On Atheism and Evil

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

So writes atheist and eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-seller The God Delusion.

 Reveling in Mr. Dawkins’ scathing wit, and brandishing such quotes as weapons, devoted followers of the “New Atheism,” as it has been called, seek to vociferously evangelize the masses sheepishly duped by the trappings of religion. The charges against religion, and Christianity in particular, are copious in number, and if the whole were to be distilled, the remainder would be a weighty moral indictment. The gist of Dawkins’ above remarks, and indeed the bulk of the allegations leveled at Christianity, are that God, the Bible, Christianity, Christians or all four are not just false, but are in some way evil.

One could say (quite rightly, I think), that Dawkins’ affections for religiously-inclined persons are minimal at best. However, the problem does not lie in his manifest dislike for Christians or their God but in the implicit notion that if the Old Testament texts are true, God is guilty of a moral infraction. In light of this, two serious problems inevitably arise.

First, if Mr. Dawkins’ moral judgment is to carry any weight, he must first establish a legitimate basis in which to ground objective moral values. By “objective moral values” I mean moral values that are binding whether or not anyone believes in them. For if moral values are ultimately subjective or relative, then all moral allegations are reduced to mere opinion and thus become as trivial as one’s preference for, say, a particular flavor of ice cream. But Dawkins’ is not simply stating eloquently his dislike for the God of the Bible. He means that if God does exist and did in fact do the things alleged in the Old Testament, God is therefore wrong on moral grounds.

But on what basis can Mr. Dawkins make this claim if he intends to refer to something more compelling than his own personal opinion? In making the claim that God is evil, one assumes, naturally, that there is such a thing as evil. If one assumes there is such a thing as evil, then he assumes there is such a thing as good. If there is such a thing as good and evil, then there must be a Moral Law by which to differentiate between good and evil. If there is such a thing as a Moral Law, there must be a Moral Law-Giver in which such a Law is grounded.

Regarding morality’s objectivity, even many atheists acknowledge the necessity for a transcendent Authority. J.L. Mackie, a vehement anti-theist, writes:

We might well argue…that objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervenient upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of ordinary events, without an all-powerful God to create them” (quoted by J.P. Moreland, “Reflections on Meaning in Life Without God.” The Trinity Journal, 9 NS, 1984, p. 14).

Those wishing to dispute the notion that a Moral Law-Giver is necessary for the existence of objective moral values must justify their position. Dawkins, while obviously rejecting the existence of God, provides no such justification anywhere in his writings and therefore implicitly accepts all the premises but insists on rejecting the conclusion. In effect, he borrows from theism in an attempt to prove it false!

G.K. Chesterton summed up this contradiction in his book Orthodoxy:

“But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.

The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

Thus, as a matter of intellectual consistency, the atheist must provide a basis for objective moral values before he may level the barrels of morality at Christianity (or anyone else, for that matter). Yet, far from attempting such a justification, Dawkins manages to cut off the very branch upon which he sits, saying:

“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 the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1992, p.133)

If “there is, at the bottom…no evil,” then just what does Dawkins mean by describing God in such a way as to imply that He is evil? Dawkins’ moral outrage seems incoherent and pitifully insignificant given his view that we live in a world of “blind, pitiless indifference.” In the absence of an appeal to a Moral Law, why should anyone regard Dawkins’ indictment as having any authority whatsoever? Again, is there such a thing as an objective good and an objective evil or not? Atheism, not just Dawkins, leaves us completely devoid of a coherent answer.

Second, the view that it is even possible for God to be evil is itself rather puzzling. The Christian view is that God is an omnipresent, omniscient, all-powerful, morally perfect, self-existent, personal, necessary, being. In essence, God is the greatest conceivable Being. If, however, for the sake of argument, Dawkins assumes this view of God for his critique, what then does he mean by implying that God is evil? If God is, indeed, the greatest conceivable Being, then it is manifestly impossible for God to be subject to anything else, including, in this case, a Moral Law external to His nature. For if God were subject or subservient to some external Moral Law, then He would not be God, since He would therefore cease to be the greatest conceivable Being. Given this consideration, Dawkins is faced with the problem of explaining how his own moral judgment might have any credibility when the object of his criticism is the God of the universe.

However, if Dawkins does not assume for the sake of his argument that the God of the Bible exists, then at whom, and by what authority, is he directing his diatribe? For if God does not exist (as it is clear Dawkins believes), then one is again faced with the irksome difficulty of objective moral justification. It seems Dawkins is at an impasse: If God exists, moral values must necessarily be grounded in His nature, and attempts to criticize his nature fall resolutely flat. If God does not exist, moral values are merely subjective and any moral judgments are reduced to utter trivialities. Many atheists correctly seem willing to admit the latter.

