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The Axe Murderer and the Crocodile

Responding to common atheist arguments for morality

“It’s wrong, God or no God, to torture little children just for the fun of it. What basis we have for making this confident moral claim is another thing, but we know, if we know anything, if we have any moral understanding at all, that that is wrong.”

These words, spoken by atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen in debate with Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland (Does God Exist?, 99) illustrate beautifully the tension in which the thoughtful atheist finds himself when it comes to the issue of morality.

Notice that on the one hand, Nielsen insists he “knows” the torture of little children is “wrong.” Whether God exists or not, this is something he knows. In fact, he says, this is something everyone knows “if we know anything, if we have any moral understanding at all.”

So he knows this, and everyone knows it.

On the other hand, he hints at the difficulty he has providing a philosophical basis for his strong statement about right and wrong when he writes: “What basis we have for making this confident moral claim is another thing.”

In effect, he’s saying, “Look, I understand that, as someone who believes that nothing exists but material substances interacting according to unbending physical laws, I may have a hard time explaining exactly how moral absolutes can be said to exist and why they should be binding on us. But whatever: I still know that the torture of little children is absolutely morally wrong.”

So let’s ask the question: On what basis, Mr. Nielsen, do you make “this confident moral claim?” In fact, forget “confident”: on what basis do you make moral claims of any kind?

After all, according to Richard Dawkins, isn’t our godless universe one in which there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference?” (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 33). If ours is a universe in which there is no evil and no good, on what basis do you talk about this being “right” and that being “wrong”?

On an atheist premise, how can right and wrong be anything more than words we use to describe what we approve and disapprove? What we find helpful and unhelpful? What is to our tastes and what is not? In which case, why doesn’t Nielsen just say he doesn’t approve of the torture little children for fun and leave it at that?

A common misunderstanding

When I discuss the issue of morality with those who doubt or deny the existence of God, it’s common to hear in response, “It sounds like you’re saying that atheists don’t believe in right and wrong or that atheists are bad people.”

In fact, what I believe is nearly the reverse. It’s that because atheists have been created in the image and likeness of God and have the moral law etched into their very beings, they cannot escape believing in right and wrong. Whatever they may say about the nonexistence of God and the nonexistence of moral law in a materialist universe, like Kai Nielsen they care about right and wrong and wind up living more or less as though they believed in the existence of a real and absolute moral law.

As Nielsen says, “God or no God . . . we know . . .”

My point is not that atheists don’t believe in right and wrong or that they are bad people. My point is that, on the basis of their worldview, they cannot account for right and wrong. They cannot provide a basis for the existence or authority of an objective moral law.

You can’t get soup from a stone, and what I tell my atheist friends is that you can’t get moral law from material substances, no matter how much you tweak them by random mutation and natural selection. If atheists wish to be consistent with what they say they believe about the nature of the universe, they should admit that right and wrong are ultimately illusory and abandon belief in them.

The happiness standard

My experience is that simply drawing out this logical implication of the materialist worldview in the realm of morals can make some atheists stop and think—precisely because they know right and wrong are real and morality is important to them.

Others will respond, “Hey, we don’t need God in order to have ethics!”

Take Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He believes we can base morality on a consideration of what will bring about the greatest total amount of happiness in each situation.

On this basis he argues for abortion. And it’s interesting to follow his logic, because it’s the exact opposite of how most pro-abortion advocates argue. Most accept the universally held premise that innocent human life should not be taken, but reject the notion that the unborn fetus counts as innocent human life. Singer does the reverse. He accepts the premise that the unborn fetus is an innocent human life (it’s total fiction, he says, to try to argue otherwise). What he rejects is the premise that innocent human life should never be taken. Rather, he argues that innocent human life can be taken if the result is a greater total amount of happiness.

It’s a matter of weighing things out on the scales of happiness.

Using this rationale, Singer also argues in favor of infanticide—at least in certain cases:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects for a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of a happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second [not yet born]. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, according to the total view, it would be right to kill him (Practical Ethics 163).

Now, besides the fact that Singer’s logic here is indistinguishable from that used by Nazi doctors to justify the elimination of the disabled and others with lives not worth living, some may have problems with this moral theory. The question arises: what act couldn’t be justified if the standard of evaluation doesn’t include an act’s intrinsic goodness or evil but only the amount of happiness that accrues to others?

