Alonzo Fyfe’s Alternative Answer to “Where Do Atheists Get Their Morality?”

Back in 2008 Alonzo Fyfe blogged about the question, “Where do atheists get their morality?” As an alternative to “the standard attempt to defend some moral theory,” he proposes the following answer.

“A lot of theists want to know where atheists get their morality because theists are bigots looking for an excuse to hate their atheist neighbors, and ‘You are morally inferior to us’ has long been a favorite dehumanization technique of the hateful bigot. Clearly, atheists do quite well when it comes to behaving morally, at least as well as their Christian counterparts. It may be natural to express some curiosity as to why this is the case. But to cast atheists as morally inferior in order to generate a reason to hate them – that’s not a course that a truly moral person would ever pursue.”

I’m not sure I can endorse this response, at least not in all cases. It assumes that the only reason someone would ask that question is bigotry, which seems false to me. It’s easy to imagine how someone thinking through the issues for the first time could genuinely wonder about the source of atheist morality, without in any way trying to suggest that atheists are morally inferior.

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.

  • Eric Sotnak

    Often the question is not asked sincerely, but rather rhetorically. Many people will help themselves to the claim “If God does not exist, then morality must be relative, subjective, or non-existent.” I would be interested to know whether Fyfe’s restriction to “A lot of theists…” is also intended for his later statement that “theists are bigots….” But even then I think the accusation of bigotry may be premature. That is, a lot of theists may unreflectively accept that moral realism is true if and only if God exists (perhaps some reflectively accept this, though I would suggest they are wrong in doing so), but this then expresses not so much bigotry as it does an intuitive disincentive to find atheism palatable. Many atheists have found the experience of eliciting acceptance to be an uphill struggle, and I think a big part for many is the default assumption held by many that the connection between religion and morality is both strong and important. The empirical data that show otherwise are often met with surprise or disbelief because people have been taught from childhood that religion is (at least largely) what gives people good values.

  • ZeldasCrown

    I tend to think of this issue in terms of people who have crafted their sense of morality externally versus internally. Many atheists have an internal sense of morality-they don’t do certain things because they are wrong, and it doesn’t matter if there are punishments or rewards for doing so. (For example, even if it were legally ok to steal, I still wouldn’t do so, because I believe that it is wrong). In contrast, there are those who’s morality is derived externally, i.e. they behave in a certain way because they will be punished or rewarded.

    Whenever someone asks “how can an atheist ever possibly be a moral person”, what they reveal, to my way of thinking, is that their morality is externally derived. This isn’t strictly divided along religious/non-religious lines (I suppose that there could be a non-believer whose morality is derived from what is legal, versus what isn’t legal, rather than a sense of “I’m not doing this because it is wrong. Period.”), but I have to say that I’ve only seen it explicitly expressed by the religious. There are many religious people who have an internal sense of morality, but these people aren’t the ones who are asking the question-because they “get it”, since if their morality isn’t defined by the threat of hell or the promise of heaven, they understand that other people (even atheists!) could derive their morality the same way.

    This is actually kind of a scary question to hear somebody ask, since it implies that whomever is asking would be out there raping, stealing, murdering, etc if they didn’t think that they were going to be punished eternally for doing so/rewarded for not doing so.

  • Theory_of_I

    Hominids have evolved as herd animals, wherein mutually beneficial behavior improves the odds of survival. Conversely, survival is less likely if the behavior of individuals is significantly detrimental to or destructive of the herd as a whole. This can be described as an evolved intuitive sense of basic moral behavioral constraint.

    You may prefer the term social animals when applied to homo sapiens (humans) to accommodate a greater level of sophistication. However that may be, humans and their genetically evolved basic moral sense preceded any formalized god meme by many thousands of years. The concept of humans as images of and subservient to a god and deific moral mandates is a backwards contrivance predictably imagined by humans, and more specifically by those who, already intuitively possessing a moral sense, either altruistically saw the need, or for other reasons desired, to invent the authority of an irrefutable power in order to exert control over others.

    So, absent god, what about the aberrant behavior of individuals?

    Secular law provides for remediation in (largely) just and measured proportion.
    Secular law is produced and exercised in response to the multiple nuances that represent more or less conscious sub-sets of basic evolved moral behavioral constraint.