In chapter 6 of The God Delusion, angry atheist and former scientist Richard Dawkins claims to explain where morality comes from for the atheist as a rebuttal to the charge that atheists cannot be moral. What he produces is a bizarre intertwining of straw men and other fallacies. What Dawkins flirts with, and fails to address, is the actual moral argument for the existence of God.
The moral argument goes simply:
Without God, objective moral values do not exist.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore, God exists.
But Dawkins fails to address the real moral argument for God’s existence. First I’ll summarize chapter 6, then I’ll review whether or not the moral argument for God’s existence withstands Dawkins’ critique.
SUMMARY OF CHAPTER 6 OF THE GOD DELUSION
Dawkins begins the chapter by battling people who write hateful comments on atheistic websites. This is the worst kind of straw man argument. Instead of taking on any serious kind of theism or religious behavior, he cites inflammatory examples of people who obviously don’t hold to Jesus’ teachings while they attack atheists. It’s important to note that what Dawkins is doing here is misleading. It is not a scholarly engagement with meaningful ideas. It’s no more meaningful than entering into a debate with a middle schooler in a comment thread on YouTube. This goes on for 5 pages.
Dawkins then proceeds to the argument that morality could develop through evolution. The “selfish gene,” the gene that survives for generations, does best by programming the organism that carries it to survive. In some contexts, survival is best promoted by kin altruism, where a society of beings protect one another. Likewise, reciprocity, in which genes program organisms to return favors for favors, is a beneficial trait for survival. Or again, generosity may be assumed to allow certain members of a species to show dominance over others, proving that he is the one who is better off and can give more, which is likewise beneficial. As a consequence of these evolutionary possibilities, morality can exist without God.
Yet when these natural instincts lead us to accidentally care for kin that are not genetically related to us, they are “misfirings.” Dawkins himself even points out that adoption is a human form of genes misfiring, though he claims that he doesn’t mean this to be pejorative. Yet caring for someone who is in pain but who is not genetically related to us is an example of these “blessed, precious mistakes.”
Here Dawkins starts to betray himself. He calls compassion and generosity “noble,” but clearly the word is meaningless.
Then it gets worse. He cites another researcher who claims that morality has a “universal grammar” because it is hardwired into our brains through this evolutionary process. In other words, we share the same biology, and as a result we all have similar moral inclinations. Dawkins is here attempting to have the cake of objective moral beliefs and eat it too by saying there is nothing fundamentally binding about them. They too must be “misfirings,” though Dawkins fails to point this out. He still wants them to be “noble,” though they are clearly nothing more than accidents. He uses several hypothetical examples to show that we can have moral feelings that aren’t grounded in clear principles.
Finally he gets to the real moral argument, and totally biffs it. Again, as he is fond of straw men, he poses the question in such a way that the adherent is portrayed as being moral only to earn rewards from God. Dawkins then mocks this as petty. He dodges entirely the fact that moral objectivity is grounded in God’s design for humanity, rather than in simple rewards. Moral objectivity derives from our beginning, not our end, our creation, not our judgment.
He flubs again when he cites an example of how a near riot broke out when the Montreal police went on strike. “the majority of Montreal presumably believed in God,” Dawkins asserts. “Why didn’t the fear of God restrain them…? This is positively ridiculous. Canada has for decades been a post-Christian culture, and the claim that a majority of Montreal believed in God is ridiculous. Furthermore, the bank robberies and looting that took place can hardly be attributed to the majority of Montreal. Dawkins completely misrepresents this event to prove his own convoluted conclusions. He does the same thing again when he quotes a study that says crime is higher in states where religiosity is higher. This is the fallacy of composition – the claim that something that is true of the whole must be true of the parts. A larger religious population in a state does not imply that all people within the state are religious, nor that the events, good or bad, that happen within that state are a direct result of whomever is the majority of the population. Here, Dawkins’ ignorance is laughable. It’s embarrassing to see a supposed scholar come out with something that would have failed him on a freshman philosophy exam.
Perhaps Dawkins realizes that he is losing ground here, because he starts to waiver. “Even if it were true that we need God to be moral….” Then a page later, “it is tempting to agree with my hypothetical apologist that absolutist morals are usually driven by religion.”
So then he leaps to the other side, “Fortunately, however, morals do not have to be absolute.”
And having now admitted that, Dawkins throws a rod. He spends the next several paragraphs deriding patriotism for leading to war. Then he just trails off into criticizing the formation of religious holy books.
THE MORAL ARGUMENT
Let’s see how the moral argument survived.
Premise 1: Without God, objective moral values do not exist. Dawkins supports this premise. He clearly admits that moral inclinations are misfirings aimed at personal survival. In A River Out of Eden, Dawkins puts it simply: “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. We are machines for propagating DNA.”
Premise 2: Objective moral values do exist. Well strangely, Dawkins supports this claim too. Nobility is objectively good. He believes that crime is objectively wrong and chides religious states for having too much of it. He believes the bloodshed and war that result from patriotism are wrong, and ironically, he believes that consequentialist morality is objectively better than absolutist morality, a claim which he makes absolutely!
