On Ethics, Atheists, and “Absolute Morality”

As a child, I was taught that atheists had no basis for morality, no ethics, no nothing. Atheists just believed in . . . nothing. They did whatever they felt best, whatever pleased them most. If atheists ever followed the law, it was because they were afraid they might be sent to jail if they liked. Atheists had no check on their selfishness and lived hedonistic lifestyles as a result.

In fact, I was even told that many atheists were atheists so that they could do whatever they liked, without accountability. I was taught that atheists know there is a God, since the Bible says God has made his presence obvious to everyone, but that atheists were intentionally suppressing and ignoring that knowledge in an effort to run from responsibility. And have lots of unBiblical sex, of course.

Ken Ham thinks much the same:

For atheists, there really is no basis for their ethics, therefore they believe they can do whatever they want if they can get away with it. What is “right” or “wrong” to such people is all relative.

You have to admit this statement is ironic coming from a man who would almost certainly turn around and say that the Old Testament genocides were totally moral and ethical because it was God who ordered them.

The Christian argument is that ethics can only absolute rather than relative if they come from an absolute source, i.e. God. Christian morality is based on a divine arbiter. Atheist morality is based on…nothing. Whim? Chance? Growing up, this argument made a lot of sense to me, and when I began to lose my faith this argument was one thing that made me hold on to it. And then I realized something.

Within Christianity, ethics and morals are either above God, something to which God must subscribe, or they are created by God, the product of his commands. Let me explain.

One question my friends and I toyed with growing up was what we would do if God commanded us to kill a family member, and there was no question of whether or not the command actually came from God. We all agreed we’d have to kill that family member, that killing that family member would be right and moral, but we found it an interesting question because even then we realized that answer didn’t quite feel right.

Another example, as I’ve discussed here, is the Old Testament genocides I mentioned above. Growing up, I was taught that it was right and moral for the Israelites to murder entire people groups, men, women, children, and infants, because God had commanded them to. Morals flowed from God. What was right was what God said was right. We learned in Bible club that sin was disobeying God’s commands and righteousness was obeying God’s commands. Whatever God said, did, or commanded, that was what was ethical.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is nothing “absolute” about this form of morals at all. It’s simply what the biggest most powerful guy says goes.

And I also realized why those questioned bothered me. I knew it wasn’t ethical to murder a family member even if God commanded me to do so. I knew it wasn’t ethical for the Israelites to annihilate those people groups even if God told them to do so.

As I moved on to more progressive Christianity, I concluded that ethics and morals, what was right and what was wrong, were somehow above God. God had to adhere to those ethical standards just as much as humankind did. I concluded that most of the Bible was in error, especially the Old Testament, simply written by fallible man who confused what God had said. God was love. God was mercy. God was goodness. God couldn’t violate ethical standards any more than he could create them with his commands.

It seems to me that a Christian has two options. Either God sets morals and ethics, or morals and ethics are above God and something he must adhere to. For me, this second view was a perfect segue into atheism, because ethics and morality no longer appeared to need a God in order to exist. They no longer depended on and flowed from God, but were located outside of him.

Around this time I learned that religion and ethics had been separate for the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Ethics were about how you should live your life, about philosophy and what was right and wrong, and religion was about making sure to keep the gods happy with you. I’m told that the same is fairly true for modern pagans who worship deities like Thor or Woden. Ethics don’t have to come from a religion; rather, ethics can be, and often are, entirely separate from religion.

What people like Ken Ham are not as quick to discuss when writing to their followers is that atheists choose ethical systems to which to subscribe. It’s not about living a pointless life of hedonism but rather about creating new purpose and choosing a new ethical system with its own values and goals. In fact, most atheists I know are fascinated by questions of ethics and spend a good deal of time thinking about them. The idea that atheists have no ethics is ludicrous; in my experience, atheists take ethics very seriously.

But Ken Ham would probably still point out that atheists don’t have an actual basis for their ethics, and that their ethics are not absolute. Two things here. First, Ken Ham’s basis for ethics is God. What God commands goes. That is a stunningly simplistic and silly basis for ethics. And, in the case of the Old Testament genocides, it doesn’t seem to work out that well.

Second, to some degree ethics and morality are relative. For example, we generally agree that killing is wrong. But what about killing in self-defense, or to save a life? That’s generally seen as okay. Similarly, we generally believe that lying is wrong. But what about lying to save the lives of the Jews you’re hiding in your basement in Nazi Germany? That’s generally seen as the right course of action. Making absolute ethical claims – that it is always wrong to kill, or always wrong to lie – is as simplistic and silly as saying that whatever God commands goes. It’s a whole lotta complicated, and this is why so many atheists find ethical questions and explorations fascinating.

Finally, there is the argument that atheists can’t possibly be ethical people because we don’t have the threat of hell hanging over our heads. But if someone is only good because they’re afraid they’ll be smited otherwise, I find that rather frightening. I would wager a guess that almost no Christians actually live their lives that way, being good only out of fear of divine punishment. The idea that people would, or should, be good only to avoid punishment is not my idea of a good system of ethics and morality.

One last thing to remember is that the basis of traditional Christianity is that we are all hopeless sinners in desperate need of salvation. We can’t do good on our own, we only fail. If that is the basis of your entire belief system, it’s no surprise that the idea of ethical atheists would pose a problem. That atheists could live good and moral lives, after all, without the aid of Jesus or the Holy Spirit, flies in the face of traditional Christian teachings.

Note: Since writing this article I have become aware that the “morals either come from God or are above God” argument is called Euthyphro’s Dilemma, and that the idea that what is moral is simply whatever God commands is called the Divine Command Theory

On Intersectionality and Bibles in Hotel Rooms
Dear Adam: Being Gay Is Not Just about Sex
Evangelical Author Shaunti Feldhahn's Misleading Work on Marriage and Divorce
Michael Farris Doesn't Read the Bible (Apparently)
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X