Landscapes or Sandscapes? New Atheist Grounds for Morality

I like atheists. I don’t like the definite assertion of atheism, since as a believer in God I believe it is false.  But I often like atheists.  Atheists challenge me to think more deeply on myriad issues, including my faith.  Many atheists are gracious with a winsome sense of humor, and act as a prophetic and frank voice to religious believers.  Atheists are my colleagues, fellow nurturers of creative spirit, friends (and perhaps family?) who frequently display the effervescent glory of human personality and reflect in their own unique ways what I believe is Imago Dei, the image of God within them.  These traits are not unique to atheists.  Religious believers can similarly challenge each other prophetically, display graciousness, humor, and so forth.  But I do have a special place in my heart for atheists.

In some ways, I also like “New Atheist” Sam Harris’s recent The Moral Landscape, out in paperback last month.  Taking up the pen (or keyboard) for Books & Culture to write a review from a Christian perspective, I felt like the proverbial mosquito in the nudist colony.  Where to begin?  There is much to criticize and commend.

Partly adapted from Harris’s doctoral dissertation, his newest New York Times bestseller is one of several contemporary efforts to construct an atheist account for morality.  Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Greg Epstein, Owen Flanagan, Steven Pinker (who endorses Harris), Dan Barker, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, along with Harris himself elsewhere pokes at this problem additionally or more briefly.  In approving Harris, Dawkins doth protest too much (Hamlet 3:2:242), “I…[h]ad unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals.  The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me…[A]s for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.”

Harris predicts science in general and neuroscience in particular will eventually eclipse all other resources for ethical discernment by decisively and exhaustively quantifying suffering and well-being as mediated by human (and animal?) brain chemistry, and by pinpointing “valleys” (cf. Psalm 23) of misery and peaks of flourishing across the “landscape” of conscious experience.  The purpose of morality is to steer us away from valleys and toward peaks.

For Harris, atheism gears us to scale mountaintops, while “religion” (a category New Atheists apply to virtually anything they find ridiculous, repulsive or repugnant) leads to valleys of death and squalor.  With this in mind, Harris upbraids other atheist scientists who speak more gently about religion, or who decline to enlist in his anti-religious crusade.  “[They] brought to mind the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: people who looked like scientists, had published as scientists, and would soon be returning to their labs, nevertheless gave voice to the alien hiss of religious obscurantism at the slightest probing…[we] have considerable work to do.”  Harris sounds like a riff on Rudyard Kipling’s notorious, “The White Man’s Burden.”

Take up the atheist’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child!
Take up the atheist burden—
Have done with childish days—
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Come now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

Still, traditional Christians and other believers who abide Harris’s anti-religious rants may resonate with Harris at other points.  Harris believes in “Absolute Truth” with a capital “T.”  He attacks moral relativism in ways reminiscent of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity.  He extols marital fidelity, integrity, minimizing and eschewing vengeance, but without crediting “religious” sources for these ethics.

Harris’s prime targets are scholars who, in his view, demagnetize their own moral compasses and confuse the moral compasses of those they influence (cf. Matthew 23:15).  Harris doles a portion of wrath to anthropologists, cultural relativists, and politically active defenders and propagators of injustice and absurdity who hide behind “multiculturalism” and “diversity.”

“Even the most bizarre and unproductive behaviors—female genital excision, blood feuds, infanticide, the torture of animals, scarification, foot binding, cannibalism, ceremonial rape, human sacrifice, dangerous male initiations, restricting the diet of pregnant and lactating mothers, slavery, potlatch, the killing of the elderly, sati, irrational dietary and agricultural taboos attended by chronic hunger and malnourishment, the use of heavy metals to treat illness, etc.—have been rationalized, or even idealized in the fire-lit scribblings of one or another dazzled ethnographer.”

Browsing the local college or university library confirms Harris is not being frivolous.  Harris fires back at such relativists that some contexts, cultures, societal norms and ways of life are absolutely healthier and more worthwhile than others. “Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc. enjoyed in the context of a prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects?”  Better ways of living are those “more true to the facts.”  Even though we do not yet know all facts and disagree how to weigh competing values does not mean facts and values are imaginary.  Moreover, multiple good and right objective solutions to ethical conundrums may be available, but this does not make all resolutions equally desirable or equally free from small or catastrophic errors.  In due course, we will discover the more elusive features of physical and ethical reality, and comprehend continuums of wise and foolish choices more clearly (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).  Continue reading post here.

