Must atheists steal from Christianity to make their worldviews work?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Can an atheist or a secular humanist ground an objective moral and ethical system without stealing from Christianity to make their worldview work? Or is it just special pleading on their case? Does objective morality in general require God to even make sense? Because all the theological, philosophical, rational, and logical arguments end up leading to the God of Judeo-Christianity. This means that the moral judgments of atheists and secular humanists make no sense based on their own worldview. Don't they realize they are stealing from someone else's worldview to make theirs work? Is almost like they can't reason fairly and consistently.

Answer: Your observations are spot on. There is indeed an incongruency between many atheists’ worldviews and how they deal with morality… because the morality (and immorality) we see in the world only makes sense if an omnipotent, transcendent and supremely moral entity created us as moral beings. We know this entity to be God, and we see his morality in the Bible. But we also see it in the creation at large (Romans 1:18-20) — and most acutely within ourselves. But philosophically speaking, when it comes to morality, the atheists are hung out to dry.

I woke up today (02/15/2018) to the news of yet another school shooting — this time in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people have died… and this is horrible… but it is only horrible in a world where there are objective moral standards. Congruent atheists can’t cluck their tongues at this shooting — or even call it a tragedy — because their worldview prevents even their lives from having objective meaning. All they can say about these horrific events is that’s how life works… and muddle on. This is a type of special pleading for the universe… because it’s not okay that that’s how life is.

Our society’s laws apply to both believers and unbelievers, but the source of these laws transcend us. Governance must come from above people… not of people… but why is this? If our moral standards were grounded in humankind, then this shooting would be okay. No matter how many people disliked it, some people would argue for their right to kill… and in the world we’ve created — one that ostensibly has no objective truth or morality — all positions and actions would be equally valid… including those of this most recent shooter.

Now, atheists might be tempted to call the shooter mentally ill to take the edge off his actions. But calling him mentally ill only pushes the problem back one step. You see, to make such a judgment, we’d need a standard for what “normal” (or at least “acceptable”) behavior might be… and who would decide that?

Without God, shooting people would still be in the running for normative behavior. In fact, if 51% of any self-governing people had the same values as the shooter, then there is no logical reason why shooting innocent people at random would not be a common and legal activity.

Most people recoil at the death of children — as well we should — and most atheists do not want to live in that kind of a lawless society. So, you are correct to note that they are enjoying a relatively civilized life — but at God’s expense… but that they cross the line of logical congruency when they assume that things should be this way. This seems to be your main objection — and it’s mine too — because without God who is to say how things should be?

We sometimes call the assumption that there is ambient goodness in the world… just sort of lying around for the taking… as borrowing moral capital. People want to dismiss God when it comes to policing their own moral behavior (… like, who are you to tell me how to behave?) … but they want everyone else to act according to some moral standard so they may enjoy the fruits of a stable society. This is patently immature… but here we are again. Who gets to say what’s immature? That too is all up for grabs in a world with no objective moral standards.

When it comes to reasoning fairly and consistently, most people don’t bother reasoning at all… they just live. You may know some nominal Christians… but nominalism isn’t limited to just the religious. I find that most atheists are nominal too. So, just as nominal Christians don’t play by the same rules as their more dedicated counterparts, the same is true of atheists. In fact, I think it is a rare atheist that can articulate the absurdity of dismissing God on one hand while insisting on living in a civilized world on the other.

Cognitive dissonance is the term psychologists use to describe the difference between how we think we should live under some moral paradigm and how we actually live. I sometimes refer to this as “tension” when I’m talking about subscribing to multiple biblical ideas that resist coexisting peaceably.

A physician who smokes cigarettes is a good example of someone who must have cognitive dissonance. He would have earned a doctorate, gone through an internship and secured a license to practice… which usually requires him to continue his training and to advocate for the public’s health. There is no way in the world such a person would not understand that smoking is harmful… yet he persists.

When knowledgeable people refrain from smoking, this resonates in their lives as consonant, whereas the nagging guilt of smoking — especially in the light of all the physician’s specialized knowledge — would not resonate at all because it would be dissonant. But dissonance is only about comfort; it’s not about what you can and cannot do. So, the smoking physician would live with his discomfort… and that’s what atheists do. They do not thrive under life’s incongruities. They cope… but, philosophically speaking, they live self-destructive lives.

I bring this up because we all live with some cognitive dissonance.  For instance, there is much more I could do for the Lord… and I know I should… but sometimes I watch television instead. That’s just how life is. Christians often understand better truths than the ones they live out… and this too is cognitive dissonance.

Atheists have a mirror to this problem: they should be able to act worse than they do without it bothering their consciences… but they can’t quite pull this off (Romans 2:14-15). So they just go about their lives living in their version of cognitive dissonance.

This is how parties on both sides cope with the gap between knowledge and behavior. We can’t stop life and wait for it to be perfectly congruent. So we proceed down the most comfortable path that will help us with our objectives.

Whatever else you do today, watch this 5 minute YouTube video from Reasonable Faith Ministries. It addresses your questions precisely.

We Christians can be happy and congruent… but these are mutually exclusive for an atheist. Atheists merely live with their cognitive dissonance. But — and because of our worldview — we Christians enjoy an abundant life that they can never see without the new birth (John 3:3).

God bless you.

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