Morality for Atheists

There is a longstanding debate about how atheists are moral.  It shouldn’t be an argument about whether or not atheists are moral, because of course, many atheists follow moral principles to which they are committed.  But there is a standing debate as to why.  As an atheist, you weren’t created for a purpose and you won’t be evaluated in the end.

12657829_963585900401513_4734572524383960592_oThis week, it was revealed that “celebrity atheist” Lawrence Krauss has been accused of sexual misconduct by students.  Krauss was a physics professor who has just resigned.  Of course we can point to any number of clergy and Christian leaders who have done the same if not that which is more shocking.

The issue though is not a matter of whether or not anyone can offend.  The question is whether or not anyone can offend consistently with their own worldview.  A Christian, by definition, is bound to the teachings of Christ, who condemns the exploitation of the vulnerable.  An atheist, conversely, commits herself to a worldview and ethic by choice rather than necessity.  The values to which she commits herself are self-selected and do not answer to an ultimate purpose or judgement.  So an atheist can consistently say that life has no value, whereas a Christian cannot.  An atheist can consistently say that one can establish relations of power with one’s peers in such a way that one’s peers are marginalized, whereas a Christian cannot.

Christians who violate the moral norms of Jesus’ teachings are failures.  The question is whether or not atheists who violate mainstream moral norms are actually failing at anything at all.


7 thoughts on “Morality for Atheists

  1. The above statements you’ve made are rather absurd if not disturbing

    Granted atheists abide themselves to a set of values they have accepted/selected but then you go on to insinuate that all atheists are nihilists (“An atheist can consistently say that life has no value”) and so you make the conclusion that this makes their values null and void.

    And – if I’ve well understood – you further suggest that atheists can establish relations of power with others in a way that they will be marginalized??

    I’m not sure how you came to those conclusions, but what I can tell you is… well it is all erroneous.

    Atheism is merely rejection of Gods and nothing more. It’s not so much a way of life but rather a result of something. Perhaps logic and rational thinking is what drives that person in everyday life and atheism fits into that outlook.

    So why does self-selected values present a problem for you, I am not sure. One chooses a code of conduct that makes sense to them. As David mentioned, even those following a specified religious doctrine will accept and reject specific teachings taught in their belief system. Some values are objective but only within a specified group of people (e.g. from country to country) while others are subjective. We see this everyday.

    This goes to show you that moral and ethical ideas stems from living and working together in large groups. Everyone has to contribute and abide by the rules to live within x community. This increased the chances of survival and ensures cohesion within the group. If you did not abide by those rules, then you were exiled or worse, killed.

    With regards to power and marginalizing groups of people…
    Society itself is about establishing relations of power and often a group of people will find themselves marginalized. That is how a person (or group of people) take power and keep control.
    This is especially true in religion.

    So it has nothing to do with being atheist, but rather about taking advantage of your position of power, influence & trust to get away with things. My personal opinion is that a person having great power tend to abuse it.

    Case in point… the clergy that have sexually abused children are in a position of trust and power. They saw opportunity and more than likely knew that the children would not say anything.

    This is also a good example of an attempt to oppress human nature gone horribly wrong. Sexual impulse is an innate part of being. It is instinct and need of survival (propagate the species) that pushes us to find a mate and reproduce. To oppress this is thus futile.

    1. Nadine,

      Thanks for chiming in. You seem to simply be reinforcing what I’ve said with a couple of your statements. You seem to grant that for the atheist, morality is some combination of self-selected values and cultural conformity. I agree. And that sets the atheist logically free to adopt positions that you yourself would consider horrible.

      If I lived in 1939 Nazi Germany and decided I would join the Third Reich and play a part in incarcerating and persecuting people groups that I disliked, that would be logically consistent if I did not have objective moral obligations. My culture would tell me that I was correct for doing so. In fact, I would be rewarded. And it would be logically for me to choose this value system, because I am materially rewarded, my immediate social circles benefit from gaining more power, and if I can achieve my goal of bringing the world under the dominion of Germany, I guarantee greater safety for myself and the people I care about.

