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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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