Dawkins Part 4: The Objective Roots of Morality

At every turn, Dawkins seems to mess up a perfect opportunity to have an intelligent discussion about God. Chapter 6 is titled, “The roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?” and this is a great place to discuss the ultimate goal or purpose of God. Unfortunately, Dawkins squanders this opportunity. Instead of arguing against the need for God in the moral equation, Dawkins spends his time distracting us from the task at hand, instead offering up several anecdotal experiences to support his claims. This is yet another failed attempt by Dawkins to convince the reader of his claims. And, with more poor logic in this chapter, Dawkins further harms his overall goal of convincing the reader of the atheistic worldview.

In today’s post, I’ll highlight some of the errors in Dawkins’ logic, then I’ll provide my commentary on where morality must come from in order to be useful within the world at large. So, without further ado, here we go!

Dawkins starts by providing some examples of negative emails that have been sent to him. These letters were supposedly written by Christians and they were quite offensive and threatening. In my view, these types of letters go against everything that Christianity represents. I’m not quite sure what Dawkins’ point is here, because it would be silly to argue that these letters represent all Christians. And, it would be silly to suggest that these letters have any moral grounding in the writing of Christ. Note: the letters that he quotes do not provide a coherent argument that grounds itself in New Testament theology. Thus, they don’t really count as accurate representations of sound Christian doctrine. To me, and I’m sure to many of you, these letters are simply the work of individuals who may or may not be misguided in the pursuit of their faith. And, in case Dawkins was suggesting that misbehaving Christians mean that God is not the answer to moral grounding, well… I’ve received my fair share of disrespectful and violently offensive emails from atheists. So Dawkins, I hate to disappoint, but I don’t get your point here. It seems that you’re barking up the same tree that I discussed yesterday: bad representatives do not mean that the faith itself is flawed.

After this rather pointless introduction, Dawkins makes the argument that our morality is pre-programmed within us. He suggests that we have within ourselves an innate altruism (behaviour where we put the needs of others above our own needs – charity, good will, etc.). This innate altruism is, according to Dawkins, beneficial to our survival and growth as a species. It is part of the genetic make-up of the “survival of the fittest”, so to speak. Dawkins explains that this type of altruism benefits the individual by inspiring similar acts of altruism to be returned to the person giving the charity to others. Ultimately, this altruism results in greater benefits for the individual in question, thus extending the success and prosperity of the altruistic individual. This suggests to me that Dawkins version of altruism is self-beneficial and is thus, not necessarily altruistic after all.

One might counter this by saying, “doesn’t that mean that behaving because God or Jesus tells us to is equally self-beneficial and thus equally un-altruistic as well?” That is a good point, but it greatly diminishes the purpose of the love that Jesus talks about in the New Testament. The altruistic behaviour that Jesus talks about in Mark 12:30-31 is called agape love and it is divine love, which is an unconditional love. It has no strings. It expects nothing in return. It does not need love in return. It is simply love freely given. To apply agape love means to become like God in the way that God loves. And, Jesus provides the example of agape love that we are to strive for. Jesus brings us the message of agape love and instructs us to love one another in this way. For more on agape love, check out my previous series on love entitled “Who Do You Love“, and specifically “Part 4 of 5: AGAPE – unconditional love.

Dawkins’ love doesn’t sound like this. It isn’t altruistic in the least. Dawkins himself argues that his version of altruism is self-serving. So much for that argument, eh Dawkins?

Next, Dawkins calls out the great flaw in atheistic thought… he asks the question, “If there is no God, why be good?” It is this question which cannot be answered by atheists. There is no good answer to this question. Dawkins opens up the discussion by pulling in one of the premiere explanations from existentialism on the abyss that is a Godless existence. Dawkins quotes Dostoevsky in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (I highly recommend this book – it is absolutely briliant!). Dawkins quotes a scene where Ivan Karamazov argues that without God, ultimate meaning can only be derived from within. Ivan says that “egoism, even extending to the perpetration of a crime, would not only be permissible but would be recognized as the essential, the most rational, and even the noblest raison d’etre of the human condition.”

Dawkins also mentions the book Outsider by Albert Camus. This book makes the same point: there is no absolute grounding or meaning in life. Thus, we are what we create as our reality.

I’ve argued the problems with this already in an earlier post about the myth of Sisyphus. The larger context of the series is quite contentious, but the point is the same. For the purpose of this discussion, focus only on the story of Sisyphus, and ignore the surrounding content of the post series. If you feel strongly compelled to discuss the content of that series more, feel free to do it within the bounds of that series. Don’t bring that discussion back to this series please.

But where were we… Sisyphus: the argument goes that Sisyphus was condemned to roll a rock up a hill for eternity. Every time Sisyphus approached the top of the hill, it would fall back down the hill again. Thus, Sisyphus was faced with a potentially meaninglessness existence. Ultimately, the story becomes one in which Sisyphus creates for himself a purpose and a meaning to motivate him to continue to roll the stone. But by so doing this, Sisyphus was lying to himself. This ultimately leads to living a life of meaninglessness or lying to oneself about one’s ultimate purpose. Either way, these are pretty desolate choices. (I’ve skipped some logic here… for the full argument, check out the link above to the article on Sisyphus).

