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Are atheists immoral?

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There IS a God. I am GOD! You are DOOMED!!/Sanchez

Recently, there’s been some noise abroad that atheists are widely distusted, immoral, and foolish. As a generality, it puzzles me. If a guy wouldn’t kick the cat before he decided he was an atheist, why would he start afterward? Antony “There IS a God” Flew was an atheist for most of his career and – from the accounts I’ve heard – a highly moral man. He didn’t suddenly become moral when he admitted to Gerald Schroeder that design in life forms and the universe show that there is a God.

Then it occurred to me: It’s not so much that atheists are immoral, but that immoral people are often atheists. That is, the guy who kicks cats anyway, and fears divine retribution, may resolve his problem by deciding that there is no God and therefore no divine retribution.

Then he goes back to kicking cats in peace. Other atheists don’t like him but what can they do?

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42 Responses to Are atheists immoral?

  1. OT: Hey this neat little video has Jay Richards in it talking about the ‘Privileged Planet” , at about the 5 minute mark:

    Wonder of Creation: Soil: The Foundation of Life, Part I
    http://www.dod.org/Products/DOD2106.aspx

  2. 2

    Denyse,

    Nice way of putting it. It all goes back to two issues we’ve discussed recently:

    1) With atheism there is no derivative for ought. One can derive an ought, which is why many atheists are moral, but they don’t derive the ought from atheism. i.e., there is nothing in atheism itself that says one ought to do one thing or another. They must look elsewhere. Some atheists prefer the morality that comes from theism, or they look into other disciplines. An example is Sam Harris’s mysticism.

    2) The atheist who chooses to be immoral and does not get caught, has nothing stopping him/her from being immoral.

    Some have pointed to Hitler as a theist. Well the problem there is that Hitler’s idea of theism is that he himself made the rules for others to follow; including his god.

    With theism there is a derivative for an ought in the character of God, and there is no escape for immoral behavior, even if in this lifetime one does not get caught.

    Also, with the immoral atheist there is a given motivation to avoid evidences for the existence of God.

  3. To the degree one is “moral” depends on what morality you use as a criterion. Islamic morality is different than Hindu morality. Both are different than Christian morality. Within Christiandom there are variant moralities. Etc.

    Most atheists I know are decent, law-abiding citizens. In fact, some of my best friends are atheists.

  4. 4
    William J. Murray

    An atheist would be amoral, not immoral.

  5. That is, the guy who kicks cats anyway, and fears divine retribution, may resolve his problem by deciding that there is no God and therefore no divine

    Maybe he just decides his God doesn’t like cats. Or maybe he is a hyper Calvinist and believes he has been preordained to heaven or hell so what the heck.There seems to be a lot of ways to believe in God and do not nice things.

    Then he goes back to kicking cats in peace. Other
    atheists don’t like him but what can they do?

    You really believe this? In don’t know about in the great white north but I know what an atheist cat lover in Texas might do.

  6. 6

    The dictum that immoral people tend to be atheists veers very close to the True Scotsman fallacy – why, if they did something considered immoral within their cultural context, then they may SAY they aren’t atheists, but they must be anyway! Otherwise, how could we possibly explain all the studies indicating that atheists are WAY underrepresented in prisons. Must be bad self-reporting, right?

    I guess we can use cat-kicking as our yardstick. Whoever does it can’t be a believer, whatever they say. Whoever does NOT do it must believe, even if they don’t realize it!

  7. Do I understand this post correctly?

    It seems to me that O’Leary, who is forever criticizing natural selection, has just decided that the immorality of atheists can be explained by natural selection.

    There’s one problem, though. No evidence has been provided. In the absence of evidence, I am inclined to be skeptical of the thesis that atheists are statistically less moral than theists.

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Liddle

    I think you have half of a good point, there, Denyse!

    It’s possible that acquiring religion that says that you will have to answer in the afterlife for all the cats you kicked may stop some people kicking cats.

    I’m not sure the evidence suggests it very strongly, though. After all, for centuries Europe was dominated by a religious belief that taught exactly that. And people still committed terrible crimes.

    And I guess we don’t need to mention the abuse of those in their care by Catholic priests and nuns?

    But let’s suppose you mean that True Christians are less likely to kick cats.

    Well, the parallel, I’d say, is that True Atheists don’t kick cats either.

    By which I mean, of those I have met who don’t simply say “oh, I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God” – and then go off and do, or do not kick cats, but rather say: “actually, I think this religious thing is really wrong. We shouldn’t be deriving our morality from an arbitrarily set of scriptures of dubious divine provenance, we should be figuring it out from first principles and putting it on a footing where all can agree” – those True Atheists, I submit, are no more likely to kick a cat than you are.

