Yesterday, the Washington Post published an editorial titled What Atheists Can't Answer. The author, Michael Gerson, is an influential evangelical Christian and was formerly George W. Bush's chief speechwriter.
Compared to most attacks on atheism, including a few I've rebutted recently, Gerson's essay is fair and honest. He rightfully steers clear of the slanderous and unfounded insults so common in apologetic literature, conceding that human beings can be good without God. However, while he agrees that atheists can be moral, he expresses a time-worn worry:
Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.
So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? ...Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.
This is a serious argument and deserves detailed consideration. Following is the text of a reply I sent to Gerson and to the Post.
Dear Mr. Gerson:
This is a response to your July 14 column, "What Atheists Can't Answer".
You wrote that, in the dilemma of choosing between good and evil, theism gives us reason to "cultivate the better angels of our nature." However, any honest assessment of history would conclude that religion makes people bad at least as often as it makes them good. Religion has inspired great acts of charity and selflessness, beautiful music, art and architecture, and countless examples of human kindness and compassion. It has also inspired horrific, bloody wars, brutal inquisitions, tyrannical theocracies, fanatical campaigns of terror, and countless incidents of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry.
Far from being a force that pulls ceaselessly toward the moral apex of the universe, religion is more like a megaphone, amplifying both the good and the bad of human nature in equal measure. This is not surprising to an atheist, because there is no objectively verifiable evidence of any god who wants people to behave in any particular way. As a result, people can without fear of contradiction invent a god who speaks for them, who confirms all their opinions and prejudices - and this is exactly what all religious people do, the liberal as well as the conservative.
You worried that atheists have no compelling answer to a person who says, "I'm going to do whatever I please." But religion does not solve that problem. If anything, the problem is far worse when the malcontent is a theist who claims that his desires are not just some idiosyncratic expression of individual preference, but the very will of God. An atheist, at least, has no warrant to claim holy sanction or divine infallibility for his opinions, and in theory can be persuaded by reason. On the other hand, a person who sincerely believes that they are acting in accordance with the will of the creator is immune to evidence, diplomacy, and compromise - as the many religious wars still smoldering after millennia should make abundantly clear.
In your column, you said that morality cannot be anchored without reference to a higher power: that if God had not commanded us to be good, we would have no reason to be good, and no justification for condemning those who were not. This claim betrays its own incoherence, for we can then ask, why does God command us to be moral? Does he have reasons for that edict? If so, then we too can make use of those reasons, for if they are good ones, they will stand on their own without reference to who is giving them. On the other hand, if God has no reasons for his commands, then religious morality is cut loose from any anchor. God commanded us to be merciful and kind, but that was just an arbitrary choice with no deeper significance. He could just as easily have commanded us to be vicious and cruel, and those traits would then be the definition of goodness which we were all bound to follow. Can any rational person accept such a nonsensical conclusion?
You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you've overlooked. Call it what you will - empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness - but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others - a mentality of "I win, you lose" - is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.
You said that in an atheist's world, the desire for meaning and purpose are "a cruel joke of nature." Nothing could be further from the truth. I am an atheist, and my life is full to bursting with meaning and purpose. I rejoice to be alive in this beautiful, complex, awe-inspiring world. I am grateful for the interactions with my fellow human beings who illuminate my mind with their brilliance, inspire me with their dedication, and offer me the chance to enter into the deep communion of love. The knowledge that our lives are finite does not make them less precious, but infinitely more so, as we know that we must seize this one opportunity while we possess it and drink deeply from the rich spring of all that life has to offer.