His criticisms of God elsewhere in the book come from his belief that the actions of God in the Bible are objectively wrong. So while I don’t know that Dawkins would own up to it, all of his seething rhetoric is filled with the belief in objective moral principles that he believes should apply to everyone.
If the two premises are true, the conclusion is logically unavoidable. God exists. Binding objective moral values cannot exist in a simply material world. They must come from design and purpose, and specifically, from a purposeful designer.
So tonight I give thanks for Richard Dawkins, the atheist who proved the existence of God.
16 thoughts on “The Atheist Who Loved God”
Atomic Mutant, I appreciate your input and thoughtful discussion on this page. After reading your thoughts on Jim’s previous post, “Christianity: The knowledge that a wizard did it,” I assumed that you’re input amounted to little more than Atomic Teenage Mutant Ninja Trolling. After reading your thoughts on this blog and after reading your blog entry “Is Absolute Morality Good,” however, I see that you raise reasonable questions and thoughts on the issue. I would like to address some of them if I can, in hopes that we may come to respectfully understand one another better.
You conclude here, “But the ironic thing is: Even if you could prove god, you would still know nothing about absolute morality…”
I would postulate that you’re missing the argument James presents. He is not arguing, “God exists. Therefore, absolute morality exists.” He is arguing, “Absolute morality exists, whether we like it or not. We observe, even in atheists, a general agreement across men and women (across cultures) that certain things are right and others are wrong. Because absolute morality (or as he puts it, objective morals) does exist, God must exist as well. What we describe here is an observation about the world we live in.
Frederick Buechner offers a decent commentary on this observation.
“To say there is no God means among other things that there are no Absolute Standards. For instance, an atheist may believe with all his heart that murder is wrong, but if he runs into somebody else who believes with all his heart that murder isn’t wrong as long as you can get away with it, there is no Absolute Standard by which it can be shown that one view is better than the other, just as there is no Absolute Standard by which it can be shown that vanilla is better than chocolate.
If an atheist says that murder is wrong because it works against the good of society in general, then he is saying that the good of society in general is gooder than the good of the murderer in particular, and having thrown out all Absolute Standards, he can’t say that. All he can say is that vanilla is better than chocolate because he likes it better and so do most of his friends.
If he says, “In the absence of Absolute Standards, I declare that murder is wrong in the name of common sense,” then he has simply made common sense his Absolute Standard. What is in accord with common sense is Right and what isn’t is Wrong.
What is American is right and what is un-American is Wrong. What is ethical is Right and what is unethical is Wrong. What works is Right and what doesn’t work is Wrong. These all bring God back under different names: Nationalism, Ethics, Pragmatism. To be a true atheist is to acknowledge no rule except the rule of thumb…
Lots of the time atheism isn’t bad fun. I do what seems right to me and you do what seems right to you, and if we come into conflict with each other, society has human judges to invoke human laws and arbitrate between us. Who needs a Divine Judge and a Cosmic Law? We can learn to live in lower case.
Except sometimes. Sometimes it’s almost as hard to believe God doesn’t exist as to believe he does. I don’t mean a baby’s smile, which is probably gas. I don’t mean the beauty of nature, which is always soon followed by the indifferent cruelty and ugliness of nature. I mean an atheist is about as likely as anybody else to walk into a newsstand someday and pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or some such paper. On the front page is a picture of a dead child. The bare back is covered with welts. The eyes are swollen shut. Both arms are broken. The full story is on page three if you have the stomach for it.
To be consistent with his creed, an atheist can say no more than that to beat a child to death is wrong with a small w. Wrong because it is cruel, ugly, inhuman, pointless, illegal, and makes the gorge rise. But what is apt to rise along with the gorge is the suspicion that it is wrong also with a capital W – the suspicion that the law that has been broken here is not a human law, but a law as immutable as the law of gravity, one by which even if there were no children in the universe and no grown-ups to beat them, it would be written into the very fabric of reality itself that such an act is wrong.
The atheist holds the tabloid in his hand and asks the question, Why should such things happen? Atheism can reply only, why shouldn’t such things happen? But he keeps on asking.
What makes it hard to be an atheist is the feeling you sometimes get in the pit of your stomach that there must be, after all, mad as it seems, an absolute good in terms of which such an act as this can be denounced as absolutely evil. Thus the problem of good is a major stumbling block for atheism just as the problem of evil is a major stumbling block for religious faith. Both must learn to live with their doubts.”
Whenever the problem of evil is raised, it is either raised by a person, or about a person. Personhood is essential to the argument. It is the argument that a person has intrinsic worth that gives the argument credence. But in a naturalistic worldview, a person is merely a product of time + matter + chance. There is no intrinsic value, because there is no transcendent code, morality, ethic, or deity to endow a person with value. That’s why Dawkins, in his book Out of Eden, says “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.” I don’t fault Dawkins for coming to this conclusion – that true evil does not exist. He is being honest and consistent with his worldview.
