The first time I heard Phillip Jensen speak was at a mission at Sydney University in the mid 1980s.1 The title of the mission, “Knowing God,” was engaging enough. The title of Phillip’s message, however, was intriguing and provocative: “The Stupidity of Atheism.” My impression, then, to borrow words once used of the great Scottish Reformer, John Knox, was that whilst “others snipped the branches, this man strikes at the root.” This has been the courageous character of Phillip’s ministry for the last half century: like a good surgeon he routinely cuts straight to heart of the matter in order to excise the cancer of unbelief in all its various forms.
In recent years, both in his preaching and in his writing (particularly his weekly “From the Dean”), Phillip has been particularly keen to expose the moral implications (indeed, moral vacuity) of atheism.2 This essay explores this theme—firstly, by looking at a range of atheist admissions that if atheism is true, then objective morality is an illusion and, secondly, by examining a number of atheist attempts to ground objective morality in evolutionary naturalism. In the final part of this essay I will briefly argue that the failure of these attempts not only strengthens the case for theism, but that absolute morality requires the existence of the God of the Bible.
It ought to be clear, then, that the question I’m pursuing is not: Can atheists behave morally? Evidently, many do. Nor is it: Can atheists formulate ethical systems? Clearly, many have. Nor is it the vexed question of whether secular societies are more “moral” than religious ones.3 The question is simply whether there can be such a thing as “objective morality“ without God.4 In the words of the late “father of secular humanism,” Paul Kurtz: “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”5
1. Atheist Admissions
A long string of atheistic philosophers have answered Kurtz’s question with a resounding “Yes”: morality is illusory. To begin with one recent example, Joel Marks, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, puts the issues simply and succinctly:
[T]he religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.6
The roots of such thinking, at least in the modern period, can be readily traced back to the nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Whilst it is true that Nietzsche didn’t completely reject the possibility of a kind of “higher morality” that would guide the actions of “higher men”, he was dismissive of all universal and transcendent ethical systems—whether grounded in the natural world, human psychology or a Divine Being. All such systems, in Nietzsche’s thought, are merely man-made customs, for “there are no moral facts at all. Moral judgement has this in common with religious judgement, that it believes in realities which do not exist.”7
The ethical consequence of this is that the distinction between good and evil is neither absolute, nor objective, but relative, arbitrary and ultimately illusory. As Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morals:
One has taken the value of these “values” as given, as factual, as beyond all question; one has hitherto never doubted or hesitated in the slightest degree in supposing “the good man” to be of greater value than “the evil man,” of greater value in the sense of furthering the advancement and prosperity of man in general. . . . But what if the reverse were true?8
Nietzsche’s answer to this question is that “everything evil, terrible, tyrannical in man, everything in him that is kin to beasts of prey and serpents, serves the enhancement of the species “man” as much as its opposite does.”9 Such a conclusion is necessary, for humanity is, in the final analysis, driven by an impersonal, irrational and decidedly amoral “will to power.” As Nietzsche expressed it in Beyond Good and Evil:
[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body . . . will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant—not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power. . . . “Exploitation” . . . belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life.10
The upshot of such a view of human “progress” is complete moral meaninglessness. Nietzsche confessed as much in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Over all things stands the sky ‘Accident,’ the sky ‘Innocence,’ the sky ‘Chance,’ the sky ‘Mischief.’”11 The ethical price for such an admission, however, is exceedingly high. For, as Arthur Holmes points out, “[i]f nothing in life has meaning, no moral interpretation of the world can survive. Nihilism means that every ordered world we posit will fail; that every unchanging being is a deception, psychologically based and therefore nothing; that science has it all wrong; that both natural and economic order are anarchy; that history is blind fate.”12
While nowhere near as relentless as Nietzsche in following the logic of his own position, and finally articulating a view more akin to classical utilitarianism, a remarkably similar end point was reached by the British logician, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970). In what is arguably his best-known essay, “A Man’s Free Worship” (1903), he wrote:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.13
