You’ve likely heard it before, a self-identified secular humanist, skeptic, and/or atheist tells you that their personal morality is based on whether an action is empathetic or provides maximum well-being. I’ve had these discussions before, but during a recent online conversation when I pressed back on an atheist making his case – I pointed out that it was arbitrary for the atheist to define “goodness as empathetic”. That atheist responded to me:
The definitions we attach to words are arbitrary…Why can’t “cat” mean “an energy drink.” It could…but it doesn’t. This doesn’t mean calling my house pet a cat is inconsistent or irrationaly
To answer this, some basic groundwork needs to be done in explanation…
To be clear, atheism has no grounding for intelligibility at all, let alone the philosophical ability to make judgments or distinctions. To see why, you can view the reasons here.
But for purposes of this discussion, I will grant the God-denier the ability to make intelligent distinctions.
The definition they supplied for “good” was “helping others“. I’ve heard other God-deniers say that good is “empathy” or “whatever promotes well-being”. I consider all of those synonymous, so I’ll address them as one below.
There are at least 3 levels of arbitrariness from the atheist perspective in defining goodness as “helping others”.
Firstly, goodness could have been defined as any other ideal. Just saying that “helping others is good” is arbitrary. “Goodness” could just as easily have been defined as:
- Whatever promotes fitness
- Whatever preserves history
- Whatever benefits frogs
- Whatever helps Democrats
- Whatever smells pleasant
- Whatever Oprah says
Secondly, who are the others they are talking about? To whom should empathy be given? Should “helpfulness” be termed good if it is applied to a specific person, or a specific group of people, or to a particular cause (environmentalism, veganism, BLM…)? What if being helpful to 1 person is detrimental to another person? What if the 1 person to which helpfulness is offered is the 45th president? Might someone consider helping the originator of MAGA as bad instead of good? What if being helpful to one group is destructive of another group? What if being helpful to a particular cause/person/group leads to the extinction of a species? Why would goodness not be helping and promoting the well-being of the most fit creatures on earth: bacteria? Arbitrariness abounds for the skeptic, but there’s more…
The final reason that the atheist definition of goodness is arbitrary is that there are multiple metrics for measuring well-being. Which metric should be used to define good as well-being? Should we measure the well-being based on economic, hedonistic, pragmatic, physiological, psychological, spiritual or evolutionary metrics? “Helping others” in one of these categories will necessarily deprive help in at least one of the other categories. Besides that, who gets to decide what is TRULY helpful within each metric? For example, if I were going to help someone economically, I might give them all the money they would ever need and someone might call that good. But the recipient might spend the money on destructive things or waste the money by donating to the (insert evil political entity here) party, which might lead someone else to call my beneficence bad. Arbitrariness!
In contrast, defining a cat as a “4 legged pet” is not arbitrary in the same way. Sure, the initial word “cat” being applied to a 4 legged pet might have been chosen in place of any other word that was not in use to describe something else, but “cat” is not an abstract standard. Atheists cannot rationally conjure up an “ought” from an “is”.
Arbitrariness in defining “good” is not the only problem for the atheist. Defining good as empathetic, helping others, or promoting well-being is also inconsistent with their other assumptions and irrational based on their theory of knowledge.
Key assumptions for the skeptic is that unguided/impartial/purposeless forces (natural selection acting on random mutations) brought about the tree of life. Those creatures that produce the most offspring are said to be the most fit. Those creatures that are unfit are culled from the gene pool. Difficulties, harms and other selection pressures provide stimulus for creatures to produce/perpetuate novel traits. So it would necessarily be inconsistent to deem helpfulness/empathy as good, when protecting a creature from difficulty/SelectionPressure limits their ability to evolve.
Defining good as being empathetic, being helpful or promoting well-being for the atheist is also irrational on at least 2 levels. It is irrational firstly because the atheists teach that humans are the serendipitous product of stardust from a universe that is amoral, purposeless, undesigned, blind, pitiless, and indifferent – and if this is the case, why does it matter if one accidental aggregation of stardust interacts with another accidental aggregation of stardust? It is irrational to declare that one action by one collection of particles towards another collection of particles as good/evil. Secondly, it is irrational for anyone who does NOT have all knowledge of all time to declare some temporal action as good since a temporary negative could lead to tremendous positive or a short-term positive could lead to devastating negatives.
For the atheist/skeptic/SecularHumanist to define good as empathy, well-being, beneficial, or helping others is:
- When they chose a specific ideal, any other ideal could have just as easily been chosen to represent goodness
- In the midst of competing needs/wants, to whom should help/empathy be given?
- Based on which metric should help/empathy/well-being be measured (economic, moral, spiritual, physiological, hedonistic, pragmatic….)?
Inconsistent – because if the natural forces of evolution produced all of life, then choosing well-being as the primary good would be contradictory. If the skeptic assumes that the same forces which promote advancement through reproductive fitness also requires that well-being be considered as of primary importance then they are blind to the contradictory assumptions. To be consistent with their assumptions of natural selection acting on random mutations to produce the most fit offspring, the skeptic would need to define goodness as whatever produced the highest fitness in creatures. Since stress/harm produces selective pressure that drives novel traits and culls the unfit, then well-being is literally the opposite of the process that brought them into existence.
- If humans are just stardust, there’s no rationale for judging one action as good/bad
- If knowledge (let alone all knowledge) is not possible for the atheist, then picking 1 action as good/bad is unintelligible.
In stark contrast, Christians can make a coherent case that helping others and promoting well-being is coherent and consistent within our worldview
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength” when He references Deut 6:5. He followed up the greatest commandment with the second most important commandment when He says “The second commandment is like the first: love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus even went so far as to say “love your enemies.” With the first and greatest commandment in mind, we should love and promote well-being to people around us.
To be clear, the atheist/skeptic/humanist CAN be empathetic because they are made in the image of God. They do have the pre-programmed desire (Romans 2:15) to promote well-being to others, but as shown above, it is arbitrary, inconsistent and irrational for them when you consider their other worldview assumptions.