One often hears atheists assert that the moral virtues are those virtues without which we humans beings cannot, and do not, flourish because they are rooted in human nature. One also sometimes hears atheists assert that moral virtues are those virtues that enjoy a consensus that spans culture, country, and century, something like the Tao described at the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. That moral values described or derived in either of these two ways are not truly moral values, much less moral absolutes, is the burden of this brief essay.
First, atheist values determined either by human flourishing or by human nature are not truly right or wrong, not properly moral absolutes; they are pragmatism or utilitarianism masquerading as good and coöpting the language of virtue and of “oughtness,” to which they have no philosophical or (especially) theological claim.
As the following analysis will demonstrate, one must not contend that human nature and human flourishing yield moral absolutes, properly so-called, because such a theory fails to account for (1) the origin of human nature, (2) changes in human nature, and (3) the selection of “flourishing” as a category of moral discernment. I shall leave aside the vexed philosophical question of whether or not human nature itself actually exists as an entity in its own right and has objectively knowable and universal characteristics, or if it is merely a philosopher’s fiction without any extra-mental reality. I simply note in passing that the atheistic theory of morality here under review assumes an answer to this difficult philosophical question that, if mistaken, devastates the atheist theory of morality by erasing its metaphysical basis.
(1) If, as atheists insist, human nature arose as the chance result of a mindless evolutionary process, a process behind which exists no divine mind and no divine plan, then moral absolutes disappear. That is, if human nature is the result of evolutionary accident (time, plus matter, plus chance), and if right and wrong arise solely from human nature, then right and wrong are accidents, not moral absolutes. Biological chance, evolutionary accident, cannot serve as the philosophically proper foundation for right and wrong; it is their undoing. If human nature and human mind are the unintentional outcome of the chance collocation of atoms and of the mindless and unpredictable meanderings of natural selection (in other words, if the human mind is a mere epiphenomenon contorting and disporting itself for a short while upon the face of physical matter), then we have no convincing reason -- and no metaphysical justification -- for trusting them as indicators of moral goodness; nor have we any real or enduring right and wrong.
(2) Had the evolutionary process been different, or had the primordial soup been mixed from a different recipe, so to speak, or stirred at a different temperature, human nature, if it existed at all, might have been noticeably altered, along with the allegedly moral values atheist theory insists arise from it. Evolution might well have yielded a quite different array of species than it has, and humans might not be the most intelligent species and they might flourish in ways radically different from those that now obtain. That is, one can easily imagine a set of markedly different biological conditions, a set of conditions that demonstrated the physiological supremacy of a non-human species, one that flourished after the fashion, say, of an intelligent cockroach. Cockroach-style flourishing would then become the measure of virtue, and not that means of flourishing that we humans sometimes now employ. In other words, the moral absolutes yielded by the atheist system of thought (biological might makes moral right) are neither truly moral nor truly absolute. They are simply that set of actions that the biological winners perceive to tend most effectively toward the pleasure and prosperity of their own species, which is, to put it bluntly, simply species bigotry parading as morality.
To make the point in a different direction, precisely why the actions that conduce to the flourishing of the most intelligent and biologically innovative survivors of natural selection, whatever those survivors happened to be like, should be called morality is not clear and has not been (indeed cannot be) metaphysically justified or properly established. In other words, what is here propounded by the atheists is not true morality. It is an intellectual misfire that bases morality on the philosophically injudicious assumption that somehow biological might makes moral right, or that merely by succeeding biologically a species gets to use itself as the measure of good and evil. This is not a system of moral absolutes; it is a system of biological relativism. It is selfishness masquerading as the basis for right and wrong.
That those actions which conduce to the flourishing of the most biologically innovative survivors of natural selection should be called "moral" merely confuses with right and wrong those actions that seem to the atheists of that species to permit that species to flourish at one particular point in its evolution. If in the atheistic worldview species evolve, then the species whose flourishing they appoint as the arbiter of morality was sufficiently different in its earlier stages of development from what it is now, and will be likely be sufficiently different in its later stages of development, that those means by which it now flourishes might be significantly different both from what they once were and might eventually become. We simply do not know. But whatever those unknown facts were in the past and will be in the future, the atheist must endorse them as moral, however grotesque and wicked they might actually be. If so, what are now called right and wrong in the atheist view are not moral absolutes, but simply that set of actions perceived to be most efficient at the moment. What set of actions will be so perceived in the distant future is still an open question, a question that might receive a starkly different answer then than either it now does or previously did, but which the atheist system of thought must nevertheless consider morally correct and universally binding if it is to employ the language of moral absolutes. In short, to our previous charges of species bigotry and biological relativism we now must add time relativism and moral contradiction -- but not moral absolutes. The new atheists cannot find metaphysical grounding for their claims to morality. They cannot talk about how religion ruins everything because the word "ruins" implies a morality not metaphysically available in the atheist worldview. They can say they do not like what religion does, and that they prefer something else. But they can raise no truly moral objection.
