Can Theists Be Moral?

That’s a pretty silly question, isn’t it? I would argue that it is about as silly as the question, “Can Atheists Be Moral?” Even fundamentalist Christian philosophers grant that atheists can know moral principles and behave according to those principles. If someone wishes to deny that theists or atheists can have morals, it seems the burden of proof should fall on them to offer some reason why they could not have morals.

Another Presuppositionalist Fails
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 5
Great Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics by a Christian
Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 5
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Andres Ruiz

    Well, there's of course Adams's "Modified Divine Command Theory" that sets out to answer this question.

    Is there really a shortage of purported answers to this in the Phil. of Religion literature? I'm not quite sure there is.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Wow, that goes down as the fastest comment ever. You must have read and commented on the post within 2 minutes of it being published!

    I agree with everything you write. The second half of my post was published in haste. I've deleted it.

  • Peter White

    Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and I'm sure members of many other religions can be moral. I know many people who are moral and are members of the religions I mentioned. The real question is whether or not you can follow the teachings of your religion and be moral.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Peter — You're exactly right when you say that "Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and I'm sure members of many other religions can be moral." And people with no religion can be moral. The purpose of my post is to point out that asking, "Can Atheists Be Moral?", is the wrong question to ask.

  • Wintery Knight

    I'm just trying to pose a few questions in a provocative, hasty, way.

    Here are the real questions:

    First, where do the objective moral values and duties come from on an atheistic worldview, and second can humans make moral choices if they are purely material beings without non-material souls, and third, what does it matter ultimately how you behave if the universe runs down to a heat death, and fourth, why would it be rational to act morally if it goes against your self-interest and you can escape the social disapproval for being immoral?

    Atheists can be as moral as theists on things like not stealing and not murdering, if theism of some sort is true, and the moral rules are grounded ontologically and there is free will for you to make moral choices because you have non-material minds/souls. The main emphasis is on grounding – what is the means of existence on theese moral values and duties if matter is all there is. If matter is not all there is, there where did this non-material realm come from on atheism.

    If Christian theism is true and the first commandment is to love God with all your mind, etc. then you won't be able to do that. I think that if Christian theism is true you can know right from wrong at some level, and do it at some level, but not to the level of being saved, since you must necessarily neglect the greatest commandment, to love God. And neither can I do that, either. I'm not any better than you are on that one. If Christian theism is true, moral values and rules are grounded, atheists and theists are non-material minds/souls and they can make moral choices, and it's rational to be moral on that view.

    I'm sure you guys are all good guys. I'm just trying to pose the grounding question, the free will question, the significance question, etc. I try to be moral, (e.g. – I am chaste, which is where my nickname comes from), because I care about God as a person. I take care to make choices that take his preferences into account. Not for hope of reward, nor fear of punishment. I am in sympathy with him. That's it. I am in sympathy with him because I am in sympathy with anyone who loves me first. I am willing to give up some decision making autonomy for those who love me most.

    Also, on the problem of evil, I don't identify mere suffering with evil. Jesus suffered. It can be justifiable if there is a greater good. It sucks, but there it is. I've suffered. It was there and then it passed. I'm not happy about it, but oh well. I would rather be friends with God than make a stink about it. I don't have to be happy. There are things that he will never make right for me in this life. It's ok. I try not to make any decisions that will expose me to worse suffering – that's wisdom. And I need lots of it.

    Sorry if I was offensive. I wrote that post 3.5 years ago. Sometimes I am not sensitive or winsome, so I hope my explanation helps. I do have bad moments, but certain not for JJL and those like him.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Thank you for the detailed and thoughtful response. Apology accepted.

    I do agree that the real questions, as you call them, are legitimate (and non-offensive) questions to ask.

    While I have your attention and, in light of your comments, I'm curious whether you would join me in condemning the Boy Scouts of America for its policy of excluding nontheists from membership, for the reasons I gave here?

  • Wintery Knight

    Also, I should say that the degree of punishment that non-Christians get in Hell is variable. A moral atheist MAY going to experience less suffering than an immoral theist. (Again, keeping in mind that the greatest commandment is to love God first and foremost). The duration of Hell is the same for all, but the degree of punishment is proportional.

