Can Atheism Support Ethical Absolutes? Is Ethics without Absolutes Enough?
Only belief in God provides good reason to criticize the bad actions of those who claim to believe in God or who claim to be Christians. The reason I can criticize their practices is precisely because we both believe in a higher power, God, whom we both believe stands above us all as the standard of moral behavior.
An example is Martin Luther King, Jr., who criticized the segregation laws of the South in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—laws written and passed and supported by so-called Christians. Some of King’s fellow ministers were criticizing him for his civil disobedience. King appealed to a “higher law” above “man’s laws.” And he didn’t just mean written laws; he meant social norms and even social consensuses. Just because the majority believe something is right does not make it so. Just because powerful people believe in and enforce laws does not make them right.
But G. K. Chesterton and/or Feodor Dostoevsky (both are credited with saying it) rightly said that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. Of course, they didn’t mean “permitted by law” or “permitted by social consensus” or “permitted by power.” The saying means (whoever actually said it first) that if there is no one, no being, above nature, above humanity, above law and social consensus, then there are no absolutes and the individual is free to make up his own laws and act as he will so long as he is willing to live with the consequences if there are any. (Theism tells him there will be—eventually.)
Whenever I say this, atheists rage, but their objections miss the point entirely. The point is not that atheists will inevitably act out in bad ways (whatever that means) or become bad people (whatever that means). The point is that there is no one and no thing to point to to criticize and condemn individuals’ or society’s acts except laws, social norms, social consensus, nature, consequences, etc. None of these, though, provide ethical absolutes.
I have read Kai Nielsen’s Ethics without God and similar treatises that attempt to establish atheist ethics, but, in the end, they do not provide any solid ground for criticizing or condemning evil actions. They provide only relative ground for it. In a world of Hitlers and Pol Pots and The Lord’s Resistance Army, that’s not sufficient.
Of course atheists can choose or claim absolutes, but their assertions of the absoluteness of their ethical norms are empty because everything except God changes. Appeals to “compassionate genes” get them nowhere in the face of someone who is determined to get ahead at others’ expense.
I often suspect that atheists who come here to debate me simply don’t understand what I am saying. So far as I am concerned, ethics without absolutes is feeble, flexible, weak in the face of evil. Only an appeal to someone transcendent to nature, its creator and moral governor, can state with force that a Hitler is absolutely wrong—whether he wins or loses. Appeals to nature and reason alone cannot counter power. A powerful person determined to do evil will brush them aside as irrelevant. Calling him a sociopath or a moral imbecile will not touch him because he knows definitions of such things change and, if he is determined to pursue survival, reproduction and pleasure (the only three impulses nature alone universally provides) at others’ expense, he will see no reason to bow to labels and epithets. In the absence of any appeal to transcendence (purpose, ultimate judgment) only laws will affect him, but what if he is the one who makes the laws? Or he knows how to circumvent them?
I don’t really expect to have any influence on militant atheists; my arguments against atheism here are aimed only at those “on the fence,” so to speak, who are not convinced that belief in God is socially, ethically important.