Yes, Atheists Can Be Fine Upstanding Citizens, and Here’s Why

NietzscheI was looking for a quotation allegedly by G.K. Chesterton (I haven’t been able to find where it came from) to the effect that when people don’t believe in God it isn’t that they believe nothing, but that they will believe anything. We can see throughout history where this has no doubt been true at times, but I came across an atheist who seems to think what Chesterton was implying was that all atheists believe willy nilly in anything at all. This atheist, Austin Cline, or if he’s not at atheist, he is About Religion‘s “Agnosticism & Atheist Expert,” seems to think Chesterton’s quotation prompts this question:

Does Atheism Eliminate Any Standards for Belief, Truth, or Behavior?

Then he immediately sets up a straw man argument in the first two paragraphs:

Many religious theists think that their God creates or otherwise provides a set of objective standards against which they can measure all their beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, etc.

Without their god, they can’t imagine how anyone could possibly differentiate true from false beliefs, moral from immoral behaviors, proper from improper attitudes. Atheists who don’t believe in any gods are thus capable of believing and doing absolutely anything, having nothing at all to hold them back.

Yes, without a transcendent moral standard you cannot get to ought from is, but people do this all the time whether they believe in God or not. I, as a theist of the Christian variety, of course can imagine how anyone can differentiate true from false regardless of what their metaphysical commitments and assumptions are: They are made in the image of God, thus know right from wrong.

Maybe our atheist friends have never read the Bible, but this truth runs all throughout scripture, that God’s moral law is imprinted on every human heart. In Romans 1, Paul says that human beings “suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” In the final verse of the chapter he says that all human beings “know” God’s righteous decrees. We call this the Natural Law, or from a more Protestant perspective, common grace. Man can no more break God’s moral laws than he can break his physical laws without suffering the consequences.

So of course atheists can be good and moral, but their worldview, which assumes a universe without ultimate purpose or meaning, a product solely of chance, offers no logical foundation for morals. In other words, the only way they can be moral is if they are illogical! Nineteenth Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is not real popular among modern atheists because he refused to accept any facile attempt to get morals from the merely material. Morality, he claimed, has no objective basis in reality, and how could it if all there is are atoms and molecules smashing against one another.

So no more articles or blog posts that claim Christians believe that atheists can’t be moral; they are often more moral and better people that many confessing Christians (and the Bible has an answer for that too: they are sinners! Saved, but sinners nonetheless). The world we find in our experience is more consistent with what we should find if Christianity is true more than it is consistent with the world we should find if atheism is true. In fact, the very concept of truth is problematic for the atheist, logically speaking. Very few of us live out our presuppositions with perfect logical consistency, but the validity of our worldview is largely determined by the logical conclusions of our fundamental beliefs.

 

  • Ch Hoffman

    Morality, as preached by atheists, is essentially based on a way of life and an understanding of the meaning of life that was ingrained through religious teaching.

    There is nothing in nature which would decry incest; and similarly, the obligation of child to parent is not a natural feeling, but rather one which needed to be taught

    • Hominid

      Both of your assertions have been shown to be dead wrong.

      Morality derives from human instinct.

      Atheists are no more likely to be immoral than religionists – in fact, the data show that the credulous are far more likely to engage in immoral (criminal) conduct than atheists. Most prison inmates are theists.

      • Jon “get real” Studt

        Since more people are theists (whom I would presume to guess do not claim to be perfect) than atheists, then that would follow from simple math – to assert that atheists are more moral would require more support.
        You also conflate immoral and criminal conduct – do you mean to imply that for an atheist that the civil law serves as your moral code?
        And “morality derives from human instinct” is a hopelessly naive statement – all humans will tend to arrive at and follow the same moral code? Really?

        • Hominid

          You miss my point – it’s not that atheists are more moral than theists – it’s that theists are no more moral than atheists (as I stated explicitly). Get it, now?

          I don’t “conflate” immoral and criminal conduct, although there is a great deal of overlap, isn’t there? I didn’t imply that civil law should serve as anyone’s moral code, did I?

          Learn some evolutionary biology – there nothing naive about my factually supported statement. Again, I made no claims about arriving at or following “the same” moral code.

          You have a serious problem with reading comprehension and with rational thinking.

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            “Theists are no more moral than atheists” – christian religionists say that, too – that’s why they talk about forgiveness, I’m told.
            There is a great deal of overlap in moral and criminal code? Who knew?
            Ad hominem already. I guess you’re more comfortable in an echo chamber.

          • Hominid

            Do you only post substance-free comments?

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            Do you only post substance-free comments?

          • Hominid

            You’re infantile. I’m done with you.

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            You never started.

    • Stephen Ede

      Incest in a small gene pool seriously compromises the genetic health of offspring. So yes Nature can decry incest. There are other reason I have to object to Incest. Primarily because if an elder person in a position of authority over a child (such as a parent) desires sexual relations with a younger person under their care it is very difficult for th eyounger person to give informed freely given consent. I would note that the need for consent isn’t much driven by the Bible or other religious texts.

      I’d also note that the evidence is that a bond of affection by a child towards it”s parent is indeed a natural instinct for most children.

      • Jon “get real” Studt

        So you are asserting – If the standard is “genetic health of offspring” – that a person has any genetic condition that may compromise the genes of the offspring should not procreate?
        Why do you find that sexual behavior is any different than other behaviors?
        Should a parent not assert authority over children – and if that is OK, then what are the boundaries, and why?
        What is consent, and why is it a requirement?

        • Hominid

          Why do you twist other’s words? Is it that you can’t read or are intellectually dishonest?

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            Why do you twist other’s words? Is it that you can’t read or are intellectually dishonest?

          • Hominid

            My five-year-old plays that same game.

