This past February, I attended a debate between Gavin Sullivan, a local atheist, and Dr. Arthur Hippler, who chairs the religion department at a metro-area religious academy. The debate, which had been listed on the Minnesota Atheist’s Meet-Up site, addressed the question, “Does Darwinian evolution undermine moral claims of conscience?” Not surprisingly, things got off track and ended with Sullivan defending moral relativism against Hippler’s insistence on a natural law. Believing that “our side” got the worst of that argument, I wrote a critical Meet-Up comment on the event, for which I have since apologized to Mr. Sullivan. Here I want to suggest how secularists can make stronger arguments for non-religious ethical principles.
Such arguments have already been made by Sam Harris and others. Essentially, they posit that humans are social beings who prosper in well-functioning societies. Such societies can only exist if certain rules govern individual activities, rules that, with rare exceptions, prohibit killing, stealing, lying, and other anti-social behavior. Whether by group or individual selection, we have evolved into organisms who empathize and who internalize these rules as ethical intuitions, a conscience. So, yes, Dr. Hippler, there is a “natural law,” but it derives from evolution, not a supreme being. And since they appear in all cultures, these innate ethical principles refute Mr. Sullivan’s moral relativism.
Going further, secularists should highlight ways in which religious claims violate our ethical intuitions. The most fundamental principle of Christianity is justification by faith (John 3:16): If you believe that Christ died for your sins, you go to heaven; if not, there’s that other place. On this account, a person as evil as Hitler could be in heaven while millions of innocent children burn in hell. What “natural law” makes that right? So, while Darwinian evolution can easily be enlisted on the side of human ethics, the same cannot be said of Christianity or of other religions positing supreme beings that are exempt from our ethical standards.
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