Posted on Apr 8, 2014 by Tom Gilson
Part of the extended series Evidence for the Faith
I don’t know why anyone speaks of atheistic “humanism.” Atheism denies humanness. “‘Humanity is dead, and we are its murderers,’ says the Madman.”
That’s a bold and controversial statement, I know, and I know that it’s up to me to explain why I would make it. It’s a conclusion that I draw from many streams of information, one of which has to do with moral knowledge. It seems to me that true humannness implies knowing that some things are right and some things are wrong; and it also seems to me that atheism leaves no room for that knowledge to be true.
That’s actually another way of stating what I wrote several days ago in Part 1 of this series. There I developed an argument for parts AB1 and AB4 of this outlined argument:
AB1. We cannot know whether any action really is right or wrong unless right and wrong are real.
AB2. We know that some actions really are right and others are wrong.
AB3. Therefore right and wrong are real.
AB4. If there is no God, then right and wrong cannot be real.
AB5. Therefore (AB3 and AB4) there is a God.
Here I want to emphasize that humans do have moral knowledge (AB2), meanwhile exploring (AB4) atheism’s apparent denial of such knowledge.
Note that AB2 does not entail our having anything close to full, complete, or always-reliable moral knowledge. It only requires that we know that some actions are really more right than others, morally speaking. Godwin’s law notwithstanding, Hitler and the Nazis provide an almost-universally agreed example of something we know was wrong.
Not Knowing the Obvious
And yet some people deny even that, or they dilute it to the point of something other, and less, than moral knowledge. I’ll begin with a comment from that previous discussion, where Shane, like many atheists before him, makes himself the arbiter of right and wrong:
I can understand that the Nazis thought they were doing the right thing. I can also think that their actions were wrong because they are not things I would do. I do this from the comfort of the future, in a different country of course, and who knows what things would have been like if I was a German soldier during World War II.
Had he been a Nazi soldier during World War II, he would have perhaps thought he was doing nothing wrong. If so, then I can’t help but wonder who could have told him otherwise? I can only wonder what it means to be wrong, if the standard is one man’s opinion? By making himself his own standard, he undercuts the whole idea of a standard. Or maybe (it’s unclear to me) he’s making future human opinion the standard.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of thing expressed here. An earlier commenter named Paul agreed, when I pressed him on something he had previously written, that as an atheist, “I give up the right to say that in their times and places, slavery, suttee, and child sacrifice were wrong.” (I cannot link to it because when Paul wrote this I was on a pre-Wordpress version of this blog, using a third-party comment system called Haloscan, which has since gone the way of all e-flesh.)
Do We Have Moral Knowledge?
I’ve shared that quote with conference and seminar audiences in North and South Carolina, adding this to make sure it was clear: “What Paul was saying in this comment was that here in Charlotte [or Greenville …] in 1840 slavery was not wrong.” The reaction is always intense. Heads snap. Mouths drop open. Jaws tighten, brows furrow, shoulders become noticeably tense, and I know I must move quickly to re-emphasize that Paul’s view is not my view. I disagree with him completely, except for this: if Paul’s atheistic metaphysics were true, then his amoral conclusions would be, too. (Recall our previous discussions on AB4.)
If there is no transcendent moral standard, there is no moral knowledge, because there is nothing to be known. There is no right or wrong, except for each person’s opinion; and each person’s opinion in that case is indistinguishable from “I favor that kind of action” or “I don’t think highly of that other kind of action.” This is not morality, it’s aesthetics. If it is a culture-wide view rather than an individual’s view, then it is “we” rather than “I,” but the same still holds: it’s still aesthetics.
Or, possibly, right and wrong become shorthand for, “Do more of that,” vs. “Stop doing that.” That, too is not morality. It’s the exercise of power, or at least the attempt to do so.
Aesthetics is not morality. The practice of power is not morality. The language of morality may be there but the reality is stripped away. And if there is no morality, how could there can be moral knowledge?
So the “humanist” no longer has a basis for knowing that it’s wrong to speak of Lebensunwertes Leben; that it’s wrong to run gross scientific experiments on humans without consent; that it’s wrong to gas human beings and use their hair as raw material for soldiers’ apparel. The humanist cannot say, based on his own worldview, that he knows this is wrong. Let me re-emphasize: that’s not to say he doesn’t know it’s wrong; he does. Rather it is to say that his worldview provides no rational basis for knowing it is wrong.
Elevating Humanity by Making Humans Stupid
I suppose he could still call it inhuman, but in what sense? Inhuman in that humans don’t do it? I’m sorry, but we know that some humans have done it. Inhuman in the sense that humans shouldn’t do it? But should is a moral term—or rather, it’s a moral term, if moral terms mean anything; otherwise it’s another term of aesthetics or the application of power.
Atheism admits of no transcendent standard, so it makes humans the standard. It appears to elevate humans: we are the ultimate, the captains of our fate, the definers of our own being. It does so, however, by making us stupid. We no longer know that Hitler was wrong. We no longer know that child sacrifice was wrong. We can only say things like, “from the comfort of the future,” we can “think they are wrong because they are things I wouldn’t do.”
Yet every child knows there’s such a thing as right and wrong. You and I knew it as early as six months old. It takes “growing up” into atheism to discover that we can’t know right from wrong after all.
Here’s my bold and yet very convinced theory. I believe that every person, atheists and humanists included, still knows that some things are more right than others, and other things are more wrong. I believe every person still has moral knowledge. It’s part of the very essence of humanness. Some atheists deny it, but they do so not because they’ve forgotten what they know about it. They do it to save their theory, their metaphysics.
They think they’ve put God in the grave. The reality is, they’re shoveling earth in on their own humanness.
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