Theists often claim that atheists reject God because they don’t want him to exist. Of course, this is no argument for God. And, however many atheists are biased by their hope that God doesn’t exist, there are far more believers who are biased by their hope that God does exist.
But I think theists are right. There are many atheists who reject God because they don’t want him to exist. Today, I’d like to present just one line of evidence for this.
Clearly, I agree with atheist philosophers that God doesn’t exist. I even think they are usually more rational than theistic philosophers in considering the arguments for and against God’s existence.
But I’m not so sure atheist philosophers are more rational in general. It seems to me they are, just like everybody else, quite persuaded by what they want to be true.
In particular, I think many atheists badly want there to be objective moral values, and don’t want there to be a God, and this affects the way they argue for moral realism and against God.
Frankly, I think atheists make stunningly bad arguments for the existence of moral values. Ones that often take the same form as theistic arguments for the existence of God. I must ask the atheist moral realist: if you reject the weak and strained arguments for theism, why don’t you reject your own weak and strained arguments for moral realism? I think it’s because they really want there to be objective moral values, and this corrupts their thinking.
Think about it. Traditionally, moral values are spooky things. You can’t measure them, just like you can’t measure God. You can only “sense” them, much as you might “sense” God. Moral values are supposedly invisible, eternal, and non-physical like God. How could somebody reject all the arguments for God, then turn around and argue that moral values do exist?
I have already eviscerated the arguments of atheist lay-philosopher Stefan Molyneaux and his book Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. But maybe that’s unfair. Let me turn instead to the moral arguments of professional atheist philosophers.
Russ Shafer-Landau, in Moral Realism: A Defence, argues for ethical non-naturalism – the view that moral properties exist but cannot be reduced to natural properties. One way he does this is by sneakily shifting the burden of proof in a way usually reserved for Christian apologists (page 66):
[Some] philosophers do not believe that there are any moral properties… [But] moral vocabulary, categories, and evaluative practices are so deeply embedded in our conception of ourselves and our world as to be [undeniable]. This doesn’t mean that moral properties must exist, but it does mean that the burden [of proof] is very squarely on those who would do away with them.
This sounds exactly like the Christian philosopher who argues that because the idea of God is so popular, and so ingrained in our conceptions of the world and our language about it, that therefore the burden of proof lies with the person who denies God.
But these are silly arguments. The skeptic need not disprove the existence of everything asserted to him – gods, fairies, moral values, unicorns, UFOs, or electricity. Rather, it’s the duty of the person making a claim to prove it is correct. In the case of gods and fairies, this is rather difficult. In the case of electricity, this is easily done.
So, does Shafer-Landau have any positive arguments for ethical non-naturalism?
None that I could find. He blunts the force of many common criticisms, but he doesn’t offer a positive argument or any positive evidence that moral properties exist. All he says is that people generally feel that moral properties exist, so they must exist. Again, this sounds like a bad theistic argument!
(To be fair, Shafer-Landau recognizes the parallels between arguments against theological realism and those against moral realism, and he wrote a paper about it, to which I will respond when I can.)
Second, consider Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.
Wielenberg founds his theory of morality on the notion of intrinsic value. So, what are some intrinsically good activities? Wielenberg writes:
My list… would include falling in love, engaging in intellectually stimulating activity, being creative… experiencing pleasure… and teaching.
…And how can I justify my list of intrinsically worthwhile activities? I am afraid I have no philosophical proof… [but] many of the things we know are such that we cannot give [proof]… Claims about what is intrinsically good are the axioms of ethical theory; they are the starting points, the first principles. As such, they are unlikely to be the sorts of things that can be proved. Nevertheless, it is perfectly consistent to say that some activities are intrinsically valuable – and that we know what some of these are.1
Sounds like Plantinga to me! Wielenberg might as well have written: “God is the only necessary being. How do I know? I can’t offer any proof, but many things we know are unproven, like the existence of other minds. I take the claim that God is necessary as a first principle, so it can’t be proved, but I can still say I know it to be true.”
Wielenberg gives another lame argument, this time for the intrinsic goodness of falling in love and the intrinsic badness of pain, on page 50:
…if we must choose whether to accept some philosophical principle about knowledge or to accept some obvious truth such as that I know I have hands, we should accept the obvious truth… An epistemology that leads to the conclusion that individuals cannot know they have hands should be rejected; similarly, a metaphysics that leads to the conclusion that falling in love is not intrinsically good, or that pain is not intrinsically evil, should be rejected.