But built to what end? By what rule? In his Autobiography, Russell concedes that there is no such thing as ethical knowledge, and that (following Hume) “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” Consequently, ethical theories cannot appeal to objective moral facts, but only to subjective emotions and feelings. He thus admits “the impossibility of reconciling ethical feelings with ethical doctrines”, and that ethics is “reducible to politics in the last analysis.”14
Numerous other voices may be added to those of Nietzsche and Russell. For example, Canadian atheistic philosopher, Kai Nielson, despite a valiant attempt to construct a utilitarian ethic without God, eventually concludes his quest as follows:
We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons, unhoodwinked by myth or ideology, need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.15
Indeed, “the very concept of moral obligation”, wrote the atheistic ethicist, Richard Taylor, is “unintelligible apart from the idea of God.”16 In other words, the spectre of nihilism lurks behind every form of ethical naturalism.17 This is why Alex Rosenberg (professor of philosophy at Duke University) happily wears the label “nihilist” and argues that all honest atheists should do the same. Lest any uncertainty remain about what this means for morality, Rosenberg spells out the implications:
Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required. Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgements are right, but that they are all wrong. More exactly, it claims they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.” That too, is untenable nonsense.
Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value. . . . Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself.”18
Our question, then, would seem to have been answered clearly and unequivocally by a great cloud of atheistic witnesses. There can be no “objective morality” without God. In short, notwithstanding Rosenberg’s comment above, Dostoyevsky was surely right: “without God . . . everything is permitted.”19
2. Atheist Delusions
But not so fast. Even Rosenberg can’t resist trying to find a silver lining to the nihilistic cloud. For despite affirming the meaninglessness of moral judgments, he yet believes “[t]here is good reason to think that there is a moral core that is almost universal to almost all humans”.20 The “good reason” is one that both theists and atheists agree on: it’s what Bernard Ramm referred to as “the universally experienced phenomenon of the ought.”21 Of course, a theistic explanation for this phenomenon is off the table for Rosenberg. So the only other possible explanation is naturalistic evolution.22 But if that is so, how can it be anything other than illusory? Rosenberg answers as follows:
Natural selection can’t have been neutral on the core moralities of evolving human lineages. Whether biological or cultural, natural selection was relentlessly moving through the design space of alternative ways of treating other people, animals, and the human environment. . . . As with selection for everything else, the environment was filtering out variations in core morality that did not enhance hominin reproductive success well enough to survive as parts of core morality.23
Leaving aside the “intelligence” that Rosenberg paradoxically accords to natural selection, how does he account for moral disagreements on this model? These are the result of people embracing different “factual beliefs”.24 He even goes so far as to claim that the Nazis shared the same core morality as the millions they annihilated! Their problem, he avers, was that they suffered from false beliefs about their victims!25 But, thankfully, help is at hand: “scientism” (the belief that all facts—including moral ones—are determined by physical facts) can sort all this out and set us straight.26 So, Rosenberg assures us, we have nothing to fear from (what he terms) “nice nihilism.”27
If the utter naïveté of such a conclusion is not already apparent, one need only look at the history of 19th century Russian nihilism, which was based on a combination of utilitarianism (the doctrine that the value of anything is determined solely by its utility) and scientific rationalism (the doctrine that science can answer all questions and cure all social problems) to see where such a philosophy can lead and the kind of social and political chaos it can create.28 Indeed, the effects of nihilism can be traced through the history of anarchism, to the rise of modern terrorism, and on to such philosophical trends as existentialism and deconstructionism.29 Moreover, although Nietzsche is known to have distanced himself from the anti-Semitism of his mentor, Richard Wagner, can Rosenberg really be unaware of Hitler’s reliance on Nietzsche’s philosophy or the Nazis’ use of Nietzsche’s writings in their propaganda?30
Historical connections aside, the fundamental problem with Rosenberg’s proposal is its sheer incoherence. In fact, he knows it and can’t, in the end, let himself get away with it. His commitment to naturalism drives him to admit that “[o]ur core morality isn’t true, right, correct, and neither is any other. Nature just seduced us into thinking it’s right.”31 In other words, ultimately there are no “moral facts” and therefore we must “give up the idea that core morality is true in any sense.”32 Human beings may be incurably moral, but all we finally have, as Jean-Paul Sartre saw, is “the bare valueless fact of existence.”33 Objective morality, therefore, is an illusion.
