Friday, January 30, 2009

Zacharias on Atheist Morality

Prominent Evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias recently posited:

Having killed God, the atheist is left with no reason for being, no morality to espouse, no meaning to life, and no hope beyond the grave (p. 98).

I unfortunately did not receive this memo from the grand atheist conspiracy council. Is it possible that Zacharias is mistaken?

By making this statement, Zacharias is making the implicit claim that he, as a biblical theist, has a reason for being, a morality to espouse, a meaning for life, and hope beyond the grave. Despite the dogmatism of his claims, the Bible does not present a unified voice on the reason for human existence, ethics, and life beyond the grave.

The Bible presents neither exhaustive nor explicative ethics—it is not an ethical workbook. Whatever ethics are packaged in the Bible are buried in arcane case law, outmoded social conditions, and innumerable translational and exegetical obstacles. The reader must construct ethical meaning from the Bible. That is, she must interface with the biblical texts, a process that is fraught with human subjectivity, in order to translate the arcane to the present.

The ethical worldview of Zacharias, or any Bible believer, is merely a selective and fragile psycho-social application of the Bible. I doubt, for example, that his Christian ethical construct allows room for slavery, selling off of daughters, charging usury selectively to non-Jews, the application of theocratic sabbatical and jubilee conventions, the donning of head coverings by women, or the disapproval of women teaching men. All of these milestones are ethical exemplars in the Bible, but his psycho-social interpretive matrices gloss over their relevance to his ethical construct. He is little different than the atheist in his culturally-contingent meaning construction despite his claims to a Bible-God grounding.

Morality does not require a God or a scripture. Morality is the result of natural selection operating in social organisms. Behaviors such as reciprocity, altruism, and contingency are exhibited in social primates. They do not arise from the instruction of a god—they are the result of evolutionarily selective pressures on the phenotypic (or memetic) behaviors of social organisms. Zacharias makes a foolish straw man to posit that humanity requires the instruction of God in order to exhibit ethics.

The Bible does not give a uniform voice about life beyond the grave. There are multiple passages that deny any life or consciousness beyond the grave. There are others that present humans as departed spirits, detached from the body. How Zacharias determines which personal eschatology in the Bible to espouse is purely a result the stream of cultural evolution to which he is attached. In the future I hope to develop some of the biblical exegetical exemplars of the divergent post-mortem paradigms in the Bible. However, for now, let me note, that the Bible believer is no more solidly grounded on a divine revelation to deny conscious existence after death than to accept the idea of disembodied spirit existence.

Zacharias, R. (2004) The real face of atheism. Grand Rapids: Baker House


  1. In my opinion Zacharias's claim is just plain ignorant.

    I do find it interesting that you doubt " that his Christian ethical construct allows room for slavery, selling off of daughters, charging usury selectively to non-Jews, the application of theocratic sabbatical and jubilee conventions, the donning of head coverings by women, or the disapproval of women teaching men."

    I don't think Christianity is about ethics. None of my religious views contridict slavery, selling off of daughters, charging usury selectively to non-Jews, the donning of head coverings by women, or the disapproval of women teaching men. As far as the application of theocratic sabbatical and jubilee conventions... I really don't know what you mean.

    What I don't understand is why Zacharias is so threatened by atheists. Well other then false feeling one gets that their beliefs are better by putting someone elses beliefs down. Kind of insecure in my opinion and I don't know why people do that. He must be too poor to buy a sports car.

  2. Hello Zee,

    I said that I doubt that his morality allows for the above mentioned *biblicaly sanctioned* practices with the emphasis on their biblical authorization. I do not consider slavery, etc. as morally fair or just today. My point is that "biblical ethics" is a smoke screen as the reader merely takes away from the Bible (or any holy book) what she already holds to be ethically virtuous.

  3. Hello Zee,

    I find it interesting to note how many leading Evangelicals consider atheism to be such a menace to their congregants. When I was embedded in Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Orthodox (Jewish) communities, I never thought of atheism as a threat. I am not sure what this means now that I consider it in retrospect, but I thought that atheism was more a symptom of an unsettled psychology than an-evidenced based idea. My point here, though, is that I never encountered Christian or Jewish defectors to atheism in my time in these communities. This is why I find Zacharias' zeal over this to be somewhat amiss. Besides, his book makes atheism look more intellectually and emotively attractive than he would have ever set out to.

  4. I understood what you said. I do now understand why you assume that now though. What I'm saying is with my Biblical understanding I am okay with slavery, ect. I'd probably make a really good obedient slave. Do I think slavery should be legal in the United States today? No, but that has nothing to do with my religious beliefs.

  5. Hello,

    You said, "Zacharias makes a foolish straw man to posit that humanity requires the instruction of God in order to exhibit ethics."

    I think you misunderstand the force of his arguments. We don't need "instruction of God in order to exhibit ethics."

    The point is very different. Ravi claims that our conscience teaches us that morality is transcendent and absolute. Anyone can "exhibit ethics" without any need for a god...

    But to justify any sense of absolute "oughtness", only a God-hypothesis can do that. The question isn't, "do humans exhibit ethics without God?", but rather, "is there any way to justify the notion of the absolute "oughtness" of whether or not we should even follow our own sense of "ethics", without God?"

