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Answering Michael Martin's
"Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape"

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Is Atheistic Ethics Subjective?

The first point requires more attention than we can offer in a short essay, especially if we try to take into consideration not only the authors Martin cites who favor an objective atheistic ethic, but also the arguments concerning the positions of John Mackie and the Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne. We cannot address this adequately in this essay, especially since it is not particularly important for our main point.

To state my opinion simply and directly: I cannot even begin to imagine how an atheist can establish “objective” ethical standards on the basis of a worldview that assumes the ultimately impersonal nature of reality. Why? Because ethics, in the nature of the case, is fundamentally personal. Ethical thinking must take into account things like purpose and motivation. It is necessary, for example, to be able to distinguish killing intentionally and unintentionally, killing for self-defense and killing for pleasure, killing other persons and killing insects.

Now, it seems to me that in a world which is nothing more than chemicals accidentally organized in various and sundry configurations, there can be no conceivable “objective” meaning to any personal concern. Personhood, whatever else it might be, would be an accident. Persons as such could have no essential right to survive, to progress, or to advance on the scale of evolutionary development. In the evolutionary scenario, a human being is a distinctly organized set of chemicals that includes chemical combinations which give the subject a feeling of “selfhood.” But there is no special meaning to this experience. Like all other species, the human race faces eventual extinction, if not in the nearer future, then in that far, far future when the universe itself freezes over.

Until then, as long as we survive, “personal” concerns are not essential to the “objective” chemical structure of the universe. The “objective” world of chemistry, which does not, and cannot, take into account things like motives or purposes, other than as chemical combinations, cannot provide commandments, standards, or condemnation. No particular behavior is chemically evil, none is chemically good. On the presuppositions of materialism or naturalism, the very highest “ethic” one might attain would be “the bias of the breed.” Behavior x, y, or z benefits the human race — our favorite species! — in ways a, b, or c. Humans would pursue what is best for the survival of their species as a matter of instinct. Which means that our bias would have a biological basis. That is, I suppose, “objective” in a certain sense of the word, but this is clearly not what most people have in mind when they speak of ethics as “objective.”

What Martin seems to have in mind is the kind of ethical reasoning that he suggests in this essay. Rape “violates the victims rights, it traumatizes the victim, it undermines the fabric of society, and so on.” Of course, an atheist could observe these things as easily as a theist. And an atheist could earnestly contend against rape for reasons of this sort. But in so doing, he seems to take a great deal for granted that is not defensible on the presuppositions of atheism. The kind of reasons Martin suggests sound more like a Christian hangover than “objective” reasons. Also, it is notable that as a matter of fact, very few societies in the past have had any notion of “rights” and not a few people today deny the Western notion of rights, including the officially atheist society, communist China.

From a Christian perspective, I can comprehend and defend the notion of the “victims rights.” I am concerned about the relationship of crime to the fabric of society and so on. My Christian concern about such things is grounded in the fact that I believe human beings are created in Gods image. They are not merely animals who talk. Humans are special and must be treated differently from animals. This means that in the Christian worldview, we are permitted to kill and eat cows, but we may not kill and eat our neighbors.

But in an atheistic evolutionary view of the world, humans are animals -- just another species. If there is nothing special about the human race, except perhaps that they are stronger or more intelligent than other species, why should human rights be somehow more important than cows rights? What basis is there in the evolutionary worldview for treating humans differently?

Peter Singer, for example, understands very well the implications of an evolutionary view of the world in which God does not exist and man is not Gods image. He writes:

“There have been cultures, especially in the east, that have held that all life is sacred, including the lives of non-human animals. There have been other cultures that have had a much more restricted view of the sanctity of life, punishing only the unprovoked killing of a member of the tribe or national group, and accepting as ethically unproblematic the killing of outsiders, or of unwanted newborn infants. The western tradition is unusual in its emphasis on the sanctity of every human life, but only of human life.”[1]

Singer believes in animal liberation. He thinks that it has already been conclusively demonstrated that great apes are “persons” and that someday it may be possible to prove that whales, dolphins, elephants, monkeys, dogs, pigs, and other animals are persons, too.[2] Interestingly, with a perverse twist of evolutionary logic, Singer argues that we should both extend what we now regard as human rights to the animals and also, at the same time, revise our notions of human rights to allow for such things as infanticide.[3]


[1] Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (New York: St. Martins Press, 1994), p. 165.

[2] Ibid., p. 182.

[3] Ibid., p. 128-131.

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