The morality of Atheism

The debate over morality between Atheists and Theists is forever ongoing. I think Atheists mistakenly believe Theists claim they can’t act in a moral manner, but this isn’t the issue.  Most Atheists, in my experience, are relatively honest, caring people with genuine concern for their fellow man.  However, I have always been puzzled by the Atheist’s claim that a godless, non-transcendent worldview can somehow produce an objective ethical code which supplies moral prescriptions to persons who share different opinions on what is and isn’t moral.

Inevitably, what the Atheists argues for is some form of relativism, be it individual or cultural.  Either of which have no solid immovable standard.

Individual relativism, or personal ethics, isn’t really morality.  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. 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 or explained away, thus the ethos is fluid.

Culturally imposed ethics 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 objectivity.  The group decides which behaviors are morally permissible and which are not.  Decided morally impermissible behaviors are penalized by the group.  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 preferred or not under the current conditions.

Group morality is also fluid as evidenced by the creating and repealing of new laws by the thousands each and every year.  What is legal and permissible one year, is not in the 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.

However, an evolutionary appeal 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 from 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 — it works in the animal kingdom.  Robbing little old ladies (the weak and sick) might be the easiest way to get money easily, which buys food and other living essentials — it works in the animal kingdom.

Attributing good behaviors to the best chance of survival as a means of deriving moral goodness equivocates the meaning 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 and creating a handicap making capturing your opponents King more difficult, 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 theism is because human beings possess inherent value.  On philosophical naturalism, people are but one living organism among millions of others such as beetles, snakes, mosquitoes, tulips, algaes, 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 moving their own moral goal posts. The Atheist’s morality can be fluid, binding only himself voluntarily, making the objectivity of morality illusory at best.

Comments

  1. vincedeporter says:

    Well articulated article, as usual my friend.
    There are however some points I would like to to address…

    You say, “Inevitably, what the Atheists argues for is some form of relativism, be it individual or cultural. Either of which have no solid immovable standard.”
    This is not correct.
    If you have read part one of my series “Objective moral Values and God”, you would know that I believe in Objective Moral Values — I just argue in detail why this doesn’t originate with God.

    “Individual relativism, or personal ethics, isn’t really morality.”
    I tend to agree on that. Ditto for culturally imposed ethics.

    “What is legal and permissible one year, is not in the next.”
    May I point to the fact that Law is not synonym to morality. It uses moral values. It is the fruit of ethics unforced — hence, open to change, unlike objective moral values we universally share.

    “I have always disagreed with the conclusion that moral behavior – especially altruism – can be derived from the drive to survive.”
    I would be interested in hearing your argument here, because I can argue that point multiple ways, and will if you wish.

    I sense you are running a strawman with the idea of justified rape and the makings of social Darwinism. The vast majority of atheists do NOT promote Darwinian morality! In fact we abhor it. Evolution may be a fact, but the mechanisms of evolution are barbaric, and should never tempt us to go back there. It is NOT a moral reference, it is a survival one. We have evolved to better empathy and altruistic behavior. Actually we continue to evolve, as in my own short lifetime I have seen progress on slavery, racism, respect for women’s rights, second hand smoke, and other moral fine-tuning. It’s not perfect, but it moves forward, and never negates universal moral values.

    “Naturalism describes, theism prescribes.” True.
    That doesn’t mean it is not subjective.

    “The Atheist’s morality can be fluid, binding only himself voluntarily, making the objectivity of morality illusory at best.”
    Again, I will respectfully disagree.
    That some moral values fine-tune themselves does not mean that objective/universal moral values need change. Nothing is further from the truth.

    About moving the goalposts, I would suggest looking into the Biblical God’s record on this.
    • Morality was once “eye for eye”, then changed for “not returning evil for evil.”
    • Jealousy and vengeance are moral qualities for God, but sins for humankind — negating them as perfectly and universally objective.
    • Not lying is one of those objective moral values, however God uses lying men to accomplish his desires, as in the story of Jacob and Isaac. At best, this is inconsistent with the solid goalpost you are referring to.

    I could go on. I do appreciate your attempt to promote your God as the perfect embodiment of objective moral values, but the facts show he is not, and that moving the goalposts is a recurring practice of his.

