Alex Rosenberg


On his book The Atheist's Guide to Reality

Cover Interview of November 07, 2011

A close-up

It doesn’t matter what part of The Atheist’s Guide I may want people to open up first, it’s a safe bet browsers will go right to chapters 5 and 6: “Morality: The Bad News” and “The Good News: Nice Nihilism.” It’s the persistent questions about morality that grip most people, not the trivial topics of the first 4 chapters, like the nature of reality, the purpose of the universe, or the inevitability of natural selection.

After all, the trouble most people have with atheism is that if they really thought there were no God, human life would lose its value. They wouldn’t have much reason to go on living, and even less reason to be decent people. The questions theists always ask atheists are these two: In a world you think is devoid of purpose, why do you bother getting up in the morning? And in such a world, what stops you from cutting all the moral corners you can?

Religious people especially argue that atheists cannot really have any values—things we stand up for just because they are right—and that we are not to be trusted to be good when we can get away with something. They complain that our worldview has no moral compass. These charges get redoubled once theists see how big a role Darwinian natural selection plays in science’s view of reality. Many of the most vocal people who have taken sides against this scientific theory have frankly done so because they think it’s morally dangerous, not because it lacks evidence. If Darwinism is true, then anything goes! “Anything goes” is nihilism, and nihilism has a bad name.

As the chapters about ethics suggest, there is good news and bad news. The bad news first: We need to face the fact that nihilism is true: science can’t justify the core morality that almost all of us accept. And any other supposed justification would conflict with science. So, if we are going to be really consistent, nihilism is the only option.

But the good news is that evolution made most of us nice, cooperative, even altruistic people. The moral monsters that we run into are as few and far between as saints and Samaritans. This is just what you would expect of any very complex trait subject to natural selection: most people are distributed in a bell shaped curve around a pretty high average level of niceness. But there is no way to prevent the occurrence of outliers at the extremes. We just need to guard ourselves against the psychopaths (and maybe protect the saints against being exploited).

These two chapters,that I predict people will want to read first, show that the same factors that made almost all of us nice also make for nihilism about morality. I hope and I also believe that nice nihilism is enough to forestall atheists’ worries. Because when it comes to morality, it’s all we’ve got.