Of course atheists are moral people, but that isn’t the point

April 11, 2012

To say the least, we human beings have a powerful intuition about good and evil, right and wrong. We Christians argue that the only way that “the good” has any meaning is if it’s rooted in a transcendent reality, namely God. This is a powerful argument for God’s existence.

It doesn’t prove anything, of course. We could as a species be cursed with a powerful sense of morality, which, although remarkably similar from one person to another, is, like all products of evolution, merely an accident. Morality is therefore arbitrary and subjective.

The atheist, in other words, feels in his bones as strongly as any believer that rape is wrong, and will take action to prevent it as often as any believer. But in the cool light of reason, he must tell himself that his feelings are unjustified and meaningless.

Fortunately, even the most strident atheist fails to live down to his principles.

Alister McGrath, in his book Mere Apologetics, gets it exactly right when he writes:

At a popular level, atheist apologists react with anger to such problems of their ideas, suggesting that it amounts to suggesting that they are immoral. It doesn’t. It’s not denying that atheists have moral values. It’s asking how these values are justified… Atheist philosopher Iris Murdoch argued that a transcendent notion of goodness was essential if defensible human notions of “right” and “justice” were to be maintained. If she’s right, our longing for justice is itself a deep clue to the meaning of things.[1]

1. Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 108.

14 Responses to “Of course atheists are moral people, but that isn’t the point”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    A very good point about no real basis to justify their impulses to “right and wrong” descriptions of behavior, though they “feel” them nonetheless. I believe it was Paul who said that all men have a conscience which condemns or excuses. The Gentiles have a law within themselves, though (in times past) they did not have the written law.

    However, I think SOME atheists protest that they are moral somewhat more loudly than they have any warrant to. “Methinks thou dost protest too loudly.” (Something like that.) Atheists want to “shake off the shackles” that they say Christians want to impose on them. Thus, they want to be relieved of restraints when it comes to homosexuality, pornography, abortion, etc. They have “seared their conscience as with a hot iron.” The remaining agreements about morality are almost more along the lines of a “social contract” (Hobbes, Rawls). I don’t want to be raped, so I will support a law against rape, regardless that I might otherwise like to rape. Same with murder, theft, etc.

  2. merlynleroy Says:

    “We Christians argue that the only way that “the good” has any meaning is if it’s rooted in a transcendent reality, namely God. This is a powerful argument for God’s existence.”

    No, that’s called an “assertion.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Good one, merlynleroy! It’s actually a statement of fact. Or do you think that Christians don’t make this argument? If you’ll notice, I wasn’t arguing here. There is an argument to be made, which I’ve made in other places on this blog. Start by reading the David Hart essay to which this blog post points: http://revbrentwhite.com/2010/10/15/a-blindingly-obvious-point/

      In a nutshell, if there is no transcendent reality undergirding what you call “right” or “wrong,” then what you think is right or wrong is simply your opinion, a completely subjective preference. You can’t justify your opinion scientifically.

      You may say that right or wrong is programmed by evolution—that it affords some evolutionary advantage to be “this way,” but there’s nothing in evolution that says that “this way” is good, bad, better, worse, best, worst. Evolution is blind. It implies no “ought.” Because something is doesn’t mean it “ought to be.” This isn’t controversial.

      The atheist may reply, “Yes, but what’s good to me is good, and that’s all that matters.” But what you’re really saying is, “What’s good for me is good for me.” In other words, you’re not saying anything. It’s a tautology.

      The point is, the atheist doesn’t have any moral high ground on which to stand. Morality is ephemeral. It’s a void.

      But you brought it up: you tell me what the atheist’s foundation for morality is?

  3. Morbert Says:

    ‘We Christians argue that the only way that “the good” has any meaning is if it’s rooted in a transcendent reality, namely God. This is a powerful argument for God’s existence.’

    I too would take issue with this line of reasoning (Specifically, the last sentence). Most atheists, or at least most atheists who have thought about the issue, subscribe to moral nihilism insofar as they believe moral values are not fundamental truths, but instead codify our feelings/instincts/cultural trends. (As an aside, this should not be confused with normative moral relativism, the self-defeating position that all moral principles must be tolerated).

    You can argue that such morality is ephemeral, and you would be right. But this in no way translates into an argument for God’s existence. Moral nihilism is a solid meta-ethical position that might be uncomfortable, but is part of a consistent worldview.

    The axiological argument essentially boils down to “I would like it if moral values were transcendental and universal truths, therefore God exists.” It is a great big non sequitur.

    • brentwhite Says:


      Thank you for having the courage of your convictions! When I’ve suggested on this blog that the atheist position inevitably leads to nihilism—as you say, for those who really think it through—I usually get pushback from atheists who don’t want to face up to it.

      I’m hardly suggesting that “my side” proves God’s existence through the argument. I’m saying that for some reason the vast majority of humanity lives as if morality has meaning. They want to believe passionately in justice and seeing to it that justice is done. It is appalling to them to imagine that justice is meaningless and that there’s no judge standing above, for example, perpetrators of genocide saying, “This is wrong!” It doesn’t fit most people’s version of reality.

      Indeed, I suspect that you don’t live your life as a completely hedonistic, self-centered animal, doing only what pleases you, looking out for only your interests. For all I know, you’re a kind and good person. Except—there I go again—”kindness” and “goodness” have no meaning. I keep forgetting. I’ll bet you do too.

