Fact-Checking “The Inevitable Consequences of an Atheist Worldview”

Earlier this year, J. Warner Wallace reposted on his blog something written by an anonymous writer which describes “the inevitable consequence of an atheist worldview.” Wallace gives the writer the nickname “John.” I want to comment on “John’s” comments as well as Wallace’s commentary.

Before I address “John’s” remarks, I first need to point out a fundamental error in the title of the post. Like many theistic non-philosophers who do apologetics, Wallace misuses the expression “inevitable consequence” (emphasis mine). (These same theists often also misuse the expressions “implication” and “logical outworking” as synonymous with “inevitable consequence.”) In logic, to say, “X implies Y,” means that Y is true whenever X is true. A corollary of this point is this: if it is possible for Y to be false when X is true, then Y isn’t an ‘inevitable’ consequence of X. The central claim of “John’s” and Wallace’s post is refuted by this simple point. If atheism is true, then morality can still exist. Parental care and justice can still be morally good; the Holocaust, infanticide, the abuse of the mentally disabled, and rape can still be morally bad. Since that is even possible, it follows that the destruction of morality is not the ‘inevitable consequence’ of atheism.

Let’s turn now to “John’s” comments.

“[To] all my Atheist friends. Let us stop sugar coating it. I know, it’s hard to come out and be blunt with the friendly Theists who frequent sites like this. However in your efforts to “play nice” and “be civil” you actually do them a great disservice. We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe [sic] is a great uncaused, random accident.

Claim: Atheism entails the belief that the universe is “uncaused.”

Facts: With a technical caveat, this is correct.

My educated guess is that probably most atheists are metaphysical naturalists (in a Draperian sense which is compatible with the existence of abstract objects), but I don’t claim to have polling data to back up this claim. By definition, metaphysical naturalism entails that physical reality does not have an external cause. If our universe is the only universe, then naturalism entails our universe does not have an external cause and so is “uncaused” in that sense. If, on the other hand, our universe is part of a larger multiverse, then our universe might have been somehow “caused” by an event in the multiverse, but naturalism entails that the multiverse itself does not have an external cause. If physical reality does not have an external cause, then the only other options are that physical reality somehow caused itself to exist or it exists uncaused. But it’s hard to make sense of the idea of self-causation; it seems to be a contradiction in terms. If so, this would leave “physical reality is uncaused” as the only option for a naturalist. So we can agree with “John” that the universe (read: physical reality) is “uncaused” in this sense.

Claim: Atheism entails the belief that the universe is a “random accident.”

Facts: This misleading claim wrongly implies that atheists believe that all of physical reality is the result of a “random” event or process. The word “accident” can mean different things depending on the context. Here are two possibilities.

(1) One connotation of the word “accident” is an unfortunate event, but neither atheism nor naturalism commits one to the view that the existence of physical reality is an unfortunate event. (And, for the record, I’m not claiming that “John” had this sense in mind; I don’t know if he did.)

(2) Another interpretation of “accident” is an event that happens without a purpose. Since naturalism entails that physical reality lacks an external cause, it also entails that physical reality was not created with a purpose.

The word “accident,” however, doesn’t apply to an atheistic view of physical reality. Even if our universe is the result of some random universe-generating process in the multiverse, it still wouldn’t follow that all of physical reality is the result of a “random” process or event.

All life in the Universe [sic] past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself.

Claim: Atheism entails that all life in the universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself.

Facts: This claim is a caricature of what atheism entails. If atheist “John” believes this, he’s misunderstood both atheism and Darwinian evolution. Metaphysical naturalists, including atheists, believe that living things are the result of unguided, Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Evolution by natural selection denies that living things are the result of chance alone. As Richard Dawkins explains, “Natural selection is quintessentially non-random, yet is lamentably often miscalled random. … Chance cannot explain life. … Evolution by natural selection is the only workable theory ever proposed that is capable of explaining life, and it does so brilliantly.”

While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. 

Claim: Atheism entails the view that concepts like morality, politeness, and civility do not exist.

Facts: This claim is false, in two ways.

First, even if atheism entailed that moral nihilism or anti-realism were true, it still wouldn’t follow that the “concept” of morality did not exist. The concept of morality could still exist without being applicable, like the concepts of phlogiston and ghosts.

