Is atheism consistent with morality? Many religious believers tend to think it is not. However, the claim that atheism is inconsistent with morality can mean two different things, and hence believers who make the claim can be divided into two classes (though they may overlap). The first class consists of people who take their cue from Psalms 14:1:
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none who does good.
Such people honestly doubt any atheists are good. Perhaps—just perhaps—a few atheists might refrain from theft, fraud, perjury, rape, murder, and treason, but this must be because they are afraid of being caught and punished, not because they have good hearts. The second class consists of those who admit that atheists as a whole are no different from anyone else, but who doubt there can at all be such things as good and evil in an atheistic universe. While atheists may be as honest, kind, and loyal as believers, there can be nothing inherently good about honesty, kindness, and loyalty, in a universe with no god. I would like to make a few comments about both of these senses of the belief that atheism is inconsistent with morality, but will do so in reverse order.
Atheism, theism, and the existence of moral facts
Let me tackle the more theoretical issue first: can there be such things as good and evil in an atheistic universe? Believers typically deny that there can be such things, because they believe that if there are any facts about what is good and evil, these facts must be transcendental in nature, and transcendental facts are at best ill at ease in a materialistic world.
Let me make two quick points before moving on to my main argument. First, it is completely unclear whether moral facts must be transcendental in nature. Most major theories of ethics that have been developed (for instance, Aristotelianism, Kantianism, utilitarianism, contractarianism, and ideal observer theory) posit that there are moral facts, but that they are not transcendental in nature. I will not comment further on these theories, since they are beyond my ability to evaluate properly. However, it is incumbent upon believers to refute all of these theories if they wish to show that even materialism, much less atheism, is inconsistent with the existence of moral facts. Second, it is uncertain whether there are such things as moral facts at all. I, for one, see no reason to believe there are such things. Nor do I think they are an especially useful fiction; the vast majority of people would, I think, behave exactly the same as they do now even if they believed there were no such things as moral facts: they would continue to be guided, as they are now, by their deepest cares and concerns. Let us, however, put these two points aside. Let us join the believer in assuming that there are indeed moral facts, and that these moral facts are, furthermore, transcendental in nature, and see whether it follows from these assumptions that atheism is inconsistent with morality.
The first thing to point out is that, contrary to the assumptions of the average believer, atheism is not the same thing as materialism, and hence is not automatically inconsistent with affirmation of the transcendental. Atheists who are in fact materialists would find it very difficult to accommodate transcendental moral facts to their worldview, but atheists who are not materialists need not find any difficulty in doing so. A non-materialist atheist can, for instance, follow Plato in supposing that transcendental moral facts exist in their own right as brute facts. Hence, the argument that atheism precludes transcendental moral facts by virtue of excluding the transcendent altogether, is unsound.
But do transcendental moral facts not fit better in a theistic universe than they do in an atheistic one? I do not understand why anyone should think so. Admittedly, transcendental moral facts in an atheistic universe admit of no further explanation, and must be accepted as brute facts. But how does belief in a god help? Easily, says the believer: either gods create transcendental moral facts by divine fiat, or else they emanate them uncontrollably in the same way fire emanates heat. Presumably, everything has now been rendered perfectly comprehensible. But has it, really?
Take the hypothesis that theism explains transcendental moral facts by positing a god who can create them by divine fiat. Let us ask by virtue of what it is that any god could create transcendental moral facts. If the believer responds that it is by virtue of being a god, the believer has explained nothing—it would be just as well for me to claim that I can create transcendental moral facts, and when asked how this can be so, explain that I am able to do so by virtue of being me. All the believer can do is claim that gods can create transcendental moral facts by virtue of having a special and mysterious power that allows them to do so. But look what has happened: now instead of having one mystery (mysterious transcendental moral facts), we have three mysteries (mysterious transcendental moral facts, a mysterious god, and a mysterious power to create transcendental moral facts). We have not even solved the original mystery, since one can hardly explain something by appealing to the inexplicable and incomprehensible.
The same considerations apply to the even more bizarre hypothesis that gods are just able to somehow “emanate” transcendental moral facts. No one understands what it would mean for a god to emanate transcendental moral facts any more than they understand what it would mean for a rock to emanate the number 5. Loose analogies to fires emanating heat do not help in the former case any more than in the latter case. Again, the believer ends up with three mysteries (mysterious transcendental moral facts, a mysterious god, and the mysterious process of “emanating” transcendental moral facts) against that atheist’s one, with no progress made towards solving the original mystery.
But some believers have a rejoinder: while theism may not render the mere existence of transcendental moral facts more probable than atheism, at least it explains why these moral facts have anything to do with human beings. If there is a god, so the story goes, one can expect that god to create transcendental moral facts governing rational beings; but if there is no god, then it must just be a huge coincidence that these moral facts apply to rational beings. There are two problems with this rejoinder. First, it is not clear that transcendental moral facts could possibly apply to anything other than rational beings; is it even coherent, for instance, to suppose it to be morally wrong for a stone to fall, or for a lion to kill a gazelle? If not, then there can be no mystery about what transcendental moral facts apply to, whether there is a god or not. Second, even if transcendental moral facts can, in principle, apply to falling stones and hungry cheetahs, nothing inherent in the hypothesis that there is a god requires that god to create transcendental moral facts that apply to rational beings. A god, for instance, could be amoral, or more interested in stones than human beings, and create its transcendental moral facts accordingly. This kind of problem is even more prominent for the emanation theory, since no god can have any control over what it emanates. Hence, the believer simply takes the coincidence—if indeed it is a coincidence—of the applicability of transcendental moral facts to human beings, and replaces it with the coincidence of a god who wishes to create or uncontrollably emanates transcendental moral facts that apply to human beings. Nothing has been explained; the believer has once again just made things worse by introducing into the picture another mysterious entity.
