Is Atheism Morally Superior?

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 21, 2009 in Criticism of Atheists,Ethics

Atheists think that atheism is morally better than Christianity. Is it?

It is easy for atheists to attack the morality of Christianity, which claims that:

  • We are ruled by an all-powerful dictator who convicts us of thoughtcrime and will torture us if we do not bow before him – like an everlasting Jafar with unlimited wishes.
  • God commits or commands ethnic genocide, mass rape, child sacrifice, and baby-killing.
  • Women are inferior, gays are evil, critical thinkers are in danger of hellfire, etc.

So, it’s not hard for atheists to think they are morally better than Christians. But are they?

It’s hard to say. There is no such thing as “atheist morality.” Atheists can embrace a variety of moral views. It’s just that none of them will mention gods.

But maybe atheists can point to one moral system that doesn’t include gods and is “better” than Christian morality. In that case, how would they know their system is “better?”

The Problem

Alonzo Fyfe points out that atheists and Christians come to their moral decisions in exactly the same way:

Moral reasoning is done, then, in about the same way that Luke Skywalker uses the force to read the future. You first clear your mind of all distractions, close your eyes, and concentrate on the act in question. Then, The Force will deliver the answer to you, as to whether the act is right or wrong. If it says ‘wrong’ this doesn’t mean that you don’t like it. This means that it has an intrinsic ought-not-to-be-doneness that applies to all beings.

It is all a bunch of hocus pocus, simple tricks, and nonsense, if you ask me.

Of course, we all point to “evidence” and “reasons” for our moral ideas. Christians point to mystical notions of “divine law,” statistics, and biology. Atheists point to mystical notions of “intrinsic human rights,” statistics, and biology.

But almost nobody bothers to ask whether their notions about morality are grounded1 in anything that actually exists in our universe. We just know what feels right based on our knowledge and biases and experience, and then proclaim that as a universal moral law for everybody. (Unless you’re a relativist, in which case you do not claim to be morally superior to Christianity.) Atheist moral reasoning is primitive, mystical hocus pocus, just like Christian moral reasoning.

The arguments I hear in defense of pro-choice, liberal, or libertarian positions are just as irrational as the ones I hear in defense of a pro-life agenda or prejudice against gays.

The fact is that very few atheists can coherently explain why their morality is better than Christian morality, instead of just different.

Christians and (some) atheists may come to their beliefs in very different ways, and atheists may be more in touch with reality in this area. But Christians and atheists come to their morals in the same way (the Luke Skywalker way). Neither are in touch with reality, here.

Atheists need to take morality seriously. They are using the same moral process as those who defended slavery, racism, sexism, tribal war, and the divine right of kings. We must do better than that. We must not simply attack bigoted religious morality. We need to offer a better alternative. An alternative that, like our beliefs, is grounded in reality, not moral feelings.

Desire utilitarianism is one promising alternative, but it is mostly untested. We need to work together on this, and move beyond Luke Skywalker moral thinking.

  1. What I’m saying here is that atheist activists do not seem to have studied moral ontology and epistemology like they have studied natural and metaphysical ontology and epistemology. []

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin February 21, 2009 at 8:47 am

Luke,

First, let’s look at these:

“We are ruled by an all-powerful dictator who convicts us of thoughtcrime and will torture us if we do not bow before him – like an everlasting Jafar with unlimited wishes”.

K> I don’t know which god this is. It’s certainly not the God of Jesus Christ. Do I have to spell this out or do you remember any of the Scriptures on this? (e.g. the difference between mere temptation and what you would call “thought crimes”, and that we are not condemned for not believing a grocery-list of doctrinal items).

“God commits or commands ethnic genocide, mass rape, child sacrifice, and baby-killing.
Women are inferior, gays are evil, critical thinkers are in danger of hellfire, etc. ”

K> Listen to my podcast with William Lane Craig on this at http://www.reasonablefaith.org. I’m amazed at how often this is brought up. With the exception of one item (God used the armies of Israel in the ancient theocracy to take life) every contention is absolutely false.

