The killing of Trayvon Martin was “9-11” for the African-American community. What do I mean by that? In the same way that there are some events in our personal lives that leave a bruise—loss of a loved one, a bitter break up, bad report from the doctor—there are collective experiences like 9-11 that impact us on a cultural level such that we are not entirely who we were before they occurred. September 11th was, of course, not the first terrorist attack in American history. It was, however, a turning point that ushered us into a new era in which terrorism now appears to be an inescapable reality of the world we live in. The attack in 2001 seemed to initiate a series of intermittent violent acts, like the Boston Marathon Bombing and mass shooting in Paris, which remind us every so often that safety is not to be taken for granted.
In like manner, Trayvon Martin’s heart-breaking end was also an unfortunate beginning. He was but the first of many black men and women whose deaths over the last few years placed racism in America back at the center of public awareness. You know the names: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Terrence Crutcher, Keith Lamont Scott, and so many others. It was these names that brought our attention to places we had never heard of like Ferguson, Missouri or Hempstead, Texas. For those of us who do not live in one of the hotbed areas like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte, where protests and riots were taking place, the social media world provided ample opportunity for somewhat vicarious involvement in “the struggle.” Viral video after viral video of police officers shooting, choking, slamming, or dragging unarmed African-Americans have kept us tweeting and Facebook feuding as some cry out for justice while others contend that there is justification for why an officer did this or that. As people are exploring various ways of venting their frustrations concerning the problem of race in America (i.e. kneeling Quarterbacks, Luke Cage’s black hoodie, I Can’t Breathe t-shirts), I think you would be hard-pressed to find something that encapsulates the racialized angst of our time more succinctly than the now iconic slogan—#BlackLivesMatter.
Almost immediately, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” instigated a battle of interpretation. Among the warring factions were those who took Black Lives Matter to mean “Only Black Lives Matter” and in response contended that #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and so on. Meanwhile, proponents of Black Lives Matter maintained that they were not implying Only Black Lives Matter but rather affirming that Black Lives Matter Too. In this article, I will not be weighing in on which side of that debate has made its case more reasonably than the other. Instead, we will focus our attention on what Black Lives Matter means according to those who assert it and the common sentiment that ties both sides together.
Keep it 100
So, what is actually being conveyed when a person says Black Lives Matter? It seems to me that people are making an objective claim here: the proposition that Black Lives Matter is a matter of fact, not opinion. In other words, Black Lives Matter is a shorthand way of saying:
“It is a fact of reality that black people are indeed people and thus have intrinsic moral value that is equal to those who are of other races (i.e. white folks). Because black people are bearers of intrinsic moral worth, they ought to be treated in a manner that is congruent with the level of dignity that is due all members of the human race. After all, how you treat a person is an indicator of how you value that person. Based upon the multi-faceted maltreatment of African-Americans it is evident that the dominant culture (i.e. white folks again) do not value black people to the degree that is owed to them as fellow human beings. Examples of said maltreatment would include the slayings of unarmed black people at the hands of police officers, the failure of America’s court system to bring racially motivated killers to justice, police officers stopping to buy Dylan Roof a meal from Burger King as they took him into custody for murdering 9 African-Americans in a house of worship with hopes of initiating a race war, the overly conflictual relationship between the Republican party and Obama, mass incarceration, gentrification, Flint’s water contamination, and of course the election of Donald Trump. Any person, people group, or system that treats black people in a way that does not measure up to what basic human dignity requires is wrong for doing so in that they violate the sacred intrinsic value we all share. Black lives matter and black people ought to be treated as such—End of discussion.”
Of course, the #BLMers have not introduced a new idea to the discussion of race in America. The problem of personhood has been at the heart of the race relations struggle since the first slaves arrived in 1619. I think it’s fair to say that abolitionist and civil rights movements in the West have persistently invoked the idea that all people have objective intrinsic worth which should not be violated and generally that notion of human worth has had a theistic flavor to it.