    Although they may well be more likely to support causes like legalising assisted suicide, and choice in the matter of abortion.

    But that’s ethics, not morality.

  9. 9

    The post was not about what people do.

    It was about our rationalizations for what we do.

    Atheism has no rational basis for ethics. Many atheists realize this and accept it.

  10. The dictum that immoral people tend to be atheists veers very close to the True Scotsman fallacy …

    Then again, most instances of trotting out the “No True Scotsman Fallacy” are themselves fallacious. I call it the “No True Scotsman Fallacy Fallacy”.

  11. ok, I watched Braveheart. I thought that movie settled once and for all the no blue scotsman issue.

  12. velikovskys at 5: In the great white North, humane societies often have police powers.*

    Problem is, in another society, cats are tormented as witches and police powers are invoked to prevent their rescue. So if we are concerned about the moral issues, we must be clear on their basis.

    tragic mishap at 9, yes. The point is simply that materialist atheism must attract a disproportionate number of people who don’t want to be judged for what they do. They don’t even need to rationalize.

    That doesn’t mean that ethical atheists are pleased with the fact that those people embrace atheism. But they can’t stop them by saying “You can’t do this and be a good atheist.”

    It is very easy, by contrast, for a devout Catholic to say,”You can’t do this and be a good Catholic.”

    Note: Non-materialist atheism (Buddhism as a case in point) has a backstop in that karma prevents people from escaping the consequences of their actions. In some life or other, the books get balanced. We consider only materialist atheism here.

    *They do in the province in which UD News blogs from the public librarymobile stationed in the parking lot of the Lake of Ashes Church of God, up the Ganaraska, just within transmission range.

  13. The good news is that atheists can claim to be just as moral as anyone else.

    The bad news is that they define morality to mean any behavior that they happen to feel comfortable with. Their undemanding and subjective moral standard provides them with a sweet exemption from the demanding standards of objective morality–or at least they delude themselves to that extent.

    Hence, no atheist ever scrupled at the prospect of having a lustful thought, or regretted using his wife as a sex object, or wept because he failed to love his enemies. As someone once said, “If you hit the ten ring every time, you are standing too close to the target.”

  14. News:

    Problem is, in another society, cats are tormented as witches and police powers are invoked to prevent their rescue. So if we are concerned about the moral issues, we must be clear on their basis.

    I figured, but Denyse said:Then he goes back to kicking cats in peace. Other atheists don’t like him but what can they do? I was just telling her what they could do, either thru laws or more informal persuasion .
    And by the way, that witches thing, atheists generally don’t believe in witches of any flavor.They’re atheists.
    Ok, what is the moral basis,for the religious ,for the prohibition on cat kicking?

  15. Stephen B says :

    Their undemanding and subjective moral standard provides them with a sweet exemption from the demanding standards of objective morality–or at least they delude themselves to that extent.

    Is objective the same as absolute?

  16. 16

    I strongly suspect most people grow up embedded in the values of their society and culture, learning right from wrong within that context from infancy. My experience is, this has little to do with formal religious belief, and a great deal to do with the sort of socialization that’s part of being human. And while practices, protocols, traditions and related behaviors vary among cultures, the golden rule lies at the heart of human morality across all cultures.

    I’ve never seen any indication that which church (if any) one attends, has any correlation at all with how well one follows the golden rule. Or with how reliably one keeps one’s word. Or with how tenderly one treats one’s cat.

  17. David W. Gibson @16: Very nicely said. I was thinking the same thing. My family and friends are a mix of Christian, atheist, theist, and agnostic, and all are pretty much much equally moral. None of us kick cats I’m glad to say.

  18. Well, I have to admit, I come from a long line of cat jugglers.

  19. 19
    material.infantacy

    Some people juggle geese.

  20. 20
    Elizabeth Liddle

    tragic mishap:

    Atheism has no rational basis for ethics. Many atheists realize this and accept it.

    This is trivially true. Atheism is, simply, a-theism. Atheist, not being believers in god or gods do not accept god or gods as a basis for ethics. But clearly not accepting god or gods as a basis for ethics is not, in itself, a basis for ethics.

    That does not mean that atheist have no rational basis for ethics. It’s just that their position on the existence of god or gods isn’t what gives them one, and more than it is a Christian’s lack of belief in Thor or Zeus that gives her a “rational basis for ethics”.

    The issue, to me, is simply: is there a rational basis for ethics?

    And it seems to me that there is.

