Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Evolution, Faith, God, Religion, Responsibility, Truth

3 Questions for Atheists — 2nd Question

If you haven’t read the first post, you can find it here. Otherwise, I’ll assume we’re all on the same page. Here’s question 2:

2. You behave ethically. I suggest that is because you were brought up christian. Most atheists choose to behave reasonably ethically, but why? Are some things really right and wrong, if so, how come in a physicalist universe? If it is just their personal choice, how can they criticise anyone who chooses differently? For example, I just read a newspaper article about rape as a weapon of war in Mali. You and I would both find that abhorrent, yet it makes sense on evolutionary terms – impregnate the women of your opponent and maximise your own genes. So how does all that fit together?

It’s true that I was raised in Christianity, so it’s impossible for me to say that I would be just as moral if I’d been raised any other way. And when my wife and I first started discussing the possibility that Christianity was false, we worried about where our morals would come from without it. But pretty soon, we realized that there were really good reasons for living morally, regardless of God’s existence. On top of that, we knew plenty of Christians who hadn’t always lived morally either, so it’s not like remaining Christian was any kind of guarantee.

As an atheist, I tend to think that this life is all we have. While there might be something after it, I have no real reason to believe there is. And I think this might help me value life more than many religious people. When all those children were killed in Newtown, I didn’t believe that Heaven had gained a bunch of new souls — I was very upset that those young lives had been cut so short. It’s a point of view that doesn’t have as much comfort as what most religious people have. Their real life was here, not in some supernatural realm, so the tragedy is arguably more real. That helps me value all life, not just my own. We are social creatures — we naturally tend to look out for others’ well-being, not just our own. And I am personally happier when I do good things for others rather than take advantage of them.

So those are some of the reasons why I choose to live morally. As to whether or not there is a true universal morality, I don’t know. I think there are some things that come pretty close to it though. Rape, torture, murder, etc — those things are good candidates for being absolutely wrong. But I don’t think we need a deity to tell us that. Most people agree that human well-being is better than human suffering, so I think that’s a pretty good standard. We don’t need a transcendent being to tell us that, any more than most of us would need a transcendent being to tell us that cake tastes better than spinach. Throughout human history (and well before Christianity), people have been coming together to define morality as what works best for them as a society. As time has gone on, we’ve gotten better at it by protecting minority rights, etc. I don’t see why we need anything more than that.

I’ll cover the 3rd question in the next post.

94 thoughts on “3 Questions for Atheists — 2nd Question”

  1. Yes, Marcus I think that is a very valid question. If one were to utilize God as some sort of specific philosophical function to save oneself from from total relativity then what God would one be placing in this philosophical function? One could even argue that by doing this more problems are created for God than solved.



  2. Nate,

    I understand why it doesn’t bother you and it needn’t necessarily. I, actually, have a moral approach similar to your moral approach, but I also understand Unklee’s objections to naturalism and, in my opinion, those objections are valid and problematic for our worldview.



  3. “Naturalism combined with morality has no logical support. ….. those objections are valid and problematic for our worldview.”

    Persto, I really appreciate your honesty here. I think too few people on either side are willing to recognise the weaknesses in their own positions.

    On my part, I would say similar about the problem of evil. Some christians try to explain it away, but I would agree with any atheist that the problem of evil is “valid and problematic for my worldview”. i.e. if the only evidence we had was the problem of evil, I would not be a theist. But it turns out that I find many more problems for atheism (such as the discussion we are having here) than I do for theism, or, in other words, more evidence which theism explain better than which atheism explains better. So I am a believer.

    It is very freeing to be able to admit strengths in one’s opponent’s argument and it helps us better evaluate truth. We can as dispassionately as possible assess all the arguments and score them fairly for one side or the other. If one side clearly outweighs the other, we can legitimately follow that view, if both are roughly equal, we would be agnostic.

    Thanks again.


  4. Unklee,

    “Ryan, I think your scenario is quite what one might expect granted evolution. It just isn’t mortality that you’ve come up with”.

    But I think one of the reasons rape as a weapon of warfare is considered wrong and terrible because we would never want our mothers, daughters or sisters to be treated that way.

    Again, through empathy I think people can place themselves and their loved ones in the position of those abused. This especially strikes us when the more vulnerable members of a society are targeted and abused, for we can relate to them as fellow human beings in need. This is a form of morality I think.

