Thinking Clearly, Choosing Wisely: Atheism and the Problem of Goodness

God is Love.

A recent conversation with a friend, a fellow Roman Catholic whose quest for Truth is evidently leading her in heterodox directions, as well as an email from an irate reader who took unequivocal exception to this uniquely Christian conception of God, provoked me to unpack this proposition.

In a future essay, I will do just that.  But before we can do this, we must first get something out of the way.

The reader alluded to above was clearly an atheist, or at least an agnostic-leaning atheist. He raised against belief in God a perennial objection, what is undoubtedly the most formidable of all such objections against theism.

It is known as “the Problem of Evil.” It goes like this:

(1)An all-powerful and all-good God exists.

(2)But if God is all-powerful, then He should be able to stop evil. From Dawn to Decadence... Barzun, Jacques Best Price: $1.68 Buy New $12.75 (as of 05:45 UTC - Details)

(3)And if God is all-good, then He should want to stop evil.

(4)But evil exists.

(5)Therefore, an all-powerful and all-good God does not exist.

The Problem of Evil is supposed to be a theological or philosophical problem for those who believe in God, a problem that allegedly undermines theism.

Sometimes this problem is referred to as “the Problem of Pain” or “Suffering.

This so-called problem, though, far from undermining theism, actually undermines atheism by affirming theism.

The reason for this is that if there is no God, then there is no evil, for evil is a moral concept, an objective moral concept, and in a world without God, there can be no objective morality.

To put it another way, it is the atheist who must reckon with his own problem—what we may call “the Problem of Goodness.”

First of all, confused indeed is the common tendency on the part of theists and atheists to alternate between, on the one hand, the terms “pain” or “suffering” and, on the other, that of “evil” in referring to this allegedly insuperable “problem” for the theist.  At least at a conceptual level, the phenomenon of pain or suffering is not necessarily of any moral or spiritual import.

Such, though, is most decidedly not the case with respect to evil.

Pain or suffering is an intrinsic feature of the world, specifically, the animal kingdom.  That a zebra suffers when it is being shredded to pieces by a ravenous lion no one would think to deny.  However, few people would be willing to conclude that the lion is evil, or even immoral, for attacking the zebra.

Pain and suffering are descriptive. They are not necessarily normative.

But evil, to repeat, is intrinsically a moral category.

Secondly, in a world without God—the materialist universe of the atheist—there is no objective morality.

To reiterate: If the world is as the atheist conceives it—a brute, cosmic, physical fact—then such moral values as, say, love, are not real.

To be sure, atheists, or at least those who, for practical purposes, are atheists, can and do experience love for their friends, relatives, etc.  But this feeling or sentiment of love can have no objective grounding for the atheist.  In the final analysis, it is no more objective, no more intrinsic to the fabric of reality, no more real, than is taste.  Taste is real in the sense that people experience it, but all will agree that taste is certainly not real insofar as deliciousness, say, or repulsiveness are not part of the furniture of the world, so to speak.  These are merely subjective characteristics that we impute to an inherently tasteless environment.

Similarly, love, for the atheist, can only be subjective, or inter-subjective, characteristics that we subconsciously project onto the universe.

The values and virtues, as well as the immorality, the wickedness, and the vices that human beings treat as the stuff of life cannot be objective real in a world devoid of God.

It isn’t just beauty, then, that is in the eye of the beholder, as the old saying goes, but every other value as well.

If the cosmos is essentially one giant material mass, just a brute, contingent fact, then there can be no room in it for that which is immaterial, intangible, or spiritual.

Reality, on this reading of it, would have to be devoid of value, real, objective value.

Now, if there is no God, then there is no objective evil because there is no objective goodness.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher and an atheist, infamously declared that “God is dead.” Contrary to the impression—as common as it is false—that Nietzsche delighted in making this proclamation, his mood was actually the opposite of delight. The so-called death of God referred to a decline in theistic belief, specifically, Christian belief, that Nietzsche saw spreading throughout Europe.

And this, he was convinced, necessarily translated into a loss of the only justification for belief in objective morality that had been available for nearly two millennia.

Simply put, in denying God’s existence, European peoples, whether they liked it or not, denied objective morality, for without a transcendent moral lawgiver, there is no universal, objective moral law.  In divesting himself of his theism, European Man divested objective morality of its only ground.

For Nietzsche, though, the loss of belief in God means that not only is there no objective morality; there’s no objective truth in any sense of the word.  In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wrote that every person, irrespective of his morality, is “a creator” or “determiner” of values.  The engine of life is not reason, much less divine revelation.

The engine of organic existence is “the Will to Power,” or “the Will to Life,” a primal desire to conquer.

Life, Nietzsche elaborates, is “essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation,” and exploitation is nothing more or less than “a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life.”

The 20th century French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is in complete agreement with not only fellow atheists like Nietzsche, but Christians, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who maintain that “if God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” Dostoyevsky meant that unless God exists, standards of morality can only be as numerous and shifting as the grains of sand on a beach.

To put it another way, God guarantees the objectivity and immutability of moral standards.

For this reason, Sartre describes the human being’s condition as one of “abandonment.”  By abandonment, Sartre explains, existentialists “merely mean to say that God does not exist, and that we must bear the full consequences of that assertion.” As Sartre is quick to show, the consequences of atheism are far more momentous than most atheists are wont to concede.

Historically, atheists have thought it possible “to eliminate God as painlessly as possible.” They have thought that “nothing will have changed if God does not exist,” that they “will encounter the same standards of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we will have turned God into an obsolete hypothesis that will die quietly on its own.”

