Feb 22 2011

Does Atheism Lead to Immorality?

This is an argument that will just not go away – that atheism leads to the absence of morality. I was recently pointed to this YouTube video once again making this point. Yes – this is just some random guy (Jon Topping) on the internet, but he is trying to put forward a logical argument and he is making the standard argument  – the same one I have heard from many religious sources, so it’s fair game.

His argument is fundamentally a false dichotomy – objective morality comes from belief in God (or some supernatural thingy) and if you are an atheist then morality has no objective basis and your morality must ultimately be subjective, which he argues logically leads to amorality. He dismisses many straw-man alternatives but never addresses the true alternative to his simple dichotomy, something again I find common.

First, let’s address his premises. He equates atheism with belief in evolution. This is not valid, but I will give him that most atheists accept evolution, because they have no reason to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus. Where he gets into trouble is in equating evolution with doing everything you can to survive and pass on your genes, even if it means stealing and killing. This is a simplistic and outdated view of evolution – of nature “red in tooth and claw.”

Evolution is not all about competition. It is also about cooperation, even self-sacrifice. Humans in particular are a cooperative social species. We derive survival advantage from taking care of our kin, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Evolutionary forces do not lead inexorably to competition and killing.

As a social species we have evolved a number of moral senses. These include notions such as reciprocity – doing good to others so that they will do good to you. Reciprocity has been demonstrated even in many animal species. While reciprocity may be a cold calculation of evolution, that does not mean that each individual is making a cold calculation. We actually feel that being good to others is the right thing to do, and we feel that those who do bad deserve to be punished. We have a sense of justice.

Evolving in a social group and being highly invested in a few offspring also means that we genuinely love our family and our children. In fact we extend this love to our “tribe”, whatever we perceive that to be. But there is also a downside to these evolved emotions in that we may dehumanize those we categorize as being “other” or in an out group. The point is that evolution leads to a complex set of moral emotions, taboos, and social connections – not murder and rampage.

Another core point of Topping’s is that without a supernatural source of morality, all morality must be subjective. If it’s subjective, then it’s just opinion – it’s just your opinion that murder is wrong. But we know instinctively that murder is wrong, and therefore there must be some moral fiber woven into the fabric of the universe – from God – and therefore atheism is wrong. Follow that? Perhaps we “know instinctively” that murder is wrong because we evolved that moral sense because having such a sense is a survival advantage in a social group. Therefore there is no reason for a supernatural cause of our instinct.

But Topping is also ignoring the other (and in fact primary) source of non-supernatural morality – philosophy. We have an evolved morality, which is in many ways particularly human, but in many ways also is probably just generic to any highly social species. Humans also pair bond, and so we have morality about that. And we raise few children, and so we have morality about that as well. But what if a technologically intelligent species arose and developed a civilization, and this species happened to not have evolved pair-bonding as a dominant practice. What if they evolved to be promiscuous, and to have thousands of children only a few of which would be expected to survive to adulthood. It is reasonable to conclude that their evolved moral sense would be quite different from ours.

So some of our morals are specific to the human condition. But evolution is not the only source of morality. Topping denigrates as “just opinion” anything other than morals that descend from heaven. But this is another false dichotomy and straw man. Philosophers, over the past several thousand years, have worked out from first principles a system of morals and ethics that is more than opinion – it logically flows from reasonable first principles. Topping, like many critics of non-religious morality I have debated, needs to read a good book on ethics.

For example, we can start with the basic principle of equality – that all people should be considered to have equal rights. We can reason that without this principle there is no way to develop a moral system that works (at least not in a human civilization, which is the proper context). And yes, it also appeals to our evolved sense of fairness and justice. Topping gets closest to this point by referring to this as “consensus” – but it’s more than consensus. Consensus is important, but it is also logical. The implications of a moral system with and without equality have been carefully thought out by our brightest thinkers over thousands of years, and it is the only conclusion that works.

Yes – it is true that even still such a system is not 100% metaphysical certitude. But the Toppings of the world would have you believe that everything less than this hypothetical perfect certitude is just “opinion.” That position, however, is demonstrably absurd.

There are other basic principles – such as, one of those rights that everyone has equal access to is the right not to be harmed. We all have a right to our own autonomy, to be left alone, and not be harmed by others. Ethicists start with these first principles – the most basic starting points they can think of, points that make sense and that everyone can agree on, and then they proceed carefully from there, thinking through the implications of these principles. Another layer is added when we need to figure out how to resolve conflicts – what happens when basic principles conflict, which ones take precedence?

This is a solid approach to morality. It is far more than opinion – it is logical, practical, fair, and functional. It is not immutable – we as a species will debate endlessly about our moral code, which will evolve as our civilization matures and gains more experience.  We will also face new challenges and our moral code will have to adapt to those challenges. Such a system is not absolute, but it works and it’s the best we have. It certainly does not lead to murder, as Topping naively argues.