Second, neither atheism nor metaphysical naturalism entails that “concepts like morality, politeness, and civility do not exist.” Atheism is neither moral nor immoral; rather, it is amoral. By itself, atheism does not make it obligatory, permitted, or forbidden to do anything. It’s not an ethical theory. Nor is it a meta-ethical theory (about moral ontology): atheism says nothing about whether moral values or obligations are objective or subjective. If we knew nothing in philosophy except “God does not exist,” that would tell us that theistic theories (such as the Divine Command Theory) are false, but it would not tell us which metaethical theory is true. If atheism is true, morality could be objective, subjective, or inter-subjective. Atheism is neutral on these topics, a fact recognized by a variety of theistic and nontheistic philosophers.[1]

Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time. They served some purpose in the past. They got us here. That’s it. All human achievement and plans for the future are the result of some ancient, evolved brain and accompanying chemical reactions that once served a survival purpose. Ex: I’ll marry and nurture children because my genes demand reproduction, I’ll create because creativity served a survival advantage to my ancient ape ancestors, I’ll build cities and laws because this allowed my ape grandfather time and peace to reproduce and protect his genes. My only directive is to obey my genes. Eat, sleep, reproduce, die. That is our bible.

Claim: Atheism entails that morality is nothing but, in the words of E.O. Wilson, “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”[2]

Facts: While evolution may help to explain why human beings have a moral sense and believe that moral reasons are objective and overriding, that fact is not of obvious relevance to the existence of objective moral values and duties. In fact, the author seems to beg the question against moral views, like the Aristotelian ethical naturalism defended by Larry Arnhart, which entail that human morality is rooted in objective facts about our biological nature.

We deride the Theists for having created myths and holy books. We imagine ourselves superior. But we too imagine there are reasons to obey laws, be polite, protect the weak etc. Rubbish. We are nurturing a new religion, one where we imagine that such conventions have any basis in reality. Have they allowed life to exist? Absolutely. But who cares? Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me. Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife. I know it’s not PC to speak so bluntly about the ramifications of our beliefs, but in our discussions with Theists we sometimes tip toe around what we really know to be factual. Maybe it’s time we Atheists were a little more truthful and let the chips fall where they may. At least that’s what my genes are telling me to say.”

Claim: Atheism entails that people have no reason to behave morally other than the fear of getting caught and punished if they behave immorally.

Facts:“John” again seems to beg the question against Aristotelian ethical naturalism and again I disagree. If morality is rooted in the biology of human nature, then, as Arnhart argues, satisfying natural human desires is often good for human beings.

Furthermore, anyone impressed by Pascal’s Wager should find this claim unconvincing. Suppose it were true that atheism entails that people have no reason to behave morally other than the fear of getting caught and punished if they behave immorally. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t necessarily follow that atheists have no reason to behave morally. Pascal argued that we have a strong pragmatic reason for believing in God in his famous “Wager.” What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that his wager can be modified into a pragmatic reason for behaving morally. Let’s call this modified wager “Lowder’s Lottery.” According to Lowder’s Lottery, God doesn’t care about whether you believe in Him in this life, but He will hold you accountable in the afterlife for how you behaved in this life. Thus, everyone–including supernaturalists, naturalists, and “otherists”–have a pragmatic reason to behave morally.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the demand for a non-pragmatic justification or motivation for moral behavior applies to theism just as much as it does to atheism. Many (but not all) versions of theistic ethics reduce moral motivation to a form of prudence (“Do good in this life so you can get a reward and avoid punishment in the next life”). Shelly Kagan made this point very well in his debate with William Lane Craig.

Let’s now turn to Wallace’s commentary.

John bluntly captured the true nature of morality when it is untethered to a transcendent source. Since posting this comment, I’ve been able to peek at John’s life in a very limited way and I’ve had a brief interaction with him. He appears to be a creative, responsible, loving husband and father. In fact, his outward life looks much like the life you and I might lead as Christians. As an atheist, my moral compass was much like that of the Christians I knew. But knowing what is far different than knowing why. I embraced a particular set of moral laws even though I couldn’t account for these laws in a world without a transcendent moral law giver.

Claim: Moral laws require a transcendent moral law giver.

Facts: Moral laws do not need a “transcendent moral law giver.” Consider the following argument, which presumably underlies Wallace’s claims.

(1) If God does not exist, then there is no divine lawgiver.

