10: The religious debate over "objective" morality, 11: Sartre and Nietzsche, 12: The New Atheists

10: The Religious debate over “objective morality”

One of the most heated and famous debates in Western philosophy, still quite relevant today in seminaries, philosophy departments, and in the public debate about religion and atheism, is whether or not God is necessary for morality.  God, for the purposes of a philosophy course regarding this topic, is treated as an entity which objectively grounds morality.  It is necessary at this point to define objective vs. subjective.  

This is what the God of Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) religion provides: a basis to make moral claims into objective claims, because an eternal God who exists outside of time, and who created all time and all matter with a moral purpose in mind, is clearly not simply another subject.  “I think that capital punishment is wrong,” is a subjective claim.  “Capital punishment is wrong,” takes the structure of an objective claim but (see readings) Hargrave would argue that it only can be believed to be objective for religious people.  This is what they mean when they claim that there is no morality without God.

 So…”there is no morality without God.”  This is the challenge issued from religion.  A number of atheist writers have responded to these religious perspectives, which form the other part of this topic (see Discussion Forum #11 on forums on Nietzsche and Sartre, and #12 on Hitchens and the New Atheists). 


For the religious side of the debate, I opted to focus in on Hargrave because it is short and sweet, so to speak, and he specifically focus on why morality, as such, can be the cornerstone premise for the existence of God, and therefore of an essentially spiritual humanity.  Their argument is not so much, “God is real, therefore morality is real,” but rather, “we all agree that morality is real; God is the only explanation.”  I am interested in anyone who wants to start forums on other religions regarding this issue.  


Hargrave’s most intriguing point is a proposed difference between moral behavior and morality.  Atheists, he argues, have moral behavior, and have various practical reasons for it, but have no morality, defined as an objective reality.  Atheists may feel like killing babies is wrong, but it is not actually, objectively speaking, wrong.  Perhaps an atheist can believe that, “it is impractical; it does not promote human survival,” or, “as a healthy adult human, I am repulsed by it, because that is my genetic and cultural programming,” but neither of these statements amount to the same thing as saying that it is wrong, regardless of our opinions of it.


C.S. Lewis develops this point in more detail (no required reading).  One of his most quoted ideas on the subject:  “Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.”  What are other values that might be universal?  Lewis is claiming that the laws of morality are as absolute as the laws of math; you cannot imagine a human society who contradicted the laws he alludes to in this quote.  Thoughts?

What are some reasons that moral values might be universal other than the claims of religion being true?  What are the logical implications of moral values are not universal?  Is that something that we can simply give up on?

11:  Sartre and Nietzsche

Forums # 10, 11, and 12 go together, in terms of themes.  One way of framing this issue is that we have the “challenge” from religion: there is no morality without God.  Then we are exploring three different styles of atheist response: existentialist (Sartre), nihilist (Nietzsche), and the New Atheists, which have their own forum.


I will confess a bias towards what I’m choosing to call the the “old” atheists (Sartre and Nietzsche) rather than the new; I think that what Nietzsche and Sartre had to say about the implications of atheism is more interesting than all of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris put together.  I have put a lot of effort into trying to explain the Sartre excerpt.  This is because Sartre attempts to criticize the relevance of religion, whereas the New Atheist writers (see Hitchens) tend to focus on the truth of religion.  If something is irrelevant, it no longer matters whether it is true, allowing Sartre’s perspective to circumvent the endless debates on whether or not this or that miracle happened, or whether to trust the feeling one might have when one prays.


Sartre’s objections to religion are obvious; it is important to note that Sartre did NOT believe that he could prove that God did not exist, but rather that if He did exist, God, gods, or anything else supernatural is simply irrelevant to our moral situation, our moral plight.

Sartre’s objection to other atheists is more subtle.  Sartre’s mission in his 1946 speech is predominately to, as the title implies, defend the idea that existentialism is a form of humanism, that it is not nihilism.  Another way of putting this is that Sartre was trying to argue that there was at least one form of atheism (existentialist) that was NOT nihilistic.  All of which begs several questions, but let’s start with: what’s nihilism?