To take it a step further, not only does the doctrine of evolution entail the notion that the human species and human nature are essentially mutable, but this natural mutability is amplified by the very startling, and very real, prospect of the species itself orchestrating and accelerating its own evolution and alteration by means of its scientific experimentation and acumen. Like the natural mutability that precedes it, this self-orchestrated mutability is the death knell of any and all moral absolutes supposedly rooted in human nature. When we do acquire the power to modify the nature of the race -- and some speculate that our ability to do so is soon to be gotten -- will what we produce still be truly and fully human? Will right and wrong then be rooted in human nature as it was or in human nature as it is in whatever it is we shall have made of it? Assuming that the alteration in human nature is accomplished only one person at a time rather than in the entire race all at once, and assuming therefore that two (or more) sorts of persons with a defendable claim to human nature exist simultaneously, which version of human nature supersedes the other and is to be considered the fountain from which all right and wrong arise? Will those who possess the older human nature be subject to a system of right and wrong that arises from a newer nature not entirely their own? What if our experiments do not always succeed? That is, what if the treatment does not always "take;" what if it yields occasionally idiosyncratic results that produce far more than merely two varieties of human nature? Which variety is normative? Shall we fall into the logical contradiction of having a number of competing sets of moral absolutes, each with different content? The answer to these and other questions are still unknown to us. In the wake of their ignorance, the atheists are flying by faith. Though the answer to such puzzling questions might be difficult, or even impossible, to identify, and though the answers to such questions might raise insurmountable difficulties for those who advocate this inadequate atheistic system of moral absolutes, the answers given to those questions make no difference at all to my purpose because any answer given them exposes the metaphysical foundation of the atheistic ethical system as shifting sand, not moral bedrock. Nothing transitory can yield moral absolutes.
Furthermore, if humans did not exist at all (and under the direction of a mindless evolutionary process they easily might not), and if right and wrong arise from human nature, then right and wrong would not exist (regardless of whether we considered right and wrong as either moral absolutes or as the biological relativism that emerges from biological success). In other words, because the atheist theory of ethics ties morality to human nature, the fate of human nature is the fate of morality. That fate, if the second law of thermodynamics is correct, is oblivion. The material world is winding down to something like an amorphous, motionless mass of dead matter at a low temperature, incapable of sustaining life. Along with the demise of the physical universe go all the atheist's alleged moral absolutes, the true name of which we now see is “nihilism.” In this system, morality, like everything else, comes precisely to nothing. When human beings cease to exist sometime in the future, as any worldview that leaves out God must assert, right and wrong cease to exist at that same moment. In short, what is intended by the atheists to be the foundation of morality is really its death warrant.
(3) Why flourishing (and not something else) should be the measure of morality cannot be proven, cannot be metaphysically rooted or justified. To select flourishing as the measure of moral discernment, or to define flourishing as one thing and not another, is merely to elevate both one's own personal preference for flourishing and one's own definition of flourishing (whatever it happened to be) to the level of a moral absolute, which they neither are nor ever could be. One might just as easily have selected private pleasure at the expense of another's pain as the measure of moral conduct, as might someone like the Marquis de Sade. One might even prefer death to life, as do virtually all suicides. That happiness or prosperity, and not death, is the proper content of flourishing cannot be established upon a merely evolutionary basis, except that an atheist simply assert a preference (pragmatic or otherwise) for the one and not the other. Again, whatever else such private preferences might be, they are not moral absolutes.
The un-Godded worldview does not, and cannot, yield moral oughtness. It yields only competing sets of preferences to which some atheists unjustifiably try to attach the language of oughtness. Other more astute atheists refuse to make that mistake. On that point those more astute and consistent atheists deserve full credit because they understand that no atheistic explanation of morality has the metaphysical rootedness necessary for moral absolutes. Their worldview precludes it. They know that when other more inconsistent atheists want to hold onto atheism and to avail themselves of the language of oughtness, they fall afoul of what atheist Ayn Rand called the error of stolen concepts: They employ ideas and categories to which their system has no metaphysical access. Atheists who invoke morality are idea thieves.
Put differently, it makes all the difference in the world whether we say mind came from matter or matter came from mind. Because ideas have consequences, if you choose the former, you cut yourself off from the consequences that attach solely to the latter. One of those lost consequences is the metaphysical rootedness necessary for moral absolutes, that is, for a morality that rises above the level of mere preference.
Finally, as much as I value the work of C. S. Lewis, in general, and his The Abolition of Man, in particular, I would be misusing his book were I to argue from it that, because there appears to be substantial agreement among the peoples of the world about the rules of right and wrong, therefore these rules of right and wrong are moral absolutes. Consensus, regardless of how extensive or how enduring it might be, is no sure measure of morality. All too often the majority has consented, either explicitly or implicitly, to colossal evil. Atheist governments have made it happen time and again. Morality is not determined by nose count (or by power). "Majority" is no synonym for "morality."
In a word, if there is no God, there is no good.