To Christians: What is morality to me, an atheist?
To my Christian readers:
By far, the most common argument I see made against atheists is that while they have moral standards, they do not have a defense of morality and therefore are “borrowing” from a Theistic (e.g. Christian) worldview every time they make a moral statement. This is presented as evidence that atheists have an internal contradiction in their worldview whereby they are not allowed to make any moral statements because they cannot account for the origin – or source – of morality.
Before I begin a discussion on what I hold morality to be, I want to carefully outline a series of important concepts that have lead me to my current position. Before that, I want to outline my interpretation of the Christian argument for absolute morality that for many is a compelling reason to believe in an Absolute Moral Law Giver. The latter is just to demonstrate that I do understand the Christian position and am not trying intentionally to set up a straw man argument.
The Christian perspective is generally a top-down approach to morality, wherein God is the source of all morals. While there are many nuanced perspectives on this, most Christians argue that morality extends from God’s nature. God is good, therefore He cannot do anything wrong or He defines what is right and wrong. Common moral laws (or concepts) found among men are evidence that we share a common nature and this common nature is what separates us from other animals and is evidence that we were made in the image of God. In this way, morality is absolute because it “comes from” an Absolute Moral Lawgiver – so to speak. Hence, all we have to do is “look around us” and see that men follow common morals and this is evidence of God and the fact that we are made in His image.
Please forgive me if I have not addressed the view as precisely as you wish, as I have heard many nuanced and sophisticated perspectives on this and do not wish to take the time to address each and every one of them; but I must in some way “sum them up” so that I can move on in my paper. Bear with me if you think I am not addressing your particular perspective on this argument, as I will show that from my perspective the nuances are irrelevant because the presuppositions of the entire argument are not completely accurate. It is not that I just do not believe in God, and so I therefore “interpret” the world through an anti-God bias, it is that I believe there is a better and more comprehensive explanation of all morality found among men than that our morality comes from God. You are allowed to be quite skeptical. Quite honestly, I encourage your skepticism. Just please give me a chance and be respectful of the conclusions I have now reached and before you critique my simple arguments, please demonstrate that you understand my point of view at least to the level that I understand the Christian argument out of respect for the Golden Rule.
So then, to start I would like to try and find some common ground between us. We both agree that some things are wrong and some things are right. Some things are always wrong and some things are sometimes wrong. For example, it is always wrong to murder, but not always wrong to kill. Why? Because murder is more than just killing. Murder is killing with an intention to harm.
Now then, from the atheist perspective, things are bottom-up instead of top-down. If you can for a moment – just for the sake of a thought exercise to “sympathize” with my atheist perspective (no matter how wrong I may be) – consider that there are two possible ways to look at the data.
If a person is trying to find a common thread in a set of data, they will probably find it. On the other hand, if a person is trying to find differences in a set of data, they will probably find those too. Just as a person looking at a set of numbers can both look for a common denominator or look for the differences between those numbers.
So it is with morality. If a person is looking for a common thread of morality in all of mankind, they will find it. If a person is looking for differences in morality among mankind, they will find it too! So the Christian looks at cultures and sees moral consistency. The atheist looks at Christians and sees moral inconsistency. Both groups perceive that what they see is evidence for their particular perspective. The Christian sees all common morals among mankind as evidence of a common moral source for mankind. The atheist sees all moral discrepencies among Christians as evidence that there is no common moral source among Christians.
So, in a sense, I sympathize with both perspectives. Confirmation bias plays a part in both cases. We see what we want to see because we are either looking for discrepancies in the data or looking for consistency in the data. Now, understanding this helps us see why both groups end up at the conclusions they do; but it does not so far help us resolve what is moral.
The Christian argues that without an absolute source of morality, morality becomes relative and therefore makes each person autonomous and without a restriction on human behavior that lies above all mankind, societies will fall into moral chaos. Christian’s then appeal to communism, the falling of Rome, atheist nations that have collapsed, etc. as examples of this.