Nevertheless, the neuroscientist cum philosopher, Sam Harris, is unwilling to concede the point. In fact, he claims he has little time for “the overeducated atheistic moral nihilist” who refuses to regard atrocities like female genital mutilation as being objectively wrong.34 So how does he build his case? In a manner akin to Rosenberg, Harris begins by arguing that homo sapiens have developed and refined a sort of “herd morality” that effectively serves to perpetuate our species. But he is aware that this doesn’t provide a foundation for affirming objective moral values. For if atheism is true, we are (as Dawkins has famously put it) “machines for propagating DNA”,35 and machines, needless to say, do not have ethical obligations!
What, then, is Harris’s solution to the “value problem” inherent in his worldview? Typical of consequentialist approaches to ethics, he simply redefines the terms “good” and “evil” in a transparently non-moral way: “good” is that which supports the flourishing of conscious creatures, “evil” is that which does not.36 “Questions about values”, then, “are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”37 What’s more, because human well-being depends entirely on states of the human brain, it can be measured neuro-scientifically.38 In such a way, Harris believes, science can provide objective answers to our moral questions.39
The problems with Harris’s proposal are essentially the same as those that afflict all forms of ethical naturalism. First of all, he runs blithely into the “Is-Ought Problem” (otherwise known as “the naturalistic fallacy”). As David Hume (1711–1776) long ago pointed out, because there is an epistemological chasm between every “is” and every “ought” (often called “Hume’s law” or “Hume’s guillotine”), we cannot coherently move from descriptive statements (about what is) to prescriptive ones (about what we ought to do). Therefore, what is usually happening when people claim that a scientific “is” entails a moral “ought” is that they’ve smuggled in values from somewhere else.40 That doesn’t mean that science can tell us nothing about human flourishing. Clearly it can—just as it can tell us about the flourishing of cane toads and cancer cells! There’s just no “ought” embedded in such findings. To assume an inherent bridge between “brute facts” and ethical values is to fall headlong into the naturalistic fallacy.
A second set of problems may be highlighted by the following questions: What exactly is well-being? What is the right way to measure it? How is it to be maximized? Why should it be maximized? Whose well-being matters most? Does the well-being of the individual trump that of the group? Or is some kind of aggregate the ideal? If the former, who counts as an individual—human beings only or animals too? If the latter, are human beings more important than animals? Are some human beings more important than others?41 Most of these questions, on principle, cannot be answered by scientific means. Harris concedes this, yet insists that “none, however, proves that there are no right or wrong answers to questions of human and animal wellbeing.”42
Where, then, might such answers be found? In the end, Harris is forced to appeal to “intuitions”. This enables him to simply assert that “we are right” to “care more about creatures that can experience a greater range of suffering and happiness . . . because suffering and happiness (defined in the widest possible sense) are all that can be cared about.”43 But what is the ontological basis for such intuitions? Why “ought” we to care for others? Indeed, why not pursue the kind of ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand?44 More importantly, why, in an atheistic universe, would anyone have a “moral obligation” to maximize anyone’s (or even their own) well-being?
