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Does new atheism have a real problem with morality?

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We wondered:

I’d like to focus on a small part of the dispute, as it nicely summarizes the New Atheist’s ability to deal with atheism’s morality problem.

Coyne provides the following quote from Robbins:

Nietzsche’s atheism is far from exultant—he is not crowing about the death of God, much as he despises Christianity. He understands how much has been lost, how much there is to lose.
. . . Nietzsche realized that the Enlightenment project to reconstruct morality from rational principles simply retained the character of Christian ethics without providing the foundational authority if the latter. Dispensing with his fantasy of the Übermensch, we are left with his dark diagnosis. To paraphrase the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, our moral vocabulary has lost the contexts from which its significance derived, and no amount of Dawkins-style hand-waving about altruistic genes will make the problem go away. (Indeed, the ridiculous belief that our genes determine everything about human behavior and culture is a symptom of this very problem.)

. . . The point is not that a coherent morality requires theism, but that the moral language taken for granted by liberal modernity is a fragmented ruin: It rejects metaphysics but exists only because of prior metaphysical commitments.

That analysis is spot on. So how does Coyne respond? E1b

Caturday, one supposes.

Note to Coyne: Relax and adopt another rescue kitty. The Kitty Angel smiles on those of us who do that. You will be happier and enjoy better health. [Truth in advertising: Tom, Dick, and Harry, feline rescues, sponsored this paragraph.]

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10 Replies to “Does new atheism have a real problem with morality?

  1. 1
    Jim Smith says:

    I don’t see this as a question of philosophy. It is a question for empirical investigation:

    The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating.


    Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

    Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness


    Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

    Materialism is dehumanizing – What could be more dehumanizing than reducing a person to a machine operating according to deterministic consequences of the properties of atoms and physical laws.

    By reducing humanity to their biological makeup, these Darwinian-inspired biological determinists contributed to the dehumanization process.

    Human intent became irrelevant in interpreting human documents. Dehumanization thus spiraled even further downward, as all human values were construed as socially constructed.

    Human rights are meaningless is a world of determinism or social (or individual) constructivism.?

    Dehumanization leads to atrocities

    Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?

    Dehumanized perception, a failure to spontaneously consider the mind of another person, may be
    a psychological mechanism facilitating inhumane acts like torture. Social cognition – considering
    someone’s mind – recognizes the other as a human being subject to moral treatment. Social
    neuroscience has reliably shown that participants normally activate a social-cognition neural
    network to pictures and thoughts of other people; our previous work shows that parts of this
    network uniquely fail to engage for traditionally dehumanized targets (homeless persons or drug
    addicts; see Harris & Fiske, 2009, for review). This suggests participants may not consider these
    dehumanized groups’ minds. Study 1 demonstrates that participants do fail to spontaneously think
    about the contents of these targets’ minds when imagining a day in their life, and rate them
    differently on a number of human-perception dimensions. Study 2 shows that these humanperception
    dimension ratings correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social-cognition
    network, including areas implicated in disgust, attention, and cognitive control. These results
    suggest that disengaging social cognition affects a number of other brain processes and hints at
    some of the complex psychological mechanisms potentially involved in atrocities against

    There are many empirical studies that show the benefits of spirituality and religion. Atheism undermines these benefits. Each person should believe what he thinks is right but the activist militant atheists should consider how it can be moral to spread a philosophy that is harmful.

    Andrew Sims

    Andrew Sims, past president of Royal College of Psychiatrists, has said: “The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally. If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land (from Is Faith Delusion).”


    In the majority of studies, religious involvement is correlated with well-being, happiness and life satisfaction; hope and optimism; purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better adaptation to bereavement; greater social support and less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide; less anxiety; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug use and abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; greater marital stability and satisfaction… We concluded that for the vast majority of people the apparent benefits of devout belief and practice probably outweigh the risks.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    Jim Smith, thanks for the links:

    you may appreciate this finding:

