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Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

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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. Like encountering a hustler on the streets of Vegas, the deck is stacked, and the odds are not in your favor.

Before our love fest continues, allow me to define an important term, "worldview." A worldview is your view of everything inside (and possibly outside) the universe: truth, religion, beauty, war, morality, Nickleback -- everything. Everybody has one.

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:

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.

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.

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.

For those of you who think you're about to light up this supposed straw man and raze me to the ground, consider the following:

"Modern science directly implies that there ... is no ultimate meaning for humans."
--William Provine

"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. ... DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music."
--Richard Dawkins

"No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history."
--Edward O. Wilson

Based on the nonnegotiable premises of atheism, these are the only logical conclusions. But I've never met an atheist who's managed to live this way. All the atheists I've known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality. How is this explained? In a Hail Mary-like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, two possible answers are launched.

1. Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution. This is a two-pronged attempt at justifying moral claims. First, a sense of morality evolved to ensure human survival. Much like an eye or tooth, it is necessary for the human race to continue. 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.

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.

Second, morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society's borders or endure longer than a society's existence.

Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code but the ones who intend to change it. This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral -- that is, until they become the majority and institute change. I suppose they then become moral, and traditionalists become immoral. But it's the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.

So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don't affirm a national religion. It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.

2. Morality is logical. Atheists who take this route start in a position of checkmate without realizing it. First, the temptation is to pervert this conversation into a debate about whether atheists can be moral. Of course they can. That is not the question. The question is how we make sense of moral claims if we play by the rules that atheism demands.

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?

All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views. The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points. So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.

Conclusion

Intelligent people ask serious questions. Serious questions deserve serious answers. There are few questions more serious than the one I'm asking. How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can't answer this question, it doesn't deserve you.

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. Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.

If your worldview can't makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it's not worth your allegiance. This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Whatever you believe. You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.