The Axe Murderer and the Crocodile: Atheism’s Problem with Morality

Ken Hensley
August 17, 2017 17 Comments

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

Notice that on the one hand, Nielsen insists that he “knows” the torture of little children is “wrong.” He knows this. On the other hand, he hints at the difficulty he has providing a philosophical “basis” for his sure knowledge 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 chemical and physical laws, I may have a hard time explaining exactly how I can make absolute moral statements. 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. Kielsen, 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, p. 33).

From an atheistic premise, how can “right” and “wrong” be anything more than words we use to describe what we approve or disapprove? What we find helpful or 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 of 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 non-existence of God and the non-existence 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 tweek 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 in which we live, they should admit that “right” and “wrong” are ultimately illusory and abandon belief in them. If there is no God, morality is, as atheist philosopher Michael Ruse says, nothing more than “an aid to survival and reproduction.”

Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring [to a moral law existing] above and beyond themselves …. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction … an ephemeral product of the evolutionary process …. It has no existence or being beyond this and any deeper meaning is illusory (The Darwinian Paradigm, pp. 262-269).

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, like Nielsen, they know right and wrong are real and morality is important to them.

Others will respond as though there’s no problem: “Hey, we don’t need God in order to have ethics!”

For instance, take Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He believes we can derive our own moral law from 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 then 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 idea 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 same rationale, Singer also argues in favor of infanticide — at least in certain cases. In his book Practical Ethics, he explains how the happiness standard works in practice:

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. (Quoted in First Things, May 2002, Letter from Wesley J. Smith)

Now, besides the fact that Singer’s logic here is utterly 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?

Sam Harris presents a variation on the happiness theme. In 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 science answers all sorts of other factual questions.

For instance, does abortion on demand tend toward the enhancement of human happiness and well-being? Would allowance for infanticide on demand contribute to this goal? What about same-sex marriage? Science may not know the answers at this point. But these questions must have factual answers, and as science finds those answers then we’ll all know what is right and wrong on these issues.

That is Harris’s argument. And it can seem at first blush that maybe he has a point. After all, Christianity has always taught that the moral law of God is for mankind’s ultimate happiness and good. And Christianity has always taught that this moral law is written into nature and therefore accessible to reason. So why couldn’t reason/science over time figure out what is most conducive to the enhancement of human happiness and well-being?

This, we would call “right.” Whatever doesn’t tend to human flourishing, we would call “wrong.”

There’s our “moral law.”

But the more you listen to Harris the more you realize that he isn’t thinking in “moral” terms at all. When Harris uses the word, he’s thinking in purely practical, utilitarian terms. Just like Peter Singer.

Whereas most anyone 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 the one who tortures little children is “really lousy at enhancing human happiness and well-being” and needs to be treated, well, as we might treat a dangerous crocodile that has somehow gotten loose. We don’t slap moral labels on the crocodile; we simply stop it from harming anyone.

You 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 axe 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, it was only doing exactly what it has no choice but to do, given its nature.

The same holds for someone who attacks and tries to kill you with an axe. The axe murderer is only doing, Harris explains, 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.” Rather, we should deal with him as we would a dangerous crocodile or snake. Cage him, but don’t call him names.

Personally, I appreciate Harris’s consistency. I really do, because it brings clarity.

After all, in a universe without God, where morality is, as Michael Ruse has explained, nothing more than a “biological adaptation” like 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 but in purely practical terms?

Sort of like traffic laws. We don’t enact traffic laws because we think there’s something intrinsically “immoral” or “evil” about, for instance, driving on the left side of a road. (I hope there isn’t. I have some friends in England and Ireland.) We do it for the purely practical purpose of enhancing human happiness and 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 a healthy diet. It just isn’t healthy to go around torturing little children for fun.

Of course, 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 and Adolf Hitler and thought to himself, “Yeah, those men weren’t very good at the enhancement of human happiness and well-being. There’s 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?  

Ken Hensley

Ken Hensley is Online Resource & Pastoral Care Coordinator for The Coming Home Network.


  • prolifemama says:

    Interesting article. Has the question been posed regarding how much actual time must pass before one determines that an act such as abortion or non-marital sexual intercourse has enhanced human happiness?

    Often, years go by after an abortion before the woman whose child was killed acknowledges that her current pain is the result of her child being aborted.

    Years also go by in non-marital, sexual relationships before a man realizes that what he’s still longing for is to make a lifetime commitment to a woman he loves, cementing that commitment by marriage and children.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Insightful question! You’ve touched on one of the many problems with the view of Singer and Harris: how do you know that aborting that child has increased the overall happiness of the rest of the family and community? Same with extra-marital sex, and so forth.