      And that’s the power of the argument. In my version of reality, which speaks to my deepest longings, justice has meaning. When I see something that I believe is truly evil in the world, I don’t have to fight against every fiber of my being and say, “No, Brent… This may offend you aesthetically, but it isn’t ‘wrong.'”

      The question becomes, what version of reality makes the most sense of life as we live it and understand it. From my perspective, I get to keep justice _and_ scientific inquiry. They’re not in conflict. Good for me!

      • Morbert Says:

        The question is then whether or not there is some dissonance between the meta-ethical position of moral nihilism, and the behaviour of individuals. I would say there is no dissonance at all; no need to fight against any fiber of our being, just because the abhorrence we might feel towards evil might come from within, rather than from the supernatural.

        Meta-ethics doesn’t inform our behaviour, it merely puts our behaviour in context. For example, consider two issues: charity and war. A moral nihilist might say they give to charity because of feelings of compassion for those who suffer. A moral absolutist might say they give to charity because compassion is an absolute moral virtue. Similarly, a moral nihilist might commit war atrocities because they hate the enemy. A moral absolutist might commit war atrocities because they believe God commands it.

        So I don’t believe there is any operational difference between a moral nihilist and a moral absolutist. Christians posit that we behave the way we do because we are reflecting God’s will (albeit imperfectly, as we have our own will). Atheists posit that we behave the way we do because we are expressing traits and behavioural patterns of the human race.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Believe me, I’m very happy that there is little (I wouldn’t say no) “operational difference” between theists and atheists regarding morality! (To this day, churches and church-based organizations account for most charitable work in the world.) I mostly agree with you here… I said as much in my post.

        But I suspect–forgive me if I’m wrong–that you, like me, are writing from a comfortable suburban or middle-class milieu… western, liberal, democratic, etc. It’s easy to imagine that if you were caught in the crossfire of some ghastly civil war, watching your village’s women and girls getting raped repeatedly, watching families get dragged off by death squads in the middle of the night, watching children starve in the street, you might not be quite so sanguine about your moral nihilism. In other words, when you say, “This is evil,” you would like for the concept to have some teeth. You would like for your moral indignation to be justified. You would like justice to have real meaning.

        By your principles, you have no reason to think that the rapists or death squads are doing anything wrong. You may (I hope!) feel that they’re wrong, but, in the cool light of reason, what are feelings? You’re a man of strict science. Reason or bust!

        If you disagree with me, you’ll forgive me for thinking that you’re being disingenuous.

      • Morbert Says:

        “By your principles, you have no reason to think that the rapists or death squads are doing anything wrong. You may (I hope!) feel that they’re wrong, but, in the cool light of reason, what are feelings? You’re a man of strict science. Reason or bust!”

        This is where the difference between moral nihilism and moral relativism becomes important. “Who am I to judge death squads?” is very much a relativist statement. As a moral nihilist, I would still judge death squads. The only difference is my statements would be expressivist. Abhorrence towards acts of violence/murder is not something that is “incorrect” or something to be suppressed. We would merely say that such abhorrence comes from our humanity, instead of the divine.

        It is certainly true that I would be pleased if my moral attitudes were validated by the creator of the universe, That would indeed give my convictions some extra teeth. But I can’t interpret my desires as reality.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Fair enough. Thanks for the dialogue. I do hope you’ll read the David Hart essay that I linked to above.


      • Morbert Says:

        Will do. I believe I have come across the essay before, but I will give it another read.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Morbert, you say, “We would merely say that such abhorrence comes from our humanity, instead of the divine.” The difficulty is that there is a wide variety of opinions about what is “right” or “wrong” among various humans. So, the matter still comes down to simply your own “expressivism” personally, not something you can attribute to “humanity” as giving it more “weight.”

    • Morbert Says:

      That is why moral nihilism, while consistent with human behaviour, is an uncomfortable position. “Humanity”, as history has shown, is fickle. Disputes are often settled with wars and armies, and not ethical or moral philosophers. I bring up moral nihilism not to add weight to a particular moral position, but to present what moral positions are, if atheism is true, and to show that while it might be an unpleasant truth, it is not a criticism of atheism any more than plane crashes are a criticism of gravity.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I see what you are saying, but I think, if atheism is true, it is somewhat curious that the tendency to want to say, “This is right and this is wrong” would have “sprung up” from a purely evoutionary genesis. People don’t want to say, “I don’t happen to like murder” (or genocide, or rape, or theft, or child molestation, etc.)–they want to say, “Murder is wrong.” I think you would agree that most atheists (perhaps excluding yourself) talk that way, and, I think, feel that way as well. It just seems a curious thing that the vast majority of humankind would have ended up with this strong predilection for condemning certain behaviors as “morally wrong” (as opposed to, “I just don’t happen to like that”) if all that there was to ultimately explain the genesis of all that there is is unguided evolution of purely “natural” mass/energy.

      • Morbert Says:

        It is for the same reasone people don’t say “I don’t happen to like dying”. Some dispositions are woven deep into our psyche. The question of why such dispositions would be widespread is related to biological altruism, distilled through social and culutral environments. And while it is common and fundamental, it is not always there, as shown by those who suffer from psychopathy, or other severe personality disorders.

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