Recently, I began thinking about whether or not these old ideas are compatible with new ones that are gaining influence in the black community: new ideas like the belief that there is no God. People like myself have begun to notice we have quite a few more black atheists* running around than we used to. What was once taboo in the black community now seems to be trendy more or less. I can’t help but wonder what would become of some of the core convictions that are thematic throughout black history but out of step with an atheistic worldview if atheism were to become more prominent among African-Americans.
For example, is there anything on a naturalistic paradigm that we can point to in support of the objective claims that #BlackLivesMatter, attitudes about black people ought to reflect that, and actions toward black people ought to align with this intrinsic value? Can a black atheist be consistent with his or her worldview while affirming the objective moral worth and subsequent obligations of duty that undergird the statement Black Lives Matter? These are the questions that I want to take up for the remainder of this article. Let’s take a from-the-ground-up approach to our search for value in a world without God.
One of the most natural ways in which we gain self-understanding is to look to where we come from. In a worldview that sees reality in strictly naturalistic terms, we are essentially matter; physical stuff that just happens to be arranged in a particular way. So, what can the story of matter tell us about our moral worth? If the Standard Cosmological Model (The Big Bang) or something like it is correct then it all began around 14 billion years ago. Once upon a time the universe—as in matter, energy, time, and space—somehow popped into existence from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing. Somewhere along the line the fundamental forces of nature get in the mix and allow for the creation of atoms, molecules, elements, stars, planets, and later on down the road us. In travelling back to the beginning, we see that in a Godless universe “Nothing” is the mother of everything.
Now, it should go without saying that “nothingness” cannot have intentions; there were no plans laid, purposes devised, or moral value assigned for you and I as the universe came into being from nothing. This is an account of our beginnings that is in sharp contrast to the biblical narrative. In Genesis, we see that all things did not come from nothing or even something but rather a Someone. That same Someone, YHWH, intentionally formed mankind in His image and declared that we are good. From the beginning, Father God endowed man with intrinsic moral worth, however, with Mother Nature it is not so. If atheism is true, gazing into the rearview mirror of our universe’s history in search of value is an empty pursuit. Our beginnings have nothing to offer us in this regard—We are just here.
Matter of Fact
If we can’t look to the origin of the natural world to find an objective foundation for personal value, is there is anything about nature itself that can account for it? I think the answer to that is no and I say that for a few reasons. Broadly speaking, it is within the purview of the sciences to describe the natural world as it is and attempt to make predictions of how things will be. We can conduct experiments on all sorts of things and make observations about how much something weighs, what it tastes like, how dense it is, how hot or cold it tends to be, how it interacts with other forms of matter, and so on. But moral worth isn’t a “test-tubable” sort of thing, is it?
It wouldn’t make sense for us to put you, me, a dog, and a bottle of water in a lab then ask a team of scientists to give us a read out on the amount of moral worth each contain. How would they go about doing such a thing? What instruments would they use to ascertain how many units of intrinsic value is floating around amongst the arrangement of atoms that I call my body? What equation could a physicist draw up to describe how my moral worth interacts with the matter I am made of? I’m sure those scientists could give us a nice break down of how hydrogen combines with oxygen atoms and those simple forms of matter team up to make the more complex material we refer to as water. But in what way do the atoms I’m made of coagulate to form the immaterial stuff called moral worth that the Black Lives Matter crowd insists I have? Maybe these questions sound a bit silly but I think they illustrate a fundamental point; moral worth is not a natural property of matter.
Through the sciences we have access to natural facts that are descriptive of the world as it is. If there are moral facts as #BLMers presume, they are very different from natural facts in that moral facts are essentially prescriptive; they impose upon us ideas of how things ought to be. Black lives “ought to” be considered as equally valuable as other lives; Officers “ought to” be free of racial prejudices when engaging minorities; when an officer unjustifiably takes the life of a minority they “ought to” be punished just like anyone else would be. In a purely naturalistic paradigm these sorts of prescriptive “oughts”, if taken as objective truths, seem out of place. When you really get down to it, if we humans are just a compilation of physical stuff and there is nothing detectable about physical stuff itself that has anything to do with moral value then nature has once again left us high and dry in our search for intrinsic moral worth. If there is such a thing as moral worth it isn’t to be found in a strictly natural account of who we are.