There is also another massive false premise in Topping’s position (which I also frequently encounter) – and that is that a moral code derived from God is objective. What he and other miss is that, even if there is a supernatural force in the universe we do not have access to it. First, it has not been established that there is a supernatural force. Topping argues that our innate moral sense is evidence of this, but that is not a valid argument since evolution is a perfectly workable explanation for such moral senses. Further, there is no evidence for any specific form of any alleged supernatural force. Humans have come up with hundreds of conceptions of what the supernatural force(s) in the universe are, and there is no objective way to distinguish among them.

So if there is a god or gods, or some vague supernatural energy to the universe, humans have not figured out yet what it is. Our tribes all disagree about the particulars, and this includes what sources are valid and moral lessons the supernatural being has for us. Do we listen to Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha? And which interpretation?

Even if we agree on a source, the moral lessons are ambiguous. The God of Moses tells his followers “thou shall not kill” and then he commands them to murder every man, woman, and child in an enemy city. So killing is OK in war, or against another tribe? Or perhaps only when a priest says that god said it was OK. (God did not come down, after all, and speak to all the people, such commands to kill were conveyed through a single priest.) This certainly puts priests in a powerful position – to dictate the will of God and interpret the ultimate morality of the universe. But what do we do when priests disagree, which they do?

Therefore there is no evidence of an objective morality to the universe, and if there were such an objective morality there is no evidence that we have any privileged access to it. We are still left to figure out for ourselves what that morality might be, and we have come up with hundreds of different and often mutually exclusive answers.

In the end, the morality of the philosophers enjoys much more sense and consensus than the morality of the priesthood.  Philosophical morality is, ironically, more objective because it follows a transparent and logical process. While faith-based morality is subjective, because it derives from authority – the authority of questionable, ambiguous, and conflicting sources, and the authority of those who claim to be the interpreters of those sources.

53 responses so far

53 Responses to “Does Atheism Lead to Immorality?”

  1. beibanjinon 22 Feb 2011 at 8:36 am

    Good post, Doc.

    The best argument I’ve read (I can’t remember where) against the idea that all morality originates in religion is this: All of us, contemporary Christians included, have the wherewithal to distinguish the morally admirable passages in the Bible from the barbaric Old Testament passages like the one you refer to. This by necessity means that we are applying a moral judgment that originates outside the holy book.

    I have a good Christian friend who confided in me that passages like that make her shake her head in wonder at the mystery that is the Christian faith. My reaction (which I kept to myself) was that this is seeking out a complex explanation when a very simple one is right in front of you: the OT was written by Bronze Age barbarians, and we’ve come a long was as a species since then.

  2. Michael Meadonon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:14 am

    It gets worse for Topping: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma"Euthyphro's dilemma.

    Ethical non-realism (i.e. the denial that there are objective moral values somehow ‘out there’) does not imply ethical nihilism.

  3. Michael Meadonon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:15 am

    Ooops. HTML fail. Euthyphro’s dilemma.

  4. kloxon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:18 am

    When debating this with friends I usually end up along the lines of morality is subjective. There is a lack of physical mechanism currently and thus it will probably never be measured.

    I would rather refer to morals as subjective, but they are objective social constructs (or genetic predispositions). I’ve been wanting to read Sam Harris’s book and a couple of others because it sounds to me like they are saying morals can be objective because we can do some kind of scientific data crunching on groups of people and possibly come up with some standard units of measure. I would say sure, but it’s all just measure of social constructs (or genetic predispositions) and not a measurement of morals objectively. It’s still important to do those measurements and semi-justify why we should spread our socially constructed morals to societies that don’t have those morals.

    Do you see any kind of distinction like this? I’ve just been wondering if I have unconventional definitions of morals and am perhaps too picky about the distinction. Maybe it’s okay to just say morals are objective because they are social constructs, but I have yet to really adopt that perspective.

  5. Skeptical Atheiston 22 Feb 2011 at 9:24 am

    Good and Evil has a Platonic existence of their own. Darwinian Evolution cannot fully account for our love, kindness and sense of goodness.
    There are somethings that are just plain evil and bad, Torture is evil and bad, Killing is evil and bad. These are evil period. It has nothing to do with the fact that we are social species. Some things are just plain evil.
    Some people are just plain evil, take Osama Bin Laden, he is an evil bastard. Full stop. There is not one bone of goodness or kindness in his body. The Taliban is evil. Sadam Hussein is evil. Stealing is evil. Hurting others is evil.

    Good and Evil have a platonic existence of their own.
    The Universe is fundamentally good, it is not just a large machine with pitiless indifference. What we do have deep consequences.
    Believing in an afterlife is healthy. If we believe for instance in reincarnation we would force ourselves to really preserve this planet. It’s one thing to take care of our precious planet for our children but what if we have to be born again 150 years later on this planet. Surely we will be compelled to make a difference and not just say who cares I will be dead and gone in a 150 years.