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12 thoughts on “Landscapes or Sandscapes? New Atheist Grounds for Morality

  1. What a neat piece. I tend to like atheists too, even though I believe in God. This is such an important, meaningful discussion. I hope you engage atheists with it!

    All the best,

  2. This is great, Ben.

    I appreciate the contribution of atheists to religious dialogue, but I generally find Harris to be pretty dim-witted. His proposition that there can exist a purely scientific system of ethics is, to my way of thinking, no more viable than the fundamentalism with which he falsely equates all religion.

    Science, by definition, only explains “how.” Matters of “why” or “should we” are always determined ideologically. So in that sense, you can have ethics without religion, but having stripped religion from the equation you would still have to contend with religion-less ideology.

    I personally tend to identify with a Durkheimian view of religion. (Society=Religion, put simply) So to question whether humans would be better off without religion seems a completely moot point.

    Also, I’m reminded of Stephen Toulmin’s book “The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.” He argues that when people claim to speak of a scientific system of ethics what they are actually doing is using science as the raw materials for a cosmology. This seems to be what Harris is doing.

    I think that everyone’s best off remembering that there is no “view from nowhere.”

    All Best,

    1. Jared: You say “Science, by definition, only explains “how.” Matters of “why” or “should we” are always determined ideologically.”

      Could you justify this for me? It seems from my perspective obviously false.

  3. Thanks for these, Josh and Jared. I wonder whether some of our SoF atheist or atheist sympathetic folks will weigh in with comments? Cheers, Ben

  4. Ben: I enjoyed your article and could not find much I disagreed with in it. I think you and I are doing the same thing (trying to bring about dialogue between atheism and religious belief), just from a different “side” of the debate. Great piece!


  5. Hi Ben! Thanks for pointing me toward your article – I’m not sure how I missed it because I comment all the time on here! Let’s start with a point of agreement: I like atheists too! There, that wasn’t so hard 😉

    Seriously, I actually thing there are some good points in here, particularly in the first two pages. It seems like you’ve read Harris closely (in these pages at least) and do his argument a reasonable amount of justice, which reflects well on you. The rest veers a little too much into stock apologist territory for my tastes, complete with inaccurate references to Stalinism, Naziism etc., some very unfair readings of Harris which he has responded to at length, and some sections which don’t grapple with Harris’ text as closely as I might expect. I also think there are lots of little issues to nitpick – Harris’ vision isn’t remotely “utopian”, for example (it is actually quite anti-utopian, as all varieties of humanism are), but these are side issues.

    In general you raise some serious criticisms which are worth responding to.

    The central disagreement, I suspect, is over this question:

    “none of the New Atheists successfully establish why and how objective morality exists if atheism is true and there is no Ultimate Source of Morality.”

    Now, Harris spends the first part of his book responding to this very challenge. I’m surprised that you don’t reference his long response, even if you don’t agree with it. You just seem to ignore that he has quite a lot to say on this subject.

    His response, essentially, is that a concern for promoting human welfare is part of the definition of morality, and that it makes no sense to question that and assert it isn’t so. He makes an analogy to health, and points out that very few would seriously argue that promoting health is not a good thing – the goodness of healthiness is built into the word’s definition. This is a bare sketch of an argument he makes in much longer form, but I’m curious as to why you felt it didn’t deserve even a mention, especially since it serves as Harris’ response to what seems to be your key criticism.

    My response to that same criticism would be a little different. I would assert that even if I grant that my objective argument for morality lacks a firm foundation that is logically watertight, any species of theistic argument for morality, which relies on the existence of a creator god, is always worse – because god does not exist. Given the absence of any evidence whatsoever for such a being, the failure of any logical argument to attempt to prove the existence of such a being, the overwhelming evidence that such a being does not exist (that is, a moral-guarantor god), and argument which relies on the existence of such a being is seriously flawed from the outset.

