By L. Alfred James
Atheists are often very loud in their condemnations of atrocities, particularly if professing Christians committed them. They thunder against the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and especially the crusades, pronouncing them utterly immoral.
However, there is something important you need to know about these pronouncements. Whenever you hear them, it is perfectly appropriate to ask, “How do you know that?” Or, “What’s your basis for saying that?”
NOTE: This is simply a request for intellectual justification, a request you can make anytime anyone asserts anything: “JFK wasn’t killed only by Lee Harvey Oswald.” “Ford cars last longer than GM cars.” “The next pope will be a native of South America.”
To these assertions, and any others, it is perfectly fair (and not impolite) to ask, “What’s your basis for making that claim? How do you justify such a statement?”
You are not disagreeing with them. You are simply asking them to show how they know what they (implicitly) claim to know.
Here is why this is important in conversations with atheists: They have no way to justify any of the aforementioned denunciations they might make. That is, atheism has no basis for rationally believing there is such a thing as moral right and wrong, or moral values.
No Moral Duties
If God does not exist, there is no objective moral standard for how a human being should behave. Without God, who decides what is good and what is evil? Who sets (or creates) the standard? And who holds people accountable to live up to that standard?
To put it simply: How can you have a moral law without a moral lawgiver? You can’t. Even if you did, how could you call it a law since it will never be enforced by anyone? You couldn’t. This means that, on atheism, there are no moral duties.
Don’t think this is an argument made only by Christians. For instance, though Richard Taylor is a theist, he is not a Christian. Yet he agrees with this assessment:
The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well.
Thus, even educated persons sometimes declare that such things as war, or abortion, or the violation of certain human rights, are ‘morally wrong,’ and they imagine that they have said something true and significant.
Educated people do not need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion…
Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.1
In order for there to be genuine obligations, there must be someone who has the authority to issue laws and the authority to hold people responsible.
Thus, if there is no God, there is no such thing as objective right and wrong. There are no moral facts, only moral opinions. Indeed, there is no justification even for condemning obviously evil acts like murder. The most you can say is, “I don’t like it!” Or, “I have a feeling that it’s wrong.” But you have no rational basis for saying, “It is wrong.” Norman Geisler and Frank Turek explain this very succinctly:
Atheists have no real basis for objective right and wrong. This does not mean that atheists are not moral or don’t understand right from wrong. On the contrary, atheists can and do understand right from wrong because the Moral Law is written on their hearts just as on every other heart. But while they may believe in an objective right and wrong, they have no way to justify such a belief (unless they admit a Moral Law Giver, at which point they cease being atheists).2
No Moral Values
To make matters worse, if atheism is true, there is no reason to believe human beings have any special value or moral worth.
I recently had a conversation with several highly educated atheists in which I posed a friendly challenge. I asked, “What is your basis for condemning murder? You believe that human beings are merely made of chemicals, with no soul, right? Well, it isn’t wrong to spill a bottle of, say, liquid nitrogen, is it? So what makes it wrong to spill someone’s blood? In both cases we are merely dealing with chemicals.”
One of them said, “Human life is valuable because it is rare. We only find it here, on planet earth. We haven’t found it anywhere else in the universe.”
To this I responded, “But if I scrawled a piece of artwork out right now, it would be one-of-a-kind, no matter how juvenile it looked. That would make it rare. Does that give it moral worth?”
“No. I guess not.”
Another said, “Evolution has wired us to care about each other, so that is part of our nature. We should yield to our nature.”
I replied, “Sometimes it is my nature to get very angry. Even if someone is merely rude toward me, I might feel a desire to get violent and hurt them. Should I just yield to my nature at that moment? At other times, being a male, I’m tempted to flirt with attractive women, even though I’m married. That is also my nature. Should I yield to it?”
“No. I guess not.”
A third said, “The flourishing of human society is a great good. We shouldn’t kill others because that would militate against society flourishing.”
Here, I responded with a question. “What is society made of? Humans, right?”
“But if you haven’t provided any reasons for thinking that human beings are morally valuable, and if society is made entirely of human beings, why should I think that society is morally valuable? And why should I think that its flourishing matters?”
“I don’t think I have an answer to that.”
At this point, one of them derailed the conversation by changing the subject, which was fine with me, as I felt like I’d made my point before there was too much tension between us.
The atheistic worldview does not provide a rational basis for saying any particular behavior is right or wrong. Nor does it have the resources for rationally claiming that human beings have special moral value.
Returning to the question we started with: Can atheists condemn the crusades? In one (trivial) sense, yes. They can say, “I don’t like that the crusades happened. I wish they hadn’t. I think they were bad.” However, in the most important sense, no. They can’t say, “The crusades were wrong!” They have no rational basis for morally condemning them.
Atheists often scramble to come up reasons to justify their belief in moral values and duties, but with a little self-education you can see that all of these attempts fail miserably. Here are some of the best (free) resources that can help you quickly understand the issues clearly:
Metaphysics and Meaning by Russell Manion: https://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/the-other-side/
William Lane Craig vs. Louise Antony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6WnliSKrR4
Paul Manata vs. Dan Barker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bztSHXdUVAY
1. Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 2-3, 7. (I am indebted to William Lane Craig for this reference.)
2. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 193.