  6. Steven Novellaon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:34 am

    SA – You make a lot of assertions, but that’s it. No actual arguments. Except perhaps for the argument from final consequences logical fallacy. I challenge your premise that believing in an afterlife is a healthy thing (that is highly debatable), but even if we accept that premise it does not logically follow that there is therefore an afterlife.

    You also endorse, whether you realize it or not, a deontological and absolutist form of ethics – which is highly problematic. If killing is wrong, period, can it ever be justified? What if you have to kill someone in order to prevent them from killing thousands of others? Would you kill someone if it were the only way to keep them from raping a child?

  7. Steven Novellaon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:37 am

    MM – After I finished my post and left for work, I thought I should add Euthyphro’s dilemma at the end – it also guts the objective argument of supernaturalists. Essentially – is something moral because God says so, or does God say so because it is moral.

    If the former then that is no more objective than anything else – it is authority-based ethics.

    If the latter then you can argue that humans can work out what is objectively moral on our own without being told by God.

    Of course, if God does not exist, the dilemma evaporates.

  8. kloxon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:39 am

    That is a lot of subjective claims SA. Saying ‘period’ doesn’t make it any more objective. There a lot of ethical dilemma scenarios where the distinction between good and evil isn’t so clear cut. I suggest reading up on those. Is it okay to sacrifice a baby to save 100 people? 1000 people? 100000000 people? What if you have two people dying of a disease, but only have one treatment of the anecdote? Who gets it? What if one of the people is the president? What if one of them is the pope? What if one of them is your parent? What if it’s an animal and a person? You could easily be labeled evil for many of these situations, but I highly doubt you would consider yourself evil having to make the choice between 1 baby and 10000000 people.

  9. Veonon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:46 am

    Matt Dillahunty has a very good lecture on the subject of secular morality versus theistic morality: Superiority of Secular Morality.

    He has also done a debate on the subject that can be found here.

  10. Watcheron 22 Feb 2011 at 9:47 am

    Darwinian Evolution cannot fully account for our love, kindness and sense of goodness.

    Sure it can. Steve gave a brief outline in his post. Many people who read here can talk about the interactions of the limbic system and neurotransmitters to create what we feel as love vs. hate or a moral compass.

  11. Draalon 22 Feb 2011 at 9:50 am

    I thought that this may be appropriate additional material (specific to this topic starts at 7:10 into the video):
    and the Thank Hitch Project

  12. Skeptical Atheiston 22 Feb 2011 at 9:54 am

    Steve and Klox, I think Spirituality say’s that the most important thing is to ask are we choosing love or hate in any situation. Are we showing compassion and kindness or are we showing hatred and anger.
    That’s the most important thing.
    Some spiritual people will go so far as to say that every evil act is a call for compassion. But I can’t buy into that. I can’t have compassion for a drunk bastard that knocks and kills an old grandfather or grandmother. I can’t have compassion for idiots that blow up churches or trains.
    The fact is somethings are just plain evil.
    Like I said Good and Evil have a platonic existence of their own.

    John Edwards ( The Psychic) is a good man, he travels the world bringing hope and love and he helps us connect with our departed loved ones again, his love for humanity is so strong that even though people scream and yell and unfairly call him a fraud and accuse him of cold reading, yet he acts out of love.
    John Edwards is a good man.

    An Islamic Mullah that poisons the mind of young Muslims and teaches them to hate Hindus because they worship animals and to look down on Jews because they are inferior,
    these Mullahs are plain evil.

    George Bush a man with so much compassion and love in his heart that he worked so hard to eradicate Malaria in Africa, George Bush is a good man.

    So Again, Good and Evil have a platonic existence of their own.
    And Some people are good while others are plain evil.

  13. Skeptical Atheiston 22 Feb 2011 at 10:02 am

    Watcher I agree that some parts of the brain act together to bring about the feeling of love, but they don’t create Love.
    Love is Love, you can never reduce it to a mere chemical process.
    Love is the air that we breathe, Love is the force that spins our planet around the sun, Love is the very fabric of our Cosmos.
    Please don’t reduce love to just another Chemical Process.
    As the great Jerry Japolsky say’s:

    ”The essence of our being is Love. Love cannot be hindered by what is merely physical. Therefore we believe the mind has no limits, nothing is impossible, and all disease is potentially reversible. And because love is eternal, death need not be viewed fearfully”.

  14. Skeptical Atheiston 22 Feb 2011 at 10:15 am

    Please don’t fear death my fellow Atheists. Death is not the end. Life/Love is eternal.
    Death is just the shedding of our physical body, we will move on to higher frequencies of existence where we will meet all our loved ones again. All of us will be surrounded by the loving light of the Universe (God) forever and ever.
    There is no separation, we are all always connected.
    Something happens within our hearts when we begin to live our lives without judging ourselves or others, when we let go of blame and guilt, and when we love ourselves and other people around us unconditionally. We will let go of our fear of death when we truly come to the realization that Love is always present.

