An argument about morality in The Swedish Atheist

March 12, 2013

Probably my favorite argument for God’s existence—in the abstract, apart from considerations about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus—is the moral argument: We have these strong moral intuitions that atheism can’t account for. If atheism is true, we have no objective morality; our moral intuitions are merely aesthetic or utilitarian: Ultimately, I help this old lady across the street, rather than push her in front of a bus, because it pleases me to do so, or at least I’ll avoid getting into trouble, not because doing one or the other is objectively better. Since there’s no good, there’s no better or worse.

Not so fast, many atheists object. Hasn’t evolution encoded within us a sense of morality to ensure the survival of our species (or something)? In his new book on apologetics, which I discussed in yesterday’s post, Randal Rauser’s atheist opponent, Sheridan, makes this argument: We have evolved as a species to obey these ethical rules, which facilitate survival of the species. As long as we’re human beings—as opposed to hungry lions who may eat humans with no ethical problems—we are bound to live by this code of behavior. If that’s not strictly “objective,” isn’t it close enough?

It’s no surprise that Rauser doesn’t think so. But he also doesn’t think that Sheridan thinks so—not if he really thinks about it. Suppose a group of aliens from outer space came to our planet. These aliens obviously enjoy intelligence, reason, language, and culture. In many ways they are more highly evolved than we homo sapiens are. Like us, they are moral agents: they have evolved their own morality, which guides their behavior—only, their moral system allows them to torture, rape, and murder human beings with impunity.

Is it possible, based on Sheridan’s account of morality, that such space aliens could exist? Yes, Sheridan concedes. Is it morally O.K. for these aliens to torture, rape, and murder? Sheridan agrees that we human beings would have no basis for judging them.

What about your moral intuition? Rauser asked. Wouldn’t it be screaming that what these aliens are doing is wrong? “That’d hardly be the first time our intuitions have misled us,” Sheridan said. “But Sheridan,” Rauser said, “I don’t see any reason to think our moral intuitions are flawed about something so basic as the necessary evil of raping moral agents for pleasure.”[1]

Rauser then tries a different tack. He asks Sheridan to consider convergent evolution: two different species can have a strikingly similar trait or bodily form even though their common evolutionary ancestor didn’t possess this trait or form. He gives the example of the North American flying squirrel and the marsupial squirrel glider. Genetically, these mammals are very different, even though they look the same.

What if homo sapiens had similar humanoid cousins, who were physically indistinguishable from us? Suppose they walked and talked like us but had a very different evolutionary history? It’s possible that such a humanoid could exist. Suppose this humanoid species had evolved with a morality that permits them to torture, rape, and murder human beings with impunity. Would their actions be morally O.K.?

While Sheridan is less sure of himself, he complains that it doesn’t matter: Rauser’s example is pure science fiction. After more arguing, Rauser says,

“Sheridan, repeatedly intoning about ‘science fiction’ is a red herring. Not only are your views implausible as descriptions of morality, but they also wreak havoc with our sense of moral progress. Right now we humans strive—in word if not always in deed—to achieve certain ends like courage, justice, patience, and kindness. Your view entails that depending on the way our evolutionary trajectory progresses, there may come a point where we have to rethink and even abandon these virtues. More to the point, there may come a time when they are no longer virtues for us. Perhaps in the future it will become morally praiseworthy for a more fully evolved humanoid descendant of ours to rape and torture other creatures. Perhaps Ramirez [a serial killer who claimed that his morality was “beyond” that of ordinary human beings] is a glimpse into our own moral future when the most morally virtuous of us are those who can rape and kill without conscience. That’s possible in your view. But in my view, that fluid notion of moral progress is falsified by our very absolute moral intuitions. We know that certain actions and behaviors are always to be cultivated and others always to be avoided regardless of the future evolutionary direction of our species.”[2]

Of course, this doesn’t prove that there’s a God. Maybe our moral intuition lies to us constantly. Evolution only purports to explain what is, not what ought to be, regardless how deeply we feel this ought-ness in our bones. Wishing something were true doesn’t make it so, as atheists have told me a few times.


Years ago, I saw Christopher Hitchens in a debate in which he kept referring to Occam’s Razor: the simpler explanation is usually preferable to the more complex one. Therefore, why bother with God to explain our world if something as simple as non-theistic evolution will do just fine?

