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The Moral Incoherence of Atheism

Eric Metaxas | Author | Updated: Jan 16, 2014

The Moral Incoherence of Atheism


One of Chuck Colson’s favorite ideas and phrases in the realm of cultural apologetics was “The Grand Sez Who?” Chuck first discovered it in a piece Philip Johnson wrote for the journal First Things in 1993.

In it, Johnson told the story of Arthur Leff, a renowned legal scholar at Yale. In an article entitled “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Leff articulated what Johnson called the “modernist impasse.” It goes like this: If you believe that “God is really dead” and that we “have to decide all the big questions for [ourselves],” how “can we persuade other people that what they want to do to us is barred by some unchallengeable moral absolute?”

Leff’s conclusion was that you can’t, at least not with any logical consistency. Okay, stick with me here: You cannot simultaneously believe in an absolute and transcendent set of “propositions about right and wrong,” and the notion that “We are all we have,” that there is no God.

You may want to believe that “napalming babies is bad, starving the poor is wicked, [and that] buying and selling each other is depraved.” And you maywant to insist that “there is in the world such a thing as evil.” But, as Leff realized, the answer to these and every other moral claim is: “Sez who?”

As Johnson wrote, Leff was haunted by the “modernist impasse” and despaired over its implications.

Today’s pop-atheists seem untroubled about the moral and intellectual implications of their assertions, which only goes to show that, as I said, they don’t make atheists like they used to.

Case in point: a recent exchange between evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and columnist Ross Douthat of the New York Times.  In his Christmas column, Douthat, much like Leff, noted the incoherence of insisting that we live in a “purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory,” while simultaneously “[insisting] on [certain] moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher.”

Coyne, one of the preeminent “new atheists,” took exception in a way that only proved Douthat’s point. He acknowledged that “secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” He then insisted that, “although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t.”

But where does that purpose come from? From ourselves, of course. As Coyne writes, “we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.”

Now there’s a huge hole in Coyne’s “Promethean” declaration: the two words “neuronal illusion.”

As Douthat notes, Coyne isn’t sure that the “self” doing all the forging even exists! Talk about “sez who!” As Douthat rightly points out, “Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary.”

Unlike Leff, Coyne is unabashed—and probably unaware—about the incoherence in his position.

The kind of materialism that calls into question the very existence of the self can never lead to “an absolute ‘thou shalt not murder’ (or ‘thou shalt risk your life on behalf of your Jewish neighbor.’)” That’s why Leff despaired and why Douthat rightly has trouble imagining “a permanent intellectual victory for a [God-less] worldview as ill-served by its popularizers as atheism is by Jerry Coyne.”

Please come to and I’ll link you to Ross Douthat’s excellent article.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: January 16, 2014

The Moral Incoherence of Atheism