Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part I

17 May

Atheism, like the belief in a deity (or deities), comes in many different forms.  Not all atheists have arrived at their beliefs through similar means or share the same understanding of those beliefs.  Indeed, oft times, the views of individual atheists or disparate groups of atheists are as far removed from one another as Hinduism is from Islam or Shamanism from Christianity.  Addressing every argument used as a foundation for atheist morality is well beyond the scope of this blog.  As a result, we have elected to limit ourselves to addressing two common defenses utilized by morally upstanding atheists to defend their moral views.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken the time to consider the fallacy of claiming that morality ought to be determined relative to individual societies.  We’ve looked at the difficulties (and atrocities) which often result from using social groups to determine the appropriate ethic for everyone as well as the dilemmas faced by those who would enforce such accepted norms.  It is clear that there is no solid foundation for morality within the will of the masses… or even the will of an individual.

That said, a second moral “foundation” commonly put forward by atheists is that of nature, i.e., that objective morality does exist and is innate in all living things.  Such a view permits those who hold that there is no ultimate lawgiver to affirm that there is still an ultimate law by which all living beings are bound.

That this view is consistent with a more scientific approach to life is undoubted.  After all, it does go a long way towards explaining why so many cultures have such similar moral views and why the social interactions of human and animal societies often look so much alike.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at this particular point of view and why, even with its strengths, it still fails the test of providing a solid universal grounding for morality.

If you’ve taken the time to read books like Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, you’re likely already familiar with at least a few of the arguments in favor of an objective morality inherent in nature (though this argument is not the primary or even secondary purpose of the Goodall’s tome).  In her spiritual biography, she shares about her work with chimpanzees and many of the sometimes striking resemblances between ape society and human cultures.  Perhaps most prominent among these similarities is the way in which family groups interact with one another.  After a quick (and enjoyable) read, I admit that it is quite tempting to believe that there is a kinship which binds all living creatures together in a way that promotes our communal good.

A closer look, however, shows something far different from this heartening perspective.  Indeed, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” comes much closer to the point: emphasizing the tendency of the natural world to “select the fittest” and preserve only the strongest of any species.  Even the chimpanzees have a violent streak, ripping apart and eating those who challenge the authority of the dominant male or are too weak to contribute to the community’s social structure.

Where does this leave an ethic of generosity and selfless compassion?  Perhaps much farther from innate morality than we might hope.  Indeed, it would seem that one of the oddities within nature (despite the sometimes human-like behaviors demonstrated by the animal kingdom) is that survival takes precedence over the communal good… and that self-centered (or, on occasion, species-centered) motivation, leads to acts which, for the moral atheist would be considered despicable.

What would our society look like if “natural law” were to prevail?  We’ll take a look at a few examples next week.  For now, feel free to share your own thoughts on why you feel that natural law is or isn’t a good basis for morality in the comment box below!

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