Standing on Air

Despite endless reiterations of how atheists find justification for morality, we all routinely hear from apologists who claim that without believing in God, we can have no basis for ethical behavior. That’s one thing, but today I want to discuss a far stranger and more disturbing variant of this argument.

Regardless of whether we agree about the existence of God, you would think that atheists and believers would agree that good behavior should be encouraged. You would think that a religious evangelist would say to an atheist, “I may not understand how you can justify acting ethically, but I’m glad you do and I hope you continue treating others with kindness and doing good deeds.” But often, that’s not what we get. Instead, we see apologists not just scorning the idea that atheists can have moral principles, but actively trying to convince us that we should be evil!

Consider three recent examples from comment threads on Daylight Atheism:

Why is the next step [after becoming an atheist] to treat others with kindness? We don’t have to do that at all. If there’s no God telling us to be kind, then I say its survival of the fittest. I should oppress as many as possible to make my own position better. (source)

You have nothing but your own mind, a clump of chemicals, to judge the actions of another clump of chemicals. It’s like a dog judging the way a cat runs his life, or Uranus criticizing the orbit of Pluto. It’s ridiculous, incoherent nonsense. If you were consistent, you would just shut your mouths and do whatever pleases you at any moment, and not criticize when someone else did what pleases them…. (source)

Nonetheless, why do you even care about this? As atheists I would think that survival of the fittest at any cost would be acceptable. You have no accountability to anything. Truth and right is subjective in your eyes, so why is scamming a few suckers so bad? (source)

One might assume that the apologists engage in this bizarre behavior because they want us to conform to their stereotype of atheists as selfish, amoral nihilists – making it easier for them to frighten others away from joining us. And I think, at least in some cases, there’s truth to that. The atheist movement is a convenient scapegoat for religious preachers who blame every evil in the world on our wickedness. There’s nothing like a good atheist-bashing sermon to get the congregation reliably riled up, and if we persist in doing good deeds, helping people, and being productive citizens, it’s going to make things very awkward for the sermon-writers (especially since it’s no longer socially acceptable to bash the previous scapegoat du jour).

However, I think the real roots of this behavior go deeper. Religious evangelists aren’t just calling atheists immoral because it’s on their list of talking points. I think most of them truly believe it: it’s an article of faith for them, a cornerstone of their worldview. And when they see that expectation violated, it induces a profound and frightening feeling of cognitive vertigo that they’ll try to cure by any means possible.

Imagine you were walking along the rim of a high cliff when you saw someone, a dozen paces beyond the edge, apparently standing on thin air with no visible means of support. Most likely, you wouldn’t placidly accept this. Wouldn’t you be stunned, amazed, terrified? Wouldn’t you cry out that this was impossible? Wouldn’t you demand, “Why don’t you fall?”

Just so is the situation with religious apologists encountering ethical atheists. They believe, because they’ve been taught to believe, that belief in God is vital and necessary both to provide moral guidance to individuals and also to hold the fabric of society together. They believe that humans are inherently sinful and that only God provides a moral law that can check our selfish impulses. Thus, the conclusion that atheists have no morals isn’t just a claim of no consequence; it’s a link in the chain of interconnected assumptions that constitutes their worldview. It’s something that, as far as they’re concerned, has to be true.

No wonder, then, that they react so strongly when they see atheists who are moral. Their missives betray not just anger and denial – the usual response to someone whose worldview is threatened – but maybe even a hint of fear. (“Why do you even care about this?” has more than a hint of pleading, doesn’t it?) After all, an argument that God doesn’t exist or that the Bible contains contradictions is a worldview threat that most Christians are familiar with, and they have well-rehearsed apologetics to soothe their own minds. But the discovery that atheists are moral is something they can’t dismiss as easily; it just doesn’t fit into their worldview. (Some apologists employ the face-saving gambit of claiming that even if atheists are moral, it’s only because we’re unknowingly following the law of God written in our hearts – but this amounts to much the same thing, and in any case this claim tends to evaporate when we point out how our morals lead us to conclusions that differ from what’s written in their holy books.)

