Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Monday, September 24, 2007

    The Presumptuous Worldview of Atheistic Morality

    “And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.'” (Deuteronomy 6:24-25)

    “Without absolutes revealed from without by God Himself, we are left rudderless in a sea of conflicting ideas about manners, justice and right and wrong, issuing from a multitude of self-opinionated thinkers.” - John Owen

    A few months back, I examined the effort by non-believers to justify sexual perversion by appealing to the moral authority of the bonobo chimp. (See Of Apes and Men). The atheist’s vain search for moral standards has taken a strange twist, one which, if taken to its logical conclusion, proves that ethical standards don’t exist. Writing in “Science” section of the September 18, 2007 New York Times, Nicholas Wade asks, “Where do moral rules come from? From reason, some philosophers say. From God, say believers. Seldom considered is a source now being advocated by some biologists, that of evolution.” Aside from the fact that atheists cannot explain how an accidental conglomeration of neurons like the human mind can understand our universe without God (Colossians 2:3), these vain philosophers are setting forth in a journey that few of them would wish to complete.

    Wade seeks to find answers to his ethical dilemma by citing “The Happiness Hypothesis”, a book by University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.” One must ask if disgust is a valid basis for morality (not to mention that no explanation was given for “disgust” in the first place.) When I was a kid, I thought that eating asparagus was disgusting (and I’m still not crazy about it.) Was it immoral for me to eat asparagus? Someone should have explained this to my parents. (I’ll bet the supporters of Jonathan Haidt love to hear about the Donner Party.)

    In addition, it must be noted that humans are not the only animals to express disgust. My cat expresses “moral indignation” at certain types of cat food, a problem expressed by Frans B. M. de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University. Nonetheless, Haidt’s studies led him to theorize that human morality is “driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.” In other words, morality is caused by something that happens in a human brain. I’ll focus more on this issue shortly, but it is a striking admission on the part of the atheist, and should promptly relieve them of the capacity to pass moral judgments on any sort of behavior, including their pet peeves “religion” and “homophobia”.

    Haidt goes on to conclude that moral intuition is a by product of instinct. “The emotional responses of moral intuition” he writes, “occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world.” Based on this, one has to wonder how anyone can justifiably make moral arguments. Many atheists admittedly would love to see such a world, but as Covenanter pointed out in The Kantian Paradox, they will find it impossible to live that way. Such will be the first to make a moral judgment on anyone who makes moral judgments.

    Haidt, obviously impressed by Hindu religious rituals, outlines “five components of morality that were common to most cultures”, though the article does not explain what these are. But we can get a glimpse of what Haidt is trying to promote. “Because these virtues are learned, morality may vary widely from culture to culture, while maintaining its central role of restraining selfishness.” If morality can vary from culture to culture, then there is no moral standard. If the goal of morality is to restrain selfishness, then young children are more immoral than a murderer who, in his own mind, kills “for the good of society”, like Hitler. Haidt goes on to assert, “In Western societies, the focus is on protecting individuals by insisting that everyone be treated fairly.” It sounds good on the surface, though the article never explains why everyone must be treated fairly, nor does he give us any standard by which to judge fairness. In a world where morality is based on instinct, there is no reason to expect anyone to conform to any moral standard. Afterall, a murderer or a thief is only acting on instinct. Why should we pass judgment on an accidental sack of biocarbons for taking the life of another accidental sack of biocarbons? Why is it that humans will tolerate gang activity from chacma baboons, yet express moral outrage when their alleged hairless “descendents” partake of the same activity?

    Haidt then proceeds, in one remarkable statement, to undermine his entire thesis. “Notions of disgust and purity are widespread outside Western cultures. "Educated liberals" are the only group to say, ‘I find that disgusting but that doesn’t make it wrong,’ ”. So after telling us that there “are innate psychological mechanisms that predispose children to absorb certain virtues”, he champions an “educational” solution to such innate moral tendencies, leaving him back to where he began, with no concrete theory of ethics.

    Dr. de Waal gives an alternate theory. “For me, the moral system is one that resolves the tension between individual and group interests in a way that seems best for the most members of the group, hence promotes a give and take”. Again, such an approach denies any sort of universal moral standard, and does not explain why any individual should confine himself to a moral system that is deemed beneficial to groups, especially since the standard is given "for me".

    In conclusion, both Haidt and de Wall have attempted to examine morals from a pretended neutral viewpoint, but have done so in vain. Neither has been able to account for personhood of human beings, nor have they been able to explain how the human mind is able to understand anything, much less non-physical things such as right and wrong. While they appeal to “fairness” and “group interest” as the basis for their ethics, they have not been able to define or account for either of these things. They have not been able to account for human free will, as everything in their worldview is merely a by product of biochemistry. They have failed to explain why humans are the only ones who acknowledge morality (or practice religious faith). In such a worldview, we would have to excuse Hitler’s actions as being caused by his instincts (innate) and poor moral judgment (caused by some bad information in certain parts of his brain). After all, the logical conclusion is that morality is the result of the way the human brain evolved, and if Hitler’s brain is different from everyone else’s, then he certainly could not be immoral. At best, he just had a different moral standard. If, as the title of the article suggests, good morals are written in our genes, then so are bad morals. (This should make an interesting defense case in a court of law. I fear it’s only a matter of time.)

    Haidt, who describes himself as a modern liberal admits, “It is at least possible that conservatives and traditional societies have some moral or sociological insights that secular liberals do not understand.” It is an interesting admission, though I find the term “conservative” to be a bit broad. Morality proceeds from God Himself, who is the standard of right and wrong. Pop-psychology has proven that it does not understand the nature of morality, nor can it provide any redemption for our fallen nature. This must come from Christ alone, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:3).

    "To be given up to our own heart's lusts and to be left to walk according to our own ideas is as dreadful a condition as a creature is capable of falling into in this world" - John Owen

    Note: I have assumed that Dr. Haidt is an atheist, based on his views of religion, morality, and evolution. He may or may not be, but he obviously is not a Christian.


    swordbearer said...

    Terrific post!

    When will unbelievers accept that morality apart from God works against his nature and design and therefore will never work out?

    One more significant piece of evidence for the existence of God, His law, His rule, and that he leaves man without excuse.

    Steve Burri said...

    I've had conversations about this with atheist/evolutionaries on several occasions without any real substance forthcoming beside valiant grabs for similar straws.

    It would seem to me that evolution only allows for two possible lines of argumentation. First, sexual promiscuity allows one's DNA to continue to compete to its fullest potential in the natural selection lottery. Second, your clan or 'society' directs activity to assist its competition or conquest of any other groups encountered.

    The resultant dominant individuals and group are 'right' in that they have been 'chosen' by natural selection.

    Samuel Colt, therefore, made all DNA equal?

    swordbearer said...


    Yes, and as the article points out, the only way you arrive at the fact they are "right" or "dominant" is they end up "dominant" or designated (even if by self) "right"!

    Good to see your input!