  15. Steven Novellaon 22 Feb 2011 at 10:19 am

    SA – People generally act out of complex beliefs and emotions – not pure love or pure hate.

    We gave some scenarios. You say blowing up a church is evil. But what if you lived in an evil society. Say Hitler won the war and established Nazi churches that in part enforced his rule. Would blowing up such a church as part of a resistance movement be evil? Would it be an act of love or of hate?

    You also seem to be saying that people who teach and practice YOUR sectarian religion are good, and people who teach and practice some OTHER sectarian religion are evil. How convenient for you (and tribal).

    You bring up John Edwards – that is an excellent example. You see him as helping people by comforting him. I see him as a cold-hearted con artist who is exploiting the grief of people to make money – a vulture. Which one of us is correct?

    I guess if you always just assume that your beliefs are absolutely morally correct, there are no ethical dilemmas. But that’s not the real world.

  16. Tantalus Primeon 22 Feb 2011 at 10:26 am

    Meadon: I was going to bring up Euthyphro’s Dilemma too. I often imagine how God would have reacted if the angel Michael had been busy at the pub and never told Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac. God couldn’t exactly get mad at Abraham, since he did what he was told. But still, Abraham would have violated God’s intention and ignorance is no excuse. What is a deity to do?

    I am amazed at the number of people who think because God says it is right it is right (eg. “I would like to treat homosexuals with equality but God says they are an abomination”). If you believe Kohlberg’s longitudinal studies on moral development, ascribing the rightness or wrongness of a moral value to the words of an authority figure is about as undeveloped as morality can get. This is the morality generally displayed by children below the age of eight. I expect it from them though, not from somebody in their thirties.

  17. Skepticoon 22 Feb 2011 at 10:33 am

    Christopher Hitchens says something like, so you’re telling me that before Moses came down from the mountain with his tablets, no one realized that killing was bad. Everyone was going around killing people whenever the felt like it, and no one thought anything of it. Then Moses, the commandments, and people were like ‘oh so killing is bad it it? Ok them.’

    Skeptical Atheist:

    I have evidence that John Edward (not Edwards) is a fraud. Do you have evidence that Edward acts out of love? Please present it.

  18. MKandeferon 22 Feb 2011 at 11:11 am

    If a physical sentient being created all of man and gave the moral codes to follow would this also be an “objective morality”? If not what is it about the supernatural that suddenly imbues sentient entities with the capability of making objective moral decrees?

    Too many assumptions under the hood. Even if it were the case that a god existed, we had access to its moral decrees, and it created us, I don’t see how it follows that its decrees are indeed moral.

  19. daedalus2uon 22 Feb 2011 at 12:04 pm

    To me, one of the strongest arguments for an evolved sense of morality is that it changes with the physiological state of the individual, and in the exact direction that evolution would predict.

    When people are put in desperate situations, they will do desperate things, things they would never do in non-desperate situations. One of the most desperate things a mother can do is commit infanticide. All mammals do this under the proper circumstances, conditions of very high stress. Lactation is so energy intensive that evolution had to configure mammals to shed lactation metabolic load when lactation is unsustainable. Mammalian mothers that did kill their infants when lactation was unsustainable had better reproductive success than mothers that didn’t, hence the reason essentially all extant mammals exhibit that behavior under sufficient stress.

    To me, both maternal love and maternal infanticide are both evolved maternal instincts. Both are absolutely necessary under the proper circumstances to preserve maternal reproductive success, the only thing that evolution “cares” about.

    Patriarchal religions like Christianity are all about setting up a social hierarchy with God at the top, followed by His Prophets, His Priests, His followers, believers, believers in other gods and with atheists at the bottom. In such a social hierarchy, those at the top have higher status than those beneath them, and in the limit have total authority (including life and death) over those beneath them. The whole point of patriarchal religions is to “other” people outside the hierarchy so they can be (in the limit) killed. Relatively few Christian sects advocate this now, at one time it was mainstream. Relatively few Muslim sects do too. It is Christians in Uganda that are pushing to kill gay people, supported and egged on by Christians in the US.

    If you look at the Ten Commandments, they are all about preserving a social power hierarchy with God and the self-proclaimed religious authorities at the top. The example in the post about killing fits exactly with this. The prohibition was about killing someone on the same level or above you in the social hierarchy. Someone lower down could be killed with impunity (a slave that died a few days after being beaten) or a disobedient child, or with high rewards (non-virgin women and male children captured in battle).

    I think it is much more important to look at what people actually do, and try to derive their actual sense of morality from their actions rather than from what they state their morality to be. I only put a moral value on actions, not on feelings, feelings mostly being beyond conscious control. I have an extensive write-up on how the feelings of xenophobia occur. They seem to me to be a purely evolved aspect of human behavior, one that fits right in with a social power hierarchy.