And as a consequence, we see claims that boil down to, “If I were in your position, I’d be evil and selfish! Why aren’t you?” It’s the same intellectual anguish we’d experience upon seeing someone standing on thin air: “If I were in your position, I’d be plummeting to the ground! What’s keeping you up?” It’s the shock of someone confronted with what they believe cannot exist, the existential dizziness induced by trying desperately to explain the inexplicable. In a way, a good and moral atheist is far more threatening to them than any kind of intellectual argument against God. A committed theist can use faith to overcome any evidence or reason used against them, but they can’t use faith to wish us away. But they clearly wish they could, which is what leads to the bizarre spectacle of apologists trying to persuade us to do evil.

Of course, the existence of a moral atheist isn’t inexplicable in general. It’s only inexplicable to people who start with the presupposition that believing in God is the only possible source of morality. To atheists who have moral principles, the answer is clear enough: we’re motivated not by the fear of divine punishment, but by the emotional experience of the unpleasantness of suffering, coupled with the intellectual realization that the world is populated by other human beings who probably feel the same way. Our morality, in other words, arises from reason blended with compassion, and when you try it, it turns out to be a perfectly workable basis. We’re not standing on air after all, but on good solid ground – it’s just that it’s invisible to the apologists who’ve convinced themselves that it can’t exist. If they’d open their eyes and their minds, they’d see it for themselves, and maybe even consider stepping out onto it and exploring it with us.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • CzarGarrett

    According to some, morality isn’t a entirely a product of the nurture aspect of one’s life, but has a basis in a hardwired biological imperative.

    In the dawn of human evolution, those who played nice with others tended to survive more easily than those who chose to forgo positive interactions. These actions pretty much are the biological origins of one’s conscience.

    All humans have a conscience (well, perhaps not sociopaths). Those without a god can easily act on their baser instinct and be good for good’s sake.

  • http://holocenehominoid.blogspot.com Stephen Moore

    As frightening as it may be for such a theist to be confronted with the ethical atheist, it is perhaps more frightening for the atheist to encounter such an argument. That an individual freely admits to an inclination to, by either the atheists’ or theists’ moral standards, immoral — indeed, depraved — behaviour is quite disturbing. The only thing saving such an individual from the label of sociopath is that they express concern at such a thought, and their need for restraint. One is almost glad for their religious faith!

    Of course, if such an individual could come to understand that morality does not require an Ultimate Law-Giver, that we human beings are, basically, good and moral animals because it is our nature be so, such cognitive vertigo would evaporate.

  • DSimon

    CzarGarrett, I agree that it’s quite plausible that morality has a basis in evolutionary biology, but please be careful of “Just So” stories. Stating that such-and-such evolutionary event is the origin of a modern human cultural practice is tricky business, and requires specific justifying evidence.

  • CzarGarrett

    I’m sure that more than one event had something to do with it. I guess that was a bit of an oversimplification, but I think the general idea holds some truth.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Another thing going on, I think, is that theists don’t like the competition. “Why, if people believe they can be moral without god, then more of them will stop believing in god!”

  • http://www.dvorkin.com David Dvorkin

    I think they’re projecting. I think that they sense evil and amorality within themselves, barely held under control, and are convinced that everyone else is the same.

  • JulietEcho

    I agree that it’s scary when theists assert that without God *they’d* be doing all sorts of terrible things, but I don’t think it’s really very true for most of them. If they stopped believing in God, they’d stay ethical for largely the same reasons most atheists do, because those exist for them as well – they’re just giving “God” all the credit. I don’t think they’re all sociopaths without empathy or instincts for kindness.

    Good post, and good analogy about the cliff. I think they’re trying to convince us to “look down” like cartoon characters do in such cases, thinking we’ll fall when we “realize” there’s nothing holding us up. Really though, they just can’t see what’s holding us up.

  • L.Long

    They are scared schiteless by natural ethics. They have no clue on the natural causes of ethics and don’t want a clue.
    They have to have a g0d given law because they would otherwise have to think!!!!
    Then there is the simplistic “I don’t like that xxxxx….so it is bad” and with no g0d backing it up then it is just your meaningless opinion.
    Hot steamy sex, gay sex, sex with the neighbor’s wife….None of these are ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ WRONG. But they can be wrong. When? How? Why?? all this requires thought-consideration-empathy-rational decisions things theist try to avoid.