    War is by nature cruel and terrible. It is where human beings actively try to redirect their empathy away from a select group and turn those they are fighting against into “beasts” and “monsters”. Of course, this is done so it is easier for people like those militia in Mali to do horrible things in order to gain power.

    The abuse of civilians is never justified just because desperate militia are treating their enemy as “less than human”.

    The again another thought is maybe this empathy comes from God?


  5. I want to emphasise that last point.

    One of the reasons rape as a weapon of warfare is considered wrong and terrible is because we would never want our mothers, daughters or sisters to be treated that way.

    This is a form of morality. And arguably think this is how moral systems are developed in a society.

    And maybe this empathy comes from God?

    Kind regards, Ryan


  6. I like this discussion because it is helping me think more through these difficult questions. One quick comment I’d like to point out is that we shouldn’t equate naturalism (or “physicalism” which might even have another distinction from naturalism depending on who you talk to) with atheism. Atheism just claims there are no gods. I am a lot more agnostic about naturalism than I am about atheism. I do realize however that a great many atheists are naturalists (although I don’t get that from the polls that have been taken of philosophy faculty – the more I read the more I think there may be a disparity between what the average Joe atheist believes versus what atheist philosophers who think about this stuff for a living believe). Just as we shouldn’t paint Uncle E as a particular conservative Christian we shouldn’t paint all atheists as holding to certain other philosophical views.

    Another point is that just like the discussions you guys have been having about meaning, it may very well be true that these very strong feelings we have about morality are simply a biproduct of natural causes and that there really are no moral truths outside of humans. To put it bluntly this would piss me off, but that doesn’t imply a logical proof against a physicalist belief system. I would agree however that because these intuitive feelings exist and are so incredibly strong that it should give us pause and we should grapple with this. Again I don’t really hold strongly at all to a physicalist view anyway, but just thought I’d point that out.

    I see some other possibilities here as well. Perhaps even without a god moral truths could exist somehow just like laws of logic exist, or “Platonic abstracta” such as numbers. While I understand J.L. Mackie’s point of the “queerness” of this because moral truths do seem kind of different from things that seem more objective like logic and numbers. The “ought/is” problem I believe is the main factor for this queerness. But even though it would be weird that doesn’t at all mean it is a logical proof of them not existing outside of conscious thinking entities as we understand them. And it could simply be transcendent and beyond things that humans are capable of grasping. I believe it is important to note that there are some god-believing philosophers like Richard Swinburne who do hold to the view that some objective moral truths exist outside of god. That doesn’t make it true, but it indicates that things are not as simple as a lot of theists would suggest, and I definitely see this as a possibility. Shelly Kagan, Erik Wielenberg, Stephen Law and Louise Antony are all atheist philosophers who explain this kind of view much better than I can (not appealing to authority here, just noting that it’s not just some idea that only crackpots like myself hold to.)

    Questions about morality and meaning are a tough one for me, but I don’t think that the questions go away once one believes in a god. Even if one believes in a god there still remains very tough questions like how did that god come up with morals? what is it that actually grounds the moral authority of that god over us? and if in reality there exists 2 or more gods with differing morals which one of them would win over as far as the one whose morals are the objective ones that all should follow? I don’t believe it is wrong to ask these kinds of questions just as it isn’t wrong for theists to ask atheists questions about moral ontology without a god.


  7. “One of the reasons rape as a weapon of warfare is considered wrong and terrible is because we would never want our mothers, daughters or sisters to be treated that way.

    This is a form of morality. And arguably think this is how moral systems are developed in a society.”

    Ryan, thanks for continuing this discussion. I wonder if we all agree on what morality is? I believe it is not just a description of how we do in fact behave, but an ideal of how we “ought” to behave. Do you agree?

    On my definition, what you have described clearly happens, but it isn’t morality. Most of us are indeed revolted by certain behaviours and we choose not to do them. But that doesn’t mean we have said anything about whether we “ought” not do them.

    And if another society decides that they will not do revolting things to their own tribe, but will do them to others (which we see happening all too often in the world), than on your definition, that would be “moral”, but it would not be on mine.

    So I think you are still left with explaining why that tribe’s behaviour is “wrong”.


  8. Howie, thanks for a very measured and thoughtful response. I agree with much of what you say, including that atheism doesn’t necessarily imply naturalism or physicalism. If an atheist tells me they are not a naturalist/physicalist, then I would ask them what other form of non-naturalism can they suggest apart from theism, and discuss that.

    “Perhaps even without a god moral truths could exist somehow just like laws of logic exist”

    I actually believe that is the case.

