The Biggest Problem With Atheism

The “New Atheists” have made atheism in vogue among the popular masses. While agnosticism and atheism have been popular stances since the early days of the Enlightenment among the educated, until recently it wasn’t all that popular among the average citizen. In the past decade, however, that has begun to change. Chalk it up to the bravado of the New Atheists and their rhetoric, but don’t chalk it up to the content of atheism; that’s because atheism has no content, which is why no one should embrace it.

The biggest problem with atheism is that it tells us nothing about what is or what ought to be. If anything, in recent years, atheism has turned into nothing more than a giant rant against religion, specifically Christianity. Look at any of the popular books on atheism by atheists and it’s full of arguments against the existence of God. We’re told that God is evil, that God is impossible, that it’s irrational to believe in God, that we don’t need God in order to be good, and so on. In other words, all modern atheism does is show us what not to believe, but it puts nothing in the place of God.

We are told that we do not need God in order to be good; but sans God how do we define what “good” is and how do we create an ought to achieve that good? We’re told we don’t need God for the universe to exist; but sans God how do we explain the existence of immaterial laws in a universe that is supposedly solely material? Which came first, the matter/energy or the laws that govern the matter/energy? In other words, atheism tells us that God doesn’t exist, but if we grant this and go, “Okay, then what?” the atheist simply says, “Oh, I don’t have to answer that.”

Yet, and this is the problem with all skepticism, if no content can be provided as to what should be believed in the absence of what is rejected, then what value is the belief? Recognizing that atheism lacks answers to questions is a big reason for some people to turn away from atheism. After all, any child can mock something someone says, but it takes an adult to articulate why a belief is wrong and what should be believed in its stead. This is not to say that all atheists are children; there are some atheists who are making an attempt to explain why we should be ethical in the absence of God, why life has meaning, and so on. But these atheists are few and far between, and they’re getting fewer (either due to death or conversion to theism). The new atheists apparently want to say that life has meaning, life is unique and wonderful, and that universal ethics exist, but don’t want to supply any proper reasoning behind it. While “fanboys” of the new atheists laud their writings, other atheists (especially in academia) recognize that the new atheists have fallen short. In fact, my implication of there being two atheists is explicitly stated by other atheists (though I still think both types of atheism presented in the linked article are sub-standard as they provide no answers).

We look at the universe and through a process of deduction conclude that God is the most probable explanation. The atheist says no, but when we ask him to explain how something came from nothing, we get nothing (even Lawrence Krauss’ book completely falls short of its title). We’re told that we don’t need God in order to be good. When we ask why we ought to be good, we’re told it’s a matter of genetics and evolution. When we point out that we’re then determined and thus there’s no point to shame or praise, we’re told that we can still choose and that we ought to be ashamed for rejecting atheism. When we say that this is the language of free will (in fact, the mere act of attempting to persuade someone is acting on an implicit belief in free will), we’re told that everything is determined. Thus, atheism, in its attempt to prove God doesn’t exist discredits free will, but then seeks to persuade people to believe God doesn’t exist. This is simply one of many contradictions within atheism.

Having answers for the ought is important because the justification behind the ought is what changes society. Why ought I act a certain way? Why ought I pass certain laws? Why ought I care about suffering that is not my own? Why ought I show any concern for society? Ultimately, all atheism can say is, “Well evolution has caused this,” but that’s not an ought, it’s an explanation. Perhaps evolution has led the majority of humans to believe it’s wrong to murder for one’s own benefit, but where is the ought for humans who see no problem with that? And were we to provide an ought for why it’s wrong to murder, ultimately such a justification must be established in a strong metaphysic. But if our metaphysic is nothing beyond, “Something came from nothing as a huge accident” then our justification loses all meaning because it inherently lacks purpose.

Thus, the biggest problem with atheism is that it brings nothing to the table. It cannot create a metaphysic that holds any meaning because the metaphysic will ultimately lack purpose. Perhaps the new atheists can turn to existentialism, but once again we run into the problem; whereas existentialism taught that we provided meaning to our lives (which is something Kai Nielsen teaches), this belief doesn’t work because, yet again, it lacks the ought. Certainly the atheist can say that helping old ladies cross the street provides meaning to our lives, but we can counter that assuming the atheist metaphysic is true, pushing old ladies in front of cars equally provides meaning; neither action is good or bad, they’re simply actions (this is the conclusion Nietzsche came to). None of this is to say that atheists can’t be good – they are often better than many religious people – but it is to say that atheists lack justification for being good.

