Over at What’s Wrong with the World, Dr. Lydia McGrew has written a short article that nails the reason why atheists are liable to err on moral matters. The article, titled, Does being an atheist interfere with being moral? (September 22, 2015), identifies metaphysical naturalism (which views the world as the sum total of what can be described by the sciences) as the root of the problem. There is of course no logical reason why atheists are bound to accept this materialistic worldview, but the vast majority of contemporary atheists do, and the ethical theory which they tend to opt for, as a best fit for their metaphysical views, is utilitarianism. On a utilitarian view, there are no radical discontinuities in Nature, but only a continuum. Ethically, all that separates us from the chimpanzees is that we are capable of a much greater degree of pleasure, owing to our richer self-awareness, which arises from our having more complex brains. However, the ethical implications of this way of thinking are profoundly anti-human, as there are many humans (e.g. fetuses, newborn babies, the extremely senile and patients in a vegetative state) who don’t experience anything like an adult’s level of pleasure, and who are therefore regarded by utilitarians as inferior beings. In Dr. McGrew’s own words:
There are two atheist “memes” (to use a jargon term) that seem to me to be in prima facie conflict…
…[T]hese are not exact quotes from anyone but approximate statements that reflect things that I, and I suspect you, dear Reader, have heard and read.
Atheist meme #1: It is offensive to imply that being an atheist is in any way detrimental to being a moral person. Atheists can be just as moral as religious people.
Keep your eye on the ball. The question of what is meant by “just as moral” will be crucial.
Atheist meme #2: The idea that man is in any way special is speciesism derived from religious ideas like the image of God. Once we get rid of those religious concepts we can see that man is just another animal, though a highly evolved one. Man’s continuity with the animals means that abortion, euthanasia, killing those in “vegetative states,” and even infanticide are all “on the table” for ethical debate. The decision in specific cases should be made on the basis of utilitarian considerations without any notion that human life per se is valuable.
It should be pretty obvious that the proposals in atheist meme #2 are socially radical. They represent a departure from what a lot of people for a long time in Western society have thought of as moral behavior. Yet atheist meme #2 says that, once you are an atheist, you should consider them to be viable options.
Prima facie, this conflicts with atheist meme #1. It’s pretty obvious that, if atheist meme #2 is true, atheist meme #1 is false: Atheism does make you a less moral person if atheism leads you to consider doing all those things or even advocating them.
Dr. McGrew accuses secular humanists who assert meme #1 and who then proceed to advocate meme #2 are “doing a bait and switch.” The first claim sounds reasonable, especially if we focus on well-known “intellectual” atheists, who look like “nice people.” Once the public is lulled into accepting that these people are just as moral as religious people, a humanist can then argue for the “enlightened,” utilitarian ethics that these figures espouse.
Not all atheists have warped ethical beliefs. There are a few noble atheists who uphold a pro-life position on moral issues, on purely rational grounds – for instance, the atheist Doris Gordon, founder of Libertarians for Life. Dr. McGrew has such people in mind when she writes:
The funny thing is that I actually believe that the true positions on these issues are available by the natural light and hence do not require theism to understand. (Though theism helps. Human beings always find it useful to have more sources of information than strictly necessary.) I examined some of these issues in this essay. In Western society, however, the brand of atheism most commonly held is not some sort of virtuous, Platonic atheism that cleaves to the Good and accesses the natural light but rather some version of naturalism. And that is highly detrimental to moral insight.
Precisely. Metaphysical naturalism is the worldview that poisons the way that most atheists reason ethically, because it views the mind itself as the product of unguided natural processes, instead of taking the existence of mind as a fundamental fact about our cosmos (as a few atheists do). Theists, by contrast, are immune to the poison of metaphysical naturalism, for as long as they continue to believe in God. And that, in a nutshell, is why atheism can interfere with being moral.