A Moral Atheist

Atom of Atheism - Unofficial Icon of AtheismIs there such a thing as a moral Atheist? The short answer is no, there truly isn’t nor can there be a truly moral Atheist. The phrase “Moral Atheist” is inherently wrong and impossible at its core.

The term is incorrect, but – despite the rantings of some theist “hardliners” – it is not an oxymoron. It is not an inherently self-contradictory term.

“Moral Atheist” is not linguistically similar to “Jumbo Shrimp,” “Unbiased Opinion,” “Idiot Savant,” or “Civil War.” It would require that Atheists be inherently immoral – a direct contradiction – for the phrase “Moral Atheist” to be an oxymoron. Such is not categorically the case with Atheists.

Atheists can be quite ethical; their behaviors may even fall into line with those set forth by moral codes. But such things do not make the Atheist a moral individual. Ethics stem from within the individual and, lacking any religion or belief in a higher authority than Man, Atheists lack the capacity for morality though at times their actions and beliefs can, and very often do, coincide with those of moral people. Any intersection between Atheists’ ethics and morality is largely either coincidental or based upon purely pragmatic concerns.

Please note that the above statement does not hold true for Buddhists. They have faith in a divine cosmos with Right and Wrong, but do not believe in a manifest Divine Presence.

Aside from the Buddhists though, if you show me an Atheist is believes in Right & Wrong beyond personal preference or cultural dictates, I’ll show you a person who – in the stillness of the night with no sounds save the beating of their pulse into their pillow – is an Agnostic. 😉

Atheists can only derive sanction or prohibition for their actions from within themselves and/or from the dictates of the society and culture that they live within. That – despite the ranting of Atheist and Anti-Theist “hardliners” – is not morality, not in any true or absolute sense of the word.

Atheists are normally very quick to either argue this point or dismiss it depending on their relative levels of anger at- v. loathing for the opinions of theists. That doesn’t change the facts of the argument though, nor its validity.

That’s fair and understandable, since many theists are equal quick to argue or dismiss any valid but unpleasant accusations made by Atheists against religion and the faithful.

It still remains though that ethics come from inside each person and morality is imposed from the outside. In the absence of faith in of the Divine, Atheists are left with only societal and/or cultural pressures for the imposition of outside control upon their behaviors. That is hardly morality in any sense of the word beyond the utterly shifting and pragmatic sense. Adherence to cultural mores and fear of reprisal from one’s society is not morality.

What Atheists are left with is Moral Relativism, a philosophy that claims that there is no absolute standard for proper behavior of Man. Moral Relativism holds that moral or ethical questions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths – instead being defined by values relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances or standards.

Given the shifting and inconsistent nature of societies, any pseudo-morality imposed by them would be an imperfect and fleeting thing at best. At worst, these societal mores and customs, passed off as morality, lead to horrendous mass behaviors ala Hitlers Nazi Germany, Stalins Five Year Plans, and Maos Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.

No, there is truly no such thing as a Moral Atheist – an ethical Atheist, yes and quite often even a good Atheist. Yet this is because they were raised within societies that developed under moral principles, not because of their own morality.

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30 Responses to “A Moral Atheist”

  1. zhann Says:

    Jonolan, while your argument has ‘some’ degree of logic to it, it is riddled with inconsistency.

    For starters, your assumption is that right and wrong stem from religion. This is an invalid assumption because, in fact, the opposite is true. Religion is created under a pretext of moral right and wrong. Before a religion is born, its creator has a set of right and wrong that they instill into the religion. So, this assumption falls appart because ‘morals’ presupose the religion in question.

    Next, you assume that there is no inherent ‘good’ or ‘evil’. I remember having this argument before, maybe even here, but inherent good and evil exist. Some are even instinctual, like a mothers caring for her young. This is an instinctual good that is hard to deny. I feel that this assumption also falls apart here, but this is an argument that can go on for eternity.

    By your definition, morals are a relative substance. What one religion considers moral will differ from another. This is fine, but the fact that you put it into a framework of religion falls apart further with the concept of a ‘presonal god’. It is hard to argue that two Catholics within the same congregation may have a different concept of morals, and they are stemming from the same faith. This too seems to break apart your theory that morals are religion based.