While I strongly disagree that evolution alone accounts for much—and Hitchens’s idea of God’s “complexity” is bad philosophical reasoning—I’m happy to invoke Occam’s Razor against the New Atheists when it comes to moral intuition. Why is this sense of right and wrong so incredibly strong and pervasive—at least among us non-psychopaths?

We Christians have a far simpler explanation than they do.

1. Randal Rauser, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 181.

2. Ibid., 184.

7 Responses to “An argument about morality in The Swedish Atheist

  1. Morbert Says:

    I find such axiological arguments to be very problematic. Atheists, generally speaking, are expressivists when it comes to morality. Rauser seems to be misinterpreting expressivism as some form of normative moral relativism, which it certainly isn’t. To an atheist, the abhorrence towards murder would not be dulled by the idea that there is not some transcendent principle which identifies murder as wrong.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Help me understand what you mean by “normative moral relativism,” please. Regardless, I disagree that most atheists are expressivists. You’re giving people, atheists or otherwise, credit for thinking about it more than they do.

  2. Morbert Says:

    Normative moral relativism, in this context, would be the idea that we should accept actions as morally O.K. if they are the cultural norm for the group in question (E.g. aliens or other hominids in this case) It is a self-defeating position, generally rejected by most philosophers, and certainly not adopted by atheists.

    I didn’t understand your last sentence. A typo perhaps?

    • brentwhite Says:

      That was a typo! Thanks! I’ve fixed it… My point is that a person’s atheism can be as unreflective and philosophically uninformed as a believer’s faith.

      As for normative moral relativism, I think you miss the author’s point (which is probably my fault, since I’m the one summarizing and excerpting his words). In the book, our atheist friend is saying that he isn’t a relativist at all, that our morality has some objective value—that evolution itself has encoded ethical imperatives within our species. Therefore we have the right to tell other homo sapiens that what they’re doing is wrong—and mean “wrong” in the strong sense (not in the expressivist sense). The author’s illustration about space aliens and humanoids presents a challenge to this particular atheist’s point of view.

      I know that you would probably say that the atheist in the book doesn’t fairly represent you or many other atheists. But I’ve heard New Atheist-types make those kinds of arguments: I’ve heard or read at least two of them, Hitchens and Dawkins, say that our biology provides a firm foundation for moral behavior—that evolution itself implies an “ought,” which of course it doesn’t.

      In truth, Dawkins has said contradictory things on the subject. He likes to have his cake and eat it too, I think. He’s no philosopher, as he admits, and he doesn’t approach these questions in a philosophically rigorous way. Many atheists do, of course. Unfortunately for them, Dawkins is the one writing the best-sellers and appearing on prime-time TV. So the author of this book wanted to tackle his argument. Who can blame him?

  3. Morbert Says:

    I would be very very surprised if Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, or any other prominent atheist of our time ever argued that evolution implies an “ought”.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Please don’t make me re-read “The God Delusion” to cite pages! Maybe I should. I saw Hitchens live in a debate. My impression at the time (it’s been years) is that both Hitchens and Dawkins argued that evolution supplies a sufficient foundation from which to say this is right and wrong, without putting air-quotes around the words, if you know what I mean. Maybe I’ve overstated their actual words or intent. If so, I’m sorry.

      Unlike you, however, neither concedes (or conceded, in Hitchens’s case) being a nihilist. On this blog, as I recall, you corrected an atheist who mistakenly said evolution implies an ought. I know that the argument represented in the book is in currency—though perhaps not among the philosophically sophisticated.

      • Morbert Says:

        I’ll try and clarify the distinction I would make between the fictional atheist above, and the statements of Dawkins, Hitchens et al. When “New” atheists bring up evolution in the context of morality, it is almost always in an answer to the question “Why do (almost) all moral compasses point in the same direction?”. The argument being made (whether you agree with it or not) is that morality is an innate evolutionary and cultural phenomenon. It is one expression of our humanity.

        The argument that isn’t being made, and they have been quite explicit about this, is that evolution is a template or deciding factor for the prescription of a moral code. Dawkins has described himself as vehemently anti-Darwinian when it comes to prescriptive principles, while Hitchens and Harris have been very specific in their invocation of evolution in discussions about morality.

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