

“Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist” That’s the title of a recent blog post by Pastor Rick Henderson on Despite the provocative title, Henderson is sincerely trying to engage atheists in a constructive manner. The title is merely to draw us in.

His goal, not surprisingly, is to lay out an analysis that gets our attention and makes us wonder if atheists have overlooked something important. To accomplish this Henderson doesn’t target atheist arguments directly, but rather focuses on the underlying atheist worldview. He writes,

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations…
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

Henderson then presents three propositions which he believes are necessary to any atheist worldview; denial of any of the three, he asserts, “will strike a mortal blow to atheism”. And what are these required propositions?

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

We have our first indicator that at a fundamental level Henderson does not understand the natural worldview behind modern atheism. Propositions 1 & 3 are fine, but proposition 2 (as I’ve pointed out elsewhere), is incompatible with a natural worldview based on our modern scientific understanding of the universe and evolution.

Wait—don’t scientists think the universe is scientific? No. Scientists are scientific, but the universe is not. This may seem like nit-picking, but to understand “the atheist worldview” the distinction is vital. Let’s break it down. Is the universe observable? Only indirectly—we are incapable of observing the world directly. Is the universe knowable? Again the answer must be No—our models of the universe are knowable, but the actual nature of the universe (including whether or not it even has a “nature”) lies forever beyond our ken.

Origin of the Laws of Physics

Well then, is the universe not—at the very least—”governed strictly by the laws of physics”? The theist hopes so, since a universe based on uniform natural laws fits well with a worldview where a supreme being lays down the rules of existence at the creation. But atheists must reject this. Nor does it fit with the empirical nature of science.

Science is not prescriptive, but descriptive. The “laws” of physics are part of our model of the universe, not part of the universe itself. The physicist Victor J. Stenger has made this case most forcefully.  “[T]he laws of physics,” he writes

do not follow from very unique or very surprising physical properties of the Universe. Rather they arise from the very simple notion that whatever mathematics you write down to describe measurements, your equations cannot depend on the origin or direction of the coordinate systems you define in the space of those measurements or the space of the functions used to describe those laws. That is, they cannot reflect any privileged point of view.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, pp 112-113

Stenger uses the term “point-of-view invariance” to describe this scientific goal of eliminating privileged points of view. The drive for point-of view invariance has led to the laws of physics that we have today, and they tell us more about how to obtain point-of-view invariance within the standard model, than anything else.

In order of having a decent chance of representing an objective reality, physicists formulate their models in such a way that they are the same for all observers. When they do so, they find that little more has to be postulated in order to derive the most important of what are traditionally termed the “laws of physics.” Indeed, we only need to make up a few mathematical rules, as simple as possible, add a large dose of randomness, and we have about all we need to describe nature.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 157

The natural worldview underlying modern atheism is based on a fundamentally different understanding of the relationship between matter and mind—one where the underlying physical reality exists independent of knowledge or mind. Stenger again,

So, where does point-of-view invariance come from? It comes simply from the apparent existence of an objective reality—independent of its detailed structure. Indeed, the success of point-of-view invariance can be said to provide evidence for the existence of an objective reality. Our dreams are not point-of-view invariant. If the Universe were all in our heads, our models would not be point-of-view invariant….
Point-of-view invariance is thus the mechanism by which we enforce objectivity. If we did not have an underlying objective reality, then we would not expect to be able to describe observations in a way that is independent of reference frame.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 187 

In contrast, supernaturalism puts mind at the forefront of things; the supernatural universe is essentially thought into existence by God’s conscious effort. This entails a universe in which the currency of knowledge (concepts, properties, relationships, laws of physics, etc) are endemic in such a way that the universe becomes inherently knowable. Even if humans cannot themselves ultimately know the universe, the point is that God can know it; and that is because it was created by divine mind or consciousness.

But if matter is primary, rather than mind being primary, it follows that the currency of knowledge will not be endemic. The universe will not be knowable for the simple reason that it won’t contain within itself any of the artifacts of knowing. Physical things will not possess any inherent, knowable properties—for properties are artifacts of knowledge and are brought into the picture at a later time (when organisms with scientific minds attempt to model the world).

In short, mind or consciousness had no part in the universe’s creation—it only arrives later through the evolutionary process. And this is where any sustainable natural worldview must begin.

