Atheism, Evangelism, Foundations for Atheist Morality

Foundations for Atheist Morality: Conclusion

Over the last few months, we have taken the time to discuss two commonly used “Foundations for Atheist Morality”.

We began our journey with a look at Societal Relativism.  We explored a few of the arguments used to support the idea that moral right and wrong are not universal, but are determined by individual societies.  We examined what this means for those who would go outside of their own society to right apparent wrongs like slavery or genocide, took a look at the difficulties which arise when we try to determine what constitutes a “society”, and even ran a few numbers to demonstrate the difficulties which accompany attempts to determine the moral views of the majority within those societies.  We concluded with the view that the only logical outcome of a societally relativist view of morality is an individually relativist view of morality in which each individual may create his own version of right and wrong without regard for others.

We then turned our attention to the Law of Nature.  We examined the proposition that a universal moral law can exist without a lawgiver and took a look at some of the apparent support for the idea that a solid foundation for moral behavior can be found within the natural world.  We took a careful look at nature’s “goal” to preserve individual species and considered the implications that this goal has in regard to human reproduction.  We examined natural selection and the ways in which a strict application of its principles would influence the use of modern medicine including the preservation of the lives of the elderly and disabled.  And we concluded with the view that an appeal to the Law of Nature leads to apathy rather than action.

Our purpose in examining these perspectives was to help Christians learn to effectively reason through the fallacies of each view with their atheist friends.  In the process, I had numerous discussions with atheists – some of whom did not hold to these views of morality and some who did.  It is important that Christians recognize that atheism (like the belief in a supreme being or beings) comes in many forms. Indeed, it would take a lifetime to address the full scope of moral views held by those who do not believe in a god and it is for this reason that we chose to address only two of them here.

Like the religious, atheists come to their views in many different ways.  Some were born into atheist homes.  Others reject god on the basis of bad experiences they’ve had with those who claim to worship a deity.  And others have serious questions about the rationality of religious belief.  It is the responsibility of every Christian to take the time to get to know and understand the views of the atheists in their lives before jumping into a moral debate.  We must approach our neighbors, friends, and family with humble, teachable spirits if we want to earn the right to be heard.

Atheism, Evangelism, Foundations for Atheist Morality, Law of Nature

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part V

Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we examined the implications that the natural moral law has for the field of medicine.  We looked at the difference between the way human beings determine each other’s value and the manner in which nature “determines” value.  We also asked an important question: If nature will, herself, select against the elderly and disabled, is there any harm in society helping her along?

Adolf Hitler asked this same question and came to the conclusion that the answer was “no”.  What followed was a bloody regime in which those who did not appear to physically contribute to the preservation of the race (homosexuals, the handicapped, and many others) were systematically exterminated.  Yet is this really an appropriate application of the principle of natural selection?

Undoubtedly, the Law of Nature does lend itself to violence.  The mass culling of one species in order to ensure the survival of other species (the southern African sardine run, for example) is not unheard of.  Carnivores hunt prey to feed their young.  One species forcefully removes another from its breeding ground.  And those who directly threaten the lives of others are, themselves, eliminated.  Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a situation in which the systematic extermination of specific individuals or groups of individuals is aptly demonstrated.  And this is an important point.

If the Law of Nature is to serve as a universal framework for morality, intervention either on behalf of the weak or in favor of the strong must be eschewed.  Neither those who perform acts of mercy nor those who promote wanton violence may be considered to be living lives in keeping with this accepted moral standard.  Indeed, the best application of the Law of Nature is not intervention, but apathy.

Doubtless, this conclusion will bother many, including the good-hearted atheists who would use nature for their moral guide.  Indeed, most of us spend our lives fighting against apathy, seeking to improve both our own lives and the lives of others.  We make the moral judgment that life, itself, is a gift and one worth preserving regardless of the contribution a given individual may or may not be able to make to the well-being of the whole.  We seek to demonstrate love, compassion, and concern for those who surround us – in short: to make the world a better place.

So where does this leave an atheist who wishes to use the Law of Nature as a foundation for their moral code?  Unfortunately, without a leg to stand on.

Atheism, Evangelism, Foundations for Atheist Morality, Law of Nature

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part IV

Over the last few weeks, our series “Foundations for Atheist Morality” has examined the argument that a universal law can be obtained through nature without the need for a universal lawgiver.  We’ve looked at evidence in favor of this view as well as some of the unpleasant moral implications – especially in regard to human reproduction.  Last week, we concluded with the view that allowing “natural selection” to work within the human race as it does within various animal species leads to an unfortunate state of apathy in which we do nothing to intervene for the sake of protecting or preserving those entities which nature has “selected out”.  This week, we’ll explore the implications that this apathetic view has for modern medicine and all those who benefit from it.

I think that most of us will admit that this is, indeed, a tricky issue.  After all, modern medicine has the ability to restore the constitution of those who, except for a minor infection or a broken bone, would be as fit as anyone else.  But it also has the ability to forestall or prevent the deaths of those facing more severe ailments.  Ask those who have contended with cancer, are battling with HIV/AIDS, or merely require the life-sustaining force of portable oxygen and you’ll find more than a few expressions of gratitude for the technologies which have helped them cling to life.  Yet in a world in which morality is determined by Natural Law, is it actually ethical to assist those who fall into this latter category?

If the “unguided” purpose of nature is to preserve individual species in viable forms, our answer must be a resounding “no”; such people may be considered to be “selected-out” of the system.  Philosophers have been quick to point out the benefits of such natural selection:

  • The lower population which results from natural selection leads to less competition for the resources necessary to our survival.
  • Natural selection ensures more efficient use of these resources, since they are distributed amongst the fittest members of society rather than being wasted upon those who consume, but do not give back.
  • The survival of only the fittest ensures that future offspring will be less likely to carry harmful genetic mutations like sickle-cell anemia, hereditary deformities, or predispositions towards the development of diseases like diabetes and cancer.
  • Likewise, natural selection plays an important role in weeding out those who suffer mental disorders, since those suffering such handicaps are often incapable of surviving on their own without the intervention of others.

That this picture is a frightful one is undoubted.  As humans, we tend to judge the ability of an individual to contribute to society based upon much more than their just their physical or mental abilities.  Yet nature doesn’t.  Where we see the many ways in which we gain wisdom from the elderly or learn fortitude and perseverance from those who suffer from physical or mental disabilities, nature “sees” an inefficient use of its resources.  Such people are “selected-out”.

This leads to an important question.  If nature, herself, would remove such people from the gene pool, what happens when human beings make the choice to forego the preservation of life and help her on her way?  And is such assistance justified by Natural Law or is it stretching the principle too far?  We’ll examine these issues next week, but in the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment box below!