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Monday, August 15, 2016

What if Morality was Based on Empiricism instead of Christianity?

The Western world is what it is because of the enormous influence of Christianity. Without a Christian understanding of human beings as those who bear the image of God, our society would be a far different place.

However, atheists have been pretty vocal in their contention that a society based on empirical mortality and not Christian values would be better for humanity. Neil deGrasse Tyson has recently advocated for such a virtual society he named "Rationalia." Tyson's proposal is problematic on many grounds, but he isn't the only one advocating for such a world.

New Atheist Sam Harris doesn't believe a Christian worldview is necessary to ground moral principles, either. In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris tries to argue for a secularly based moral framework. He believes that values and morality "translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do."1

Viewing People through Empirical Lenses

Is Harris right? What would happen if a thoughtful, advanced culture viewed individuals through only an empirical framework? Physical and mental health states, as Harris mentions above, would feed into the value society places upon those individuals. This isn't speculation; we have a couple of good examples to show how this happens.

Along with Christianity, ancient Greek thought has significantly shaped western culture. At its zenith, Greece was one of the most advanced civilizations the world has ever seen and its philosophers continue to impact how we understand our world. Aristotle sought to scientifically categorize the various relationships between people in his On Politics. There, he begins

As in other departments of science, so in politics, the compound should always be resolved into the simple elements or least parts of the whole. We must therefore look at the elements of which the state is composed, in order that we may see in what the different kinds of rule differ from one another, and whether any scientific result can be attained about each one of them.2

Aristotle then goes on to systematically build his case. There are different kinds of communities to which we all belong: households/families, villages, city-states. He also notes there are also two kinds of necessary relationships for the human species to survive: the male-female relationship, which is necessary for the propagation of the species, and the ruler-servant relationship. Of the second, Aristotle's observations lead him to conclude that some people are naturally predisposed to be slaves of other, more capable men:
But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?

There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.3
When reading Aristotle's reasoning, one can see how systematically it moves from empirical observation through reason to its conclusions. Certain people are not smart, or not capable of leadership, or they don't measure up in any one of a myriad of ways. To Aristotle, it makes sense that those individuals are naturally predisposed to be the servants of others—the Gammas and Deltas of Huxley's Brave New World.

Darwinian Theory Leads down a Similar Road

But many people would dismiss this example as an argument against a "scientific approach" to morality simply because it's old. They may be tempted to say something like "We've learned so much in 2500 years, no one would come to such conclusions today." Yet, the modern eugenics movement, based on Darwinian evolutionary theory, took the United States by storm, classifying certain people as less worthy to reproduce. This even led to a Supreme Court case where the Court upheld the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck. Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. famously ordered Buck's sterilization concluding:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.4
Adding to this, just two years ago famous atheist Richard Dawkins held that for a pregnant woman who has discovered her unborn baby has Down's Syndrome, morality means killing the child:
For what it's worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do. I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child's own welfare.5
Each of these positions begin with a natural or empirical understanding of human beings. They measure people based on their output. But Christianity holds there is more to a person than his or her observable advantages for each one bears the image of God, which gives each one transcendent value. What other rational basis can one offer for holding that all people, even those with mental disabilities, hold inherent worth? There is no empirical measurement that makes us otherwise equal and at that point Aristotle and Dawkins may well be right.

What would a society without Christianity look like? It looks pretty scary indeed.


1. Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print. 1-2.
2. Aristotle. "Politics." The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. Print. 1127.
3. Aristotle, Pol. 1132.
4. Russell, Thomas D. "BUCK v. BELL, Superintendent of State Colony Epileptics and Feeble Minded, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)." American Legal History – Russell. 18 November 2009. Web. June 24, 2013.
5. Dawkins, Richard. "Abortion & Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar." Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Richard Dawkins Foundation, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Aug. 2016.
Image courtesy Wellcome Library, London and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 [CC BY 4.0] license.


  1. Seriously?? The Magdalen Laundries, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, burning at the stake... and you still think 'Here are these examples of how this worldview was shockingly abused!' is a valid argument for dismissing a worldview?

  2. Does the system of morality that follows from a particular philosophy have any bearing on the truth or falsity of the claims entailed by that philosophy?

    1. Possibly, but not in all instances.


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