Atheists of the ideological type that might be described as “progressive” or “liberal” have a problem. In general, they are extremely moralistic and self-righteous. Read their articles, visit their blogs, or just follow one of them on Twitter for a while, and you’ll see what I mean. Take New Atheist kingpin Richard Dawkins, for example. In the last week alone he has tweeted anathemas against sexists, racists, animal abusers, and female genital mutilators. The problem with this is that atheists lack any legitimate basis for applying their moral judgments to anyone. As political philosopher Michael Rosen puts it, their tacit assumption of such legitimacy amounts to “religion lite.”
Rosen’s comment appeared in a review of American philosopher, legal scholar, and liberal atheist Ronald Dworkin’s book, Religion Without God, that recently appeared in The Nation. Noting that Dworkin accepted “the full, independent reality of value,” Rosen, himself a liberal atheist, points out that there is a problem with this claim. There is no more evidence for it than there is for the existence of God. He sums up the implications in the final paragraph of his review:
I cannot see that describing the target of our disagreements about value as existing in a fully independent, objective realm is anything other than religion lite: the religious idea of eternal goodness without the miraculous elements of omnipotent divine will and personal immortality. Yet I am one with Dworkin in thinking that even a fully secular individual should contemplate the universe not just with curiosity and wonder but with reverence and gratitude. Still, behind me I hear a voice – a Nietzschean one, perhaps – that tells me that what Dworkin and I are looking at is no more than a penumbra, the few rays that remain in the sky after the sun of revealed religion has set. If that is so, then the coming night may be dark indeed.
This sums up the dilemma of the liberal atheist very nicely. They want to continue sitting comfortably on a branch they have just sawed off. Religious believers notice this immediately and laugh, with good reason. the world view of the modern liberal may well turn out to be as dangerous as that of any religious fanatic, but at the same time it’s a joke. It is as moralistic as that of the most self-righteous Pharisee, or the most pious Puritan, utterly dependent on the existence in an “independent, objective realm” of Good, Evil, and Rights to have any semblance of rationality, but lacking any evidence or rational basis for belief in such mirages. The continuing stream of news from the realm of science, which good liberals must at least pretend to respect, to the effect that the ultimate basis for morality may be found in the evolved behavioral predispositions of an animal species with a particularly large brain has done nothing to help matters. All this is happening at a time when the modern incarnation of the liberal can hardly engage in a rational debate without constantly falling back on the illusion of moral superiority as his inevitable ultima ratio. No wonder Rosen senses the approach of darkness for liberal atheists. What happens when the very basis of the ultima ratio disappears?
But what of the rest of us? Are dark times approaching for us as well? There might be a nuclear holocaust tomorrow for all I know. However, no matter what the future brings, I like our chances of survival better if we base our decisions on what is true rather than on what is false. It may be you think that a chaotic world of moral relativism is inevitable if there is no objective Good and Evil. It may be you think human beings will lose their dignity if there is no God. It may be that you think that tyranny and oppression will be our lot if there are no objective Rights. True or not, one thing is certain. None of these fears will cause Good, Evil, God, or Rights to magically pop into existence, independent of the minds that dream them up. You may not be happy about reality, but it will stubbornly persist in being real in spite of you.
Such fears are also unrealistic. Moral relativism is the ground state of living things. It doesn’t work for a social species like ours. If every one of us tried to monopolize all the available resources within his grasp at the cost of everyone else, the chances that any given individual would survive and reproduce would be drastically reduced. Therefore, morality. It exists because, from an evolutionary perspective, it works. It will continue to function just as it always has, even if 100,000 philosophers shout at the top of their lungs that it’s irrational. Of course it is, but it doesn’t matter. We will continue to perceive the good and evil that seem so real to our imaginations as absolutes. It is our nature to do so, and it will only be possible for us to override that nature by an act of will. When it comes to regulating our social interactions, morality is the only game in town. There is no viable substitute. Within certain limits, of course, there is a great deal of flexibility in exactly what these “absolutes” will be. Assuming we value the survival of our species, we would do well to choose them wisely, and limit their scope to the bare necessities.
It will never be possible to ignore human moral emotions with impunity. They aren’t going anywhere, and “rational” arguments will never really be rational unless they are taken into account. That said, it seems obvious that decisions regarding the optimum minimum wage, how we should react to the situation in Ukraine, and what the law should be regarding corporations were not contemplated by Mother Nature when she devised morality. Perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to apply our limited powers of reason to deciding such matters, rather than just allowing ourselves to be carried along on a tide of moral emotions. Those among us who invariably react to those whose opinions differ from their own in such matters with outrage and virtuous indignation are not only tiresome, but irrational. The liberal atheists may sense the darkness as the façade of their cherished righteousness collapses around them. The rest of us, however, can breathe a sigh of relief.