Atheists have no basis for morality

“Atheists have no basis for morality”—this has to be one of the most common charges laid against nonbelievers.

There is a sense in which the accusation is correct. It just happens to be incomplete. No one has any basis for morality, at least not in the otherworldly sense of “basis” that informs many conversations about the topic.

Note that theists put their emphasis on a basis for morality. If they have any level of sophistication, they do not argue that nonbelievers are bad people. Instead, they say that nonbelievers lack a sufficiently deep reason to be good. If atheists are decent, this is because of external causes rather than reasons that have been thought through. For example, nonbelievers might be brought up in a culture shaped by originally religious ideals. Secular societies might be living off the social capital developed through religion.

In contrast, theists think they have an ultimate basis for being good. Their reasons start with the crude punishments and rewards of heaven and hell, but deepen into reasons for being moral that come through acknowledging a perfectly moral God in charge of everything. We have a moral sense because we are made in the image of God, from which derives our reason and our inherent human dignity and worth. There is a natural moral law inscribed into our hearts. And so on and so forth. One way or another, the oughtness of morality reaches beyond the way things are, and this is because morality is grounded in a source that transcends the blind, mechanistic workings of nature as imagined by naturalistic nonbelievers. Without this transcendent basis for morality, moral knowledge can never be fully secure.

Providing content to this God-given morality is more difficult. Conservative Catholics will invoke human dignity to ban abortion, while liberal Catholics will use similar intuitions to defend individual autonomy and choice. Just like “God did it” is usually a pseudoexplanation in the context of natural science, “God wills it” also has very little substantive content: it can be used to endorse almost anything. Calling on the gods is a handy device for legitimating moral positions, but it can legitimate anything. It discourages questioning instead of providing a real answer.

In that case, can nonbelievers do better in providing a basis for an objective, universal form of morality? Many try. Some secular philosophers favor a Kantian sort of approach, relying on a kind of reason applied by people divorced from actual social circumstances. Some look to base morality on “enlightened self-interest.” Some look to an Aristotelian approach, rooting morality in common human nature and human needs. And so on and so forth.

None of this is altogether convincing. Our moral intuitions, such as that it’s unthinkable to murder our neighbor, remain much more certain than the schemes that are supposed to rationally ground such intuitions. And the multiple conflicting ways secular moralists attempt to find a basis for morality is itself a reason for doubt. This is somewhat like the difficulty theists face with the problem of evil. After examining the various theodicies attempting to excuse the nastiness of our world, one is likely to emerge even more skeptical about the possibility of a solution. There are, perhaps, similar reasons to doubt secular attempts to ground morality.

I don’t know how much we should be bothered by this. After all, if we are trying to explain human morality—behavior, intutions, perceptions and all—we can do well enough without any secure foundation, whether this is the God of the theologian or the Reason of the philosopher. It may be unfortunate that we do not end up describing any objective, universal moral truths. My view is that we end up with a moral ecology, where different ways of life are stable under rational reflection, serve a successfully reproducing set of interests, and can be institutionalized by agreements. If we are attracted by a universalist vision of morality—if on reflection we find ourselves endorsing a universalist outlook such as that of the Enlightenment—that remains an aspiration that can command our political energies. But it is not true that every rational, well-informed person has to share our point of view.

I can see that this view does not wholly satisfy. I think it’s accurate. If the question we face is that of explaining what people do, then, I think I can do a good job arguing for it. But that’s often not the question. We more often ask what action to take, or what advice to give someone. Well, then, statements of the form “if you want to achieve outcome X your best bet is to do Y” are not always helpful. People, ourselves included, also ask what goals are right and proper. And there, I don’t think there is any legitimate answer that stands on some solid foundation removed from our particular life circumstances. We might achieve more coherence, but not the sort of grounding a question like “what sort of life should I live?” implicitly demands.

So there may be some pragmatic substance to the theist’s accusation after all. If we want some sort of ultimate security for our deepest moral convictions, well, ideas like God seem to provide just the kind of magic we need. It’s all very well to talk about human needs and interests. But isn’t the feeling of moral certainty itself a very common human need? If faith in invisible gods provides security to our convictions, why do we complain? Academics, serving academic interests, can afford to indulge in more complex conceptions of morality. But descriptive accuracy can get in the way of the more practical need for security and for having robust motivating reasons to act in a certain way.