At this point I can almost hear some of my atheist friends screaming at me,
“But Adam, of course we are more than just matter! Through natural selection and random mutation we emerged from eons of evolution as conscious creatures with communal tendencies and the capacity to feel empathy for one another. This sense of communal identity, empathy, and ‘herd morality’ among humans had survival value so there you have it; that’s where our morality comes from.”
Still, it seems to me this sort of grounding for morality is a bit flimsy for the BLM proclaimer for at least two reasons.
Consider this scenario. Let’s say you were on a cruise ship and the captain comes on the loud speaker and says, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is our cruise ship is sinking and we won’t make it to our destination unless we get rid of some of the weight we’re carrying. The good news is, by my calculations, all we have to do is either throw 50 chairs overboard or 25 children overboard. I’ve decided to let the passengers choose which course of action we should take.” In such a scenario, no one in their right mind would just start chucking kids into the ocean. But why not? If humans are nothing more than material stuff and chairs are material stuff too, why would children have any more right to stay on board than the chairs? Hopefully, we would all agree that children are of more value than furniture.
The naturalistic evolutionist (as opposed to some Christians who believe God created via evolution) would say that while we have no biological connection with chairs, evolution has “programmed” us to care for our young so that our DNA may continue on therefore our impulse would be to keep the children rather than chairs. They might also point out that throwing kids to their doom when there are other viable options is against the law; breaking the law violates our natural leaning toward honoring social contracts among our species and receiving the death penalty for such a thing probably wouldn’t jive well with our natural inclination to survive. But what if a passenger becomes overwhelmed by the idea that if the ship goes down then they won’t make it home to their spouse and children so the passenger decides to throw someone else’s child overboard and manages to do so without being caught? Even though the passenger has no immediate biological responsibility to that child and avoids legal consequence, couldn’t we still reasonably say that this passenger ought not to have murdered someone else’s child rather than throw a few chairs into the water instead? Of course we can. But, in condemning this behavior I think we appeal to a higher ought than naturalistic evolution affords us.
The same process of evolution that yielded our ability to empathize also instilled in us a will to survive. When faced with a situation in which two genetic predispositions are in opposition to one another, our DNA code doesn’t include a rule book that points us toward an objective truth as to which impulse we ought to submit to. When that Tulsa police woman killed an unarmed black man and claimed that she did so because the deceased did not obey her commands so she feared for her life, BLM folks were incredulous. They said officers get paid to handle such situations so she ought to have used other means to take control of her fears and the situation without someone being killed unnecessarily. The officer’s appeal to survival instincts did not vindicate her in the court of public opinion; BLM protesters were convinced she yielded to the wrong impulse. Whereas nature does not micromanage us toward clear cut moral truths, the Black Lives Matter crowd on the other hand demands clarity as to how black folks ought to be valued and treated. Moreover, in cases like the Tulsa shooting, they expect people to rise above their primal programming in order to align with the moral fact that black lives have value.
The other reason I don’t believe the evolutionist’s explanation of morality fits the bill for the claims #BLMites are making rests in the fact that BLM is thoroughly altruistic. It could be that random mutation has endowed us with a sense of herd morality that has been instrumental in our survival. If that is the case then BLMians are writing moral checks that evolution can’t cash. They want to attribute a blanket moral worth and obligation to all mankind. When we look at other species, however, you don’t see a universal brotherhood among badgers, condors, or whatever other species. If a lion has claimed a certain area then another lion comes in trying to pick off a few wildebeests or procreate with the lioness, the two lions don’t dap each other up as lion brothers and share the wealth. They fight to the death and winner takes all.
