Can Atheists Have Morals?


A paradox exists that indelibly ties morality to religion.  A common question posed by theists to non-believers is: “How can you have morality without God?”  Culturally we’ve instilled such a negative condition associated with non-belief that it creates yet another hurdle for individuals struggling with the decision to separate from the in-group while maintaining their status as a member of society.  Nontheists should in no way shape or form have to justify their moral code with anyone, let alone themselves, due to the absence of a deity – yet this happens on a near daily basis.

A Christian, posting on an atheist internet forum, recently made the following observation:
“You’re an atheist. Do you think I would ever give you a job if I knew that about you? Do you think I would ever let you near anyone I loved, or if you wanted to marry my daughter, that I would ever let you be part of my family? You have no moral foundation. You might do anything at any time. Pastors and ministers have the opposite reputation. They respect the authority of God and the ethics He has communicated to us through the Bible. This is a fact of life that will never change. People will not evolve out of it, and no one will ever trust someone they know to be an atheist.

If you choose to be an atheist in society, you will be thought of right alongside criminals. They don’t seem to have any moral foundation either. And here’s another fact of life you might as well get used to: civilization always wins. At its core, atheism is anti-civilization; it is antisocial. So, you will always be on the losing end.”

He goes on to add his description of himself on his blog
“I hate atheism. I hate what it has done to our society, and I hate the ignorance it breeds. I want to do whatever I can to help the unfortunate victims of it. I believe the best way to do that is to spread the true Gospel Message of Jesus Christ.”

This misguided gentlemen is merely verbalizing the prejudices of a large minority (if not majority) of believers that indeed hold atheists in the same regard as criminals – largely due to this perception that without a belief in god, atheists cannot possibly have a moral foundation.
Unfortunately, his view is far too widely accepted as factual.  Enough so that as people go through the conversion process from theist to atheist (or agnostic), the issue of morality is a strong consideration factor for the individuals making the transition.  Jesse Smith’s study, “Becoming An Atheist,” documents this issue in detail:
“…in terms of the content of basic moral questions, these atheists’ views do not differ much from the conventional and commonly held views of the meaning of morality…Actions such as lying, cheating, stealing, murder, and basically anything else that harms other human beings to be immoral…They did not deny God because it would give them license to be immoral; or as the authors put it, allow them to “wallow in wantonness.”

“What did differ significantly were their views of where morality comes from, how it is maintained, and why it is important… The majority in the United States view atheists as having rejected the very moral foundation of American society. As a corollary, there exists a symbolic moral and cultural boundary between believers and nonbelievers… Atheists I interviewed continually returned to the topic of morality, drawing their own boundaries vis-à-vis theists, and asserting themselves as both atheists and moral persons.

Observations made be people interviewed for the study included:

“Morality comes from society. It’s societal norms. It’s what you need to do, and what’s good. Morality does not come from religion…You’re just doing it because you’re afraid…God’s gonna throw you in a lake of fire if you don’t?”

“Many people think that if you don’t believe in God you are amoral. If that’s the case, why don’t we see atheists in the streets burning down buildings and churches and doing all sorts of immoral things? Prisons aren’t full of atheists…and you just don’t hear about atheists behaving that way.”

Smith concludes the moral ethics section by stating: “Clearly, participants were challenging the commonly held belief that atheists lack morals. They resisted this view, thereby salvaging a moral identity. They created, justified, and “owned” their own morality by separating it from what they viewed as the culturally dominant theist view of moral behavior.”

The Bible has been used repeatedly to justify immoral behaviors – for example slavery and segregation.
“The ultra-conservative, evangelical Southern Baptist Council preached a Biblical basis for slavery and later used its pulpits to vigorously oppose anti-segregation laws.  Baptists were not the only southern Protestants who preached that slavery was in harmony with Christianity and the Bible and was sanctioned by God. Other Christians used the pulpit to fertilize the weeds of bigotry, discrimination and oppression to produce one of the most shameful chapters of U.S. history.”  Link

Without citing every evil that was done in the name of Christianity over the last 2,000 years – or citing the incredibly immoral laws attributed to god or the bible itself – slavery and racism suffice as the ultimate examples as to why morality cannot be attributed to either Christianity or to god.

