There are atheist Traditionalists. But apart from an appeal to their own personal preferences, they cannot propose any arguments that support their Traditionalist views. This because if God does not exist, then as Dostoyevsky pointed out, everything is permitted.
Secular rightists are generally indignant at that notion. They’ve got plenty of arguments! Evolution has formed us as moral animals, and that justifies characterizing human moral sentiments as founded in objective reality. I get this argument all the time. Less often, I hear appeals to non-theistic Natural Law. While I appreciate the earnest honesty of their professors, these arguments won’t do. Why?
Note first that in what follows I am not trying to figure out whether the God of Israel, or any other god, is good. That’s an issue that we can only think about addressing if we first establish that there is such a thing as an objective good to begin with. If there isn’t, then there is just no point in trying to figure out whether any god – or for that matter any of our actions – are good or evil, for if there is in objective reality no such thing as good, then nothing is really any good, or bad. We might think or feel that things are good or bad, but if there is no objective truth about what is good or bad, there is no way we can be correct in such thoughts and feelings – or incorrect, for that matter – and those thoughts and feelings are completely illusory. They have nothing to do with the real world, because there is nothing out there for our moral thoughts and feelings to be correct about.
Properly speaking, then, we ought to be clear that the only thing we can possibly mean by “morality” is “objective morality.” We ought to understand that “objective morality” is really redundant. Morality has to be objective, or it isn’t really morality at all. So we ought to say just, “morality,” instead. And, instead of saying “merely subjective morality,” or “merely conventional morality,” we should say, more precisely, “merely subjective opinion,” and “mere convention,” leaving morality out of it.
If there is no objective standard of good or evil – if there is no such thing as morality – then we ought not even to talk about morality.
But we would like to talk about morality, wouldn’t we? We do it all the time. It is the main matter of our conversations with each other. It would be odd indeed if the whole converse of society were just insane ravings. That seems at the least extremely unlikely. How would a species that spent all its time worrying about illusions get along in the world, after all – let alone take over the planet?
So, let’s stipulate that there is indeed an objective standard of good and evil – that there are things we ought to do, and things we ought not to do, and that the obligation we apprehend in that word “ought” is, not just a vapor of our imagination, but a feature of reality, that is binding upon us regardless of what anyone thinks about it – and, indeed, regardless whether there is any thinking going on at all. If this is the case, then there can be such a thing as moral reasoning – we can try to figure out what it is, exactly, that we ought, and ought not, to do.
The question before us then, is this: could objectively true morality exist in the absence of an omnipotent, omniscient, necessary Creator?
If there were such a being, then obviously it would follow, just from the fact of his existence, that there would be an objective morality. That’s because, being omniscient, he could not possibly err: all his thoughts would be true, so that if he thought x were good, then x really would be good, automatically. So, that option is pretty much settled: if God exists, there can be such a thing as morality. Indeed, if God exists, there cannot fail to be morality.
Can there be such a thing as morality, if God does not exist?
There are a number of theories about how that might work, but they all boil down to just two, really. Both argue that morality has arisen naturally. They differ on what it has arisen from. There is an ancient answer to that question of the ultimate source of morality, and a modern one.
The modern answer is that morality has arisen from … well, from nothing. On this view, we have moral feelings at all only because it just so happened that we evolved as social organisms, and the reproductive advantages of society derive from cooperation, which is facilitated by rules and standards of cooperation – customs, laws, conventions, and so forth. Rules are advantageous, and that’s why we have them. They feel to us as though they are binding, but really they are no more binding upon us than, say, the rules of baseball. And because they are the product of a long process of meaningless, happenstantial events that are not ordered to any particular end, they are themselves completely meaningless, and happenstantial – i.e., totally arbitrary, and lacking all moral force.
The problem with the theory that morality is basically noise is that you can’t use it to convince someone whose moral feelings disagree with yours that he is wrong, and ought to behave differently. Nor can he convince you. If you made such an argument to a sociopath who took this position on the sources of morality, but who had a taste for human meat, he could just look at you and say, “I don’t want to play the game you are playing. Your rules are just the outcome of a long process of totally contingent events, each of which was governed by nothing but happenstance. Every one of them might have turned out differently. Well, I’m another contingent happenstance just like all the others that went to make up your rules. And I’m playing by my own rules.” And he would be correct. Because under his theory, the rules of society are not really moral, in the sense that they are not objectively binding on us; they do not oblige us, whether we like it or not.
If we want to play baseball, we have to abide by the rules of that game. But if we decide we want to play a different game, the rules of baseball won’t any longer apply to us at all. Moral rules are not like that; there is no getting out of them. So, this theory fails. It may tell us how we evolved our social rules, and how they work to our advantage in the world, but it cannot tell us whether our rules are right, or whether our moral views are true. Thus it is not really a theory about morality, properly so called, at all, but rather a theory about the moral sentiments.
Now, it is interesting to note that the discovery by evolution of the moral law is just what we would have expected to happen, in the event that there really was an objective moral law out there. Evolution fits organisms to reality, and we would expect therefore that such a procedure would tend to generate creatures that were generally well fitted to the moral aspects of the world, just as it would fit them to, say, its gravitational aspects. Under this Natural Law alternative, there is an objective morality, and it is built into the structure of the world in rather the same way that gravity is. This theory would argue, for example, that the only reason rules of social cooperation do actually work to our advantage is that they are objectively good rules for us to follow, and their objective goodness means that we really ought to follow them.
It is possible to believe in Natural Law without believing in God. But there is a problem with that: what could then make the Natural Law binding on us? It’s the Law of the Universe; but so what? If I can break it – and I can, in a way that is not possible with the Law of Gravity – why shouldn’t I? We have moved from the theory that evolution just so happened, for no reason, as to form us as beings that feel we ought to cooperate well with each other, to the theory that evolution did this because it really is good that we cooperate well with each other, or to survive and reproduce. But, in so doing, all we have done is kick the problem of the ultimate source of morality a bit further down the road.
If there is a Natural Law but no God, then morality turns out to be just as much a matter of happenstance as it did under the evolutionary theory. The only difference between the two theories is in where they locate the sheer happenstance at the root of what we call morality. Under the evolutionary theory, morality arose as a matter of sheer happenstance within the history of our universe. The atheist Natural Law theory says that it arose as an integral aspect of our universe that, because there is no God, itself arose as a matter of sheer happenstance, mere brute fact. Under this theory, the sociopathic cannibal could say, “I recognize that there is a Natural Law that says I ought not to kill and eat you. But the Natural Law, like the rest of existence, is a matter of sheer happenstance. I, too, am a matter of happenstance, and I happen to feel differently about morality than the rest of our universe.” And he’d be right.
In the absence of God, both the theories we’ve talked about boil down in the end to “there is no absolutely binding, objective moral truth, but rather only happenstance.” When push comes to shove, then, the only way there can be such a thing as morality is if there is an omniscient, necessary God who knows without possibility of error what is right.