    Consciousness Does Not Compute (and Never Will), Says Korean Scientist – May 05, 2015
    Excerpt: “Non-computability of Consciousness” documents Song’s quantum computer research into TS (technological singularity (TS) or strong artificial intelligence). Song was able to show that in certain situations, a conscious state can be precisely and fully represented in mathematical terms, in much the same manner as an atom or electron can be fully described mathematically. That’s important, because the neurobiological and computational approaches to brain research have only ever been able to provide approximations at best. In representing consciousness mathematically, Song shows that consciousness is not compatible with a machine.
    Song’s work also shows consciousness is not like other physical systems like neurons, atoms or galaxies. “If consciousness cannot be represented in the same way all other physical systems are represented, it may not be something that arises out of a physical system like the brain,” said Song. “The brain and consciousness are linked together, but the brain does not produce consciousness. Consciousness is something altogether different and separate. The math doesn’t lie.”
    Of note: Daegene Song obtained his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Oxford

  3. 3
    wallstreeter43 says:

    Here is an honest atheist who posted this question to william lane craig about atheism and it’s ridiculous arguments to try to justify object morality without God.

    “You’ve Ruined My Life, Professor Craig!!”
    Dear Professor Craig,

    My name is Adam. I am an atheist, and have been one ever since I can remember. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic church, but could never really say that I held any theistic beliefs with any sincerity. For instance, one time, when I was around eight or nine years old, I asked a nun at my church where I “was” before I was born. She responded: “You were with God.” I was still curious, so I asked her how long I was with God, before my being born, and she proclaimed: “For an eternity!” I then asked her why I could not remember “existing with God” for an eternity of time (is an eternity of time even a coherent concept?). She had enough with that question and proceeded to shew me away to play with the other children. Looking back, I am proud of my skeptical disposition.

    Let’s skip ahead a little bit. I found philosophy and I fell in love with it. I transferred schools in order to obtain my BA. Almost all of the papers I wrote as an undergrad were about atheism or God. I was on a mission to be as rational as I could with regards to my atheistic beliefs. Moreover, I was practically an “evangelical” atheist, proclaiming the good word of rationality! My beliefs were strident at best, and intolerant at worst. I thought I had the “God question” all figured out. It was a settled issue for me: God did not exist. The philosophy of religion was my initial and main draw to philosophy, but I soon found myself wanting to explore philosophy in all its glory. Philosophy, as a whole, was too interesting to just “stop”, then move on to some “real job”. I decided to apply to an MA program in philosophy at CSULA, and got accepted. Philosophy was something that I took very seriously. So much so, that I drove from NY to CA with no job and no place to live in order to continue my studies. I actually wrote a response to your paper The Absurdity of Life Without God and used it as my writing sample in order to get in to CSULA. I stayed up for months writing and polishing my responses to your claims of the inconsistency of atheism in its response to meaning, value, and purpose in life. I had too. You were telling me my life, as a direct result of my worldview, was worthless in every possible way. Well, as an ambitious philosophy student, I could not simply let you get away this. Your objections to atheism needed answers. And after wrestling with your paper for some time, I actually felt pretty good about the end product and presumed to have “answered” your objections to atheism in a satisfactory way. I could now move on, live my life with the excitement, consistency, and appreciation that I had before reading your essay.

    I was wrong.

    I should have known better too, since the first time I read that paper of yours, I couldn’t sleep for two days. It completely shattered my worldview. Let me mention here that I was a huge fan of the New Atheists, but I always sensed something was askew with them. Something seemed off about them because whenever they were talking about meaning, value, or purpose, they answered in such ways that only a person ignorant of the objections in your paper could respond. In short (too late), your paper never left my mind, even years after I wrote a “response” to it. I knew, deep down, that not only did I not, but could not answer your objections to atheism. What you say the atheistic worldview entails is true. There is no escaping the nihilism as an atheist.

    Everything has died for me.

    You have ruined my life.

    Before I go any further, let me say that you are and always have been my favorite living philosopher. I have seen every debate you have ever recorded and put up on the internet. I watch all your lectures and talks (Closer to Truth, youtube, etc.) I think you are the epitome of what a philosopher should be. You’re uber logical, fantastically clear, and “computeresk” with the speed and precision of your responses to objections against your position, particularly the criticisms you respond to in your debates. For a long time now, I have wanted to be a philosopher as you are a philosopher. I want to have an argument posed against my position, and be able to dissect it in the same manner as you do. I can honestly say that I have learned more from reading what you have wrote and watching you on the internet than maybe all of my years in school, formally studying philosophy. I seem to owe you a lot, with regards to my philosophical development, at least.

