Stealing from God: Morality, Part 2

As expected, Turek criticizes atheists for expressing moral opinions, for on his view that’s inconsistent with atheism. If without God there can be no objective morality, then on what basis do atheists condemn wrongs? Unless, of course, they are once again "stealing from God."

Turek begins his case by pointing out that in the absence of an afterlife, there is no ultimate justice. As Richard Dawkins (who agrees with this part of the argument) put it, “in a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice.” But if there’s no justice, Turek reasons, then neither is there any injustice — so how can Dawkins criticize, say, the actions of pedophile priests?

This, of course, is yet another example of Turek’s poor reasoning. He interprets Dawkins as claiming that the concept of justice has no application, when what Dawkins is in fact saying is that the world is ultimately unjust: We cannot expect good people to be rewarded and evil doers punished. And that has no bearing whatsoever on the issue of moral objectivity.

But supposing one does in fact deny the existence of objective moral principles: Is it inconsistent in that case to approve of certain things and disapprove of others, as Turek and so many others insist? Is it true that on the atheist view, the murder of a child has “no more moral significance than wearing white after Labor Day,” and that as a nonbeliever, “you need to suppress your most basic moral intuitions”? Not at all. That morality is not objective in no way implies that we do not have moral views, or that it is illegitimate to have them. I don’t believe in objective moral principles, but that doesn’t stop me from having opinions as to what should or shouldn’t be done.

The really strange thing about Turek’s overall argument is that, after claiming that on atheism nothing can be right or wrong, he goes on to describe the morality that he believes in fact follows from the Darwinian worldview — which of course is the view held by just about every atheist:

“If you follow the Darwinian principles consistently, you get the kind of moral outworking that [philosopher] James Rachels suggests.”

But if according to atheism there are no moral principles, as Turek maintains, then there cannot be any principles on an atheistic Darwinian perspective. Turek is confused once again. Even worse, he misrepresents Rachels’s views so as to make them look really bad. He quotes the following passage from Rachels' Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, claiming that the doctrine being discussed is the Darwinian one:

“What are we to say about [certain brain-damaged individuals]? The natural conclusion, according to the doctrine we are considering, would be that their status is that of mere animals. And perhaps we should go on to conclude that they may be used as non-human animals are used — perhaps as laboratory subjects, or as food?”

Turek then asks his readers if they think he is “making this up,” adding: “Who could believe there’s nothing really wrong with such horrible acts? Atheists. [And] not just Richard Dawkins and James Rachels…”

I’m sure Turek’s readers were convinced more than ever of the evils that atheism and Darwin’s theory lead to. And yet Turek is in fact — whether intentionally or not — “making this up”! The doctrine that Rachels is considering in the above passage is not Darwinism at all, but rather “the idea that humans are in a special moral category because they are rational, autonomous agents” — a view that Rachels rejects in part because it leads to the above consequence! And Turek either knew this, in which case he is lying (in a chapter on morality, no less), or he could easily have checked by reading the two preceding pages (184-186) in Rachels’ book, in which case he was negligent (which also carries with it moral culpability).

Near the end of his chapter, Turek mentions that he often asks atheists, “If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?” He insists that to answer “no,” as many do, is entirely unreasonable. But it isn’t. To be a Christian isn’t merely to believe in the truth of its doctrines. After all, the devil and his minions presumably believe in the Jesus story, yet aren't part of the flock. To be a Christian, one also has to live in accordance with its doctrines. It follows that anyone who has moral objections to the religion can’t be a Christian, even if they come to the conclusion that the story is true. Turek, however, is so blinded by his assumption that God is the basis of morality that it never occurs to him that someone might have moral reasons for disagreeing.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.