Over at Popehat, Clark argues that “modern atheists have an incoherent world view.” After a great deal of back-and-forth in comments, Clark clarified his argument:
My thesis is this, and this alone:
- are, or act as if they are, materialists
- are, or act as if they are, believers in morality as something other than a convenient social phenomena (e.g. they feel a true sense of outrage when someone is being oppressed, even if that oppression takes place with the full willingness of the government and society)
- are therefore intellectually inconsistent
This is a very weak argument.
1) It’s a bit of a strawman. Although Clark was much pressed in the thread, he apparently couldn’t quote an atheist who has said that “they believe in morality as something other than a convenient social phenomena.”1 Probably there are some atheists who say that, out of millions. But it’s bizarre to apply this view to “most atheists,” when it’s obvious that most atheists don’t say that.
2) Clark’s “or act as if they are” construction is an attempt to avoid the “straw-atheist” problem, but it’s lipstick on a pig. Clark seems to be arguing that if you’re genuinely outraged at (say) the slaughter of civilians, then that’s the same as believing in some sort of objective morality. But Clark has nothing but hand-waving to support this claim. Atheists don’t claim to be emotionless; of course we feel outrage, just as we feel love, hate, boredom, amusement, and hundreds of other feelings.
3) As almost any atheist could tell Clark, it’s quite possible to believe in morality without believing that morality is something that exists, objectively, in the universe, as a separate thing from what people think about morality.
As one of his readers, “Lizard,” aptly told Clark in comments:
When you say “atheists believe in justice”, you seem to be using “belief” to mean “believe that there is actually some sort of external thing called justice that transcends the meat brains of the humans who think about it”, and I doubt that’s what most atheists mean when they use the world “belief”. “Justice” is as “real” as “calculus” or “beauty” or “Middle Earth”… it’s a concept we form in our minds. My belief that there are moral/ethical principles that should serve as guides for what we *should* do that transcend other conceptions of such principles is not based on the idea there are free floating particles of justice zooming through the universe.
4) The problem is, Clark flat-out refuses to believe what atheists tell him. For instance, Clark wrote “This, then, is the crux of the problem: [atheists] self describe as materialists, and yet believe in invisible untestable things.” One of his readers replied, “To which most self-identified atheists/materialists have responded “actually, no: “rights” are not things in that sense, they are rules created by man.”
Here’s Clark’s reply:
A charitable debater doesn’t call his debate partners liars, so I won’t, but on the other hand, I find it really, really, really hard to swallow this repeated assertion, and I’d be misleading people about my own beliefs I didn’t say that I find suspect that it’s being asserted in a debate where I’ve laid out the fact that the alternative is a belief in the reality of metaphysical things.
Similarly, this exchange between “PPLN” and Clark:
PPLN: I accept the existence of beautiful music without the need to assert some Platonic essence of beauty. I assert the existence of a well designed car without the need to assert the platonic essence of car-ness. Why can’t I accept the existence of a set of moral and ethical principles that I find beautiful and useful for the things I value in society without asserting some Platonic essence of good and evil?
CLARK: You absolutely can. I’ve never said you can’t. I just find it (a) sad, (b) dubious. With regard to dubious, what I mean is that no one ever goes to war over a fight about which car is better designed or about what music is better (I’m putting the keen philosophers of the East Coast / West Coast rap war aside for a moment). The fact that most people will go to extreme lengths to argue their moral code, defend people they see as innocent victims of others mistaken moral codes, etc. make me think the assertion that materialists believe in moral codes the same way they believe in well designed and efficient autos is silly.
You can’t have a conversation with someone who refuses
to believe what you say. to believe that you believe what you say.
(Briefly, regarding Clark’s argument: The differences between car design and moral codes aren’t relevant to, and therefore don’t invalidate, the point that we can believe in abstract concepts without believing they have any objective existence. And incidentally, the differences Clark identifies are – what’s the word? – dubious; war is not as simple as people fighting over moral codes, and many people do go to extreme lengths for their music, sports teams, and so forth.)
5) The reason I think this is worth posting about, is that I’ve encountered this sort of refusal to believe what atheists say more than once, from very intelligent Christians2 who seem to be arguing in good faith.3 So, please, Christians, note:
1) Believing in a moral code – in right and wrong – is not the same as believing there is a metaphysical right and wrong.
2) If you can’t wrap your head around what atheists say we believe, the problem may be with your head-wrapping abilities, not that we’re telling lies.
* * *
6) Quoting Clark again:
If rights are merely rules created by man, why should any western atheist be upset about Middle Eastern female genital mutilation, or historical black slavery in the US, or anything else? These aren’t “wrongs”; they’re just violations of human made rules.
They’re not even violations of human made rules, because Middle Eastern female genital mutilation is in accordance with local cultural rules, and historical black slavery in the US was not only in accordance with local cultural rules but in accordance with local legal rules as well.
So not only should one who truly does not believe in the reality of metaphysical truths not dislike these two things, but he or she should actively support them. Rules were being followed!
To me, this seems to miss the point.
The reason I am an atheist – and the reason I don’t believe in “natural rights” or any other conception of objective right and wrong existing independently of people’s minds – is because I believe my view to be true.4
Clark is arguing that bad consequences – no longer having any way to argue against slavery, for example – flow from believing that “rights” have no extra-human existence. Clark’s argument is wrong, but let’s put that aside for a moment, because Clark’s argument is also irrelevant.
A truth claim isn’t disproven by appealing to bad consequences. Even if the truth carries bad consequences, that doesn’t make it not true. (Murderers exist. A consequence of that truth is, some people are murdered. But it makes no sense for me to refuse to believe in murderers because I don’t like people getting murdered.)
I don’t believe in objective morality for the same reason I don’t believe in unicorns; there are no credible reasons to believe such creatures exist. Even if we’d have better outcomes if an objective morality (unicorn) exists, that in no way proves that an objective morality (unicorn) does exist.
- Clark’s construction is a little narrow; I’d say, instead, that atheists don’t believe that there is an objective morality that exists independently of people’s thoughts of what morality is. [↩]
- I’ve actually never discussed this topic with a Muslim, so I don’t know if Muslims would have the same habit. I have discussed this sort of thing with many Jews, but for some reason the “you don’t mean what you say you mean” fallacy is not one I’ve noticed coming from Jews. Of course, that may be pro-Jewish bias messing me up, go go home team and all that. [↩]
- See, for instance, my threads about atheism and morality both here and on Family Scholars. [↩]
- I cannot prove the nonexistence of “natural rights,” any more than I can prove the nonexistence of unicorns. I’m therefore not claiming that my beliefs are proven true, merely that they are believed by me to be true, and that they are the best conclusion to draw from the currently available evidence. [↩]