It seems yet another pastor wants to try a new take on the old – oh so old – argument that you can’t be moral without god. Pastor Rick Henderson published an opinion piece on Huffington Post that’s just a treasure trove of logical fallacies. He throws down the gloves right off the bat with the provocative title, “Why there’s no such thing as a good atheist.” I know I’m supposed let a title like that throw me off balance before I even begin reading. As someone who’s used this very tactic, I can appreciate its effectiveness, even when I’m the intended target. He’s throwing down the gauntlet, and I will gladly pick it up. Unfortunately, a strong start is pretty much all the article has… Let’s dig in, shall we?
Right from the beginning Henderson delves into an impressive level of presumption. The very first paragraph says:
“You clicked on this post for one of two reasons. Either you’re hoping that I’m right or you know that I’m wrong. For those of you who are eager to pierce me with your wit and crush my pre-modern mind, allow me to issue a challenge. I contend that any response you make will only prove my case.”
Since our friend begins by asserting he my very motivations for reading his article, he’s wrong before he even got going. The arrogance of it all… Actually, I searched for his article because I heard about it on last week’s episode of Ask an Atheist, and wanted to read the absurdity for myself. I am, however, eager to pierce him with my wit, though I would never be so condescending as to claim he has a pre-modern mind – just a misguided one.
Am I on the defensive yet? Am I angry? No… not quite. A little irritated by his tone, perhaps. He has succeeded in getting my attention, though. I’m curious to hear these airtight arguments are that suggest I’m incapable of goodness.
After a short bit defining the term “worldview” that I don’t object to enough to respond to, he asserts that atheists all share the same “fundamental beliefs” about how the universe works. These beliefs he defines as follows:
“1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.”
In short, this is not a person.
It’s impressive how Henderson can be so incredibly right and incredibly wrong at the same time. Many atheists, myself included, accept these statements as fairly accurate. However, he implies that these statements define the atheist worldview, and nothing could be further from the truth. The term “atheist” has a very simple meaning: “no god.” If someone doesn’t believe in god, they’re atheist – whether or not they want to be associated with that word. There are plenty of atheists who believe in all sorts of woo, spirituality, and non-scientific views. So long as they don’t believe in god, they’re still atheists.
However, for the purposes of this post, I’ll cede that as more of a semantical difference and move on. What I won’t cede, though, is his next statement.
“Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”
This is where Henderson pulls his first trick. See, I accept his previous assertion that the universe itself has no will or intention. But here he sneaks the added caveat that if the universe (or god) doesn’t give meaning to the world, then the world cannot have meaning. From a christian perspective, all standards exist because god exists. Without god as an absolute there is nothing by which we can compare. Henderson tries to apply that same standard to atheists, but it doesn’t fit.
From the atheist’s perspective, just because something doesn’t have universal meaning doesn’t indicate it is without meaning of any sort. On the contrary, we as humans supply meaning ourselves. It’s of no import to a black hole in another galaxy on the far side of the universe if my niece made me laugh the other day, but that doesn’t change the fact that it means the world to me.
Which brings us to the crux of Henderson’s argument. By smuggling the idea that without a universal standard for morality, there can be no standard for morality at all, he lays down the faulty foundation to make the following pronouncement:
“A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.”
See what he did there? He makes the false assumption that his standards and definitions apply universally. Earlier he said that any response to his argument would only prove his case, but that would only be true if we accept the premises – both spoken and unspoken – that he’s working from. What he wants me to accept is that if there is no objective (translation: god-given) morality, then there is no morality at all.
I reject that premise. Morality is the code that we as a society agree to live by. If there were an objective morality, then only one code would work, but that’s just not the case. What is seen as perfectly acceptable in one society is seen as abhorrent in another. Sometimes morals evolve even within a single society. It was once seen as perfectly acceptable in the U.S. to own slaves, and now the very idea is repulsive and offensive.
Once this was seen as wholesome entertainment.
As a bit of an aside, Henderson provides a few quotes from the likes of Richard Dawkins to support his point that atheists are incapable of accepting any form of morality because the universe doesn’t. These quotes are so badly misunderstood by him, though, that I won’t even dignify them with a response.
Next, he tries to throw atheists a bone (with which he smuggles the unspoken supposition that if we abide by a moral code, we’re no longer atheists) by telling us that we’re not actually terrible, hateful, and immoral people. Hey, thanks! But that only means we’re contradicting our previous claims. He’s even kind enough to explain the two reasons for this contradiction. The first is that we either socially or biologically evolved morality. Shockingly, there’s even evidence for that. But in classic Henderson style, he promptly misinterprets the very evidence he uses.
“If this were true, for any claim to be moral, it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children.”