    In comparison, our human evolution is slowly fine-tuning ethics, and although we still have a long way to go, in a short lifetime, we can see it happening before us. Also, that the atheist is voluntarily binding him/herself to the best possible moral value, says a lot about his/her character. I do not see this as an argument against atheism, quite the contrary.

    Thank you for letting me participate.

    • Vince

      In order for morality to be objective, that is the behavior itself and not just how it makes us feel, there needs to be a standard which is not our own making. How does this arise in a godless universe?

      FYI “eye for an eye” was not an OK for revenge, it was a standard of punishment. It meant a punishment for a wrong could not exceed the wrong. If you attacked me and put my eye out, the punishment for that couldnt exceed having your eye put out.

      I’m going to repost something I wrote a long time ago that deals with the seeming double standard of God’s actions and his commands.

  2. There seems to be a real hang up on this particular point for you John. Can I ask why? Is it just the need to understand? Are you confused by the literature written about this subject over the last 500 years? And no I am not asking in jest.

    There is a tendency in your posts on the subject to hammer home the same premise repeatedly. Many, if not all of these questions have been answered multiple times by multiple thinkers for quite some time. Consider Joseph Rowlands book from a couple of years ago. It tackles these very questions and arrives at different findings than you have. Daniel Dennett has spoken at length for 30 years on this very subject.

    My last question to you is, how is it that you find so many atheists for so long acting so nobly, so morally, without the murder, the rape etc? Where exactly did their inherent moral compass arise?

    • Nash

      I’m familiar with how Atheists attempt to objectify morality. It doesnt fly. It’s relative subjectivism called moral objectivism. Those and other atheists do a lot of equivocating.

      The Atheist’s moral compass is written on their heart by God whether they recognize Him as the source or not.

      • Kant would argue that your attempts at objectivity or the casting of the subjectivity stone are in vain. I think you have such a problem with the moral compass of atheism because we can have objective, evolution based moral compasses without the need for your god.

        We do not “need” to be told what to do. And to argue that our morality is written on our hearts by your god is, of course, impossible to prove. What it does, is it let’s you off the hook in reasoning our awesome behavior as compared to the horrid history, recent and otherwise of any subjective morality based on your belief system.

        I ask once again, how did hominids advance for 2.3 million years, without exposure to JC? Without your bible? How does humanity continue to flourish with other moral codes?

        And I might posit that if indeed your premise of heart stamping is a true belief, the logical extension automatically leads to the end of free will.

        Have you actually read Josephs or Dennetts work on the subject?

  3. vincedeporter says:

    I have to admit that my conversion was not influenced by science (I was a old earth creationist), nor was I on the net cleaning apostate information (because I feared it at the time).
    My conversion had for sole reason my Bible studying. The more in depth I went (with the intent to defend my faith), the more my cognitive dissonance buzzed. Something was very wrong about the character of my God.

    My first reaction was anger towards him — only then did I open to alternative explanations. I was 47… now 55.
    My main issue? God’s double standard Morality.

    So I admit this is a huge one for me too.

  4. “Inevitably, what the Atheists argues for is some form of relativism, be it individual or cultural. Either of which have no solid immovable standard.”

    In fairness, this is not true. I’ve heard atheists argue that objective morality is an evolutionary development.

    • T

      Right, they do argue that, but what they describe isnt an ought, its a how it is.

      I dont dispute they claim objectivity, its just that what they inevitabily describe isnt objective nor prescriptive.

  5. vincedeporter says:

    //In order for morality to be objective, that is the behavior itself and not just how it makes us feel, there needs to be a standard which is not our own making. How does this arise in a godless universe?//

    How does this arise in a Godly universe?

    May I respectfully point out that your statements are just that I fear — statements; and purely subjective ones.
    You build on the chosen presumption that this God exists at all. This is a premises you are drawn to, but cannot prove by any other means than statements like you make, then build on.
    It’s circular logic.

    Do you see my problem with that?

    • Vince, your point that statements are subjective is a good point. What, then, is ever objective? Let’s put that finding aside, since that leads us to phenomenology, semiotics, etc. We’d get to Derrida and Foucault, and just say everything ever published in a science journal is merely a continuation of interpretation in a semantic universe that consists solely of text.

      Rather, let’s take the content of propositions as either being true or false. Then we can talk about what objective morality would like in a theistic view.

  6. vincedeporter says:
  7. Oh hello there Vince. I guess we are continuing our conversation from your blog here. How are you doing today?

