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Evolution cannot take credit for morality

Published: 23 October 2021 (GMT+10)
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Many atheists believe that morality came about through an evolutionary process. We have previously examined this view and shown it to be mistaken, but were prompted to analyze the claim further thanks to a question from Gregory C. in the U.S. He also asks us to respond to a professor’s bold assertions about the concept of ‘faith’. Gregory’s message is reproduced below, followed by a response from Keaton Halley.

Hello,

Recently, a friend had a professor who claimed that morality was formed through “trial and error” over millions of years. That society has shifted away from past evils because it “worked better” for society and the credit goes to evolution. He cited the works of Jerry Coyne and Colin Wright (sp?) as “good” sources on that subject.

Furthermore, said professor claimed that faith is blind and is void of scientific insight or evidence, so is indicative of low intellect. That it lacks empirical evidence.

How would one best respond to such charges?

Thank you for your ministry.

Hi Gregory,

Coyne and Wright are extremely muddled in their thinking on morality. Both have denied that morality is objective, yet they have also made statements (strong moral pronouncements) treating right and wrong as if they exist, objectively. Thus, these men contradict themselves and demonstrate that they have little understanding of this subject. So it is likely this professor has the same blind spot.

When pressing atheists on how they can ground morality without God, it is important to be clear on what needs explaining, so the conversation doesn’t get sidetracked talking about irrelevancies. It is helpful to divide this discussion into two questions:

A. Are there any objective moral facts?

By objective, I mean that something is true or false regardless of anyone’s opinion or preference. If there are moral facts, then there is a standard of right and wrong higher than any human individual or any human society. For example, to say that the September 11 terrorist attack on the USA was objectively evil is to say that it was evil even though the terrorists who carried it out believed their acts to be good. Furthermore, these acts would still have been evil even if the terrorists took over the world and converted or eliminated everyone who disagreed with them, so that the whole world believed 9/11 was morally good. The whole world would then simply be wrong, because it is objectively evil to murder people, and these were murderous acts.

Objective morality is the opposite of subjective morality, in which good and evil are determined by human beings. Subjective morality boils down to preferences, so it’s actually not a type of real morality at all. It’s a denial of real morality, a denial that there is an ultimate standard above any human court.

There are good reasons to think that there are such things as moral facts, because humans can’t help but view things in moral terms. Our intuitions that some things are good and others are evil are so strong that it would take a very powerful argument to overcome them. But no such arguments are forthcoming. When we reflect on acts of evil like terrorism, rape, theft, murder, abuse, oppression, etc., our sense of justice wells up inside us. It would be quite radical to view our entire discourse about right and wrong as a grand illusion—to claim that there really isn’t any such thing as right or wrong. Furthermore, while some atheists might give lip service to this view, I don’t believe anyone can live consistently as a moral relativist. They will regularly make moral judgments as if there really is a right and a wrong, not speaking as though they are merely expressing their personal, non-authoritative preferences.

Especially when it comes to acts in which an individual sacrifices his own life for the sake of another, moral relativists face a problem. They cannot say such an act is objectively praiseworthy, nor can they even say it is pragmatically in one’s own self interest. On relativism, giving up one’s own life for another would be the most foolish course of action, not an objectively noble deed. Yet our moral intuitions strongly incline us to respect such an act. This kind of self-sacrifice is morally good, which shows that relativism is wrong. Further problems with a denial of moral objectivism are spelled out in Answering a moral relativist. So we have a solid basis for believing that objective moral facts exist.

B. Is God’s nature the basis for these moral facts? 

Given that moral facts exist as defined above, they must come from a higher authority than human beings. But why would we be under any kind of transcendent authority unless we were created by God, whose unchanging perfect nature is the standard for goodness? Atheists certainly have a hard time explaining how there could be good and evil apart from God, and many candidly admit that morality must become relativistic in an atheistic world.

Objective morality also entails that there is a way things are ‘supposed’ to be. Humans have a duty to do what is good and not to do what is evil. But how can there be a way things are ‘supposed’ to be without a Supposer? On atheism, this world just is; it wasn’t intended. It wasn’t set up to conform to any standard. But on the Christian worldview, our moral obligations flow from what God expects of us, which ultimately goes back to His character. So God is the foundation for moral facts, and it is hard to imagine anything else that could serve as an adequate foundation.

You might have noticed, then, that my responses to the above two questions serve as premises in a moral argument for God’s existence, as follows.

  1. Some objective moral facts exist.
  2. If some objective moral facts exist, then God exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

If one can establish the truth of the two premises, then the conclusion necessarily follows. To avoid the conclusion, atheists would need to dispute at least one of the premises.