  • Wintery Knight

    Yes, I think that an atheist who had the same or similar self-sacrificial morality of a Christian theist William Wilberforce or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer but who could not ground it rationally because of an atheistic worldview should be admitted for sure.

    Note: with the caveat that they would not be able to ground it rationally, nor be able to meet the weightier concern of the moral law in specific kinds of theism, like loving God in Christian theism, or even related moral concerns that are linked to theism.

    I would much rather admit a moral atheist – (and I consider moral to mean pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-free enterprise atheist – but specific morals are debatable) – to a civic organization than someone who professes to be a Christian but is (in my view) immoral.

  • Angra Mainyu

    I think that many theists, and more specifically Christians, are being immoral by spreading the belief that atheists (and other theists) deserve infinite punishment.

    Also, the questions that they raise about metaethics are not justified, as they imply that somehow theists are in an epistemically better position. Atheists have no burden here.

    It would take too long for me to argue that, I'm afraid, since theistic confusion is rampant and they persist on it no matter what (not to engage in (too much) shameless self-promotion, but I dealt with that in considerable detail on my blog).

    But for instance:

    Wintery Knight: “First, where do the objective moral values and duties come from on an atheistic worldview, and second can humans make moral choices if they are purely material beings without non-material souls, and third, what does it matter ultimately how you behave if the universe runs down to a heat death, and fourth, why would it be rational to act morally if it goes against your self-interest and you can escape the social disapproval for being immoral?”

    1) What do you mean by 'objective moral values and duties', and where do they come from on theism?
    In particular, if there exists an omnipotent, omniscient moral agent, where would her moral obligations come from?
    After all, if there is such an agent, it's intuitively clear she would have a moral obligations too. For instance, it would be immoral for her to create people for the specific, deliberate and exclusive purpose of torturing those beings for all eternity, since such behavior on her part would be immoral.
    Incidentally, saying that it would be metaphysically impossible for such a person to behave like that as an objection to my point would be a confusion (though a very common one).
    2) Whatever you mean by 'material', and how can humans make moral choices if they have souls?
    3) a) That is irrelevant to the issue of metaethics.
    b) What does it matter to whom?
    Obviously, it does not matter to entities without minds, since they're not the kind of thing to which things can matter; it can only matter to agents. But it matters to most humans whether they behave immorally or not.
    4) So, regarding the rationality of an atheist behaving morally, the answer is: she wants to be a good person. That is her interest. How or why would it be more rational to seek, say, money or social status?
    You seem to be excluding the interest in being a good person, doing the right thing, etc., from the term 'self-interest'. That's not uncommon usage, so it's okay as long as one keeps in mind that the label 'self-interest' does not in fact refer to all our interests, but to a proper subset of them, excluding (at least) our interest in being good people.
    On the other hand, it's not okay if you somehow claim that doing the right thing and trying to be a good person would be foolish, but trying to seek money or fame (for instance) wouldn't be. Why would you assume that, on atheism, being a good person is an irrational goal, but having money or fame is not?

  • Steven Carr

    Some Christians have explained to me that they can be moral.

    Although the Old Testament commands people to stone people to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, they themselves have not been given any commandments to kill people.

    And that is what they call morality. They don't kill people because they have not been told to kill anybody.

  • Steven Carr

    When Christians like William Lane Craig write the following, how can Christians call themselves moral?

    '….God loves Heinrich just as much as He loves you and so accords him sufficient grace for salvation and seeks to draw him to Himself. Indeed, God may have known that through the guilt and shame of what Heinrich did under the Third Reich, he would eventually come to repent and find salvation and eternal life. Paradoxically, being a Nazi may have been the best thing that happened to Heinrich, since it led to his salvation.'

    God makes Nazis, because Nazis are evil. Evil people are sometimes sickened by their evil and so repent.

    And this is God's plan for saving evil people!

    And Craig calls this 'objective morality'!

    And Wintery Knight will then taunt atheists to say what is wrong with being a Nazi…

    After Craig explained that God planned people to be Nazis so they could repent and be saved….