See the mistake there? Henderson first suggests that atheists believe morality is evolutionarily based, then tries to equate evolution and morality. By blending the two ideas, he suggests what might be acceptable in an evolutionary sense should therefore be moral. According to his misinterpretation of evolution, anything that helps the species is inherently moral. But evolution itself has no morality. Evolution just describes how species grow, thrive, and change over the years. And while survival is a key component, that doesn’t establish a moral value on a species survival. Evolution doesn’t care which species survives. It has neither will nor preference. It is just the mechanic by which species change over time.
Pictured: Henderson’s debating techniques.
If evolution was responsible for the development of morals, however, that would only explain where they came from, not how they are applied. Morals are based in empathy. Our brains have developed in such a way that they physically react to the suffering of others. Unfortunately, our brains have also developed to be affected more by the suffering of those close to us. We separate the world in to groups of “us” and “them”. The amazing thing is that we are capable of consciously changing which category someone belongs in. As this video brilliantly explains, at first those in the “us” category were only families or tribes. Then they expanded “us” to include regions and even nations. We can choose to expand the “us” group to include everyone (which, incidentally, is what my wife suggests Jesus was trying to teach us).
If morality and natural selection were the same, then Henderson’s argument might hold water. Unfortunately for him, though, he complete misunderstood the correlation between the two. Natural selection is a cruel, brutish, and wholly unpleasant process, and I can’t imagine anybody would consider it a moral system. It only describes the way the world came to look how it does. We, as humans, with our empathetic brains, can choose to act in ways that cause less suffering. That’s morality.
Henderson’s entire premise is wrong here, but still he wants to build his straw man bigger and bigger.
“Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.”
He continues to assert his false assumption that what’s good for evolution and what is moral are equivalent. He’s also sneaking a little change in here, too. You’ll notice earlier that he said, “killing mentally handicapped children,” but now that’s been changed to, “torture diseased children.” It’s almost as if he’s trying to trick us into saying the most terrible thing is morally justified. You have to watch his article carefully, because he sees no problem changing the rules when you’re not looking.
I also find it interesting that Henderson uses the example of murdered children and rape to show morality turned on its head. I can’t think of a single example of an atheist suggesting such a thing is moral, but the Bible certainly suggests that both infanticide and rape can be moral.
Believe it or not, this may not be the moral guide you think it is.
Henderson then goes on about how morality must have evolved to protect societies, and therefore any change to society would be evil. He tries to make the argument that by such logic fighting for marriage equality is an immoral act. It’s all set up as some sort of “gotcha” situation, but, as we’ve already discussed, the entire foundation of this premise is wrong, so it isn’t worth addressing.
On to the second way atheists try to justify their morals, according to the pastor. Namely, that, “Morality is logical.” He insists, though, that any atheist who takes this stance begins the argument already having lost. As he puts it:
“Morality may be logical, but logic does not equate to morality. The only way to make a logical moral argument is to presuppose morality and meaning to start with. Try making a logical argument that slavery is wrong without presupposing morality. It is impossible. A woman wrote to me with her attempt at doing just that. Her claim was that slavery is logically wrong because it diminishes other human beings. The problem is that that argument presupposes human dignity. In the strict framework of atheism outlined above, what reason is there to ever assume human dignity?”
Funny. Once again, it’s not the atheists who are presupposing anything. That little trick is left to the apologists. But even his logic here isn’t good. As I’ve stated earlier, morality is based in empathy. Empathy concludes that suffering is bad, therefore anything that causes more suffering is itself bad. Slavery, by definition, causes suffering, therefore it’s bad. This is not hard stuff here, pastor. The, “strict framework of atheism outlined above,” is a broken framework that’s easy to argue against. But those straw men don’t live in the real world.
Henderson’s conclusion posits the following question:
”How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true?”
As we’ve seen time and time again, he is incapable of asking a simple question without attaching a false assumption to it. Atheists don’t assume objective meaning and morality exist. On the contrary, we reject that there is any objective standard. But the lack of objective standard does not invalidate all standards. Just because god or the universe or whatever isn’t there to fulfill some platonic ideal doesn’t mean we can’t find some sense or meaning ourselves.
Then we get to my favorite line in the entire article:
“One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself — becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question.”
In what way could this possibly describe atheism? It doesn’t. There is no outside crutch to an atheistic worldview, only what we can see and prove. A religious viewpoint, however, specifically appeals to an answer outside itself. That’s the whole purpose of religion. We cannot find the answers ourselves, therefore we must go outside what we can know and assume a greater power than us. What is that, if not a crutch?
This is a metaphor, but not for my worldview.
So, Pastor Henderson, I ask you to try laying down your crutch. Put away your straw men and your appeals to authority. Try to give the world an honest look without the presuppositions or the god glasses. Perhaps you might notice that things make a lot more sense over here than you ever could’ve imagined.