Liquid Atheism

Pearls Before Swine, by Stephan Pastis

The morality debate between Atheists and Theists is ongoing.  Whether Atheists can act in a moral manner is not in question.  Most Atheists more often than not, are relatively honest, caring people with genuine concern for their fellow-man.  I have always been intrigued by the Atheist’s claim that atheism can somehow produce an objective moral code which applies to all people at all times; and that anyone violating the moral code is morally wrong for doing so.

I am unconvinced by the Atheist’s claim that there can exist an objective morality which can be directly deduced from atheism’s necessary framework of philosophical naturalism.  What eventually emerges is some form of relativism, individual or cultural.  Both of which have no solid immovable standard.

Individual relativism, or personal ethics, is not really morality at all.  One’s moral convictions are limited only by the will power and sensibilities of the individual.  There is nothing binding on the individual to keep his or her own standards.  If someone is handcuffed, but has access to the key, can they be said to be truly bound?  When their personal set of standards gets in the way, they can be adjusted or removed at will.  As Rat demonstrates in the above comic strip, if we are in control of the standard, it is not truly binding.  There is no objectivity in personal ethics, they are binding on no one but the individual.  Standards can be lowered, actions can be justified, morality is fluid.

Cultural relativism is nothing more than a collection of individuals coming together to agree on a moral code.  Having others involved in the moral decision-making does not create an objectivity.  Essentially a vote is taken.  The group decides which behaviors are morally permissible and which are not.  Decided morally impermissible behaviors are penalized by the group.  Murders, for example, are deemed morally impermissible and a punishment is imposed.  But what is good or bad can be adjusted whenever based on the whims of the populace, making no behavior either good or bad, but desirable or undesirable under the current conditions.

We can see that group morality is also fluid as evidenced by the creating and repealing of new laws each and every year.  What is legal and permissible one year, is not in te next.  What has been determined to be impermissible last year, is not today.  However, the Atheist will proclaim “but not everything that is immoral is illegal”.  I agree.  Unfortunately, since not everyone will agree which behaviors are both immoral and legal, the determination, in order to maintain objectivity, must be derived from outside the individual or group.  Some Atheist’s believe they have found this answer with an evolutionary explanation.

An evolutionary appeal to survival is akin to cultural relativism.  The ethical traits which best helped propagate the species were selected for and passed on to ensure group survival.  I have always disagreed with the conclusion that moral behavior–especially altruism–can be derived the drive to survive.  My own interests are my priority.  On natural selection it would seem that my interests should be secured by any means necessary in order to protect and expand my progeny.  In this respect, perhaps rape might be ideal to get as many of my descendants into the next generation as possible.  Robbing little old ladies (the weak and sick) might be the easiest way to get money easily, which buys food and other living essentials.

The “survival” method of deriving moral goodness also, I believe, equivocates the meanings of the word “good”.  Behaving in a way that aids in survival, even for the benefit of the group, is not a moral sense of the word good.  It is good in the same way some moves in a game of chess are good.  Some moves are more ideal to achieving an end goal than others.  Losing your Queen on your third move may be procedurally bad as far as hindering your chances of capturing your opponents King, but it’s not morally a bad move.  On naturalistic evolution, behaving morally is only procedurally good, it helps achieve a goal.

Morality is directly related to, and derived from value.  The reason certain behaviors are morally impermissible on (most forms of) theism is because people possess inherent value.  On philosophical naturalism, people are merely one living organism among millions of others on Earth, such as: the beetle, snake, mosquito, tulip, algae, or the flu virus.  Nothing in the Naturalist’s/Atheist’s worldview prescribes value.  Naturalism describes, theism prescribes.  The atheistic worldview has no mechanism to prevent one from adopting Rat‘s solution to his dilemma. The Atheist’s morality is fluid, bound only by himself, making semblance of objective morality illusory at best.


  1. Gosh, John….
    Where do I start?
    Do I point out all the places where Scripture describes, permits, endorses, and prescribes actions that are immoral by objective standards? Or do I leave that out?
    Do I explain to you why you are not describing objective morality, but subjective morality? Or leave semantics alone?
    Do I explain to you why Scriptural morality is relative? Or do I let that slide?
    Perhaps I should start by explaining why every single one of your objections to an evolutionary explanation of morality is shallow and simplistic?
    There is really nothing of substance at all in this post at all. Perhaps I’ll let you decide what you want me to tackle first, or whether you would rather just let these unfounded assertions stand on your ignorance alone.

    • Start with the first and we’ll work our way down your list.

    • I’m not in nearly as charitable mood as John…

      “Where do I start?
      Do I point out all the places where Scripture describes, permits, endorses, and prescribes actions that are immoral by objective standards?”

      First, bringing in Scripture is a red herring. It’s irrelevant to John’s point. Second, what objective standards are you talking about?

      “Do I explain to you why you are not describing objective morality, but subjective morality? Or leave semantics alone?”

      You think people don’t have inherent value? Or you think a person’s value is subjective?

      “Do I explain to you why Scriptural morality is relative? Or do I let that slide?”

      I would let it slide. As I said above, it’s a red herring.

      “Perhaps I should start by explaining why every single one of your objections to an evolutionary explanation of morality is shallow and simplistic?”

      Now here’s a good place to start. Why don’t you try demonstrating an evolutionary explanation for objective morality? But good with that. If you succeed it will be a first.

  2. I am willing to discuss the morality of the Bible on the Discussion page, not here as Dan does point out that the Bible is irrelevant to whether Atheism produces objective morality. But keep in mind George that by debating the real or apparent moral short commings of the Bible, does nothing to ground objective morality within the framework of naturalism.

    What in the mechanics of atheism prescribes objective morality?