Can science answer moral questions?

Atheist Sam Harris presents a variation on the happiness theme. He rejects the idea that science can only tell us what is but can never tell us what ought to be.

Instead (see his lecture “The Moral Landscape,” available on YouTube) Harris argues that since (a) morality is concerned about increasing the happiness and well-being of conscious creatures (especially humans) and (b) these questions have factual answers, (c) these are questions science could over time answer for us, even as it answers all sorts of other factual questions.

Does abortion on demand tend toward the enhancement of human happiness and well being? Would infanticide on demand? Or in certain cases? What about same-sex marriage? Does its acceptance tend toward an increase in human happiness and well being?

Science may not know the answers at this point. But these questions must have factual answers, and the idea is that as science finds those answers, we’ll all know what is right and wrong on these issues.

Now (don’t shoot me) I think Harris makes some good points. After all, it’s true that increasing human happiness and well being is at the heart of what morality is about. And it’s true that questions about what increases human happiness and well being are questions that have factual answers and therefore—at least in theory—could be answered through the use of reason.

And Christianity has always taught this!

Christianity has always taught that the moral law of God is for our ultimate happiness and good, that it is written into nature, and is therefore accessible to reason. So far so good (almost).

But it’s still a “moral” law. It’s still about attitudes and actions that are conceived as being morally good or evil.

As you listen to Harris, you begin to realize that he is not thinking in moral terms at all. As a consistent atheist who would agree with Michael Ruse that the idea of an objectively existing moral law is an illusion, Harris thinks in very practical, utilitarian terms. Just like Peter Singer.

For instance, whereas most everyone would say that torturing little children is intrinsically evil, and that one who does this is guilty in a moral sense and morally accountable for his actions, Harris would prefer to say that someone who tortures little children is really lousy at enhancing human happiness and well being and that he needs to be treated, well, as we might treat a dangerous crocodile that has somehow gotten loose.

You may think I’m creating a straw man here. I’m not. In fact, Harris explicitly equates the way we should think of and treat an ax murderer with the way we should think of and treat a dangerous crocodile.

When a crocodile attacks and tries to eat you, Harris explains, assuming you survive, you don’t think of the attack in moral terms. You don’t think of the crocodile as being “evil” or “guilty” or “morally accountable.” You just want to do whatever is necessary to enhance human happiness. You understand that as a crocodile he was only doing exactly what he has no choice but to do, given his nature.

The same with someone who attacks and tries to kill you with an axe. The axe murderer is only doing what he must do given his nature, background, brain chemistry, etc. Because of this, there is no reason to start throwing around terms like evil or guilt or punishment. We should deal with him as we would a dangerous animal.

Cage him but don’t call him names.

I appreciate Harris’s consistency. I really do, because it brings clarity. After all, in a universe without God, where morality is a biological adaptation no different than hands and feet and teeth, where morality is seen as nothing more than an aid to survival and reproduction, where any deeper meaning is illusory, how else could right and wrong be conceived except in purely practical terms?

Sort of like traffic laws. We don’t enact traffic laws because we think there’s anything intrinsically immoral or evil about, for instance, driving on the left side of a road. (I hope there isn’t. I have friends in England and Ireland.) We do it for the purely practical purpose of enhancing human well being by keeping our streets from becoming rivers of blood.

And when Harris conceives of axe murderers as he conceives of crocodiles, and laws of morality as akin to traffic laws, he’s being consistent with his naturalist worldview.


For the atheist, moral law, right and wrong, must boil down to something along the lines of traffic laws or rules for healthy diet. It just isn’t healthy to go around torturing little children for fun.

Once again the logic of atheism drives us to conclusions that seem completely at odds with our intuitive sense of things as human beings. Who has ever looked at Charles Manson or Idi Amin or Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler and thought to himself, “Yeah, those men weren’t very good at the enhancement of human happiness and well being. No reason to call them evil or desire to hold them morally accountable. After all, what they did is only what they had to do given their particular natures. No different than a rattlesnake biting someone who steps on it.”

I mean, who on Earth actually thinks like this and believes it?

The answer is: essentially no one. And this is why the discussion of morality can be an effective tool of evangelism with those who say there is no God.


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