One of the biggest obstacles facing what's called the "New Atheism" is the issue of morality. Writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have to convince people that morals and values are possible in a society that does not believe in God.
It's important to understand what is not in doubt: whether an individual atheist or agnostic can be a "good" person. Of course they can, just as a professing Christian can do bad things.
The issue is whether the secular worldview can provide a basis for a good society. Can it motivate and inspire people to be virtuous and generous?
Not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins offers a "yes"—grounded in Darwinism. According to him, natural selection has produced a moral sense that is shared by all people. While our genes may be, in his words "selfish," there are times when cooperation with others is the selfish gene's best interest. Thus, according to him, natural selection has produced what we call altruism.
Except, of course, that it is not altruism at all: It is, at most, enlightened self-interest. It might explain why "survival of the fittest" is not an endless war of all against all, but it offers no reason as to why someone might give up their lives or even their lifestyle for the benefit of others, especially those whom they do not even know.
Darwinist accounts of human morality bear such little resemblance to the way real people live their lives that the late philosopher David Stove, an atheist himself, called them a "slander against human beings."
Being unable to account for human altruism is not enough for Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation. In a recent debate with Rick Warren, he complained about Christians "contaminating" their altruistic deeds in places like Africa with "religious ideas" like "the divinity of Jesus." Instead of rejoicing at the alleviation of suffering, he frets over someone hearing the Gospel.
In response, Warren pointed out the inconvenient (for Harris, that is) truth: You won't find many atheists feeding the hungry and ministering to the sick in places like Africa or Mother Teresa's Calcutta. It is precisely because people believe in the divinity of Jesus that they are willing to give up their lives (sometimes literally) in service to those whom Jesus calls "His brothers." And that's why my colleagues and I spend our lives ministering in prisons.
In contrast, the record of avowedly atheistic regimes is, shall we say, less than inspiring. Atheist regimes like the Soviet Union, Red China, and Cambodia killed tens of millions of people in an effort to establish an atheistic alternative to the City of God. For men like Stalin and Mao, people were expendable precisely because they were not created in the image of a personal God. Instead, they were objects being manipulated by impersonal historical forces.
One atheist understood the moral consequences of his unbelief: That was Nietzsche, who argued that God is dead, but acknowledged that without God there could be no binding and objective moral order.
Of course, the "New Atheists" deny this. Instead, they unconvincingly argue that you can have the benefits of an altruistic, Christian-like morality without God.
Nietzsche would laugh—and wonder why they don't make atheists like they used to.
This commentary first aired on October 9, 2007, and is part two in a five-part series.
From BreakPoint®, December 26, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship