A recent episode of my favorite TV show, The Good Wife, included a couple of scenes that highlight a potential problem with atheism: If there is no God, there is no objective basis for saying something is right or wrong, or good or bad. Is this a problem? Maybe not for some people, but for most—including even professed atheist Alicia Florrick, Julianna Margulies’s character—it is, as you can see in the following scenes. (The first scene also touches on materialism and the illusion free will.)
Tim Keller writes about this problem in his most recent book:
It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?
We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it show you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.
In this recent interview from the New York Times, philosopher Philip Kitcher makes the case for what he calls “soft atheism,” one which recognizes the worthiness of religion insofar as it promotes the humanist values he champions. There’s much to argue about in the piece, but let me focus on these words:
In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.
Let’s be clear: his “thoroughly secular perspective” can’t do everything that religion can do, refined or otherwise. Because it can’t explain our strong intuition that good and evil are things that actually exist. Only God can do that.
Of course, wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. But let’s concede that we all want it to be true—at least the non-sociopaths among us. We want our incredibly strong intuitions about right and wrong to be based on something more substantial than our personal feelings, proclivities, or tastes. Why? A philosophically materialistic answer can’t scratch that itch.
David Bentley Hart deals with the same question in relation to philosopher Joel Marks.
1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 85.