Atheists and Morality: Defining Our Terms

Atheists and Morality: Defining Our Terms January 27, 2018

Let’s set the record straight. I’m tired of hearing stuff like this:

“Then the Catholic Church is wrong.”

Wrong answer.

For a genuine atheist, there is no wrong. All you should say is that your opinion is different.

Let me give you some of the chapter I wrote for John Loftus’ book Christianity Is Not Great:

christianity is ot great loftus

Chapter 22: “Tu Quoque, Atheism!” – Our Right To Judge

By Jonathan MS Pearce

Throughout the chapters in this book you have seen how the authors have woven the threads of argument that have made a patchwork quilt, a tapestry of accusations, to be hung around the body of Christianity, that serves to highlight the harm done under its auspices and in its name.

Christians throw the accusation at atheists that we have no epistemic right to judge the moral dimension of the Christian faith. Take Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who concerned himself with the problem of evil) for example. One of the foremost modern apologists, William Lane Craig, stated in his book Reasonable Faith about Dostoyevsky:

Actually, he sought to carry through a two-pronged defense of theism in the face of the problem of evil. Positively, he argued that innocent suffering may perfect character and bring one into a closer relation with God. Negatively, he tried to show that if the existence of God is denied, then one is landed in complete moral relativism, so that no act, regardless how dreadful or heinous, can be condemned by the atheist. To live consistently with such a view of life is unthinkable and impossible. Hence, atheism is destructive of life and ends logically in suicide.[i]

Oh dear, we atheists are apparently a miserable and evil bunch! And what of Craig himself?

In a world without God, who is to say which actions are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God…

In a world without a divine lawgiver, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say that you are right and I am wrong.[ii]

You can’t get any clearer than that. This, I would argue, is representative of the Christian approach to atheistic morality and to whether atheists have a right to judge others. And it is this view that I will challenge.

Do we non-theists have an epistemic right to judge Christians, to assign moral value to their actions? Are we throwing around accusations of harm without having our own foundation upon which to base them, as many Christians claim?

There are three things to say in direct answer to this question. First, it doesn’t matter. By this, I mean if all the atheists and non-religious people of this world did not so much as exist, these concepts and ideas and accusations leveled at Christians and Christianity would still have merit. In fact, there are Christians around the world who are critical enough of their own religion and, moreover, of all the other thousands of denominations other than their own, as to make these accusations valid, irrespective of whether or not they come from atheists. If every author in this book happened, in some bizarre twist, to be a committed (yet critical!) Christian, would these points not still hold? Of course they would.

Consider Thom Stark, a liberal Christian, who took Paul Copan and his book Is God a Moral Monster? to task in Is God a Moral Compromiser? Stark prefaced his work with these comments:

In critiquing Paul Copan’s apologetic defenses of our frequently morally problematic Bible, my aim is not to turn anybody away from the Christian faith. In fact, I am critical of apologetic attempts to sweep the Bible’s horror texts under the rug precisely because I believe such efforts are damaging to the church and to Christian theology, not to mention to our moral sensibilities…

But despite [contemporary popular apologists’] very good intentions, they seem oblivious to the real harm they’re doing. Not only are they giving permission for Christians to be dishonest with the material, they’re reinforcing delusions that disconnect well-meaning Christians from reality, blinding them to the destructive effects many of these horror texts continue to have upon Christian communities and in broader society.[iii] [my emphasis]

So you can see that Christians themselves (the ones who are critical enough) hold similar views to mine. They see the harm that their own apologists perpetuate through the use of contrived theology whose only purpose serves as self-authenticating validation.

As Bishop John Shelby Spong stated in The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love:

This book [the Bible] has been relentlessly employed by those who say they believe it to be God’s Word, to oppress others who have been, according to the believers, defined in the “hallowed” pages of this text as somehow subhuman. Quotations from the Bible have been cited to bless the bloodiest of wars. People committed to the Bible have not refrained from using the cruelest forms of torture on those whom they believe to have been revealed as the enemies of God in these “sacred” scriptures. A museum display that premiered in Florence in 1983, and later traveled to the San Diego Museum of Man in 2003, featured the instruments used on heretics by Christians during the Inquisition. They included stretching machines designed literally to pull a person apart, iron collars with spikes to penetrate the throat, and instruments that were used to impale the victims. The Bible has been quoted throughout Western history to justify the violence done to racial minorities, women, Jews and homosexuals. It might be difficult for some Christians to understand, but it is not difficult to document the terror enacted by believers in the name of the Bible.[iv]

These are just two examples of many. Christians are critical enough of themselves to point out the harm their holy book and its adherents have caused. If their points are correct, then so, surely, are ours.

The second thing to say in response is that we are merely testing the hypothesis that God is love. One highly contentious view that almost everyone hears about God is that he is love. God is love. This view is somewhat controversial in the context of much of what you have read in this book. What the authors have established is an evidential problem of evil argument against God. Christianity and Christians have contributed harm to this world; how is this fact coherent with the existence of an all-loving, morally perfect God?

If we can establish, and I think we have quite forcefully, that Christianity has created a great deal of harm, then Christians are under even more pressure to answer the ubiquitous problem of evil. Seeing Christianity as the problem of evil has a certain ironic ring to it.

God is love is a truth claim. It is a hypothesis that is being put to the test. We can actually use the dirty linen of the Bible and of Christianity since biblical times to make the bed; and we can see if the Bible lies comfortably in it. We can use the morality of the Bible to be its own judge, jury, and executioner. And let’s face it, the Bible won’t be averse to meting out the most final of punishments: there is rather a lot of execution therein.

Accordingly, the claim that God is love is problematic on many levels.

