Thursday, December 19, 2013

Can there be good atheists? A response to Pastor Rick Henderson

Pastor Rick Henderson, in his Huffington Post Religion essay “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist,” sets to make a case that without a belief in God, it is not possible to ground moral values objectively. On that case, he rests a thesis that without objectively grounded moral values, it is not possible for an atheist to call himself--or be--"good."

Of course, the pastor isn't so coarse as to suggest that an atheist cannot be moral, that is, well-aligned with regard to a particular cultural or ethical framework. Instead, Henderson stabs deeper at what is called the “value problem” lying at the heart of the branch of moral philosophy known as “moral ontology,” which is the effort to explain in what it means to say that morals exist. To arrive at his title, he plays upon the words by indicating that if an atheist is morally good, then the she is not very good at being an atheist--an odd idea in its own right that I won't tackle here.

Henderson's case is summarized concisely by his statement,
“There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.” 
In other words, he hopes to make the case that without the existence of objective moral values, morality can be taken only subjectively, or in his words, “at best” a “mass delusion.” As a Christian pastor, Henderson, of course, believes that he can ground objective moral values in his theology, presumably implying that he is avoiding delusion in doing so.

I hope to achieve a couple of goals with this response. First, I would like to remind Henderson and others that we can claim objective moral values, that is we can solve the moral value problem, without having to rest it upon any theology. Second, I'd like to show that theology cannot solve the moral value problem on its own and is a poor method for claiming values at all. In that way, Henderson's own position will be revealed to be the one that depends upon (but isn't) moral relativism, a core charge he lays upon atheistic moral understanding.

Real-world objective moral values exist

The value problem is an old one, and while I don't pretend to be a moral philosopher, I will take a moment to make mention of it. The problem is that while we can look to facts of or about the world, we seem not to be able to determine what in the world we should value. In order to arrive at values, we must smuggle in at least one, and the argument goes that values are not observable facts about the world. Henderson goes further, saying that without bringing in at least one moral value, “this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don't affirm a national religion.” If this seems preposterous, it's because it is.

This isn't nearly so difficult a problem as Henderson needs it to be, though. In fact, it was thoroughly explored and should have been put to rest in 2010 by neuroscientist Sam Harris when he wrote his New York Times best-selling The Moral Landscape. There, Harris lays out a sustained case that there is a bedrock moral value--the avoidance of (gratuitous) suffering and promotion of well-being for sentient beings such as ourselves and animals--that is so deeply rooted into the core of the notion of “value” as to serve as the only salient definition for moral terms like “good” and “evil.”

To summarize Harris's argument very briefly, his case is that everything that can be construed as a value has to be something valued by someone, meaning some conscious being, and that, at bottom, those values are measured against the well-being or suffering of that someone. To support the first half of that, he asks us to consider the existence of something that created no change whatsoever in the experience of any conscious being. What would it even mean to say that such a thing is valued? Harris states, in fact, that if such a thing exists, it is “by definition, the least interesting thing in the universe” (p. 32).

As Harris argues further, well-being is the only way we can intelligibly make sense of the term value (paraphrased also from p. 32), for this is the only salient metric for assessing the impact on conscious experience, wherein the term value obtains all of its meaning. We all recognize that all conscious beings experience varying states of well-being, including its converse--suffering. Further, and contrary to Henderson's claim about torturing diseased children, all emotionally healthy people recognize that optimizing well-being, which includes minimizing suffering for conscious beings, is a value we can call moral.

The point, then, is not that we smuggle in this value; it's that, at bottom, it is the only value that exists. If it must be smuggled in, then it is a form of universal philosophical contraband. Further, among emotionally healthy people, it is so common as to constitute a universal fact about mentally well human beings. This, then, is not just why we should bring in this value, it's why we must.

To close one common objection, I will also note that however complex these are, well-being and suffering are observable phenomena, even if they are experienced subjectively. These, then, being common to all conscious beings and together serving as the foundational value upon which all others are predicated, provide a salient objective grounding for moral values.

Theology does not provide objective values; it relies upon them.

My case here is shorter: theology pretends to provide an objective grounding for moral values by defining “God” as the source of objective moral values. That it does so is plain, as this is the only recognizable methodology theology has.

That there is an objective moral value that exists independently of belief in any God is captured by the fact that the only coherent way to describe a value is as Harris noted: in terms of some impact on the experience of conscious beings. We know conscious beings exist and have experiences, so Henderson and everyone else have to use the experience of conscious beings to make sense of the idea of value. Proceeding to tie that value to “God” merely gives their deity another awkward definition for theologians to juggle.

Theological “objective” moral values, though, are different. They possess a remarkable problem that observable--that is, scientific--objective moral values do not. The problem is that they lack any reliable methods to give them epistemic basis--that is, there is no reliable theological way to know which of these values are right and which are wrong. The "methods" of theology have been identified by Richard Dawkins as being tradition, authority, and revelation (See The Magic of Reality for an easy introduction), and the consequential problem with these methods is their utter unreliability.

To understand their unreliability, we must ask how methods like these could lead to correct assessments, except by luck. The only source of new information among them is in revelation, which even if legitimate is subject to every belief, whim, and prejudice of the person it is revealed to, masked by the cognitive biases we're all prone to. Though it is true that observations may lead to “revelations,” the tools that would make revelation a reliable method for gaining knowledge, moral or otherwise, are absent. How we know is as important as what we know, and the critical elements of falsification and revision simply aren't a part of the revelatory toolkit. We must agree with the alleged prophet in question, or else either we or the false prophet is a heretic!

Thus we see wildly divergent sets of moral values, say from Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism, and we shouldn't be surprised. Here hides Henderson's dependence upon relativism, then. Henderson himself notes it this way, thinking he's talking about the morals of atheists, calling them “the construct[s] of a social group” that “cannot extend further than a society's borders or endure longer than a society's existence.” This portrayal of culturally normative morals is a description of religious morality exactly.

Now, values from different religions and cultures overlap, of course, because there is an objective moral value that we can observe and all experience: the well-being of conscious beings. They diverge, though, because revelation and what proceeds from it, held on faith, are utterly unreliable ways to glean truths, thus often leading us to choose to value the wrong things, an all-too-common feature of religion.

Theology, then, rides upon real objective moral values--those rooted in the well-being of conscious beings--and perverts them with ideas it credits to divine revelation and refuses to try to falsify. That means it is not a source of objective moral values but instead an attempt to codify a particular guess at them, which it then pretends are universally and objectively moral.

That said, then, not only can there be morally good atheists, but also atheists have a potential leg up on becoming morally good.


  1. James, you are likely much smarter than me. I appreciate the thoughtful response. I hope that you able to publish this. I only want to believe what is true. Personally, I want the strongest ideas to contend in the arena like gladiators, under the careful attention of all.

    I have written a response to your response: It would be a gift to me if you read it and responded. But, you certainly don't owe me that.

    I haven't responded to your fair and necessary epistemological questions about revelation and other issues facing theists. I would like to. I just don't have the intelligence and brevity to answer both streams in one post.

    Thank you again. I hop e you enjoy the holiday season.

  2. Thanks for this .. lucidly and simply put!