    Now, let’s get down to business and why exactly it is that you have ruined my life. After reading your paper on the absurdity of life without God, I soon realized that I had to become a nihilist. To act otherwise would inevitably reduce into an inconsistency. Nihilism is the logical conclusion of an atheistic worldview. Yet, nihilism is unlivable. Christopher Hitchens used to say that you cannot derive any knowledge of what an atheist believes from the fact that she is an atheist. If someone claims to be an atheist, according to Hitchens, you can only conclude that she believes that “God does not exist” or that she “lacks a belief in God” (don’t get me started with that distinction!!!) You cannot “go any further” and know if she is a Marxist or a Capitalist, etc. But your paper shows that Hitchens is patently false about this. Atheism necessarily entails nihilistic conclusions about certain questions, particularly those you bring up in your paper about meaning, value, and purpose.

    There is a similar misunderstanding that shows how atheists fail to fully comprehend the severity of their own worldview. I feel like I need to say how disappointed I am in the New Atheists, and moreover, the professional philosophers, who do not understand the “moral argument” for God’s existence. Why can’t they comprehend the ontology of values? Why is this so difficult? It is all too obvious that you are not talking about whether people can act, or know of the, “good” on atheism, but rather that there is no foundation for morality outside of God. Sorry, I just had to rant a little, because it bothers me when philosophers, who should know better, don’t comprehend the moral argument. I can only imagine how frustrated you must feel. Further, I hate all the nasty comments you get on YouTube. People don’t even understand how well thought out your views are. You have the most coherent worldview I have ever heard anyone describe. Sorry, just wanted to say that you have at least one atheist on your side, sir.

    So, this brings me to the problem (finally, sorry)-

    Philosophically, I agree with almost everything you say. Not in a “follower” sense, but in that I find what you say either convincingly true or I find I come to the same conclusions that you do with regards to particular ideas that I have reasoned through on my own. With that said, I am still an atheist. How is this possible? How could my favorite philosopher be a Christian, I agree with almost everything he says, yet I am an atheist? Well, it seems that you make an extremely strong case for the rationality of an “abstract” notion of God, but I cannot get myself to go the extra step further and believe any of the world religions (not that I believe this abstract God actually exists either, it just seems to be becoming more and more plausible to me). I definitely cannot get myself to be a Christian. Christianity just does not seem true to me. However, the deeper I dive into philosophy, the more the theistic worldview seems more plausible. The concepts or “language” of mathematics seems to “cry out” as you put it for an explanation, objective moral values seem to be real (but they can’t be “real”, if atheism is true), the idea of “existence” nauseates me to no end (just the thought of anything, at all, existing, and especially existing without any reason, frightens me,), and I could go on and on. You know, all the things you speak about in your YouTube videos.

    However, even when I don’t think about the arguments, and I think about what you and others have said about the “Holy Spirit”, I cannot get myself to believe that this “Holy Spirit” exists and can authenticate my belief in God. As you know, Martin Luther thought the Holy Spirit would guide people in reading the Bible properly, when the Reformation was underway, since there was the concern that without the guidance of the church, people may interpret the bible incorrectly. The Holy Spirit’s guiding capabilities seem to be have been proven empirically false though, due to such a wide variety of conflicting beliefs all being derived from the Bible. Now I know that the diversity of beliefs doesn’t necessarily allow for the conclusion that all of the religious beliefs or experiences are false, that there aren’t at least some beliefs or experiences that are true, and therefore the Holy Spirit does not exist. However, this disagreement does cause pause in me, and it makes the situation suspect enough to where I cannot seemingly distinguish between an authentic experience with the Holy Spirit or my being deluded. There does not seem to be anything here to help me out of the nihilistic rut. Lately though, I have been questioning why I even value “rationality”, or what it even means to “value” rationality on an atheistic worldview. That’s another topic though, sorry.

