Can Atheists Be Moral?

The increasing publicity of atheism over the past decade has created a springboard for Christian apologetics, bringing the discussion of competing worldviews out of the den of academia, and into the home of anyone who is remotely interested in the conversation. Specifically within the North American context, the counterbalance brought on by anti-religious worldviews has been beneficial, as it forces those who are religious to no longer take their presuppositions for granted. This is not to say that taking presuppositions for granted is a bad thing (we all do it), but the benefit to being a member within a society that is gradually shifting away from publically favoring one worldview over another, means that if you’re going to hold to a belief, you probably need to know why. As an adult, blindly embracing the faith of your family or society isn’t something that is looked on with favor—and perhaps this is a good thing in many respects.

The rise of Christian apologetics in laity has specifically elevated ethical issues, since, perhaps, ethical issues seem to be more practical, in the sense that, the issues are generally less abstract and more personal. That being said, I have increasingly seen people either claiming, or saying that someone else is claiming, that atheists cannot be moral. From what I can tell, some tend to think that the argument goes something like this:

  • Objective moral values only exist if God exists.
  • Atheists claim that God does not exist.
  • Since atheists claim that God does not exist, they cannot be moral, because objective moral values only exist if God exists.

Taking this a step further, some may think that because atheism cannot establish objective moral values, that atheists themselves must be incapable of doing good[1] actions. I believe these claims are rooted in misinformation or confusion.

Whether or not an action is objectively good has nothing to do with what a person believes. If you believe that whether or not a person can do good is dependent on their worldview, then you, yourself, have slipped into the trap of subjectivity. After all, moral values are not grounded by what a person believes, but they are grounded in the character of God. If what is good is rooted in the character of God, then whoever does this good, is truly doing good, regardless of what they personally believe. That is the point of objectivity–the truth value of the claim is not established on how you feel or what you think to be the case. Therefore, an atheist who loves his neighbor is truly doing good, if love is grounded in the character and will of God (which it is). If you believe that atheists cannot truly love their neighbors, then the burden of proof is on you.

The question is not whether atheists can do good, the question is whether or not atheists can establish what good is. Remember also that we are not talking about whether or not an atheist can do good in terms of righteousness, since after all, according to Christianity, you and I cannot do good in terms of righteousness either, even as Christians. Our righteousness is established through Christ. So remember to not confuse the questions. The question is not whether atheists can do good; the question is whether or not objective moral values exist.

[1] Loosely defined, let ‘good’ in this case simply mean acting in accordance with God’s will for humanity, in terms of treating each other in such a way that aligns with God’s intent on some level.

(Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Feel free to share in the comment section or contact me at zacklocklear@outlook.com)

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5 thoughts on “Can Atheists Be Moral?

  1. All over the world, there are about two dozen moral beliefs that are common to most cultures regardless of their religion (if they have any religion at all). Sometimes morality stems from what’s in our own best interest. Consider the Golden Rule – it has existed in some form or another in nearly every religion or society:
    “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” — Confucius (~500 b.c.)
    “Hence, (keeping these in mind), by self-control and by making dharma (right conduct) your main focus, treat others as you treat yourself.” – the Mahabharata (~800-700 b.c.)
    Atheists can totally be moral people. They understand how to be law-abiding citizens. Sometimes they know the Bible better than Christians do because they didn’t just wake up one morning and decide that there was no God, they took the Bible seriously, studied it, and found that they couldn’t agree with God ordering genocides. Maybe the did the math and know the body count in the Bible is too high. Maybe they read Revelation and don’t believe that a loving God could systemically destroy the world wiping out it’s population in judgement after judgement. That doesn’t sound like love so they can only conclude that God loves to kill. Maybe that’s why they decided that God couldn’t be their moral guide.

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    • Hi Jamie, thank you for your comment.

      I agree with nearly everything you said. It is true that there appears to be strong trends in moral expectations, cross-culturally. I also agree that atheists can be moral people, and—according to this post—I believe that I can validate that biblically. Additionally, I also believe that there are some atheists who do know the Bible well. So you and I agree up to this point.

      Where I am going to challenge you, is where you say that:
      “Maybe the[y] did the math and know the body count in the Bible is too high. Maybe they read Revelation and don’t believe that a loving God could systemically destroy the world wiping out it’s population in judgement after judgement. That doesn’t sound like love so they can only conclude that God loves to kill. Maybe that’s why they decided that God couldn’t be their moral guide.”