  8. I refute relativism in itself. It’s not true. If someone uses the statement “All truth is relative”. If that includes the statement then we know the statement cannot be trusted. If you don’t include the statement then you automatically disqualify your argument. To be absolutely true that there are no absolutes is a problem.

  9. vincedeporter says:

    My friends, my kids are calling! So I’ll be back soon. Love the discussion.
    Being a dad is my main thing, so off I go!

  10. John,

    By your definition, it is objective. You said,

    In order for morality to be objective, that is the behavior itself and not just how it makes us feel, there needs to be a standard which is not our own making. How does this arise in a godless universe?

    An evolutionary development is, by definition, not our own making.

    • No T, the “morality” that arises from evolution, outside ourselves, is not prescriptive. It merely describes tjat certain behaviors result in more desirable results. It doesnt tell me what I should do whether I feel like it or not.

  11. The way I respond to that argument, John, is pointing out that evolutionary developments are, also by definition, subject to change, thus disqualifying such a moral system from being labeled “objective.”

  12. John,

    What exactly is your definition of “prescriptive”?

  13. I also question your definition of “objective morality.” To me, it’s describing Moral Universalism, which merely states that certain ethics apply across the board in all cultures everywhere. Why couldn’t this be an evolutionary development?

    I hope you’re not arguing in favor of moral absolutism.

  14. I think by “prescriptive,” you mean to say that certain actions are simply wrong regardless if people recognize them as such or not. And if so, how do you measure something like that? Also, can you provide five actions that are objectively immoral, please.

    • Torturing children for fun, rape, murder, vandalism, are four. Do I need another?

      Evolution can produce good and bad in the same way chess strategies are good and bad. It is bad to give up your queen too early, but its not morally wrong. Evolution tells us what we should do if we’re trying to keep a deaired goal in mind. And thats only if the person cares about that goal. Wjat if I dont care about the overall species flourishment amd care only for myaelf.

  15. John,

    You don’t believe all forms of torture are objectively immoral? Otherwise why limit it to torturing children for fun? Anyway, I believe torturing anyone is objectively immoral. Who is right? And how do we measure it?

    We agree on rape and murder. But is it truly immoral to scratch “child molester” on the door of a child molester’s car if your intent is to let everyone know who their dealing with? I wouldn’t characterize that as immoral at all. Misguided, maybe. Immoral? No.

    How about theft? Is that immoral?

    You’re missing the point, John. Evolutionists believe these morals are ingrained into our very nature – as an evolutionary development. You believe these morals are ingrained into our nature – as an act of God. Either way, you may not follow them but you know they’re wrong.

    Regardless, how are such things measured?

    • I don’t know how to answer that I think that it might be possible to envision a scenario where torture might be acceptable

    • But on evolution they are not morals they are fluorishment strategies

    • TerranceH, if I could provide a direction for clarifying what objective morality is, it would be ontological. On an evolutionary account, we have merely a description of what has come to be: everything reduces to genes and culture. “Ought” is at most, illusory and meaningless. This is the fact-value split which has festered since Kant accelerated phenomenology.

      Ontologically, two major options are to go with moral platonism, or to say that in some way morals are real objects with being grounded in God. Then we get into Euthyphro dilemma, etc.

  16. The reasons an act is either good or bad shouldn’t matter. If an act is always good or always bad, reasons don’t matter. In your view, things are only good or bad because God says so. The atheist says things are only good or bad because they’re beneficial. One is from by God, the other from nature.

    • Then I wouldnt list torture ala carte. I would list it if it were for fun. I think motive is important when considering an action, because actions arent mechanics alone.

      Feeding a baby is good. Feeding a baby to fatten it up to eat it is bad.

  17. I don’t agree that torture is ever justified. But I do agree motive is important, precisely why I generally reject moral absolutism. Some acts may in fact always, in every case be wrong – like murder. But stealing? Not always immoral.

    Hmm. Feeding an emaciated baby to fatten it up is not wrong, is it?

  18. Who says murder is always wrong? A godless society might decide that is so, but another, who sees it as an easy way to profit, might disagree. If the latter society becomes dominant over all other godless societies, murder becomes the rule or an accepted method of gaining what one desires. This is not as outlandish a prospect as one might imagine given how very common murder for profit is with the world as it is. Those who do it, justify it or simply do not believe it is the least bit wrong for them to do it.

