Non-believers and morality

In an on-going debate, a friend continues to assert that, atheist or materialists making statements about absolute morality or “good and evil” are non-sensical because he believes our world view does not support such notions.

To quote, brackets are mine:

“The world view that he is defending(Hitchens in this case) states that morality is purely subjective. Any statements about morality, regardless of how eloquently they may be framed, are therefore meaningless. They are in the same category as the things we might say about the tooth fairy. So, from inside the world view that insists that moral statements are meaningless comes this polemic tirade against “the morality of religion”. This is clearly a blunder at the most basic level of logic. If he were to succeed in convincing his audience that “the evils of religion” were real in an objective sense, he would undermine the core beliefs of atheism. So, logically speaking, if you were to agree with him that religion is evil, you would have to concede that there is a God.”

I countered along the lines that “subjective” morals can in fact have meaning, that he is mis-charecterizing atheism, and also provided examples of the God of the bible seemingly acting morally subjective.

Any further thoughts? How would you approach this argument?

Posted: November 4th 2012


I don’t think this is complicated.

Most people dislike, and will try to impugn, belief systems that cause harm.

When Hitchens says “religion is evil,” he is just appealing to people’s common desire to stop certain kinds of physical and mental harm arising from it.

It’s unaffected by whether there is such a thing as “evil,” floating somewhere out there in the void.

Posted: January 3rd 2013

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George Locke

I see three glaring problems with this argument:

  1. There’s nothing about theism that makes objective morality more plausible.
  2. There’s nothing about atheism which makes objective reality less plausible.
  3. Many moral skeptics (who don’t believe in objective morality) argue that in the absence of objective morality, ethical judgments are still meaningful even if they aren’t true.

1. It’s not clear how God could form the basis of objective reality. The most naive theistic argument, Divine Command Theory, asserts that morality is what God commands. One common objection goes like this:

Is X good because God commands it, or does God command X because it is good? If God commands X because X is good, then God’s commands are subject to an external standard of goodness. If X is good because God commands it, that would mean rape and slaughter would be good if God commanded them, which is absurd. (And why wouldn’t God command rape and slaughter unless they were wrong independently?)

Ask your friend how God could possibly be responsible for an objective morality. It is not obvious.

2. Some things are just true. Not everything can be explained by something else: if B explains A and C explains B, then C needs an explanation D, but what explains D? And so on. So there must be at least one truth that isn’t explained by other truths, and I can imagine no reason why there couldn’t be lots of them, so why not morality? Some people do argue that morality can’t be objective, but whether God exists or not is irrelevant to all the decent arguments I’ve seen.

3. This one is more tricky. If there are no moral facts, then it’s unclear whether moral judgments can have any meaning beyond mere preference. There have been volumes written on the subject (most of which makes for very dry reading), but I will limit myself to the following observation: despite appearances, self-interest turns out to be an excellent baseline for a moral code. There will be some people whose interest is in the harm of others, but then those others (most of us) have to be responsible for protecting their own interest; this is not news. It seems to me that the majority of us will have our own interests best served by peaceful coexistence. If we define morality as serving our interests, it must preserve such a peace, so we’ll be in good position to condemn thievery, murder, etc.

If we proceed this way, my moral beliefs are not true because they are not based on anything “out there”, but only on how best to facilitate our own ends. Nevertheless, I would feel naturally compelled to stand by my morals and fight those who act immorally, so my moral judgments appear equivalent to the “morality” that people talk about as though it were objective.

Personally, I am not sure whether moral facts exist. My intuition strongly objects to moral skepticism, but I don’t see an easy way around the arguments in its favor.

For further reading, I can recommend Daniel Fincke’s (of the blog Camels with Hammers) writings on the subject, as here and here, who describes a moral system based on self interest. Adam Lee (who writes Daylight Atheism) has an excellent essay on this subject, where he argues for a universal moral code. He finishes up arguing that religion is broadly incompatible with morality.

I can also recommend Thomas Nagel’s (big deal philosopher and no friend to new atheists) review of Sam Harris’s dubious book The Moral Landscape. The review gives a readable overview of moral philosophy and explains some of the nuances very well.

Posted: November 9th 2012

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Galen Rose www

“So, logically speaking, if you were to agree with him that religion is evil, you would have to concede that there is a God.”

This makes no sense at all. True, there is no objective morality, but when Hitchens says that religion is evil, he merely means that religion does a great deal of harm to humans in the world. If we can agree on just a few definitions (like what is “harm”), then this can be proven objectively – the Crusades, Inquisition, instilling a debilitating fear of hell in millions of people, etc., etc. Thus, religion is indeed evil, by any rational measure. I agree with this, but I certainly don’t have to concede therefor that there is a god.

What your friend is really arguing is that any objective morality must come from a god. I would, for tactical purposes, provisionally agree to this. Then I would point out that the Bible commands execution for homosexuals, adulterers, disobedient sons, and people who work on the Sabbath. I think your friend would agree that to execute anyone for any of these things would actually be immoral, by any reasonable definition. Thus, if there is any objective morality in the world, by his definition, it must come from some other god, not his god (Bible-god).

Posted: November 9th 2012

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brian thomson www

About half the questions on this site touch on atheists and morality in some way, so I’m not going to try to recap it all. “Subjective” implies “because people say so”, and when it comes to laws, morals or ethics, what’s wrong with that? What more do you need?

What I will say is: in a sense, your friend is right, Every time I see an “objective” moral, I see a moral which started out as subjective, but which became “objective” over time. We might call them objective, but if you examine them from a historical perspective, you soon find that their “objectivity” is itself subjective. In other words, they are “objective” if we (subjectively) decide that they are! (Confused yet?)

The famous Biblical “Ten Commandments”, for example, were Moses’ subjective opinion; he went up the mountain for a while, then came back down and said “God gave me these”. Did anyone, at that time, go “O RLY?” Maybe some folks did, but didn’t live long enough to tell the tale. I doubt we’ll ever know, since the written record we have of that “event” was written by Moses. (According to Torah tradition, that is.) The “Ten Commandments” were “objective” because Moses said so … and the Israelites weren’t very good at following them, anyway.

Posted: November 9th 2012

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