Slavery existed throughout the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus (and throughout the Old Testament as well).  Nowhere in the bible does a prophet, an apostle, or Jesus himself speak out on the immorality of owning another human being.  In fact, the best cases found in the bible pertain to the ethical treatment of slaves – not ending the practice.

White Christians used the bible as their source to justify slavery in the United States and later segregation following that pesky “War of Northern Aggression.”  
Note the use of “communist” as an anti-god descriptor
note the topmost sign “INTEGRATION IS UNCHRISTIAN”
Whenever people hold signs up in protest telling others that God is against a specific thing – I view this as the height of immorality.  God is not against these things – you are.  You simply look for a scapegoat to justify your immoral behavior.  God was not against slavery.  Think about it, humans collectively went against god’s will to end an immoral act by destroying the institution of slavery – that alone should suffice as proof that the bible, or god, cannot be the source of morality or ethics.

What about The Golden Rule attributed to Jesus – do unto others as you would have done unto you?  This amounts to nothing more than mental gymnastics. Christians cite that the New Testament allows for supersession, or the ability to ignore any theological text in the Old Testament that is addressed in the new. This requires some stretching, since Jesus claims in Matthew 5:17 not to provide a New Covenant, but to fulfill the Old and enforce the old laws – which when you read the bible with a critical eye is why the Old Testament is even necessary.  The story arc of Jesus is all about fulfillment of prophecies laid out in the Old Testament.  It is really hard to have the New Testament without the Old…

Many people like to acknowledge that the Golden Rule is found throughout the world and has commonality in every major religion in the world.  If it were truly the 11th commandment, provided directly by god through Jesus, then the concept of treating others as you would like to be treated could never have existed prior to this utterance or recording in circa 30 CE.  Yet Confucius said, some 500 years earlier, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” 

The point of this article is not to say that the morals of atheists are superior to Christians (although some would argue otherwise), or any other religious sect, but to simply help those that think otherwise that ethics and morality are not god-derived, but human engineered and accepted.  Morality changes and adapts – as we’ve seen in the course of our lifetime.  Humans collectively recognize immorality for what it is –labeling these acts with the language they are reared with, i.e., “sin.”  Without a god, the word sin loses its’ meaning, without a god, immoral remains immoral – until we collectively decide it does not.
Secular-based morality is vastly superior to deity-based morality as it is a reflection of societal norms – needed in order to maintain civilization.  When deity-based morality is pushed ahead of secular norms, the only plausible outcome is either the ultimate demise of the religion the “moral law” is derived from, or the religion itself goes to lengths to adapt secular law to its own morality.  While there may be a handful of churches in this country that remain recalcitrant on interracial marriage – they are viewed as outliers.  Similarly, church views on marriage equality continue to adapt.  In Europe and Canada, where gay marriage is largely accepted in society, many churches including (but not limited to) Anglican, Mennonite, Reformed Catholic, and Quakers all have announced support for marriage equality on religious grounds.  In America, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian have all shown a proclivity to doctrinally support same-sex unions, if not marriage.  
The Reverend Susan Russell, an Episcopal church leader, recently wrote that Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s “anti-gay messages that have nothing to do with human dignity and everything to do with homophobic bigotry masquerading as Christian Family Values.”
The counterpoint is represented by fellow presidential contender Newt Gingrich — “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it. I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion.” Link

