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When atheism seems easy

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Published: 30 December 2017 (GMT+10)

J.R. from the United States writes:

Hello there! First, I’d like to thank the U.S. office for their response to an earlier question of mine. It made sense and helped me understand. Even though I’m a Christian I still struggle with emotional doubts and resisting the temptation to just believe materialistic notions because they don’t require intellectual strength, just “feeling faith.”

Today I have a question that has been bugging me for some time, concerning the moral argument for the existence of God. I was reading the article Why believe in objective morals? which is basically the sum of my question. If we follow evolutionary naturalism to its ultimate end concerning morality, we end up with morality simply being a useful illusion. I was looking for reasons for objective morality outside of feeling or personal interest. For instance, if someone is averse to things being done to them that harm them or a loved one, couldn’t the materialist just say that such aversion is a selfish desire?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Facing the darkness

I know what it’s like to find the darkness easy to embrace, even as a Christian (see Darwin, Spurgeon and the ‘black dog’). In times past, I went to some pretty dark places because of some difficult circumstances in my life (some self-caused, others not). It got to the point where I suffered some suicidal thoughts, and would often depressively contemplate giving up the faith just because it seemed more noble to go to Hell knowing the truth than it did to embrace the faith and look forward to eternal life. Thankfully, with help from the people around me, and a ton of God’s grace, I was able to slowly claw my way out of that hole. But it took time and some moral effort on my part.

But you know what was the one thing that was pretty much guaranteed to make things worse for my mental state, during that time? Philosophy. I felt like I could assess these things with clarity and rigour, but I was wrong. Why? The argument never stops. And when the black hole was appealing, my prior probability judgments were skewed big time toward that black hole. How do I know they were skewed? I could tell that I wasn’t my normal self in how I interacted with others. Therefore, while in a state like that, I should never have trusted my mind to do something as mentally taxing as philosophy.

I’m not saying you’re in a place like that. I’m just saying that I know what it’s like to find the opposite of Christ easy to embrace even as a Christian. I can empathize with the struggle. And yet, here I am, confidently declaring it should be way easier to believe that torturing babies for fun is really wrong than it should be to embrace an evolutionary naturalism that renders morality illusory. And I stand by that.

Problems with embracing amoral materialism

While it might feel easy in your mind to embrace materialistic thoughts, do you find it as easy to embrace acting consistently with those thoughts? For instance, even if it feels easy to believe that we’re not really forbidden from torturing babies just for fun, do you find it easy to live as if we’re not really forbidden from doing that?

An easy stopping point may be that it’s prudent to not permit torturing babies just for fun, since it would likely lead to our species’ demise if we actively embraced it as permissible. But that’s just to quit thinking materialistically when it seems convenient. If you’re really going to follow that train of thought to its final destination, you can’t stop travelling at that pleasant stop only halfway down the line. Rather, you have to ask: why does our species matter? Why does prudence matter? On materialism, they ultimately don’t. See Answering a moral relativist.

Maybe you don’t want to embrace it because, if you do, you may face unpleasant consequences from others. OK, that might stop you from doing anything about it. But what if someone else doesn’t feel so bothered by those considerations? Would you seek to stop them? If so, why? Prudence and species survival? But they’re still ultimately meaningless, on a materialistic view. It turns out our materialistic train of thought is actually just a meaningless merry-go-round. Any place you choose to get off is ultimately arbitrary. Staying on the merry-go-round, though, will drive you insane. Better minds than mine have been driven to madness by that merry-go-round. (see Nietzsche, the man who took on God and lost!)

‘But maybe the madness reflects reality?’ But how likely is that? Theism offers a simple and elegant link between healthy brain function and the world we live in: God made us to live in this world, and this world to be liveable for us. Naturalistic evolution offers us a mad merry-go-round that can’t know if morals are illusory, or even if naturalistic evolution itself is true.

Under naturalistic evolution, the belief that our moral beliefs are illusory is subject to the same general unreliability as our moral beliefs. After all, it’s produced by the same unreliable brain that produces our illusory moral beliefs. Therefore, under naturalistic evolution we could no more trust the brain-produced belief that morals are illusory than we can trust the brain-produced belief that morals are real. Indeed, this problem can even be expanded to belief in naturalistic evolution itself, since it too is a brain-produced belief on this view. In other words, if naturalistic evolution were true, it would be incoherent to believe it. CMI-US speaker and writer Keaton Halley has written some very helpful articles on this: Monkey minds, Can evolution produce rational minds?, and Can atheism possibly explain morality and reason?

But even if it still feels easy to fall to those materialistic thoughts, remember how I said above that the black hole skewed my prior probability judgments? It made assuming the worst easy. But that’s no evidence that the worst is really true. Indeed, such relentless nihilism can be just as much wishful thinking as gullible optimism. ‘You mean, a part of us might want to stay in a nihilistic hole?’ Sure! Why not? After all, if you doubt everything good, you’re not going to be ‘taken in’ by anything good, are you? You won’t ever fall for something because it’s ‘too good to be true’, will you? And that in a strange sort of way can be immensely satisfying. At least, that was my experience. But doubts about God like that deserve to be doubted, even if it takes a lot of effort to keep doing so. God is worth doubting the doubts.

Anyway, that’s just a brief consideration of some of the problems of amoral materialism. The links give more exposition to those points, and provide some other lines of thought as well.

We can’t walk alone

But I don’t want to end with philosophy. Rather, let me encourage you to share your struggles with those around you. Talk to some mature Christians at your local church. Talk to your pastor. And, if it’s appropriate, talk also to your doctor. They’re there to help. And don’t stop going to church, or meeting with Christians, because isolating yourself will only make matters worse. And of course, read the Bible and pray constantly. The Bible doesn’t hide from these troubles; look at Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes. Paul knew a thing or two about suffering as well. None of this is a magical fix; it’s just about putting yourself in a healthy place, which can help relieve some of the darkness. See Dealing with doubt.

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