Religious beliefs may well be be useful, not just despite their falsehood but precisely because of their falsehood. If fruitless attempts to reason our way to morality get out of hand, that can only threaten the security of existing arrangements. If critical reflection will not lead us to a stable moral standpoint, then it’s far better to short-circuit criticism and just acknowledge human needs for moral security. Faith will get the job done.

And that brings up perhaps the most important question about morality. Never mind all the intellectual song-and-dance about grounding morality. A religious person will ask if an atheist can be trusted, and they will suspect that the answer is no. Oh, an infidel might be decent enough in everyday circumstances and in superficial matters, but can you trust them on deeper things? If they have not demonstrated commitment to the group by saluting the flag and pledging allegiance to the True Faith, where do their loyalties lie? And what better way to demonstrate commitment than do something where there is no apparent rational motivation? Agreeing to brush your teeth does not demonstrate any loyalty, but agreeing never to eat pork might.

And questions about trust and loyalty are not easy to answer, for nonbelievers. Personally, I am very often not loyal to those things religious people care deeply about. Our political coalitions are acts of convenience rather than deep loyalty. If a religious person feels that I, as a nonbeliever, am never quite as fully committed to their community values as they would like, that somehow they have to hold something back in relationships that demand mutual trust, they may well be correct.

I don’t think the accusation that atheists have no basis for morality has too many legs in an intellectual context. But the real concerns believers express may be different. They may be claiming that atheism undercuts practical bases for the sort of morality that engages their loyalty. There may be a good deal of truth to that worry. That does not bother me, because I often don’t particularly care for traditionally religious forms of morality. I inhabit a different way of life. But from their point of view, theists may have good reasons behind their moral concerns about nonbelief.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00565212411446092552 smijer

    Very challenging post here.

    Your thesis, that the irrationality of faith can be a cement of itself is very intriguing.

    Notions of morality as impinged on by notions of God are always of special interest to me. I will have to point out in response to this, something you probably already recognize:

    One way or another, the oughtness of morality reaches beyond the way things are, and this is because morality is grounded in a source that transcends the blind, mechanistic workings of nature as imagined by naturalistic nonbelievers.

    Even for believers, the oughtness of morality only reaches as far as the way things “are” – the existence and Goodness of God are propositions about the way things are, and they are the only source of grounding the theist can use.

    Furthermore, I think that Euthyphro, properly formulated, always defeats this.

    If a person will confess that rape is not evil in a universe that lacks a good God, then they may find grounding in the arbitrary state of God’s being. Most people will not profess such a thing, and will see the evil of rape as being independent of the existence of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    Yes, challenging but understandable. It is offen that I, as an atheist in the bible belt, must endure the venom of those who think I have no morals. I told a fellow teacher that I am an atheist. Her response was ‘so you worship the devil and you can do anything you want’. Right…that’s it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03061817576096396569 Victor Michael

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03061817576096396569 Victor Michael

    atheist do have a basis for morality. its whatever-I-think-is-right morality. this is because fundamentally we follow the standards upon which we subject ourselves to

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    The point here sounds like the Straussian one, according to Drury’s interpretation of Strauss. Atheism is fit for the elite who can handle harsh truths without self-destructing and who thus don’t need to be irrationally committed the noble lies of religion and community. Religious and political myths are needed to train the mob who would destroy society if they knew the truth of antifoundationalism. An atheist’s job should be the pragmatic one of concealing the ugly truths that follow from atheism, or more generally from philosophical reflection.

    Edis asks, “what better way to demonstrate commitment than do something where there is no apparent rational motivation?” I think the idea here is that if someone acts without understanding the reason, this must be because of blind loyalty to some cause. For example, if a soldier is ordered to kill the enemy, and the soldier doesn’t understand the geopolitical reasons for the war, the soldier is fully committed due to brainwashing. The lies the elite tell the mob are noble because they inspire zeal, which is needed for the nation’s self-defense.

    This reminds me of a line in the movie, “The Ninth Gate,” in which someone says, “There’s nothing more reliable than someone whose loyalty can be bought with hard cash.” If Edis is right, this line from the movie is wrong, assuming money is sought out of rational self-interest. Edis is saying that rational people are not the most loyal, because they’ll change their allegiance as soon as it suits their self-interest or they discover some deeper truth. The line should be, “There’s nothing more reliable than someone whose loyalty can be inspired by an irrational myth.”