    “Even if one believes in a god there still remains very tough questions like how did that god come up with morals?”

    And I agree here also. Being a christian doesn’t remove all my problems, whether personal or intellectual! But it does reduce them considerably.

    I think that God doesn’t just invent morality, but recognises it just as he recognises logic. He is none the less for this, and in fact would be much less if he didn’t. Where we need God is knowing what is right. Our ethical faculties are deeply impaired, and we have no way of being sure that there is objective morality or knowing what it is without God working in us – call it conscience if you like.

    So all the atheists who have a strong ethical sense, such as those discussing here, are generally quite right. They are receiving input from God, they just (unfortunately) don’t recognise it. Best wishes.


  9. “So I think you are still left with explaining why that tribe’s behaviour is “wrong”.

    Unklee, I have to respectfully disagree with you here. Who and what we value strongly guides who we have empathy for.

    Rape is wrong because we recongnise the victim as a fellow human being who is just as valuable as you or me.

    It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. I think it’s probably fair to say people who commit such terrible crimes don’t value their victims as human beings.

    When a person acknowledges that another person has value then they call the abuse of that person immoral. If a person recognises that other people outside their “tribe” have worth because they belong to the same humanity as you or I then they respect those people, as they themselves would like to be respected.


  10. I still don’t see it. There’s no “ought” in empathy – either you have it or you don’t. I still think you are not talking about morality, certainly not as I define it. How would you define it? is there any “ought” in it?


  11. Someone “ought” not to murder or abuse someone else because they identify that other people as just as valuable (or even more valuable) as themselves.

    Why should they value other people in this way? – Because there are no degrees of separation in humanity. In this sense Social Darwinism has long ago been shown as an empty concept.

    There are not some people who are more superior or more human than others, and therefore if human beings are all the same in value, then wherever they exist they are entitled to the same respect. This is true whether you are in a war torn country or a stabilised country.


  12. But why “ought” someone do that, especially if they don’t identify people as valuable? (As experience shows happens. For many people, it is the tribe, or the religious subgroup they owe respect to, not any wider grouping that they see as “enemies”.)


  13. yes people do cruel and ugly things to one another. Throughout history people have fought and abused people who were considered part of the “other tribe”.

    They ought not to do that because the international community looking from the outside considers killing women and children as wrong. But in times past abuse, rape and murdering outsiders was seen as ok from the inside of many tribes. Did it make it right back then? no. A human being is a human being.

    So what’s changed? people ought not to do this because we now rightly recongnise that humanity is not limited to “our tribe” not only limited to “able bodied people” not only limited to “men”.

    People ought not to do this because human beings are valuable and dominating another person in an unjust way in the pursuit for power is wrong. why is it wrong?

    because again, we recongnise these people are also human beings, and we wouldn’t want our mother, daughter or sister to go through such things. There is no difference in value between my loved ones and theirs, its just that I am linked to my loved ones through circumstance. Unfortunately not everyone recongnises the reality that other people as valuable just as valuable as you or I. And here is the problem.


  14. and why are they valuable? why ought we to value others we don’t know? who are not part of our “tribe”? because we recongnise that we are not better than another human being. If they are not valuable then neither are we.


  15. and finally, if people out there don’t identify other people to be as valuable as them then they are not grounded in reality, which then enables them to do horrible things.


  16. sorry got to add one more thing, what makes someone or something valuable to us, isint it based how much we interact and place our focus on?

    For example, what makes a pet more valuable than a stray dog? is it the relationship we have had with the pet, interacting with it it as it has grown up. Is it because we feel some ownership over a pet?

    Is personal value then based on the relationship and proximity we have had with something or someone?

    But is the inherent difference between a long loved family dog and a stray mutt. there is not inherent difference. people placed value on the dog we selected to look after.

    Both dogs belong to the same canine family, yet one has a personal attatchment to a family and one is considered a pest, is one better than the other?

    in this sense some way sof thinking of it are 1. all canines are in reality valuable, only we don’t always recongnise them as valuable. either that or 2. no dog is inherently valuable. or 3 the dogs are only as valuable as we have use and affections for them.

    Of course humans are not like this 3 is not an option. well it is but its a terrible option (eugenics). so either all huamns are valuable or no one is. and im going to stop rambling now. I go for all humans are valuable.


  17. for the record im not making any comparison between humans and dogs, it was just an example of how differences exist in the way people base their values on interaction and proximity.