Further, I’m amazed at how often atheists cry out for “better” morality. How can we have “better” if there is no real “best”. Naturalistic morality can only recognize process, not progress, for there is no ultimate standard.

Fyfe is close to right concerning how we all evaluate ethics. Ethicists evaluate moral values and duties by reflecting on them. Moral values and duties are discovered, not determined. This is evidence of their objectivity.

So how are they grounded? They’re apparently grounded in the nature of something personal and ontologically ultimate.

Kevin

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lukeprog February 21, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Kevin,

I said Christianity asserts that “we are ruled by an all-powerful dictator who convicts us of thoughtcrime and will torture us if we do not bow before him.”

Which part of this do you deny? Christians certainly believe that God is the all-powerful ruler of the universe (by definition, a dictator). Christians also believe that Jesus convicts us of thoughtcrime (for example, Matthew 5:28). Finally, of course there are many Christian theologies about HOW to attain salvation (about 28 different Biblical theologies, in fact: http://tinyurl.com/cr2sxn), but the one I always heard growing up was that you had to submit yourself to a life of worshipping God in obedience. And finally, Christian theology has always condemned unbelievers to eternal torment, called hell.

I also said that “God commits or commands ethnic genocide, mass rape, child sacrifice, and baby-killing. Women are inferior, gays are evil, critical thinkers are in danger of hellfire, etc.”

I have listened to Craig’s podcast on this. Basically, Craig’s responses are intellectually dishonest and morally horrifying. I’ll write a blog post about this, okay?

Re: the moral argument. Craig basically says that “Without God, objective moral values don’t exist, because I have DEFINED objective morals as ‘the nature of God.’” But I could just as well say, “Without Vahiguru, objective moral values don’t exist, because I have DEFINED objective morals as ‘the nature of Vahiguru.’”

Nonsense.

Morality is about reasons for action. Reasons for action to feed the poor. Reasons for action to not rape someone. You do not need a God to have reasons for action. If I put my hand on a hot stove, I have reasons for action to take my hand off the hot stove. I also have reasons for action to warn others not to put their hand on a hot stove.

For a theory that grounds objective moral values in things that actually exist, I suggest reading up on desire utilitarianism. (Not to be confused with desire fulfillment act utilitarianism, which grounds moral values in something that does not exist: intrinsic value.)

Finally, I’d like to point out that even Craig does not think moral values can only come from God. Several times, for example when he talks about abortion, he says that we have moral reasons to oppose abortion even without looking to God, because there is intrinsic moral value in human life. I happen to disagree with Craig about that, but I’d just like to note that even Craig is not consistent.

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Aaron February 21, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Kevin,

I went to the link you gave and cannot find the podcast episode you are referring to. I found the one about God commanding the Isrealites to clear out the promised land, but from your comment it sounds like you are saying that there is an episode that discusses how \with the exception of [clearing the promised land] every contention is absolutely false.\ Which episode argues for the falsehood of these contentions? Thank you.

Aaron F

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DW February 22, 2009 at 3:30 am

While I agree with everything you’ve said, I think that another point could be made-not necessarily in favor of atheist morality, but against christian morality: the simple idea (i’m not sure whose, but I often hear Hitchens and Barker use it) that any ethical system that is based on reward and punishment is morally bankrupt. To answer Kevin, I think this is why atheists argue for ‘better’ morality. It is not that christians don’t behave morally, many of them do-it is simply that, in many cases, they do it because they have been commanded to by a deity offering eternal golden palaces or eternal damnation.
Speaking as an ex-christian, the motivation for behaving morally makes all the difference in the world.
Another problem with christian morality is that it turns to the Bible to answer moral questions of today. As if a book whose answer to most moral quandaries was a good stoning could possibly provide insight for issues like cloning, stem cell research, and CO2 usage. Again, atheists may not have it right yet, and maybe never will, but i sincerely think that we are far better off guided by humanistic principles than by an ancient storybook and a vague idea of objective morality rooted in an invisible being.