  • Quentin

    Interesting topic. Theists’ arguments about morality deteriorate further when one questions the source of god’s morality: does god rely on reason and logic to determine morality or does he just pick something at random? Furthermore, theists’ arguments ultimately exclude any form of independent thought and reduce morality to nothing but blind, unthinking, unquestioning obedience to an absolute authority, because if you could determine what is moral on your own then god becomes redundant.

    Fortunately for them, theists have an infinite supply of cognitive dissonance to support their arguments, so who are we to question their assertions?

  • Valhar2000

    As frightening as it may be for such a theist to be confronted with the ethical atheist, it is perhaps more frightening for the atheist to encounter such an argument.

    If you think it’s bad to read it, try seeing it sometime. A while ago I watched a video on Youtube with a guy making this argument at length and in excruciating detail: I’ll never forget the giddy smile on his face while he talked about how, in the absence of god-induced morality, he would kill other people’s children for sustenance, or to feed them to his own children.

  • penn

    I think most theists also ignore how much legal and social concerns constrict our behavior. If I completely lost my moral compass I wouldn’t kill and steal because I’d wind up in jail. That would be terrible for my future well being. I wouldn’t lie and cheat because then I would lose my friends (an immoral person still needs social contact). All the things they say they’d do without god belief are bullshit not because morality comes from theism, but because you’d need to be really short-sighted to think lying, cheating, stealing, and killing will generally improve your place in life.

    As a social species we developed a lot of rules to stop the immoral from prospering. These rules obviously aren’t perfect, but they do serve to stop a lot of gross infractions of the social contract from the majority of the population.

  • jack

    According to some, morality isn’t a entirely a product of the nurture aspect of one’s life, but has a basis in a hardwired biological imperative.

    Steven Pinker wrote a great article on this subject for the NY Times. The gist of it is that we have an innate moral intuition that tends to make us cooperate with one another. We have greatly elaborated on that through cultural evolution, and that process, of course, is ongoing.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    If they stopped believing in God, they’d stay ethical for largely the same reasons most atheists do, because those exist for them as well

    Quite true. When I became an atheist, I didn’t celebrate the moment by going out to steal and commit murder. My moral code remained largely the same, except that I had to think of reasons why something could be wrong without just relying on “because it says so in the Bybull!”

  • DSimon

    If I completely lost my moral compass I wouldn’t kill and steal because I’d wind up in jail [...] you’d need to be really short-sighted to think lying, cheating, stealing, and killing will generally improve your place in life.

    Penn, well, a certain amount of well-placed lying, cheating, and stealing can certainly improve one’s life… but luckily for us, you do have a moral compass. :-)

    As it seems like it always does, the morality problem comes down to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If everyone screws everyone over, life sucks. If everyone cooperates, life is great. If everyone cooperates except me, and I screw everyone over because they’d never see it coming, I end up very very well off. Except that if everyone thinks that way, life sucks…

  • David D.G.

    Brilliant post! I’ve never seen this expressed better.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Another argument I have seen theists make is that they concede that atheists can behave morally, but that we have no objective basis for our morality, that it breaks down to a matter of personal preference. One example I have seen some of them raise is that while an atheist might find child rape repugnant, the atheist has no grounds for saying it is wrong for other people to do it, whereas they believe that child rape is objectively wrong because God told them it’s wrong.

    The weakness of that argument, of course, is that it is ascribing a set of subjective values to a god that does not exist in reality but is rather a mental construct. The beliefs of a particular religion are just another subjective value system that have been dressed up in the guise of divine command. It also ignores the fact that it is definitely possible to set up a secular system of ethics that recognizes that other people have rights independent of how we feel about them.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Tommy, it also prompts the Euthyphro Dilemma.

  • penn

    DSimon, I agree that well thought immorality can and does enhance many people’s station in life. But, the thought that it’s morality that keeps a person from going on raping and killing rampages (which theist usually suggest) is absurd.

    Sociopaths are an actual case study of people without morality. They are certainly overrepresented in prisons, but the majority are free and walk amongst us. Many are successful in life because typically it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish a sociopath from a normal person. They are aware of what happens to those who are known liars, cheats and thieves.