    But is this true? The problem with irrational loyalty is that no sane person is entirely irrational. Someone who blindly worships the god of the Bible and salutes the flag also has to use reason to get by in world, inferring to the best explanation when figuring out what’s wrong with the car, which doctor to see, whether his wife is cheating on him, and so on. None of us is fully rational, but when some of our consciously held beliefs are arrived at using such nonrational standards that we wind up with an incoherent worldview, we suffer from cognitive dissonance. And the loyalty of someone with cognitive dissonance isn’t so reliable.

    Maybe religion would be more useful than naturalism in making people moral if people were essentially Pavlovian dogs. We all have the capacity to be trained and to form emotional attachments, but we also have the capacity to reason and thus to undo our training and to reconsider our attachments.

    Even if this weren’t so, the trouble with a dog’s loyalty is that a dog can be retrained. If someone is irrational enough to fall for some myth, the person is irrational enough to fall for any myth. The political loyalty, say, of Christian fundamentalists isn’t so reliable when a fundamentalist’s faith can be redirected. There is a competition for the irrational loyalty of conservative Christians in the US, between those with national and with transnational interests. On the one hand, politicians would like to harness Christian faith for national purposes. On the other hand, businesspeople would like to turn Christians with traditional faith into materialistic consumers with faith in the market. Thus, as the books of Thomas Frank show, the loyalties of conservative Christians in the US are quite divided.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    ‘A religious person will ask if an atheist can be trusted, and they will suspect that the answer is no.’

    Yes, an atheist may have read the words of religious people, and realised that you do not have to keep your word.

    Bukhari Hadith 4:361
    ‘He replied. ‘I have not provided you with means of conveyance, but Allah has provided you with it, and by Allah, Allah willing, if ever I take an oath to do something, and later on I find that it is more beneficial to do something different, I will do the thing which is better, and give expiation for my oath.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    From theism’s point of view atheists have as much basis for morality as anybody else. After all, according to theism morality is part of the very structure of reality, so we all partake in it. Indeed it’s not that morality is “God-given” but rather God-instantiated or God-realized. But it seems to me that atheism or, to be more specific, the naturalistic understanding of reality suffers from both a conceptual and a practical problem with morality.

    The conceptual problem is not to explain how come people behave the way they do. This is a scientific problem and one akin to explaining how come animals behave the way they do. I suppose sociobiology goes already quite some way explaining these. Rather the conceptual problem is explaining what is it that makes some behavior morally good and some behavior morally evil. I don’t think there is a naturalistic answer to this question that is not arbitrary at bottom.

    The practical problem is more serious, pragmatically speaking. It’s not clear what would move a coolly reasoning naturalist away from evil, or from what most of us would agree is evil, and in particular away from egoistical, self-centered behavior. It seems to me that the only thing could be emotion (such as empathy), but a coolly reasoning naturalist will typically judge that the benefits of egoistical behavior (both tangible and emotional in the long run) are greater than the respective short-term emotional discomfort.

    I think an important question is this: What is the impact of religious beliefs at their best to the well-being of a society, compared to a society characterized by naturalistic beliefs at their best? It seems to me quite clear that the religious society will be better off (indeed this a question that should admit of a scientific answer). Which brings me to two questions I have been thinking about lately:

    1) Can reality be such that the more people learn the truth about it the worse off we all are going to be? In other words can reality be such that knowing the truth about it turns out to have a negative value, pragmatically speaking? In his comment above Philip suggests that perhaps the knowledgeable elite should hide from the majority the “ugly truths that follow from atheism, or more generally from philosophical reflections”. I wonder: Can reality be such that Philip is right?

    2) Consider a variant of Pascal’s wager: Suppose, as John Hick thinks is the case, that (phenomenal) reality is religiously ambiguous. In other words suppose that a reasonable person can consider their experience of life and arrive equally well at a naturalistic or at a religious understanding of objective reality. Aren’t then the pragmatical benefits of a religious worldview sufficient reason to turn people towards a religious understanding of reality?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Dianelos Georgoudis

    ” Rather the conceptual problem is explaining what is it that makes some behavior morally good and some behavior morally evil. I don’t think there is a naturalistic answer to this question that is not arbitrary at bottom. “

    There is no difficulty in identifying some behavior as ethical and unethical. Everyone can do this simply by understanding what is good and bad for human welfare which in turn is rooted in a generalization of one’s own experiences.