The atheist argues that despite the claim to an absolute moral law giver, Christians still cannot agree with each other quite often on what is right or what is wrong. Each person who claims to be a Christian firmly holds that their particular understanding of God’s absolute perspective on a moral issue is accurate. Furthermore, those who claim to be Christian look at others who claim to be Christian and argue that since their perspective differs, they must not be a “true Christian”. This produces a sense of moral chaos as well. The atheist then appeals to church splits, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, etc. as examples of this.
Both sides think the other sides perspective on morality will cause harm. Both sides want to avoid harm.
Consider the atheist dilemma: how are we supposed to determine which Christian interpretation of morality is the accurate one? Indeed, there is a common thread among Christian morality and I will get to this in a bit. However, there are differences and we do not know how to deal with these if the Christian perspective has some truth to it. It is easy to uphold your own personal Christian interpretation and argue that we know “deep down” what morality is, but is that not begging the question and somewhat arrogant on your part to argue that you know us better than we know ourselves? To us, this attitude itself seems immoral and we feel justified in ignoring anything you say after this point.
Despite our understanding of the difference in worldview, the problem still remains: how do we determine what is moral? Even deeper: what is morality? Once we determine what morality is, then we can tackle the issue of where it comes from. Once we have determined these things, we have formulated a hypothesis as an explanation of morality. Then, it is simply a matter of comparing our hypethesis with the data. If the hypothesis fails at any point, we must start over. In other words, I am personally trying to come up with an explanation of all morality that always makes sense and never fails. Only then can we begin to determine what is moral and what is not.
Now, the argument that could be made at this point is that I am beginning my search for morality with an assumption that God does not exist and will therefore inevitably reach the wrong conclusions. Because I am “blinding” myself to the Truth, my search is hopeless.
Now it is obvious that I will disagree with this, and please bear with me as I explain why. As a Christian, surely you know that even those who do believe in God oftentimes have strongly differing opinions on whether certain actions are moral or not. So to me, it seems silly for a Christian to dismiss my entire search for morality on the basis that I do not start with a belief in God because even those who do believe in God apparently lack unity in their perspective on morality – except that they all agree morality comes from the same God! But if morality comes from their same God, why do they disagree on moral issues? So then, if I were to start with a belief in God, which moral framework would you expect me to come to? Your own or that of another Christian you disagree with? How would I know which Christian moral view is accurate? You cannot set me on a search for absolute morality based on a belief in God when even the morality among Christians seems relative to their own interpretation of what God is saying.
So my first conclusion is that it looks like morality is quite relative among those who can only seem to agree on this one point: that morality is absolute. In other words, the consistency among believers is that they believe morality has an absolute basis. But their moral interpretations are inconsistent. This seems quite a strong contradiction and makes me highly skeptical of the claim that morality is absolute.
And this brings us around again to the genuine Christian fear that without absolute morality, society will descend into chaos! At this point, Christians and atheist are basically arguing on the exact same basis (what will reduce harm) but are rapidly spinning in circles around each other by accusing the other of causing harm by their beliefs!
Personally, I think the fear that without moral absolutes society will descend into chaos is both true in one sense and false in another. I believe the premise is close to the truth, but misses one important item. I hold that morality is absolute but it’s absoluteness is found in the laws of nature, not in a moral law giver. Just as we do not daily fear the universe will descend into chaos without an Absolute Source of Gravity, so it is my perspective that if we can define morality in a similar way, we have not only declared a foundational moral absolute, we have solved the riddle of what morality is and now can explain what is moral and what is not in a way that will benefit society and help us solve the most complex moral issues. Just as discovering what sickness is allowed us the ability to fight it, so discovering what morality is will help us to fight the dangerous result of immorality: anarchy.
So keep in mind, I am actually trying to help you, not harm you. If we can find a common ground, it will help us live peacefully together as best as is possible despite our differences of beliefs at that time. But we do have a common ground: we are both trying to avoid harm! But, by trying to impose our perspectives on what is moral on others, we are actually contributing to the problem!
