Taking Atheism Ignorantly

Here is something that appeared recently in an article by one Michael Egnor on a site called “Evolution News.” He advocates taking atheism seriously.

If you look closely you will see that the article has nothing directly to do with evolution. This really is not surprising since, despite its name, “Evolution News” is not a site containing news and information about evolutionary science. It is a creationist site. Maybe we atheists should start a site called “Creationism Triumphs over Godless Evolution” and fill it with anti-creationist articles.

Be that as it may, Mr. Egnor, in the midst of blaming atheists for the Sutherland Falls massacre, and worldwide atrocities in general, nevertheless generously offers to set us atheists straight by showing us what we really believe. I have addressed the canard that atheism is responsible for the atrocities of communists in great detail elsewhere, so I will not repeat those points here.


Here I will simply take Mr. Egnor’s offer to enlighten me about the consequences of my own beliefs at face value, being, as I am, always happy to defer to one who is wiser. Here is his statement:

“The problem that atheists have with reflection on their own beliefs is that they don’t…take their own atheism seriously.

So, let’s do it for them. If atheism is true, the following are true:

  1. There is no God.
  2. Nothing caused everything for no reason.
  3. There is no ultimate purpose for anything.
  4. There is no afterlife.
  5. Human beings are just animals.
  6. There is no objective morality (follows necessarily from 1, 2, 3, 5).
  7. There is no ultimate accountability (follows necessarily from 1-6).
  8. There is no free will (follows from 5).
  9. There is no guilt or innocence in a moral sense (follows from 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8).

I’m sure you can add a few more necessary items to the Atheist Nicene Creed.”

Thanks, Mr. Egnor! Still, if someone is claiming to spell out my Creed for me, I hope he will not mind if I take a look to see if I can really agree with each of its points:

1) “There is no God.” Congrats, Mr. Egnor! You have succeeded in stating the fact that atheists do not believe in God! A promising start!

2) “Nothing caused everything for no reason.” Uh oh. This is gibberish. Nobody, not even atheists can believe this, because it is utter nonsense. It is like saying that Mr. Egnor believes that colorless blue ideas sleep furiously. Somebody might say something like that, but nobody can believe it because it has no coherent content.

Is Mr. Egnor trying to get at something that atheists actually do believe? Atheists, like theists, believe that something is uncaused. Theists say that it is God; atheists, at least the ones that are naturalists, say that the universe (or the multiverse) in its most basic and general features, has no cause. In other words, the basic disagreement between theists and naturalists is over what is the best candidate for an ultimate brute fact—God, or something else. Maybe atheists are claiming something questionable here, but, if so, it needs to be shown by argument, not by dismissive put-downs.

3) “There is no ultimate purpose for anything.” Sure there is. The ultimate purpose of my car is to get me from one place to the other. The ultimate purpose of my university (as I have to remind administrators on occasion) is the discovery and transmission of knowledge. Aristotle argued that the ultimate purpose of human life is to achieve eudaimonia (and I agree). Surely, Mr. Egnor is aware of such instances of purposefulness. What then does he mean?

He means, I guess, that atheists disagree with theists when they claim that the universe was made by God for a purpose. Since we atheists do not believe that the universe was made, we do not believe that it was made for a purpose. What follows? Mr. Egnor thinks that a lot does, so let’s see.

4) “There is no afterlife.” Technically, there is nothing in atheism, per se, that denies the existence of an afterlife. Atheists could believe in souls (some have), and therefore could believe in an afterlife. However, if atheists are also naturalists, then they will not believe in souls, or anything supernatural, and so will not believe in an afterlife.

5) “Human beings are just animals.” Human beings are animals. That is a biological fact. Humans are indeed biological organisms, classified as Homo sapiens in the taxonomic system of binomial nomenclature. Atheists tend to be fact-friendly so, we happily accept this one.

However, Mr. Egnor is not asserting the biological fact that atheists accept—that humans are animals–but that human beings are JUST animals. What belief does he mean to impute to atheists by his word “just?” If he means to imply by that “just” that atheists hold that, lacking souls, humans will have no afterlife, then his claim here would seem to be redundant, having been already stated in his previous claim. What else could he mean by that “just?” If he means that humans—as is allegedly the case with nonhuman animals—are incapable of rationality and morality, then atheists (with the exception of Alex Rosenberg) do not generally accept that, and the imputation is therefore a straw man.

6) “There is no objective morality (follows necessarily from 1, 2, 3, 5).” When someone says that something follows, indeed follows “necessarily,” from certain claims, it is generally preceded by an argument. I find nothing remotely resembling an argument here. The consequence is merely asserted as though it were dead obvious. May I suggest that what seems obvious to Mr. Egnor might, in fact, not be? Since we have no argument but only assertion, I will make a counter-assertion here: Far from stating a necessary consequence, this claim is a gross non sequitur. BTW, I would not be the only one to hold that there can be a secular basis for objective morality. Others that would hold this would include Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and quite a few others.

7) “There is no ultimate accountability (follows necessarily from 1-6).” If by “ultimate accountability,” Mr. Egnor means that atheists do not accept that there will be a final judgment and an assignment to heaven or hell, then he is right. We think that morality is possible without the bribery of heaven or the terrorism of hell. Guilty as charged. However, from the fact that there is no “ultimate” (i.e. postmortem) accountability it does not follow that atheists do not believe in accountability.

8) “There is no free will (follows from 5).” If by “free will” Mr. Egnor means free will in the libertarian sense—where choices are neither determined nor random but are due to an occult power called “agent causation”—then such a view is often derided by atheists as a fantasy of questionable coherence. Indeed, that is my view of it. However, if “free will” can encompass a compatibilist sense, then many atheists (including me) have no problem with it. If something is wrong with the compatibilist view, this has to be argued, not assumed.

9) “There is no guilt or innocence in a moral sense (follows from 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8).” Alas, this another egregious non sequitur where Mr. Egnor permits himself to draw vast conclusions from no argument at all.  The consequence is a malicious caricature of atheism. No, actually, it is not even a caricature, since a caricature bears some similarity to its object. Mr. Egnor’s effusion (It is not an argument) seems merely to function to articulate his private fantasy about what he would like to believe about atheists.

Alas, then, I cannot accept Mr. Egnor’s offer of enlightenment. Instead, let me offer him a modest bit of advice: Maybe read some atheists before you draw vast conclusions about what they “must” believe. Maybe you could start with Erik Wielenberg and Owen Flanagan. It really is more effective to criticize from a position of knowledge than ignorance.