Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Problem of Morality for Atheism: a pot of gold for the seeker

The story is told of a bright, eager college student in a philosophy class. The teacher had given instructions about an essay test that could cover any topic of deep personal interest to each student. He set out several colored folders on his desk and told the students to pick one and place their finished essay test into it before the end of the class period. The eager young student poured his heart and mind into his carefully argued thesis, and with minutes to spare, confidently strolled up to the aged professor, opened a blue folder and slid his test in.

The professor peered at him from above rounded-spectacles. "What was your thesis, young man?" The student smiled, "It's about how atheism denies objective morality."  The wise sage nodded ever so slightly. "I see, I see," he said. The professor then pulled out the student's test and without even glancing at a single line of the meticulous draft, put a large, red "F" at the top of the paper. The student's countenance dropped as his eyes darted from the grade to the teacher's face. "But, but, I don't haven't even read it, how can you fail me?!"

"Oh, I'm sorry, " the instructor continued, "let me explain. I don't like the color blue, so all tests in the blue folder get an 'F'". The student was indignant. He looked at the teacher, then around at the few remaining students scattered about. "But--that's not fair! It isn't right!"

How quickly the true inward reality of an issue comes knocking when we least expect it. All the carefully crafted arguments and cleverly arranged research vanishes like the emperor's clothes once exposed to the light of even a child's comprehension of the facts. The atheist is in a quandary: on the one hand, they worship at the mantra "The universe--all there ever was, is, or ever will be" but yet on the other hand they cannot escape the universal experience of (gasp! here it comes) morality.

Morality, that inner witness to something that "ought to be", a conscious and yet subconscious acknowledgement that some things are intrinsically "right" and others are undeniably "wrong".  That pleasant sense of FAIRNESS or that horrific realization of INEQUALITY, or INJUSTICE.  People often speak of the "innocence of a child," in other words, kids will often point out the fundamental issues that us "adults" are too complicated and sophisticated to, um...admit.

Take a mother and father with three young kids. On Christmas morning, the children rush down to the living room and see a boatload of beautifully wrapped gifts under a brilliantly decorated tree. But, upon closer inspection, to the horror of the other two, all of the gifts are for the same child. All for him, NONE for them. Now, ask them about the reality of the fundamental issue of morality or fairness. They will tell you the truth, every time. Even the one who has been the beneficiary of such a lopsided affair will express a certain amount of discomfort, even though it is unfair in their favor.

Here in America we cherish and value the Declaration of Independence. Drafted by a mix of intelligent, enlightened, and thoughtful founders, it declares:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."

Right there, within the first few paragraphs of arguably one of the most important, quoted, and well-supported documents of all time, is a treasure trove of understanding about this issue. Notice certain key words, such as "self-evident", "equal", and "Rights." Also, note the foundation of these moral issues: Their Creator. America's founders, whether deist, theist, or fundamental Christian, considered to be among the greatest congregations of educated people ever assembled, understood and laid out the case before us ever so eloquently. Morality is a universal truth, and it is given by our Creator.

 Moving forward at least two centuries, the famous Oxford professor and former-atheist-turned-Christian, C.S. Lewis, put it ever so bluntly (as he was known to do):

"The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike...Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish."

In fact, it was the irrefutable issue of morality, of the undeniable witness of fairness, equality, and justice, that tormented the mind of the brilliant skeptic. As he wrestled with the implications of this universal phenomenon, the light of a greater truth began to dawn on his intellectual horizon. As he finally emerged out of the haze of his own arrogant self-deception, he declared:

"Atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning..."

Now, stay with me here, I promise it will pay off. The atheist is an extremely precarious position once the debate goes down the line of the concept of objective morality---and here's why. As the framers of the Declaration correctly asserted, morality can only exist if there is a higher authority, endowed by our "Creator". Without a lawgiver, an authority, a Creator, a God, who has made the Universe, and all that is within it, including us, then obviously morality is nothing more than an illusion. But the universal witness is incontrovertible, morality exists.

Leprechauns and the Pot of Gold

We have all heard the children's story of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but unfortunately, it is guarded by jealous leprechauns. These tiny green menaces will do all in their power to keep us from "stealing" their magical treasure troves.  Now, if you ever find one of these magical pots of gold, guess what...that's pretty good evidence for the existence of Leprechauns, since the two are always linked together. Leprechauns and pots of gold are two sides of the same coin.

What does this have to do with God, atheists, and morality?


Let's pull back the veil of the analogy for just a bit. Instead of "pot of gold", let's replace that with "morality". Instead of leprechauns, let's say "God." (no disrespect intended). Now, for the atheist, who asserts that there is no Creator, no God, no lawgiver, no higher authority---he/she has been hit in a head-on collision with an irrefutable fact. They cannot allow the concept of morality, of fairness, of right and wrong, without admitting the leprechaun behind that pot of gold.

So, Who Has the Delusion?

Perhaps the most famous living atheist is Richard Dawkins. But poor Richard has fallen into this little pot-of-gold-trap in his most famous recent book, The God Delusion. In this attack-book, he sets his sights on Christianity (as he always does).

He immediately goes after the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. He alleges that the God of the Bible is the most evil, sadistic, and repulsive figure of all literature.

Watch out Professor. That's a downward spiral that you don't really want to go down. Actually, it's not that you shouldn't go there, or that you wouldn't go there---to be blunt, you CAN'T go there. As a committed anti-theist, who denies anything higher than man, you cannot make those assertions. It's illogical. If there is no God, no Creator, then, guess what? There is no good, bad, evil, right, or wrong. Richard Dawkins cannot claim that the God of the Bible is evil or bad---because, by very definition of his own worldview, Dawkins cannot allow for those concepts. They simply don't exist in the world of Richard Dawkins. Things may be inconvenient, or disappointing...but they cannot be wrong, or bad, or unfair, or unjust...or any of the charges that he has laid out in his self-refuting case against God.

Once an atheist makes value claims regarding morality, they have admitted their own contradiction, in a sense, they have won the argument for the theist (those who believe in God). This lack of a cogent and cohesive argument comes up all of the time in debates with skeptics. They invariably point out tragedies, disasters, and horrible evils in the world, and then challenge: "How could a loving God allow these terrible and evil things, if He really existed?"

Thank you for the challenge, for you have admitted to the pot of gold, and now perhaps you will finally see the leprechaun. An atheist cannot challenge a Christian based on the accusation that God is unjust or unfair to allow evil in a world that He created. To do so, is for the atheist to admit that, deep down, he/she feels repulsed by the corruption, the evil, the vile actions of others----but why? If there is no God, then nothing is evil, or wrong, or vile. But, alas! They cannot escape the very fabric of their own conscience.

The next time you run into an avowed atheist, tell them that you will respect the arguments of any belief system, except for atheists.

When they say: "But, that is unfair!"---

---just smile.

That little pot of gold is truly priceless.

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