Let’s think for a moment about freedom.
Christian and Atheist Quests for Freedom
Christians read from their book that “the truth will set you free,” meaning of course the truth of Christ’s redemption of us before a just God. We aspire to the good as we aspire to communion with the One who is good. Our immorality (our sinful nature) bars us from the presence of that Author of the moral good to which we aspire. We are therefore slaves to our sinful nature. But Christ reinstates us. Therefore our freedom, Christians hold, is found in the truth of the Gospel.
But what if there is no God, so there is no external originator of moral good, and there is no need for some means of reconciliation with a morally unflawed creator? What if atheism is true? Clearly we live with a moral sense, conscious of good and evil; making moral judgments. Where does that come from?
If there is no Creator of that moral sense, then it comes from evolved social mores. Atheists who attempt to explain the moral sense will often argue that it is a function of man’s need to live in community with others, such that he is more adaptable, more suited to survival, if he internalizes a moral code that makes him more capable of living socially. A good recent example is Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life.
Indeed, some atheists go a step further, and use man’s evolved social traits as an explanation of religion, too. A fairly popular explanation of the prevalence of religion is that it is a way of institutionalizing that social adaptation. The idea is that religions themselves evolve as a means of cementing the social mores necessary for communal living. The doctrines are not true, atheists of course hold. They’re just socially useful. We want to feel that we’re members of something. See, for example, Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
We have a fundamental directedness to the good, to be sure, but we also have a fundamental directedness to the truth. The fundamentals of experienced human transcendence are oftentimes formulated as “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” So although a pragmatic atheist might be tempted to accept religions in service to the good, doing so would create conflict for the competing fundamental of truth. The true is as important as the good. If the doctrines promulgated by religions are simply not true, then religion can’t be accepted as pointing to the good.
Atheist Explanation for Morality
So atheism must account for morality without using religion as a crutch. If atheism is true, then matter came from absolute nothing; life came from non-life; human consciousness came from animal consciousness, and morality came from evolution of man in the same way that walking upright is thought to have done. Morality enables people to live peaceably together, thus enhancing survival. Our brains are wired with the golden rule, through a process of biological variation meeting environmental challenge. The life form that became man exists because the long, long process of passive genetic deselection left individuals with a predisposition to defer to communal values.
So we have two competing claims for the origin of morality. What are the implications of each, for human freedom?
If God is understood to be the author of morality, and man is fallen into a sinful nature, then man is and should remain free to seek God. There is no reason for social restraint, in the form of extensive laws or social opprobrium prescribing conduct, other than a minimal level which we agree is a boundary of criminality. The social project is one of allowing as much individual freedom as possible. That freedom is thought of as itself a social good, as well as an individual desire. We have an objective moral code, we don’t need to collectively look within, to discover the genetic code to apply to a changing zeitgeist.
If morality is wired into man for reasons of evolved sociability, however, does that result in more freedom, or less, by comparison? Well if it is hardwired into us, then social restraint (laws and opprobrium) should be unnecessary. And yet, we find that it is. It turns out that individuals freed from any fear of God behave in ways that are breathtakingly selfish. This calls into question the atheist hypothesis, of course, but it also implicates individual freedom. In the absence of individual self-restraint, society finds itself ever more in need of social restraint in the form of laws and social opprobrium.
There is a direct and causal correlation between the decline of religious belief, on the one hand, and on the other, the rise of government laws, rules, and regulations, on every conceivable subject matter, and politically correct policing of thought, to keep us in line. On the question of individual freedom, atheism results in a bait-and-switch. Atheism champions personal freedom, but actually begets loss of freedom.
And that’s if atheism is true. Because it’s not true, add to that loss of freedom the continued enslavement to sin.