  20. colluvialon 22 Feb 2011 at 12:36 pm

    It seems to me that justifying secular morality before examining where it is that religious morality comes from is defensive and plays into theists’ hands. They may maintain that their morals come from God somehow, but that should dismissed out of hand since it has no basis in reality. The only support for a moral code they have is in the Bible which uncomfortably contains a long series of acts of genocide and murder, plus many directives to kill disobedient children, adulterers, those who work on the Sabbath, etc. So obviously they get their morals from somewhere else: the same place as the rest of us – evolution, empathy, social consciousness, and threat of punishment.

  21. JonToppingon 22 Feb 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Great write up, enjoyed it very much.
    Atheism requires a naturalistic cause. Evolution is the only natural cause we know of. I would say evolution is not sufficient for atheism, but it is necessary.

    I would agree it’s a false dichotomy, if I didn’t leave the option for a third choice. I left the door open for another possibility to be shared with me. Even my argument structure (E) involves another possible solution. My second premise merely assumes there isn’t one, to which I say that if you disagree, then you must give me what “E” is.

    On the survival of the fittest. You’re right to point out my flaw that leaves out communal benefit. However, I did address that this still leads to subjective morality, because communities can disagree. Even if we know instinctively that murder is wrong because of evolution, what do you do when communities disagree and slaughter whole people groups because they believe it benefits them? This follows the naturalistic view of the moral code does it not?

    It may just be my being green in this field, but while I could follow what you were saying, I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the main point to prove non-opinion based morality. Is it just that we have logically worked out what’s best for humanity, and this is true morality? Wouldn’t that still be up for debate when groups disagree? If I’m wrong (which I’m sure is the case here), please help me understand your argument better.
    It seems like ethicists lay out the first principles, to which they say must be true because everyone agrees on them. The obvious question comes up, which you then seem to just say that our models are imperfect.

    As for divine morality not being objective. I believe I’m missing your point again, because it seems like your saying that since religious people disagree, therefore it must be that God’s morality is based on the person. I’m sure this isn’t what you’re saying, so please correct me, because under this idea we place ourselves in God’s position. If we assume the existence of God, then it would be His morality, not ours, and some humans disagreeing would merely be misrepresenting His morality.

    The one point I really liked was by MKandefer. Even if God create us and tells us what’s moral, why obey Him? Even if God created time and space, why should I believe a triangle has three sides? For both cases, just because God made it that way doesn’t mean I have to believe it; I have been given the free will to reject truths. Although, if you do face God one day, and He points out that you knew He existed, and you knew how He wanted you to live, and you knew the consequences of rejecting Him, then you should obviously agree with the consequences, right?

    As for Euthyphro. I’m sure you’ve heard the counter-argument that morality exists within God. It’s the same with logic. God cannot do the illogical, not because He obeys something outside of Himself, and not because He arbitrarily says how it is, but because these laws are found within Himself. Morality emanates from God, and to go against it would go against His own nature. Mind giving me your response on that?

  22. mikerattlesnakeon 22 Feb 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Skeptical Atheist is either a lying troll or a very simple-minded cretin with a penchant for picking ironic nyms. Given that both John Edwards and George Bush were picked as “good people”, I’m leaning towards the former. No one can be that clueless.

  23. eeanon 22 Feb 2011 at 1:28 pm

    both religion, religious ethics and your first-principals based ethics are just subjective memes. We can even trace the equal rights meme directly to the Enlightenment.

    So basically the main argument shouldn’t be that there are objectively better morals, but more that the whole enterprise of finding objective morals is wrong and we should just muddle along and do our best. Which is what we always have done anyways. (and finding evolutionary roots to our ethics smacks of bad evolutionary pyschology and is debunked by a world history full of ‘alternate’ ethical systems)

    Creating ethicals sysems is a good way of finding consensus, but I’m not sure it means anything greater then that.

    I don’t mean to imply some sort of post-modern “everyone has a right to their opinion.” I fully endorse the equal rights meme because I think it makes the world a better place. Its superior to the alternatives. I’ve been infected with that meme and don’t see what the problem is. Sometimes you just have to draw a line.

  24. sonicon 22 Feb 2011 at 1:44 pm

    If there are objective laws of physics where do they come from?
    Why do people have such a hard time finding them and then disagree with how to interpret them?
    Why do we seem to have two theories that don’t necessarily agree with each other?
    Why do the top physicists have to hypothesize dimensions that we can’t see, universes that we can’t know and ‘dark matter and energy’ that nobody has seen?
    Is any of that proof that there aren’t objective laws of physics?
    Why not?

  25. MaikUniversumon 22 Feb 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Question to atheist/theists:

    Is killing OK when government/state/God commands it or is it simply murder?