      If I’m a Christian, none of that is logically consistent. That explicitly violates the ethical teachings of Jesus, which are objective because they are independent of my will or preference.

      Your assertion that it has to do with taking advantage of power is exactly right. And an atheist can choose that value in a culture where that value is favored and remain logically consistent. A Christian cannot do so with logical consistency, as is the case with Christians who have abused power. Your post is actually simply a rearticulation of the values I stated, but I’m not sure you realize the implications.

      1. Hello James,

        I know the so-called implication that you allude to : non-Christians are unable to judge for his/herself what makes for good morals and values. That because they don’t have to answer to God they are proned to do questionable things.

        Do you realize what you are saying? That we – as humans – are inherently immoral.
        You have no faith in humanity.

        I myself choose philosophy (ethics & epistemology) and I like to employ something similar to the Socratic method.

        And you have oversimplified the problems of Nazi Germany.
        Germany lost World War I and was resigned to sign the Treaty of Versailles which completely annihilated Germany’s economy to the point that the people were poor and going hungry (they had to finance repair of Europe and they just completed their last payment in 2010).
        Hitler’s promises of restoring the economy and to reconquer land lost to France gave people hope. You should listen to his speeches. He was an exceptional orator and his speeches were empowering.

        So there were several reasons why one would supported Hitler and his Nazi party.

        1. Nadine, you haven’t quite understood me. Your first sentence is a misrepresentation of what I’ve said. I haven’t said non-christians are “unable” to decide what they believe to be moral. Of course they can. They simply can’t logically obligate themselves to objective or universal morals.

          As to whether or not humans are inherently immoral, I think that’s patently obvious. We are. As Niebuhr said, sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” One would have to be fairly sheltered to fail to see humanity as fundamentally morally broken. Find a day in history in which there was no place on earth that war raged. Or again, around 15,000-20,000 children die a day, at least half from malnutrition, despite lavish abundance in the hands of some. Or again, peruse the statistics on domestic abuse. Or again, look even at your own posts here – you can’t peacefully disagree with me without being condescending. I have about as much faith in humanity as my eyesight allows for.

          You seem to imply that ethical philosophy can provide an objective foundation for morality. That’s not the case. See, I teach philosophy at a university. Nietzsche’s ethical philosophy lent itself to Naziism, Epicurus’ to hedonism, Machiavelli’s to consequentialism, and there’s no meta-ethic which makes one of these necessarily better than the rest. Sure, you can choose one, and then, as I’ve said, you can change your mind, because you’re not ethically obligated to it.

          Jesus teaches us to love others – neighbors and enemies alike – and if you defy that teaching you are breaking objective moral values. An atheist who doesn’t love is simply choosing not to. A Christian who doesn’t is failing.

  2. Let’s call it human nature.

    Despite their best intentions, Christian, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics…etc are all subject to human nature. Some people lie, steal, have times of crisis in their life. Some people do stupid things because they think they can get away with it.

    Morality is subjective. Some Christians may believe that pre-marital sex (or sex without marriage) is a sin but that doesn’t stop many Christians from doing so. On the other hand, there are no laws that state that pre-marital sex is against the law so there is nothing to prevent an atheist from it… unless of course they make that decision themselves.

    Ethics vary from religion to religion and region to region. Morality and laws have evolved over time. You may think the religious are more righteous, and maybe in some cases that is true.

    “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

    Us atheists are fine, worry about your own please 🙂

    1. Thanks, David. I certainly agree that brokenness is part of human nature. My observation is that Christians have a binding obligation to subdue that nature, which is not subjective. Jesus’ teachings are external to us, and thus objective, and they have not evolved, because they were captured in print almost 2000 years ago.

      An atheist’s moral principles, I would agree, are entirely subjective and can evolve. They are therefore less reliable.

      The reason this is something I can and should comment on as a Christian is that it is an objective matter. It’s ultimately the question “What is real?” not “What do I prefer?” that I am addressing.

      Thanks for the conversation.

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