On Jerry Coyne and godless morality

Jerry Coyne at "Noorfest", Duke Univ...

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Earlier this month,  Jerry Coyne wrote an op-ed piece for the USA Today called “As atheists know, you can be good without God”. Coyne is an outspoken evolutionary scientist and an atheist. Coyne tries to prove that theists do not have the moral high ground, and to that end I agree with him in some sense. Atheists, of course, can be moral too. But I will argue that he has no basis for thinking that this morality is grounded in anything factual given his atheism.

Jerry seems to share in some of the fundamental misunderstandings that many atheists have when it comes to the moral argument for God’s existence. First, he brings out our old friend the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ve written here recently that the Euthyphro Dilemma is really a false dilemma, but Coyne throws in a new wrinkle when he brings up that God not only can command us to do evil, but that He has! Coyne cites several examples of what modern Westerners would view as the more abhorrent commands of the Old Testament. Genocide! slavery! stoning! Oh, my!

Forgive me for being flippant, because I think these are valid concerns that should be thoughtfully answered.  The “abhorrent commands” objections take me beyond the scope of my point of this post, but I do recommend you to these helpful posts on Old Testament Ethics by Matthew Flannagan:

Mr. Coyne says that morality is not grounded in God but rather based upon evolution and our own reasoning.

So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we’d expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.

First let me say that I do think atheists, theists, pantheists and pastafarians alike can recognize moral facts. Human beings recognize that being kind is morally right, and that burning down orphanages for fun is morally wrong. But are these moral facts simply natural facts? If moral facts are simply natural facts, I would argue that they simply descriptive but not prescriptive. Altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing and the notion of fairness is how the world happens to be, but if the atheist is correct and we’re all here by a massive string of cosmic flukes and not for a real purpose, then there is no way things are supposed to be.  The difficulty for Mr. Coyne and atheists like him is saying this is how it ought to be.

When a male duck forcibly mates with a female duck, that is the way nature is, but we don’t say that the duck is doing something it is morally wrong. When we see hyenas eating a young gazelle alive chunk-by-chunk (forgive me if you’re eating while reading this), that is the way nature is, but we don’t see it as morally wrong, it’s just nature functioning as nature does. Unless an atheist is committed to some sort of moral platonism, then for them natural facts are the only kind of facts. They apply to the duck, the hyena and the human being. When humans are nice or when humans are not so nice (think child abusers, rapists, terrorists, serial killers and the lot) we’re just merely describing what is, but it says nothing about what ought to be. Was it necessary that human beings evolved with this sense of morality?  Charles Darwin didn’t seem to think so. In his book, The Descent of Man, he says:

…[if] men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Michael Ruse, an atheistic philosopher at Florida State says:

The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory . . . .

So there is nothing objective about morality on the evolutionary account, they’re just illusions “fobbed on us by our genes”.  But if God exists, then he provides the necessary foundation for moral duty. And if God designed us with a certain end in mind, he can make human beings in His image with the ability to recognize and discover what is right and wrong.

While Jerry is right that all of us can recognize the difference between right and wrong, naturalism provides no foundation for moral duty; rather it’s just telling us how it is. Telling us how it ought to be is rather meaningless on naturalism because there is no telos to the universe on their view. They can continue to do right because that’s what they prefer, but it’s hard to see how morality would be objective on atheism. I think it makes sense to say that if moral facts exist, then atheism is very unlikely to be true, to put it modestly. I don’t think Coyne wants to say moral facts do not exist, but atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse (as well as J.L. Mackie, Nietzsche and others) are at least consistent in denying that moral facts exist in a godless world. Coyne tries to stick the theist in a dilemma, but I think at the end of the day he’s the one finding himself in a pickle when it comes to plausibly explaining  moral facts in purely naturalistic terms.

The Christian and the Euthyphro Dilemma

Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum

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One of the arguments raised against God being the basis for morality is the age-old Euthyphro Dilemma. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue, asks Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The modern adaptation raised against theism goes something like this: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

The Catch-22 for the theist is this:

  1. God could command any arbitrary thing that popped into his head – like killing kittens – and we’d be obligated to obey and call it good because God says so. Or
  2. God answers to some sort of higher moral standard outside of himself, thus he cannot be the basis for our morality.

Based on biblical teachings, I do not think the Euthyphro dilemma poses a real problem for the Christian at all. If the statements found in the Bible are even possibly true in what they say about God, then the Euthyphro dilemma is really a false dilemma.

  1. “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (Referring to evil as darkness and light as good) (1 John 1:5)
  2. “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8)
  3. God is triune “And I (Jesus) will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:16)
  4. God is eternal and necessary. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (Jn. 1:1-3)
  5. God’s character is unchanging. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. “ (James 1:17)

So if God is light and he is unchanging, then He cannot on a whim become a “dark god” and command torture of little babies. If God is love, then what he commands will by necessity be loving. If God is triune, then his morality is not found outside himself, but within the persons of the Trinity. The persons who make up the Godhead relate to each other freely not out of law or arbitrary demands,  but out of perfect and maximal love for the other. “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:34-35)

So assuming the Bible is correct in what it says about the nature of God, God cannot have other traits then the ones that He possesses,  thus there is no arbitrariness. Furthermore, there is no higher moral good than love of the self-sacrificial, agape kind. God’s commands flow from his loving nature, and the New Testament command is to believe in Jesus Christ  love as Christ loved. (Jn. 13:34-35, 1 Jn. 3:22-24) There is no love standard that the triune God answers to outside of himself, He is necessarily a perfectly loving being by his very own nature.

Moreover, we read that whether we know God or not, He has “hard-wired” all humanity to recognize his commands. The commands aren’t imposed on us from the outside, but rather we recognize internally that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we do love our neighbor as ourselves, then we won’t steal from them, sleep with their wife, kick their cat, throw fireworks at their dog, etc.

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” -Romans 2:14-15

The Christian has a special advantage. Not only does the Christian experience the benefit of having their sins forgiven, but they also God’s very own Spirit living within her, enabling her with divine grace to keep God’s commands.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)

To close, if the Christian theology and anthropology is correct, then Euthyphro dilemma really is not a dilemma at all. Socrates may have stuck a pebble in Euthyphro’s shoe (or sandal, I should say) but for the Christian believer, there is no quandary.