What Atheism Requires

Henderson says that denial of any of the three underlying atheist affirmations he listed would deliver a mortal blow. Presumably he means by this that the resulting worldview would not be atheist if any of the three were rejected. He provides no support for this assertion. And indeed, is it unsupportable.

The first proposition—that the universe is strictly natural and contains nothing supernatural—certainly seems to be necessary for the atheist. Likewise for the third proposition—that the universe does not have a consciousness. Of course, the universe does contain organisms which have consciousness. The universe in itself is impersonal, but it contains many beings who are in fact personal.

Likewise, the universe is itself inherently meaningless (a result of not being infused with meaning by God, since in the natural worldview there is no primal mind or consciousness.) But it is nevertheless quite possible for beings within the universe to assign meaning to things, and live lives that are valuable. The universe does not have to be inherently meaningful for this to be so.

However, the second proposition (even if you ill-advisedly believe it true)—that the universe “is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics”—is simply not required by atheism‚ just as it is not required by a natural worldview.

Perhaps Henderson may be under the mistaken impression that his second proposition is necessary for science to do its thing. Although scientific progress is not a requirement for atheism, it is certainly important to scientists. On top of that, many scientists are atheists, and of course most atheists think very highly of science. But these are preferences, not logical entailments.

As a matter of fact, Henderson’s second proposition is not necessary for the scientific method. The universe may not be knowable, but our scientific models certainly are. Scientists continually test those models by experimentation in order to judge their usefulness. Models and hypotheses that turn out not to be useful (e.g., are falsified, or display no statistical significance) are discarded and new ones devised. In this manner, knowledge which has proven most useful rises to the top and becomes accepted as reliable. We call this the scientific method.

We have seen that space, time, and motion are part of a systematic description of observations that provides no independent evidence to confirm their objective existence. Space or the void does not kick back. Motion does not kick back. All that kick back are, by definition, material bodies. The information they kick back to us leads us to assign to these bodies intrinsic properties such as mass, electric charge, spin, isospin, baryon number, lepton number, and so on, which are all operationally defined. That is, they are empirical but not wholly independent of our theoretical constructs. Within the space-time model, rules of behavior for these properties , called laws, arise from applying point-of-view invariance in a particular, idiosyncratic mathematical scheme that might have been formulated in a number of completely different ways if physicists in different cultures had been isolated from one another. Again, this does not imply any old scheme will do, or that physics is just another cultural narrative. The scheme still has to work. The particular scheme adopted by the world’s physicists does work, but this does not allow us to conclude that it is the only one possible.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 175

The point is that the underlying nature of the universe doesn’t have to be knowable for the scientific method to work. Nor does the knowledge thus created have to be true in some absolute sense. Indeed, all we can really say about scientific knowledge is that it is useful. And this is because the scientific method is nothing but a test for usefulness.

As Stenger puts it in describing the standard model of physics,

Note that this space-time description is a model invented to describe those observations. We have no other way of “seeing” the objects so described and no way of verifying that reality is “truly” composed of those objects or that the terms distance, velocity, and acceleration are “true” elements of reality. We can only argue that this model is simple and consistent with the data. As long as it agrees with all the data, we are not being irrational to apply it as far as we can.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 156

Science makes progress because it utilizes this pragmatic empiricism to create a body of knowledge about the world by repeatedly testing our intellectual constructions for maximum usefulness. Of course, deterministic descriptions are preferred whenever possible simply because when they are obtainable they are more useful than descriptions of probability. But it does not follow that any of our models, whether deterministic or probabilistic, reveal the true underlying nature of the universe. All we can say is that they are useful, they work. And if they don’t, we invent better.

Indeed, not only is science not tuned to discover the “true” underlying nature of the universe, the scientific method does not even require that there be an underlying nature of the universe. It is only once the importance of this last point has sunk in, that the coherence of the natural worldview behind atheism begins to emerge.

I have lingered on this issue because, perhaps unsurprisingly, theists often lack a clear understanding of atheist fundamentals. Unfortunately, the same is true of many atheists.

Meaning and Value

The reader may be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with Henderson’s article, which after all is entitled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”.

Specifically, what does the knowability of the universe have to do with morality?