When I look at the morals of men, I see that what one man considers moral another man considers immoral. As a result, both see the other person as evil or deceived to some extent. This produces wars, fighting, bickering, jihads, crusades, suspicions, threats, attempts to convert, etc. All of which cause pain, which is why some people consider it wrong to attempt to convert!
Every man is trying to avoid whatever they perceive to be harmful.
Now at first, it appears that the solution is to get everyone to recognize a common morality. And quite honestly, I believe this is true. If everyone had the same moral code and followed it, mankind would be at peace with each other. But since men are not at peace with each other, either men have different moral codes or men are not following the one moral code they have.
The Christian perspective is that men are not following the one moral code that they have on the assumption that there is one absolute moral code. The atheist perspective is that men have different moral codes on the assumption that morals are based on what a person believes to be wrong, not on any absolute moral code. The Christian perspective is trying to solve the issue by getting men to recognize the one moral code and to follow it. The atheist perspective is trying to solve the issue by getting men to recognize that there is no single moral code and to stop men from trying to impose their morals on others.
But why do men need morals in the first place? Like we have already covered, I think that every person can agree: we need morals to avoid harm. Without morality, men suffer. So then, in some sense, morality finds its basis in keeping people from harm. Theists will normally argue that morals are given by God for our good. Even Moses declared this in Deuteronomy 10:13: “and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” Moral laws are given for our good. This, I believe, all men can agree with – even atheists.
But how do we determine what is good? Some men believe that it is good to worship a particular God. Other men believe it is good to worship no god. Some men believe it is good to lie when it defends a human life. Other men believe it is wrong to lie no matter what. Some men believe that eating animals is not good because it causes harm. Other men believe that it does not cause harm and is therefore morally irrelevant.
From my perspective, this reveals that morality is both absolute in principle and relative in practice. It is absolute in that all moral laws are given on the basis that, if followed, they will help men to avoid harm. However, men have different perspectives on what causes harm: men can agree with each other that avoiding harm is good, but they cannot agree on what will cause harm. So morality is relative to what a person perceives will be harmful and absolute in that it attempts to avoid harm.
Therefore, based on this, here is my definition of morality: morality is the set of rules that are naturally held to by men who perceive a potential intentional threat to harm. A man’s moral framework is dependent upon perceived intentional harm.
This is why atheists consider hurricanes to be examples that God is evil. The atheist sees the hurricane as a threat and believes that if God exists He had the intention of bringing that hurricane. This is a perceived intentional threat to harm. Therefore the atheist sees this as evil.
The theist, however, holding to a belief that God is good and interprets the hurricane differently. The theist says that despite the perceived intentional threat, there must be a beneficial reason for the hurricane. The theist then looks intentionally for any possible way to interpret the hurricane that would be beneficial. The easiest interpretation is that God was enacting some form of justice by bringing the hurricane. At this point, the theist has undermined the atheist interpretation that the hurricane was harmful. By saying the hurricane was an act of justice, the theist can then argue that that the hurricane was for our good, thus justifying God’s intentions. [The atheist, naturally, sees this as post hoc interpretation and anthropomorphizing the source of natural events and as, therefore, a form of animism.]
For example, the Christian naturally believes that hell is a harm that should be avoided. The atheist, however, believes that hell does not exist and therefore the harm is actually found in teaching about hell. So the two clash on which will cause the most harm: a belief in hell or a lack of belief in hell. If the Christian is right, the atheist teaching that hell does not exist will cause inconceivable amounts of harm by causing people to go there. If the atheist is right, the Christian teaching about a hell that does not exist will cause inconceivable amounts of manipulative psychological and emotional damage by teaching people about a non-existent threat that influences their only life.
So then, we cannot determine which moral perspective is correct unless we can determine which truth claim is correct. A person’s natural perspective on what is considered moral is therefore dependent upon what a person believes. What a person believes is dependent upon what a person considers true or not. What a person considers true or not is dependent upon what a person considers valid evidence of truth. What a person considers valid evidence of truth is dependent upon what sources of information a person trusts.
Christians trust the Bible. Atheists do not. Do you see why the moral systems are so radically different?