Though in conversation the admission of morality’s relativity is often readily made for the sake of its apparent consistency with an atheistic framework, one may rightly wonder at the expeditious nature of the outcry the moment that same person has experienced some perceived injustice. A man who has just been beaten and robbed does not simply shrug his shoulders, dust himself off, and proceed to go about his business in the knowledge that we live according to forces that may ultimately be characterized as blind, pitiless, and indifferent. No, there is instead an instant appeal to a sense of moral ought-ness which has just been violated. The argument is wholly inconsistent with the action. This is precisely the contradiction identified by Chesterton. That the action (or reaction), the sense of having been wronged, is always involuntary is a fact that should be regarded with a great deal of suspicion by materialists (I say “materialists” because there exist atheists who nonetheless believe in the supernatural). Whence came such an innate moral conscience? What do the irrational forces to which materialists claim everything can be reduced have anything to do with a sense of moral ought-ness, whether perceived or real? While such a sense may certainly be affected by social pressures, the fact that it exists at all cannot reasonably be attributed to social cultivation. Young children who have not yet had exposure to the greater social sphere, nor possess the faculties enabling them to receive moral indoctrination, nonetheless exhibit the same basic sense of moral ought-ness as their parents. A child who has been taught nothing of stealing knows precisely when he has been stolen from.

Atheists bothered by both the prospect of accountability to a transcendent Moral Authority and by the alternative, a universe consistent with Nietzche’s nihilism, wholly void of any objective moral standard, have attempted the singular argument for morality’s objectivity without the postulation of a divine Authority. The attempt proves upon inspection to be rather unsubstantial, though its underlying motivation, the attempt to have the Good without the nuisance of accountability, should not inspire surprise. To suggest, for instance, that qualities universally regarded as “good” (justice, love, mercy, generosity, etc) simply exist of their own accord is but to beg the question. Without any situational context, what does it even mean to say that the abstract quality of “Justice” simply exists as a positive entity? How is this even possible? If materialism were true, a particular moral value would not be objective even if every person that had ever lived affirmed the goodness of it. For if there remains even the logical possibility of a single dissenter that particular moral value is inescapably subject to relativity. Therefore, in order for moral values to be objective, they must necessarily be grounded in something greater than human perception or understanding.

One must consider, then, just what kinds of things could even possibly serve as a ground for objective moral values. It seems obvious that the category of possibilities will inevitably be exceedingly limited. Human opinion has already been eliminated. As has been mentioned, and J.L. Mackie affirmed, objective moral values are at least reasonably grounded in the nature of God. If this is so, then objective moral values must necessarily be grounded in something very much like God, if not God himself. If, however, the materialists are correct, and all the goings-on in the universe can ultimately be attributed, at bottom, to irrational, material forces, we seem to be out of options, given that anything remotely identifiable with the concept of a Divine Being cannot possibly exist. If there is one thing of which we may be certain, it is that objective moral values are not reasonably the product of material forces. If somehow they were, why should anyone feel compelled to adhere to them? And if they are not, then materialism is false. But if materialism is false, and objective moral values are in some way transcendent of the material world, is it not but a reasonable step to conclude that they are grounded in the nature of God?

The moral indictments frequently wielded against Christianity are therefore without a legitimate starting point. If the atheist wishes to be able to use morality as a point of argument in his critique, he must first establish the objectivity of his claims or else abandon them to the realm of the inconsequential.

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7 thoughts on “On Atheism and Evil

  1. “First, if Mr. Dawkins’ moral judgment is to carry any weight, he must first establish a legitimate basis in which to ground objective moral values. ”

    Wrong.

    For Dawkins’ moral judgment to carry any weight, you just have to agree with his moral values. It doesn’t matter where they come from or if you claim that yours are objective. If you agree that genocide is morally wrong, then the god of the OT is morally reprehensible. Just as simple as that.

    • mdkirby says:

      I disagree with you that “it doesn’t matter where [his judgements] come from.” I could agree with Mr. Dawkins, but that wouldn’t give any intellectual justification to his claims, and without any justification, such claims are completely trivial. Agreement between any number of individuals on a particular matter does not in any way provide an intellectual justification for it.

      For instance, if I agree with Mr. Dawkins, saying I believe genocide to be wrong (which I do), I have at least given you my opinion on the matter. But if I say I believe genocide is wrong because there is a Moral Authority (God) which is the standard of Good, and genocide is a deviation from that standard, then I have given you a BASIS or justification for my believe that genocide is morally wrong; Namely, that Good is grounded in the nature of God.

      Mr. Dawkins provides no such justification for any moral claims, simply because if atheism were true, there could BE no such thing as objective morality; It is, on atheism, inescapably subjective, subject to the whims of opinion, and therefore impossible to make objective moral indictments. Mr. Dawkins only has his opinion, and in the absence of an intellectual ground for his moral claims, I see no reason to give any real credence to his objections. Again, he has forced himself into the awkward and contradictory position of having to assume theism in order to prove it false.

      • “but that wouldn’t give any intellectual justification to his claims”

        Why should I care about intellectual justifications? I’m dealing with morality. As long as you agree with me, I couldn’t care less what your justifications were.

        “there could BE no such thing as objective morality”

        So what?