    Personally, I feel that morality is a relative term regardless. You will have a hard time finding two people with the exact same set of morals, be they christians, buddhists, muslims or atheists. A moral atheist, I would consider, conforms to the societal morals more than to a particular religion. Back in the day, religion may have been the pretext for the majority of morals, but in todays world Society and Law seem to be a more deciding factor. Hence, so long as the atheist obeys the laws, and doesn’t upset his neighbors, he is moral.

  2. jonolan Says:

    Zhann,

    Actually I don’t assume or believe that morality stems from religion. Religions grow – in best case scenarios at least – out of an understanding of Divinely created Right & Wrong.

    You see, I do believe in “inherent good or evil,'” and that morals are NOT relative. Ethics may well be, as well as “societal contracts,” but not morals.

    That was actually the point of this post. I hold that Atheists can be ethical but cannot be moral. This is not because they do not follow a religion per se, but because they do not accept a higher authority than man and his constructs as a creator and arbiter of Right and Wrong.

    …And, of course holding to a religion won’t make a person moral. It will only give them a chance to be so.

    “Back in the day, religion may have been the pretext for the majority of morals, but in todays world Society and Law seem to be a more deciding factor. Hence, so long as the atheist obeys the laws, and doesnt upset his neighbors, he is moral.”

    No. It just means that the Atheist isn’t going to get in trouble with his neighbors or his government. That’s hardly morality.

    By what you just described anyone who lives under Taliban rule is moral if he kills homosexuals, Jews, and/or other “undesirables.”

  3. Paul Wilson Says:

    I find it hard to except that an Atheists can be Moral on any level, religeous or otherwise.
    Thanks for your comment on my Blog Stingers Cave, I just grabbed your RSS feed. Look forward to reading more of you.
    Paul

  4. Zeno Says:

    “You see, I do believe in inherent good or evil, and that morals are NOT relative”

    How does this work then?

    If morals are absolute, and from God, then why did it take so long for these morals to be known across the world? Are there some children of the Lord less worthy to have these morals taught to them than others? If so, why?
    If not, then the idea of absolute morals as given to us via divinity has a large hole in it because then we are equally God’s children, but some were forced to live in sin for centuries or longer. Certainly, if God loves us all he’d not ignore those people who lived in China for generations upon generations while granting divinely inspired morality to those in the Middle East.
    Now, if it to be said that no individual religion has a monopoly on morality, then God has set about to give different amounts of morality to different groups and thus God either set these groups up to fail being completely moral, or God’s morality is relative to the group. Again, the quote, “You see, I do believe in inherent good or evil, and that morals are NOT relative” falls short.
    I’m not concerned with atheists in general since I have yet to be convinced that any religion has the market on morality cornered.
    So while Atheists may be immoral by your measure, I’m now interested to know through which means morality can be attained and completely observed.

  5. zhann Says:

    Jonolan, I think that we have a difference of opinion in our distinction between Morals and Ethics. In my opinion, the quick difference between the two is Ethics is decided solely on a personal level, while Morals are decided on a cultural level, but with a personal adaptation. Morals are also the simple distinction between right and wrong, or good and bad. It is important that we agree on the definition of these two, otherwise we will simply argue in circles.

    The Taliban point is actually exactly what I was hinting at. What you consider Moral, what I consider Moral, and what an Imam of Taliban decent considers moral will be very different. While you and I may agree on many things, I am sure we will find subtle differences. However, if the two of us look at the Imam carefully, we will undoubtedly label him as immoral on numerous grounds. His actions, his thoughts, his suggestions … all go against what we were raised to believe as moral. On the other hand, strict followers of the Taliban would side with him. They would support his moral standings, and condemn ours. Who is right? Are we? In our opinion, yes. But, it would be immensely arrogant for us to simply dismiss all those who disagree with us as immoral simply because their core set of morals differs from ours.

    This returns me to my theory that morals are relative. Very few societies share the same set of morals. Western Europeans, who have lived besides one another for millennia, can’t agree. The US and its European counterparts can’t agree. Protestants and Catholics can’t agree. Catholics can’t agree amongst themselves, and Protestants are far worse. While there may exist a core set of Morals that are acknowledged as “good” or “bad”, we can not make the assumption that Morals are not relative simply because a small handful of them repeat throughout different societies.

    So, returning to the original argument about Atheists being inherently immoral, I can’t possibly agree with this. You are implying that Morality is derived from a God of sort, but without identifying the God in question you leave yourself open to the simple question, “Which God? Which set of Morals?” However, if you choose a specific God or teaching, you then condemn all other beliefs as wrong, which in turn makes you somewhat arrogant … or, immoral.