    Many, believers and non-believers alike, view murder as wrong largely because they grew out of a culture that did, most often because of the influence of religions. Others, because they don’t like the idea that they may be murdered if they didn’t align with all those who opposed murder.

    But the Christian does not dismiss the fact that God has declared murder to be a great wrong, and the Christian’s understanding of Christian teachings regarding loving his neighbor, compassion for the suffering of others, as well as likely an innate revulsion of the concept, join to inform his understanding. But without the already existing aspect of murder as immoral due to God’s so declaring it thus, that innate revulsion could be eliminated. It happens now with too great frequency.

  19. I’m aware of no free society where outright, cold-blooded murder is (or was) viewed as totally benign…

    Oh, wait, yes I am. The United States and every other country where elective abortion is legal…

  20. Terrance,

    I was speaking hypothetically, but the abortion angle is appropriate. For supporters, the morality of abortion is totally subjective, especially in light of all we know about human development. For the average Christian, abortion is seen for what it is (in 99% of the cases): the unjustified taking of a human life. This perspective existed well before modern technology confirmed what was mostly assumed by the average person.

    Morality is, for some, something one discovers, not decides. The unbeliever speaking of morality manifests the latter. The pro-abortion proponents show a segment deciding the morality of aborting a child. They want to abort, feel it is the best move for them, and went about creating out of whole cloth a truth reality with which they could sooth their guilt over aborting. So the abortion example is perfect for a discussion such as this.

  21. vincedeporter says:

    I’ve been reading. Interesting thread.

    I do argue that objective morals values MUST be Universal.

    I also contend that they are the direct result of a natural evolutionary process of societal hit and misses that have developed our common consciences toward a universal consensus. Hence, objective moral values are inherently rational.
    They are also inherently human, and pertain to the good functioning of our global society.

    The simple fact that a disregard for these universal moral values would lead to chaos is proof enough to me that God is not a player in these values. We atheists don’t need God(s) to “know and feel” objective moral values and abide by them.

    Saying that God has written his laws in our hearts is just a statement.
    A statement by men with subjective ideas of right and wrong (subjective like thinking it was morally okay to own other humans and use them as slaves at the time).
    Nothing provably more.

  22. “I also contend that they are the direct result of a natural evolutionary process of societal hit and misses that have developed our common consciences toward a universal consensus. “

    But this is just a fancier way of saying, “We made it up”. Thus, they would still be subjective and not objective at all. The consensus, however, merely shows that it has been agreed that particular behaviors are the most beneficial for the most people, but that doesn’t make them moral.

    You may claim that you don’t need God to know and feel objective moral values, but that’s no more than mere denial. The real question is how you would explain what makes what you call “morality” objective and not subjective.

    “A statement by men with subjective ideas of right and wrong (subjective like thinking it was morally okay to own other humans and use them as slaves at the time).”

    You’re confusing misinterpretations of Scripture, willful distortions of the true teachings of Scripture and/or a specific version of slavery that is wrongfully used to describes all forms or definitions of it, particularly if you are referring to Biblical references to slavery. In any case, no consensus on this issue, either, demands that anyone abide with your insistence that slavery is immoral.

  23. Vince, I am finding the converse of what you’ve said to be at least as valid, all else equal.

    To say that God wrote laws on hearts is a statement of weight equal to the statement saying evolution crafted morals through trial and error. Both boil down to just-so stories, if they are unsupported by moral (not material) evidence. Ought does not come from an is.

    If morals are objective, they would exist regardless of what we think of them. But evolution could have taken a different course, such that intelligence arose in some other animals, say lions, of whom the males kill the cubs of other lions. This race of sapient lions would think killing others’ cubs was right. Evolution seems to be a thing that produces subjective values that vary between populations.

    Objective morals only exist if an objective moral realm exists. Atheism does not supply that. Sartre knew this when he wrote of the absurdity of life.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The morality of Atheism (siftingreality.com) The debate over morality between Atheists and Theists is forever ongoing. I think Atheists mistakenly believe Theists claim they can’t act in a moral manner, but this isn’t the issue.  Most Atheists, in my experience, are relatively honest, caring people with genuine concern for their fellow man.  However, I have always been puzzled by the Atheist’s claim that a godless, non-transcendent worldview can somehow produce an objective ethical code which supplies moral prescriptions to persons who share different opinions on what is and isn’t moral. […]

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