        There is no objectively best way to tie one’s shoes. But provided we have a desire for the same conclusion (shoes being tied), then there are definitely some better and some worse ways. Same goes for morality. If we share values (people shouldn’t be killed, for example) then we can determine some good ways to accomplish that and some bad ways.

        And frankly, I don’t believe you have anything objective either, especially considering the Bible says “don’t kill…now pardon me while I drown everyone on the planet.”

      • mdkirby says:

        “Why should I care about intellectual justifications?”

        You should care because to argue on the basis of an unjustified assumption is merely to argue from opinion, and an argument erected upon such a foundation is really no argument at all. Ask yourself how many scientific theories would be given a hearing without an attempt at justification? It wouldn’t even make sense to call it “science” in such a case. It seems quite obvious to me that any view, whether scientific or philosophical, requires some sort of justification, and Mr. Dawkins provides none whatsoever for why we should be compelled to agree with his moral stance.

        “So what?
        There is no objectively best way to tie one’s shoes. But provided we have a desire for the same conclusion (shoes being tied), then there are definitely some better and some worse ways. Same goes for morality. If we share values (people shouldn’t be killed, for example) then we can determine some good ways to accomplish that and some bad ways.”

        The problem is that Mr. Dawkins is making his moral injunctions with the apparent assumption that morality IS objective; Namely, that it’s always wrong to be unjust, sadomasochistic, malevolent, etc. Given that, on atheism, there is no such thing as an objective morality and that Mr. Dawkins is evidently wont to throw justification of his view to the wind, his position is either one of two things: 1.) If he believes morality is objective, then he must explain how this is possible if atheism were true or else be guilty of a glaring contradiction, or 2.) if he admits that morality is subjective, he must acknowledge that his moral accusations are as silly as condemning a person for liking a particular flavor of ice cream.

        I agree with you that most people share certain moral values (i.e. “rape is wrong”), but the problem is that if atheism is true, there is absolutely nothing to morally justify condemnation of dissenters from that view. For instance, while it might be considered a crime to rape someone, a person who commits rape isn’t really morally wrong, since there is no Moral Law; He is merely acting unsociably. And, while this view is consistent with atheism, the problem is that we all know rape really IS morally wrong always and at all times. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between atheism as a worldview and what we actually experience.

        “And frankly, I don’t believe you have anything objective either, especially considering the Bible says ‘don’t kill…now pardon me while I drown everyone on the planet.'”

        This is an issue of ethics, not of morality. It is important, but I’d rather not get sidetracked from the discussion at hand, which is whether it matters if such a thing as objective morality exists.

  2. doctaink says:

    Another cogent argument for “Truth”. Well done!

  3. Oscar Rivera says:

    Regarding Point One:

    “However, the problem does not lie in his manifest dislike for Christians or their God but in the implicit notion that if the Old Testament texts are true, God is guilty of a moral infraction.”

    One does not necessarily have to establish an objective morality before fashioning a criticism. If we take your Plantinga definition of the “greatest conceivable being”, then Dawkins’ quip merely serves to demonstrate how the God of the Bible falls short of this definition. Dawkins merely points out that the God of Christianity is not the perfectly moral being to which He is attributed. While it is probably true that Dawkins considers all the ills that he attributes to the God of the Bible as objectively immoral, that need not worry us when comparing the God of Christianity to His own moral edicts.

    Therefore, you are correct in saying that there would need to be established an objective morality in order for me to levy any objective criticism against this supernal being. But if I am merely pointing out that the God of Christianity falls short of the moral definition within the paradigmal set being examined, then the statement stands.

    Regarding Point Two:

    It’s basically the same criticism. So, just adjust my argument from above a tad to fit.

    As an aside, I must urge caution when using cross-references, especially when discussing such contentious topics. Unfortunately, I have not read Mackie so I cannot tell you if Moreland quoted him in or out of context, but it has been my experience that many apologists misquote, or quote out context, those who hold contrapositional views in order to either discredit or to say, “See, this guy says what I’m saying and he’s from the other side!”

    • mdkirby says:

      “Therefore, you are correct in saying that there would need to be established an objective morality in order for me to levy any objective criticism against this supernal being. But if I am merely pointing out that the God of Christianity falls short of the moral definition within the paradigmal set being examined, then the statement stands.”

      I agree. However, Dawkins’ remarks seem to go beyond an internal critique of Christianity, which is why I think it necessary to point out his inconsistency.

      Regarding the quote from Mackie, it is certainly important to consider context in any work, but his quote is but one of many affirming a position intellectually consistent with atheism: that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. This point seems unremarkable, and it does not stand on that one quote alone. Take this quote from Michael Ruse, for instance:

      “The position of the modern evolutionist is that . . . morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.” (“Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269)

      That many atheists acknowledge the subjectivity of morality is to be expected (it is the position they should take in order to remain consistent), but, as in Mr. Dawkins’ case, they cannot have it both ways by intellectually affirming the subjectivity of morality and yet expecting others to give credence to their moral accusations.

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