    In my opinion, I would argue that many Atheists are more moral than many religious. Atheists do good for the sake of being good, not because they are scared of the consequences by their God and not because they are looking for a reward. This is the true definition of Good, because if you are doing good simply to please your God, rather than simply for the sake of doing good, you are not moral but instead obedient.

  6. Zeno Says:

    I would like to use zhann’s statement, “While there may exist a core set of Morals that are acknowledged as good or bad, we can not make the assumption that Morals are not relative simply because a small handful of them repeat throughout different societies,” as a launch point and take it one step further:

    Not only must those morals repeat through different societies, but they must be proven to have come from a religious source as well.

    Another quote from zhann, “… if you choose a specific God or teaching, you then condemn all other beliefs as wrong, which in turn makes you somewhat arrogant or, immoral.”

    I would again go one more step and argue that by selecting one version of religion it is actually God who is forcing the immoral decision. God forces this because either in his version of morality it is acceptable to have countless numbers of his children to be condemned for following a false set of morals which would make God the immoral one for permitting this, or his morals are relative to the group / religion, and thus the morals are not set in stone for all and religion is not THE measuring stick for morality, but location and affiliation (to a religion / sect) are what matter more, thus making morality completely relative.

    How do you come to terms with these factors in your argument?

  7. jonolan Says:

    Paul,

    Thanks for stopping by Reflections From A Murky Pond and commenting.

    Obviously, since it was the main point of the post, I agree with you that Atheists can’t be moral – though your phrasing of, “I find it hard to except that an Atheists can be Moral on any level, religious or otherwise” struck me a bit oddly.

    How could an Atheist be moral on a “religious” level? That does seem to be an oxymoron.

    Also, while I don’t believe that an Atheist can be moral, I do believe that they can be ethical and that – in the West at least – those ethics often run parallel to established morality.

  8. jonolan Says:

    Zhann,

    “I think that we have a difference of opinion in our distinction between Morals and Ethics. In my opinion, the quick difference between the two is Ethics is decided solely on a personal level, while Morals are decided on a cultural level, but with a personal adaptation.”

    No. We’re actually fairly similar in our definitions of Ethics and Morality. The only difference is that you – solely based on your comment – believe that Morality stems from societal consensus and I believe that it stems from Divine fiat.

    Of course that difference of opinion on the source of morality is still likely to cause us to argue in circles. 😉

    As for your assertion that “Very few societies share the same set of morals” – we may have a disagreement or cognitive dissonance over what is morality. Much of the evidence that cite to back up your claim seems – to me at least – to have more to do with dogma, politics, and other solely material concerns, as opposed to Right and Wrong.

    Finally – for now at least, though I’m sure I missed something:

    “So, returning to the original argument about Atheists being inherently immoral, I cant possibly agree with this.”

    I couldn’t agree with that either, and I never posited that hypothesis – quite the opposite in fact:

    “The term is incorrect, but – despite the rantings of some theist hardliners – it is not an oxymoron. It is not an inherently self-contradictory term.

    Moral Atheist is not linguistically similar to Jumbo Shrimp, Unbiased Opinion, Idiot Savant, or Civil War. It would require that Atheists be inherently immoral – a direct contradiction – for the phrase Moral Atheist to be an oxymoron. Such is not categorically the case with Atheists.

    Atheists may be incapable of being moral – in the sense of basing their actions on moral imperatives – due to denying that from which Morality stems from, but I don’t believe they’re inherently immoral since that would require the to actively commit acts that were directly in opposition to moral behavior.

  9. zhann Says:

    I see, so your argument is that an Atheist’s source of Morality is invalid since it doesn’t originate from the Divine. To me, that too seems flawed, the reason for doing good doesn’t counter the good being done. For example, if a person doesn’t lie because he feels that it is wrong to lie, what difference is it if the person doesn’t lie because of Divine providence or he intuitively feels it is wrong? Why does the divine need to be involved? Again, I would argue those that don’t lie for fear of punishment aren’t moral, they are simply scared of the consequences, while those that don’t lie because they simply feel it is wrong are doing so by a higher set of principles.