But such atheists couldn’t be more mistaken. If God does not exist, he says, gone, then, is “the possibility of finding values in an intelligible.”  Gone as well is “any a priori Good [absolute, objective moral constraints, like honesty, justice, etc.], since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of it.”

Sartre drives home this point: “Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest or must not lie, since we are on a plane shared only by men.”

God does not exist and “man” is abandoned, “for he cannot find anything to rely on…Neither within him nor without does he find anything [objective moral standards] to cling to.”

Some atheists (and theists) have tried rooting morality in human nature.  This, though, will not do, Sartre insists, for if there is no God, then neither can there be a human nature or essence.

Inasmuch as human nature is said to consist in a set of characteristics that are supposed to be essential to all human beings, it is conceived as a sort of model that precedes and transcends any and all individual humans.  “When we think of God the Creator, we usually conceive of him as a superlative artisan,” Sartre tells us.

So, “the concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of a paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer: God produces man following certain techniques and a conception, just as the craftsman, following a definition and a technique, produces a paper knife.”  The point here is that the general or universal concept, the essence, the blueprint in the mind of the artisan precedes the creation of the individual things that are based on it.

In other words, before there are individual human beings, there is the concept, essence, or nature of humanity within the “divine intelligence.”  But “since there is no God to conceive it,” Sartre concludes, “there is no human nature [.]”

In short, since there is no God, “we will encounter no values or orders” that can “legitimize our conduct.”

Thus, “in the luminous realm of values,” we find no “means of justification or excuse.” The prognosis is bleak: “We are left alone and without excuse.”

J.L. Mackie was a particularly renowned atheist and philosopher of religion of the last century.

Mackie was convinced that there can be “no doubt that some features of modern European moral concepts are traceable to the theological ethics of Christianity.”  He refers to “quasi-imperative notions, on what ought to be done or on what is wrong in a sense that is close to that of ‘forbidden’” as “relics of divine commands.”

Mackie alludes, approvingly, to the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a one-time student of the famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who made this very point.  Summarizing her position, Mackie writes that “modern…concepts of moral obligation, moral duty, of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’ are survivals outside the framework of thought that made them really intelligible, namely the belief in divine law.”

Since, being an atheist, Mackie disavows the existence of a Divine Lawgiver, he recognizes that it must follow that there cannot be any divine moral laws.

Mackie refers to his own position as “moral skepticism” or “subjectivism.”  He states it boldly: “There are no objective values.”

Elaborating, Mackie leaves the reader in no doubt that in denying that objective moral values are “part of the fabric of the world,” he denies not just “moral goodness…but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues—rightness and wrongness, duty, obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on.”

Mackie anticipates the most common criticism of his view:  “How could anyone deny that there is a difference between a kind action and a cruel one, or that a coward and a brave man behave differently in the face of danger?”

Mackie’s response is to the point: The critics are correct that there most so certainly are fundamental differences between these kinds of actions.  But this observation is as irrelevant as it is accurate.  “The kinds of behavior to which moral values and disvalues are ascribed are indeed  part of the furniture of the world, and so are the natural, descriptive, differences between them; but not, perhaps, their differences in value.”

It’s obvious that “cruel actions differ from kind ones,” Mackie says, “but is it an equally hard fact that actions which are cruel in a descriptive sense are to be condemned?”  There is no question regarding the objectivity of “natural, factual differences” between actions. There most certainly is, however, a question regarding the objectivity of the values that are ascribed to these actions.

Mackie here distinguishes between “natural facts” and “moral facts.”  His goal is to show that the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume was correct in claiming that, logically, the former can never entail the latter.  “What is the connection between the natural fact that an action is a piece of deliberate cruelty—say, causing pain just for fun—and the moral fact that it is wrong?  It cannot be an entailment, a logical or semantic necessity.”

That these are, or appear to be, two fundamentally different sorts of things can be gotten easily enough when it is considered that while it is clearly with our senses that we perceive the infliction of wanton pain by one person upon another, this property of “wrongness” or “evil” or “badness” that supposedly inheres in the action does not appear to be sensuous.

At the very least, it is far from obvious that immorality is an object of sense perception. We can see Bob jab Chris in the face with a sharp instrument, and this sight followed by the sights and sounds of Chris’s flesh tearing, blood oozing out, and Chris screaming in pain.  But we can neither see nor hear the immorality of this action.  If there is some necessary link between the act and its value, it is, as Mackie says, “mysterious.”

Mackie proposes that we needn’t posit any mysterious entity or connection, for we can account for our moral judgments by looking no further than ourselves.  We can make sense of “the supposed objectivity of moral values as arising from what we can call the projection or objectification of moral attitudes,” of “wants and demands.” Rebel in the Ranks: Ma... Brad S. Gregory Best Price: $5.05 Buy New $7.99 (as of 09:57 UTC - Details)

In short, we have the moral attitudes that we do, attitudes that we imbibed from the societal environments within which we were reared, and so as to lend them an absolute authority that they would otherwise lack, we project them onto the world as if they inhered in the nature of things.  None of this need be done consciously, and most of it is done unconsciously.  But, as far as Mackie sees it, only a moral subjectivism of the sort for which he argues can surmount the paradoxes that arise from positing objective moral values.

Ultimately, the world of the atheist is and can only be a morally-neutral world.

While the atheist begins to come to terms with the Problem of Goodness, we will see, in the next installment of this series, that not only is the world infused from start to finish with real, objective value.  We will see that the cosmos, because it is the handiwork of God, is anything but the cold and indifferent place that the atheist would have us think it is.

Rather, the values that inhere in the world are ultimately inseparable from and depend upon the Love that created and sustains it and whose signature is as omnipresent as the Author Himself.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.