When Christians say that there are Absolute Standards, or that Objective Morality exists, we are positing that the sickness we feel in our gut when we turn on our T.V.’s and see the World Trade Center buildings crumbling to ashes, that sickness, is evidence that there must be something more than this relative morality you argue for. Thus we find in ourselves and in our hearts, along with atheists, a logical coherence with the Christian worldview, because the Christian worldview states that when we see such things, we know them to be further evidence that something in our world is unequivocally wrong. The beauty of the Christian Worldview is that it presents Jesus Christ. In the Christian Worldview, God himself joins us in the pit of suffering, with the promise that one day things will be made right again.
Great argument James. Great way to paint Dawkins into a corner and use his arguments to prove the existence of God.
I recently covered this ground as well on my blog (http://toddhdow.com/2013/07/14/the-god-solution-chapter-4-the-objective-roots-of-morality/) and in the associated book that I just published on the topic (http://toddhdow.com/the-god-solution/ – available on amazon.com).
Great blog – I’ll be spending a bunch of time here in the near future reading your stuff and subscribing so that I don’t miss anything in the future.
Keep up the good work!
I love that you prove your arguments using Dawkins’s points. Very funny! Dawkins’s comments also support the account of the fall in Genesis. He’s full of the knowledge of good & evil!
“the claim that a majority of Montreal believed in God is ridiculous.”
According to Wikipedia, as of 2011 the population of Quebec, which contains Montreal, identifies as more than 90% Christian, with another couple percent of Jews and Muslims.
That’s census information, and they are Catholic in name only. Residents openly admit that churches are empty. In fact, they say that the culture is hostile to the church.
Just as a side note, this could be considered a “No true Scotsman” point…
That’s just a way of saying that you refuse to believe the patently obvious.
“who obviously don’t hold to Jesus’ teachings” – “No true Scotsman” fallacy
Some form of morality, genetically evolved into our brains, is not “objective morality”. It’s completely random, it just has the advantage that it has helped us to survive.
As long as you cannot show a true objective moral, so only claim it exists. And such a claim is pretty worthless.
“he claim that a majority of Montreal believed in God is ridiculous” – Another “No true Scotsman”.
“Objective moral values do exist. Well strangely, Dawkins supports this claim too.” – No, he doesn’t. Honestly, is this the best you have? Twisting his words around? Pathetic. Just because he thinks of something as “noble” doesn’t mean that his definitions of “nobility” equals absolute morality.
“What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh – and, even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.” – Richard Dawkins.
Without objective moral values, on what basis does he assess that God is evil? Often he prefers to hide behind words like “nasty” and “unpleasant,” but occasionally he slips and lets us see that his indignation is thoroughly moral, on the basis of objective standards that he thinks everyone can agree to.
Same as you: On the basis of non-absolute moral values – human ones. You just claim that yours are absolute.
You haven’t read Dawkins. He is a stubborn moralist with absolute, unquestionable moral beliefs that he believes should apply to everyone.
Doesn’t everyone? Morality has much to do with emotions, everything that feels wrong has to be wrong for most people. But emotions about stuff are pretty much a sociocultural thing.
Thanks for agreeing. I think you’re beginning to see the moral argument now. We all believe in absolute moral values that should apply to everyone at all times. To do otherwise would be to admit that certain atrocities are not wrong, like rape, incest, child abuse, and genocide. You, Dawkins and I all agree that those things are objectively wrong. Which is why, if all three of us were logical, we would admit that God exists.
No, I don’t believe in absolute moral values, sorry. I know that we have to decide what moral system we want to use and that there are many possible reasons to choose one or another – but none of these systems can claim to be objective. The universe itself doesn’t care. All of these systems are human systems – and we can compare them by different standards, making the choice less random, but still nowhere near absolute.
I agree with most people, that these things are wrong for my personal morality. I agree with most people, that it is sensible and positive for society and humans to think of these things as morally wrong (except the incest thing, sorry, what two consenting adults want to do with each other is not my concern).
But the ironic thing is: Even if you could prove god, you would still know nothing about absolute morality, because if god existed, he would be automatically omnipotent, but you could never truly know his motives (only hope really hard that he is a nice guy) and so only choose to adhere to slave morality (do what god tells you to) but never know if what you do is really absolutely good. In the end, even if you could prove god, you would still have to choose a non-absolute morality and hope that it’s good enough.
This is actually a reply to AM’s reply below. When you say “sensible and positive for society and humans to think of these things as morally wrong” you mean sensible and positive in the non-absolute, subjective sense, right? Since objectivity and absolutes don’t exist…
Again: I agree with people that it is sensible and positive for society and humanity – that doesn’t make it an absolute statement, that it somehow is absolutely sensible, etc.: I simply share this opinion with people, but I don’t claim that we’ve stumbled upon some absolute truth here. We could be wrong here, of course, there could be something better. Or something completely different for non-humans, for example.