  18. May be for individual, moral is enough, “I do my job, I don’t bother everyone, that it, I good”. In social interaction, to have moral itself is not enough. There are responsibility, protection, justice, ethics, right, code, laws, of course, moral is a part of it.

    When Christian defend about morality, it always about social interaction. When atheist say about morality, it always about individual right. So, it quite difficult to find similarity between two clashing ideas where are individual is static and society are more dynamics.

    In Buddhist ideology, there are called “Karma”, when people do bad thing to others, bad thing will happen to them in future. When people do good things to others, good thing will happen to them.

    Sometime, stray dog have a better life than pet dog. A fancy life doesn’t make you more happier than other who doesn’t. Stray dog have freedom that pet don’t.
    Happiness is thing hard to describe.
    Some people say if they have a lot of money, they will happy, when they got it, they are not.
    Some people say if they have a sport car, they will happy, when they drive it, a normal car is more comfort.

    All human are valuable, but the idea of value is different from one to another. Their need and expectation also different.


  19. Author, Terry Pratchett wrote, without things we are just clever animals.
    Self actualization is part of human growth and morality and ethics form part of this growth.
    If love is considered the highest expression of these qualities then why does it matter if we have free will or not?
    I choose to believe I do.

    Negative morality and ethics are inevitably self destructive.

    Atheism requires the highest moral and ethical standard as it does not allow the need or necessity of a supernatural outside ‘force’ (deity) to influence one’s decisions, choices or calls to action. Neither does one expect to turn to one’s imaginary friend to ask for forgiveness.
    The phrase, “What would Jesus say?” is a redundant. meme as banal as, ”Be good or Santa wont bring you presents.”

    Do the right thing. Help humanity. Become an atheist.


  20. Ryan, I think it is time to give Nate back his blog. It has been an interesting and pleasant conversation, but we appear to be not connecting. I still don’t see anything in what you say that tells me a good reason why anyone should think the way you say if they are not disposed to, or why it is objectively “right” to do so. But I think anything more from me would be repetitious. Thanks, and best wishes.


  21. @unkleE

    Sorry it takes me so long to respond to comment back on your post. But this has been I have been following closely to see what people say.

    In regards to the whole conversation of morality, I think this is one of the reasons, why I did not like Mere Christianity, because I have never seen morality as proof for/of God. When i was christian, my doctrine of morality was that similar to Divine Command Theory, That things are moral when God says they are moral or when God commands that it is moral. Something is only moral when God commands it.

    From that I mindset I could never use morality as proof of God, )because he is already morality. (In my warped christian sense.

    and as for question, which religion is the most moral…I really don’t because I am not an expert in world religions and world history, But I would Jaines, Quakers, and Buddhist, in no particular order.


  22. Marcus, no worries about delay – leisurely is good!

    I don’t hold to Divine Command Theory, but I think it is the strongest form of the moral argument. The argument is simple. It starts with the observation that most people act as if some ethical statements are objectively true – if they weren’t, we’d have no basis for saying Hitler, or Pol Pot, or a pedophile, were truly wrong – all we could say is that we don’t like their behaviour.

    But what makes something truly wrong or right? DCT provides an answer. My own answer isn’t quite as simple, but either way, belief in God provides an answer, and nothing else seems to. So we are left with one of three options:

    1. Give up believing in objective morality (not very easy to do).
    2. Believe in God.
    3. Accept there is illogic at the heart of our life and beliefs.

    I’m a little surprised at your choice of religions you prefer. Quakers are generally christians (though there are some non-christan Quakers); the Buddha didn’t teach about God as far as I am aware; and the Jains are an extremely ascetic religion that imposes amazing restrictions on its adherents. But thanks for your thoughts.

    Best wishes.


  23. I’ve been away from the computer the last couple of days too, so I’m a bit behind. Thanks to everyone for all the great comments. I want to thank Persto in particular, since he offered a different perspective from what some of us were saying.

    I still think the issue isn’t as black and white as the 3 options UnkleE lists out in the above comment would suggest. But I am not well-read when it comes to philosophy, so many of the arguments made over the last couple of days are a bit over my head. Something I’ll have to study up on. Other than that, I don’t have anything new to add. Feel free to carry on the discussion though — maybe I’ll jump in again later. 🙂


  24. @unkleE

    yeah fair enough,

    Those last few posts I made were very poorly written, plus I posted them before I reached a moore complete idea of what I was meaning to say.

    all the best


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