The atheist case for right and wrong

What if our sense of right and wrong is determined by reason?

by T.J. Nelson


M ost people I know don't think much about religion. They are apatheists. But in my daily life as a typical right-wing libertarian capitalist running-dog capitalist-roader colonialist oppressor, I come across arguments about religion all the time (here is one of the better ones, made in response to some silly comments by Stephen Fry).

So inevitably, I heard about Frank Turek's new book Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case, where he says atheists stole their sense of right and wrong from religion. Without God, he says, we would have no sense of right and wrong. He writes: “To be a consistent atheist—and this is going to sound outrageous, but it's true—you can't believe that anyone has ever actually changed the world for the better.”

Now, I haven't read his book yet, so I hope that is an accurate synopsis of his argument. (It's on my list of books to read, but there are some pretty heavy books ahead of it, including Alain Badiou's Logics of Worlds and a neuropharmacology book that I wrote a chapter for, which I have to read. So it may be a while).

(Update: reviewed here.)

As a scientist, my job is to be skeptical, but open to new ideas and arguments. So though we favor materialistic explanations at the moment, in many ways we differentiate ourselves from traditional atheists. Some say that's because we think of ourselves as gods, thereby making atheism impossible.* Maybe there's some truth in that. If God really said he saw the world, and it was good, I'd have to say I agree. But in general it's nonsense: when I go to a KFC, and I see the chicken, I never say, “I'm so glad I created them!”

I am also sympathetic to Christianity. It is a valuable part of our Western culture, which is founded on it, and its survival may be crucial for all of us. It's great that Turek is defending it. The argument that all moral values come from God has been around for a long time, and that is the argument I will discuss here.

But—and y’all knew there was a ‘but’ coming—this argument is probably not going to be very convincing to atheists. I worry that making a weak argument for religion may be worse than making none at all.

Atheists would ask which is worse: to have your sense of right and wrong not grounded, or grounded in something that might not exist, or worse yet, grounded in something that some guy three thousand years ago wrote for the benefit of his tribe?

What if right and wrong are determined by reason? Reason is the faculty that is imprinted on us by a universe that runs by knowable, logical rules. Logic is just another way of talking about cause and effect, which is how we see the universe (though some physicists are looking for alternatives). We were born to live in a logical universe, so it makes perfect sense that our minds would be shaped to understand it.

Last week, on the way home from work, I came across a bunch of five or six deer trying to decide whether they should cross the road. They were using the same rules of logic that we use, although they're not very good at it. The costs for violating the rules of logic are as high for us as they are for those deer. Deer that are better at it live longer than those that are worse, and so over time we get more and more deer with better ability to comprehend traffic flow.

Like deer, we too are social animals. All people have a concept that other people exist. If their brains develop properly, they know that others are conscious beings who can perceive them and feel pain. We are programmed to empathize: emotions are communicable. When parents say, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” they are not kidding. Our awareness of others helps to create our moral sense, which benefits our species immensely.

Now, Turek probably goes further and says that right and wrong are mandated by a God who will cast us into hell if we disobey—hell being, in the contemporary canon, insofar as I understand it, separation from God—and thus, the concepts right and wrong are imposed on us. On this, we both agree: we may be free to commit evil, but we are not free to redefine it.

Christians sometimes also say God created logic, reason, and cause and effect as well. This at least was the view of the Gnostics, and it sounds interesting. If God existed, he would have had to do this as well. I'd like to hear more about how he did this.

Although I've been critical of atheism in the past (see my review of Richard Dawkins's book here), I don't find the cosmology in religion to be especially compelling either.

Christians say the universe had to have a creator. Atheists say no. Most scientists say we don't know what created it. Could've been a deity, more likely something else. Let's find out ... but, um, we'll need funding for that.

If a scientist found solid evidence of a creator, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened in science. What scientist wouldn't relish the thought of overturning centuries of prior thought? But if the evidence points elsewhere, scientists are obligated to go elsewhere.

The latest idea is M-theory, which says the Big Bang might have happened when two colossal five-dimensional structures collided, creating our space-time continuum as a side effect. It's just a theory. We don't know if it will pan out. But the thinking right now in science is that, Big Bang notwithstanding, the universe is likely to be a lot bigger than we used to think, in ways that we don't yet understand. It might even be infinite.

The utter vastness of the cosmos and the mystery of it all should inspire anyone. I'm not a big fan of books and articles with the word ‘awesome’ in the title, but in this case it fits. We need to reclaim the original meaning of that word and restore our sense of awe. On that point, at least, I think even Christians would probably agree.

* Believing that oneself doesn't exist is so rare in our culture that there doesn't even seem to be a word for it. Nihilism is too broad a term. The closest is the Buddhist idea that there is no self. This is called anatta or anatman. The doctrine of sunyata Mahayana Buddhism says that all physical forms are void of intrinsic self.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
feb 06, 2015; updated feb 08, 2015