So… without a purpose and without a proper grounding, what motivations are there for an atheist to live a life of moral goodness? And what does goodness mean to a purposeless person? And further, if we are all individually responsible for creating our versions of reality, what’s to stop each of us from having completely different versions of good and bad? One person’s hedonism might be another person’s morally bankrupt lifestyle. Problems abound here.

Consider the “final solution” suggested by the Nazis in WWII. To an atheist, Hitler’s justification for “purifying the human race” could have been seen as noble and good. Nietzsche’s atheistic writing seems to reinforce this view as well, as does that of his contemporaries including C. Schmitt and others. My point here is to simply point out that atheism doesn’t provide any motivation for acting rightly in the world. If anything, atheism has propagated the increasingly problematic sense of pluralism and relativism which is leading to further religious, political, and social strife in the world. There are some benefits to central rules of moral authority, as long as those central rules are morally sound and humane. And, in the atheistic worldview, there is no grounding for moral goodness, nor is a central authority encouraged. In atheism and the nothingness that it purports, the individual is the only priority and everyone else is simply a means to that individual’s ends.

In this chapter, Dawkins did nothing to further the atheistic grounding for morality. It is unfortunate, as Dawkins is now over half way through the book and he has yet to mount a convincing and logically sound argument to support his cause.

To conclude, let me offer a couple of thoughts on the grounding of morality within religion. As I have argued elsewhere and will continue to argue in upcoming posts, God’s existence and his participation in our existence provides us with a concrete, absolute source of moral grounding. With God as our moral compass, we have a baseline upon which to make decisions. Jesus provides the clearest explanation of this moral imperative when he tells us to love God and to love our neighbours. His rules in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7) provide an outline for Christian living which are pretty hard to screw up or to misinterpret.

You’d be right in suggesting that even Christians don’t live their lives the way that Jesus suggests. Good point. But I defer you to my last post where I talked about separating the organization from the faith. While the organization may distort the views of the faith, that doesn’t mean the faith is flawed. It simply means that those representing the faith are flawed.

Thus, if we can be grounded in an absolute sense of right and wrong, then we can live our lives with a sense of purpose and clear direction. Any other way is simply a lie or a meaningless struggle in futility.

Next up, we’ll talk about The Historical Jesus. This post should be fun. I’ll be speaking to those that have been asking, “In what ways has God connected with us?”

By Todd Dow

Author, Geek, CF fundraiser & Cancer Survivor. My family, baseball, infosec, privacy & devops are a few of my favorite things.

3 replies on “Dawkins Part 4: The Objective Roots of Morality”

Hi Todd,
This is where you totally lose me and your argument makes no sense. “If there is no God let’s just start killing and raping each other….” Come on. I agree with Dawkins’ that humans inherently have the desire to be good and helpful to each other. The view that Dawkins’ theory is not really altruistic is irrelevant and takes a very negative view to what he is saying. He is saying that if we as a society help each other and be good people, it is good for the individual, the larger group, and the entire society. Everyone! What is wrong with that? Just because it includes the individual, doesn’t negate the value to others. I help people because it makes me feel good, what’s wrong with that? This to me seems to have higher moral value than being good because I am scared of God’s punishment. If God’s love is so unconditional why does it not apply to Gay marriages? Your analogy of Hitler and that atheists would agree with it, is just ignorant and insulting. In fact, I would argue if you took all of the atrocities done by atheists in history and then look at the atrocities done by “religious” men; the list for the religious would be 10 times longer. All in the name of God.

So let’s cut to the chase. Why are we here and what’s the point. I am going to argue a view point that many Agnostics take that is often misunderstood. Because I don’t believe in the traditional sense of God or an after life like heaven, this makes me savor life even more. We are on this world for a short time, so make the most out of life. Be good to others and love thy neighbor and this goodness will come back on you 10 times over. In fact this goodness will come back on you while you are still living, not in some promise of a fairy tale afterworld. This is where I think religion actually has an adverse affect on humanity and religious people display a lot of hypocrisy. No problem, I can treat people like shit, but as long as I go to Church on Sunday, pray to a statue, and donate some cash, I am good to go. My place in heaven is secure. Agnostics/Atheists, realize we need to make the most out of life now, so let’s be good to each other and love each other and we WILL make the most out of our lives.

I guess bottom line, the key is respecting and loving your fellow man. If you need a god for this, or the promise of a 100 virgins in the afterlife, knock yourself out. For me, I don’t need it.

Agnostic Dave

You are missing a big piece from his book which that jesus’s morality doesn’t sync up with our society:

1. Adam & eve’s sin
In our world, freedom & liberty can be defined like “as long as you does thing that won’t harm others and you are not doing things that you do not wish others to perform on you, it’s considered okay.” Eating the forbidden fruit is not that big of a deal in our world. You can compare it as taking cocaine. Is it that big of a crime? Probably not.

2. Can sin pass on? In our world, your father commit a crime will certainly not affect you. Why is Adam and Eve’s sin passed onto their offsprings?

3. Can someone else remove your sin? In our world, definitely not, even if US president is hanged on the cross would not be able to save Saddam’s sin.

4. Is there a future sin? Jesus said his death has washed off future sins, there is no such thing in our world

5. Jesus chose to die out of torture and not other more peaceful way, who is he trying to impress? Wasn’t that a bad lesson? Even the worst criminal should not be tortured in any way. Why did Jesus brought the message that by being tortured, sins are washed off?

You didn’t even mentioned these morality values that Richard dawkins brought up.

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