    And you don’t have to be an atheist, or a theist, or not-an-atheist, or not-a-theist, to figure it out.

  21. 21
    Elizabeth Liddle

    tragic mishap:

    Atheism has no rational basis for ethics. Many atheists realize this and accept it.

    This is trivially true. Atheism is, simply, a-theism. Atheist, not being believers in god or gods do not accept god or gods as a basis for ethics. But clearly not accepting god or gods as a basis for ethics is not, in itself, a basis for ethics.

    That does not mean that atheist have no rational basis for ethics. It’s just that their position on the existence of god or gods isn’t what gives them one, and more than it is a Christian’s lack of belief in Thor or Zeus that gives her a “rational basis for ethics”.

    The issue, to me, is simply: is there a rational basis for ethics?

    And it seems to me that there is.

    And you don’t have to be an atheist, or a theist, or not-an-atheist, or not-a-theist, to figure it out. You just need reason.

  22. 22
    Elizabeth Liddle

    and=any in:

    It’s just that their position on the existence of god or gods isn’t what gives them one, any more than it is a Christian’s lack of belief in Thor or Zeus that gives her a “rational basis for ethics”.

  23. VS:

    Objectivity is about warrant, so that an objective truth is well warranted and credible. In a context where that which is true — per Ari’s apt defn in metaphysics 1011b — says of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.

    Absoluteness is about freedom from tainting or dilution: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    GEM of TKI

  24. F/N: William Provine, from the Darwin Day keynote at U of Tenn, 1998:

    Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent . . . .

    The first 4 implications are so obvious to modern naturalistic evolutionists that I will spend little time defending them. Human free will, however, is another matter. Even evolutionists have trouble swallowing that implication. I will argue that humans are locally determined systems that make choices. They have, however, no free will . . .

    Consequences 3 and 5 lead to amorality and the undermining of the credibility of mind, thought and reason. Cf discussions here and here.

    Evolutionary materialism — which is what Provine described — is therefore dogged by the pretty direct implications that it is both self-referentially incoherent and absurd.

    Intellectually and morally bankrupt, in short.

    Haldane speaks to the first, powerfully:

    “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” [["When I am dead," in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927], Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209.]

    Hawthorne speaks to the second:

    Assume (per impossibile) that atheistic naturalism [[= evolutionary materialism] is true. Assume, furthermore, that one can’t infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ [[the 'is' being in this context physicalist: matter-energy, space- time, chance and mechanical forces]. (Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.)

    Given our second assumption, there is no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer an ‘ought’. And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

    Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action . . . [[We see] therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action. If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan ‘if atheism is true, all things are permitted’.

    For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.

    Now, we all know that at least some actions are really not permissible (for example, racist actions). Since the conclusion of the argument denies this, there must be a problem somewhere in the argument. Could the argument be invalid? No. The argument has not violated a single rule of logic and all inferences were made explicit.

    Thus we are forced to deny the truth of one of the assumptions we started out with. That means we either deny atheistic naturalism or (the more intuitively appealing) principle that one can’t infer ‘ought’ from [[a material] ‘is’.

    That is what needs to be on the table and that is what needs to be seriously addressed.

    Unless evolutionary materialist atheists can successfully, cogently address and resolve these two challenges, they have nothing further to say of consequence.

    (And, we then need to move on to discussion of the views of say Alfred Russel Wallace, i.e. the signs of intelligent design in the world of life, whatever mechanisms were used.)

    GEM of TKI

  25. Elizabeth says here @21

    “Atheism is, simply, a-theism. Atheist, not being believers in god or gods do not accept god or gods as a basis for ethics.”

    Elizabeth,you aren’t trying to trot out the atheist back-door excuse of “lack of belief” are you? Surely you know people are not so naive as to believe that? Come now, be honest. We both know that the term atheism is formed by the prefix “a” (meaning “without”) and implied to mean “no”,and “theos” (referring to God in most circles). The term “lack of belief” has no etymological basis for being associated with the term “atheism”. When it is used in the sense of “lack of belief”, it is used improperly, dishonestly and with the sole intention of evading epistemic responsibility.

    Even if it did literally mean what you say and wish it meant, it is nearly always used in the sense of the Judeo-Christian God not existing. Until you can provide a reasonable association between Thor, Zeus and the Judeo-Christian God (impossible since the Judeo-Christian God is qualitatively distinct from so-called Thor and Zeus), the atheist has an epistemological responsibility equal to the theist of providing a positive case for the literal and implied view that the Judeo-Christian God does not exist.

