David Silverman, American Atheists and the Attempt to be Good Without God

Last week American Atheists issued a statement that they had fired their firebrand president of many years, David Silverman, as a result of moral failure.

In an interview, a spokesperson for American Atheists stated that Silverman was dismissed because of an issue regarding promotion of a recent book, as well as for a conflict of interest issue where he promoted a girlfriend to a high level position. It then came out that there were accusations of sexual misconduct with two other women who had come out to the media. Right before that story broke, American Atheists’ board quickly met to dismiss David Silverman.

The thing which is most intriguing about the statement from American Atheists is the closing sentence:

We have zero tolerance for the type of behavior alleged in these accounts. We will continue to demand the highest standards and accountability from our leaders, staff, and volunteers.

This brings up several very important issues:

If morality has no basis, then it is only opinion.

In the above statement, they mention demanding “the highest standards”. What are those standards, and how do they determine them?

The idea that people can be good without God is a major tenant of modern popular humanism and atheism. Many atheists would suggest that their ability to be good without God shows that they have more inner fortitude than “religious” folks, because they don’t need to have a threat of punishment over them in order to coerce them into good behavior.

Christians who understand the gospel are actually willing to agree with this in one sense. Belief in God does not automatically mean that a person will be morally superior to those who do not believe in God. It should not surprise Christians to find atheists or people who follow other religions who are honest, hard-working, kind people. After all, people do not become Christians by their moral effort but by their trust in God’s gracious work on their behalf.

The question is: is morality an innate thing, which people intuitively know, or is it a social construct?

Most prominent atheist thinkers argue that it is a social construct. As I have written about before – see “Why Ethics Depends on Origin” – prominent atheist writers say that ethics are not based in reality, they are social constructs which help our society to function better.

But what about when they don’t?

For example, eugenics (the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics) might actually help our society function better. If we were to abort all babies who were seen to have disabilities, if we were to forcibly end the lives of those who are a drain on society, then wouldn’t that be a benefit to society? That’s what the Nazis and others in the 19th and 20th Centuries suggested… And yet people push back against that and say it is wrong. Why? If morals are not actually based in reality but only exist to help society, then why not take that thought to its logical conclusion?

The reason is because:

Nobody believes that morality is only a matter of opinion.

The idea that morality is a social construct brings up other big questions, such as: what if my morality is different than your morality?

For example, David Silverman has denied any wrongdoing in regard to the above mentioned allegations. Essentially, he is saying that he thinks the things he did were just fine. In other words, the idea that he did something wrong is just the company’s opinion.

It could be argued that male-initiated, non-consensual sex is practiced regularly in some cultures of the world. So, they can’t really say that what he did was wrong, only that they didn’t like it.

The problem is: nobody actually believes that. We all believe that rape, murder and the like are wrong. Even with people, like David Silverman, who claim that nothing is wrong with what he did, others look at it and say: That’s wrong – and it’s not just our opinion, it’s just flat out wrong.

Mark Clark puts it this way:

We do believe in right and wrong. We believe hurting a child is wrong. We believe raping and pillaging the environment is wrong. We believe all races should be equal. That there is such a thing called justice that tells us mercy is better than hate. That loyalty is a virtue, and that there is evil in the world. All of these convictions give meaning to our lives, but if there is no absolute right and wrong, all of them go away; they are but a mirage. Meaningless. Weightless. Worth abandoning with every other construct of modernity.

Case Study: The Sexual Revolution vs. the Vietnam War

Take the 1960’s and 1970’s for example: On the one hand, there was a “sexual revolution” in which people were saying “No one can tell me what to do with my body, don’t try to impose your moral standards on me.” And yet, those same people protested the Vietnam War by saying that it was unjust and immoral because of the use of bombs and napalm.

They didn’t want anyone to impose a moral standard (regarding sex) on them, but they didn’t think twice about trying to assert their moral standard (regarding war and napalm) on others. They said on the one hand that morality is subjective, and in the next breath they said that there is a morality which everyone should accept as normative.

Case Study: Arguments

CS Lewis begins Mere Christianity by talking about the topic of: arguments.

“That’s my seat, I was there first”—“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”—“Why should you shove in first?”—“Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—“Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior, which he expects the other man to know about. . . . It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.

So, then – if morality is not merely a social construct, but is actually something we intuitively or innately know, then:

Morality points us to the existence of God.

The idea that there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong points us to the fact that there is a design. If there is a design, there must be a designer.

If there is a moral rule or standard, then there must be something or someone which determines this standard.

The Bible explains this point in this way:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires . . . they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14–15).

The fact that we are repelled by things such as sexual misconduct, lying and cheating, and that we advocate for equal treatment of all people regardless of their race, economic level, gender or physical ability – all those things things point to something beyond what is simply natural. They are proof of the fact that the heart of God is stitched into our very being.