The inspiration for this post comes from a comment I received from an atheist in a discussion recently:
You’re right, there is no ultimate, objective morality. The universe isn’t going to care what I’ve done or not done over the course of my short life, but that doesn’t mean morality doesn’t exist. Acknowledging that morality is subjective doesn’t nullify it. Unless you’re a sociopath, you have a sense of empathy, and can imagine what effect your actions have on others. Even if you lack empathy, you should understand that your actions have consequences, and the only way for a society to thrive is to have rules that need to be followed.
Why is it that, these days, atheists are a dime a dozen on the internet, but it’s nearly impossible to find ones that don’t still try to defend morality tooth-and-nail? Why are they so ready to throw God out of the picture, but they can’t let go of moral rules of conduct? Before I give my answer to that question, let me bring perhaps the most famous atheist philosopher who ever lived to bear on this situation. Nietzsche wrote a parable known as the “Parable of the Madman” addressing this very issue.
THE MADMAN—-Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.
[Quoted from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/nietzsche-madman.asp ]
Of course this is poetic, but the meaning is this: by rejecting God, humanity has plunged itself into a reality far scarier than they could possibly imagine. One does not overthrow God and simply continue living life normally as if nothing happened. If there is no God, then everything changes. Everything about our society has originally and historically had, at its root, a theological underpinning. Why do we get married, one man to one woman? Because that’s how God ordained it in the Garden of Eden. Why can’t we murder people? Because people are made in the image of God, and thus have innate value. God said, “Whoever sheds mans blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” Why does the sun come up every day without fail? Because God is there to hold the constants of nature in place and prevent chaos from overtaking us. When God is removed from the picture, all we have left is a cold, dark space, devoid of any cosmic love or meaning.
So what of all these mushy, half-hearted atheists who denounce God but cling desperately to the heritage of God’s influence on the world? Nietzsche would have nothing of it. And neither will I. If you are going to claim there is no God, then at least be willing to man up and deal with the logical consequences of that claim.
Why, atheist, should I care about such impulses as empathy? Is empathy not, according to you, just the biological vestige of evolutionary progression? Is it not just some trait which happened to get selected for by a mindless, unguided process of nature? And yet we somehow have the freedom to either obey or ignore our base impulses. And that’s just the problem: there’s no real, objective reason to prefer one over another. When people say “morals are subjective”, then they are really saying “morals are imaginary”. The very idea of subjective morality is a contradiction. The essence of morality is behavioral guidelines that have some real, objective basis and apply across the board to all people- not just to those who happen to agree with it. When we teach children not to steal, do we add “unless that’s your fancy”? No! We teach them that stealing is wrong, period. Why? Because morality is objective- if it’s anything at all.
At this point the typical response is to bring the survival of society as a whole into the picture. “Yes, morals are imaginary, but without them society will fail.” So? There’s no cosmic duty or responsibility for me or anyone else to care about society as a whole. Isn’t evolution supposed to be all about survival of the fittest? Aren’t we supposed to cheer for the winner? Well, if human society falls, what is that to me? Won’t I just be dead and in the ground in a few short years anyway? What difference will it make to me? “Yes but the younger generations…” But won’t they also die and be forgotten as well? Yes, they will. And then the whole universe, as scientists well know, will die a “heat death” and all life will be extinguished. So what was that great responsibility I had to future generations again?
The world without God is a world populated by only two kinds of people: sociopaths and useful idiots. The sociopaths are those who, like Nietzsche, recognize that in a world devoid of any Cosmic Lawgiver, and devoid of any eternal justice, there is no such thing as right or wrong; only what you can do, and what you can’t do. Nietzsche refers to this type of person as the “Uebermensch” (“superman”). Then there are those ignorant masses who are still entrapped by the old superstitious ways of thinking. The goal of the supermen is to take power and rule over those ignorant masses.
Make no mistake, this dichotomy really exists in the world today. There is an elite, upper-echelon group of individuals who have accepted this philosophy and all its implications, and they are using it to their utmost advantage. The ultimate “uebermench” is prophesied in the Bible, and he is known as the Antichrist. He will achieve absolute power and demand to be worshiped. The ignorant masses will gladly oblige in exchange for the right to continue living.
The true overcomers are those who see through the lies: the followers of Jesus Christ- the living God. Nietzsche was dead wrong: God is alive and well, and history is summing up and coming to its close exactly as the Bible predicted it would thousands of years ago. Global population is skyrocketing. Israel, a scattered and persecuted people for almost two thousand years, are back in the land God gave them, and overnight, in 1948, Israel once again became a nation. And just as the bible predicts, Israel is living in constant fear from its neighbors, and global hatred of Jews and Israel is on the rise like never before. The stage is increasingly set for the cataclysmic events of the final book of the Bible to begin unfolding.
Prepare yourself for what is ahead. God is not dead, and neither is morality. You will be judged based on what you do with your life.
So what, then, is the ultimate answer to my initial question? Why can’t atheists let go of morality completely? The Bible has the answer.
For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
(Romans 2:12-16 ESV)
God has written the basics of morality on the hearts of each and every human being. Most atheists are simply not willing to go against that internal testimony and reject morality altogether. But then you still get the odd, logic-driven sociopath who is willing to take that step out into nothingness, and then we can see the true horrors of life without God.