In 2007, atheist writer Adam Lee of Patheos’ Daylight Atheism wrote a post responding to and attempting to discredit a column from the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson in which Gerson argues that morality is ultimately untenable in the absence of God. In his reply, Lee commits a number of the blunders common to traditional atheistic moral arguments, fallacies that have been widely rebutted and thus will not be addressed here. In one of the arguments near the end of his post, however, Lee does raise an interesting point. Speaking to Gerson, he writes:
You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you’ve overlooked. Call it what you will—empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness—but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others—a mentality of “I win, you lose”—is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.
The utilitarian argument here presented for atheistic morality is a common (and insufficient) one, but Lee’s wording uniquely highlights one of its major flaws. Because he labels the sociological phenomenon he addresses as a “truth,’ his argument begs a pivotal question: how does he know that “happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others . . . is a mean and petty form of happiness”? Presumably, he makes this claim because his personal experience validates it, but thanks to the unavoidable principle of restricted access in human thought, neither he nor anyone else can definitively prove that this is the case for human beings in general. To assert such a claim, one must appeal to the knowledge of some omniscient psychologist—truly, to some revelation—to do so with confidence.
Indeed, the central crisis of naturalism is not a spiritual or moral crisis; it is an epistemological one. Undeniably, the existence of God is a difficult fact to incontrovertibly prove, but by even approaching the topic in a rational manner, the theist and the atheist alike make a perhaps greater leap of faith even than the theist’s belief in an invisible God by assuming that the inscrutable mind and especially the chemical complex that is the human brain can be trusted to follow a trail of rational arguments to truth in a metaphysical quandary. Even the theist is obligated to be slightly speculative to conclude that the rational mind can be trusted based solely on his belief in the existence of a rational God, but neither of these basic beliefs are remotely so flimsy as the atheist’s insistence that the trustworthy rational brain evolved through sheer chance. By his own logical dogma, the atheist ought to distrust logic because of the extreme improbability of its accuracy—which, ironically, he cannot do without justifying his suspicion with logic.
In the end, then, Lee’s mediocre argument for morality without God is potentially tenable only if God—or, if he finds God too extreme a term, some immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient being that upholds reason—does exist. Otherwise, the reason on which he bases his moral framework (and presumably his atheism as well) is highly unreasonable.