Good question. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

In his blog post, Henderson jumps from his incorrect assertion about the three propositions required for atheism to what appears—at least initially—to be an unrelated argument that morality and atheism don’t mix. Speaking of the atheist worldview, he says,

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

But of course, we can give an action or object any meaning we want to. We do it all the time, whenever we use language. Under Henderson’s worldview, apparently if meaning is not imparted by God it doesn’t really count. But why think this?

Henderson believes meaning is something that is inherent in the things and actions of the universe—as would be the case if the origin of the universe was mind or consciousness. But atheists hew to a different worldview. We see meaning as something that begins and end in consciousness, that is to say as something inherent in language, not in things. This is a vital point. It means that God is no more capable of infusing the universe with meaning than we are—and no less.

In fact, from an atheist perspective, one of the essential underlying mistakes of theism—perhaps its most fundamental mistake—is this confusion about the nature of meaning. Theists think that meaning exists out there in the things and actions of the world. It does not. Meaning is a property of words. It exists in consciousness, and only in consciousness. To be trite, meaning is all in your mind. But in your mind is where it must to be, in order to be useful to us.

So if we think something is meaningful, it becomes meaningful for us. Just as if God thinks something is meaningful, it becomes meaningful for God—or would, if God existed. But God is no more capable of making something meaningful for us, than we are of making something meaning for God. Meaning is necessarily private to each consciousness—and this is because it is the essential stuff of language. Things don’t have meaning, thoughts do. And thoughts are privately experienced.

A similar heuristic applies to value. Whereas meaning is central to words, value is central to organisms. Organisms act within the world by determining what is valuable to themselves and then behave accordingly. Our values drive our behavior. I value foods which my senses make appealing to me. I value the love or companionship of others if that is what my body desires. If I belong to a social species, I value other organisms in my community. There is no shortage of things to value, and without assigning value to things we would be incapable of making decisions in our complex environment—we would literally not know what to do.

What is valuable to one organism or one species will differ from what is valuable to another, simply because we are different beings in different places at different times with differing needs. Even if we throw God into the mix, God is simply a different being with differing needs and values. What is valuable to God and what is valuable to us will, as a consequence, not be the same. We have different natures and exist in different environments and therefore will have different behavioral choices to make.

So if Henderson thinks that an atheist world leaves us without values, then he is ignorance of the nature of value in an atheist world, and of where value comes from. It come from us, and informs all of our decisions. Whether God exists (or doesn’t exist) has nothing to do with it. Our values can’t be God’s values because, simply put, we are not God and God is not us. We are different beings in different places, and therefore will have different values.

Common Values

Yet having said that, common values are crucial to group morality. If we lack common values, we will be unable to agree on which behaviors—among members of our species—are morally acceptable. Moral agreement is essential for social species, otherwise their communities will fall apart. Not all values need to be held in common, but values which are destructive to the community will be harmful to the well-being of the species. Think of it this way: evolution will weed out those social species which lack sufficient community cohesiveness, and those which do survive will as a result have a subset of common values which members share. These values will be built into the nature of each member organism in the form of instincts of one sort or another.

Hold on. Not so fast, says Henderson. He presents three objections to the hypothesis of an evolutionary source for morality.

First, altruism would never develop. There is no evolutionary advantage, Henderson argues, to feeling compassion for the old and sick, nor any advantage to caring for mentally handicapped children. He goes further and suggests that evolution would be likely to reward the practice of raping women and forcing them to bear children. After all, from a strictly biological perspective, passing on one’s DNA is the definition of success. If our values derived from evolution, rape would have to be seen positively rather than negatively—so claims Henderson, at least.

Second, he argues that there must be an objectivity to morality which places it outside the whims of a particular community or society. Otherwise we can have no legitimate basis for objecting when other societies allow behavior we find repugnant, or when they punish actions we find praiseworthy. Morality becomes nothing more than a matter of personal—or cultural—preference.

Third, without an external moral code as reference, social reformers must be seen negatively. Since a culture’s values represent the preferences of the majority and are important to social cohesion, it would follow that under a natural worldview, the most immoral citizens would always be “not merely the ones who transgress [a particular moral] code but the ones who intend to change it”. Henderson presents a modern example,

This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral—that is, until they become the majority and institute change. I suppose they then become moral, and traditionalists become immoral. But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

These are serious concerns which advocates of a natural worldview must address satisfactorily. I will attempt to do so in part 2.


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