    Trying to associate Zeus and Thor with the Judeo-Christian God is also dishonest. It’s deceptive because you yourself already know that Thor and Zeus are mythological figures. But you do not know with the same certainly that Thor and Zeus have the same characteristics as the Judeo-Christian God and are equally comparable.

    What does this have to do with atheists being moral or immoral? Well I tend to think that this whole “lack of belief in God” definition of atheism is simply dishonest. It’s a lie. You aren’t lying to us are you?. You aren’t trying to be dishonest with us in attempting to perpetuate the “atheism is lack of belief” myth are you?

  26. PS: Dr Liddle you may find here helpful.

  27. 27

    The tendency seems to arise, here as elsewhere, to present the all-or-nothing fallacy. If there is no untimate basis for morality, some people just think this means there can be no basis for morality whatsoever. But anyone familiar with the law can find countless cases where two laws, both excellent by themselves, can suggest very different outcomes in complex fact situations where they both apply equally.

    Morality is much the same. Two people can both be moral, and equally so, and STILL disagree in particular situations. What’s more moral, protecting life or protecting freedom? Sometimes we favor laws that reduce freedom to protect life, other times we go to war and spend many lives to protect freedom. There is no clear answer to these questions.

    Another difficulty is disentangling morality in general, from some particular religious tradition. In the days of Pericles, was it even possible to be a theist OR an atheist? What if one accepted Zeus but not Poseidon? Could he still be moral? Or did he have to except every god to be moral? Or any at all? Was every Greek immoral because they hadn’t yet learned of today’s god?

    Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan spoke directly to this issue. The Samaritan followed an enemy faith, YET he acted morally. How was this possible? Christ drew a distinction between faith and morality that wasn’t all that hard to understand. Was the Good Samaritan amoral, did he “undermine the credibility of mind, thought and reason”?

    In fact, we have no idea what faith the Samaritan may have followed, if any. Morality isn’t a religion, it’s a complex set of behaviors growing out of the sense of right and wrong which is part of being human.

  28. KF:

    Objectivity is about warrant, so that an objective truth is well warranted and credible

    Sounds reasonable, if you don’t mind a question. In your view how is a truth well warranted? Can it be thru reason? Thanks

  29. VS:

    Why not look here?

    G

  30. 30

    David,

    “The tendency seems to arise, here as elsewhere, to present the all-or-nothing fallacy. If there is no untimate basis for morality, some people just think this means there can be no basis for morality whatsoever.”

    As Ilion pointed out at 10, you seem to be misapplying fallacies here. Theists don’t invoke a fallacy; rather, theists believe that morality does not begin with human beings. We don’t make that assumption as you do in the following two quotes:

    “Morality is much the same. Two people can both be moral, and equally so, and STILL disagree in particular situations. What’s more moral, protecting life or protecting freedom? Sometimes we favor laws that reduce freedom to protect life, other times we go to war and spend many lives to protect freedom. There is no clear answer to these questions.”

    “Morality isn’t a religion, it’s a complex set of behaviors growing out of the sense of right and wrong which is part of being human.”

    And if we take it a bit further, in the view of the atheist who accepts evolution, human morality developed through evolution. Let me ask you this: if evolution brought about our sense of morality, what about murder; do you believe that the earliest sentient humans murdered each other a lot and then decided that it was wrong? Or do you believe that murder has always been determined to be wrong among sentient humans?

    Another problem here is that you’re working pretty well with an ideal of human behavior, but you ignore evil. If human morality originates from the human psyche, then Hitler, as a human, was just as moral as Gandhi. It’s not an all-or nothing issue, but an issue of comparison. Atheism offers no model of morality from which a person can determine what is moral. Without the existence of certain ultimate values as a model for moral behavior there is no moral behavior. Atheists are simply picking out their morality from others around them. Theism finds the moral model in the character of God. This is why atheists are so persistent in fallaciously attacking the character of God.

  31. DWG:

    We are not merely talking about making errors about morality or disagreeing on what the rights and wrongs are in a given situation.

    Nope, instead the issue is whether rights and wrongs are even meaningful, beyond one species or other of “might males right.”

    The problem with “no ultimate basis for morality,” then, is that it translates into: no warrant for morality above “the highest right is might” on evo mat premises, as Plato long ago warned. Warned in no uncertain terms, and with the ghost of Socrates whispering “Alcibiades” in his ears.

    Evolutionary materialism is inherently AMORAL: it has no basis to bridge from IS to OUGHT, which should set off all your warning bells. For instance, it means you have no rights, if evo mat were true, you only have what you can fight for.