The issue of marriage equality can in no way be divorced from the issues of slavery and segregation.  All three have, at some point, been portrayed as “moral” issues as defined by god.  If it were “god’s desire” to maintain slavery and segregation – then ending these heinous practices was in fact a “sin;” humans decided the right moral course in defiance of god.  When societal tipping points are reached, religious institutions doctrinally adapt the new societal norm to their understanding of god’s wants.
Marriage equality is no different – the roadmap has already been established.  Either religion adopts the secular morality supporting human freedom of choice and fit this in to doctrine/dogma, or the schism will further erode the church’s importance in America – an erosion that has become incredibly visible since 1980 when evangelicals injected their “morals” into the American political process, attempting to blur the lines of separation between church and state.
The Westboro Baptist Church is roundly criticized for their signs condemning homosexuality and the country that allows secular morality to trump biblical morality; however, while their signs should and do prompt disgust for the majority of Americans; Gingrich and Santorum but temper the same viewpoints based on their understanding of god’s will. If you base your morality on your religious background, then the picture above should be in line with your morals.  If however, you find pictures like this offensive, and not in line with your understanding of your God, then you are, religious or not, a secular moralist.
Post script:  I owe a debt of thanks to my wife, Ellen, for her edits and opinions in shaping this paper.  
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This entry was posted in Atheism Aposty Common Ground Christians Theists Nontheists, Ethics, Morality, Secularism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Can Atheists Have Morals?

  1. Jonathan says:

    I really hope that in the midst of all of the anti-Christian rhetoric that not ALL Christians are being grouped into the ignortant statements that some people make in the "name of Christ". Ive read a lot of your posts (and will continue to do so), and this one makes a good point that Aetheists have morals too. Some of the best people I know have no relationship with God, and have no desire to have one. But my point is that "just as I don't group all Aethests as amoral, I hope that all Christians aren't being grouped into the 'see me as better than everyone else' group"

  2. Sean Asbury says:

    Jonathan – First off, I'm disappointed that this, or any of my posts, came across as "anti-Christian."There are obviously millions (tens, hundreds) of wonderful Christians in this world and I consider many to be friends (as well as family :)).The problem, as I see it, is the blending of religion and politics made prevalent since the rise of Jerry Falwell and the "Moral Majority" in the early 1980's. When Gingrich, Santorum, or any of the latter-day Falwell Wannabees say what can accurately be described as incredibly inane crap – we need these good Christians to be vocal in their condemnation of these moralists instead on sitting silently by in tactic complicity.

  3. Steve says:

    Sean,since we both share pretty much the same moral values pertaining to general life, i think we are both able to function in sociaty with out trouble. My thought to you is,, where do these moral values come from? Why were they taught to us. And why do we adhere to them? They come from the ten commandments for the most part. I think even you would have a hard time arguing that if every one in this country followed those rules, that this wouldnt be a much better place to live for all.

  4. The doubter says:

    Morals and historical word association!If we take the following statement, “To be Christian”……sub-consciously we will instinctively think ‘good person’, which also implies good morals as well. This is purely down to the fact that in most westernised countries Christianity has been the prevalent backdrop to our culture and base level schooling. People like to consider themselves as inherently good, which is part of reinforcing ‘group dynamics’ and perceived existing social cohesion, so we are not going to openly admit that we are bad and so this current meme or social accepted concept continues from generation to generation. So with this current backdrop, to say you are not a Christian effectively implies you are not a good person, which then could imply low morals, because good means everything. Our thought processes can create instant false impressions, as we process information quickly which stems from our evolution……the instant ‘friend or foe ‘mechanism. Think about any group situation where an individual goes against the overall group thinking/view, immediately that person will be seen as a threat. Also add in the pride complex of the majority……basically not many people feel comfortable of standing up in front of their peers to admit they have now changed their mind and agree with the minority………remembering ’group acceptance’ is a strong motivator and going against the flow may lead to being ostracized!! Why have I just stated the above? Well I believe this historical word association is at the root of the problem. When a person says they are not a Christian or non-believer they are instantly viewed by the group to be less in the social standing/ranking and a therefore a threat to the agreed current social standards/protocols.This idea that we get our morals from scriptures is absurd. That we wouldn’t know not to kill or steal if it wasn’t written down in the bibles commandments……………there have been and are countless countries that haven’t/don’t follow Christianity and the bible….are we saying that without this special book people wouldn’t know right and wrong, or have no morals…….NO, of course not!!!As a non-believer my actions are not motivated by a dogma or god concept……through fear and wanting not be judged by an invincible deity……..No, the only judge of my actions is firstly in the first person……’the self’, then by my social group…i.e. other humans………that it what counts.Interesting post.:)

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