    Of course, most religious people understand that lying is bad so they refrain from lying on that ground alone. However, there are those that will not do wrong, lying or otherwise, solely for fear of the consequences. They may live the majority of their lives in this manner. On the surface, they seem like a moral individual, but if intricately compared to an atheist who simply spends his life doing good for the sake of being good, how can you argue that this man is not moral? Do you feel that faith is a prerequisite for moral action? Does lack of faith invalidate moral action?

    Now, if you were to argue that it is impossible for Any Man to be moral, that I would agree with. It is impossible for a person to live their entire life always doing good, never being selfish, never telling a lie, and never doing anything at all wrong. We all have flaws and we have all done something immoral.

  10. jonolan Says:

    Zeno,

    Sorry for the delay in responding; I had only limited time to do so over the last weekend and your comments took a bit of though to respond to properly.

    You asked why it took so long for morality to reach everyone. I don’t think it did. If you look at the underlying morality set forth in most religions, you’ll find a similar set of basic laws going back to, at least, the beginning of recorded history.

    Here’s an example: The Golden Rule

    That also addresses the question about one religion over another.

    Of course there’s still the underlying question of what are those moral codes or laws. I’m fairly sure that they do not encompass all the things written in the holy books of the differing religions of Man.

    That is a question that may be leading to our misunderstanding of each other.

  11. jonolan Says:

    Zhann,

    “To me, that too seems flawed, the reason for doing good doesnt counter the good being done.”

    In fact, the reason for doing good – or at least a singular good act – may counter good done, but I see the point you’re trying to make within the context of this discussion.

    In fact I don’t think the lack of a belief in an objective, absolute morality detracts from whatever good an Atheist might do. If his intentions were good and his deed was good, then it was good irrespective of other concerns.

    My point was that Atheists, not believing in an absolute, Divinely drafted morality do not have a consistent moral framework to work within. They have only their personal beliefs as shaped by the mortal society they live within.

    Frankly that stands more chance of creating a ethical set that was based on fear of punishment than any faith-based one would. After all the immediacy and proven fact of legal and/or societal repercussions or punishments is quite a bit of a stronger goad for most people than eventual Divine punishment.

    As for faith being a prerequisite for morality, I would say that yes, faith in an absolute morality is a requirement for morality – though not for ethics.

  12. GeekGrrrl Says:

    My father, an atheist, taught me right from wrong, and when I compare what he taught me to say, what the muslims teach their children (ie Islam), I would have to say that not only was my atheist father more ethical, he was more moral. Not only that, but he knew all on his own that things like selling your young daughters into sexual slavery is immoral and evil. Just because a muslim believes in a higher power than themselves, does not make them more “moral” than me if they use that self righteous moral belief to imprison women, rape their child brides, and kill infidels. In many cases, I believe that religion corrupts people – perhaps they would not have done those horrific things if their religion didn’t give them a feeling of legitimacy about what they were doing. “If everyone else is doing it in the name of god, or allah, or whoever, then I can do it too”. Just like my parents used to ask, “If everyone was jumping off of a bridge, would you do it too”? I was a very stupid teenager, because in my frustration, I usually said “Yes, because at least then I would be doing what everyone else is doing”. Live and learn…

    I hold that human beings themselves are either moral or immoral, evil or good, ethical or unethical – regardless of whether or not they have ever been exposed to religion or believe that there is a power “greater than them” in the universe. Some people are just plain dangerous to the rest of us – whether or not they hide under the cover of religion. Most people are nice, and don’t want to see others suffering. At least that is my sincere hope. It’s religion that clouds their judgment and makes them slaves to “powers who are greater than them”. In many places, they are not allowed to disbelieve – often disbelief = torture or death.

  13. jonolan Says:

    Geekgrrrl,

    You say that your father was not only ethical but moral as well. Morality, by its nature, must have an outside source. If he was an atheist, where did his morality come from?

    Also remember that I said that a person with a belief in a divinity had the capacity for morality, not the certainty of it. You successfully proved that point with the examples you gave.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  14. Michael Says:

    I am a little puzzled by the claim that morality requires gods.

    Specifically, how does the fact that some powerful supernatural being think that some action is or is not moral make that action moral or immoral? What is the basis for gods’ moral views having this special status?

  15. Max Says:

    As an atheist, I completely disagree with your post.

    If one assumes that morality “must have an outside source”, then unless atheists are all deaf, mute and blind, I fail to see how atheists would be incapable of deriving a moral code from life experience. Indeed, one might even surmise that atheists gain a more developed morality, since they are not limited to one source for their moral code, as Christians for instance are.

