A Christian of sorts accused me of being a hypocritical atheist because I was not a nihilist since he believed that moral nihilism is the only logical conclusion from atheism. I was trying to find out more about his argument on morality and where it came from. I think I may have found it. It’s usually called the “is-ought” problem. As I understand the history of this dilemma, David Hume made a distinction between descriptive statement (is) and prescriptive statements (ought). To paraphrase his argument to me, he claimed that I must also have “faith in something” to justify my belief in moral realism (the objectivity of morality) and therefore should be a nihilist or something similar to maintain consistency and avoid intellectual hypocrisy. He claimed that theism offered the basis for moral realism.
As an aside, I wrestled with this dilemma before although I didn’t know its name formally.
Is human sacrifice wrong? On what moral basis does one arrive at that conclusion? I can give reasons why I believe it to be wrong, they may even be similar to one’s own reasons, but God is an unnecessary assumption that only serves to muddy the waters.
Let’s assume God commands someone to commit a human sacrifice, does that automatically make it moral? If God’s commands are the basis for one’s morality then in principle, morality is based on prescriptions from a divinity and any whimsical moral fact commanded by said Deity becomes “moral” by fiat. Morality then becomes a function of the God one worships. One would also have the added worry (assumption) that one is in fact worshiping the correct God or else one isn’t moral.
Let’s assume next that one claims that God would never command human sacrifice because that would be immoral. If that is the case, why? Wouldn’t any reason provided be a reason apart from God? Why not simply appeal to the objective morality that “God” does?
It is not by accident that I have chosen the example of human sacrifice. As I mentioned before, I was of the Judeo-Christian persuasion. Some stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition include: the command of Abraham to sacrifice his son on an altar (Genesis 22), only to be stopped in the last moment by an angel, Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 30) who was sacrificed in order to fulfill an oath to Yahweh, and Jesus Christ as portrayed in the gospels who through the human sacrifice of him, Yahweh’s wrath was appeased. I could not square away how morality and God could go together.
Morality seems to be a human intuition. Those who study it indicate that morality seems to be a property that is “outside” of humanity, implying moral realism. Some things to consider: is the Capuchin monkey experiment performed by Frans de Waal that seems to show that moral behavior exists in the animal kingdom. I would also like to add some statistics to this debate.
- According to Hemant Mehta’s analysis of a DOJ self-reported religious affiliation survey, atheists comprise between 2%-3% of the population yet comprise of only 0.07% of prisoners.
- According to a PhilPaper.org survey of philosophers worldwide 72.8% are atheists
- According to a 2009 PewResearch on scientists and belief 67% don’t believe in God
Most atheists do not believe there is tension between moral realism and lack of belief in God. Morality is a strong intuition shared by both atheists and theists. It would be important to note, that as of yet, no one has formulated a universal morality, neither atheists nor theists for that matter. The statistics provided are not to be used as an appeal to authority but used as evidence to counter the notion that atheists can’t be moral and that many atheist philosophers are aware of these problems, but come to different conclusions. I would like to add that one has to argue for the view that nihilism follows from atheism. This doesn’t seem to me to be true since there are plenty of atheists who are moral realists and do not see the tension that the argument indicates it should.
Theism has the bigger problem that any argument in favor of traditional definitions of God being the source of morality would have to argue why the same argument wouldn’t apply to an evil God as well.