Let me set this up by stating that, traditionally, atheists have acknowledged that God is a necessary condition of objective moral values (i.e. the sort of moral truths that are discovered rather than invented by humans and which are “valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not”. For example:
• Jean-Paul Sartre: “when we speak of ‘abandonment’ – a favourite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said … nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself.
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men.
• Dostoevsky once wrote: ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.”
• Paul Kurtz: “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral.”
• Julian Baggini: “If there is no single moral authority [i.e. no God] we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves … [and] that means that moral claims are not true or false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error.”
• Richard Dawkins: “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose [i.e. no God], no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Dawkins concedes: “It is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.”
In my opinion these are pretty stunning, albeit intellectually honest, admissions from some notable people I fundamentally disagree with on nearly all religious matters.
That being said, many of the non-traditional (read new atheists) I interact with are often so repulsed, not only by the logically sound premise that God must exist in order for objective morality to exist, they shun God and disregard objective morality altogether in favor of human made ethical constructs they believe make a world without God make sense.
Fair enough, right? If you presuppose that God does not exist then moral values have to come from somewhere else, right?
Let’s look at two ethical constructs I hear atheists claim they believe in all the time and then how they quickly fall apart when we try to determine the “right thing to do.”
Basically, this theory states that the infliction of harm upon another person is what makes an action wrong.
This is a theory in normative ethics holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing total benefit and reducing suffering or the negatives.
Minus critical analysis or real world applications, these ethical constructs both sound good. Certainly we can all agree that we should strive to minimize harm and maximize utility, can’t we?
Let’s look at both using a case of a white police officer who shoots and kills an unarmed black teenager.
Set aside the political, racial, and social aspects that would inevitably be swirling around the incident for a minute and examine it strictly in light of a pending Grand Jury decision whether or not to prosecute.
What should the Grand Jury do? What is, according to godless ethical constructs, the morally right course of action?
If the members of the Grand Jury could be nearly certain, I think we all know they could be, that a decision not to send the officer to trial would likely result in riots that cause significant harm to property and injury and death to innocent people, could a case be made that sending him to trial, whether there is legal justification to do so or not, would both maximize utility and minimize harm?
If you agree it would, wouldn’t it also mean that the lying and disregarding facts, supposing there is no solid case against the officer, that would be necessary to send him to trial would aslo be morally right?
Further, wouldn’t the lying, even if the members of the Grand Jury knew full well that it woul cause irreparable harm to an innocent man also be morally right as well?
Bottom line here is that the world becomes a messy and confusing place when objective morality and God are removed.