    Add to that that such an argument for morality would suffer from exactly the same weaknesses as my own argument (I can always ask “Why should I do what God wants?” or “What makes God’s commandments good?”), and I’m left preferring a godless moral argument, even given its flaws, to a moral argument that includes a god which has all the same flaws plus the assumption of the existence of a probably nonexistent being AND additional logical problems that that assumption causes. My system, flawed though it is, is still more parsimonious, better fitting with observed facts, and less internally inconsistent than the alternative.

    So the point I’ll leave you with (and I could write oodles on this topic – I’m holding back!), is that I would say in principle that theistic moral systems are always going to be less desirable than non-thestic moral systems which share the same moral precepts, because theism itself is intellectually unjustifiable and causes far more problems than it solves (it actually doesn’t solve any…).

  6. Hey Ben, interesting article. It looks like James beat me to taking up the gauntlet, but I’ll add a few remarks in addition to echoing James’ concern that you ignore Sam Harris’ extensive discussion about the ultimate morality question. Furthermore, some atheists don’t believe that morality is something to be discovered in the world. They think that morality is a human construct that helps us live and work in communities as social primates. This seems much more plausible to me than the rather fanciful notion that morality is just a magical force in the world that existed before humans came into the picture. To be honest, I think that the idea of an objective morality external to human beings and other animals forms is belief in a fairy tale. You can’t start with assuming that objective morality exists, and then saying that Sam Harris fails by attaining it. Even Sam, in his heart of hearts doesn’t really believe in “objective” morality, but instead believes that morality is a matter of avoiding suffering. He thinks it is objective in the sense that we shouldn’t do anything we wouldn’t want done to us (golden rule…) to anything that has a nervous system like ours. Your definition of objective is the view from nowhere. But it isn’t possible to take the view from absolutely nowhere. Instead, Sam Harris replaces naive objectivity in morality with a more nuanced objectivity as the aggregate of as many individuals’ subjective opinions as possible.

    You’re also particularly uncharitable to Harris’s view of religion. He never says that religion will inevitably be among the troughs and valleys of the Moral Landscape. Indeed, the more intelligent and well-thought out moral systems in religions will constitute high points, if not peaks. However, you are right that he believes things like suppressing women’s rights, gay rights, condemning sex, etc. will tend to lead you towards troughs and valleys.

    Once you started in about Hitler and Stalin, to be quite frank, I stopped reading, and so did many of your other would-be atheist readers. Ben, you’re a very smart guy, and I would suggest you read any of the hundreds of responses Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Carrier, even lowly Asst. Chap. John Figdor, has written in response to the odious comparison to Stalin, Hitler, etc. I suggest you educate yourself about the extent to which Stalin, Hitler, etc. were atheistic. After all, just with reference to the Hitler question, how many atheists walk around with “Gott mit uns” (God is with us) on their belt buckles? Hitler was a naive Theist who believed in Occult powers and other nonsense that all Skeptics would laugh at. But I digress…

    If you want Atheists to continue reading your material, Ben, perhaps making poorly argued, ill-informed comparisons to totalitarian dictators is not the best path.

    But I would also encourage you not to try to pick out “Atheist” morality. Atheism actually tells you nothing about a persons’s moral commitments. It just tells you that they don’t believe in the great legend of the “Sky Father God.” If you pick a more concrete concept, such as Humanist morality, or, if we’re talking about secular morality more generally, you might be better off taking on actual philosophical positions on morality that Atheists endorse (John Rawls, Michael Sandel, MacIntyre, etc.).

    Keep up the writing Ben, and keep the faith. But maybe drop the line about atheism being the driving force behind Nazism, Stalinism, etc.

  7. James, Jonathan, and Kile,

    Thanks for these responses, and for both of your responses at different stages of reading, Kile. I enjoyed these perspectives, both in some of the subtle commonalities I see and the vast differences in viewpoints. This is a fireball topic, to be sure, and hopefully I represent one Christian take well. One commenter on Books & Culture, Andy Keck, is but one Christian who demurs in his reading on my piece, in favor of atheism!

    First, one of my concerns in taking on these topics at all is that my friendships and professional relationships with atheists will suffer (and in worst case scenarios, will terminate) as a result, and I am thankful that I sense this is not the case with you three.

    Let me follow up on two issues, perhaps the most contentious. Jonathan, perhaps you will indulge and not stop reading?