    I mean here when a soldier/police kills anyone. It is important to notice, that theists and atheists have same problem evaluating morality. They are all moral hypocrites so to speak. They deman moral objectivity from the ordinary people but are ok with moral subjectivity among politicians/priests etc.

    So once again, if I wear a cop suit, can I kill randomly anyone? This moral hypocricy is most noticeable when an ordinary person kills a cop in self-defense and vice versa.

    The same, when christian justifies killings in God’s name, atheists justify killings in State’s name.

    There is either objective standard or no standard at all. What we have now is “might makes right” morality, and that’s very poor standard.

  26. Draalon 22 Feb 2011 at 2:13 pm

    “If there are objective laws of physics where do they come from?”

    “How’d the moon get here? How’d the sun get there? How’d it get there? Can you explain that to me? How come we have that and Mars doesn’t have it?” -Bill O’Reilly

  27. Steven Novellaon 22 Feb 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Maik – moral objectivity does not imply and absolutist approach, as you are assuming.

    Secular ethicists do not advocate “might makes right” or allowing the state to do whatever it wants. Rather, if collectively we agree to have a government (which is basically the Constitution) and we have things like seat-belt laws and police to offer security and protection, this has to be calculated into the ethical equation.

    Essentially we allow for a certain social contract between citizens and their government. This is no hypocrisy – it’s part of balancing of various complex moral imperatives that is necessary.

    Eean – would you say that a moral system which is internally consistent is superior to a moral system that is internally self-contradictory?

  28. Tom23507on 22 Feb 2011 at 2:29 pm

    You recommended getting a “good book on ethics” – any suggestions for particularly good ones?

  29. colluvialon 22 Feb 2011 at 3:49 pm

    @JonTopping: “If we assume the existence of God, then it would be His morality, not ours, and some humans disagreeing would merely be misrepresenting His morality.”

    Perhaps you could tell us what’s a reliable source of God’s morality. To me this is just smoke and mirrors, and leaves us in the position of giving credence to a little voice in someone’s head. The same kind of voice, by the way, that occasionally tells mothers to drown their children.

  30. sonicon 22 Feb 2011 at 3:54 pm

    There seems to be an argument that because people have a hard time finding something and have disagreements about the thing, there can’t be an objective reality behind it.
    (We know that morals aren’t objective because…)
    But that argument doesn’t hold any water- because the same can be made about any number of other subjects (including physics).
    I find your response non-sequitar.

  31. SimonWon 22 Feb 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I’ve taken to simply asking that “if the atheist is right and there is no god, where does the theist’s morality come from?” .

    This emphasises that the atheist (may) have a solid philosophical position for his morality if he is right, where as the theist is typically trusting in 3000 year old book written by people who thought slavery was fine, and genocide acceptable if you told people god told you to do it – although the details may vary depending on what kind of theist you are discussing the topic with.

    It also forces them to consider they might be wrong about their god(s).

  32. Steven Novellaon 22 Feb 2011 at 4:12 pm

    sonic – my point is not so much that objective morals do not exist (even though I find no evidence for them or reason to think that they do exist). It is, rather, that even if they did exist, no one has access to them. And there is no functional difference between a world with objective morals we cannot access and one without objective morals – in both cases we are left to figure things out on our own.

  33. Karl Withakayon 22 Feb 2011 at 4:58 pm

    I’m still catching up on the web since getting back from a Caribbean cruise: i just read this today on the subject of God derived morality:


  34. Draalon 22 Feb 2011 at 5:06 pm

    “I find your response non-sequitar.”
    Indeed. but it was the first thing that popped into mind and I was just having a bit of fun.

  35. norrisLon 22 Feb 2011 at 11:06 pm

    Forgive me if someone has already said this in the very long list of comments, but research shows that in general, atheists are more moral than people of various religions.

    Sorry, but no I do not happen to have copies of such research to hand at this time.


  36. rwwon 23 Feb 2011 at 12:27 pm

    It’s a silly argument, and both Steven and Jon are being too reductive here. An atheist might believe that the notion of God is a social construct, and that the notion of morality is a social construct. One can adhere to the construct of morality without adhering to the construct of God. The incentives to abide by either construct are similar – to live a more integrated, love-filled, satisfying, fulfilling, peaceful, harmonious life. To say that either bothmorality and God are social constructs is not to say that morality does not ‘exist’. Obviously, what we call moral behavior exists. Jon asks where morality comes from. The same place his god comes from – all of us! It is a product of the nature, history, thought and language of humanity. This does not make it ‘subjective’, though there is much in conventional morality that could be said to be subjective, as evidenced by the variations seen around the world in the specifics of morality.

    True, an atheist does not think that immoral behavior will doom him to an eternal lake of fire (as if being moral out of fear could be called morality anyway), but he or she typically has been socialized to realize that harming others is not a healthy or pleasant lifestyle. As history clearly shows, the socialization process can go wrong for someone raised as an atheist, or as a believer. (I would suggest that the belief-defying mythology associated with Christianity is a major cause of young Christian lives turning away from religion and going morally adrift.)

