‘The broken compass’: Analysing atheistic ethics

Muttaher Mubasher Iffat, Student, Jamia Ahmadiyya UK

“I can have a moral compass without the need to believe in a god”, claims the average atheist. He holds the belief that God is an unnecessary explanation for an inherent answer that can be found within ourselves.

Well, is an atheist being moral, a proven fact or merely a claim? Let’s put this to the test!

Imagine that you wake up one morning and turn on the news. The following headline appears: “New-born murdered in village hall”. Would this murder be morally wrong? The obvious reply would be “Yes”. Now,, if I ask you if it is considered morally wrong, objectively, again, like most, you would reply, “Yes”. But let’s take this a step further, why is it objectively wrong?

Let us break it down!

When something is objective, it means that it is based on facts and evidence and is free from personal biases and prejudices. For example, the fact that the earth is not flat or that 1+1 will always equal 2 will forever be true. When discussing morality, the claim of objectivity implies that a particular moral belief is not influenced by personal perspectives and would remain true regardless of human existence or disagreement. Objective morality is to say that Nazi anti-Semitism was objectively wrong, even though the Nazis believed the Holocaust was morally good. It is the belief that what the Nazis did would still be wrong, even if they had won World War II and were successfully able to eradicate or radicalise anyone who opposed their beliefs. This proves that objective moral truths transcend human subjectivity. If we are able to establish morality as being objective, then we assert the existence of an external standard. That external standard is God.

The Quran states that God instilled morality in us:

فَاَلۡہَمَہَا فُجُوۡرَہَا وَ تَقۡوٰىہَا

“He revealed to it the right and wrong of everything.” (Surah ash-Shams, Ch.91: V. 9)

In other words, the fact that we know certain things to be inherently wrong and others to be inherently right is a God-given gift.

Before delving deeper, I would like to clarify that I am not insinuating that atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are immoral people. It is possible that some atheists may lead more “pious” lives than those who claim to “believe in God”. The basis of the argument is that an atheist can indeed lead a “moral” life, however, those “morals” have no true justification or basis supporting them. With God out of the picture, moral values equate to nothing more than legal or social conventions. Without God, those become mere preferences that can be voted out of existence at the ballot box.

Euthyphro’s dilemma

When the question of morality is discussed, atheists quickly jump to respond with a quirky statement by citing a dilemma put forth by Plato:

“Is something morally good because God says so? (This would imply that there is a standard above God), or does God say so because it is morally good? (This would imply that God arbitrarily makes up morality).” (Euthyphro, 10a-11b)

At this point, an atheist believes he has cornered the theist between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. However, when you break down this statement the reality is quite the contrary.

The apparent conflict between God’s sovereignty and the existence of moral values can be reconciled by understanding that God is the ultimate source of all knowledge and goodness. God’s commands are not arbitrary, but are based on His infinite wisdom and justice. At the same time, human beings have been given the ability to understand and recognise these moral values, and to live by them.

When it comes down to morality, God does not look up to any superior standard to which he is answerable, if that were the case, then he would not be God, nor is there anything arbitrary about God’s unchangeable standard of morality. In this case, the third alternative is that God’s nature is the standard! The inherent moral law that we find flowing through our veins, flows from the nature of God Himself.

Muslims and theists alike acknowledge the true and perfect nature of God and because of this, we find within him the perfect, non-arbitrary and unchangeable moral standard. It is this very concept that grounds our belief that morality is objective in nature because the source of this morality is found within God.

Is evolution the answer to the riddle?

Some atheists bring the topic of evolution to the table and attempt to prove that morality is a by-product of our survival instincts: “We evolved morality for the purpose of survival”. This line of reasoning leads to a dead end for many reasons:

Firstly, to explain morality through the use of biology is a clear category mistake.

A category mistake fallacy is the error of attributing to something a quality or action that can only properly be assigned to things of another category. An example of this would be to ask, “What is the chemical symbol for equality?” or “What does hatred smell like?” Equality and hatred do not have chemicals or scents, so these questions are known as category mistakes.

Similarly, when an atheist attempts to justify morality through biology, they make a clear category mistake. Morality is an immaterial law that cannot be justified by a material process. Justice, equality, right and wrong aren’t made up of any molecules that can be examined under a microscope. It seems ridiculous even to consider the possibility that a mutating genetic code has the moral authority to inform us how we ought to behave.

Some atheists like Sam Harris have acknowledged the flaw in the argument through evolution, stating:

“Evolution could never have foreseen the wisdom or necessity of creating stable democracies, mitigating climate change, saving other species from extinction, containing the spread of nuclear weapons, or of doing much else that is now crucial to our happiness in this century.” (The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, p. 13)

Secondly, biological processes cannot make survival a moral right because evolution serves no genuine “good” or purpose. Without God, the desire to survive is an individual’s subjective preference rather than an objective moral good. Biology explains what actually survives, not what should. Why should humans exist in contrast to other species? And which humans — peaceable people or murderers?

Thirdly, the purpose of Darwinian evolution is that evolution by natural selection results in adaptations that increase the ability of the individuals to survive and reproduce successfully in their respective environments.

In other words, the purpose of evolution is to increase survival and reproduction. If this is the case, then who is to say that rape – a most heinous crime – is morally wrong when it could – for arguments sake –  be said it increases reproduction? Similarly, who is to say that defending one’s country at war and displaying honour are morally right when it would seem that they go against evolutionary survival?

Fourthly, evolution is a process of continuous change, implying that morality would become subjective and change over time. This would mean that what is considered morally right today may become morally wrong in the future. It could mean that murder might possibly become a morally good deed.

The verdict: Atheism vs theism

An atheistic worldview has no justification for the origins of morality. Their outlook on life leaves them floating in a grey zone. If they accept the objectivity of morality, then by definition, they accept the presence of an external standard; accepting an external source is equivalent to accepting God. However, if they take the second option and deny an external standard, this results in morality being subjective to human opinion (the repercussions of this belief have already been discussed). This line of reasoning forces an atheist’s hand. In a interview with Justin Brierley (a Christian host of a popular radio show and podcast), Richard Dawkins agrees that his reason for why rape was wrong, is as arbitrary as the fact that humans have evolved to have five fingers instead of six. (https://youtu.be/NZ6t7Lqrdvc?t=360) This is where atheism leads to!

To fill this bleak void, some prominent atheists have attempted to play God and write a manifesto of life rules they believe will result in a morally good life. Richard Dawkins issued a set of ten commandments in his book The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens also decreed his own ten in an article named ‘The Ten Commandments.’ (www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/04/hitchens-201004)

New Atheists insist these commandments must be followed. However, these commandments are mere opinions and everyone has the right to make up their own. On what authority were Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ nominated for this divine responsibility? If they can make their own rules of life, what is stopping the other 8 billion people on earth from doing the same? At the end of the day, atheist dictators such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot also governed how people led their lives based on their own set of rules and opinions. The consequence of such actions will most definitely be detrimental.

So, after presenting both sides of this two-faced coin, I leave it to the reader’s discretion to make up their mind. Atheism or theism, on which side does morality truly lie? For the atheist out there, they can always flip a coin and leave the decision to a game of chance because the fact that we exist was also a lucky flip. Wasn’t it?

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