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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Atheism, Ethics, and Immorality

In my time of interacting with atheists, the problem of moral grounding comes up over and over again. Most atheists believe they are good, yet they cannot anchor their goodness in God. In fact, the UK Huffington Post featured a story on notable British atheists and where they find their morality. Many were asked if atheists were as moral as people of faith. The answers were pretty unanimously "yes." Julian Hubbert said, "I'm always perplexed by those who believe that in order to have a moral code it is necessary to have a religious belief - it seems to me astonishing that people would have to look up what is morally right and wrong." Richard Dawkins made the claim, "Atheists can be just as moral as religious people. And I think there is some reason to expect a statistical tendency for atheists to be more moral."1

But the question becomes more complex when they are asked how one discovers moral duties. Comedian David Baddiel said, "I have only one principle, not even a moral one, really. Which is: to be as true as possible, both to myself and to some notion of objective reality, all the time." He's right there; such a code may be used as justification for all kinds of immoral behaviors. Polly Toynbee asserts that "everyone is born with an inbuilt moral purpose. It springs from mankind's evolution as a social being, acting collaboratively, with altruism and good of the community hard-wired."2 I don't believe that matches reality at all. Certainly, as a newspaper columnist, Toynbee must read the papers and know the ongoing selfishness and violence people inflict upon each other every day.

Assuming Self-Interest

As I've spoken to atheists, many of them have told me that they would deny absolute morality but they are ethical in how they live. One of our guest atheist speakers stated that he felt ethics was a much more interesting topic that morality. When questioned about the objectivity of their morality, other atheists tried to shift the discussion to ethics as well. But that won't help. Ethics is setting a standard of how morality plays out in various situations. So, to be ethical in business for example, one must not defraud another. How is that different from the biblical command "Thou shalt not lie?" It simply isn't.

I think many people assume since ethics is mostly spoken of in instances of organized interaction like business, people assume it protects them from the cheat, while morality prohibits them from doing things like being sexually promiscuous. Yet, ethics still encompasses an "ought": one ought to behave this way and not that way. And that's the trouble. Oughts are the language of morality.

Attaching Obligation

As I've written before, anytime there is an ought, it implies that the person being told to follow the ought is under obligation to do so. Simply because a man walks onto a court with a ball, we cannot tell what way he ought to handle that ball. If he is playing volleyball, there is a rule penalizing him for letting the ball fall to the ground whereas that rule makes no sense in basketball. The rule isn't binding on him.

Similarly, the atheist isn't bound by the Christian moral command to not lie; he isn't playing that ballgame. It would be completely logical for the atheist to ask, "Who says? Why should I live by your standards in this area. I choose to play a different game." His being true to himself may simply be expressed in making a lot of money.

The obligation question is a key one and I think many atheists realize that it brings up some difficult problems in their worldview. I don't believe most atheists are seeking to cheat people or are more dishonest than anyone else. But one must wonder, what rules are obligatory to follow if there is no rulebook, no referee, and you don't even know if you're playing the same game as the other person?


1. Ridley, Louise. "Famous Atheists Tell Us Where They Get Their Values From." The Huffington Post UK. AOL (UK) Limited, 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
2. Ridley, 2014.

Image provided by Orietta.sberla is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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