In doing a bit of research on an unrelated subject, I came across an essay by Richard Carrier entitled Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism? In this essay, Carrier claims that he refutes J.P. Moreland's position that Christianity provides a strong moral foundation for being moral -- a foundation that Moreland asserts atheism lacks.
Now, I found this essay to be interesting because I think that the moral argument for the existence of God is a pretty strong argument. I think that the argument that atheism has no foundational basis for morality is also quite compelling.
Now, before I am accused of saying something I haven't said, let me clarify: I am not saying that atheists cannot act morally. In fact, I have met some very moral atheists in my life. But there is a difference between acting moral and having a firm foundational philosophical basis for doing so.
Critiquing the Atheist Viewpoint
Atheists, as near as I can tell, believe that it is very noble to treat people morally and with respect (unless they are Christians which, in the eyes of many atheists, seems to be grounds for being extremely ill-mannered). But the question that arises is, in light of the Darwinian or Neo-Darwinian viewpoints regarding humanity, why should a person act morally towards another? After all, if human beings are merely the result of a combination of time and chance, there is no inherent value in another human life. Human life is simply the result of the processes of nature, and there is no difference between a human being and a cockroach in the greater scheme of the universe. If I can stamp out an unwanted cockroach without moral implications, why can't I kill another human being without concern for the moral implications?
Obviously, atheists don't believe human life is worthless -- they place value on human life. But that's different from having a philosophical system which holds that human life is, in and of itself, valuable regardless of what value I, as the observer, place on it. In other words, while someone could choose to assign value to human life, in atheistic thought there appears to be nothing foundational in their worldview to suppose that such value exists independently of the assignment of value by the atheist. Further, if the universe is the result of time and chance and there is no meaning behind it all, there appears to be no foundational basis for supposing that it is morally necessary to assign value to other human beings. In other words, if a person should choose to not assign value to another human being's life, then that is they are not violating some deeper universal morality in declining to assign such value.
As Moreland points out in his book, when an atheist (or humanist, the term used by Moreland) claims that human life has value, that value is not objective, but subjective.
When optimistic humanists say that life has meaning they do not mean that objective values or an objective point to life exists. Rather, they mean that life can be subjectively satisfying if we create values and live life for them. Why should I be moral? Because it will give me personal satisfaction to be moral.
It is not clear what it means to "create" values. What metaethical theory is involved here? Perhaps the optimistic humanist means that we should act as if real irreducible values exist. But this would merely be to live one's life in a self-induced delusion on the humanist's own views, so if this is what he means, then satisfaction comes from living a lie. Life would be a placebo effect.
Moreland, J.P., Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Baker Books: 1987), p. 121.
I think this is well-reasoned. The idea that value exists because we place value on something is a different sort of animal than the Christian view that human beings have value because they have been endowed by their creator with value. If value exists only because humans place value on other humans, then there is no reason to say that those who don't place such value on humanity are acting wrongly in any significant way. It is merely that they have chosen not to place value on humanity and it seems that there is no reason to claim that that decision is somehow morally deficient. In other words, if human life has value only because it is our decision to place that value in human beings and there is no inherent value in humanity, then on what basis can we say that others who don't choose to place value in humanity are acting immorally? To require them to do so would certainly seem to be of the same genre as "legislating morality" which the secularist in our society seem to find so utterly offensive.
Let me repeat: Do atheists act morally? Of course most of them do! It may even be true that more atheists than Christians act morally, but I am not addressing that issue in this post. However, simply acting morally does not mean that they have any strong philosophical foundation for doing so. To insist that people act morally, in an atheistic worldview, seems to be unwarranted on the most basic philosophical level.
Next time, I will set out Carrier's objection to what Moreland says, but unlike Carrier, I will try to provide context for what Moreland says based on Moreland's own words.