Sunday, November 29, 2009

Michael Bauman on the New Atheists and the Moral Law

My good friend (and Evangelical Protestant), Michael Bauman (Professor of Theology & Culture at Hillsdale College) has published a terrific essay on his website, "No God, No Good: The New Atheism's Futile Quest for Morality, or Hitchens', Harris' and Dawkins' Practice of Stolen Concepts." Here's an excerpt:
One often hears atheists assert that the moral virtues are those virtues without which we humans beings cannot, and do not, flourish because they are rooted in human nature. One also sometimes hears atheists assert that moral virtues are those virtues that enjoy a consensus that spans culture, country, and century, something like the Tao described at the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. That moral values described or derived in either of these two ways are not truly moral values, much less moral absolutes, is the burden of this brief essay.

First, atheist values determined either by human flourishing or by human nature are not truly right or wrong, not properly moral absolutes; they are pragmatism or utilitarianism masquerading as good and coƶpting the language of virtue and of “oughtness,” to which they have no philosophical or (especially) theological claim...

If, as atheists insist, human nature arose as the chance result of a mindless evolutionary process, a process behind which exists no divine mind and no divine plan, then moral absolutes disappear. That is, if human nature is the result of evolutionary accident (time, plus matter, plus chance), and if right and wrong arise solely from human nature, then right and wrong are accidents, not moral absolutes. Biological chance, evolutionary accident, cannot serve as the philosophically proper foundation for right and wrong; it is their undoing. If human nature and human mind are the unintentional outcome of the chance collocation of atoms and of the mindless and unpredictable meanderings of natural selection (in other words, if the human mind is a mere epiphenomenon contorting and disporting itself for a short while upon the face of physical matter), then we have no convincing reason -- and no metaphysical justification -- for trusting them as indicators of moral goodness; nor have we any real or enduring right and wrong....

That those actions which conduce to the flourishing of the most biologically innovative survivors of natural selection should be called "moral" merely confuses with right and wrong those actions that seem to the atheists of that species to permit that species to flourish at one particular point in its evolution. If in the atheistic worldview species evolve, then the species whose flourishing they appoint as the arbiter of morality was sufficiently different in its earlier stages of development from what it is now, and will be likely be sufficiently different in its later stages of development, that those means by which it now flourishes might be significantly different both from what they once were and might eventually become. We simply do not know. But whatever those unknown facts were in the past and will be in the future, the atheist must endorse them as moral, however grotesque and wicked they might actually be. If so, what are now called right and wrong in the atheist view are not moral absolutes, but simply that set of actions perceived to be most efficient at the moment. What set of actions will be so perceived in the distant future is still an open question, a question that might receive a starkly different answer then than either it now does or previously did, but which the atheist system of thought must nevertheless consider morally correct and universally binding if it is to employ the language of moral absolutes. In short, to our previous charges of species bigotry and biological relativism we now must add time relativism and moral contradiction -- but not moral absolutes. The new atheists cannot find metaphysical grounding for their claims to morality. They cannot talk about how religion ruins everything because the word "ruins" implies a morality not metaphysically available in the atheist worldview. They can say they do not like what religion does, and that they prefer something else. But they can raise no truly moral objection....

The un-Godded worldview does not, and cannot, yield moral oughtness. It yields only competing sets of preferences to which some atheists unjustifiably try to attach the language of oughtness. Other more astute atheists refuse to make that mistake. On that point those more astute and consistent atheists deserve full credit because they understand that no atheistic explanation of morality has the metaphysical rootedness necessary for moral absolutes. Their worldview precludes it. They know that when other more inconsistent atheists want to hold onto atheism and to avail themselves of the language of oughtness, they fall afoul of what atheist Ayn Rand called the error of stolen concepts: They employ ideas and categories to which their system has no metaphysical access. Atheists who invoke morality are idea thieves.

Put differently, it makes all the difference in the world whether we say mind came from matter or matter came from mind. Because ideas have consequences, if you choose the former, you cut yourself off from the consequences that attach solely to the latter. One of those lost consequences is the metaphysical rootedness necessary for moral absolutes, that is, for a morality that rises above the level of mere preference.

You can read the whole thing here:

2 comments:

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I hope Michael Bauman finds the time to write about the "Protestant Sanhedrin" who are deeply unhappy with the Manhattan Declaration and with the Protestants who signed and supported it.

P.S. I saw your comment to Daryl in this rebuttal by Mark Olson to Frank Turk. It doesn't look like he'll respond to it.

I'm getting clobbered over there. Defend myself against baseless charges and I still come out in the short end. Meanwhile, those who are making the baseless strawman charges like Frank Turk get a free pass. It's so dishonest that I'm disgusted.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

BTW, I think when someone edits their comment after you responded to the original says something.