With all that in mind, notice that, in your characterization of the professor’s explanation for ‘morality’, it is not explicit what he means by morality, and so it’s not clear which of the two premises above he would deny.

Let’s assume first that he does believe in objective morality (affirming premise 1), but thinks some kind of blind socio-biological evolutionary process can account for this, without God (denying premise 2). If this is his view, how on earth would natural processes produce any actual transcendent obligation? The idea that you can get some kind of objective ‘ought’ merely from what physically ‘is’ is called the naturalistic fallacy. Whatever biological and social pressures might arise, it should be obvious that they cannot give rise to some authoritative standard that actually stands over human beings, which we have a genuine obligation to abide by. It doesn’t matter how many millions of years of trial and error occur, or how well things ‘work’ pragmatically, it would just be a category error to claim that, “Things are a certain way, therefore they should be that way.” Objective right and wrong cannot emerge by naturalistic means.

An evolutionary explanation might arguably be able to account for our tendencies or inclinations to behave in a certain way, but it is quite a different thing to say that it accounts for the existence of objective moral good and evil, or any kind of real moral obligation. Many atheists have recognized this. On their view, we don’t have any real moral duty to obey our ingrained impulses or social pressures. They are merely impulses and pressures without any real moral authority, so evolution cannot give us objective morality.

However, I regard it as far more likely that the professor rejects the idea that morality is objective (denying premise 1). If so, then he is not actually trying to explain how real moral facts were “formed”. He is trying to explain why we behave as if there are moral facts when in reality there aren’t any. He is giving an account of subjective morality, where there is no higher standard for good and bad beyond socio-biological pressures, which have no true and binding authority. In this view, that’s all morality is—a subjective, faux morality. The problem with this is that it’s too obvious that there are objective moral facts and that we have moral obligations to a standard above us. See again my response to a moral relativist for some of the reasons why moral subjectivism fails to adequately account for our moral knowledge.

I can almost guarantee that this professor doesn’t treat his own moral convictions as though they were merely pragmatic ways of getting along in society. He likely believes that human beings really are valuable, not that eons of biological and cultural evolution tricked him into thinking that humans are valuable because this fictitious view served to get his ancestors’ DNA into the next generation. But if humans really are valuable and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, then we are back to the unavoidable fact that objective moral laws exist, which points to a moral Lawgiver. Humans are valuable because they were made in the image of their Creator (Genesis 1:27) and “crowned … with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).

So the professor’s ‘explanation’ for morality completely fails to explain what needs explaining. Either he makes an unjustified leap from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, or he offers an account of subjective morality when we actually needed an account of objective morality. The Christian perspective provides an adequate explanation for moral truths, but atheism just lacks the resources to do so.

As for faith, this professor has arbitrarily defined it in a way contrary to the way many believers use the term, and the way the Bible itself uses the term. So he is misrepresenting those he is criticizing. In many places, the Bible offers or appeals to reasons why people should believe its claims (e.g., Exodus 7:17; Psalm 19:1–3; John 20:30–31; Acts 26:25–26; Romans 1:19–20). People who are criticized in Scripture for a lack of faith often clung to unbelief despite the evidence they had been given; they were not chided because they were expected to take an irrational leap in the dark. The term faith is used biblically to mean something virtually synonymous with trust, and one can certainly trust in a person or a claim for good reasons.

The Bible contrasts faith with sight in 2 Corinthians 5:7, but this is not the same as contrasting it with reason or evidence. It just means that trust is required now, while we can’t see the endpoint of our journey. We aren’t currently experiencing the completion and culmination of our path, but this does not mean that we lack adequate signposts to give us confidence that we are headed in the right direction.

Also, there are many ways to acquire knowledge besides seeing something empirically for oneself. These include reliable testimony, circumstantial evidence, introspection, moral reasoning, and others. But notice how this professor elevates empirical evidence as though other means of gaining knowledge are irrelevant or illegitimate. This is just a biased point of view that the professor has expressed, so I’d ask him what evidence (empirical or otherwise) he has to back up such a position. It’s also profoundly arrogant and uncharitable of him to accuse all religious people of having a “low intellect.” This suggests to me that he may have formed his views without bothering to engage with thoughtful people on the other side. In any case, if these claims reflect the depth of his thinking on the subject, then he is the one who needs to dive a little deeper.

I hope that gives you a better grasp of these issues as well, and further equips you to engage the critics with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Blessings,
Keaton Halley

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