    “I think an important question is this: What is the impact of religious beliefs at their best to the well-being of a society, compared to a society characterized by naturalistic beliefs at their best? “

    That is a hypothetical question with dubious relevance to real world ethics because of the impractical and unrealizable “at their best” qualification and therefore it is not an important question. But the answer is that all other things being equal the society characterized by naturalistic beliefs would be better off because they would not have conflicts between their beliefs and their knowledge. I have no doubt about this.

    “Can reality be such that the more people learn the truth about it the worse off we all are going to be?”

    This is a hypothetical question with little relevance to real world ethics unless you are also claiming this is some intrinsic property of the universe rather than an occasional and exceptional situation. Since the proportion of non-religious who are ethical is not substantially worse than the proportion of religious who are ethical it cannot be true that this is a intrinsic property of the universe.

    “Aren’t then the pragmatical benefits of a religious worldview sufficient reason to turn people towards a religious understanding of reality?”

    Not for me. Other people think differently, but I disagree with those people. Most of the arguments to that effect seem to me to be arguments for self-dependency on ideology that are self-imposed by the person making the argument and that can simply be dispensed with much like a dependency on a mood enhancing drug can be dispensed with. Now, some people have medical problems that negatively impact their mood so they benefit from the medication. But I don’t see that dependency as something we should all aspire to or promote or endorse as being positive and necessary for “people” in general. But of course, this is belief, not medication, so its an issue of argument and persuasion and everyone should be exposed to all arguments and make up their own minds based on exposure to the best arguments. That process is most likely to result in the optimal outcome for society. Arguing against that process on the grounds that its bad for society to expose people to ideas that you disagree with is arrogant.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05961696973105797097 wrkg_onit

    The Buddhist view is that one should refrain from immoral behavior in order to possess peace of mind (among other reasons), or at the very least, to avoid anxiety over the consequences of one’s own behavior. Immoral behavor is then defined simply as that behavior which inclines others to seek retribution. So here we have a sensible and naturalistic basis for morality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I said: “Rather the conceptual problem is explaining what is it that makes some behavior morally good and some behavior morally evil. I don’t think there is a naturalistic answer to this question that is not arbitrary at bottom.

    Explicit Atheist responded: “There is no difficulty in identifying some behavior as ethical and unethical. Everyone can do this simply by understanding what is good and bad for human welfare which in turn is rooted in a generalization of one’s own experiences.

    The problem here is that it is easy to consider a state of affairs where an act that would greatly increase human welfare is also greatly evil. So it’s not as simple as that. In general the problem is this: Consider any function over the material state of the world F(W) so that an act is ethically good to the degree that it maximizes the value of this function. But then why choose F and not some other function F2? The choice of F is arbitrary. A way out would be to try to base F itself on the material state of the world (perhaps on the norms of society, or on the structure of our brain, or on our evolutionary history), i.e. to find a function G so that F=G(W). But then the choice of any such function G would be arbitrary also. After all why choose G and not some other function G2? In conclusion, as one cannot derive a moral “ought” from a naturalistic “is” any naturalistic ethics must at bottom be arbitrary.

    I said “I think an important question is this: What is the impact of religious beliefs at their best to the well-being of a society, compared to a society characterized by naturalistic beliefs at their best?

    Explicit Atheist responded: “That is a hypothetical question with dubious relevance to real world ethics because of the impractical and unrealizable “at their best” qualification and therefore it is not an important question.

    Oh, I didn’t mean you need absolutely the best possible religion; naturalists often conflate religion with superstition, irrationality, scriptural literalism, etc, and I simply wanted to pre-empt such strawmen. Let me formalize what I wrote above: It’s easy to agree on some function that represents the wellbeing of society, perhaps a society characterized by equal opportunity, special protection for its weakest members, protection of the environment, absence of violence, and so on. Now consider any number of religious worldviews R1, R2, etc and any number of naturalistic worldviews N1, N2, etc. All these worldviews affect peoples’ behavior and thus affect society’s wellbeing. Find the religious worldview Ri that is best at maximizing society’s wellbeing and the naturalistic worldview Nj that is best in the same sense, and compare to see whether Ri or Nj would build the best society. If it is the case that Ri will build the better society then we would all be better off if people were to adopt that religious worldview than any naturalistic one.