  • Bob Carlson

    However, I think the real roots of this behavior go deeper. Religious evangelists aren’t just calling atheists immoral because it’s on their list of talking points. I think most of them truly believe it: it’s an article of faith for them, a cornerstone of their worldview. And when they see that expectation violated, it induces a profound and frightening feeling of cognitive vertigo that they’ll try to cure by any means possible.

    Here is what seems like a good example of this. In it Father Barron refers to the book of what sounds like Cohalis. What part of the bible is he referring to? His overall thesis is that the “new atheists” aren’t to be taken seriously the way the old ones were. :)

  • Polly

    Standing on air, that even beats walking on water!

  • http://cranialhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    @#11,

    I think most theists also ignore how much legal and social concerns constrict our behavior. If I completely lost my moral compass I wouldn’t kill and steal because I’d wind up in jail. That would be terrible for my future well being.

    I suspect that the people who believe you can’t be moral without a higher power would suggest that it’s only the presence of believers that keeps those laws in place. If the scales tipped so that the majority of us were non-theists, then our laws prohibiting such behavior would be repealed so we could let our true Scotsmen selves show.

  • http://www.blind-mind.com Andrew A.

    @GDad

    While watching The Atheist Experience show during their last live showing, someone called in with that very sort of argument. Granted, he was a Solipsist, but I imagine there are a number of more traditional theists that hold that view.

  • Samwise

    Fascinating.

    I’d always thought this was an attempted strawman, but you’re right, it goes deeper than that. Apologists aren’t disingenuously attempting to make their atheist opponents’ positions seem less reasonable (and more refutable), they actually don’t see how one can hold such a position without falling- morally instead of gravitationally.

    I think that insight might help me better communicate with theists. I’m so borrowing the cliff analogy.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    If you were consistent, you would just shut your mouths and do whatever pleases you at any moment, and not criticize when someone else did what pleases them…

    But… but… but what please me at every moment is to try to make myself a better person according to a principled ethics, and make the world into a better place by a standard upon which we could all agree from behind a veil of ignorance! I want to be good.

    I really like the metaphor of standing on thin air, it at once captures the bizarreness to a theist in atheist-digestible terms, but it also reminds me of a metaphor I was taught as a fundagelical. See, human beings can jump, and some of us can jump really far, and with training we can jump farther than we’ve ever jumped before. However, no matter how much a human trains, we can’t ever jump all the way across the Grand Canyon. Similarly, we can try to be good, we can train at being good, and we can actually become better over time – but we can never be good enough to earn our way into Heaven, because the gulf of sin in our lives is simply too wide and too deep, and we can’t cross it.

    The most liberating thing about being an atheist is exactly that: it feels like walking on air, one step at a time, and finding out that what I once thought of as an impassable gap is in fact a path that I can walk step by step. I might not make it all the way across, I might get lost along the way, but I can still take it one step at a time. (The most frustrating thing about being an atheist, on the other hand, is that nobody is obligated to give two shits about my personal moral progress.)

    And yeah, I second all the comments about the raging sociopaths who are apparently only held in check by religon. There but for the grace of imaginary gods go they… Oh, and as for the evolution of morality, PZ recently discussed some very creative studies by Heroes in Labcoats concerning the morality of babbies.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    Another argument I have seen theists make is that they concede that atheists can behave morally, but that we have no objective basis for our morality, that it breaks down to a matter of personal preference.

    You can’t get out of that by appealing to God anyway, thanks to the is/ought problem. The syllogism:

    Action x meets with God’s approval.
    You ought to do things that God approves of.

    You ought to do x.

    Is vulnerable at the second premise the same way all other moral syllogisms are. Any moral system has to make an appeal to moral intuition (or what have you) in order to stand up logically, religious ones included.

    (I realize that Sam Harris thinks he’s resolved the is/ought problem, but from where I’m standing all he’s done is re-derive utilitarianism.)

