Moral Atheism?: What Morality Looks Like without God

By Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker


scott hahn, bejamin wiker, answering the new atheism, richard dawkins
Photo Credit: Robson Hatsukami Morgan

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins stated, “a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without.”  

We add this all-important insight: each kind of universe would entail a radically different notion of morality, as Dawkins himself demonstrates. Cosmology and morality are intimately related, and rival cosmological accounts imply rival views of morality. The reason for this is both simple and profound: different views of nature imply different views of human nature, and different views of human nature will yield different moral principles.  

Once we brush away surface similarities, we discover that in principle Christians and atheists inhabit different moral universes, where in great part what is good for the atheist is evil for the Christian, and what is evil for the atheist is good for the Christian. We stress “in principle” because in practice most atheists and Christians historically and culturally combine a confused mixture of moral principles, some of which can be traced backwards to Christian sources, some of which can be traced to secular sources that arose in antagonism to Christianity and culminate in atheism. Dawkins himself presents a very strange mixture.  

That is all very abstract. So let us begin with a very concrete moral example, marriage, and, rather than use Dawkins, we shall return to his great predecessor, Charles Darwin. If a Christian husband cheats on his Christian wife, then he can be charged with adultery, and if he was a boaster of his own piety, with hypocrisy. But the charge of adultery and hypocrisy can only be made because of a particular moral principle (marriage is a life-long union between a man and a woman that excludes all extramarital sexual activity), which is itself rooted in nature (male and female unite sexually for procreation, a tenet of natural law) and in biblical revelation (Genesis 1:26–27, 2:8–25; Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8; Matthew 9:–9). This, of course, does not exclude the possibility that some other, non-Christian or pre-Christian cultures may not have had held monogamy up as a standard (the natural law, for instance, was expressed by the Roman Stoics), but only to point to the most important sources for the Christian cultural acceptance of monogamy as morally definitive. That having been said, most societies, including Jewish society, sanctioned polygamy, so Christian monogamy is exceptional.  

We turn now to Charles Darwin’s quite interesting book on the moral implications of his evolutionary theory, The Descent of Man. We must be clear that we are not examining Darwin’s own life, but the moral principles and implications of evolutionary theory as he himself elucidated them. As far as we are aware, Darwin was every bit as upright as any Christian man in regard to his own marriage. He dearly loved his wife, Emma, and we’re almost certain that he never committed adultery. But here are his rather startling words at the finale of the Descent: There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.  

We do not know what Darwin’s wife Emma thought of this suggestion, nor if she ever read it, but there is no getting around the inference that the “laws or customs” Darwin regards as obstacles have to do with monogamy. If he is not condoning adultery, he is at least nudging toward polygamy, but these are only “bad” according to the tenets of Christianity. We see clearly the clash of rival moral views: what is morally bad according to the Christian (adultery or polygamy) can be morally good according to the Darwinian.  

To be more exact, whether or not Darwin himself was a Christian, if we accept evolution and subtract the particular moral claims made about marriage that are historically due to Christian influence (that is, if we cancel Christianity by accepting atheism), then restricting sexuality to male-female, life-long monogamy is senseless if not downright pernicious. If such is the case, we might charge Darwin with being a hypocrite for not committing adultery. In saying this, we are not saying that Darwinism leads to sexual libertinism, but that according to the fundamental principles of evolution, restriction of the sexual activity of the “best” by the entirely artificial and religiously-based confines of monogamy goes directly against the principles of non-theistic evolution.  

Anyone who has read Dawkins realizes why this example is so important. Dawkins is the world spokesman for the atheistic form of evolution. He quite clearly embraces an anti-theistic evolution as a kind of counter-philosophy that displaces the need for God as creator of the cosmos. In making this point clear, we do not at all mean to say that to embrace evolution in any and every form leads directly to atheism, only that those who embrace atheism necessarily embrace evolution as a counter-philosophy to divine creation and reject any theistic principles that would qualify it. This has moral implications: an atheist cannot affirm a godless account of evolution and a kind of sexual fidelity that is historically peculiar to Christianity.  

In River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life Dawkins famously states that “nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.” A universe without God, as Dawkins understands it, is a universe without moral purpose.  


In Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God, prominent Catholic authors Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker walk through the most common arguments against God. Understand the opposing arguments and grow confident in your ability to defend your beliefs.