Atheism, theism, and transcendental moral knowledge
But now the believer might set aside questions of existence, and ask how it is that human beings have knowledge of transcendental moral facts—to explain how we know about such things, do we not need to invoke a god who tells us what they are? To start with, I doubt anyone actually has knowledge of transcendental moral facts, since I find it doubtful whether such facts exist at all. But let us, again, set aside this large-scale skepticism. In that case, it is important to note that atheistic systems such as Platonism (or at least Platonism with the dispensable Demiurge excised) posit a direct connection between humans and transcendental moral facts (in Platonism, one experiences the Form of the Good directly before being incarnated, and can remember the form with some effort). More importantly, there are serious problems with invoking a god who “tells” us what the transcendental moral facts are:
In the first place, no god in fact tells us what the transcendental moral facts are. How many people have ever had Jehovah drop by in person to explain what is right and wrong? A few lucky prophets at most. But even if Jehovah were to go from door to door, handing everyone alive a mimeograph of his rules of conduct, how would this constitute knowledge of transcendental right and wrong? We would still have to use our own judgement to determine whether what we are being told is moral; if not, then how could we tell whether the being telling us what to do is in fact Jehovah, rather than Satan cleverly disguised and seeking to mislead us? The same uncertainties apply to any prophets or texts which claim to speak for Jehovah, even to miracle-workers, since—as many believers are quick to point out whenever miracles in a religion other than their own are at issue—demons, too, can perform miracles. But this is all moot, since no one who claims to have knowledge of transcendental moral facts believes he or she is simply taking the words of some being or book at face value. No, those who claim to have such knowledge invariably believe that they have some direct and immediate connection to those facts. But how does adding a god to the picture explain such a mysterious connection any more than positing that such connections are part of the natural order of things? Theism once again multiplies mysteries rather than solving them.
The only reason I can fathom for why believers might think transcendental moral facts are better explained by theism than by atheism is because—speaking from personal experience as a former Christian—believers have been psychologically conditioned to feel that a complete explanation has been offered for anything and everything whenever someone says the word “God.” I do not mean to be combative in saying so—anyone who has taken a philosophy class and paid attention knows that everyone, without exception, has been taught to regard as obvious many things that turn out to be far from it. However, as understandable as the impulse is to invoke the name of some god as an explanation for the mysterious, it is an error. I conclude, then, that atheists who are not of a materialistic bent are left in a somewhat better position with respect to transcendental moral facts than those who introduce a god into the picture, although both the existence of transcendental moral facts and human knowledge of them must to some degree remain mysterious for anyone who believes in them.
Why would anyone think atheists cannot be good people?
Now, on to the less theoretical issue: can an atheist be a good person? That is, can any atheist truly in his or her heart be an honest person, a kind person, a loyal person? It is, of course, obvious that atheists can be all of these things. Every one of us knows atheists, both historical figures and personal friends, who set very high standards of conduct for themselves, and most of us take people such as these for role models. Most of us, in short, aim for the humanistic ideal. As with believers, we often fall wide of the mark, but we try at least as hard as they do, and hit the mark at least as often as they do.
Considering how obvious it truly is that atheists are just like everyone else, the real question is, why should this fact fail to be obvious to so many believers? The natural answer atheists tend to gravitate towards is that believers are taught to demonize atheism, and that few of them ever get a chance to know an atheist personally and see how amazingly normal they are. There is more than a grain of truth to this. However, there is also another factor at work, and we bear responsibility for it.
Atheism has a comparatively small public voice, but it is a voice that many believers hear. However, when they listen to this voice, they often hear little more than slurs and insults. When interacting with atheists, believers are frequently met with the same arrogance and condescension, the same hatred and vitriol, the same bigotry and prejudice, as atheists so often receive from believers. In short, believers tend to encounter in atheists exactly what they have been taught to expect.
I do not want to overgeneralize—there have been many gentle and tolerant voices for atheism. However, it is a sad fact that many of the loudest voices in any community tend to be the most ignorant and bigoted ones. It is also a sad fact that most communities tend to cultivate an us-versus-them mentality; we are all too eager to believe what we hear from the worst demagogues on our own side, and all too eager to take the worst demagogues on the other side as the representative of the whole. The atheist community is no exception to either of these rules.
If we wish to shatter once and for all the myth that atheism and immorality are inseparable, we must not deny believers the compassion, tolerance, patience, and understanding that humanists are supposed to extend to all. We must not hesitate to speak the truth, but we must also recognize within our religious brethren a common humanity. Instead of simply lashing out at them when they denounce us, we must make every effort to understand their fears and misunderstandings, so that we can productively and peacefully defuse both. We must also be as one in raising our voices to shout down those on our side who would replace prejudice against atheists with prejudice against believers. When we decide to settle down into comfortable arrogance, gathering in closed circles once a month to preach to the choir, emerging periodically only to take potshots at any believer unfortunate enough to cross our paths, then we have doomed atheism to languish at the margins of society, perpetually detested, forever misunderstood.
Let us not permit this to happen.
I would like to thank Dr. Jon P. Jarrett and Dr. Michael S. Valle for helpful commentary on this paper. I would also like to thank Dr. Michael Martin, Jeffery Jay Lowder, Dr. Theodore M. Drange, Andy S. May, and Tom Wanchick for stimulating discussion of my earlier work on theistic moral arguments. Wanchick has written a response to part of this article: go read it and see what you think.