    Morality is merely derived from a set of value judgements on potential actions. Most of us learn the lessons of moral behaviour from our parents long before we’re exposed to religion. I believe in right & wrong beyond personal preference or cultural dictates, and yet I am not an agnostic. But I also understand that right and wrong and not absolutes, because there is no such thing as a moral absolute. As well as there being thousands of different varitions on so-called religious morality, there is an infinite number of personal variations on individual morality. Social morality depends on us all finding a common ground at least for the majority of those moralities. NO ONE has absolute standard for proper behavior of Man, not even religion.

    I find it ironic that you say “In the absence of faith in of the Divine, Atheists are left with only societal and/or cultural pressures for the imposition of outside control upon their behaviors.”, because isn’t that precisely what people in religious communities are left with? Religious communities tend to place a far higher value on the imposition of control over an individual’s behaviour than secular communities. The pressure to conform to a rigid stereotype of imposed morality including rituals and readings and so on is far higher amongst religious groups than it is amongst secular groups, where just behaving according to the prevalent moral code on a day-to-day basis is entirely sufficient.

    The assertion that atheists can’t be moral is little more than religious propaganda which suggests that non-believers are spiritually and emotionally subordinate to those who have some sort of religious faith. Atheism is nothing more than pragmatism and spiritual self-sufficiency. Beyond that, we’re all the same.

  16. jonolan Says:

    Mike,

    Simply put, the Gods’ laws are more important because they made this world and all in it.

    What Man does is inherently flawed and transient and we must look beyond ourselves for guidance. If we were to look solely within ourselves and our societies we would quickly (in a historical sense) sink into depravity and self-destruction.

    ~*~

    Max,

    As an atheist I’d fully expect you to disagree. Some truths and judgments don’t sit well with people.

    Note though that I do not claim you cannot be ethical. I know many ethical atheists. It just that morality, by its nature, is an outside force than must stem from something beyond the individual or group.

    What you seem to believe in is moral relativism, one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated by philosophers.

    NO ONE has absolute standard for proper behavior of Man, not even religion.

    Absolutely true, Max. We’re flawed and the churches were create around our religions are equally flawed. But it’s those religions, or even just the quest to discover the will of the Gods, that allow for the possibility of getting it right by other means than blind chance.

    …And, of course, the method of your assertions – though not the assertion itself, however flawed – is little more than atheist propaganda which suggests that theists are spiritually and emotionally subordinate to those who have lack some sort of religious faith. It’s really easy for either of us to make that claim.

    Of course, at a pragmatic level, I don’t really care why an individual behaves correctly. On a day-to-day basis it’s truly immaterial to me whether the persons motivations are ethical, moral, or even just plain fear of consequence.

  17. Max Says:

    Atheist morality IS an outside force that stems from something beyond the individual or group. What you’re advancing is the fallacy that atheists don’t have a spiritual existence. Furthermore, many atheists are just as aware, if not more aware of religion than many religious people. Many atheists incorporate religious teachings into their pursuit of moral excellence.

    Your assertion that a quest to discover the will of the Gods is the only way to allow for the possibility of “getting it right” is also extremely dubious. There’s no empirical way of demonstrating that a God or Gods even exist beyond our imagination. Therefore to bequeath one or several of them with some sort of Holy Grail of morality is a massive leap of logic. Which you admit – we’re flawed and our Churches are flawed, and yet they’re the only way we have of accessing these “Gods” – so there’s no indication that any religious person would be any more successful in his pursuit of morality than an atheist. Indeed, history suggests that religion can lead to some of the greatest immoralities ever perpertrated.

    Either way, having sympathy and empathy – which sit at the core of morality – are not the sole reserve of religious people, nor is it necessary to know religion to understand them. I don’t disagree with you because your “truth” or “judgement” don’t sit well with me, but because you claim to have an understanding of my spiritual existence which you plainly don’t.

  18. jonolan Says:

    Yes, Atheists can and do borrow from religions and thereby can achieve ethical behaviors, just as they can borrow from religions and thereby achieve unethical behavior. It’s still not morality though, since it all stems from the individual’s preferences on what to borrow.