Nihilism, frequently defined glibly as, “belief in nothing,” is most associated with the German Philosopher Frederich Nietzsche.  Nihilism is what most Abrahamic religious folks argue all atheism leads to: we are nothing but intelligent animals who disappear into oblivion when we die, and all claims, all thoughts and experiences, involving good/bad, right/wrong, true/false, or beautiful/ugly have no lasting value; they do not refer to anything real, but instead to shifting purely subjective norms.  Life, in the ultimate sense, in the objective sense, is meaningless.


A humanist is someone who believes that a, “man is the measure of all things,” and takes joy in this, feels like the potential of the human being to create art, ideas, community, values, etc. is beautiful, is sublime, and can give life true meaning.  At the heart of Sartre argument is a very simple, very idealistic claim: that if we only made all decisions in total freedom, if we only thoughts of these decisions in terms of complete responsibility, then the world would be a much better place.  There is a right and wrong way of making decisions, but no absolutely right or wrong decision.

What do you think of this claim (if it is confusing and you have not done the reading, please do.  The Nietzsche is imposing, the the Sartre is shorter and hopefully more accessible)?  Is it possible to freely decide, admitting that you could freely decide to do otherwise, to be a killer, or to be depressed and anti-social, or to be a hateful, bitter person?

What do you guys think of Sartre’s foundational premise that existence precedes essence, that there is no human nature?  Are we blank slates, or is this idea a bit dated?


What (be honest) do you think of the fantasful dialogue I wrote at the end of the Sartre reading?

A little more on Nietzsche:

Nietzsche is more of a ranting critic than a philosopher, but man oh man, could that man critique.  His concepts of Master Morality and Slave Morality were were a major upheavel of thought for me in terms of how I had thought of the concepts “good” and “bad”.  I’ve come to think of his schema of Master and Slave moralities in terms of a Ferrari vs. a Toyota Prius:

Meet Jack and Jill; Jack buys a Prius, because he is convinced that it is better for the air quality, better for his children and grandchildren.  “Better” meaning more healthy, more helpful; in a word, useful.  In choosing between dozens of models of car, he is a utilitarian, choosing the car with the best consequences for the greater good, like Peter Singer would say he should.

Jack feels great about himself until he reads some article about how the batteries for the Prius are manufactured.  They are so environmentally harmful as to cancel out the benefits of low emissions, so he decides that buying a used Honda Civic would, by a clear margin, be even better environmentally.  He exchanges cars, only to read yet ANOTHER article about how clean diesel is probably best.  His head spins in circles…he wants to do what is best, but what is that?


Jill laughs at people like Jack; her choice is between a Ferrari, a Humvee, and (why not?) a flying car prototype.  She goes with the Ferrari.  ALL her considerations have to do with her own enjoyment, both in terms of immediate pleasure and in terms of aesthetic appreciation for the designers.  After all, many rich people who spend money on fine cars or expensive art feel good about doing these things.  Morality is about human flourishing, not just about how much we should help the poor.

Master morality is the morality of lust and vanity; Nietzsche’s idea is that if an ethical system were written by masters, by aristocrats and dictators and larger-than-life artists, by the truly powerful and exemplary people among us, what would they write?  What would they value?  They would glorify themselves, and that is an essential part of morality.  Try to imagine a world where no-one did anything, created anything, out of simple lust, self-glorification, pleasure seeking, and vanity.  It would be a terribly dull place.

But what if slaves produced moral codes?  They would go with what is useful.  The notion that almost everything called, “morality,” is basically slave morality, is basically simply asking, “how can I be useful?” is a devastating critique of mainstream morality.  Peter Singer asks us to answer the question: in terms of dollars and cents, how can I be most useful to the largest number of people?  Nietzsche’s critique of all such notions is: why are you asking that?  There is no reason why we ought to be useful to one another.  Self-glorification mostly drives culture forward, for good as well as for ill.  

What are some examples (either as categories, or in terms of specific people) of master morality?  Of people doing things, and thinking of these things as good, even though (or perhaps because) they are driven by lust, vanity, and self-glorification?  Fictional characters welcome.

What do you think of Nietzsche’s apparent preference for master over slave?  Is slave morality, the morality of utility, really that dull and uninteresting?  Can you see why nihilists would claim that, if we all made decisions as Jack did, our consumer lives and out cultural lives would become somewhat inhuman?  

Nihilists are sometimes accused of being elitist; after all, Nietzsche’s “superman,” the perfect embodiment of Master Morality, is presented as being extremely rare.  Very few of us can stare the essential bleakness of life in the face and not only accept it, but glory in it, become Masters.  Thoughts?

