Richard Dawkins and Atheistic Morality

Recently I watched a  YouTube video wherein Dr. John Lennox debated Dr. Richard Dawkins on his book The God Delusion.  In that debate, Dr. Dawkins expressed his incredulity that anyone could believe that atheism would lead someone to commit murder or any other kind of crime.  Because I am just that kind of guy, I thought I might take a few minutes to lend Dr. Dawkins a helping hand in seeing how such a thing might come to be.

Let us imagine that you are a subsistence farmer and you and your family depend on a certain crop.  Recently, an infestation of some pests, let us say they are ants, has begun to destroy next season’s crop.  What would you do?  Would you destroy the pests?  Or would you just let your family die?  After many days of agonizing over the decision, you finally make the only decision that you can.  You decide that you and your family must die that the ants may live . . .

This is the answer that the great saints of atheism Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson give us when they rant about human speciesism and the horrific sin of hubris that is committed by human beings who elevate mankind over “lesser” forms of life.  (See my essay, “Atheism with a Smiling Face“)  While I laud their sincere love of all life forms and the fact that they are willing to pay any price for their convictions, I myself think that the “morality” that they preach is idiotic, self-contradictory and amoral.  If all life forms are assumed to have the same value as a human being, this is indistinguishable from saying that all life is valueless.  Those of us of lesser character than Dr. Dawkins and Dr. Tyson, therefore, would elect to destroy the pests and save our families.

So now let us imagine that a weakling atheist is put in a different quandary.  Let us imagine that it is not a group of ants that is threatening his livelihood, but a group of people of a different ethnicity.  They have been displaced by some disaster, for example, and they need food and shelter and they are taking available jobs.  On what principle does such an atheist not exterminate his competition?

An atheist like Christopher Hitchens might argue that science would here come to the rescue.  “A genetic survey done on your family and the immigrant population would indicate that we are members of the same species.”, he might have said,  “Therefore you should not kill the immigrants.”

But what difference does this genetic survey make?  Granting that the immigrants are members of my species, why should I not kill members of my own species?  When I turn to the natural world, I find that members of a species kill each other all the time.  Male bears, for example, will often kill cubs from other males so that their own offspring have a greater chance for survival.  Speaking in terms of evolution, our most fierce competitors are likely to be members of our own species whose habitat, nutritional and reproductive needs are identical to our own and with whom we are most likely to be in evolutionary competition for scarce resources.

Dr. Dawkins is here making a classic mistake that I see many people make.  People tend to think they are moral because they cannot see anything wrong with what they want to do.  “I want to smoke a little weed, have a little sex, play my music and do what I want to do.  What is wrong with that?  I am a good person.”  But the true test of morality does not come from the things that you want to do, but in how you choose to behave when the things that you want collide with the welfare of other human beings.

It is true that, historically speaking, Christians have often failed this test of morality.   Think of the history of slavery in the American South, for example, and you will see that economic expediency overrode any concerns about loving our neighbor.  But in the choice between following our principles and following the path of economic expedience at least Christianity gives you a basis for having a dilemma.  Atheism cannot give you any grounds for  choosing the path of economic privation except the personal preferences of Saint Dawkins and Saint Tyson.  The way that atheism could lead someone to murder or other crimes, therefore, is by not providing a cogent reason not to commit certain acts.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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6 Responses to Richard Dawkins and Atheistic Morality

  1. “This is the answer that the great saints of atheism Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson give us”

    Um…where and when do they give such answers? I’d love to see your sources. (Of course, even if they did say it that wouldn’t mean it made sense. They are, after all, only two men. Smart in their particular fields but not omnipotent, perfect or ‘saints’.)

    “On what principle does such an atheist not exterminate his competition?”

    On what principles DOES an atheist exterminate his competition? Nothing about atheism says you should kill people.

    “The way that atheism could lead someone to murder or other crimes, therefore, is by not providing a cogent reason not to commit certain acts.”

