Calling atheists nihilists is nothing more than the flip side of the argument from morality

Well, well, well. Here we go again. Prompted by a dumb argument I read the other day, I have yet another reason to revisit the argument from morality.

Since I’ve written about it before, today I’ll give a brief summary… The argument from morality is an argument in religious apologetics for the existence of god; one that unfortunately gets reused to make a dubious claim about atheists, by theists who do not fully understand the original argument at all. It goes something like this:

  • Premise 1: Objective morality exists.
  • Premise 2: God is the source of objective morality.
  • Inference: Therefore god exists.

Ignoring that premise two assumes the conclusion, the main problems with this argument are:

  1. Morality is not objective. It likely evolved before religion, and religion with its supernatural agents, be they gods, spirits, ancestors or whatever, came about as mythical enforcers, if you will, of the moral rules. But morality and social values can and have changed over the years, and even differ in current times by region.
  2. Even if objective morality existed, it is a non sequitur (it does not follow logically) to say that they came from a god. Even worse, whoever makes the argument argues that they come from their specific god.

That’s the argument itself. But when theists use it, rather than make such an argument themselves, they instead claim something like:

  • You’re an atheist. Therefore you have no morals.

That’s it. That’s what they assume. Never mind that the argument from morality is actually an argument for the existence of a god. They simply assert that atheists don’t have morals. This doesn’t make sense, of course. Even if you were to assume that morals are objective and do come from their god, it would not follow that anybody who disbelieves in this god then doesn’t have morals. That’s not even what the original argument is about, because if morals did come from this deity, disbelief would not change that. In a nutshell, the assumption that atheists don’t have morals is based on an ignorant misunderstanding of the argument from morality, which itself is a bad argument anyway.

But today I would like to devote a few words to the flip side of this argument, the claim that atheists are nihilists. So what is nihilism? Google gives me a dubious definition which at first glance appears to confirm their claim:

the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.

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But nihilism is more than that. Here’s a better definition from Merriam-Webster:

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  1. Existence is meaningless, senseless, useless?
  2. Denies any objective ground of truth and especially moral truths?
  3. Destruction is desirable? No, thank you.

OK, so it is a little fuzzy… Morality is subjective. Denying objective morality does not deny morality completely. Life has no inherent meaning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our own meaning. Our language has evolved from a time when most people were religious, and those who rejected religion were executed as heretics, so there is a bit of bias towards an assumption that morals are objective. But the idea that we who disbelieve in gods think existence itself is useless is still nonsense. Also, how do you get from “God created everything” to a meaning? What is that meaning? It’s another non sequitur.

Edit: I see there is a more sensible definition on dictionary.com:

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That one is at least more updated and not so fuzzy…

I learned my morals from my parents and my peers, as they learned them before me.  But I have taught my son similar morals without a belief in god. In fact, his morals are better than the ones I was taught because he has never been told that he, being a Catholic, is better than anyone else. He has never been taught that he will live forever in Heaven because he happened to be born into the “right” religion. That buck stopped with me.

The assumption that life has meaning just because you believe in a god is also dubious… What meaning? Whether or not life has meaning is personal, and has nothing to do with whether or not you believe a deity created you. I have meaning in my life. If you lack meaning, it is a problem you have psychologically, but if you believe religion gave you meaning, you are giving credit where no credit is due.

2 thoughts on “Calling atheists nihilists is nothing more than the flip side of the argument from morality

  1. Wading into the “n”word is always perilous – the n-word serves as such a convenient bogeyman for all manner of anti-thinkers and poltroons alike.
    You do well to steer around its shoals, but no dictionary definition is going to give a satisfactory definition of the world’s most loaded term.
    Is there “meaning” for us on this lonely rock, guided by blind and pitiless evolution? Sure, we are driven to perform pro-social acts out of atavistic needs for a better, less contentious life. If that’s meaning, fine, but the universe will see us as individuals live and die in brief time, committing unavoidable acts of killing and ecocide along the way.
    Is that nihilism, the understanding that we as humans are governed by so many social forces we can’t face squarely? Perhaps, but the term may just need defending from its many attackers, right, religious, or any allied to some specious cause.
    I don’t think, though, that parents give their “moral” frameworks to their children. Culture as a whole is much more powerful, especially now, given all the mass social forces propagandizing the screen-bound young’un. Parents can try to do their part, as you undoubtedly do to your son’s immense benefit, but the idiots at Facebook and Disney are working extra-hard to grab slices of the youngster’s brain night and day.
    As always, thanks for keeping up the good fight!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! Yes, I realized midway through writing this that nihilism is quite the can of worms, so I tried to show simply that it does not apply to atheists.

      What gets to me is that so many do apply it to themselves. For example on Facebook we have pages like “Cheerful Nihilism”, which I get is meant to be ironic. But maybe it does us a disservice.

      Like

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