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Joe Hoover March 26, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Can I suggest, with all possible respect, that the contention here is the result of taking something of a simple-minded view of what morality is – the 'Luke Skywalker' version of morality strikes me as the sort of morality entertained by fundamentalists of all stripes who are sure of their own powers of deduction, whether they are deducing God's will or the truth of morality.

If we consider morality as the system of ideas and practices that human being employ to control their conduct, then we can begin to evaluate different moralities at least in part based on their effectiveness in influencing and improving conduct. I would suggest that a self-reflective and critical morality is superior to one based on dogma and closed-mindedness. This is a vice of both atheists and Christians – and in fact of all moralists, if we use the term in the pejorative sense.

In the end there may be certain fundamental values – such that a morality that is inclusive is better than one that is exclusive, one that limits the pain and harm that human beings do to each other is superior to one where harsh punishment is dolled out for moral failures. But there is evidence to suggest both within major religious traditions, broad trends in humanist thought and even in evolutionary biology and psychology that suggests that concepts such as fairness, sympathy and equality are basic to human understanding – and it probably matters little if we think those qualities are there because of God's will, the eccentricities of evolution or part of the nature of human rationality.

It seems we can set out some criteria for better moralities, but we first need to consider what morality is both conceptually/philosophically as well as in a historical/sociological perspective. I'd suggest that the source of ultimate values (God, nature, the flying spaghetti monster) is less important than the degree of critical self-reflection and intelligence we use in moral thinking/acting.

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marie June 20, 2009 at 7:07 am

I know it’s been quite awhile since this was originally posted, but I thought I’d comment anyway:
“But almost nobody bothers to ask whether their notions about morality are grounded1 in anything that actually exists in our universe. We just know what feels right based on our knowledge and biases and experience, and then proclaim that as a universal moral law for everybody. (Unless you’re a relativist, in which case you do not claim to be morally superior to Christianity.) Atheist moral reasoning is primitive, mystical hocus pocus, just like Christian moral reasoning.”
I was an atheist, but am now leaning towards Christianity again (I was raised a Christian but have been very firmly an atheist for years), and I don’t agree with the first bit of your post, although I realize quite a lot of people preach that sort of thing. I do, however, believe that whether we think our morals are inherent or come from God, we all arrive at our beliefs about right and wrong through the same process. Maybe I’m just talking to the wrong people, but I haven’t met many people who realize that. 
So, while I don’t agree with everything you said, I would like to thank you for your sanity.

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Peter Grice September 5, 2010 at 4:58 am

There is more to be said. Namely, moral intuitionism, to which you refer, can be underwritten in a Christian universe, whereas in an Atheistic universe it cannot. That in itself doesn’t prove or disprove anything, however some implications are still noteworthy: the Christian’s appeal to moral intuition (conscience) is coherent with Christian presuppositions and atheistic appeals are entirely to be expected/predicated, whereas, the atheist’s assumption of valid moral intuition is inconsistent with their presuppositions.

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Ed Hamilton June 15, 2011 at 9:59 am

Kinda like I thought. Your “common sense” is based upon a caraicature of Christianity. Women are obvoiously not inferior to men from the Christian perspective. All are made in the image and likeness of God. That includes all. In fact, the ideas you are promoting originated from Christian humanism. And war has not been preferred or liked in Christianity or Catholicism. The wars of the Crusader era were as a result of Muslim invasion. This was a defense and it is immoral not to defend the innocent. So the ideas that you promote are actually persuasive due to the Western sense of morality which orignated from Christian/Catholic thinking and ideals. So “Love your neighbor as yourself” is actually a radical idea that changed the face of western civilization. For those Christians who did not follow this commandment to “love”, they are not following the example of their own religion and ideals, so you can’t blame the idea, but the person who doesn’t hold to the idea.

So please argue without caracitures. It is unseemly and against your own idea of morality. And I know you are against hypocrisy because of what you wrote and wouldn’t want to do that either. I’m also glad you are against hypocrisy. I also watch myself for that. I’m glad Christ talked against hypocrisy so much. That’s very Christian of you.

Ed

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