    What prevents Atheists (from the naturalistic view) from moving the moral goal posts for personal advantage?

    I realize that I may have let the camel’s nose under the tent when I said “Naturalism describes, theism prescribes”, but the focus is on atheism.

    • If you claim that Christianity grounds objective morality, then I think scripture is entirely relevant. As you point out, when you make a claim like “Naturalism describes, theism prescribes”, you certainly made theist prescription an issue.
      I understand that talking about biblical moral shortcomings does nothing to ground objective morality for atheism, but it certainly shows that it is not a forgone conclusion in the competing worldview.
      If you wish to argue that this is a problem for atheism specifically, then you need to offer some reason to believe this issue is specific to my worldview.
      As I said to you on facebook, John, the definition of morality prevents anyone from being correct in saying something is “moral”. An atheist can say something is moral all he likes, as can a theist. The definition of morality certainly limits this in scope.

  3. Genesis 3:16, Genesis 16:1-2,Genesis 17:13, Genesis 19:8, Genesis 30:3-4, Genesis 30:9-10 Exodus 20:17,Exodus 21:1-4,Exodus 21:17,Exodus 21:20-21, Exodus 21:26-27, Exodus 31:15, Leviticus 19:20-22,Leviticus 20:9,Leviticus 20:13, Leviticus 20:16, Leviticus 20:27, Leviticus 25:44-46, Deuteronomy 5:21, Deuteronomy 7:1-2,Deuteronomy 15:17,Deuteronomy 20:14, Deuteronomy 20:16-18, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Deuteronomy 22:23-24,Deuteronomy 22:28-29,1 Samuel 15, John 18:10, 1 Corinthians 14:34. Colossians 3:22.

    That list took me about 20 minutes on Bible Gateway by searching for a few keywords. Let’s start there. I could find more if you like…..

    • That’s all well and good, George, but now in order to make your complaint valid, you must justify what part of the atheistic worldview dictates your citations as objectively bad. But if we’re going to contine this course, move it to the Discussion page. This is about the short comings of atheism, not Christianity or Judaism.

      Even if I were to grant for the sake of argument your citations were examples of objective moral evils, it does not show how atheism produces objectivity; only that the Bible records some people may have been wrong in their moral assessments.

      • Morality, in any sense that that word has meaning, makes these passages objectively bad. I also did my best to stick to direct commands either by God or those who were directly inspired by Him, so I’d like you to explain how that is compatible with the assessment that “the Bible records some people may have been wrong in their moral assessments.”
        Also, you ASKED me to start here. I was graciously willing to leave this issue be. If you in retrospect realize how bad a choice that was, I will gladly move right along to my next point on the list. Is that objection allowed, or would you like to start somewhere else?

  4. I can’t speak for all atheists, but I don’t aspire to objective morality. Nor do most atheists I know. Additionally, atheism as such is not a position on the subject of morality. If accepted, it excludes deity as the source of objective morality, but that’s all. Any of the various other competing philosophies are still fair game.

    I’ll finally add that even if you’re correct and a naturalist worldview is incapable of generating an objective morality, it doesn’t follow that methodological naturalism is false.

    • Key ~~ that’s cool, not every Atheist ascribes to objective morality, and even if atheism cannot account for objective morality, that fact alone does not falsify it.. But I think if atheism cannot address accurately the world we experience around us, it should cause us to examine whether it can compete as a viable worldview.

      When someone rapes a todler, then murders, dismembers and consumes parts of her body, we do not take that as a mere disagreement in personal ethics. Any worldview which dismisses such actions as disagreement is suspect.

      • Well, my position is that an objective morality is actually more difficult to square with observed reality but obviously that’s a big point of disagreement for us. I think that it’s a bit unfair to phrase your second point the way you do– a subjective morality doesn’t need to be ‘dismissive’ of horrifying transgressions, nor are supposedly objective moralities immune from endorsing them.

        It seems to me that you’re presenting a false dichotomy between deontological ‘objective’ morality and pure normative moral relativism. I also think that painting all subjective or contingent moral systems as being normative relativist is a conversation-stopper. Most critics of deontological moral claims are willing to represent those ideas on their own terms. If you aren’t willing to do the same for opposing views I don’t really see this conversation getting anywhere.

      • I’ll bite at your example here John. Apart from the sick and twisted individual who “rapes a todler, then murders, dismembers and consumes parts of her body”, and their obviously unstable mental state which may allow them to falsely justify their actions as moral or morally neutral (and certainly that justification, as wrong as it is, might be religiously expressed or not); who in particular or what society is going to consider this action “a disagreement in ethics”?
        Can you give me some solid examples here?
        Do you really know of a worldview that dismisses these actions as “mere disagreement”? I do too. Is this a defining characteristic of a naturalist worldview? Not even close. Could someone create misguided justifications for this concept within a naturalistic worldview? Sure they could. You just did! (Which is why I’m forever grateful that most Christians do not become atheists: Some people need to be told that rape, murder, and cannibalism is wrong. Some people cannot function without a subjective third party Lord to tell them what they ought to know.)
        In the same breath, could someone create misguided justifications for raping, murdering, burning at the stake, setting to the Rack, and any number of other horrific torturous things under a scriptural worldview? How about dehumanizing an entire race of people- could that be incorrectly justified under a theistic worldview?
        If people can incorrectly interpret facts and pervert the truth, why should that make naturalism suspect and not other worldviews?

        Now that we (hopefully) agree that any worldview can incorrectly interpret facts and create a sort of “false sense of morality” and that we ought not for self-evident reasons categorize or shoe-horn these ideas into a broad definition of morality, perhaps we can get down to the reasons why people exhibit moral behaviour in a naturalistic worldview.

        I’ll get to that in response to other comments here.

