Atheism’s Achilles’ Heel
Tibor R. Machan
I am referring to the prominent versions of atheism. There are different ones, actually. Strictly speaking there is no specific view that an atheist must accept. Instead, atheism is merely the rejection of theism. And nothing in particular follows from the absence of anything, including from the absence of belief in God.
But, of course, many associate atheism with one or another different belief about various matters, including morality. No, nothing about morality follows from atheism except that God couldn’t be the source of it. So what Sam Harris, author of two widely discussed recent books about atheism, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, claims about the relationship of atheism and morality is highly dubious. In The Los Angeles Times he wrote
"...We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.
"We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn’t make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery—and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in Scripture—like the golden rule—can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe." http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/10-myths-and-10-truths-about-atheism1/
Of course simply because there are morally intolerable ideas in the Bible and the Koran, it doesn’t mean all atheists reject those ideas. Some may very well embrace them and also be atheists. What is especially important to realize, however, is that no theory of the origin or basis of morality follows from atheism, certainly not the one Harris mentions, namely, that ethics is innate—“(at some level) hard-wired”—in us. Certain atheists hold this view but many others do not.
It is quite implausible that human beings are hard-wired with ethics since so much rank unethical conduct abounds in the world and hard-wiring would amount to our being automatically or instinctively ethical—the way animals are hard-wired to behave as they do. Indeed, if to be an atheist one needs to believe that we are hard-wired with ethics, atheism couldn't be right from the start. That’s because if from a supposed fact something false follows, than it cannot be a fact. But, of course, from atheism nothing follows about ethics being hard-wired. There can be atheists who do think that but also ones who do not, who believe that ethics needs to be learned and people have the freedom of will to accept or reject even the correct moral system.
Why is Harris’ version of atheism, from which a hard-wired ethics is supposed to follow, the Achilles’ heel of his position? Because if there is anything nearly everyone knows about ethics is that whether one is ethical or not is a matter of choice, the very opposite of being hard-wired in us. It is a central feature of the morally significant life, one in which ethics counts for a great deal, that people are not hard-wired about how they conduct themselves. It is a matter of their choice whether they do or do not do what's right. Some act properly, some nearly so, some not at all. It is essential about morality that people are free to do the right thing and are it is not their being hard-wired that makes them morally responsible. If you need to make no choice to act right, if you are hard-wired, then you can gain no credit or blame for what you do. And that’s the end of ethics or morality. If atheism is tied to this notion, that pretty much undermines atheism. If it rules out ethics, well then since ethics is so evidently part of human life, it cannot be right.
Actually, of course, atheism does not imply that we are hard-wired ethically. So maybe if some version of atheism is compatible with moral choice, then such an atheism could be true. Certainly there have been famous atheists for whom people are morally responsible and free to chose an ethical life versus an unethical one. So it would seem that merely because some versions of atheism do have the Achilles’ heel of lacking room for morality, it doesn’t mean all of them do.