Writing for the Huffington Post, Pastor Rick Henderson explains Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.
While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations…
What follows is another one of those arguments where morality is supposed to come from God, and therefore without God there can be no good or evil, and therefore atheists can’t be “good” because they’ve denied the existence of good and evil. What’s interesting is the way Pastor Rick introduces this particular scam.
For those of you who are eager to pierce me with your wit and crush my pre-modern mind, allow me to issue a challenge. I contend that any response you make will only prove my case. Like encountering a hustler on the streets of Vegas, the deck is stacked, and the odds are not in your favor.
The atheist is talking with the pastor, but he’s being hustled, because the pastor has stacked the deck. I’ve seen believers pull this particular hustle before, but Pastor Rick is the first one to openly admit he’s using dishonest tactics to achieve his goal. But let’s lay all our cards on the table and check out his “three additional affirmations” and then see who deserves to win this particular hand.
The first affirmation is a somewhat vague and hand-wavy affirmation of some kind of materialism.
1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
This is somewhat garbled. It sounds like he’s trying to reduce materialism to the belief that only things made of atoms are real. But that’s not what scientists believe. Time is real, but it is not made out of atoms. Likewise the space between atoms, and all the events and processes that result from the actions and interactions of matter and energy over time, are not themselves made out of atoms. “Made out of atoms” scarcely begins to express what “purely material” really means.
A more accurate affirmation would be to explain that material reality is everything that exists and occurs in and of itself, independently of any 3rd-party observer’s perceptions of what exists and occurs. Material reality is that reality which stands in distinction to that which exists only in the imagination and misperceptions of the observer. Atheists do not deny the existence of things outside of material reality. Myths do exist, as do errors, ignorance, and “stacked decks.” The important thing to note about such non-material “realities” is that they are not part of material reality, and are not consistent with it. Any god who is not material (i.e. who does not exist in and of himself), is necessarily a mythical being, and exists only as a myth and a fantasy.
Thus, atheists affirm the existence of material reality, and make a distinction between that which exists in and of itself, versus that which exists only in the imaginations of the mind and heart. This in no way handicaps the atheist, because to deny this affirmation is to deny the existence of reality itself, and/or to fail to make any distinction between that which really exists, and that which is only a figment of the imagination. It might be possible to disagree with atheism on this point, but it would never be wise to do so.
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
This is another muddled affirmation. A more clear and accurate expression would be to say that material reality is consistent with itself, meaning both that material reality does not contradict itself, and that every part of material reality is integrated with the rest of material reality, such that you can proceed from the things you can observe to discover things you did not previously know. Or in other words, that material reality is meaningful.
That is, after all, what science is all about: discovering the meaning of what we see. You dip litmus paper into a solution and it turns from pink to blue, and that means the solution is more basic than acidic. You put some on a glass rod and hold it in the flame of a bunsen burner, and the flame turns bright yellow, and that means the solution contains sodium. And so on.
Meaning comes from the fact that reality is consistent with itself. Take any one real thing, and it’s interconnected with other real things, such that you can know the other things when you observe the first one. That’s what “meaning” is: the mutual, reliable relationship between things. Consequently, the second affirmation is really an affirmation that material reality is rational and meaningful. Again, you can contradict the atheist on this one if you choose, but if you do, you’re denying the existence of meaning and reason, which leaves you with no basis for asserting any valid alternative to atheism.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.
This one starts out fairly well. The atheist does indeed affirm that the universe (i.e. what the believer would call “Creation”) does not have any consciousness or will of its own. I rather doubt that any Christian would assert the contrary: that somehow the galaxies and dust clouds and empty spaces of the cosmos form some kind of conscious, sentient being sufficient to make it into a person. That’s not really even controversial.
But then Pastor Rick goes on to insist that atheists have to affirm that no conscious will guides the universe. That’s roughly true, with the caveat that parts of the universe are most definitely guided by conscious wills—ours! Still, that’s a less-useful expression of the real atheistic affirmation that belongs here. A better declaration would be to say that atheists reject superstition as a means of acquiring knowledge about material reality. In other words, we do not attribute natural phenomena to some assumed and unverifiable “intentions” of some supposed invisible spirits.
The problem with superstition is that it is both arbitrary and subjective. You take some real-world phenomenon and then arbitrarily associate it with some alleged cause or effect, in the absence of any verifiable connection between the two, and typically without even any workable description of what this connection would be if you could look for it. The connection is always of the “*poof* Magic!” variety, and it exists only in the mind of the superstitious person making the connection. And needless to say, different people make different associations, because it’s all arbitrary and subjective. Hence, it is completely useless as a means of understanding the actual workings of material reality. Atheists are perfectly right to reject it, because it would be silly to try and base your understanding on such arbitrary magical thinking.
Bottom line, if we unstack the deck, and deal out a fair hand, we see that atheism is based on making a distinction between material reality and subjective fantasies, and on the observation that material reality is rational and meaningful, and on a rejection of superstition. Seen in this light, Pastor Rick’s conclusions are rather nonsensical.
Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.
A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.
That’s the kind of hand you deal out when you’re playing with half a stacked deck. The reality is that morality—our experience of “good” and “bad”—is a hybrid phenomenon that has both an objective side and a subjective side. Morality is a system of values, and as such it must be subjective, because values are attitudes and priorities as held by people. But because we are material beings, our experience of “good” and “bad” also has an objective, material component. You can’t subjectively decide that murder is good, and then have murder not kill anybody. Real things have real consequences in the real world.
There is thus a perfectly rational, materialistic, godless basis for assessing good versus evil relative to the material, real-world consequences that result. Indeed, even Christians have to resort to materialistic morality in order to have any basis for the “divine” morality they seek to impose on the rest of us. The whole doctrine of resurrection and judgment is based on associating some kind of painful physical experience with the idea of sin. Everybody ultimately draws their understanding of “good” and “bad” from their own personal experience of material things they either liked or did not like. God has nothing to do with it; He’s just tacked on after the fact to give believers some leverage.
As seen in a rational, meaningful, non-superstitious light, there are a great many good atheists, who do good in the world, and who actively oppose things that people do that are genuinely harmful, like genocide. Among other things, we find many atheists fighting against prejudice, against superstition, and against injustice, and they do so while staying consistent with their fundamental philosophical and moral principles.
Can believers honestly say the same?