        • George, I am curious as to why you continue to not address the issues posed to atheists who posit objective morality, and make it about religion or some other tangential comment I made with another commenter.

          Are you ever going to ever answer the questions?

          From the naturalistic atheist worldview, what is the mechanism that dictates an objective morality?

          What in the naturalistic atheist worldview that prevents the Atheist from moving his moral goalposts?

        • John, are you really going to prevent me from addressing your counterarguments?
          I can’t be expected to let ridiculous assertions stand uncountered.
          I have taken my first steps toward directly addressing you below, just as I said I would at the end of the comment you deride as “off-topic”- and by “off-topic” you mean on topic to your comments but not what you want to discuss because you have no desire to defend your point of view.

          Read my last comment and stop trying to slip absurdities in that you don’t want to defend.

  5. Could I ask for a definition, here? What do you (anyone) MEAN by “objective morality?”

    Do you mean: Objective rules that do not ever change, from culture to culture and time to time, as it seems is being discussed here? Just to clarify…

    • I thought the definition was fairly universal. What is morally good and morally evil is true from time to time, from culture to culture. Whether a particular individual or group of individuals agree or not is irrelevant, because the right or wrong of an issue is defined by the object, not the subject involved.

      For example that the rape and murder of a person is wrong because rape and murder are wrong in and of themselves and not because John happens to think they are wrong.

    • Thanks for the definition, John. Would you agree with me, then, that the Bible contains examples of both objective morality (universal rules that never change) and temporal or subjective morality (rules that were for a particular time and place that, if they were implemented now, would be horrifyingly IM-moral)?

      For example: Stealing and rape are mentioned in the bible as wrong and we can all agree that they are always wrong. On the other hand, killing disrespectful children and killing off the babies of the enemy are mentioned as acceptable (required) by God – at least at that time and place – and yet we can all agree today that these behaviors are always wrong.

      There are, in the Bible, what we might call objective/universal morals and subjective/temporal rules. Agreed?

      • Not discussing the Bible on this post, last reminder. If you want to discuss the Bible’s morality id be happy to on the discussion page. This post is about atheism and whether objective morality can be derived from that worldview specifically.

  6. I do believe that there is an objective morality, but one that is predicated on purely subjective motives. It is true that I do not think that there is a cosmic universal objective morality which dictates how one should act. However, I do believe that the only coherent approach to morality in a way that is substantive is to frame morality in terms of something that seems universally recognizable as beneficial. Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape chooses to set an objective morality in terms of human flourishing. While I cannot comment too much on his approach, as he keeps it fairly broad in his book, I like to think of setting morality in terms of man’s inherent fundamental rights of self (i.e. the right to life, the right to freedom of choice, etc.). While it is certainly true that there will be disagreements in this system (which is actually true with respect to every system), as I said, the only meaningful way to talk about morality is for it to be objective (which you readily recognize). Moreover, one (atheists, in general) should be able to recognize that this objective morality does not exist outside of man’s presence. Rather, morality is wholly contingent on our existence and, thusly, it is only feasible that morality be framed in such way that it would help better our species to the best of our abilities.

    • “I like to think of setting morality in terms of man’s inherent fundamental rights of self (i.e. the right to life, the right to freedom of choice,”

      On atheism, how is this arrived at? For example, why do cows or mosquitoes not enjoy these fundamental rights? I realize that sounds like a silly question. But on naturalism, matter is matter. We are animated matter, but matter none the less.

      I understand that morality does not exist outside our concept of it. But then that doesn’t really tell us anything except that we think awfully highly of ourselves. On naturalism, why do we prosecute a human who murders their spouse, but not a praying mantis, without special pleading or appealing to arbitrary concepts like “because it’s us”?

      On naturalistic atheism, why are we valuable, and how can you label anything good and evil without mere appeal to preference?

      • Dan Trabue says:

        Another question, John: Do you agree with the notion that there are some objective moral goods that are self-evident, as Jefferson and the founders of this country said? And that, by self-evident, it suffices to say that these are “obviously” good just because they are obviously good?

        • Don’t know. Actually, I’m going to chalk this up to irrelevant or off topic. This is about Atheism and morality, not Thomas Jefferson.

        • “Off topic?” The topic is, as you just defined it, “atheism and morality.” IF at least some truths are self-evident, then they morality is, at least at times, self-evident – meaning, self-evident to EVERYONE, don’t you think?

          If it is obviously and self-evidently true that it is wrong to take someone’s innocent life, to take something from another that does not belong to you, to rape or beat someone… if these truths/morals are self-evident, then is that NOT an objective morality?

          You said…

          I am unconvinced by the Atheist’s claim that there can exist an objective morality which can be directly deduced from atheism’s necessary framework of philosophical naturalism. What eventually emerges is some form of relativism, individual or cultural.

          It appears to me that Jefferson and Natural Law advocates have always advocated an “objective morality” is self-evident with at least some behaviors, beyond any individual or cultural relativism. That seems pertinent to the question to me.


      • I realize that this proposition is anthropocentric in nature, but I don’t really see why this is a problem, especially considering that morality as dictated by Scripture is strictly anthropocentric. Even if we speak biologically, why should I be so concerned about other species? Yes, empathy can allow me to treat other species more charitably, but cows are just so yummy.

        Is “because it’s us” really all that arbitrary? Don’t we have an invested interest in securing the propagation of our species and thus formulating abstract concepts in order to ensure this propagation? We are valuable simply because we value ourselves, nothing more.

        • I would disagree that the Biblical view of morality is anthropocentric. We can conclude that only if we know it its authorship was not superintended by God.

          But “We are valuable simply because we value ourselves” is relativism. There is no overarching value in us, other than from our perspective, means there is no inherent value in us.