    So, while an atheist does not believe that morality was revealed to humans by a supernatural being, he or she does recognize the existence of morality as has been inculcated by our culture, and that it forms one of the pillars of a life worth living.

    The worst mistakes we could make would be to think that atheism is necessarily more or less moral than the more enlightened varieties of Christianity, or that an atheist becomes or remains moral as the result of purely objective reasoning, independent of their upbringing and association with others.


  37. eeanon 23 Feb 2011 at 1:28 pm

    @steven: yes?

    anyways I see in your response to sonic that we’re on the same page. developing an ethical systems from first principals is a good example of godless morality and thats it. Which is fine.

  38. CivilUnreston 23 Feb 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Skeptical Athiest, against my better judgment, I’ll take your bait because I’m curious to see where your argument will go.

    You say Osama bin Laden is unequivocally evil. I see where you’re coming from because, as an American citizen, I despise the man and would gladly remove him from the face of the planet if given a chance. Furthermore, I firmly believe that my sense or morality is OBJECTIVELY (not subjectively) better than his.

    THAT BEING SAID, I cannot say that Osama is evil. There are many people all over the world that view him as a hero, a freedom fighter and/or a vigilante standing up against an Evil Empire (us).

    If there are people out there who think Western society is evil, wouldn’t that make Osama a Good person to them? Can you honestly say that, if you were born in Northern Pakistan and had family members killed by American Predator drones, you wouldn’t think Osama is a hero?

  39. Mlemaon 23 Feb 2011 at 8:04 pm

    There are no objective morals. Only subjective morals that are right or wrong! 🙂

    Some books I think would be pertinent:

    “The Evolution of God” by Robin Wright
    “10 Philosophical Mistakes” by Mortimer J. Adler

  40. cwfongon 23 Feb 2011 at 8:33 pm

    We have a village idiot here who wears that same smiley face. Any relation?

  41. Mlemaon 23 Feb 2011 at 9:38 pm

    No. I’m related to the pompous asses. I guess you and I had better refrain from sexual intercourse.

  42. BillyJoe7on 23 Feb 2011 at 10:08 pm



    If that is your reaction to any cwrong post, you won’t go far wrong. 😀

  43. cwfongon 23 Feb 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Looks like you two idiots have already done the nasty.
    Same sort of brain farts that pass for logic.

  44. cwfongon 23 Feb 2011 at 10:49 pm

    They do however do a charming dance together – to the tune of the poetically correct.

  45. BillyJoe7on 24 Feb 2011 at 5:09 am

    More charming at least than your one man circle jerk. 😀

  46. andyoon 24 Feb 2011 at 7:39 am

    Man, what a fun thread.

    “Skeptical Atheist”: I don’t think you’re very skeptical, and not much of an atheist. I would bet that most of the skeptical and atheist community aren’t your “fellows”. So stop the cute pretensions and say what you really believe, please.

  47. greengeekgirlon 24 Feb 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Atheist morality is something that I’ve been exploring on my blog for some time (reference posts here and here), and I’m always surprised not to see more people approach it from a developmental psychology standpoint. According to the moral stage theory of Lawrence Kohlberg, people who glean morality chiefly from religion would not at the height of human morality–they would, in fact, hover near the middle, in the “law and order” stages of moral thinking. Those who tried to understand why religious laws are good would be in the higher middle, and those who followed without questioning in the lower middle. The highest echelons of moral thinking require that the person go beyond convention and generally-accepted moral constructs to seek a greater morality than society considers “normal” at the present time. (Those who assumed the mantle of ending slavery in the U.S. and those who later spearheaded the civil rights movement would fit into this category, for example.) Religion, then, by giving its followers a set of laws that must be absolutely accepted as the height of morality, limits morality rather than strengthening it. Only those who are willing to stretch beyond the accepted moral thinking of religion–whether or not they are atheists, it’s not a prerequisite by any means–are capable of having the highest morality.

  48. BrianHincheyon 24 Feb 2011 at 6:59 pm

    After listening to a recent SGU podcast, I’m reminded of the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy. That is, when presented with the premise “Atheism leads to immorality.”, I can always show countless examples of atheists who seem just as moral as any religious person and I can only presume that would be rebuffed by some argument such as “That person is not AS atheist as the kind of atheists who are immoral.”

    Would that be a fair application of this logical fallacy?

  49. Kawarthajonon 25 Feb 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Ok, a couple of things. I tried to read through everyone’s post, but I just skimmed some of them, so I apologize if I am repeating someone else’s comments.

    1. Where is the proof that either athiests or theists are more moral? Does the average religious person commit less crimes, murder less, steal, lie, cheat, and so on, than the average athiest? This is really important. If it were true that athiests generally behaved more badly than theists, there there might be some premise for saying that athiests are less moral. Otherwise, why would someone even try to pursue this argument in the first place? I challenge Jon Topping or any other theist to prove to me that atheists are less moral people on average than theists.

