The debate between Theists and Atheists about whether morality exists, is difficult to focus on due to the misunderstanding between the question “does morality exist”, and “can an Atheist act in a moral manner”. The equivocation is usually made on the part of the Atheist, though I am not trying to belittle or accuse the Atheist of intentionally subverting the issue, I think there is a genuine misunderstanding of the question at hand. The tack I wish to take here is this: on the view of Atheism, is morality even possible? Whether subjective or objective, is any type of morality even possible if Atheism, which by definition must affirm Metaphysical Naturalism, is true.
Metaphysical Naturalism (hereafter refered to as Naturalism) is defined as the ”philosophical worldview and belief system that holds that there is nothing but natural things, forces, and causes of the kind studied by the natural sciences, i.e., those required to understand our physical environment and having mechanical properties amenable to mathematical modeling. Metaphysical naturalism holds that all concepts related to consciousness or to the mind refer to entities which are reducible to or supervene on natural things, forces and causes. More specifically, it rejects the objective existence of any supernatural thing, force or cause, such as occur in humanity’s various religions, as well as any form of teleology. It sees all “supernatural” things as explainable in purely natural terms. It is not merely a view about what science currently studies, but also about what science might discover in the future. Metaphysical naturalism is a monistic and not a dualistic view of reality.”
So the question is, can the idea that morality of any kind, be it objective or subjective, exist on the Naturalistic worldview? Let me first address what above I described as the equivocation in the common debate. Here is an image which represents the equivocation depicting Bill Gates and Warren Buffett with captions claiming the two have donated millions of dollars to charities, concluding the two are “Good without God” (though I do not know if Gates and Buffett are Atheists, I have to assume they are otherwise the ad is pointless), and asserting that Christian evangelist Pat Robertson has donated little to nothing to charities thusly making him “heartless”. Here is where–if the Atheist is making the argument–we encounter the problem. Putting aside the meaning of “good” and “evil” for the moment, it is obvious that Atheists can do good things without the belief God exists. We all know people who do not believe in God who are very helpful, courteous, and charitable, this is not in dispute.
This is why we know the Atheist who says “good without God” misses the point. What is at the center of the debate, is how the idea of “good” and “evil” are grounded in the Naturalist’s view, not whether Atheists do good or evil things. How can the Naturalist say something is good? If the concept is based on the individual or society, good and evil are merely preferences. They cannot be argued for or against since no one has a true obligation to play by the same rules. Adherence to good and abstinence from evil is at the whim the individual(s) contemplating the action. The notions of what is good or evil can be adjusted whenever and to whatever based on the desires of the populace, thus making no action whatsoever good or evil, but rather desirable or undesirable under the current conditions. Most Atheists will agree and support the idea that a subjective view of morality is true. Here is what I question, how is even the idea of a subjective right and wrong, good and evil possible on the view of Naturalism?
On the view of Naturalism everything is matter. Our bodies are a collection of molecules, like dirt, rocks, grass, etc. Just another grouping of cells forming an organism; we are simply cells in motion. When we consider our interactions with others, we are not interacting with “people” per se, but molecules interacting with other molecules. If Naturalism is true, then I do not see how there can be a true difference between intentionally causing physical pain to a child for the mere pleasure it brings someone, and a leaf falling to the ground. The concept of personhood or the state of being a person is not possible on Naturalism. Our bodies are matter. Since our mind (not to be confused with our brain), intentionality, anger, and other non-physical states are not possible on Naturalism, due to their lack of physicality. For instance, you cannot weigh your motive, or level of anger with a scale, or observe it under a microscope. They do not physically exist and therefore do not exist on Naturalism.
How then does the Naturalist get from merely recording and describing the interaction between forms of matter, to assigning a label of good or evil to the content of the interaction without making an appeal to a non-existent, non-physical concept? To even lay claim to a subjective morality, how can the Naturalist stay consistent with his worldview yet make any appeal to a non-physical concept such as good or evil, right and wrong? How can the Naturalist differentiate between say, burning a child with cigarettes, and an avalanche? Any appeal to morality, even subjective morality, violates his worldview. The concept of morality is illusory.
The Naturalist is in the awkward position of having to borrow aspects from a super-natural worldview in order to distinguish between acts of good and evil and simple interaction between forms of matter. Just acknowledging the concepts of good and evil; right and wrong; love and hate require the existence of a non-physical realm, a realm which Naturalism denies. This is among the many reasons Naturalism fails as a viable worldview. Naturalism cannot account for the reality of non-physical concepts on its own, it must venture outside its own parameters and look to other worldviews (worldviews which Naturalism by definition considers false) to explain certain phenomena. This notion alone, should cause one to consider the “truth” of Naturalism as highly suspect.