        • “But “We are valuable simply because we value ourselves” is relativism. There is no overarching value in us, other than from our perspective, means there is no inherent value in us.”

          Relativism? Speciel Relativism? (Google tells me that’s not a term. Can I coin that here and now? You’re all witness to history!) Honestly, I still don’t see a reason why speciel relativism would be a problem for you, John. Biologically it makes sense. I’m not even purporting evolutionary factors into the origins of morals (I think that’s a whole other discussion). I know there’s a stigma associated with relativism, but this isn’t relativism as one usually thinks of it. While it may be relativism with respect to every other animal population, every human is still subject to the same standard, thus giving us an objective morality.

      • John brings up the heart of the matter with his criticism. What does give value under a naturalistic worldview?
        First, I hope when John phrases his criticism he is not suggesting that matter is not matter. I have an “atheist debunking” buddy who would say to deny otherwise is very “atheistic” of you. Matter is matter, and in a sense all matter has value from a purely self-evident philosophical perspective.
        But what gives any specific matter more value than other matter? Should we value animate matter over inanimate matter? Should we value a person more than a rock, or a child more than a dandelion?

        Value, if we can be honest, is subjective, regardless of what worldview we look at. If you are a theist, I suppose that value is instilled in an object relative to the value God gives something. I guess that humans have more value by this measure because God favored them in His creation. Is that fair, John? If God instils value in something, that is far from objective. It is a measure of how much God favours it, not inherent in and of itself.
        In naturalism, then, value is also subjective-perhaps less so because a naturalist would deny that we have an absolute Lordship over the totality of creation. As a social species, and by that very definition, it is self-evident that we will value others of our species. I’m unable to see how anyone might argue against that.
        If things have value, I think morality cannot be far behind.

        • I suppose that value is instilled in an object relative to the value God gives something. I guess that humans have more value by this measure because God favored them in His creation.

          By “favored them,” do you mean because God created humanity in God’s image, a point which is not mentioned with all the other creations of God? I mean, all of creation is pronounced “very good” by God in the Genesis story, but humanity is unique in that they/we were created in God’s image, is that your point, George?

        • Biblically speaking, humans value does not come from God’s favor, but rather that they were created in his image. That is not subjective, so in that respect value is not relative on every worldview.

        • Fair enough, John. I will grant you that in Christianity, at least, humans have objective value.
          Is there any basis, then, for someone valuing their family dog over a dandelion? How about livestock over, say, a mouse? What gives those objects objectively higher value, if any surplus value at all?

        • And yes, John, I would like you to comment on how Christians instil subjective/objective value into animals and things that are not “created in His image”.
          Not fair? Not what we are talking about here?
          I’m trying to teach instead of preach. If you can answer those questions, I think you go a long way toward answering your own questions.

          Refusing to discuss morality and value in general terms because you only want this to be about the problems for atheism is not having a discussion.
          You might as well be a lawyer asking a defendant in an embezzlement trial “when did you stop beating your wife” and refusing to accept any answer that is not an exact date.

          • Actually, George, I have offered this discussion to take place on the discussion at least twice. I would like to keep the comments on this on the topic of atheism.

            So, again, if you want to have a discussion about morality through the lense of religion, pick it up on the discussion page.

        • I guess that offer only goes for George? I’ve tried to have a discussion on the discussion page, but nothing’s happening thus far. Of course, I understand time limitations, but so far, I’ve just asked two relatively simple clarifying questions which wouldn’t seem to take much time to answer…

          Just curious…

          • No, its for you too. I’m at work during the day, so I am limited to short answers from my phone. Then last night I was playing cards and didn’t have a chance to get back.

            I should be able to give things more attention tonight.

        • I apologize, then, for my impatience. Sorry.

  7. I agree that atheism does not provide a framework for morals – since it is only the rejection of claims for deities specifically and religion generally. Atheism does not provide a replacement for religion and everything that contains.

    Morals really come down to each person whether they freely admit to determining their own morals, derived from what they learned from their families and their society/culture generally – or whether they believe their morals are divine – which is just another cultural product that removes responsibility and ownership of the moral framework.

    What’s moral is generally what doesn’t evoke disgust – so morals are fairly emotional and subjective – and in many senses, not a useful thing since there is no rational or logical basis so there can be no absolute morals that everyone agrees to or assumes to be true.

    • You’ve just describe sociopathy. What a scary world we’d be living in if that were true.

      • first, most sociopaths are not violent – they are usually business leaders and CEOs, pilots and other people who work in life and death situations

        second, you cannot really like people much to not trust people to behave themselves in society

    • Random,
      I have some issues with your statement. I think I agree with your general point from the first paragraph, that atheism as a “belief” or starting point really has nothing to say about morality. It just says “there is no God”, and anything beyond that is not a requirement of identifying as an atheist. It is one facet of a larger worldview. What I think John is saying is that the worldview he is interested in is “naturalism”, or “monism”, where there need be explanations for phenomena strictly within a scientific, material filter. I agree with you that one could be an atheist and still believe in supernatural phenomena, or believe in an infinite amount of ideas so long as a personal God was not required.

      Beyond that observation, I think you end up all over the place. Though atheism does not inform your morality (how could it, really?), something necessarily should. If you can’t defend why you accept something as a fact, then really it is no fact at all. Murder is no different than giving a stranger a hug.
      The default position for most atheists is that morality is conventional, that it is agreed upon by society. I disagree with that assessment. I think that atheists are afraid to appeal to any objective moral standard because they feel it begs questions that are difficult to answer. Ironically, they stubbornly hold to an explanation of morality that poses more serious questions that are, I think, harder still to answer.
      This is not necessary. One can have a rich and elegant moral grounding without ever needing to invoke a supernatural explanation.