Basically, these things must have intrinsic value because it’s just “obvious” to Wielenberg that they do. This is just as bad as when William Lane Craig argues that “Without God, moral values can’t exist. But we all know moral values do exist. Therefore, God exists.”
No. It’s not at all obvious to me that falling in love is intrinsically good, nor that pain is intrinsically bad. The “obviousness” of something is not a good criteria for knowledge. It used to be obvious that the earth was flat and ruled by invisible spirits, but those things simply aren’t true.
How does Wielenberg allow himself to be persuaded by such bad arguments for moral realism, but not by similar arguments for theism? My best guess is that he really wants objective moral values to exist, but he doesn’t want God to exist.
I’ll let Alonzo Fyfe sum up the rest of Wielenberg’s arguments:
Wielenberg claims that moral properties are transcendental unanalyzable ‘ought’ properties that cannot bear any relationship to the ‘is’ universe even though they are supposed to govern and be applied to actions that can only occur in the ‘is’ universe.
…[Wielenberg] can give us very little (no) information on what these properties are. He can tell us what they are not (they are not ‘is’ properties)… He tells good stories that suggest that certain things could not possibly be wrong – but he tells us nothing about what they are and why they cannot be wrong. Indeed, [Wielenberg's] transcendental moral properties are at least as mysterious as any God concept.
Third, consider David Brink’s defense of moral realism in his chapter “The Autonomy of Ethics” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism:
There might be no objective moral standards. Our moral thinking and discourse might be systematically mistaken. But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable. ( (Page 149.))
Here, Brink wants to make moral realism the default stance simply because it is what our ignorant, ancient ancestors have always believed. But could not the theist argue that theism is the default position because in the past people have always believed in the supernatural? Surely Brink would reject such reasoning, and yet he maintains the exact same form of reasoning with regard to moral realism!
His method for knowing objective moral values is no stronger:
Secular moral theory should begin with considered moral convictions.2
Basically, Brink is saying that the most important test for moral value is what feels right and wrong. How strange! Would Brink accept the theist who argues that God must exist because he really, really feels it in his heart? And yet Brink says we should trust our feelings when it comes to moral realism. (I’ve argued against this more thoroughly over here.)
Wait, aren’t you a moral realist?
Yes. The great irony, here, is that I am a moral realist. I reject the existence of God, but I defend the existence of objective moral values.
I, too, want objective moral values to exist. But six months ago, I had given up on them. I had read all the major theories of moral realism, and their arguments were so bad (as you’ve seen above) that I rejected them as firmly as I rejected the awful arguments given in support of God’s existence. I even wrote an essay about the impossibility of moral realism, and how to live a “good” life in a universe without moral values.
I had stopped looking for objective moral values. Then, quite by surprise, I stumbled on desire utilitarianism. For the first time, here were arguments for moral realism that actually made sense and referred only to things that actually exist.
Quite aware of my affection for moral realism, I knew I had to be extra careful; extra skeptical. So I pummeled it with all the objections I could muster, but the theory withstood them all. I wouldn’t say it’s proven, but it’s at least quite plausible. Because of my emotional attraction to moral realism I am skeptical of desire utilitarianism, but for now I think it’s the most plausible theory of ethics I’ve heard. The arguments defending it are actually quite clear and logical, unlike the arguments for moral realism I attacked above. See for yourself.
Why Atheists Hope God Doesn’t Exist
But back to the point of this essay. My point is that many atheists reject bad theistic arguments, but deploy similarly flawed arguments to defend their own brand of moral realism. I think this might be because they hope God doesn’t exist, but they also hope moral values do exist.
It’s clear to most of us why we’d like moral values to exist. But why do atheists hope that God does not exist? Here are some possible reasons:
- Religion is typically against moral and intellectual progress, since “the whole truth” was supposedly revealed many centuries ago.
- The idea of a cosmic dictator who convicts you of thoughtcrime is distasteful.
- Atheists want to be free to do what they like, without observing a long list of arbitrary commands from a big powerful guy in the sky.
- If God exists, it seems he must be unfathomably malicious, considering all the pointless suffering he inflicts upon or allows in humans and other animals.
Whatever their reasons, I’d like to see both theists and atheists admit and confront their biases, and extract those biases from their arguments – whether they’re talking about the existence of God or moral realism or anything else.