    As for “religions,” that’s a case where we may be failing to communicate. The tenor of your comments seems to indicate that you and I have differing definitions of that word. I make a strict distinction between the temporal agencies and the underlying faiths, whereas you do not come across as doing so. Of course, with my being a Theist and you being an Atheist, that a divergent of perception that makes solid sense.

    All debate aside for a moment, sometime I’d appreciate it if you could define or describe for me the definition of a “Spiritual Atheist.” Really! I mean that in all truth and as an honest question.

  19. Max Says:

    Not exactly what I said. The incorporation of aspects of religion into an atheist’s moral research does not directly inform their ethical or unethical behaviour. It’s merely one aspect, theology is merely one small facet of philosophy.

    I make no distinction between agency and faith because they are indissociable. People don’t arrive at religious conclusions without being convinced to do so by outside influences.

    I don’t have a definition of “Spiritual Atheist”, at least not one I fully agree with to which I can handily refer. However, what I have found to be the case for me is that my spirituality exists in the acceptance of the things I don’t understand and know I never will.

  20. Naturallawyer Says:

    Max said: “I dont have a definition of ‘Spiritual Atheist’, at least not one I fully agree with to which I can handily refer. However, what I have found to be the case for me is that my spirituality exists in the acceptance of the things I dont understand and know I never will.”

    The problem here is that you are at odds with almost all of the popular atheists at the moment. The overwhelming majority of atheists are materialists, meaning they believe that only physical material exists and there is no “spirit world.” Perhaps Jonolan’s article should be more specific and aim toward materialists (all of whom are atheists, and who make up almost the entirety of atheism). While I guess a “spiritual atheist” can claim to have objective, transcendant standards of morality and try to more or less live by those standards, there can be no such standards for the materialist.

    I might depart from Jonolan on the grounds that morality is an objective fact regardless of whether one believes it. Therefore, an atheist can be “moral” if he follows the objective moral truths, even if he does not believe in those objective moral truths and it would make no sense for him to claim he is “moral.” This is different than “ethics” (as you use the term). It’s more like someone that has not studied math; even though that person may not understand why certain answers are compelled by certain questions, he or she may nevertheless come up with the right answer sometimes. His answers are not wrong solely because he does not understand math.

    A person who believes in objective morality (like, for example, the Natural Law) would hold that all men are accountable to the objective standards. And it makes sense that atheists would want to find other reasons to follow those same standards: they want to continue denying God’s existence, but they also want to satisfy the consciences within them. Thus, they try to find “reasons” to justify following the moral code that they already know is true and applies to them (and everyone else).

  21. jonolan Says:

    Naturallawyer,

    You don’t, in point of fact, depart from my premise on the grounds that morality is an objective fact regardless of whether one believes it. I believe such as well.

    Where we may part company is at the point where we seem to differ in our opinion of what constitutes morality and moral behavior as opposed to ethical behavior.

    I do not hold to the belief that people can be unconsciously moral. They must understand that it is an objective reality, otherwise it is ethics as opposed to morality that they display.

  22. Robert Peoples Says:

    Jonolan, its difficult to abrogate indoctrination; especially when the roots are sprouted from the seed. Childhood rearing and the permanency of its effects (most times) are nearly impossible to eradicate once adulthood is reached. The lengthy conversations I see here, are an example of people seeking hope, instead of seeking truth; the pacifier can be hell to remove.

    Great post 😉

  23. jonolan Says:

    True, Robert. Childhood exposure to- and training in morality often clouds the issue when discussing morality and Atheists. Many atheists grew up in Theist households and were – as you put it – indoctrinated into moral behavior. They tend to, if by habit if nothing else, continue to exhibit those behaviors and to say that they come from an outside, objective source – though they often seem vague on what that source is.

  24. Nabiha Meher Says:

    I was raised in half-theist, half-atheist house and both parents are equally moral and ethical. I am an atheist by belief and I do feel I am a moral and ethical person. In fact, I had to shed off religion and any connection with it to become someone who believes all humanity is equal. Many, many of my friends who are atheists, raised by atheists, are far more moral than those who were raised by religious people. I take your challenge. Prove to me how I’m agnostic!

  25. jonolan Says:

    Alright, Nabiha.

    I think that first we have to separate morality from personal ethics, especially in the context of this post since that is core to my argument in it.

    I do not dispute that you, your friends, or any atheist could be ethical. I dispute their capacity for morality since they have no framework for objective morality and I consider relative morality to be a fallacious concept.