Harris’s atheism can provide him with no answers. For if the “laws” of the universe are impersonal and the existence of conscious creatures is just the accidental byproduct of some chance combination of mindless mutation and natural selection, then Dawkins’s conclusion cannot be gainsaid: “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”45 Thus, concludes William Lane Craig:
Harris has failed to solve the “value problem.” He has not provided any justification or explanation of why, on atheism, objective moral values would exist at all. His so-called solution is just a semantic trick of providing an arbitrary and idiosyncratic redefinition of the words “good” and “evil” in nonmoral terms.46
3. The Folly of Atheism
So is objective morality an illusion? Are our moral intuitions utterly groundless at the end of the day? Given an atheistic evolutionary framework, the philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, believes such a conclusion is unavoidable. He writes:
The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation, no less than our hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory.47
This conclusion, however, is unacceptable to the vast majority of secularists, and (as we’ve seen) even some of atheism’s most outspoken proponents are determined to account for their moral intuitions in some objective, if not absolute, way. This is an odd state of affairs and places us at a unique point in history. As Tim Keller suggests: “our culture differs from all the others that have gone before. People still have strong moral convictions, but unlike people in other times and places, they don’t have any viable basis for why they find some things to be evil and other things good. It’s almost like their moral intuitions are free-floating in mid-air—far off the ground.”48
So how can an atheist escape the net of ethical relativism, when moral experience is meaningless without an objective moral order and an objective moral order is meaningless without God? The answer is simple: abandon atheism and accept that only theism can satisfactorily account for such intuitions and anchor them in an objective and absolute moral reality.49 Ludwig Wittgenstein saw this clearly: “Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural.”50 Indeed every attempt to maintain both morality and atheism is simply an exercise in intellectual incoherence. So there’s the choice: maintain atheism and embrace amorality or maintain morality and embrace theism.
But not just any kind of theism. As John Frame rightly argues, “we must leave the realm of impersonal principles and turn to the realm of persons”, for obligations only arise “in the context of interpersonal relationships.”51 What’s more, if only persons can be moral authorities, then only an absolute person can be an absolute moral authority. Frame puts it like this: “Moral standards . . . presuppose absolute moral standards, which in turn presuppose the existence of an absolute personality.”52 In short, objective morality requires the existence of a God who is necessary, personal, powerful and good, and the only God who truly fits this bill is the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God of the Bible.53
What this means, in theological terms, is that human moral experience is part of God’s general revelation (Rom. 2:14–15). It has, therefore, the same purpose and effect as human cosmological experience: it reveals God sufficiently so as to leave people without excuse (Rom. 1:19–20, 32).54 If there is a difference between the two, it is, as Alfred Taylor long ago observed, that “[i]n Nature we at best see God under a disguise so heavy that it allows us to discern little more than that someone is there; within our own moral life we see Him with the mask, so to say, half-fallen off.”55
This further highlights the ultimate folly of atheism—not simply it’s philosophical incoherence or failure to follow where the chain of evidence leads, but its denial of ultimate moral reality, the reality of God himself. Worse still, it produces a hardness to God’s special revelation: especially to the fact that there will come a day when, through Jesus Christ, God will judge the secrets of all and righteously and impartially repay each person according to what they have done (Rom. 2:5–6, 16). Most tragic of all, it leads to a rejection of the only way for both brazen sinners and sanctimonious hypocrites to be saved from the wrath to come—that is, by turning to the one who died to procure our forgiveness and rose again to grant the free gift of eternal life to all those who believe in him: Jesus Christ.
It is this good news of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that Phillip Jensen has spent his life tirelessly and fearlessly proclaiming. For it is this gospel, and not our apologetic ingenuity, that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Nevertheless, exposing the folly of idolatry and unbelief clearly has its value, as is evidenced by apostolic practice (e.g., Acts 17:16–34) and as Phillip himself has very helpfully argued.56 It shuts off false alternatives and forces people to face facts. Phillip’s attacks on atheism, therefore, far from being arrogant or cruel, are the ‘wounds of a friend’ or (more accurately) the pleas of a fellow sinner who has found the ‘pearl of great price’ and so desires to share it with others that he is compelled to take every thought captive for Christ. For such a ministry and for setting such an example, we are in his debt.