    Explicit Atheist said: “But the answer is that all other things being equal the society characterized by naturalistic beliefs would be better off because they would not have conflicts between their beliefs and their knowledge. I have no doubt about this.

    I don’t understand what you mean by conflict between belief and knowledge. Perhaps you mean conflict between belief and truth. The question of course is whether belief in theism or in naturalism is closer to the truth. And a separate but highly relevant question is whether belief in theism or in naturalism is more useful.

    Explicit Atheist said: “Since the proportion of non-religious who are ethical is not substantially worse than the proportion of religious who are ethical [snip]

    This premise is questionable to say the least.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Dianelos Georgoudis

    Explicit Atheist said: “Since the proportion of non-religious who are ethical is not substantially worse than the proportion of religious who are ethical [snip]”

    “This premise is questionable to say the least.”

    How so? I think you confuse your convictions for the evidence. Social scientists have information about factors that positively correlate with delinquincy, and atheism isn’t one of those factors. What is happenning here is that some religions self-claim moral advantage for their believers. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and various other religions in particular have this tendency which is reflected in your arguments. So to face the evidence that it isn’t true is self-refuting to those religion’s validity. So you refuse to acknowledge that it isn’t true. But there is very little evidence that it is true, just like there is no evidence that prayer accomplishes anything more than rain dances accomplished for American Indian tribes. Its all wishfull thinking divorced from evidence. Show us the evidence or shut up. I say you don’t have any.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    For those interested in actual studies of the correlation between religiousity and delinquency here is the result of one recent study focusing on girls: “Resilient Girls—Factors That Protect Against Delinquency” http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/220124.pdf. Conclusion is that religiousity, measured by frequency of praying and attending religious events and perceived importance of religion, had no protective effect against Status Offense, Gang Membership,
    Property Offense, Simple Assault, or Aggravated Assault. It negatively correlated only with Selling Drugs. Of course, this doesn’t distinquish between atheists and non-atheists. My guess is that atheists overall do as well if not better than non-atheists in most delinquency measures, but people who insist on claiming otherwise need to show the evidence. These anti-atheists people talk alot about their ethical advantage but when it comes to evidence they show very little or nothing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Harold Koenig’s “The Link between Religion and Health” and Arthur Brooks’s “Who Really Cares” quote dozens of scientific studies that document both the physical and ethical benefits of religious belief. Let me quote from page 34 of the latter book: “But the evidence leaves no room for doubt: Religious people are far more charitable than nonreligious people. In years of research, I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people.[snip] In 2000, religious people – who, per family, earned exactly the same amount as secular people, $49,000 – gave about 3.5 times more money per year (an average of $2,210 versus $642). They also volunteered more than twice as often (12 times per year, versus 5.8 times).” Religious people even donate more money to secular charities than secular people. And they donate more blood too.

    There is also the historical record and how non-religious regimes (or rather regimes disdainful of religion) have committed by far the greatest crimes against humanity. (I haven’t checked the numbers but I heard somewhere that Pol Pot in one evening killed more people than the entire Spanish inquisition in two centuries.) All moral paragons of our times (Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa) were deeply religious. The great majority of Nobel peace price winners are religious. Frankly I think there is quite a bit of evidence in favor of religion. Poster “Explicit Atheist” mentions a study about delinquency in girls, but this is a very narrow study, not to mention children are not mature enough for religion to have a significant effect.

    What I cannot understand is why some atheists seem to be surprised about this issue. Isn’t it obvious that all other factors being the same a religious person will have more reason to act ethically than a non-religious person? A non-religious person believes that our current condition of life is all there is; a religious person believes that life continues far beyond death and that one’s actions here have consequences there. Indeed a religious person believes that an evil deed is never a smart choice and that a good deed is never in vain. That a religious person believes in a more caring and beautiful and just and meaningful reality than a blindly mechanical one can on average only have a positive effect. Delusion or non-delusion it should be obvious that religious belief is morally empowering and experientially enriching. The only real question is how strong the positive effect of religion is, and I trust scientific studies will keep clarifying this matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12901445956957726604 George

    Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. ( Oscar Wilde )


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