      For example, I don’t think any of us would agree that someone could, without regard for any objective truths, create any framework and call it “morality”. There are, by the mere definition of the word “moral”, things that must be true in order to give that term meaning. I cannot and would not allow anyone or any society to consider female circumcision moral, regardless of any “reasonable justification” they might give. To me, there is nothing “moral” about it. Same with infanticide, rape, child molestation, wonton murder, etc.
      What you seem to be saying, is that we ought to conflate the terms “culturally permissible” or “culturally endorsed” with the term “moral”. That is just plain wrong.

  8. No one’s biting on this angle, but I think, at least for some moral positions, one answer is that they are self-evident.

    It is obviously wrong to kill an innocent bystander. It is obviously wrong to harm a child. It is obviously wrong to pour toxins into the air or water. It is obviously wrong to take that which does not belong to you.

    And why are these self-evident? Because they cause harm to another, because your right to swing your fist ends at another’s nose. Natural law. And it would seem that anyone could observe these, regardless of religious affiliation or the lack, thereof.

    • Well, John…..
      I don’t really know what else to tell you, because I think I have made all the case that you required me to make within the confines of the limits of your discussion.
      You asked “what gives humans value in a naturalistic worldview?”. I answered that by telling you that by the very definition of a “social species”, members of your species must have value. You haven’t taken any steps to counter that fact.
      You asked “what gives anything value if everything is just ‘matter’ in a monist universe”, and I have told you that this value is given the same way that it is under a Theist system. You refuse to accept that, but it your refusal doesn’t make it untrue.

      I suspect, also, that you don’t want to discuss Dan’s “self-evident” argument because you know where it leads.
      If you pose the questions the way you have, you are essentially stating that you accept that value exists, and since you offer me no good reason to believe that general value is exclusive to the theist, we are not going to have to discuss that, since we both agree on this salient point. Where you do give specific value to something that is theist-specific, I have given you a reasonable naturalistic alternative.

      So, based on this discussion, I have entirely answered every question you posed. Unless you have reason to believe that general value in your worldview

      • Sorry,
        Last sentence should read:
        Unless you have reason to believe that general value in your worldview is only explained by theism, and if this is the case, you haven’t given me indication that you can explain why….

      • You of all people should know that whether some aspects of morality are “self evident” is an issue of epistemology. I am targeting the ontology of moral right and wrong. So I’m not avoiding it, just not looking for how we might know morality, I want to know about whether morality. See the difference?

        • So your entire argument is just a projection of the Naturalistic Fallacy onto an atheist worldview? That we cant get prescriptive from descriptive?
          There are a few issues with that. First, you assume that the knowledge of some facts ought to supersede the knowledge of other facts. (ex. : That the knowledge that all material objects are strictly matter should prescribe certain things that the knowledge that we are social species should not)
          You are describing a kind of hyper-naturalism, where one salient fact is emphasized at the expense of all others. To boot, you are assuming the fallacy holds in one respect but not in every respect. If one can get to “ought” from “is” with respect to the “all matter is equal”, one can get to “ought” from “is” with respect to social behaviour.

          I deny that one must use the naturalistic fallacy at all. If I can give you reason to believe that atheists can project value onto objects (which I have done in the specific case of other humans already, and based on this framework can extent to other objects as well) then there need be no reason to appeal to this fallacy in any proper sense. It is a fact that humans value other humans, and value other creatures and things that promote our flourishing and social structure, it is not that we “ought” to value those things. It is a fact. We don’t choose to value things based on the facts, it is a fact that we value things based on our genetics and personhood. Morality is not merely “ought” statements, it is not merely prescriptive, it is a description of those values essential to our species. That is why we talk about “moral facts” as opposed to “moral guidelines”. The “ought” only comes in when we talk about how someone “ought” to interpret moral facts. To claim that is a naturalistic fallacy seems as ridiculous as claiming that we can’t say that someone “ought” to believe the sky is blue merely because it “is” blue.

  9. I will add, for the sake of more fully filling out my reasoning/position, that I think some morality is self-evident for at least two reasons…

    1. Just observation – if you’ll excuse the circular reasoning, it seems self-evident that some values are self-evident. No one, that I know of, generally thinks it’s a good thing to cause harm to innocent people. Sociopaths, excluded.

    2. Biblical teaching – the Bible teaches us (confirming my observation) this, in Romans 2, among other places…

    Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness

    But that is just an aside, as this isn’t about Christian reasoning for morality, but atheist. I was just confirming for those of us who take the Bible seriously, that the Bible also confirms the notion that some moral values are self-evident, “written upon our hearts and consciences,” at least that’s how I understand it.

    • Unfortunately, you are (unintentionally ) answering the wrong question. Whether some behaviors are self evidently morally good or morally bad answers how we know right from wrong. The question is whether there is right or wrong that can be derived from the fabric of atheism/naturalism.

  10. I guess what I would say, John (and I think the Bible backs me on this, for what it’s worth) is that we ALL have some sense of right and wrong as a function of being human. That would include atheist humans and Christian humans.

    I think I heard George and others point out that “atheism” itself has no tenets in and of itself, outside a lack of belief in a god(s). It’s not an organized belief system. So, if that is the case, then I guess we could all agree that the single belief (there is no god) has no other tenets attached to it, including any beliefs about morality. So, maybe you’re right, as far as that goes. That is, “the single belief that there is no god is not offering anything beyond it, including questions on morality.”

    But can morality be “derived from the fabric of atheism/naturalism?” sounds like a bigger question. I guess it would depend on what we all mean by “the fabric of atheism/naturalism.”

    Care to define that?

    • I don’t accept that atheism is not a worldview with tenets. Atheism entails naturalism, which entails necessary understandings of the way they view the world.