    1) First, let’s get Hitler out of the way. Not to trumpet my own nuances too much (and hopefully, not to be overly defensive), please note the multiple times in my piece that I directly or indirectly state most or many atheists, including Harris, rightly recoil from Hitler and Stalin, as many religious people I know recoil from various mischief and mayhem atheists cite in relation to (or say is inherent to) religion(s). Perhaps I do not handle this topic with the most tact or nuance in this article, and I welcome suggestions for improvement in how I deal with Hitler and Stalin in future conversations. You have already offered some feedback here.

    I am aware, though not expert in, various takes on Hitler’s religious and anti-religious rhetoric and supposed alliances, and in trying to be fair to these various sides, I note in just one line of my piece that atheism was “possibly” related or inherent to some of Hitler’s motivations/actions/philosophy. This is incendiary to be sure, but no less so than Jonathan’s highlighting of Gott min uns in reply. Both are a matter of historical debate, the first for which I supplied a reference by a noteworthy scholarly publisher (Palgrave/Macmillan) that many others, including New Atheists, will either echo or strongly disagree with.

    Perhaps I should have noted an opposing viewpoint (I think now, for example, various takes relating to Hitler’s relationship with or opposition to various Catholic and Muslim figures), and I welcome references on who makes the best case with integrity for varying positions. John has already graciously supplied me with a portion of his thesis, which I look forward to reading. I personally see Hitler waffling between various atheistic, occult, and religious themes, and overall as ruthlessly pragmatic in his hatred, but I think Weikart has a legitimate case to make, and I will refer those interested to let Weikart speak for himself.

    2) Stalin is another matter, and it seems to me that some atheists (and arguably, some religious people from the other direction for religions) apply a double standard with outrage and expressing deep offense at references to Stalin’s militant atheism, or to Stalin’s atheist affiliations. I am very, very thankful for atheist disavowals of Stalin’s mayhem, though less convinced by atheist “offense” at those who might raise questions about Stalin’s atheist affiliation and its implications, (even Dawkins admits it is one that is unlikely to go away), and many atheists are loathe to extend any sort of equivalent courtesy by eschewing emotionally charged indictments of various aspects of religion.

    Such atheists pour on reasons why religion is implicated by Torquemada and others, for example, but atheism is not implicated at all by avowed atheists Stalin, Mao, and so forth. Hitchens even goes so far as to ludicrously try to pin Stalin on the Orthodox Church that Stalin so rigorously persecuted.

    I don’t believe in any way that atheists or atheism must concur with Stalin in Mao in either principle or practice, rather, I celebrate atheist acts of humanism and social service such as A+ and those spearheaded by the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. I also think that some atheist efforts, as I allude to in my piece, are partly influenced by their Christian antecedents and contemporaries, and I am grateful for opportunities to cooperate when these converge. I am also grateful for challenging conversations like this one, and for opportunities to wrestle with these issues.

    With appreciation,


    1. I think you’ll generally find rationalists to be an argumentative bunch who don’t mind a good disagreement ;). What do you think about the “root of morality” issue? To me that’s the most interesting question.

  8. One of the problems with the Stalin example is that many New Atheists are free-marketeers and libertarians, who find Stalin’s policy repugnant. Humanists also would decry his moral bankruptcy. But that’s the difference between Atheism (the statement that there is no evidence that god exists) and Humanism, the observation that there is no evidence that god exists, coupled to ethical obligations. I’m sure some serial killers are Atheists. But the only thing they share in common with New Atheists such as Hitchens and Harris is their disbelief in god.

  9. One of the problems with the Stalin example is that many New Atheists are free-marketeers and libertarians (Ayn Rand was an Atheist, a fact that causes many conservatives to cringe), who find Stalin’s policy repugnant. So to be fair to those Atheists, you really can’t elide the difference between Stalin’s Atheism, and Libertarian Atheism. Humanists also would decry his moral bankruptcy. But that’s the difference between Atheism (the statement that there is no evidence that god exists) and Humanism, the observation that there is no evidence that god exists, coupled to ethical obligations. I’m sure some serial killers are Atheists. But the only thing they share in common with New Atheists such as Hitchens and Harris is their disbelief in god.

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