    Let me wrap this ramble up. I am now stuck in a nihilistic-atheistic world that I hate. Agnosticism is not even a coherent position to me, with regards to a Perfect Being, since I believe that the greatest conceivable being could give me knowledge of its existence, if it wanted to. Theism is a dream come true. The world would make sense, the existential mysteries that haunt me would be solved, life would be livable. It is atheism, however, which seems to be true, yet I do not want to live like this. I have become depressed to no end. I have been in a nihilistic rut for years now. I have become utterly recluse. Yet, even with all this, I cannot come to believe in God. What would YOU suggest I do? This letter is as sincere as it gets. You may be my last hope. Since I agree with you on so much, I was hoping you would have the answer to this. I know the “answer” is Christianity, but as I said, I cannot get myself to believe its truth. I am an atheist who hates atheism. I want there to be a God more than anything, yet I cannot get myself to believe in one. I cannot seem to give an adequate answer to Camus’s question: “Is life worth living?”

    A feel like a philosopher of your caliber is the only person I have left to turn to. A psychologist wouldn’t get my concerns, at least I don’t think think they would. I need the clarity and reasonableness of a philosopher. Please, help.

    Your biggest atheist fan,


    PS- Do me one favor? Even if you never have time to respond. Please, do not debate Lawrence Krauss anymore. As with most people not trained in philosophy, it is not even an argument in any sort of philosophical sense. He is a shouting bag of hot air with irrelevant criticisms and gross misunderstandings of the arguments. He does not deserve to be the face for atheism, we both know this. But maybe this is your plan.

  4. 4
    Jim Smith says:

    BA77 I saw a thread on that research over at the Skeptiko forums.

    Anyone who comments (or posts) here might find those forums interesting too. Despite the name, the owner of the forums is not a materialist.

  5. 5
    JimFit says:

    Objective morality demands transcendence. You can’t have an objective morality that is based on time, space and matter aka what you see. Even as an atheist you can’t dispute that you think transcendentally. Transcendence proves Materialism wrong therefor atheists who try to find a materialistic base for morality are hypocrites and shouldn’t be called atheists at first place.

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    Why do atheists get so morally outraged when they think you have done something you ought not have done or failed to do something they think you ought to have done?

  7. 7
    Seversky says:

    Morality tells us how we ought to behave. That entails a purpose which, so far as we can tell, only exists in the consciousness of an intelligent agent like ourselves. You and I can form an opinion about what is morally right or wrong. A rock can’t. It doesn’t care one way or the other. In fact, it doesn’t care at all as it is incapable of caring. To argue that morality is somehow embedded in rocks and all other material phenomena is absurd.

    The same is true of transcendence. If the Universe means literally all that exists then it cannot be transcended. There is literally nothing beyond. If the Universe we observe is not all there is, if there is a ‘beyond’ which is accessible and, hence, connected to the universe we observe then all we are saying is that the transcendent part is the bit we can’t see, at least, not yet. Simply farming out morality to the Transcendent Zone doesn’t actually get you out of the problem. Euthyphro’s Dilemma is unresolved.

  8. 8
    JimFit says:


    only exists in the consciousness of an intelligent agent like ourselves

    Consciousness exists in every kind of life, as a Christian Orthodox i follow that life = consciousness. Humans differ from the rest of the animals because they have knowledge of good and evil. I also believe that our consciousness is transcendent that’s why we can understand space and time, because consciousness precedes spacetime and can observe it.

    If the Universe means literally all that exists then it cannot be transcended.There is literally nothing beyond.

    The Universe is preceded by Consciousness.

    Four intersecting lines of experimental evidence from quantum mechanics that shows that consciousness precedes material reality (Wigner’s Quantum Symmetries, Wheeler’s Delayed Choice, Leggett’s Inequalities, Quantum Zeno effect):

    Simply farming out morality to the Transcendent Zone doesn’t actually get you out of the problem.

    This is a transcendent teaching
    “Don’t do unto others, what you wouldn’t want done unto you.”

    It will apply even if we leave earth and go to mars or anywhere in the Universe or if we travel back in time, to do to you what i wouldn’t want to done to me will still be immoral. For that reason morality exceeds the material world because our transcendent consciousness thinks beyond space and time.

  9. 9
    wallstreeter43 says:

    Jimfit, this may be a bit off topic but I hear that the Greek Orthodox hold to panentheism.
    Are you also a panentheist ?
    I have been studying panentheism the last few months and it seems like a mainstream Christian can hold to a week panentheism and nit be heretical but nit a strong panentheism .

    Notice everyone I said panentheism and not pantheism. But difference between the 2

  10. 10
    JimFit says:

    wallstreeter43 yes that’s right, Orthodoxy means panentheism , i describe myself as an Idealist Panentheist.

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