(2) If there is no divine lawgiver, then there are no moral laws.

(3) If there are no moral laws, then there are no moral obligations.

(4) Therefore, if God does not exist, then there are no moral obligations.

Why should we believe (2)? It’s not hard to imagine what an argument for (2) might look like. One might argue for (2) on the basis of the following supporting argument:

(5) Laws must be made by a lawgiver.

(6) A lawgiver must be either natural or divine.

(7) Moral laws cannot have a natural lawgiver.

(2) Therefore, if there is no divine lawgiver, then there are no moral laws.

But why should anyone believe (5)? Laws require a lawgiver only if they are, in fact, made. Statutory (governmental) laws are the paradigm example of laws that require a lawgiver, but statutory laws were made or inventedNot all laws are made, however. The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics are three examples of laws that are discovered, not invented. Not only do these examples undercut the support for premise (5), they actually provide the basis of an argument against (5), based on the following negative analogy.

(8) The laws of nature, logic, mathematics, and (objective) morality were not made.

(9) The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics also do not have lawgivers.

(10) Therefore, the laws of (objective) morality do not have a lawgiver.

(10) entails, accordingly, that premise (5) is false.

Furthermore, Wallace’s entire discussion assumes without argument that theism, unlike atheism, offers an adequate, rationally compelling ontological foundation or basis for objective moral values and obligations. But, in fact, this is precisely one of the issues in dispute between proponents and critics of theistic metaethics. These critics–who include Christian theists–keep pointing out the problems with theistic metaethics, but many apologists, Wallace included, have yet to interact with this scholarship. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for just some of the many examples available. Again, Wallace says nothing that refutes these objections.

I typically attributed morality to some form of social or cultural evolution, but as John correctly observes, our selfish genes are not interested in the welfare of others when their personal survival is at stake.

Claim: Social or cultural evolution can’t be the foundation for morality because our selfish genes are not interested in the welfare of others when their personal survival is at stake.

Facts: I find the concepts of “social or cultural evolution” to be too poorly defined to be of much use in these kinds of discussions, but this “observation” is a non sequitur. Our selfish genes don’t influence behavior directly; they do so through a complicated network of development and interaction with the physical and social environment. But let that pass. Again, see my comments above regarding the reasons for being moral.

Without a true transcendent source for morality (and purpose), skeptics are left trying to invent their own, justifying their subjective moral rules as best they may. In the end, as John rightly observes, they end up “nurturing a new religion” and creating for themselves the very thing they detest.

Claim: Without a true transcendent source of purpose, there is no basis for affirming objective moral values or obligations.

Facts: This claim confuses the distinction between purpose and value. 

To say that something exists for a purpose means there is a reason for its existence.[3]  To say that something has value means that it has desirable characteristics.[4]  Even if something was not created for a purpose, that thing can still have value if it has desirable characteristics.  Moreover, in order for a thing to be valuable, it does not have to be valuable to the person or thing that created it.  Therefore, although the human species was not created for a purpose (and so is not valuable to the impersonal forces of evolution), the human species is still valuable because it is valuable to humans: individual humans desire the existence of the human species.

Objective moral values and obligations do not depend on a ‘cosmic telos‘ or external purpose for the universe’s existence. [5]


[1]  These philosophers, who are probably in the majority, include Adams; Anderson; Hick; Berg; Brink; Butchvarov; Byrne; Draper; Everitt; Fales; F. Howard-Snyder; Kurtz; Le Poidevin; MacLagan; Martin; Moore; Morriston; Nagel; Nielsen; Nozick; Pojman; Post; Rachels; Rottschaefer; Rowe; Sayre-McCord; Sagi; Schellenberg; Shafer-Landau; Sinnott-Armstrong; T. Smith; Statman; Sullivan, Thompson, D. Yandell, K. Yandell;  Q. Smith; Swinburne; and Wielenberg.

[2] E.O. Wilson in Ruse and Wilson 1985, 51.

[3] Mikael Stenmark, “Evolutionary Biology, Religion and the Meaning of Life.”

[4] Cf. Nicholas Rescher, Introduction to Value Theory (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1982), pp. 55-56; Louis Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (third ed., Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999), p. 84.

[5] I am grateful to Glenn Branch and John Danaher for helpful comments on a previous version of this essay. I am responsible, of course, for any errors which remain.