In a dispute about God’s existence, such as is easily encountered on a college campus, I usually raise the subject of morality at the outset. It is the first argument that C. S. Lewis introduces in Mere Christianity, although he thought a more powerful argument resided in Reason, which will be my next topic. Sam Harris, on the other hand, a prominent neuroscientist and atheist, recently wrote The Moral Landscape in a valiant attempt to derive morality from scientific principles. Morality has a primary role in this discussion because it is central to human experience; it is also the most obvious source of cognitive dissonance for an atheist. There is usually a great amount of confusion on this topic.
We ought to be clear about what morality is: it is the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Morality does not simply describe behavior and its motivations; psychology is the appropriate field for that. Morality judges behavior and motivations, imposing a quality and a value on human activity. As a judge of human thoughts, feelings, instincts, and behaviors, it is itself none of these things, otherwise it would not wield its authority to discriminate between their right and wrong forms. If it was among them, a moral dilemma would be no different than deciding between a hot meal and a good night’s sleep.
Morality is also axiomatic. Nothing we learn in Ethics class leads us to morality; it is the first thing we acquire from our parents and our society, and we learn it directly. Simple rules imposed by pure authority at the youngest age possible are how we learn right from wrong, and those behaviors and sensibilities developed early in life remain with us forever. Stealing is wrong; hurting others for no reason is wrong; selfishness is wrong; sexual deviancy is wrong. Generosity is good; caring for others is good; self-sacrifice is good; marriage and family are good. These are not logical conclusions, but pillars on which conclusions can be built.
In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris makes a notable attempt to achieve scientific morality. The basic premise of his book is that moral behavior is an observable fact: some human behaviors lead to the well-being of conscious creatures, and others diminish it. He quickly rebukes secular academia for its moral relativism, especially its refusal to acknowledge the moral failures of Arab Muslim cultures today.
Although beginning from a sane position, Harris reaches a moral wasteland in chapter 2 by arguing against the existence of free will, as any intellectually honest atheist must do. If materialism is true, after all, no matter how complex a system the brain might be, it is still a direct result of all the physical causes that preceded it and is subject to all the physical laws that act on it, with no remainder. Therefore, I will add as his unspoken conclusion, morality by definition does not exist. There cannot be a moral judgment on a system that only deals in physics. A non-transcendent philosophy always leads to this moral dead end.
To contrast The Moral Landscape, a study of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is in order. Both authors acknowledge that morality is an observable fact of human life, but where Harris attributes this observation to states of the brain, thereby philosophically bankrupting it, Lewis draws the inference of a transcendent law, acknowledging its legitimacy. Reading these books together is a very worthwhile study.
Atheism, more than any other philosophy, has a chasm separating it from real human experience. It can only deal with morality backwardly because its basic assumption is Matter and it rejects the transcendent. Thus, atheistic arguments about morality must always devolve into explaining why we have moral intuitions and sensibilities on evolutionary, psychological, sociological, genetic, and chemical bases.
Evolutionary arguments make no judgment about how people behave; at best they give an interesting historical explanation of our tendencies. Psychology makes no judgments about right and wrong; at best it deems a person’s mind healthy or unhealthy, which is a physical or mental judgment and not a moral one. The physical sciences have no direct relation to morality; they describe what is, not what ought to be. Morality demands transcendent wisdom, but atheism only offers physical knowledge.
Atheists, although possessing morality as all normal people do, have, often uncomprehendingly, rejected it from their philosophy. This is called cognitive dissonance: they live as if morality is fundamentally true, which it is, while discarding its only possible source, which is something transcendent.
The weakness of this position can be detected in the case of the psychopath. If convinced by Harris’s argument that morality is a scientific study of which human behaviors lead to the well-being of conscious creatures, what is the imperative for him to be moral? There is none. He is apparently immune to this science. Just as a person immune to gravity could jump off a cliff with no physical consequence, so can this psychopath mistreat others for fun with no moral consequence. The fact that others face consequences is meaningless to him: that is the definition of a psychopath.
However, supposing he was convinced by Lewis’s view of a transcendent law demanding right behavior, this fellow can at least intellectually appreciate that he is not only in a physical situation, but a spiritual one, and that there is Someone both to respect and to fear who accounts for moral behavior. A powerful example of this phenomenon can be viewed here.
Thorough atheists (Nietzsche for one) who have thought through their beliefs understand that they disbelieve morality. For this reason, an intellectually honest atheist cannot tell you that theft is wrong, that murder is wrong. He cannot say with any certainty or clarity that the Nazis were wrong. He can say they were a sociologically deleterious group, and he can be revolted by what they did, and he can say he feels that they were wrong, but he cannot say that they were wrong. They were cruel, evil, and utterly morally wrong. He cannot say this because there is nothing in his philosophy that stands outside the material world and makes that judgment. His own judgments, by his own admission, are nothing beyond complicated brain chemistry, a physical process at the core. Anyone can be moral, but only a religious person has the privilege of moral clarity.
You heavens above, rain down righteousness;
let the clouds shower it down.
Let the earth open wide,
let salvation spring up,
let righteousness flourish with it;
I, the Lord, have created it.