The third response is that atheists do have the right to judge. We have an epistemic right to judge that Christianity and Christians have caused this world harm.  We do so because morality is a coherent concept in a worldview absent of a god.

To show this, I will start by defining the relevant terms then briefly critiquing the main concepts of Christian ethical systems, with particular reference to the idea that (the Judeo-Christian) God himself appears to be a moral consequentialist. This refutes the claim of his acolytes that he is needed to ground morality. I will show that most philosophers are non-theistic and hold to a variety of non-theistic moral value systems that do not necessitate a god and invariably undermine Christian morality. I will go further to argue that morality indeed presupposes atheism in order to make sense.

Defining our terms

Before we investigate morality, it is useful to establish what we mean by it. First, and obviously, we must look to find a useable definition as to what morality is.

Generally, the study of morality is split into three components: descriptive morality, meta-ethics and normative morality. Normally philosophers replace the term ‘morality’ with ‘ethics’. Descriptive ethics is concerned with what people empirically believe, morally speaking. Normative ethics (which can be called prescriptive ethics) investigates questions of what people should believe. Meta-ethics is more philosophical still in attempting to define what moral theories and ethical terms actually refer to. Or,

What do different cultures actually think is right? (descriptive)

How should people act, morally speaking? (normative)

What do right and ought actually mean? (meta-ethics)

Morality, as the term will be used here, will generally be understood as: “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.”[v]

The second important term to attempt to unravel is objective. This is a more difficult term to define than one may think. Usually it means something that is independent of an agent’s mind, or mind independent. This is the understanding I will use here for the sake of argument. Thus objective morality refers to facts about what constitutes moral behavior, and these facts lie in the nature of the agent’s action, regardless of cultural and individual opinion.

One hugely important question at this point concerns the existence of properties such as “is an abstract idea.” This is important because theists end up arguing at only skin depth, at the veneer of philosophy. Whether an atheist has the right to make moral judgments is a question that has as its basis much more fundamental meta-ethical and metaphysical philosophy. What theism and theists rely on is some form of (Platonic) realism such that there is a realm where abstract ideas and forms exist. This is not immediately, or even after some critical analysis, apparent. What are rights, moral laws or morality actually made of? What is their ontology? What are the properties of these abstract ideas? The conceptualist (a form of nominalism, the position that denies the existence of universal abstract ideas in some way) claims, for example, that abstract ideas like morality are concepts in each individual conceiver’s head. Thus objective morality is potentially a non-starter or requires a more befitting definition. Now the philosophy gets very in-depth here, but is actually critically important. It is easy to say atheists have no ground for objective morality and that theists do. It is a lot harder to show how objective morality exists in some kind of mind-independent reality. Even God can be argued to be an abstraction (since he apparently has infinite qualities, a concept that has no actual reality).

This terminology of “objective morality” is ubiquitous in debates with Christian apologists, as we can see with William Lane Craig’s Moral Argument, which he uses in every debate:

(Premise 1) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.

(Premise 2) Objective moral values and duties do exist.

(Conclusion) Therefore, God does exist.[vi]

There is a philosophical problem here because this might well imply that there must exist some kind of Platonic realm, as mentioned, where these ideas actually exist. Without humans in the world, and the actions that carry such moral values, can we actually say that these ideas exist mind-independently? For example, if one were to posit a moral theory that was universally subjective, such that each rational and knowledgeable person with a sound mind would arrive at the same conclusion in valuing a moral action, would this qualify as “objective”? For example, if we agreed that which would be a self-evidently good state of affairs (human flourishing, lack of pain, increase of pleasure, etc.), then this goal could be achieved or known by a thorough empirical analysis (qua science)—would this qualify as objective?[vii] If ideas and concepts exist only conceptually, rather than out there in the ether, does the concept of “objectivity” even make sense?

This idea of universal subjectivity would explain commonality between people, as well as the differences (taking into account societal influences) much better than morality existing as some Platonic form. Or is it just a fanciful way of smuggling in God? If the idea of objective morality is incoherent, are we left with any grounding for moral judgments sans God, and perhaps, even with God?

I have had many conversations with theists who make claims about objective morality without properly defining it and then, upon being pressured, reveal it to mean something like “valid and binding.” But this ends up being a circular claim. You cannot have an objective morality without a god since objective morality means a value system validated by some entity. In other words, you can’t have “God-derived morality” without God! Well, indeed.

Nevertheless, let us take this mind-independent concept of objective and apply it to morality and see whether it holds up. Interestingly, unless theists also hold to some kind of Platonic form, or actual ontological existence of morality in God (whatever that could possibly mean), then they face the same questions.

[i] William Lane Craig, A Reasonable Faith, (3rd Ed., Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 69.

[ii] Ibid, p.75

[iii] Thom Stark, Is God a Moral Compromiser? A Critical Review of Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?”, 2nd Ed., http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf (accessed July 20, 2013), p. 1. (accessed July 20, 2013)

[iv] John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), pp. 4-5

[v] Bernard  Gert. “The Definition of Morality,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/ (accessed July 20, 2013)

[vi] E.g., William Lane Craig, “Morality and Does God Exist?”, Reasonable Faith with William Lane Craig, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/morality-and-does-god-exist (accessed July 20, 2013)

[vii] Here we could use a goal-oriented approach such that if we wanted a (e.g. human flourishing), then would need to do x (some action to achieve a). This conditional has an apodosis (then…) which follows factually from the protasis (if…), something which could be established using an empirical method. The matter of fact aspect of this conditional statement can make such a hypothetical moral approach objective or factual, though it then becomes important to establish the goal as being self-evident ofrfactual in some such way.

In the next section, I will look at Christian systems of morality.


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