Of course, the problem of atheism isn’t limited to the realm of ethics, but that’s just the most obvious target. Atheism has no metaphysic, no justification behind its oughtness. Thus, while atheists may ask difficult questions or point to potential problems with theism, it ultimately lacks any substance or any reason for being good. Thus, even if the atheist points out that a reason for being good is false, it doesn’t mean we should disbelieve God, just that we should disbelieve the absoluteness of our reason; there’s still no reason to be an atheist because it simply has no answers. It might be able to question the explanations for “what is,” but it cannot provide its own explanation for “what is.” That is to say, atheism cannot tell us anything about the world around us, but can only question other theories that attempt to make and explanation, meaning atheism, ultimately, brings nothing to the table.


Defining Sexual Deviancy or the Problem of Objectivity or Why Sam Harris was Unable to Defend His Contentions

I recently began reading Philip Jenkins’ book, Moral Panic, which traces the fluctuating views of sexual deviancy among Americans in the twentieth-century.  In the book, Jenkins argues that our conception of sexual deviancy is completely subject to the whims of social and environmental influences.  As he explains:

“In this book I contend that all concepts of sex offenders and sex offenses are socially constructed realities: all are equally subject to social, political, and ideological influences, and no particular framing of offenders represents a pristine objective reality. Each in its way is instructive for the light it casts on the concerns, prejudices, and fears of the society that thus defines its deviants and outsiders. The changing frames of the sex offender provide an index of shifting social attitudes to matters as diverse as the status of children, the structure of the family, the range of acceptable sexual behaviors, and tolerance of alternative sexual orientations. By definition, deviance supposes a norm: we can speak of what is odd or different only when we agree on what is normal. In order to understand changing notions of sexual deviancy, then, we must first understand fluctuating concepts of sexual normality.  Abuse is meaningless without a standard of proper use.”

What is interesting about Jenkins’ approach is that he is not rejecting the idea that sexual deviancy is objectively real (as he goes on to say a few paragraphs later) but merely asserting that our concepts of sexual deviancy are completely subjective—that they are the byproduct of, “social, political, and ideological influences.”  If Jenkins is correct, however, and it is impossible for us to conceptualize the true nature of sexual deviancy, then it is, likewise, impossible for us to know what sexual deviancy truly is.  All we could ever know, according to this view, is what our society currently believes sexual deviancy to be; but not what it truly is.

Jenkins asserts that, “by definition, deviance supposes a norm: we can speak of what is odd or different only when we agree on what is normal.”  The problem is, according to Jenkins, we can’t objectively know what ‘normal’ is; only what society says is normal.  This is why his book focuses its attention on the, “fluctuating concepts of sexual normality,” throughout the twentieth-century; rather than on the objective reality of sexual normality.  He doesn’t set out to discover what sexual normality is; rather, he sets out to discover what society, over time, has said sexual normality is.

Clearly, there is tension between Jenkins’ metaphysical realism and his epistemological skepticism.  The question is what is creating this tension?  The answer is obviously his methodological naturalism which stems from his secular humanistic proclivities.

At the end of the day, Jenkins’ book highlights the fundamental problem facing secular humanistic ethics—the problem of objectivity.  The majority of people, like Jenkins, who embrace secular humanism are uncomfortable admitting that moral values are totally subjective; this is because most of them recognize that, say, the brutal rape and murder of a six year old girl is horrendously evil.  Hence, they desire to hold onto the idea that there is an objective morality.  Nevertheless, secular humanists find it impossible to ground or justify such beliefs within the framework of their own worldview.

Some, like Sam Harris, have tried but to no avail.  In a recent debate with William Lane Craig at Notre Dame, Dr. Harris (an ardent atheist) asserted that moral values and duties were, in fact, objectively real.  However, when pressed by Dr. Craig to provide justification, on atheism, for this belief, Dr. Harris was unable to provide any grounds for this belief (in point of fact, Dr. Harris seemed quite unable, or unwilling, to engage with any of Dr. Craig’s arguments).

The naturalistic view of reality that intellectuals like Sam Harris ardently advocate and researchers like Philip Jenkins employ methodologically will never explain what a sexual deviant is or why sexual deviancy is wrong.  Naturalism says that there is no design or purpose in nature and that the universe is merely a closed system of material/physical causes and effects.  Under this scheme, human beings are simply an accidental byproduct of the mindless forces of nature; therefore, human beings do not have a nature, as such, nor do they have an objective purpose.  Accordingly, it is wrong, on naturalism, to suggest that there is such a thing as ‘normal’—in which case it will always be impossible to objectively define what a sex offender or a sex offense is.

Happily, the problem of objectivity is no problem for the theist—especially for the orthodox Christian.  Christians understand what ‘normal’ is through God’s Word—through both the Word (Jesus) who became flesh and the living word of God (the Holy Scriptures).  For the Christian, concepts like sexual deviancy are not up for reinterpretation with each successive generation; rather, they are grounded in an objective reality that we all can know (regardless of our social and cultural background).  After all, as Jenkins states, “abuse is meaningless without a standard of proper use,” and that standard is only found in Christ.