“Hello there. I am an atheist, and I actually enjoy following your page. I do not agree with almost anything you post, but, it’s nice to see you, and your followers opinion. One question, how is it that religious people say that one can’t be moral without religion or God? Here in Denmark we aren’t very religious, but somehow our country is taking care of our week, elderly and students. Is that not being kind to your neighbour?”
Hi, Christian. Great question. Allow me the space to answer.
Firstly, it is incorrect for religious people to say that atheists can’t be moral without religion. Having written on apologetics for the last few years, I observe that most intellectual theists do not actually argue this line, and for good reason.
The real contention, however, concerns moral ontology. In other words, what is the nature of morality? Objective morality, for instance, says that certain behaviours are either right or wrong. It is wrong to rape and murder people. It is right to tell the truth and to act kindly and compassionately to others. This type of morality is thus not a matter of personal preference but that is rather true and binding independent of one’s view of them, or whether or not one chooses to follow them. Philosopher William Lane Craig makes an analogy to Nazi annexation of the world (1). Basically, objective morality would still say that murder & genocide is evil even if the Nazis, who viewed the the Holocaust as something good, were successful and managed to not only take over the entire world, but also brainwash the entire world into believing what they did was morally good. Objective morality isn’t affected by how many people view something over and above something else.
As I will briefly argue, the problem for the atheist is that objective morality does not exist on his/her worldview. Thus, for the atheist like yourself, Chris, you do not have a basis from which to make both moral claims and arguments, though atheists make them all of the time. Even you seem to affirm this saying that in Denmark many atheists are doing morally good things such as taking care of the old, sickly and the future generation of students. The reason for this problem is because your worldview cuts off any transcendent standard from which one is able to both judge moral and make moral claims. Without God, or some transcendent moral law giver, there can be no transcendent moral standard. The atheist philosopher Richard Taylor was honest enough to observe this saying that “The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone” (2).
Objective morality therefore does not, and cannot, exist on atheism, as most atheist philosophers will affirm. Philosopher Julian Baggini says that “If there is no single moral authority [i.e. if there is no God, then] we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves… that means that moral claims are not true or false in the same way as factual claims are… moral claims are judgments [that] it is always possible for someone to disagree with… without saying something that is factually false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error” (3).
What you are left with is thus moral subjectivism. It is only your personal opinion, versus the opinion of another, that certain acts are either morally evil or good. For example, you believe that taking care of the elderly is a moral good, but some cultures have been known to practice senicide, the deliberate killing of the elderly for whatever reason they see fit. Your view that senicide is morally evil cannot be said to be superior to the view of any culture that condones and practices it. After all, it is merely a subjective preference on your part no different to the fact that you might like vanilla ice cream while I favour the strawberry kind. According to prominent atheist philosopher Michael Ruse that you believe senicide is morally evil is an “illusion fobbed” off on to you as a result of sociobiological conditioning (4).
The obvious issue here is that atheists, while affirming what I have just explained, do not and cannot live consistently with this view. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. In his book River Out of Eden we have his commonly referred to quote that “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (5). There is much one could bully Dawkins on here, but obviously he believes that the words “good” and “evil” are meaningless in the objective sense. Atheism doesn’t allow for it. But Dawkins, in defiance of this belief, has made a career of accusing religions, religious faith, and many religious believers of being evil, and opposed to reason, science, and intellectual progress. It isn’t very hard to observe the obvious inconsistencies within this view, and so is the story of just about every atheist who cannot live consistently with his atheism.
But this doesn’t entail that you as an atheist, Chris, cannot act morally. You, like many other atheists, do in fact act morally, and perhaps more so than many of us religious people. Rather, the problem is that you can’t live consistently with your worldview, and I’d urge you to consider alternatives.
Take the theistic view for example. Theists believe that objective morality is rooted in God because God’s own perfect nature provides the transcendent standard against which we can judge all actions and decisions. So, it makes sense for theists to argue that senicide is a moral evil, and that looking after and taking care of the elderly is an objective good. The theist’s worldview thus can make sense of our awareness of morality, namely that some things are objective good as opposed to evil, or vice versa. Ultimately we want to adopt a view that makes sense, and I’d like to strongly and lovingly suggest to you, Chris, that your atheism doesn’t.
So, can atheists be good without God? Yes, but it makes no sense.
1. Craig, W. 2007. Our Grasp of Objective Moral Values. Available.
2. Taylor, R. 1985. Ethics, Faith, and Reason. p. 83-84.
3. Baggini, J. 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. p. 41-51.
4. Michael R. 1985. ‘Evolution and Ethics’ in New Scientist. p. 51-52.
5. Dawkins, R. 1995. River Out of Eden. p. 131–32.