12: The New Atheists 


Who are the New Atheists?  Just what is “new” about them?

Wired Magazine has done a series of profiles and articles about the New Atheists, have indeed help codify them as a group, as a movement.  A decent introduction to their project is found here, although it doesn’t include Hitchens (no, this is not required reading):

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/atheism.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Dawking helpfully gave a recent interview with cnn.com:

http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/09/27/dawkins-religion-no-moral-compass/?hpt=hp_bn2 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Search wired.com for Hitchens, Dawkins, or anyone else, and you’ll find some interesting coverage.

  What is “new”?  I’d say it’s two things, which overlap:

(1) New Atheist authors are sarcastically, ascerbically outspoken in their critique of all of religion.  Nietzsche and Sartre both believed, albeit it in rather different ways, that atheists should not exhaust themselves in proofs that God or gods did not exist; instead, present your own theory, which assumes atheism as a premise, and hopefully the truth of atheism will sink in.  Whereas New Atheist authors believe that showing that the claims of religion are false, that religion itself is mostly of great harm to the world, is a deeply important project in-and-of itself.  We atheists, they are saying, must speak the truth about religion, regardless of which atheist theory we subscribe to.  And the truth they see about religion is shocking and dismaying.

(2) The New Atheists are populist, this being the opposite of elitist.  They believe that atheists ought to, “come out of the closet.”  It is difficult to overstate how radical this is in the history of ideas.  There were atheists among ancient Greeks and Hindus, but they did not believe, as far as we know, that it was important to stand proud and say, “I am an atheist,”; indeed, almost all intellectual movements surrounding atheist writing have assumed, until this latest crop, that most people would probably remain religious, because most people cannot handle the truth.  Not so, say the New Atheists; that is insulting to, “most people.”  Your average Joe can become an atheist.  Your average soccer mom can handle it, would indeed be better off.

Questions for discussion: People who geek out about these authors are often enamored of the Pastafarian movement, AKA, the church of his noodly appendage.  These are people who claim (and they are an officially registered religion with the US Federal gov, with the right to marry people and register houses of worship as non-profits) to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  Their mantra: “We’ll stop believing in our God when you stop believing in yours.”

The FGM website and movement centers around a fascinating, simple argument, begun, perhaps, by the philosopher David Hume, who suggested that the world might have been created by a loving God, or it might have been laid as an egg by a gigantic chicken floating in outer space; neither claim was any more or less verifiable or rational.  Similarly, the FGM crowd’s argument can be summarized in two forms:

(1) So some of you believe in God, and some of you believe in karma and reincarnation.  Well, guess what!  I believe that the there are two Gods; one is Butterfinger wrapper that’s in my kitchen trash can, and the other is the sweater I’m wearing.  My claims are no more or less verifiable or rational than yours.  Mock me, and you mock yourself.

(2)  The extreme diversity of religious belief about the origin of the universe and the purpose of existence, the world, and mankind is such that the most logical conclusion is not that one belief system is right, but that they are all wrong.  If any particular supernatural narrative were true, it would have become manifest or dominant by now.  The rational person either accepts one religion, or rejects them all, because religions make factual claims about the world that directly contradict one another, so you can ‘tolerate’ and ‘respect’ as many as you like, but you cannot accept them.

Both arguments have a common strategy: that all claims about the supernatural are on equal footing by definition, so therefore we may as well just make up our own ‘god’ or else stop believing in all spiritual narratives.  This basic, sarcastic, total dismissal of all religious experience is quite effective and popular among a growing number of people.  Just in San Francisco, several groups with Pastafarian pamphlets picket religious events at AT&T park to hand out atheist literature.  What do you think of these arguments?

A few caveats for discussion:


The most common response to this topic, especially for students who look up a bunch of quotes by Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins, is something akin to, “Well, I think we should respect everyone’s religious belief, so I just don’t know why these writers and their fans are being so intolerant.”  It’s important to note that all these authors and probably all their followers respect the legal right of anyone to believe anything they want.  They’re not trying to take the ‘right to believe’ away from anyone.  Their attitude is that being forthright and aggressive (aggressive in terms of argument and intellectual engagement) in trying to spread their belief system is no different from any religious missionary, and ought to be taken seriously.  In other words, try to engage with the arguments, instead of simply pointing out that they are rude.