Two years ago, the University of Miami established the Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism and Secular Ethics. It is the first of its kind, filled this year by a former "professor of metaphysics and the philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame."
Louis J. Appignani funded the position with a 2.2-million-dollar endowment, hoping to "legitimize the word 'atheism'" in the public sphere by creating a foundation whose "founding principle asserts that the planet will only survive if 'non-acceptance promoted by faith-based ideology' is replaced by 'rational scientific reasoning.'" The creation of this foundation, however, only confirms the existence of the God it seeks to replace.
In the original New York Times article, Appignani (himself a committed atheist) said, "I'm trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists, so this is a step in that direction..." In a recent interview with The Atlantic he argued that "atheists are one of the few minority groups in the country to still be widely ostracized by society. While other marginalized populations, such as women and LGBT people... are active in American politics, that's still not the case for atheists." In essence, Appignani believes that atheists are being treated unfairly, and he funded the foundation in an effort to correct this morally inappropriate, discriminatory behavior.
As a theist (someone who believes in God), I can't help but wonder what Appignani means by unfair or immoral in the first place. If atheism is true, after all, moral truths are simply subjective. In other words, they emerge from the beliefs of individuals, or groups of individuals (like communities or nations).
Who decides if a behavior is right or wrong? Individuals or communities decide under atheism, because this worldview denies the existence of any transcendent moral judge, like God. But if individuals determine what is right or wrong, how are we to decide what is morally true when two individuals (or two groups of individuals) disagree? While it might be tempting for Appignani to appeal to "rational scientific reasoning," history demonstrates that individuals can disagree, even on scientific grounds, and moral truths are entirely philosophical, rather than scientific.
If, as atheism must admit, moral truths come from people groups, the majority consensus is all that we can appeal to for direction. But, when it comes to the way atheists are treated in America, Appignani appears to disagree with the majority consensus.
He is correct in observing that most Americans are suspicious and distrusting of atheists. A 2016 Pew Research Center Poll revealed that more than half of us would be less likely to support an atheist for President, for example. Another recent study even revealed that atheists are suspicious of atheists. And here-in-lies the dilemma for Appignani if atheism is true.
If most of us agree that distrust and suspicion of atheists is morally acceptable and fair (and this appears to be the case in America), on what grounds can an atheist object? To whom (or what) can the atheist appeal? The majority has already made its moral proclamation on the matter, and for every reasoned argument related to "survival of the fittest" (or any other atheistic standard), his or her counterpart could make an equally reasoned counter-argument.
To whom or what then could the atheist even appeal for a decision about the rational, reasonability of the arguments? In both situations, humans would be the final moral and rational arbiters, and if history has taught us anything, it's demonstrated that humans can find a way to twist their moral reasoning to suit their own nefarious purposes.
Theism offers a better alternative. If God exists, moral truth is grounded not in the minds or opinions of humans, but in the nature of God. Moral righteousness is a reflection of His Divine nature, and humans can appeal to this nature to decide between right and wrong.
Moral reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. (himself a Baptist minister) understood this. He began a movement as an individual who held a minority moral view; he would have been powerless to effect change if moral truths were determined by the majority. King, instead, successfully appealed to a transcendent moral standard to make his case.
If Martin Luther King Jr.'s example, as a believer, is invalid to someone like Appignani, he might consider the words of a fellow atheist, C. S. Lewis, who, before becoming a believer, argued against the existence of God based on the injustice he observed in the world. He eventually realized his definition of injustice only confirmed God's existence:
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies." (from Mere Christianity)
I hope the new Appignani Foundation Chair for the Study of Atheism, Humanism and Secular Ethics will begin its study by examining the basis for that thing at the end of its title: "ethics."
They just may find that moral and ethical principles are more than a matter of personal or cultural opinion. Transcendent moral truths confirm the existence of a transcendent moral truth giver. If Appignani's foundation truly seeks to correct a transcendent injustice such as discrimination, it will first have to admit the existence of a transcendent, just God.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, God's Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith.