Sunday, 15 June 2008

Where the 'New Atheists' get it wrong

The assault by the New Atheists on religion has been splendid to watch, but incompletely conceived.  The likes of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and The End of Faith by Sam Harris have all contained courageous assaults on superstition, and between them they've helped put the superstitious on the back foot, but, says Greg Perkins, they've fallen short in important areas that religionists like Dinesh D'Souza have been able to exploit.

In the fourth in a series on The New Atheists, Perkins presents 'Why the New Atheists Can't Even Beat D'Souza: Morality and Life' saying,

How can people be moral without God? The 'New Atheists' stumble badly in debate against Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza when addressing issues such as this. In this article, I explain how their struggle flows from three patches of confusion that are widespread in secular thought -- confusions that actually prevent the pursuit of a truly objective, scientific approach to values and morality. This the last in a series of four pieces exploring key weaknesses in the New Atheists' philosophical foundation -- and illustrating how D'Souza wouldn't stand a snowball's chance against an Objectivist."

[Hat tip, Objectivist Blog Carnival at Rational Jenn's]

You see, the New Atheists are successful in pointing out that the morality of the Bible is appalling.  “Consider first God’s moral character, as revealed in the Bible," says Elizabeth Anderson, for example.

He routinely punishes people for the sins of others. He punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth, for Eve’s sin. He punishes all human beings by condemning them to labor, for Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16-18). He regrets his creation, and in a fit of pique, commits genocide and ecocide by flooding the earth (Gen. 6:7). He hardens Pharaoh’s heart against freeing the Israelites (Ex. 7:3), so as to provide the occasion for visiting plagues upon the Egyptians, who, as helpless subjects of a tyrant, had no part in Pharaoh’s decision. (So much for respecting free will, the standard justification for the existence of evil in the world.)”

And they're successful in pointing out that, as Dawkins says, even Christians "do not as a matter of fact derive [their] morals from scripture,"

or if we do, [they] pick and choose among the Scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty. But then [they too] must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits. A criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from Scripture itself, and is presumably available to all of us, whether we are religions or not.

But when it comes to deriving the actual source of morality, Dawkins and his colleagues fail abysmally.  The source of morality is not "innate." It lies not in our "feelings," or some innate "moral sense" or "social conscience."  Its source is not gurus or God, it's ...  well, read on:  Read my own contribution on the topic, or Perkins masterful contribution.


  1. you hear William Lane Craig on Nat Radio on Saturday...

  2. PC, I remember reading the January post you linked to twice at the time you posted it and I couldn't make head or tale of it. Morality comes from reality. I don't know what you are saying.

    For me, an athiest open to and still waiting for any tangible evidence of something devine, morality comes the simple observation that a) I am not special and therefore b) I do not have the right to do things to people around me without their consent, possibly impliedly given to me via social norms, and similarly them to me.

    I think this view is grounded in reason and certainly not any god. I simply cannot think of a reason in which my view on anything should be forcibly imposed on others.

    Does this fit in the PC framework, simple though it is?

  3. Matt B

    Seems like you are on a good track. Apply your idea a little further and it is clear that other people should not be doing things to you without your consent.

    OK so far, now comes a question.

    Why should other people not do things to you without your consent?

    The main reasons are to do with life and value. Seek the answers there.

    For example, consider your orignal point in another way. Ask; why should I not do things to other people without their consent? If you do things to them in the absence of their consent and they got pissed, what would happen to you? If you do things to other people without their consent (like say stealing from them), then it is very likely they will retaliate aginst you. That's not in your interests at all. It would likely mean that you would lose things of value to you and your progress through life would be severely hampered (actually your life may well be endangered in certain situations).

    Similarly, if other people do bad stuff to you, well then your retaliation would not be in their interests either. Not at all...

    In both cases all participants end up losing. That is against their better interests surely.

    Going further along the same line of thought and it soon becomes clear that in order to attain your goals and retain your values, what is required is a way of co-operating voluntarily with other people. For that to happen there has to be some recognitions of certain characteristics and application of certain behaviours. We can consider Individual Rights here...

    In the end, what you are facing is a necessity to treat people in the manner that is most advantageous to your life. That means you are going to want to collaborate or co-operate with some people while leaving the rest alone (and expecting the same from them).

    What is this we are doing? Well, it is leading to the establishment of a morality based on reality- on the fact of your own existence and self-interest.

    I'd submit that is where PC is directing our attentions.


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  5. the drunken watchman19 Jun 2008, 16:45:00

    well I dunno about that.....

    read "The Origins of Virtue" by Matt Ridley (Penguin. He convinced me that elements of morality are hardwired. That means 'innate' accoding to my dictionary.

    lets face it, even a native in an untouched PNG valley knows it's 'wrong' to kick an old sick woman in the guts. So he objectivesd this? figured it out 'rationally'? really?

  6. Watchman

    Ridley is wrong.

    Morality is not "hardwired" into your mind. You have choices between alternatives. You make decisions between alternatives. That process is volitional, not automatic.

    In order to make decisions you develop a moral code; a standard is selected upon which to measure alternatives. That process requires recognition and identification of certain facts of reality and thought about them. It means you must learn certain knowledge of reality and apply it. That is not an automatic. It requires an intellectual effort.

    Perhaps you may care to reflect on WHY your PNG native holds the action of kicking an old woman as wrong. HOW did he come to that conclusion exactly? Was he taught elements of morality by his mother when he was young? What is the code of conduct of the tribe and the other people around him? How wa he raised by his elders? What was he taught to value? What did he think about those ideas and identifications?

    Interestingly enough there is a tribe in PNG that holds betrayal as a virture. Members of the tribe may spend years befriending another person, only to stage an elablorate betrayal of their friend in order to enjoy his shock when he realises he is to be ritually murdered. They'll lure their friend to a trap where they'll dispatch the friend in front of strangers. They consider that virtuous. That behaviour displays a particular morality. It's perverse (just as are communism or socialism) but it isn't hardwired. Perhaps you might like to consider how those PNG tribesmen came to embrace such a system of morality.

    In yet another part of PNG it is considered normal for the men folk to take young boys into the forest on hunting trips in order to initiate them into the secrets of the tribe. That is accomplished by sexual abuse and torture. It's horrific for the victims. Some are killed. Some run off and die alone.

    Consider this, here are several different tribes, all in PNG, all committed to differing moral codes. How did they develop? How can the same race of people have such differing morality? Homo Automatcus hardwiring? Hardly.

    BTW by 1940 even young Germans considered that Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were sub-human, hence bad. That was a morality they had, a National Socialist morality. "Hardwired"? So how did the "hardwiring" change so suddenly after 1945? No-one was a National Socialist then! How did a "hardwired" automatic moral code so readily alter? Or was Morganthau correct in his belief that all Germans are tainted ("hardwired" remember) and thus should have been crushed down into peasant subsistence least they rose up to expressing their genocidal morality again?



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