Are Atheists Just Immoral Fools?

April 18, 2009

Religious people complain that atheists are immoral. That’s not new. Sure, many atheists disagree with religions on morality. But religious people disagree with each other on specific moral issues too.

Take Christianity for example. On any serious issue, from the 17th century question of equal legal standing for non-Christians to the 21st question of equal legal standing for homosexuals, Christians have disagreed amongst themselves on what is right. In fact, many atheists and many Christians have occasionally found common cause, advocating things like the emancipation of slaves, the vote for women, and civil rights. It must be a great embarrassment for Christians every time they divide over some major moral issue of the day. And they all appeal to their scripture, to their God, in defense of their chosen position. From the very beginnings of Christianity, Christians have explained their internal disagreement by accusing each other of ignorance of God, or willfull abandonment of God. Little wonder that they now impulsively fling the same accusations at atheists. Haven’t they learned anything?

When a Christian throws the immorality challenge at an atheist, the atheist may simply reply, "Upon what specific moral matter do all Christians agree, that atheists might be instructed from their example?" No matter how the Christian may reply, any example of moral unanimity offered will fail. Over the centuries Christian denominations have repeatedly divided and re-divided like evolving bacterial colonies on every specific moral issue. Even when all of Christianity infrequently arrives at some temporary consensus, it lasts one or two generations at most. The atheist might have to teach the Christian a lesson or two about the erratic history of Christian morality. The Christian will eventually appeal to his or her own denomination’s current stance on some moral question, only illustrating how Christianity as a whole has fragmented.

Eventually sensing the futility of that approach, a Christian may drop discussion of any specific moral issue and flee to the higher ground of general principles. "At least all Christians agree about loving and obeying God," the atheist is informed. Perhaps, the atheist can reply, but Christians as a whole show little capacity for actually fulfilling this principle. They can’t agree on either how to love God or how to obey God. Unable to satisfy such a general principle, and unable to inform atheists how to do it either, why do Christians turn around and fault atheists? Such Christians are hypocrites, and they should spend their time first helping fellow Christians with morality, since the need seems greatest there. If atheism is ignorant of God’s moral Law, so is Christianity. 

Ignorance of God’s moral Law cannot distinguish atheism apart from Christianity. That fact hardly deters the typical Christian, who still feels personally certain of their own moral convictions, and feels certain that God approves. Unable to appeal to the unimpressive history of Christian ethics as a whole, a Christian takes morality personally. After all, these are the same sort of Christians who have little trouble consigning other Christians to hell for disagreement with their own morality. Here we can identify that energy behind all that inter-denominational strife. On this personal level, feeling so voluntarily committed to obeying God (whatever one supposes that this God truly wants), a Christian can confront an atheist.

When a self-righteous Christian accuses an atheist of willfully rejecting God’s moral Law, the atheist should reply with curiosity how so important a thing as morality could be based on so frail a thing as the individual human will. So the atheist is supposed to be the one who personally choses a morality, but this Christian isn’t? The atheist is supposed to surrender to a big thing called Christianity, but this self-righteous Christian won’t? This Christian feels proud for personally deciding how to be a moral Christian, but the atheist can’t feel proud for also deciding how to be moral? Such self-righteous Christians are hypocrites, taking for themselves an unjustifiable liberty that they would deny to others. Again, these Christians might better spend their time instructing other self-righteous Christians.

In summary, an atheist confronted by the charge of immorality should first reply, "Why can’t Christianity know morality?" and then ask "Why don’t you worry about other Christians first?" The spectacle of individuals trying to decide for themselves what is right and wrong has been Christianity’s longtime theatrical production. Atheists may be assured that they join good company.