      • Not to veer too far off topic, but I disagree with the statement that “Atheism entails naturalism”. It strongly correlates with naturalism, but the two are entirely independent. If one believes in ghosts, for example, must one necessarily believe in a “Creator God”? If someone believes in Karma, must one also ascribe to a deity of some kind? I don’t think supernaturalism necessitates theism, but the inverse is certainly true. I wonder, John, if you can’t see the fallacy in your assumption?

        • George, I know you have said before that you can see an atheist believing in ghosts or something. But I don’t see it. After all, all the reasons God is rejected should apply to ghosts, no?

          I fully admit that ‘atheism entails naturalism’ may be presumptious, but I don’t think it is a false or hasty presumption. I believe it is totally legitimate, (and not to take the convo here, but) unless you are working from the definition of atheism that I would classify as agnosticism. That may be the only way to mesh ‘atheism’ with non-philosophical naturalism.

        • I’m not going to say, John, that I believe that most atheists believe in supernatural phenomena. Certainly it is true that the atheists you discuss with here have never expressed any belief to that effect, and certainly you should know that I am not of that opinion myself. I just want to express to you that it is fallacious to claim that atheism must be predicated on naturalism. This is not the case at all, even though many of the strongest arguments against God do come from natural observation. Your assumption is based, I suppose, on the idea that all atheists arrive at the idea that God does not exist only by their philosophical naturalism. It seems as generally true and equally fallacious as the claim that Christians arrive at their faith by heredity.

          I know, for example, of a philosophically atheist worldview that accepts reincarnation! Though I caution you that I consider the whole thing pointless and philosophical masturbation, I can show you that it exists…..

  11. So, to help have a common starting point, what definition(s) is being used for atheist here? My definition is simply “one who does not believe in a god,” and that’s about it.

    And how about naturalism? Your definition(s)?

    Here’s the one from a philosophy website:

    Naturalism, commonly known as materialism, is a philosophical paradigm whereby everything can be explained in terms of natural causes. Physical matter is the only reality — everything can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.

  12. So, for anyone – naturalist (as defined above) or spiritual-ish (religious, God-believing) or anyone in between, I would think that some values are self-evident (written upon our conscience, to put it more poetically), because it is obvious to all that harming innocent people for no good reason is wrong – this seems to me to be a common human value, based upon objective reasons. Maybe I’m mistaken, it just seems reasonable to me.

    That is, one can see a child playing outside anywhere in the world, and seeing someone walk up to that child and start abusing, hitting, cutting, harming that child for no good reason, anyone in the world would object to such behavior because it is innately, obviously, objectively a wrong to do so to an innocent person.

    One need not be a theist in order to observe and believe this, it seems to me. Or, to put that in the form of a question: Why would someone need to be a theist in order to recognize that as objectively wrong?

    • I’m not suggesting that morality is not–for the most part–self evident. After all the law is written on mans heart, from the Christian perspective.

      But you are once again confusing if and how we can know with whether morality at all can be derived from a naturalistic worldview.

      • the naturalist wordview does give rise to morality – co-operation and working and playing well with others, being invested in other people’s success as your own, are all naturalist and evolutionary morals.

        people who co-operated got to stay in the group and had opportunities to pass their genes and memes down to successive generations

      • I’m sorry, John, I’m not sure that I understand.

        If naturalism is “a philosophical paradigm whereby everything can be explained in terms of natural causes,” then morality can be explained because it is a naturally observable. The naturalist sees a child being attacked and, observing that, reckons that this is wrong because the child did nothing to deserve being harmed, that there is no observable reason to justify this harm that is self-evidently wrong… I’m not sure how morality can’t be derived from that worldview.

        Are you suggesting that “self-evidence” is insufficient in the naturalist’s worldview to justify drawing a conclusion about the morality of a behavior? I’m just not understanding.

        • All that explains is how a naturalist would know to act moral, namely it is self evidently recognizable, not where the morality came from. I’m not saying naturalists don’t or can’t act moral unless they have an explanation of its origin. I just think its existence is unexplanable on their worldview.

          For example, if someones view was that pencil factories do not exist, we could say the existence of pencils are self evident because we all use them. But they could not explain where the pencils came from.

  13. Why are you insisting that morality has to ‘come from anywhere’ ?

    That presumes people can’t be moral on their own – which is a religious claim and not a reality.

    Rationality and reason are the basis for morality – and I invite you to review this most excellent site:

    and in particular – Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky

    • If objective standards of morals come from no-where, or do not exist, then you could not say anyone’s version of morality is false regardless of their outworkings.

      You and Dan seem to be having the same problem with differentiating the difference between: can atheists act morally, or recognize moral values? And can a naturalistic worldview account for the existence of objective moral standards?

      • If objective standards of morals come from no-where, or do not exist, then you could not say anyone’s version of morality is false regardless of their outworkings.

        It seems to me that the problem we’re having here is conflating the notion that morals “come” from nowhere with “objective standards come from no-where.”

        I’m guessing at least some naturalists might agree with the notion that morals need not “come” from someplace, but can still objectively have standards of morals.

      • I don’t think whether atheist can act morally is an issue, given that we are underrepresented in prison populations, given our demographic ratio in the mainstream population.

        what people think is moral is pretty much down to what triggers their feelings of disgust and that comes from being part of a culture, being raised a particular way and by what you come to understand as you age and experience the world.

        all of which is on top of that those people who were most willing to be cooperative and not engage in anti-social behaviours, were the ones who passed on their genes and memes.

        you seem to be insisting that there has to be an external source for human morals, but there really doesn’t have to be any source other than humans – especially when there’s no evidence to support any other source of morality – and as you’ve pointed out – the law of survival isn’t very moral.

