Great ironies abound in contemporary secular thought. Advocates of tolerance are often decidedly intolerant of religious faith. Christianity is blamed for social ills that find their solution in the teachings of Christ. And secularists, in denying religious faith a role in public policy, effectively make a state religion out of irreligion. Legate Anthony DeStefano’s latest book attacks atheism with withering arguments and a sharp wit. “Human beings cannot survive without hope,” he writes, “and atheism is the philosophy of hopelessness. That’s why it’s been such an utter failure throughout history.
Most Atheists are moral people, men and women concerned with right and wrong, justice and fairness, who wish to treat others as they would wish to be treated. Few of them fall to their knees and repent in sackcloth and ashes the moment you point out that their belief in right and wrong has no foundation in the naturalist worldview. Rather, they come up with other ways of explaining to themselves how atheism can be true and morality not be an utterly subjective free-for-all.
Atheists commonly say things like: “We don’t need God in order to have ethics. In a naturalist worldview right and wrong are based on….” And then they proceed to describe some alternative source and standard for ethics. These function, essentially, as objections to the argument we have been making and so we need to have a look at them.
1. Alternative standard #1: Happiness
Some atheists will argue, “There doesn’t have to be an objective moral law rooted in and reflecting the character of a God. We can figure out for ourselves how to make wise, good and ethical decisions. One way would be to ask ourselves, especially when facing difficult moral decisions, the simple question: What will bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people? What choice will result in the greatest total amount of happiness?”…
2. Alternative standard #2: Do No Harm
This alternative is particularly popular in a day when freedom from the moral law is the primary goal. It goes something like this: “In ethics, pretty much anything you choose to do is fine, so long as you’re not hurting someone else.” …
3. Alternative standard #3: Majority Rule
According to this proposed ethical standard for a naturalist world, whatever the majority of people say is right, is right—for that culture, in that time…
4. Alternative standard #4: The Experts
Some God-deniers (and a great many more who are influenced by their books) assure us that, “The average personis just not qualified to decide these matters in a universe in which moral laws are essentially ours to create. We must let the experts in science and medicine, law and education, work out our ethical standards for us.”…
5. Alternative standard #5: Reason
Some people will tell you, “We don’t need to believe in God in order to have morality. We can determine what is right and wrong by using our minds to think these issues through. Reason can be our guide in morality as it is in everything else.”
PATRICK MADRID hosts the popular “Patrick Madrid Show” weekdays, produced and distributed by Immaculate Heart Radio, is a prolific writer and editor, with over 24 books and numerous articles on Scripture, Church history, patristics, apologetics, and evangelization. He is professor of theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
KENNETH HENSLEY is a respected Catholic apologist and teacher who appears on EWTN and at conferences nationwide.
This excerpt is reprinted from Chapter Five (entitled “The Arbitrary Ethics of Atheism”) of their book, The Godless Delusion: A Catholic Challenge to Modern Atheism ©Patrick Madrid and Kenneth Hensley (Published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., www.osv.com). Used by permission.
Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God. Yet, “to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God. . . . ” “For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart.”
William Kilpatrick writes that despite 9/11, most Americans do not understand Islam . . .
For many Americans, 9/11 was the first time they had considered the nature of Islam. In his book subtitled The Struggle for the Soul of the West, Kilpatrick argues that Islam is a religion of conquest and subjugation and that despite 9/11, many Americans still don’t know this truth because it conflicts with their belief that all cultures and religions are equal.
Christians have been lulled into complacency by the unexamined assumption that Christians and Muslims share similar beliefs. While Christians pursue common ground, Islamic activists are busy pressing their militant agenda.
Patrick Madrid writes that the new atheists’ arguments against God are empty . . .
In recent decades, atheism has become steadily more acceptable and even fashionable in the U.S. Spurring its credibility is that the atheist worldview has become entrenched in academia and is drummed incessantly into the minds of students — as early as grade school.