      I have a couple of thoughts on this. 1) You’ll need to establish whether or not the body count in the Bible rules out the notion of God altogether. Even if you conclude that it rules out the God of the Bible, you’ve only made a small step. You’ll still need to think about whether or not there is a supreme deity at all, outside of Christianity. If there is a supreme deity, it will take more than just our problems about certain passages in the Bible to rule him out. You’ll need to disprove his existence through some other outlet other than what you read in the Bible. 2) If you decide to scrutinize the God of the Bible (who I believe is truly God), then you’ll need to show how God is not justified in destroying people. You may think at first glance that this doesn’t need any further justification, but it certainly does. You’ll need to somehow demonstrate that God’s love for humans is incompatible with divine justice. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

      Remember that I’m saying that atheists can be more if (and only if) God exists. Because in order to ground any notion of morality that is absolute, you’ll need to appeal to something higher than cultural norms, personal feelings or biology. So I can only agree with your statement about atheists and morality by qualifying your statement to include the existence of God. If you have a theory on how humans can ground objective moral values without God, I would legitimately be pleased to discuss it with you, because I can’t think of anyone in the field of philosophy of religion or elsewhere who has successfully done this.
      I’m looking forward to hearing back from you! Feel free to continue this conversation here, or through email.

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      • I’m not sure that I believe in moral absolutes. I do recognize that there are situations where sometimes the right course of action demands and act of piracy and an act of piracy can itself be the right course of action. I was just reading about Corrie Ten Boom’s situation and how her father believed that it was morally acceptable to lie in order to save lives during the Holocaust. When the Gestapo came asking them “Are there Jews hiding here?” She was taught to lie to them (I imagine they practiced this so that the lie would be convincing.) When I think about that – they not only broke the 9th commandment, they didn’t submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:5), and they didn’t obey many laws. Sometimes we tend to think of that time-frame as a special exception, as if it were a one-time deal where God would be okay with us picking and choosing. I guess I just know too much about how old the Bible is, how mistranslated it is, how misinterpreted it is, how words have been added to it to really consider it an absolute source of unquestionable morality.

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      • Jamie, thank you for your response.

        I understand why you see difficulties in commands that would seem to compromise a greater good. As you pointed out, if you were to lie in order to save lives, that seems to be an obvious transgression of the command not to lie against your neighbor. In addition to this, as you said, you have verses that appear to imply that you absolutely must submit to governing authorities, regardless of what it is that they ask you to do. From what you’ve noticed, it appears to be that the Bible would demand that we do certain things that could have disastrous consequences, in the name of obedience to divine commands.

        Let me begin by stressing the importance of thinking very carefully through what it is that you read in the Bible. The Bible is not so black and white on certain issues, specifically concerning issues that you mentioned. That is not to say that you can read into the Bible what you want to see. What I am saying is that the Bible speaks into many issues with complexity, which requires you to take all the information on an ethical issue as a whole, in order to understand how it applies. For instance, while it is true that the Bible says in several places to submit to authorities, it often says this as an appeal to common sense. For instance, you should submit to authorities because of there will be (obvious) repercussions if you do not. You should submit to authorities because the rest of the community will see that you are a law abiding citizen, and this is good for your reputation. You should submit to authorities because God appoints them (but does not necessarily meticulously control them), and they are there for your protection (or should be).
        However, in case that you presented above with the Gestapo, there is more to it than “don’t lie; honor authorities.” For instance, when Jesus is asked if it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, he took out a coin and asked “Whose image is on this coin?” Of course, Caesars imagine was on the coin. “Therefore, render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s.” I bring this up to make a simple point: God has placed limits on the governing authorities, as to what they are allowed to ask of their people. A coin may have the image of Caesar of it, but humans have God’s image on them. Therefore, if the government steps outside of the bounds that God has set for them (which would obviously be true in the case of the Gestapo), then disobedience to authorities is not a problem. In other words, if disobedience to authorities is obedience to God—obedience to God is obviously more important. You have numerous accounts of this in scripture.

        As to your last statement: “I guess I just know too much about how old the Bible is, how mistranslated it is, how misinterpreted it is, how words have been added to it to really consider it an absolute source of unquestionable morality.” You’ve said a lot here that could warrant a lengthy discussion on textual criticism that I won’t have time to fully address here. I will say that the NT in particular is incredibly reliable. In fact, if I remember correctly, we have more copies of NT manuscripts than other ancient document, written remarkably close to the original events, and copied with extreme care. I’m assuming you know why this is important.

        I don’t pretend to be an expert in NT Greek or textual criticism. But where I work, I’m within walking distance of the offices of a handful of NT scholars. Since you said that you know about how the documents have been manipulated, I would be happy to pass along an example (if you provide one) of a problematic text to one of these professors. Feel free to post a comment or send me an email with the selected text, along with the internal problems therein, and I will pass it along.

        I look forward to hearing back from you!

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