The topic of morality in the atheistic community involves everything from nihilism, pragmatism, traditional objectivism, and virtue ethics. While practiced throughout most of the atheist community, it’s difficult to find any robust defense of traditional morality. The reason, I think, is that atheists are still struggling to define themselves properly, instead opting for a form of agnosticism and hiding the positive worldview (often naturalism) that rests behind the veil of mere nonbelief. Regardless of the inability of the atheist community to provide an adequate account for morality, something else lurks in the shadows that has plagued the atheist community since the Enlightenment: nihilism.
This blog will deal with the problem of nihilism, its threat against civilized atheism, and what becomes of Richard Dawkins’ argument that nonbelief in a deity doesn’t lead one to kill and steal. To do this, I will point to a knight of nihilism, a character in a blockbuster hit movie The Dark Knight, called the Joker. The character found in Christopher Nolan’s movie is a perfect representation of someone who poses a threat to the ‘nice side’ of atheism that people are trying to sell to the world. While presenting philosophical and moral dilemmas, I will be considering certain scenes in the movie and parts of dialogue to move the discussion forward. At the end I will argue that nihilism poses a serious threat to civilized atheism.
What Do You Believe In!?
In this clip we see that the Joker has successfully robbed a bank owned by the mob. The mob in Gotham city was simply a guild of criminal masterminds who had a mutual understanding with one another, an invisible code of conduct, an alliance. The Joker, however, flaunted this code of conduct and quite literally saw it as a joke. I equate the mob here with civilized “Enlightenment” atheism, and the Joker as the intruding nihilist. The nihilist sees all of morality and value as subjective and ultimately meaningless concepts. The Joker looks at the mob’s invisible code as a poor attempt to control things; it’s a silly thing that hides the true monster within us. The Joker was clever and witty enough to pull off the heist, and this cunningness, this will to act, this will to power, allowed the Joker to be in a position to rip off the mob.
What makes what the mob said special? What makes their promises binding or objectively valuable? The Joker saw through the absurdities of men trying to make these ‘codes’ of life. In terms of atheistic morality, it too is helpless to answer the Joker’s criticisms. There are three necessary criteria for an adequate theory of morality: (1) Moral objectivism, (2) Moral obligation, and (3) Moral reparation. The first merely presents morality as something in reality irrespective of the opinions of human beings; it would amount to a (relational) property in certain things. The second criterion expresses conformity to moral propositions, what we ought to do in certain situations, and what is expected of us. Finally, the third criterion states the effects of failing to conform to these moral truths, some form of punishment. I argue that without (3), (2) becomes a shadow, and with (2) a shadow (1) becomes a joke. To say one has an obligation to do something, but that failing to do it makes no difference, then I think a joke of epic proportions is revealed. True, societies may punish one for failing to adhere to the homo sapien’s code, but without (1) it amounts to bullies with power imposing their code on other people. Moreover, their ‘code’ is only as good as those who enforce it, and who just so happen to be ignorant of everything they cannot see. Moral law would amount to a relational property between two or more people, but if the latter party is not aware of what is going on then can one say that the moral law exists? It reminds me of the metaphysical dilemma turned moral: If someone is murdered in the woods and nobody is around to see it, then has the ‘murderer’ done something wrong? Without a unity of 1-3 then the atheist would be hard pressed to answer the previous question in the affirmative. Thus the Joker’s response expressing the absurdity of morality and value holds weight: “I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.”
These Civilized People…They’ll Eat Each Other
When watching The Dark Knight, one notices that the Joker’s only main objective is to reveal the absurdity of ‘rules’. He reveals the absurdity of the Mob’s obsession with money by burning their money. He reveals the absurdity of life itself by allowing Two-Face to put a pistol to his head while leaving his life to chance. He presents Batman with moral dilemmas in order to show him the absurdity of his precious standards. Recall the Joker saying, “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules, and tonight you’re going to break your one rule.” Joker’s final project, which ultimately failed in the end, was to show how absurd ‘civilized’ people are by placing two parties on two separate boats armed with bombs containing the detonators on the opposite boats. The Joker’s “social experiment” was to show that people won’t live up to these arbitrary codes by killing other people in order to preserve their selfish ambitions.
The atheist is left helpless to defend against this worldview. If naturalism is true, then it seems that nihilism follows more so than any other secular ethic. I recall a debate I witnessed live on the internet between the blogger Justin Vacula (atheist) and Dr. Chervin (theist). When asked how he accounts for the horrific crimes committed by the atheists Stalin and Mao, Justin says the following: “I would say that Stalin and Mao were simply wrong. As a moral realist, I believe that moral truths do exist and if we start from some sort of starting assumptions, such as people should have some sort of autonomy, that life is better than non life, murder is wrong; these seem to be quite uncontroversial, moral intuitions.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=i2geO9AUftM#! [1:23:08- 1:23:27]) The Joker would most likely respond by laughing and mocking Justin’s ‘starting assumptions’. For the Joker, and any sort of deep nihilist, the phrase ‘starting assumption’ is code for “please don’t look behind this curtain.” Without an account for moral objectivity, then moral obligation becomes a phantom, as does moral reparation. Even if Justin is right with his ‘starting assumptions’ that in no way makes us have an obligation to do anything, especially when the ‘law’ is only as good as those who enforce it, who, again, are ignorant beyond what they can see. If a 250lb body builder comes across a 120lb teenager with a wallet full of cash, and the odds of stealing the wallet without getting caught are high, then why wouldn’t the body builder beat the kid and take his wallet? If the body builder was smart, as all predators need to be in nature, then why should he fear getting caught? Again, the Joker’s insight is helpful: “They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.”
Richard Dawkins’ Denial
Justin Vacula echoes much of the New Atheism when they present atheism as some sort of optimistic humanism. Sure, they all start from ‘reasonable assumptions’, but when one discovers that these ‘assumptions’ are built on solid air, then it’s only a matter of time before nihilism is adopted in some form. Richard Dawkins consistently defends the claim that a mere nonbelief in a god doesn’t make one kill and steal. In one sense Dawkins is correct because merely eliminating a proposition from one’s belief library doesn’t necessarily force an existential conclusion. But one needs to ask the question, what does my worldview permit me to believe in consistently? As a Christian, I can believe that pornography is perfectly fine. However, one would be hard pressed to suggest that Christianity teaches that it is perfectly fine. With that knowledge, my pornography belief is inconsistent with the worldview I happen to adopt. I would either have to abandon the worldview I claim to follow, or provide an account as to why my pornography belief is consistent with my Christian worldview. Likewise, an atheist cannot get away by appealing to assumptions anymore than a Christian can appeal to assumptions; they must bite the bullet and follow their worldview wherever it leads.
The error with Dawkins’ statement is that atheism isn’t a mere lack of belief; that would only yield agnosticism. Either way, they have a nonbelief for a reason, either based on evidentialist epistemology and/or naturalism. The issue is with whether their positive worldview (naturalism) can account for moral realism. The sad truth is that it doesn’t. It fails to account for the three criteria for a sound moral theory. It seems to me that if an atheist maintains objective moral values and duties, then he does so out of emotional reasons, and consequently is being irrational and inconsistent. Because of this, nihilism (which can give an account for its morals, or lack thereof) is a possible and arguably rational conclusion given the truth of naturalism. Because of this inconsistency, one can argue that atheism leaves it open for people to view other human beings a mere chunks of matter, useful insofar as they provide the means for your own ends. It would seem, then, that nihilism provides a big problem to civilized, optimistic, atheism.