    The point of recognising rights — a reasonable expectation that one is to be respected in certain ways to simply their dignity as human beings [so, also a binding moral claim that others OUGHT to respect you in certain ways, starting with thou shalt not murder and thou shalt nor falsely accuse thy neighbour] — is that precisely those who are in no position to win the battle red in tooth and claw, are those who most need to be recognised as protected by their rights.

    A worldview that has no good foundation for OUGHT is morally incoherent. In our time that issue is most directly relevant to evo mat.

    And this is a big part of why the design thought debate is so intense. For the claim to be “scientific” — in actuality we are dealing with a censoring a priori force fitted on science as a straight jacket — is the keystone in the arch that supports evolutionary materialism’s claim to warrant.

    And that by the way is also why this blog legitimately needs to be broader than strictly scientific issues, as origins science — dealing with the remote past of unobserved origins — is inextricably intertwined with worldview level issues and faces serious limitations on the degree of empirical support that can be provided, as we simply were not there to see the remote past.

    GEM of TKI

  32. 32

    I have an atheist friend who I would trust with my life. I asked her why she was so moral. She replied, interestingly, “because it works.” This, of course, doesn’t wash because cases where immorality works are still on the table.

    Atheists can be moral. Morality is written on all our hearts. Atheists, though, can’t defend why they are moral.

    Miss Inga

  33. —velikovskys: “Is objective the same as absolute?”

    No.

    Absolute means not relative, that is, it applies to all people at all time, and in circumstances.

    Objective means not subjective, that is, it comes from outside the moral agent and is not made up by the moral agent.

  34. that should be …. “and in [all] circumstances.”

  35. Miss Inga Tooth:

    Atheists, though, can’t defend why they are moral.

    Why is that necessary? Why can’t you accept that people can be moral without meeting some criterion that fits with your personal preconceptions?

  36. 36
    CannuckianYankee

    Miss Inga,

    Hi.

    “Because it works” is really just a tautology and a non-answer; but that’s all that atheists can give you because morality isn’t grounded in anything else.

    A mathematician doen’s say “I accept mathematics because it works.” A mathematician would say “I accept mathematics because it is grounded in first principles of logic.”

    Lots of things work without grounding. Nazism and militant Islam work. What are they grounded in other than the whim of the practitioner?

    That’s what you must ask the atheist concerning morality.

  37. Is objective the same as absolute?

    The term ‘absolute’ is generally a red herring in thse sorts of discussions.

  38. … among sentient humans …

    [pet peeve]
    I suspect that you mean ‘sapient’, rather than ‘sentient’. A slug is ‘sentient’, but we have no reason even to suspect that it is ‘sapient’.

    [/pet peeve]

  39. 39
    CannuckianYankee

    Ilion,

    Thanks for the correction. Sometimes I think like a snail.

  40. CY, I do understand. After all, nearly everyone is saying ‘sentient’ when they clearly mean ‘sapient’ (I’ve read speculation that it may go back to one of the Star Trek franchises, that the producer or director or whatever ws enamored of the way the Picard actor pronounced the word ‘sentient’, and so insisted that it be used in place of ‘sapient’).

  41. Chiming in rather late here, but here goes: the problem with the “argument” that without god-belief there is no basis for morality is simple. Even if true, it doesn’t provide any actual evidence whatsoever for the existence of a god or gods. It just means that it might be a good thing if such beings existed.

    It’s a logical fallacy, usually called the “appeal to consequences.” Basically it goes, if A is true, then good things will result. Therefore A is true. Or it can be phrased negatively: if A is true, then bad things will result. Therefore A is false.

    Here’s an example: If I had a million dollars in the bank, I could do some good things with it, both for me and for others. Therefore I have a million dollars in the bank. This is EXACTLY the same argument as saying “If God exists, then we have a basis for morality, which is a good thing. Therefore God exists.” The desirability of the premise has no bearing on its truth or falsehood. You’ve still got to prove that a god or gods exist; you can’t assume their existence because it would be nice if they did.

    Actually, I think the existence of the god of the Bible would be a terrible thing, but that’s another argument, and, regardless, his existence or non-existence is independent of whether it would be a good thing or not.

  42. “Atheism offers no model of morality from which a person can determine what is moral.” Even if this statement is true (and I don’t think it is), it still doesn’t provide any actual evidence for the existence of a god or gods. It just means that it would be nice if they did. The existence of a given deity is independent of whether or not it would be good if he/she existed. I think it would be lovely if Santa Claus or the tooth fairy existed, but they don’t. If you think Yahweh exists you need to provide evidence, not resort to the fallacy of the appeal to consequences, which I comment on below.

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