    This would be a valid argument if atheism claimed to provide such reasons. It doesn’t. Atheism is a single position on a single issue. It isn’t a worldview, and therefore isn’t required to supply those extra things.

    • The arguments that I have seen them make decry the hubris of elevating humans over other life on earth. Follow that logic where it leads and human beings have no special claim over any other life form including ants. In the video that I linked in my “Atheism with a Smiling Face” essay, Dr. Tyson compares human beings with gut bacteria. Dr. Dawkins has made similar claims about how immoral it is when human beings think that we are somehow special. (I don’t have a link off hand, though I am sure I could find one.)

      The context of Dr. Dawkin’s comments are the debate over theism and the moral argument that many Christians make. Dr. Dawkins says that atheism does not lead to immorality so lets get rid of theism. The point of my post was that atheism doesn’t lead directly to immorality in some simple way, but it does lead to immorality indirectly in that it does not provide any reason to resist what otherwise might be considered to be immoral but practical solutions to conflicts with other human beings.

      Thanks for your comment,

      rob

  2. David says:

    Strawman. The arguments I have seen Harris, Dawkins, etc put forth with regards to “lesser” forms has to do with suffering. No one has said that any other animal can suffer as much as humans. There has been no evidence to support that.

    In general we should work to reduce total suffering globally, across species. That does not mean putting the lives of ants above humans.

    By the way, your entire argument relies on your opinion that morality is absolute. What happens if morality is relative?

    • The arguments that I have seen them make decry the hubris of elevating humans over other life on earth. Follow that logic where it leads and human beings have no special claim over any other life form including ants. In the video that I linked in my “Atheism with a Smiling Face” essay, Dr. Tyson compares human beings with gut bacteria.

      If morality is relative, then there is no reason for me not to kill members of my own species or prey on them in whatever way is most expedient and effective.

      Thanks for your comment,

      rob

      • David says:

        You say that if morality is relative, then there is no reason for you not to kill other humans. But those are two different things. The morals that you hold are either universal or relative. And being one or the other doesn’t change the morals themselves. I can think of many situations where killing a human would be the morally superior course of action. Case in point: Hitler. Assassinating Hitler would have been a morally defensible action in my opinion.

        I do not believe that humans are necessarily any better than any other species. However, nature itself is extremely cruel. As far as we can tell, the ants destroyed suffered far less than if we allowed those humans to starve to death. However, that does NOT mean that we should kill animals for economic gain or luxury items. There is a major difference. Suffering changes everything.

      • David,

        I am sympathetic to the morals that you are proposing and I have often thought that factory farming and other practices whereby our fellow mammals are abused for profit should be illegal. I also agree that suffering is a decisive factor in morality. (In the vein of my recent post on “Reasons to Disbelieve”, this makes belief in a God who would create a world like this one very difficult.)

        On the other hand, I disagree with the point about assassinating Hitler or that having a relative basis for morality works at all. Here is the problem. You and I might agree with the fact that Hitler is an exceptional, if not singular, case and that murdering other human beings should be avoided in all but the most exigent circumstances, but can we trust everyone in the world to make such decisions on their own? There was a case in the news a while back where a young man was not allowed to have sex with a young woman because her parents forbade it. Because this seemed to him to be a sufficient cause to commit murder, he went to their home and killed them. According to his morality, this was acceptable.

        Now having experienced male hormones during my teenage years, there is a certain sympathy that I have with his moral evaluation. For another human being to willingly cause the kind of pain that sexual frustration was to me during those years would make them a monster. (I recently wrote an essay where I described my misogynistic feelings in these terms.) On the other hand, I don’t believe that I want to live in a world where we teach young people that the only basis for morality is a relative one where they can determine the morality of their actions on their own. Relative morality is not your morality or my morality. Relative morality is the aggregate of individual morality for the entire human race. If you look at human history, this is a terrifying idea.

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