      But the fundamental problem faced by the standards themselves (the total amount of happiness with Singer, the enhancement of human flourishing with Harris) is that within a naturalist worldview they are arbitrary. Why not make your standard “Whatever increased my immediate happiness”? Why care a whit about the future of the human race if I’ve come from no where and am going nowhere?

      All attempts to ground a moral law in the changing sands of an ultimately meaningless material universe is, as one of my teachers once said, like a man made of water trying to climb out of an ocean of water on a ladder made of water.

      • prolifemama says:

        Do you believe the material universe (of which we are bodily a part) is meaningless, ultimately?

        • Ken Hensley says:

          No, not at all. My point is that if there is no God, then we are nothing but the accidental products of an accidental material universe and everything would be ultimately meaningless.

          • prolifemama says:

            Thanks, Ken – Thought you were playing devil’s advocate, just wanted to make certain. 🙂

            LOVE what your teacher told you about water…hopefully s/he too was giving a nod to satan…?

            • Ken Hensley says:

              Yes. The entire approach with this apologetic is to take the worldview of the atheist (in this case a naturalist worldview) and draw out the logical implications of it. Since your atheist friend is the image and likeness of God, she/he will not rest easily with the full implications of saying the entire universe is nothing more than a material machine that has come into existence for no reason and will also go out of existence for no reason. No wonder kids are committing suicide. They’re no so stupid as to not be able to draw out the logic of what they’re being taught, which is an atheistic Darwinism

              • prolifemama says:

                I’m going back to your comment:

                ‘Why not make your standard “Whatever increased my immediate happiness.’?? Why care a whit about the future of the human race if I’ve come from no nowhere and am going nowhere?” ‘

                I think if folks were honest – and there are probably many who a- re – they would say exactly that

                “I don’t care about the future, just about me, and it doesn’t matter because there’s no God, so rules aren’t important, just me being as happy as I can, as long as I can, and in any way I can. If making others happy makes me happy, that’s the main thing.”

                My saintly mother used to ask us 6 kids: “What’s the main thing?”
                And we would always answer “Do we know we’re loved? Yes! We know we’re loved!!!”

              • prolifemama says:

                I’m going back to your comment:

                ‘Why not make your standard “Whatever increased my immediate happiness.’?? Why care a whit about the future of the human race if I’ve come from nowhere and am going nowhere?” ‘

                I think if folks are honest – and there are probably many who are – they would say exactly that.

                “I don’t care about the future, just about me, and it doesn’t matter
                because there’s no God, so rules aren’t important, just me being as
                happy as I can, as long as I can, and in any way I can. If making others happy makes me happy, that’s the main thing.”

                My saintly mother used to ask us 6 kids: “What’s the main thing?”
                And we would always answer “Do we know we’re loved? Yes! We know we’re loved!!!”

              • prolifemama says:

                Something funny’s going on…I see my reply twice here, and not the corrected one.

                Perhaps this explains why.

                I had said something about the fact that God crams us and the world full of evidence of HimSelf, so that even non-believers come into touch with Him all the time, and it sparks joy and longing within their hearts, which is precisely His aim… or something like that. Their belief in Him is irrelevant regarding their experiencing this evidence, and He isn’t stingy with it; in fact, just the reverse.

        • Ken Hensley says:

          Because God does exist and the universe was created for a purpose, nothing is meaningless.

  • Donald Mackowski says:

    How can Harris logically even use words like “torture”, “happiness” “well being” and even “enhance”? Each words are value judgments, and values cannot come from valueless material biological adaption.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      He uses those words in very practical ways. For example, learning to sterilize surgical tools increased “human wellbeing”. This is therefore “good” and “right.” What he argues is that if we had the information we could determine “scientifically” whether freedom to abort enhances human happiness just like we can determine that flossing does — since it helps people not lose their teeth and have to go through the trouble associated with that. Like I said, moral laws are viewed more like traffic laws.

      • Donald Mackowski says:

        Thank you Ken for your reply. I understand your point, but my point is that these value judgments go beyond judgments like “it works or it doesn’t work in getting a preferred result” such as one finds in the animal world. I believe there is transcendence embedded in such thoughts that Harris does not realize.

        • Ken Hensley says:

          I suppose I would need to hear more of what you mean.

          Of course I believe that “happiness” and “well-being” have transcendent implications because we are transcendent beings come from God. But I suppose Harris “could” be taking those words in their simplest this-world sense. Even if I’ve come from nowhere and are going nowhere and there is no transcendent meaning to my life, I suppose that driving with the flow of traffic and getting to the movie theater on time enhances my this-world happiness more than driving against the flow and being creamed in a head-on accident.

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