        • The issue has never been whether an atheist can act morally.

          The rest of this comment is circular tautology.

          Yes, I do insist there is an external source for morality. Not only does it explain why you would feel a groups accepted behaviors as morally bad even when the group thinks it is good. It also would serve to unrestrict one’s ability to determine whether a certain behavior is actually morally wrong from just being a difference in personal sensibilities.

  14. re: “Why are you insisting that morality has to ‘come from anywhere’ ?”

    John, perhaps, if you’re limiting the discussion to “where did morality come from” it’s fair to say that naturalists often don’t have an opinion about where morality ultimately “came from,” any more than they might care where vision or hearing “came from,” as much as having opinions/theories about how to explain it.

    Perhaps it’s fair to say they don’t think “where does morality come from” is a question worth considering?

    But IF that is the case, do you think that means they don’t have opinions about how to explain morality and what might be a logical rationale for morality, as Mr Random says?

    Having no opinion as to where morality came from (if anywhere) is not the same as “…the Atheist’s claim that atheism can somehow produce an objective moral code which applies to all people at all times” (the purpose, I thought, of this post) – having no opinion about where morality came from does not mean they can’t support/produce an objective moral code, does it?

    • –Dan, I think you’re right on this point. Some naturalists have no opinion, but a lot of them do. And that was my purpose, to address those that do.

      However, when a worldview cannot explain important pieces of the world as we see, it should be accepted with caution, especially if aspects must be borrowed from a worldview which you oppose.

  15. Why must morals come from somewhere other than humans?

    • Here’s the thing which seems to escape Atheists on this issue. If morality is merely a human construct, it has a few implications.

      And morality would hold no authority. Other people wouldn’t really have the authority to tell me I had to abide by their standard. If it is merely human derived, then who are you to tell me my morality is bad, how would you know mine is bad? Based on yours…who cares what you think? If it is human derived.

      Humans could change what is good and bad. There could essentially be a vote. i e Now it is OK to discriminate because it benefits us. Not that I forsee murder being just called good, but there is nothing from stopping it.

      If the group of people decide on morality, then by very definition who ever opposes it is immoral. It sheds a whole new light on Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement. If there is nothing outside humans which determines what is right, then MLK was wrong, for example.

      Only when outside of humans is there the ability to determine someones actions are actually wrong, and not just preferentially wrong. It tells us what we should do even if we dont want to do it, or even when we wont benefit from it, even when it comes at a personal cost. If it is just in me, I can move the bar and do as I please.

      • actually, atheists and people able to make moral distinctions entirely understand that morality is relative, dependant on circumstances and culture.

        why do you think that we don’t fully know this?

        that’s why we say that morals are not absolute nor is there any moral code that everyone can agree to and recognize as moral.

        opposing a moral code doesn’t mean you’re immorial within the meaning of the code if you exceed the code’s requirment, it’s only immoral if it’s forbidden by the code

        and if the code itself is not sufficiently moral, then it’s not a bad thing to stand against it.

        • Who within the culture gets to decide what is morally good and what is morally bad, and why?

          Also, moral decisions based on circumstance is not relativism, and the concept of a dilemma presupposes real right and wrong rather than preference.

      • and people do move the bar all the time – we judge ourselves by our intention and other people by the outcome of their actions without consideration of their intention

        and until it can be established that there is something outside of humans to assert a code, then it’s just people making up a code and saying god said so

        but at least, I set my own code and you can call me on it and hold me accountable to it

        whereas, people who say their code is from god – that can’t be confirmed or denied and there’s no holding them to account for it, because hey, god’s forgiving – and that’s totally moving the bar and not being accountable to any code at all

  16. rautakyy says:

    John Barron Jr wrote: “However, when a worldview cannot explain important pieces of the world as we see, it should be accepted with caution, especially if aspects must be borrowed from a worldview which you oppose.” I agree whith this to a certain point. It describes justly how religions hold no plausible explanations for the basis of morals. There is no religion that can explain the world in a trustworthy method. Naturalistic worldview comes closest to the reality we are facing.

    All religions are based on the naturalistic knowledge. They have spiritualistic explanations to fill in the gaps of lacking information and especially the really old religions are having problems today as people are learning more and more about the naturalistic explanations, that are gradually filling in the gaps. That is why these explanations are transferred to the group of metaphors. Or simply forgotten.

    Culture developes, and as such old moral assesments are changing. Within cultural morals of some christian sects it is today accepted women as priests, while slaery is no longer accepted in any christian sect alltough it was defended by the bible by very religious conservative men for generations. This chance is parallel to changing world view, like accepting the world as round, the world to rotate the sun, the theory of evolution etc. Naturalistic evolution gives many reasons for what we humans call morals. As a social species it is not in our interrest simply to run our individualistic interrests. If that was the case in nature, how could any animals act as flocks, herds or familygroups. We judge cruelty, when it is unnecessary, but yet all cultures wellcome cruelty, when it is seen as necessary. There is no need for supernatural explanation to something as natural as morals.

    In cultural terms in biblical times it was not immoral to own slaves, but as the slave owners of them days knew, it was harmfull to the slaves, it was wrong according to “objective moralism”. Even if the slave owners could suggest to themselves that it was OK because a god had given specific rules how to conduct whith the slaves and even if they thought that the slaves were better of as property and not as free people, the objective morality comes from how the slaves percieved the situation. It is as whith the Nürnberg trials, not about wether the holocaust was legal, nor about did a particular god deny the right to kill all the jews, but how much harm it caused to the jews. You have to remember it also caused harm to the germans, in that their own culture was turning into a more violent and intolerant situtation to the individuals. So, in naturalistic terms the unhealthy situation, where a society starts to destroy its own members is harmfull to the whole of the society also.

