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.

 

Comments:

#1 Ophelia Benson on Saturday April 18, 2009 at 11:02am

“It must be a great embarrassment for Christians every time they divide over some major moral issue of the day.”

You would think so, wouldn’t you, and yet it doesn’t seem to be. Rationalization seems to kick in, in the guise of the No true Scotsman fallacy. Those other people are Not True Christians; end of story, end of reflection, end of embarrassment.

Though that probably doesn’t apply very well to liberal Christians. Maybe one definition of a liberal Christian is ‘a Christian acquainted with embarrassment.’

#2 fausinator on Saturday April 18, 2009 at 5:11pm

Any behavior that is truly moral is not based on religious faith: act this way because God said so, but rather it is based upon compassion, fairness and societal benefit.  The problem is getting a Christian to see that “Christian” values are simply logical values, not necessarily Christian.
Keeping the Sabbath holy is not a moral issue, it is done out of obedience to a God who will smite you if you don’t. 
Not stealing is a moral issue, not because God said so, but because it is not nice and has a negative impact upon society.
The problem is in getting Christians to see that these the humanistic values that they abide by have real reasons, and they make just as much sense without a God looking over your shoulder.

#3 Colin (Guest) on Sunday April 19, 2009 at 8:47am

I think the more relevant issue (for Christians) is whether we have a REASON to behave morally, which can be distinguished from AGREEING on moral questions.  Many take a heavily epistemological stance on ethics, and would reply to your challenge with “We may not agree on the finer points, but at least we have a reason to try and act morally!  We are to be judged by the Ultimate Lawgiver!”

It is then up to the atheist to try and (a) come up with a meta-ethical foundation for their morality that can satisfy the believer (difficult) or (b) convince the believer that such a foundation isn’t necessary; i.e. we don’t need moral facts or truths to have a reason to abide by moral statements.

#4 PaulJ (Guest) on Sunday April 19, 2009 at 2:24pm

“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.”

Excellent points, giving the lie to the the idea of ultimate moral authority (or Ultimate Lawgiver as Colin says above).

#5 Richard Ball (Guest) on Monday April 20, 2009 at 8:45am

The problem is not behaving morally; the problem is why morals should exist at all in the midst of an uncreated, impersonal, mindless, uncaring, unfeeling universe.  The very concept of morality becomes an absurdity. Is it “immoral” to smash a rock, or a pumpkin?  Or for a cat to tease, torture, and kill a mouse? Why should humans think they are “better” or “more valuable”? Isn’t this just self-delusion—another twisted burp of mindless evolution?

The very concepts—morality, better, value—are incoherent without a personal intelligence behind the universe. At the very least, believing in a personal intelligent cause for the universe and us becomes a rationally-reached position which atheists should respect, if not long for, because of the coherence it gives to what it means to be human.

#6 PaulJ on Monday April 20, 2009 at 12:28pm

Richard:

“The very concepts—morality, better, value—are incoherent without a personal intelligence behind the universe.”

Not so. These concepts are coherent with personal intelligence within the universe (that is, us).

“At the very least, believing in a personal intelligent cause for the universe and us becomes a rationally-reached position which atheists should respect, if not long for, because of the coherence it gives to what it means to be human.”

As an atheist I do respect those that believe this, but I can’t respect the belief itself, because I don’t think it is “rationally-reached.” As for longing for it, wanting something to be true has no bearing on whether it actually is true.

#7 Richard Ball (Guest) on Monday April 20, 2009 at 2:06pm

“Not so. These concepts are coherent with personal intelligence within the universe (that is, us).”

Did morality (right, wrong, good, bad) exist prior to man, i.e.,  did it precede man, and was “discovered” by man, or did morality itself come into existence with man’s personal intelligence?

#8 Colin (Guest) on Monday April 20, 2009 at 6:01pm

@Richard: At least some of what we call morality existed ‘prior to man,’ if we accept that cooperation, empathy, etc were evolutionary mechanisms / selected for.  ‘Morals’ aren’t just philosophical ‘truths’ as religion might require - they are also informed by intuitions, which can be partly inherited and socialized.  If we can accept the idea that animals and indeed pre-language humanoids could behave ‘morally’ (even without having labels for it), then mankind did not ‘invent’ morality as you’re implying.  We invented the philosophical examination of it.

#9 PaulJ on Wednesday April 22, 2009 at 8:11am

“Did morality (right, wrong, good, bad) exist prior to man…”

Depends how you define “man” - where exactly in the evolutionary timeline you decide “man” appeared, as distinct from his “non-man” forbears. I would say that morality evolved simultaneously with man (which is what I understand by the word “coherent” in this context).

#10 Socrates, Jr. (Guest) on Thursday April 23, 2009 at 5:50am

“Not so. These concepts are coherent with personal intelligence within the universe (that is, us).”

How does personal intelligence exist?  The brain is a physical construct, so it seems that thoughts proceed from mechanical and/or indifferent physical laws rather than a “self.” Even if there is indeterminacy in physics, lack of predictability does not imply lack of causation.  Epicurus explained freedom by supposing that certain atoms “swerved.”  Now, why “swerving atoms” are apparently so common in the human brain or how they explain freedom any better than rational laws is unknown to me. If there is a mind, where does it exist and what is it made of?

#11 Socrates, Jr. (Guest) on Thursday April 23, 2009 at 5:55am

“‘Morals’ aren’t just philosophical ‘truths’ as religion might require - they are also informed by intuitions, which can be partly inherited and socialized.”

If a serial killer’s intuitions push him towards murder, is he behaving morally?  What about the Nazi or Communist whose intuitions have been formed by his society and his own inclinations (perhaps he is congenitally vicious)?

#12 PaulJ on Sunday May 17, 2009 at 12:35pm

Apologies for reviving an old thread, but…

“How does personal intelligence exist?  The brain is a physical construct, so it seems that thoughts proceed from mechanical and/or indifferent physical laws rather than a “self.“

...

If there is a mind, where does it exist and what is it made of?”

To the first question, yes. The “self” is a manifestation of highly developed thought processes. To the second, the mind is what the brain does. If the mind exists in any sense at all, it exists inside the skull. When the brain stops working, so does the mind.

#13 PaulJ on Sunday May 17, 2009 at 12:45pm

“If a serial killer’s intuitions push him towards murder, is he behaving morally?  What about the Nazi or Communist whose intuitions have been formed by his society and his own inclinations (perhaps he is congenitally vicious)?”

A serial killer is not behaving morally, in terms of morals formulated to perpetuate a social group. A member of one section of humanity may correctly believe he or she is following the moral guidance of that section of society, but if those parochial morals are at odds with the goals of society at large, then no, that behaviour is not moral.

The whole point of morals is that there’s no such thing as private morality.

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