Atheism and the denial of objective moral value. Most forms of atheism deny the existence of any nonmaterial form of reality. Reality is material and lacks any moral purpose or objective moral law. The atheist Bertrand Russell dramatically described this in his famous essay “A Free Man’s Worship.”
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Russell avers that morality is nothing more than a creation of human beings, who are themselves “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.” He claims that the human herd, “being anxious that the individual should act in its interests, had invented various devices for causing the individual’s interest to be in harmony with the herd. One of these is . . .morality.”
Therefore, despite their tragic condition, people should offer a noble but futile battle against the mindless cruelties of a world without design, meaning or hopeful destiny. Though the universe lacks purpose or meaning, humans have “ideals” in the face of it all. These “ideals” do not come from the Creator or any realm of pure ideas (since omnipotent matter is all there is). And these human ideals are doomed to “extinction in the vast death of the solar system.”
Morality thus reduces to physical and biological factors simply because this is all that exists. There is no independent sphere for moral realities that transcend the merely physical and cultural. Philosopher and arch-Darwinist Michael Ruse explains:
Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth.. . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. . . . Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and has no being beyond or without this.
Friedrich Nietzsche puts the matter dramatically in his well-known parable “The Madman,” in which the madman claims that “God is dead.” It is clear from the parable—and his other writings—that the “death of God” brought with it the death of objective value, meaning and significance; altruism had no basis in a universal moral law; the will to power was the essential fact in the struggle to thrive, and only a few specimens of humanity were worthy of existence. Nietzsche had no patience with Enlightenment philosophers who denied God yet retained Christian moral principles. Nietzsche hailed this deicide as the greatest of all deeds, but he knew—before many of his time—what the philosophical consequences would be.
Like Nietzsche, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) rejected the notion that we could dispense with God and retain traditional morality, at least on the horizontal level.
It [is] very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. As Dostoievsky said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.”
Sartre, Albert Camus and other atheistic existentialists attempted to transcend nihilism by heroically creating value in a valueless world. But even this existentialist imperative is without moral force if “all is permitted.” No human can create objective value; he or she might as well try to create a new primary color. Sartre admitted as much when he lamented, “Man is a useless passion.” If all is meaningless and absurd, so is the creation of autonomous and individual value.