    The thing is. Atheism is not a religion, but a natural conclusion from naturalistic knowledge. Therefore atheism in itself is not a system of morals, but most atheists as most human beings in the world regardles of their religious backround derive morals from cultural inheritance and the “natural” ethics of what harm is caused by our action or inaction. People in general do not do good out of the hope of reward in the afterlife, nor do the leave the evil thing undone because of fear of punishment in the afterlife. Nor should they. I have written this same thing so many times under different discussions here, that frankly I am getting a bit bored. It is not that difficult.

  17. This conversation is getting convoluted.
    What John is saying is that morality needs to be explainable in naturalistic terms, needs to have some binding authority that sits outside individuals and societies. I agree entirely. If there is nothing objective at all to morality- if it is merely a convention by popularity, or authority, or taste-then there really is no reason to believe that homosexuality is moral, or killing is immoral, or picking dandelions in a public park is amoral. If we cannot explain how morality might be objective, then the Christian who bombs abortion clinics is righteous, the Muslim who straps a suicide bomb on and kills 15 soldiers is a martyr, the atheist who donates to several causes and volunteers their time to better their community is a morally bereft heathen. If there is no objective frame for morality then their is no reason to believe that anyone’s morality is superior to anyone else’s. If one act cannot be known to be morally better than any other act, then morality is really quite meaningless.

    John wants this to be a problem because he thinks that you cannot get to objective morality without appealing to God, and therefor the fact that we can be certain that some things are wrong must be slam dunk proof that God exists. He still refuses to say what is wrong with any of the explanations I gave several days ago, which I guess shows that he really does not want to consider how atheists might explain why morality exists, just continue to assert that we don’t have an answer and move right along.

    Good for him. I’m glad he will not address my comments explaining the evolutionary nexus of morality, it tells me that he doesn’t have an answer- he just wants to continue asserting his thesis while all the evidence to the contrary sits right there unanswered. All the while he can look like the smart one for confusing people as to his point.

    Keep up the good work! If you ever feel like actually discussing the issue, let me know…….

    • Seeing as how most comments come in while I’m working, those that I would like to address with more than a few lines I put off until I have time. Unfortunately the part of my memory which is supposed to remind me to do things doesn’t work as well as I’d like. I easily forget “to do” lists. Please be charitable and remind me rather than snidely speculating that I am avoiding a discussion. Like now, I am not home and I’m responding on my phone. When I get home I have a wake to go to and then out with a friend. There is a good chance George that I might not get to it tonight. I’m not avoiding, just have things to do. If I had my druthers I’d be in front of a computer all day talking about all this crap. Ease up.

    • Well, time has passed and I dont mind picking up the issue George. So which of your comments did you want to discuss. If I forget to reread the comments when I get home, they will easily pass out of my memory, so thank Dan for bringing this up again.

      Do you really thing I wont address you?

      So summarize your contentions and we’ll have at it.

      • Alright,
        To rejoin the conversation, I’ll start with why I believe morality exists.
        Ultimately, we are a social species. I think this is where Dan is going with his “self-evident” angle. I think science does a good job of explaining the evolutionary advantages of social species, as well as defining those characteristics that define this behavior. It is, I think, fair to say that there are behaviours common to all social species, other bahaviours that are common to most, and others still that are common to only a few or specific to one. If these behaviours are necessary in the general sense to be considered a social species, then it can be said that it is the case that wanton killing within your social group is wrong, for example. Stealing, too, is a behaviour that is wrong among social species that by definition depend on the sharing of resources for survival.
        My question, I guess, is why do we assume morality to be prescriptive at all? Does that not imply that we consider morality a question of judgment? That there is something inherently subjective about morality? To imply that we ought to think murder is wrong makes the case that there is some sense in which murder might be right.

        To ask someone for an explanation for the prescriptive sense of morality seems to me to be asking them to argue for objective moral values by affirming the subjective nature of morality- no mean feat.
        So let’s start at the beginning. In what sense can we devise “ought” statements if we affirm that there is a static “right” and “wrong”- that there exist moral facts?

        • George, I just have a hard time with the “evolutionary/human flourishing” angle on morality. It turns “right” and “wrong” decisions into utility decisions from moral ones. Just as I said elsewhere, on evolution, the decisions are only good and bad in the same way playing the “right” or “wrong” cards in setback. The decisions are not morally right or wrong, they are only right or wrong in so fars as they achieve or not a specific goal.

          I think if morality were not perscriptive, right and wrong are determined by the strong. They’d be arbitrary. That is not to say that people would just decide murder is good. But there is nothing from stopping it. But I think that even if people could not necessarily agree on how a particular value is manifested, they do agree on principles.

          For example, broadly speaking, pro-life and pro-choice advocates both agree that it is morally wrong to take the life of an innocent human being. They just disagree who qualifies as an innocent human being. People agree that it is morally wrong to take something that belongs to another without proper justification, they just disagree on what consititutes proper justification.

          But further, I think one’s conscience speaks to the universality of morality, that it is not merely socially constructed. For example, if you and I were stranded on a deserted island with a couple beautiful women, apart from society, apart from laws and authorities, could you make yourself feel morally good about raping the women? Probably not. But why not? There is every benefit of flourishing. Your genes get passed on, your line survives, etc. All the advantages and no consequence. But your conscience should prohibit the action.

          Additionally, do you ever think it is good to violate your conscience? NOT have you ever violated it, or justified violating it. But have you ever thought it was the right thing to do?

  18. Here’s a friendly reminder, for both these comments and the “discussion” page comments. I understand busy and having a hard time getting back to an old conversation, but in both conversations, I’d like to see more conversations still. As you have time and strength…

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