    If you have a sense of morality, where does it stem from, Nabiha, and what is it based upon? If you believe that there is an absolute right and wrong, what created and enforces it?

  26. Dumb_dog Says:

    Hi, I am an atheist, I know beyond every possible doubt that there is neither God nor afterlife.

    I completely agree with the author of this website that belief in God can not provide us with an objective morality, as shown clearly by these examples, which more generally illustrates the Euthyphro dilemma g : is something good just because God stipulated it is (in which case it is arbitrary, for God could state one ought to love ones foes as well as ordering the slaughter of the folks of Canaan. ) or did God ordered it because it is good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of God) ?
    However, I believe that the same challenge could be posed to any form of atheistic moral realism.
    Over the past decades, numerous discoveries in neurology and evolutionary psychology have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that our moral intuitions ultimately stem from the shaping of our brain by evolution and that WITHOUT any such emotional intuition, no moral system can be built from reason alone.
    This is well illustrated by the study of the brains of psychopaths: since they lack the moral emotions, they don’t consider as true most fundamental moral principles (like avoiding to create suffering, trying to promote the happiness of others) although they are quite able to reason well.
    This shows the truth of David Hume’s famous principle that moral truths are the projection of our gut’s feelings on an indifferent and cruel reality : since one can not derive an “ought” from an “is”, moral truths are the expression of our emotions which we mistakenly consider as features of the objective reality.
    No moral system can be created without the appeal to at least one kind of intuitions, the brute facts of nature never lead to moral duties and obligations.
    Now, I want to state a version of the Euthyphro dilemma which shows the impossibility of defining an objective atheistic morality: is something good just because Evolution hardwired this conviction into us (in which case it is arbitrary, for Evolution could have lead us to believe that murder and torture are right ) or did Evolution produce our current beliefs because they are good (in which case there exists an objective standard of goodness independent of Evolution) ?

    Let me now develop the first point: there is an extremely great number (perhaps even an infinity) of planets where intelligent beings like us could have evolved. Given the huge dimension of the sample, it is more than likely that many such intelligent beings have evolved conceptions of morality which would appear completely disgusting to us.
    Imagine for example a species of giant lizards ( or whatever else if you’ve more imagination than I 🙂 who were shaped by natural selection to value power, violence , selfishness in so far that it remains compatible with the interests of the group. When invading a city and killing or enslaving all its inhabitants, their brain generate a warm feeling of happiness, satisfaction.
    When however confronted with weakness among their own folk, they feel an overwhelming indignation, anger, rage which lead them to kill the individual guilty of failure , and after having done that, their brain awards them with an intense feeling of pleasure.
    Now imagine such beings arrive at our earth and conclude based on their evolutionary intuitions that it would be moral and perfectly good to enslave all human beings capable of working and to kill all others.
    What would an human atheist and moral realist say to these lizards? Do they ought to behave in a way coherent with the moral intuitions they have and slaughter or enslave all humans ?
    My contention is that it would be completely impossible to show to these creatures that killing innocent beings is wrong: all moral systems developed by humans which would justify this conclusion can not be deduced from the mere consideration of natural facts , they all crucially depend on one or several moral intuitions , which are not shared by the intelligent lizards, so there would be no common ground upon which one could argue that something is right or wrong.
    Now, a defender of godless moral realism could agree with me it is fallacious to rely on evolution to define an objective morality in the same way it would be fallacious to rely on the commandments of a deity. But he could then argue that there exists a moral standard independent of Evolution upon which moral realism would be based.
    The problem of this argument is the following:

    As I have said, no moral system can be grounded by mere logic or factual analysis alone, at some point moral intuitions (due to Evolution) are always going to come into play.
    Take for example the possibility of torturing a baby just for fun: almost every human being would react with disgust and say it is wrong. Neuroscience has proven that such reaction does not stem from a rational consideration of all facts but rather from instinctive gut feelings.
    Afterwards, people try to rationalize their belief by backing them up with arguments and mistakenly think they feel this disgust because of their reasoning although it is the other way around.
    Based on rigorous experiments in the field of neuroscience, Jonathan Haidt shows that in the case of moral reasoning, people always begin by getting a strong emotional reaction, and only seek a posteriori to justify this reaction. He has named this phenomenon ‘the emotional dog and its rational tail: http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/articles/haidt.emotionaldog.manuscript.pdf
    And since one can not derive an ought from an is, there is no way to prove that one ought to not torture a baby for the fun by a reasoning based on fact alone, at one moment or an other , one is forced to appeal to emotions.
    For example, saying to a intelligent lizard they ought no to do that because the baby is cute, because he is innocent, because he has an entire life before him would completely beg the question for our intelligent alien, which would then ask: why does the babys beauty, innocence, or the fact he has still many years to live implies one ought not to kill the baby ?. After one or two hours of circular reasoning, the honest human would be coerced to recognize it is so because these things sounds intuitively bad for him.
    Concerning the objectivity of morality, I am neither a moral relativist nor a moral subjectivist but a proponent of an error theory: moral statements and truths are in fact nothing more than the products of our emotional intuitions , but because of the hard-wiring of our brain, we erroneously believe they correspond to some external facts of the objective reality and try to derive them from pure natural facts, committing the is/ought fallacy.
    For those interested in the line of thinking presented here, I highly recommend you to read Joshua Greenes dissertation, where he clearly demonstrates the true nature of morality and develops a coherent error-theory.
    http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Greene-Dissertation.pdf
    To conclude, although I am not a moral realist, I do think there is a place for ethic in each human life.
    But instead of using moral absolutes such as good, evil, right, wrong, ought, ought not, referring to spooky concepts whose existence is as likely as the presence of an invisible yellow unicorn on the surface of Mars, I prefer to employ the language of desires, which correspond to indisputable facts:
    We, as human being, love infant life and desire baby to growth and become happy, therefore if we want our desires to be fulfilled, then we ought not to torture babies for the fun. Contrarily to moral realism, the ought I have used here is hypothetical and not categorical.
    In the same way, I can not say the atrocities we find in the Old Testament are objectively wrong, because I dont believe in the existence of such moral absolutes, but I can express my convictions in the following manner: if we want our intuitive feelings of love, justice and charity to be respected, then we ought to reject many books of the Old Testament as being pieces of barbaric non-senses.
    The traditional moral discourse The God of the Bible is morally wrong, we ought to fight Christianity, we are morally good whereas religious people are wicked and so on and so forth seems to me to be completely flawed because it involves the existence of spooky moral absolutes which have no place in a scientific view of the world.
    I really appreciate the critical thinking of my fellow atheists when applied to religion but I am really sad to remark they fail to apply it to their own cherished beliefs like the existence of an objective morality.
    Thank you for having reading me until here !

  27. ann Says:

    Ho jonolan: Just found your blog and am enjoying it immensly! I’ve been ruminating around in your ‘religion’ postings where I found the interesting discussion/posts on ‘relativism’. I am not a relatvist, and do subscribe to the reality of objective truth (in ethics, morals and all kinds of other issues), but thre’s one thing, per your posts and discussions of relativism that I don’t get.

    Can you clarify, for me, this apparent contradiction within the idea of relativism: If, as relativism claims, there is no absolute, objective truth, then how can the relativist state that there is no absolute, objective truth (let’s take just morals and/or ethics for example)? Doing so would seem to raise THAT claim to the level of an ‘absolute’ truth or at least a universal truth – i.e. that there is no universal, absolute truth. That’s a contradiction for the relativist belief system; a relativist cannot use an absolute statement to support his relativism….so I’m confused. (it wouldn’t be the first time – that I was confused – so if I’ve missed something, let me know. Thanks for your reply

    — Ann

  28. jonolan Says:

    If they’re arguing about “truth relativism”, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, then I can’t explain their position. Their statements are inherently self-defeating, because if it were held true that all truth is subject to a frame of reference, then the statement, in and of itself, is subject to a frame of reference, and thus not true for everyone.

    If, on the other hand, they’re arguing about “moral relativism,” then their position can be taken to be that that all moral judgments have their origins and basis either in societal or in individual standards, and that no single objective standard exists by which one can determine the truth of a moral proposition. Hence, there is no universal moral standard by which to judge others from different cultures or backgrounds and we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when it runs counter to our personal or cultural moral standards.

    As you might surmise from my posts and comments, I do not put much stock in either of these positions. I do, however, admit that Mankind probably get the details of both “truth” and “morality” wrong a great deal of the time due to our own individual cognitive biases which prevents us from observing something objectively with our own senses, and our notational biases which will apply to whatever we can supposedly measure without the direct use of our senses.

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