That isn’t to say that we don’t see altruistic behavior for the sake of the pack among the animal kingdom. We certainly do. But the evolutionary playbook hasn’t left us with guidelines as to who we should consider as being part of our “herd”. It certainly doesn’t direct us to a species-wide conception of who we ought to consider as “us” and “them”. As a matter of fact, when you think of it we each find ourselves being part of a number of herds. For example, I am a Christian, a Coleman, an African-American, American, human, father, social worker, heterosexual, Virginian, Madden player, and so on. Nature does not impress upon me how I ought to prioritize the various aspects of who I am in defining what my herd is.
As an African-American, people of my herd are traditionally pro-Democrat and the Democrat agenda is decidedly pro-abortion. As a human being that believes unborn children are also human beings, people of my humankind herd may feel compelled to vote for Republicans who profess they will end abortion. Now, should a person like myself identify with the human herd and be at odds with my African-American herd or align with my African-American herd at the expense of unborn members of my human herd, about a third of which are children of African-Americans?
The moral implications of who I decide to consider as being my herd may be profound but at the end of the day nature has left it up to me (actually, if nature is all that exists, then none of my thoughts, actions, belief, or behaviors are “up to me”). Furthermore, as I alluded to earlier, there is no reason to think that nature forces me to value those of other herds as I do my own. Think about how language is used to devalue people who belong to herds different than ours. During war time it is common for soldiers to develop slang terms as a subtle way of dehumanizing their enemies and promoting a sense of “otherness” in order to cope with the reality that they are tasked with taking lives; commies, japs, insurgents, and other worse terms I could list. The #BLMers are saying we should cast all of that aside.
Humanity is our herd and our moral obligations to one another ought to be interpreted through that lens. This is a very radical claim if the grounding for such altruism is the limited sort of “herdism” that we tend to find as the moral code of choice among creatures less evolved than ourselves. If the herd of white Americans chose to disagree with the #BLM herd concerning the equal value of black lives, on what grounds could a #BLMer say that people of the white herd were wrong and they ought to esteem other herds as they do their own? I see no leverage for #BLM there. As a matter of fact, the herd mentality is partly how we got in this mess in the first place. As this country was getting off the ground, Europeans used the fact of Africans not being of the white and/or Christian herd as justification for considering them of a lesser sort and thus enslavable for the survival of the white collective. In evolutionary terms, these enslavers were in step with the kind of morality we would expect of highly evolved herdists. According to the Law of Christ, these thoughts and actions were objectively morally wrong!
Granted, there is no reason to think we can’t transcend this base level of morality in the manner that BLM suggests. And yet, there is also no reason to think that we are morally obligated to do so either. It seems to me that if the atheist wants to locate the type of morality BLM calls for in the evolutionary process then once again we have come up short.
Shortchanging Human Value
I recognize that it is quite impossible to tackle the entire field of ethics in one article. Many of the points I raised, along with issues left unraised, allow for a number of questions and items of discussion about what I’ve shared. My goal here wasn’t to give a comprehensive debunking of all naturalistic ethical theories but rather to introduce an idea−namely this. The concepts of intrinsic human value and moral obligations which flow from it, that were essential to the abolitionist and civil rights movements, do not translate well from their theistic leanings to the atheistic framework that seems to be gaining steam in the black community. At best, I think atheists can attempt to transliterate the objective moral claims about us that #BMLers borrow from our forefathers into less lofty notions which fit more snugly in a world without God. For example, they may want to modify #BLM to #BlackLivesMatterToMe (#BLMTM), #PleaseAdoptOurOpinionThatBlackLivesMatter (#PAOOTBLM), or something like that. Neither of those slogans seem to carry the same weight or have the same ring to them that #BlackLivesMatter does though. In my follow up article I will offer a few reasons why the Christian worldview has the resources within it to affirm the intrinsic human worth and moral oughts that #BLMers propound.
The Argument from #BlackLivesMatter Against Naturalism (or A#BLMAN):
1. If naturalism is true then there are no such things as objective intrinsic human worth and moral duties that follow from objective intrinsic human worth. 2. The expression “#BlackLivesMatter” conveys an objective moral fact that entails moral duties. 3. Therefore, naturalism is false.
Note: In using the term atheism in this article I am referring to something along the lines of naturalism.