Do Atheists Have Morals?

Do atheists have morals? The question makes about as much sense as these: “Do horses like rock ‘n’ roll?” “Do cheese wheels pilot helicopters?” “Does TV watch you?” In short, the subject and object have nothing to do with each other, as I hope to demonstrate. First, the reason I felt compelled to write this post.

A Pastor Steve Cornell posted a comment to this post of mine today. For whatever reason, he decided not to make a comment relevant to the post, but simply copied and pasted a screed from his own blog. Maybe he’s short on time. In any case, I deleted the screed and left the link to his blog. Here it is again.

A major point of Pastor Steve’s post is that atheists can have no basis for objective morality. As I said above, this statement is nonsensical. It’s like saying that new wave fans can have no basis for enjoying cheese cake. The two have nothing to do with each other.

This is because atheism is not a moral philosophy. It is not a worldview. It is not a conceptual framework. It’s not even a set of nice ideas. Atheism is simply a name for people with a particular position on one question. We don’t believe that there are any gods. That’s it. Under the definition of the word that I endorse, anyone who doesn’t believe in any gods is an atheist, whether that person is an agnostic, humanist, or someone who is entirely convinced that there are no gods. The word contains no more information about a person’s worldview than the words “Teetotaller” or “abolitionist.”

The claim made by Pastor Steve’s post is that since atheists don’t believe in the supernatural, then they can have no basis for objective morality. I don’t understand what the supernatural has to do with morality, but it’s a fairly common argument among some theists. The answer is pretty simple: people do not obey laws because they’re afraid of God. They obey laws because they’re afraid of being thrown in prison, or hurting their friends or loved ones, or damaging their reputations, or any number of other reasons. Objective morality isn’t necessary. Ordinary, everyday morality is more than enough.

In short, this “atheists have no morals” crap is just another specious canard thrown about to give atheists a bad name. No matter; our numbers are growing, which means that there are more and more of us all the time to explain patiently why this particular argument is full of holes. That will leave Pastor Steve with one less thing to spam our blogs about.

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9 Responses to “Do Atheists Have Morals?”

  1. Postman Says:

    I glanced at the guy’s blog. I’m sorry I did, but that’s spilt milk under the bridge.
    It’s pretty evident that no amount of patient explanation will shift him. He knows what he knows and that’s what he knows.
    Beyond him being the sort of person who thinks he can hit you on the head with a bible and make you see the light, (or perhaps he’s just covering his ass for Judgement Day, so he can say he warned us), I think he’s leaving screeds and links lying about the landscape in hopes someone will come to his site and leave a single comment.

  2. forrest noble Says:

    A lot of Christians, Jews, and Moslems believe that most atheists do not have morals. It is true that they do not have to follow any biblical foundation of morals and can invent their own moral system. Normally that system would consider the consequences of going against the laws of the state.

    For myself, I have been an atheist for maybe 50 years. I have invented my own moral system that is strongly related to how I was raised as a Christian.
    I believe in the Golden Rule and especially the negative Golden rule: Don’t do unto others what you would not want others to do to you.

    I believe in living in symbiosis, first man with man, and then man with animals and plant. The phylosophy is: don’t take another life unless you “have to” to keep your own life. For the reason I am a fruitarian. I eat no animals or plants because we don’t need to in order to fill all our dietary needs. I only eat those things that are produced by the reproductive systems of living things, like conventional fruit, that without the seed could never become a tree. Technical fruit such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans and legumes of all sorts and varieties. Nuts and seeds that are not plants as yet are also OK. For peanuts and potatoes, the plant dies above ground and the root system spreads out. These would also be OK. Any plant that you personally cultivate and that you water and fertilize is OK if you trim them off for food (but don’t deroot them.

    As an atheist one might ask what is the “ultimate” truth or morality for such a dietary or personal conduct? The answer is, there isn’t any. It’s a personal choice. Anyone who chooses to live such a “invented morality” would certainly get no heavenly reward. There is a personal satisfaction of knowing however the you have empathy and sympathy for other humans and animals living on this Earth. Yes on prop. 2, california, Humane treatment of poultry and livestock — I say.

    forrest_forrest@netzero.net

  3. soulbiscuit Says:

    Thanks Forrest! I don’t agree with many points of your personal morality, and I appreciate that you seem to acknowledge my right to do so. The insistence on the part of many theists that all humans be held to their personal moral standards seems vain and childish to me. I applaud those mature enough to be satisfied with morals that work for them alone.

  4. Lottie Says:

    Objective morality isn’t necessary.

    I’ll go as far as saying that objective morality doesn’t even exist. If it did, we wouldn’t have debates about what morality is, where it comes from and who does or doesn’t have it.