Young people are presented with a false option: Either you believe in God (synonymous with “superstition,” “ignorance,” and being “anti-scientific”) or you believe in science and reason. And if you believe in science and reason, you can’t believe in God because science has “disproved” the existence of God. Science thus becomes for many a de facto religion.
Christians readily admit that we owe a great debt of gratitude to science and scientists. (I, for one, thank God that I live in the era of Advil and air conditioning.) But science cannot answer every question. For example: “Does God exist?” “Do human beings have immortal souls?” What happens after death?” Science deals strictly with the physical realm — material things that are observable and measurable. This is why it is utterly unscientific to imagine that science can detect the existence of a God who is pure spirit.
When I began doing research for my recent book, The Godless Delusion: A Catholic Challenge to Modern Atheism, I immersed myself in atheist literature. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. Wading through multiple book-length attacks against belief in God is akin to getting one’s teeth drilled without Novocain. Atheism’s specious arguments and woefully unwarranted conclusions based on those arguments are tedious, even tortuous.
“How can such otherwise intelligent, even brilliant, people fall for this illogic?” I asked myself repeatedly as I slogged through the various arguments raised by atheist authors. From the “problem of evil,” to the boast that science has conclusively “disproved” the existence of God (a scientific impossibility), to the notion that “religion kills” (it doesn’t, though some “religious” people do), to the claim that “faith is irrational and antiscientific” (Pope John Paul II demolished that canard in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio), I studied every significant atheist argument I could find. I found myself underwhelmed.
Why? Not simply because these arguments have been decisively refuted in works such as Peter Kreeft’s and Ronald Tacelli SJ’s Handbook of Catholic Apologetics and Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. More importantly, it’s because, as a philosophical system, atheism is incoherent.
Best-selling atheist books like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great suffer from this incoherence in varying degrees. They argue that God cannot exist because only material things exist. This is the naturalist worldview upon which atheism rests. By demonstrating that naturalism is false, it becomes easier to show why theism, not atheism, is the truly rational option.
Naturalism claims that only material things exist. And yet, it is self-evident that love, happiness, human rights, good and evil are real though immaterial. To be consistent, atheists are forced to argue that these things are just electrically charged chemical reactions inside the brain.
But if that were true, then there could be no such thing as “good” or “evil,” only behavior with which you agree or disagree. And if that were true, then there would be no use in appealing to “right” or “wrong” because those are nothing more than chemical processes inside the brain. In an atheist universe where God doesn’t exist, slavery, theft, murder, and cutting down rain forests would not be “evil” or “wrong.” They would simply be behaviors you dislike. Not even an atheist would want to live in that universe.
Christianity can account for the moral law, just as it can account for other immaterial realities such as love, knowledge and human rights. These can exist only if God exists. The only “rights” someone living in an atheist world could possibly possess would be those he wrested for himself through violence. When the atheist worldview claws its way to ascendancy in a given culture, sweeping away all restraints of religion, morality and human rights, we see the rise of murderous totalitarian regimes. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Remember them?
Just as atheist arguments based on science hit the bull’s-eye on the wrong target, their denial of God’s existence based on the “problem of evil” (if God exists, how can he permit evil? Either he is not good, in which case he is not God, or he doesn’t exist) is also incoherent. If God doesn’t exist, “good” and “evil” are meaningless terms. We can only measure degrees of perfection in relation to some ultimate standard — the way we know a line is crooked by comparing it to a straight line.
The atheist challenge won’t fade any time in the foreseeable future. If anything, it will gain momentum and influence. But Catholics and other Christians should “be not afraid” to evangelize our increasingly atheistic culture with the truth that faith and reason are compatible. Our task includes pointing out that God either exists or He doesn’t. There is no third option. By demonstrating that atheism is false, we open the door for atheists to embrace the only other option.
Patrick Madrid is co-author of “The Godless Delusion.” He serves as the director of the Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College and hosts the Thursday edition of EWTN Radio’s “Open Line” broadcast (3-5 pm ET).