This past Friday, CNN conducted an interview with Richard Dawkins, the British biologist most widely known for his polemics against religion and on behalf of atheism.
Asked “whether an absence of religion would leave us without a moral compass,” Dawkins responded: “The very idea that we get a moral compass from religion is horrible.”
This is the crux of the issue for Dawkins and other anti-religion activists — that not only do we not need religion or God for morality but that we would have a considerably more moral world without them.
This argument is so wrong — both rationally and empirically — that its appeal can be explained only by (a) a desire to believe it and (b) an ignorance of history.
First, the rational argument.
If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.
Every atheist philosopher I have debated has acknowledged this. For example, at Oxford University, I debated Professor Jonathan Glover, the British philosopher and ethicist, who said: “Dennis started by saying that I hadn’t denied his central contention that if there isn’t a God, there is only subjective morality. And that’s absolutely true.”
And the eminent Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty admitted that, for secular liberals such as himself, “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’”
Atheists such as Dawkins who refuse to acknowledge that without God there are only opinions about good and evil are not being intellectually honest.
None of this means that only believers in God can be good or that atheists cannot be good. There are bad believers and there are good atheists. But this fact is irrelevant to whether good and evil are real.
To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, “Do not murder,” murder is not wrong. Many people or societies may agree that it is wrong. But so what? Morality does not derive from the opinion of the masses. If it did, then apartheid was right; murdering Jews in Nazi Germany was right; slavery in nearly all the world throughout most of history was right; and clitoridectomies and honor killings in various Muslims societies are right.
So, then, without God, why is murder wrong?
Is it, as Dawkins argues, because reason says so?
My reason says murder is wrong, just as Dawkins’s reason does. But, again, so what? The pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Europe regarded the Church’s teaching that murder was wrong as preposterous. They reasoned that killing innocent people was acceptable and normal because the strong should do whatever they wanted.
In addition, reason alone without God is pretty weak in leading to moral behavior. When self-interest and reason collide, reason usually loses. That’s why we have the word “rationalize” — using reason to argue for what is wrong.