  • Samuel Skinner

    I’m trying to figure out why they think people would immediately go out raping and killing. When the police go on strike, that isn’t what happens- people steal stuff. Really, that is a bigger worry than just killing people because most people really don’t feel like that. Sure there are people who deserve to die, but generally such people have a line involved and it would be cutting to kill them. And cutting in line is wrong, wheter it is at a buffet or to kill a man who throws acid at women.

    As for rape, if people were so obcessed about sex, they would move to the Netherlands, work 60 hours and spend their weekends with prostitutes. Most people don’t want just sex- they want the feeling of knowing someone else in the word cares about what happens to them. Rape gets the above “line up to cause you to die horribly”.

    “Is vulnerable at the second premise the same way all other moral syllogisms are. Any moral system has to make an appeal to moral intuition (or what have you) in order to stand up logically, religious ones included.”

    They believe that reward and punishment at the end answer that. Of course, if you have an high discount factor, dead nerves or enjoy watching other people in agony, threats of hell don’t work and under their system you should be evil.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    As for rape, if people were so obcessed about sex, they would move to the Netherlands, work 60 hours and spend their weekends with prostitutes.

    Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about hurting women. Most rapists have consensual sex fairly regularly.

    They believe that reward and punishment at the end answer that.

    I don’t think they do (the thoughtful ones, anyway). In my experience, they either think that the is/ought problem doesn’t apply to God’s edicts (it does), or they think that ‘you ought to do things that God approves of’ is the only terminal ‘ought’ statement that works (hence the ‘standing on air’ response). You’ll find claims of atheists having no basis for morality from religious people who don’t believe in hell, or who believe in a kind of wishy-washy, you-go-to-heaven-as-soon-as-you-repent version.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Ah ha! Didn’t know know that Euthyphro’s Dilemma has been solved?

    Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness.

    & “good is”…

    …an essential characteristic of God, so there is no tautology.

    Cower before the might of wordmagic! Take that, atheism!

  • Samuel Skinner

    “Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about hurting women. Most rapists have consensual sex fairly regularly.”

    If you want to hurt people, learn German and work for the Stazi… okay that is no longer an option. I’m sure there is openings amoung African militia for individuals who get a kick out of hurting others. Somali, the land of opportunity awaits you!

    Of course, the real answer is they want to do this while at the same time living off of the hard work of others in making a sane and safe society.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    So far this discussion has been rooted in “what keeps atheists from performing immoral acts?” Which ultimately leads to a stalemate, because the theist can claim “prison”, and prison is an implementation of Judeo-Christian morality. I prefer to raise the discussion to real “beyond the call of duty altruism” among atheists. “Pshaw,” says the theist, “there’s no such thing, nothing compels atheists to self-sacrifice.” I maintain that a single counter-example severely weakens the theist position. The example I use: Pat Tillman. No question that he was an atheist; no question that he made the ultimate sacrifice. The very existence of a Pat Tillman negates a great deal of theist polemics. If they are correct, and nothing outside of a god-based morality compels good behavior, the example of Pat Tillman should simply not exist.

  • Samuel Skinner

    “”prison”, and prison is an implementation of Judeo-Christian morality. ”

    Prison predates Christianity and Judaism- the Egyptians put prisoners to work in mines which is a worse punishment.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    “Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about hurting women. Most rapists have consensual sex fairly regularly.”

    If you want to hurt people, learn German and work for the Stazi… okay that is no longer an option.[&c.]

    I’m, uh, not sure you’ve grasped my point. Edit: never mind, yes you have. Misunderstanding on my part. I hope.

  • Frank

    Excellent post. Recently I saw a variation of this in my own experence. A coworker who has told me he thinks me to be honest and trustworthy, heard me tell someone my opinion of religion. He looked at me and with a mixture of disappointment and disbelief said, “You CAN’T be an atheist!”

  • http://www.orderingdisorder.com Dan

    This is a great post. I wish more Christians understood this idea. (Religious non-Christians, too, but I’ve mostly seen Christians have this problem.)

    I think the crux of the problem is that they believe morality is defined as “what God wants”, so they’re confused when atheists hold similar moral views. If they would instead consider the idea that God wants the things he wants because they are moral, they’d understand your position a lot better.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    If they would instead consider the idea that God wants the things he wants because they are moral, they’d understand your position a lot better.

    Aaah! where would we be without Euthyphro?