Ethics Without God

By Dr. Howard A. Wilcox,,
McGilvra Brown Press,
PO Box 413, Garberville, CA 95542,
1996, 401 pages, $22.95 hardback

It has been the contention of this journal over the years that one evidence of the existence of God is the logical impracticality of any kind of morality without God. Unless there is an infallible standard of what is right and what is wrong, how can people make moral decisions that work? Atheists and skeptics argue vehemently that this position does not stand for obvious reasons--if morality cannot exist without God, then atheists are either immoral or tacitly know that there is a God but have selfish reasons for not admitting to that fact. These choices are unacceptable to atheists and skeptics for obvious reasons.

Dr. Wilcox is a well-known physicist. We had been told by several atheists that this book repudiates our position, and we were given a copy so we read the book to see if it really does offer an alternative to our position on morality. The book is subtitled "Optimal Realism, a Science-based Philosophy," and what it attempts to do is to build an evolutionary base for morality.

Wilcox begins the book by selectively defining words and positions. Like anyone selling a position, he is careful to turn words and phrases to his own purposes even when the statement is dubious. On page 7, for example, he says "Science is a published and hence public activity, so it cannot become the secret possession of some group using its private knowledge to advance its own selfish interests." That statement is a nice theory, but totally unsupported by evidence. Governments (including our own) have frequently used science to promote selfish interests. One must assume an open press and also assume that the press is moral. In the United States in recent years, the press has increasingly gotten into the business of interpreting the news instead of reporting it as we have frequently shown in this journal. Another example of selective definition and position is another statement made on the same page by Wilcox which says "Science exhorts no one to accept its conclusions on faith or any other ground." The existence of ether as a material permeating all of space controlled much of physical science in the 19th century. Faith in the consistency of gravity, the stability of the nuclei of most atoms, and any number of other physical conditions has been the foundation of many areas of science well into this century. There is a great deal of faith in science. Wilcox says science is ethical and that "ordinary people may not be subjected to scientific experimentation unless they are fully informed and consenting adults" (page 9). The history of science has been full of cases where the good of all of mankind or of a single scientist's goals were used to justify violating this assumption. A whole book could be written on Wilcox's assumptions and definitions, but that is not our purpose here.

Wilcox follows this series of dubious statements with the historical inconsistencies and errors of religion, showing how many times religious groups have been wrong or illogical. In attempting to paint religion as foolish and inadequate, the book utilizes a variety of dubious sources. Here is a typical example: "...medieval Christianity claims that God is simultaneously one and three. Many logicians would call this assertion a simple contradiction in terms" (page 29). No attempt is made in the book to portray what is really believed or taught by the Bible; but to make it appear as foolish as possible, a series of quotes similar to the above are given. Wilcox then proceeds to show how science pried away Christianity from knowledge revealing Truth. Interesting enough, we are led from Ptolemy to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Dalton, Freud, Maxwell, Einstein, Mayer, Joule, Rumford, Helmholtz, Kelvin, Clausius, Boltzman, Rutherford, Bohr, and Schrodinger without any reference to the religious convictions or beliefs which led to their discoveries and would be in juxtaposition to the author's.

Chapters 2 and 3 lead us through a fairly typical evolutionary discussion of life and its development--on through to the function of the human brain. Again we are asked to accept a series of dubious definitions and assumptions, but in reference to modern evolutionary theory the book is pretty typical. Chapter 4 starts out assuming that all human values have evolved and then attempts to organize these values in such a way that altruistic values can be explained as individual's perception of how he or she fits in that society. Specific moral choices and their implications are then fitted into this organization. Everything from population control to murder to death (the ultimate sleep) is handled. The author does an excellent job of summarizing his book in the fly leaf when he says:

"This is a book of carefully derived answers to moral and ethical questions for people who doubt the various God concepts and recognize the many failures of religion. The book begins with a brief synopsis of the foundations and development of modern science and the theory of evolution. It explains the successes and failures of various human value systems, analyzes the concepts of "ethics" and "morals", and then derives the "best" value system based on the total survival potential of the human line. The author then applies the theory toward answering...practical questions...."

It should be obvious that this discussion has not been a point-by-point response to Wilcox's book. We would contend that there are a number of reasons why Wilcox's material strongly supports our original contention that, without belief in God, morality will not happen:

  1. In order to denigrate the Christian position, Wilcox relies upon misuses and misconceptions of Christianity. The "Godhead" concept he presents mentioned earlier is just one of many examples. To criticize the teachings of a group by accurately quoting its leader and showing fallacies in the group's position is one thing. To quote an extremist who acted in juxtaposition to the teachings and beliefs of the organization is another. Accusing all Darwinists of being Nazis because Hitler espoused Darwinism would draw vehement objections from Darwinists, and rightly so. Religion cannot be held accountable for misusers and usurpers of its name.
  2. From a scientific standpoint, there are numerous problems to the mechanisms Wilcox assumes to be true. "Nonparental heritability," for example, assumes that feedback interactions influence mental, social, moral, and other aspects of a person's makeup which will remind many of us of sociobiology and all of its assumptions and claims. In previous issues of this journal, we have pointed out the scientific weaknesses of sociobiology. Since the whole discussion is based upon Neo-Darwinistic theories of evolution, any scientific weakness in those theories is catastrophic to the theory Wilcox is promoting.
  3. No where in this discussion has there been any serious discussion of the reasons for man doing what he does creatively. Why does man worship, create art and music, feel guilt and sympathy, and what is it in man that enables him to be able to be taught to think? To assume that these things can be fitted into a mechanistic explanation is to fly in the face of the evidence. The evidence of man's spiritual makeup is never really addressed from an evidential standpoint. The author basically assumes that man does not have any spiritual characteristics and builds his whole case on the assumption that man functions only as an animal, driven by genetic forces and environmental circumstances.
  4. The major problem of any theory of this kind is that it fails to be realistic with the nature of man. You can build a logical model of what man ought to do, and you can even give good reasons as to why man ought to do those things. Speaking as a former atheist, I can testify that, as an atheist, I realized and argued for the need for people to be moral, obey the law, and treat their fellow humans well. In spite of my rhetoric, when push came down to shove and there was an opportunity to do something which would benefit John Clayton (even if it abused or injured someone else), I would do it. The major difference between the atheist and the Christian in this regard is that, if a Christian does something immoral which benefits him or her, he or she acted in violation of everything their belief system teaches. If an atheist believes that forces of a mechanical nature are all that drive us and that survival of the fittest is the answer to who lives successfully and who does not, then doing something which puts me, a more fit being, over someone else who is less fit is defendable, no matter what it might do to the less fit being.

Realizing the assumptions and weaknesses in Wilcox's book is a help in recognizing the problems of atheism on a moral level. We have come away feeling that even a brilliant scientific mind cannot make a good case for morality without God--especially on a practical level.

                            --John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Sep/Oct97.