    Without God, there is no reason to say "Nazi morality" is "wrong" (in any transcendent or absolute sense). You can only conclude that it is not "convenient" or "helpful" to you.


  6. Hi, I am an atheist, I know beyond every possible doubt that there is neither God nor afterlife.

    I completely agree with the author of this website that belief in God can not provide us with an objective morality, as shown clearly by these examples, which more generally illustrates the Euthyphro dilemma g : is something good just because God stipulated it is (in which case it is arbitrary, for God could state one ought to love ones foes as well as ordering the slaughter of the folks of Canaan. ) or did God ordered it because it is good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of God) ?
    However, I believe that the same challenge could be posed to any form of atheistic moral realism.
    Over the past decades, numerous discoveries in neurology and evolutionary psychology have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our moral intuitions ultimately stem from the shaping of our brain by evolution and that WITHOUT any such emotional intuition, no moral system can be built from reason alone.
    This is well illustrated by the study of the brains of psychopaths: since they lack the moral emotions, they don't consider as true most fundamental moral principles (like avoiding to create suffering, trying to promote the happiness of others) although they are quite able to reason well.
    This shows the truth of David Hume's famous principle that moral truths are the projection of our gut's feelings on an indifferent and cruel reality : since one can not derive an "ought" from an "is", moral truths are the expression of our emotions which we mistakenly consider as features of the objective reality.
    No moral system can be created without the appeal to at least one kind of intuitions, the brute facts of nature never lead to moral duties and obligations.
    Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?

  7. Let me now develop the first point: there is an extremely great number (perhaps even an infinity) of planets where intelligent beings like us could have evolved. Given the huge dimension of the sample, it is more than likely that many such intelligent beings have evolved conceptions of morality which would appear completely disgusting to us.
    Imagine for example a species of giant lizards ( or whatever else if you've more imagination than I :) who were shaped by natural selection to value power, violence , selfishness in so far that it remains compatible with the interests of the group. When invading a city and killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, their brain generate a warm feeling of happiness, satisfaction.
    When however confronted with weakness among their own folk, they feel an overwhelming indignation, anger, rage which lead them to kill the individual guilty of failure , and after having done that, their brain awards them with an intense feeling of pleasure.
    Now imagine such beings arrive at our earth and conclude based on their evolutionary intuitions that it would be moral and perfectly good to enslave all human beings capable of working and to kill all others.
    What would an human atheist and moral realist say to these lizards? Do they ought to behave in a way coherent with the moral intuitions they have and slaughter or enslave all humans ?
    My contention is that it would be completely impossible to show to these creatures that killing innocent beings is wrong: all moral systems developed by humans which would justify this conclusion can not be deduced from the mere consideration of natural facts , they all crucially depend on one or several moral intuitions , which are not shared by the intelligent lizards, so there would be no common ground upon which one could argue that something is right or wrong.
    Now, a defender of godless moral realism could agree with me it is fallacious to rely on evolution to define an objective morality in the same way it would be fallacious to rely on the commandments of a deity. But he could then argue that there exists a moral standard independent of Evolution upon which moral realism would be based.

  8. The problem of this argument is the following:

    As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.
    Take for example the possibility of torturing a baby just for fun: almost every human being would react with disgust and say it is wrong. Neuroscience has proven that such reaction does not stem from a rational consideration of all facts but rather from instinctive gut feelings.
    Afterwards, people try to rationalize their belief by backing them up with arguments and mistakenly think they feel this disgust because of their reasoning although it is the other way around.
    Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction. He has named this phenomenon 'the emotional dog and its rational tail’:
    And since one can not derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, there is no way to prove that ‘one ought to not torture a baby for the fun’ by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.
    For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: “why does the baby’s beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?”. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.

  9. Concerning the objectivity of morality, I am neither a moral relativist nor a moral subjectivist but a proponent of an error theory: moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.
    For those interested in the line of thinking presented here, I highly recommend you to read Joshua Greene’s dissertation, where he clearly demonstrates the true nature of morality and develops a coherent error-theory.
    To conclude, although I am not a moral realist, I do think there is a place for ethic in each human life.
    But instead of using moral absolutes such as “good”, “evil”, “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “ought not”, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
    We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ‘ought’ I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.
    In the same way, I can not say the atrocities we find in the Old Testament are objectively wrong, because I don’t believe in the existence of such moral absolutes, but I can express my convictions in the following manner: if we want our intuitive feelings of love, justice and charity to be respected, then we ought to reject many books of the Old Testament as being pieces of barbaric non-senses.
    The traditional moral discourse “The God of the Bible is morally wrong, we ought to fight Christianity, we are morally good whereas religious people are wicked and so on and so forth” seems to me to be completely flawed because it involves the existence of spooky moral absolutes which have no place in a scientific view of the world.
    I really appreciate the critical thinking of my fellow atheists when applied to religion but I am really sad to remark they fail to apply it to their own cherished beliefs like the existence of an objective morality.
    Thank you for having reading me until here !

  10. Thanks, Dumb_Hound. I think we all pretty much agree with you: that we evolved to have certain dispositions that we later intellectualize and call ethics. Beyond this, the societies we live in make virtues of some of our dispositions, and this "virtue-izing" is often in conflict from one group to another. We don't have to go to outer space to find societies that value cruelty.