    Good post! Glad to see you again!

  5. Postman Says:

    Lottie,

    I happened to be reading “A Briefer History of Time” on the train this morning and it occurs to me that if time can be relative, morality shouldn’t be so snooty about it.

  6. geekgrrrl Says:

    My response to the argument that atheists cannot have morals is usually along the lines of:

    I know right from wrong all on my own. If you’re telling me that the only thing that keeps you from doing terrible things to other people is that you are afraid that some invisible entity is watching your every move… and if your only reason for doing the right thing is that you are greedily looking forward to a reward… then I am *afraid* of you. If the only thing standing between you, and immoral behavior, is your belief in a god, then what would you be capable of if you decided there was no god? I would say that an atheist who does the right thing simply because it’s the right thing, is infinitely more moral than a religious person who is only pretending to be moral because s/he fears punishment or seeks rewards.

    oh, and just one more comment. You mentioned he pasted something from his own blog instead of coming up with a new reply. Sometimes when I read a blog entry and reply to it, it ends up being 10 pages long, so I instead make it into a separate blog entry on my blog first, and then just copy the main point to the comment on the other person’s blog. I hate to be rude by taking up the entire comments section, and if the other person’s blog ever goes away I don’t want to lose the 10 page thought that I came up with, but to some it may look like I just copy/paste from my own blog. Maybe that’s what the other guy was doing? Maybe not, but that’s the first thing that it made me think of. 🙂

  7. Jeff Says:

    I think you are attacking a false argument. You began appropriately enough:

    “A major point of Pastor Steve’s post is that atheists can have no basis for objective morality.”

    But you ended up at:

    “In short, this “atheists have no morals” crap is just another specious canard thrown about to give atheists a bad name.”

    Of course Atheists have morals. Man is a moral being. The question you must answer sufficiently is “why?.” Your view is that we exist in an amoral, materialistic universe. From what is morality derived? It is here that one can argue that you have no sufficient BASIS for morality leading to any kind of ordered society where morality is EXPECTED of each other.

    Remember, in your universe, there is nothing nonnatural, nonmaterial, nothing beyond the material which bears upon it. So, where is your starting point? You may answer “Myself” but that brings a whole new set of problems. If you get to anwer thus, then so do the rest of us. If you are the source of morality, then why should your morality be binding upon me or anyone else?

    “You can’t navigate by a compass tied to your own ship’s head.”

  8. soulbiscuit Says:

    Thanks for your post, Jeff. I don’t agree with much of it, as I’ll demonstrate in a moment, but it was polite and relevant to my post. Unlike the comment by Pastor Steve to which I refer.

    Remember, in your universe, there is nothing nonnatural, nonmaterial, nothing beyond the material which bears upon it. So, where is your starting point? You may answer “Myself” but that brings a whole new set of problems. If you get to anwer thus, then so do the rest of us. If you are the source of morality, then why should your morality be binding upon me or anyone else?

    This is the usual argument, either for the immorality of atheists or, in your case, for the idea that all morality comes from God even if atheists won’t admit it. You say that in a materialist universe, with nothing beyond the natural (whatever that might mean), there can be no ultimate fount of moral teachings. I would accept this, I think.

    From here, however, you erect a false dichotomy. You allow for two possibilities: a materialist universe in which there is no objective morality, and a universe with a supernatural (whatever that means) intelligence who dictates morality. However, if such an intelligence existed, what reason would we have to accept its teachings as moral? Why should I trust its teachings more than any moral philosopher?

    This is the trouble with those who hold that morality comes from God. Either they are willing to blindly accept that God’s teachings are moral, without exercising their own moral judgment in the process, or they are willing to use their moral judgment to accept some of God’s teachings and reject others. (For instance, Jeff, do you drag your children to the edge of town and stone them to death if they talk insolently to you?)

    If people accept God’s teachings at face value without judging them, then they are amoral beings who will do whatever they’re told by a sufficiently impressive authority. (Abraham and Isaac tell a spectacular example.) If, however, you acknowledge that people are able to choose among God’s teachings to determine which are moral and which are not, then you have admitted that morality comes from human judgment, not from God. This is a true dichotomy, one from which the believer cannot escape.

    Finally, morality comes from our evolutionary past. Every highly social species that has ever arisen on this planet has at least a fairly regimented structure of behavior. It’s easy to imagine why this must be; any social species whose members were fond of killing, raping, and stealing capriciously would find its members unable to invest sufficient energy in reproduction. I won’t spend too much space on this now; I challenge you to research ideas in social evolution.

    (If you happen not to accept evolution, and apologies if you do, then let’s please leave the subject aside and focus on my argument above.)

  9. mercerd Says:

    interesting material, where such topics do you find? I will often go

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