The myth of rational atheism

As more and more people tick the ‘no religion’ box on the census or go on the record as atheist, public expressions of religion – especially conservative religion – have come under increasing pressure for suppression or outright abolition. This fashionable atheism and anti-religion has arisen hand in hand with a rejection of the idea of absolute morality, with modern morality becoming increasingly about trying to respect everyone’s personal point of view and less about a commitment to objective moral truth. Strong intellectual currents are at work which suggest that truth, especially about things like God and morality, is flexible, obscure, culturally conditioned and inherently unreliable. The few moral principles which our society does hold firm to – and often with a counterintuitive streak of doctrinaire fanaticism – are principles more designed to respect this relativism, subjectivism and scepticism than actually to adhere to any conception of an objective moral order. The idea that there is a design and purpose to human life in which objective moral norms are anchored is widely regarded as, at best, one of many opinions which need in some way to be respected in a person’s private life, at worst, a dangerous idea that inflicts harm on anyone unfortunate enough to have to encounter a person who holds it.

In truth though the idea that there is transcendent design behind human life is a basic foundation for any intellectually credible public philosophy. The Bible says that the law of God is written on the hearts of all humankind (Romans 2:15), and that the existence and eternal power of God can be known from what has been made (Romans 1:19-20). But you don’t have to take the Bible’s word for it, or even believe the Bible to be true, to see that this is the case. We can simply follow the logic through ourselves – it doesn’t take long – to be satisfied that there really is no coherent alternative.

We start by recognising that in order to engage in this investigation at all we have to assume that it is possible. This may seem innocuous, but in fact in order for a rational exploration of questions of God and morality to be possible a number of things have to be true about the universe in which we find ourselves. For instance, the laws of logic must be real and binding – otherwise no rational exploration of anything is possible. Second, the universe must be governed by laws and regularities which permit the emergence of intelligent life and make the universe intelligible to it, since otherwise we could not be here contemplating any questions at all. And, thirdly, there must be some principle in the universe, beyond the laws of physics, which causes rational consciousness to exist, since rational consciousness cannot be material or physical since it consists of mental phenomena such as thoughts, feelings and ideas. Thus we find we can determine a fair amount about the structure of the universe merely from the fact that we are here, using our consciousness and rationality to contemplate questions of our existence.

Let us turn next to questions of morality. It has been fashionable since the mid-nineteenth century to look to the evolutionary process as a source of human moral norms. But this is clearly a dead end from a rational point of view, since evolution can only tell us how we emerged from lower forms of life, not how we ought rationally to behave and treat one another. Besides, evolution routinely involves the destruction of the weak by the strong, which hardly seems defensible as the basis of a moral code for rational creatures.

Similar observations can be made about the idea that morality is merely an expression of how we feel about things, of our sentiments about them. For, plainly, we have many feelings and sentiments about things – empathy, anger, indignation, concern, pleasure, disgust, distress etc. – which point in all kinds of contradictory directions. Morality cannot simply involve uncritically endorsing any of these, but must require a critical assessment of their suitability and appropriateness from a rational point of view.

So what can we know about morality, what does our rational capacity teach us about how we ought to live? Let us start with the basics. Morality is about how human beings ought to behave. In particular, it is about how we ought to act when we make a free and rational choice about a course of action – for if a person’s action is not free (e.g. it is coerced) or if it is done without rational deliberation (e.g. from instinct) then we do not typically consider it morally apt. And how ought human beings to act? We ought to do that which we have most reason to do in the circumstances. For what else could a rational moral code require of us? But this means that morality must consist of a scheme – a universally coherent scheme – of rational actions for human beings. Furthermore, since morality governs the behaviour of all human beings as rational agents, it must respect the rational agency of each person as he or she seeks to discern and live in accordance with its requirements.

We don’t need to stop here though. We can also be confident, for example, that respect for truth must be central to rational moral behaviour, for anything else would be rationally defective, entailing that a person may rationally believe contradictions and falsehoods. We can also be confident that respect for the health of rational beings (as individuals and as a species) must be central to rational morality, for health is a necessary and constitutive part of the life and proper functioning of rational creatures. In similar fashion we can deduce the moral significance of ideas such as freedom, happiness, justice and friendship through their intrinsic connection to the life of human beings and their aspiration to exercise rational agency. Thus we can derive a substantial outline of the content of human moral behaviour merely from the fact that morality is a rational scheme for rational beings. Morality denial therefore is not an option from a rational point of view.

What, then, of God? Many think that God’s existence cannot be proven, and that merely to believe in the existence of a Supreme Being requires a kind of irrational leap of faith. But that is not the case at all. Philosophers since at least Aristotle and Plato have been clear that God is a fundamentally necessary concept and a deeply logical reality. To put matters simply, God must exist, for there must be some aspect of reality which is absolute, eternal, transcendent and immaterial if we are to account for the origin of the universe, its order and intelligibility, for consciousness, for free will and for morality. There must, as Aristotle put it, be a first cause, and a form behind all form, a transcendent, eternal, absolute, immaterial order from which the visible, temporal, material universe derives its existence and nature. Matter alone simply cannot, logically, be enough.

Having established the existence of God as a logically secure fact, we can further observe that the status of human beings as the rational species gives us a unique relationship to God. In particular, our rational nature evinces the unique manner in which we bear the image of the divine rational nature, an image and likeness which bestows on us a sacred status that sets us apart from, and gives us authority over, the lower orders of nature.

It is important to stress that none of these ideas is exclusively Christian. They can all be found in one form or another in Plato and Aristotle, in Stoic thinkers such as Cicero, and in philosophical and religious traditions throughout the world. They can also be found in the writings of Enlightenment Deists such as Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, as much as in those of Christians. There is nothing arcane, fanciful or sectarian about ideas of God and morality.

Secularists and atheists have got away for far too long with claiming the rational high ground in public life and debate. Yet the truth is the opposite of what they so confidently assert: atheism is not rationally superior to theism but is demonstrably inferior as a rational philosophy and, as Richard John Neuhaus pointed out, a basis for society. This point needs to be heard much more prominently and more frequently in public life than it has for a long time.

(Image: By Zoe Margolis (Atheist Bus Campaign Launch) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

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