    2. Humans get along really well with eachother compared to other social mammal species. If you compare us to monkeys or apes, we fight much less, we can live in greater densities, we show more altruistic and mutually benefitial behaviours than other species and we share food really well. Other species can’t do this. Part of the reason we get along so well is that there is less competition for resources in our species because we are really good at finding/growing food compared to others. In places where resources are very scarce (i.e. Rwanda, Haiti, and other resource depleted societies), people are not so nice to each other. They murder, steal and hoard food more often. It does not relate to religion, atheism or philosophical beliefs, but to access to resources. That is why you consistently find more criminal behaviours in poorer neighbourhood – when stressed for resources, humans aren’t that nice to each other. It is often about survival and not about higher beliefs or philosophies.

  50. BigSlowTargeton 26 Feb 2011 at 12:10 pm

    It seems to me that proponents of conflict between morality and atheism don’t have a good grasp on game theory. Evolutionary game theory shows some strategies are much more successful at survival than others. It’s not surprising that these tend to match up with widely held moral codes and the mathematics that support them is as true today as it was a billion years ago.

    That being said, we are now conscious beings that act against evolutionary pressures all the time and there is nothing that mandates our all encompassing goal should be individual or species survival. If you change the goal to something like ‘making sure members of the species have fulfilling lives while continuing the species’ the optimum strategies are going to change, probably dramatically.

  51. frankjspencejron 26 Feb 2011 at 7:02 pm

    First, I hope atheism doesn’t lead to immorality, otherwise I am a bad person.
    Anyway, the main point I want to interject is that morality is inherently subjective.
    While I agree with Sam Harris that we can make objective, generalizable statements about the best ways to interact with each other, and those statements come closest to an objective, generalizable moral system, they depend on a consensus of subjective judgments.
    Nothing has moral significance if it does not ultimately impact the experience of a subject.
    Since existence is required for experience, then things that affect the likelihood of existence have INDIRECT moral significance. But it is only indirect. If a being/thing existed without subjective experience, eg, a rock (?) of a zombie, then there would be no moral significance to any act involving that being.
    If a being existed ONLY as a subject, with no objective aspects, anything that impacted the experience of the subject would have moral significance.
    Moral significance requires subjective experience. Period.
    Further, morality in regard to subjects is a descriptive exercise, in my opinion, since I regard free will in the traditional sense to be a logical impossibility.
    That is another discussion, but briefly stated, actions, including choices, either come about from a rigid predisposition (deterministically), a weighted predisposition (probabilistically, which involves a determined probability distribution plus randomization within that distribution), or randomly, none of which allows for the kind of freedom required for ultimate self-determination.

  52. Dark.Kantianon 02 Mar 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Great post Steve,

    I do have a few comments.
    To start, a little pedantic point. The first principles of evolution, so to speak, are still debated but I would side with the position that at bottom evolution is all about competition. Roughly, in a world inherently limited in available resources and ways of getting at them genes are in constant competition to perpetuate themselves. All the “nice” things like cooperation, etc. are bi-products of this fundamental drive to out-compete. So at bottom and as uncomfortable as some take this to be, nature and evolution is (it seems quite likely) “red in tooth and claw” but to fixate on this is to miss the forest for the trees. There is no contradiction between the ultimate foundation of evolution as the drive for competitive advantage and the higher level emergent elements such as cooperation and altruism.

    Second, I was surprised to see that Steve did not address a glaring point. Topping draws our attention to the second premise of his argument, but it is the first premise that can be rejected out of hand. It illegitimately ties two logically distinct metaphysical claims: (1) existence of God, and (2) existence of morality. It is possible that God exists, but morality does not exist, which breaks the back of the argument right out of the gate.

    All Jon-Topping-like arguments for the divine source of morality rest on the fundamental and extremely weak premise that there is, in fact, a divine agent from which our moral code is to be derived. Without a further argument for (a) the existence of God, and (b) the existence of God that is a source of morality (the two are logically distinct as you can have a without b) all that can be afforded to the Toppings of the world is that there are is no objective morality, period.

    A number of comments under my youtube profile (dbearTO) have been posted in response to the video.

  53. Ksjetdon 09 Mar 2011 at 4:17 am

    Reading fast I saw: “Does Atheism Lead to Immortality?”

    Which is funny because I think it does. People who think that an almighty being is going to grant them immortality will do little to get it, those conscious of their finitude may be more willing to make an effort to increase their life span, and that effort may eventually lead to a virtually infinite life span.

    Science saves lives, you can see it every day in any hospital. In short: “Science saves”.

    “Where is your God now?”

    WRT the ‘real’ original post, I only read some pieces, but this is nothing new:


    Maybe your explanation is more comprehensive, and it’s never bad to repeat something some people seem to ignore, so thank you.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.