In addition to not talking about Christianity, I’ve noticed that quite a few respondents to the arguments for God’s existence don’t actually talk about those arguments, either. Obviously, every argument is going to suffer from evasive responses to some degree, but it definitely occurs to some more than others.
My vote for the winner in this category is the moral argument for God’s existence.
Overwhelmingly, there are two basic responses to the moral argument that one is likely to encounter. (But, as a side note, I’m not sure whether the atheists who happen by would rather I made these responses sound calm and thoughtful or punchy and full of memes. I’ll go with the typical New Atheist version I hear, but apologies in advance to the more genteel and thoughtful atheist.)
The first response usually reads a lot like this:
“I don’t need the Bible to tell me to be moral! It’s full of awful, terrible things, and only a complete sociopath would need that anyway. Are you a sociopath? I can’t believe how messed up you religious types are if you can’t be moral except because God threatens you with Hell. I do the right thing because it is right–not (like you) because I’m trying to avoid punishment.”
I don’t think there’s a book long enough to deal with all of the errors in this paragraph, but for those inclined to agree with it, let me point out the main issue.
Simply put, the argument isn’t for sociopaths. It is for people who agree that there is such a thing as moral truth. This is how reasoning to a conclusion works–we see something that is, then wonder how it could be explained. In this case, we see morality, then reason to the conclusion that God is the best explanation for it.
Of course, there are some wild claims about the Bible (and why theists are moral) here as well, but I’ll not get into that because it is beside the point. An attack on a very particular (and bad) interpretation of the Bible neither offers us a secular basis of morality, nor shows us that there isn’t such a thing.
But what of the claim that the atheist does what is right because it is right? That always struck me as a bit self-righteous, but the bigger issue is the second typical response:
“Morality is simply the result of empathy, which was put into people by evolutionary pressures. This kind of herd thinking helped our ancestors to survive, and it still helps us today. Cooperation is very powerful, and being good to others is what is best for you, in the long run.”
This is a pretty blatant contradiction of the first response, which is why I’m so often surprised to run across people who give me both responses in the same conversation–often in the same paragraph.
To say that morality is what is best for one is to deny that one does what is right because it is right. It is, specifically, to claim that one has selfish motivations for doing what is right. It is also to deny that there is any objective morality at all.
That’s fine, if one wants to do this, but this is precisely what the theist was claiming: that theism is the best explanation for objective morality. To respond with “well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in objective morality, but only that people have empathy” is to concede that point.
But, of course, the proponents of this response like to underline that empathy is “good enough”, and that nothing else needs to be explained. But I find that impossible to square with another claim these same persons make.
Namely, that we shouldn’t believe things without a rational reason to do so.
To say that we should have all kinds of moral attitudes, not because those things are really true, but simply because we feel a certain emotion (empathy), is to deny outright that one only believes based on reason and evidence.
At this point in the conversation, I’m usually treated to long, and increasingly impatient descriptions of how empathy might have arisen in the human species–as if proving that would counter anything I’ve said here.
One can reject objective morality in the name of atheism, or reject atheism in the name of morality. What one can’t rationally do, however, is claim that “are you a sociopath”, or “evolution made us empathetic” has much of anything to do with the moral argument for God’s existence.