Morality is dependent upon what is perceived to be truth because the truth informs us as to what is harmful. People, then, develop their sense of morality based on what they trust.
An example. In the middle ages, leeches were considered beneficial to a sick person because people who were trusted – doctors – concluded leeches were beneficial. Today, we know that blood-letting can actually be harmful because people we trust – also doctors – say they can cause blood poisoning! So in the middle ages, refusal to place a leech on a person might have actually been considered evil because it was depriving them of benefit. Today, placing a leech on a patient might actually be considered evil because it could be perceived as harmful. The only thing that has changed is our knowledge about the effect of placing a leech on a person. Our understanding of the truth has changed and that which is considered moral has changed with it.
Another example. A Christian believes that pre-marital sex is harmful because it deprives a person of the potential for God’s perfect marital plan. A non-Christian sees pre-marital sex as irrelevant to harm because they do not believe there is any perfect plan for marriage. The truthfulness of the claim is what determines whether a person perceives pre-marital sex as moral or not. Now consider how Christians will often argue that pre-marital sex is wrong. They will point out happy, successful Christian marriages where both partners waited until marriage to have sex. This become valid evidence to the Christian that Christian marriage is the most beneficial way to go by nature of the fact that it is the least harmful. The non-Christian, however, will immediately point out counter-examples: of Christian marriages that have failed, thus demonstrating that to them this is not valid evidence. Confirmation bias plays a part in both cases; although Christians please consider that good marriages occur outside the faith as well. Perhaps this just means that some marriages work and some marriages do not for reasons which we cannot always explain? The key then, is to determine the truths surrounding relationships and what relationship dynamics are harmful and what relationship dynamics are not.
[Keep in mind, it is not inconceivable to the atheist that authors of the Bible did actually discover moral laws that work, just as Biblical authors may have discovered things about technology that also work, so please expect our morals to sometimes line up with what Biblical authors said. This does not mean we are “stealing” from your worldview, it just means that some of our discoveries as to what causes harm naturally happen to match what Biblical authors also discovered causes harm. And yes, this does mean there is an absolute morality! All morality is based on what causes perceived harm. Atheists I know do not dismiss all Biblical morality, we just hold ourselves to a higher standard as to what causes harm than what a person said 2000 years ago during a period when superstitions abounded. The Biblical authors may very well be right, but we do not hold that they are right just because they said so or claimed to be speaking for God.]
So, now I hope that we can all see how morality works. It is dependent upon what a person perceives is true. Now then, it is ridiculous – and disrespectful – to try and impose your morality on someone else by insinuating that they secretly believe what you do. Why? Because it causes harm: people naturally feel endangered when others insinuate they are lying. Therefore, it is immoral to insinuate that another person is secretly lying when they tell you what they believe in an attempt to manipulate them into a confession in conformance with your moral standards. For example, it would be wrong for atheists to insinuate that Christians secretly do not believe in God in an attempt to undermine Christian morality. On the same token, it is wrong for Christians to insinuate that atheists secretly do believe in God in an attempt to get atheists to confess to Christian immoral behavior. An understanding of another person’s moral system begins with an understanding of what they believe to be true. You can then, based on this, determine what they believe to be harmful and can predict what they will consider morally wrong.
So having a proper means to determine truth (and therefore what causes genuine harm) is the foundation to understanding how to understand and develop our own perspective on what is moral or not and also to understand what others consider moral.
Morality, then is both absolute and relative. It is absolute in principle: it is always against causing harm. It is relative in practice because people have different perspectives on what will cause harm.
Therefore, the foundation of a moral society is a common set of rules to determine what is true, not undemonstrable assertions as to what will cause harm. Therefore, if we want a truly moral society we must conform our understanding of the truth to reason alone, not faith claims. Why? Because faith provides no rules at all to determine truth and is therefore morally bankrupt.
“Just believe” will always lead to moral anarchy and chaos and the crumbling of society because it will never reform itself to new discoveries as to what causes harm.
P.S. I have been asked in presenting this argument what my definition of “harm” is:
Harm is a reduction in perceived value.