I was recently interviewed for a new podcast (I will release the details when they become available), in which it came out that I cringe every time well-recognized atheists get into a discussion of morality. Those atheists tend to adopt one of two views on the nature of morality – each if which has significant flaws that their theist opponents clearly see and eagerly point out.
The more sophisticated atheists dance back and forth between these two views to dodge objections, the way theists will dance back and forth between incompatible and contradictory claims about God.
One option is that the atheist will assert that intrinsic values exist. Against this, the theist will respond that the existence of intrinsic values is no less mysterious or problematic than the existence of God. In fact, the arguments for the existence of intrinsic values are substantially identical to arguments for the existence of God.
One option is that the atheist will defend some sort of strict subjectivism – the type that says, "I don't like rape; therefore, rape is wrong." At which point the theist will simply respond that, "This means you can make rape perfectly legitimate simply by acquiring a fondness for raping others. Slavery, genocide, the torturing of a young child are all legitimate if the agent doesn’t feel bad about enslaving others, slaughtering people, or torturing young children."
In recent days, evolutionary ethicists have pretended that they have solved this problem because we have evolved certain altruistic tendencies and moral sentiments. Evolution, they say, favors altruism and other moral sentiments, and that is where morality comes from.
Yet, just ask an evolutionary ethicist:
What makes altruism good?
You will almost always get one of two answers.
Either altruism is good because it has an inherent, intrinsic quality of goodness built into it (or it produces something that has intrinsic goodness like evolutionary fitness), or it is good because we have evolved a disposition to be altruistic.
If he gives the first answer, he still falls into the trap of asserting the existence of intrinsic values that are just as mysterious as God. If he gives the second answer, then he falls victim to the objection, "If we had evolved a disposition to enslave others, wipe out whole populations, or to torture children, then these acts would have been good. And, in fact, if we can show that genocide or rape are also evolved traits, by your argument, you would have to defend them as being morally legitimate – even obligatory."
Technically, the theist who objects to intrinsic value theories on the grounds that "they are no better grounded than God theories" has not defended God theories. At best, he puts the two on equal footing.
And the atheist can simply bite the bullet and agree that slavery, genocide, rape, and the torture of young children are not really wrong – we have merely evolved a disposition to dislike these things. This is one weakness with a reduction ad absurdum argument – the agent has the liberty to embrace absurdity.
In matters of morality, atheist speakers are still caught on the horns of a dilemma. They either speak about intrinsic values as mysterious as God, or about strict subjectivist values that lead to conclusions as absurd as those of any religion. For this reason, theists still have a substantial advantage in debates on the relationship between theism, atheism, and morality.