For the theist, moral standards depend on the law of God. For the consistent atheist, it can only be evolution – moral quality must be assessed in terms of evolutionary benefit or failure, yet the strange thing is that atheists know that morality actually exists. It is no use comparing the moral standards of the protagonists, for the real question is how atheists can attribute moral awareness to their evolutionary beliefs.
Here is how Richard Dawkins puts it: [Quote] My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true… Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. [quote ends, The Selfish Gene, p 3, Oxford Uni. Press 1989]
Yet if atheism is true, there is no moral high ground to occupy. If our world is the product of amoral forces, and if man is simply cosmic flotsam scattered on the shores of time, then there can be nothing good and nothing evil. Right and wrong would be devoid of all meaning. Old atheists like Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre and Camus recognized this and saw that it led logically to nihilism, or, at best, to absurdity.
Humans uniquely exhibit morality (whether good or bad). Whatever moral judgements we make does not alter the fact that there is a moral domain which shows in individual and societal conscience. But evolutionary theory insists that all kinds of behaviour, good and bad, are simply survival mechanisms in disguise. And how can diametrically opposed moral traits – selfishness and unselfishness – arise and co-exist courtesy of the same evolutionary process? If we had two separate races of men, a selfish race and an altruistic one, Darwinism could explain that in terms of different selective pressures acting on segregated populations. But it cannot explain what all human history has shown – we all have a conscience that tells us when we do wrong – even toddlers display that.
We can only distinguish good morality from bad morality by appealing to some independent standard. The atheist only has evolutionary advantage as his standard, which continually favours selfishness. So how can Dawkins call it bad and urge altruism as being good? To what standard is he appealing? Hahn and Wiker analysed the matter and concluded that Dawkins standard [Quote] …is actually a pastiche of Christianity as filtered through 19 century liberalism… and its radical extension, via Darwinism, into the farther reaches of 21 century liberalism [quote ends, Answering The New Atheism, p 132] Bereft of moral clothes, evolution’s emperor simply borrows them from someone else.
Culled from chapter 17, Who Made God? Searching for a theory of everything, Edgar Andrews, EP Books 2009