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            Did your five-year-old learn from you to go around calling everyone who doesn’t agree with him/her a liar?

        • Stephen Ede

          I’m not claiming that I consider genetics is a reason against Incest. I answered the claim that nature has no reason to be against incest.

          I conisder the only reason for a Parent to have authority over children is for the welfare of the child. While obviously different children need different levels of authority for the purpose of raising them into viable adults we don’t have a the ability to run a legal system that nuanced. Parents having sex with their children there is a significant body of evidence that such pratices tend to be damaging to the children. Therefore it’s someting worth having laws against.

          A full life philosophy is beyond what I can cover in a Comments section. 🙂
          But I will say that nothing in my philosophy requires a “God” And as a rule people use “God” to excuse hurting people other than in self defense as much or more than any athiest/humanist uses the lack of God to excuse such behaviour. Basically the “You need God to be moral” when debated comes down to “I use God to keep myself negaving so everyone else must as well”. And as for the article writers claim that Christians don’t make this argument, It’s a load of BS. Aside from running it to such claims “that morality can only come from God” in comments and articles all the time damn near any debate where a Christian Theologian debates on the topic of morality it gets hauled out by the Christian Theologian.

  • EqualTime

    I was raised Catholic and became an atheist at 51 upon the peaceful passing of my devout parents in 2010 and 2011, when I realized I was believing for their sake, not mine. So I have been shaped by my religious upbringing, but I would never today say there is no meaning to life without belief in supernatural afterlife. I found this article presumptuous to the point of being amusing. I am living a life for which I hope to be remembered by friends and family as one who tried to leave the world a better place than I found it. I have 100% certainty in knowing that is my “afterlife” – I.e., how I will – or hope to – live on. I do not feel forced to believe in more just to justify my (and your) existence.

    • Hominid

      Hypocritically, the author accuses atheist of being illogical. What could be more illogical than the belief in the existence of a vaguely and highly variably described supernatural being for which there is no evidence?

      He also fails to grasp that the human mind trades on delusion – morality is just another delusion.

      Finally, he speaks as though HIS moralities are well-defined and absolute. It would take mere seconds of questioning to show that his moralities (and everyone else’s) are inconsistent and relative.

    • Jon “get real” Studt

      Speaking of presumptuous and amusing… None of your great-grandchildren will ever even know your name outside of their generation’s version of ancestry.com, and they won’t care a whit about what your opinion of “a better place is” or notice any difference at all other than that they are your progeny – but then again, cats have progeny, too.

      • Hominid

        Did you have a point?

        • Jon “get real” Studt

          EqualTime’s definition of “afterlife” has about as much distinctiveness and staying power as this comment I just typed.

          • EqualTime

            I can’t argue with you Jon. My other option is to become famous or infamous – I’d say Beethoven and Mozart are probably mentioned as many times in a day as Jesus Christ. If I left a legacy like Steve Jobs, George Washington, or President Obama, or John Wilkes Booth, I’d guess I’d be remembered by my great-grandchildren, if I’m blessed with them, if not, I’ll have the longevity of my own great-grandparents, wonderful, believing Irish Catholics, of whom I don’t know much either. How would believing in a religious afterlife change any of that for you?

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            Your catholic parents think they (and you) will continue to exist.
            You don’t have that expectation; you will completely cease to exist.
            That is the difference.

          • EqualTime

            By your definition, children believing in Santa before they learned the truth caused Santa to exist?

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            It’s your parent’s definition and expectation.
            Did Santa really cease to exist?
            From my vantage point, I find it ironic that Santa has an afterlife, but you will have oblivion.

          • EqualTime

            Well, now we’re getting somewhere. No wonder you believe in an afterlife if you ask “Did Santa really cease to exist.”

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            I’m glad that you can see – via practical application – how ridiculous your definition of “afterlife” is.

  • The article is incorrect; atheists do not assume a world without purpose and meaning. As far as I can ascertain by actually reading their works (and not just caricatures of their works, on religious blogs), the reality is more complex. Atheists typically view purpose and meaning as evolved capacities of humans (and a real blessing, although they would not use that language). In other words, purpose and meaning are perfectly real, but they come from inside (just like passions and hopes and aspirations), and they are in us for the same reason other characteristics are in us: as part of the greater whole we call evolution, the Ground of Being, or God. What is missing from evolution is the idea of God as an agent who creates purpose and meaning and then passes it on to a human race unable to ascertain right from wrong. That is a picture few atheists would accept.

  • James

    Hummm… the old “life has no meaning without the afterlife” trope. Perhaps you should converse with some actual atheists and see if they think their lives and the lives of those they love are meaningless. Individuals each find their own meaning and purpose in life. As for irrationality, kindly provide some tangible, testable empirical evidence of your invisible, immaterial deity – whom apparently doesn’t do anything observable – before you presume to lecture anyone about irrationality. And as for morality, human empathy is reason enough construct a working model of morality. Perhaps the reason that human beings generally are decent to one another has far more to do with evolution and our evolved ability to cooperate – a concept that can and has been thoroughly tested – than with your baseless assertions of a supernatural morality maker. Don’t you find it the least bit curious that humanity has existed in one form or another for over a million years, modern humanity for at least 70k years, and yet the Judeo-Christian deity has only been worshiped for circa 4,000 years. Humanity seems to have gotten along just fine before the Judeo-Christian deity finally showed up – at least according to priests and self-claimed prophets who never claim to have actually seen god – and presumed to tell us, through the deity’s alleged servants of course, the proper way to beat a slave, to stone a non-virgin or homosexual, or to inform us not to eat pigs.

    • Jon “get real” Studt

      Good answer – your life has meaning because some group of atheists and their friends and relatives think it has meaning. Wait – on second thought, that’s just a weak appeal to authority.

      • Hominid

        Another misstatement. Why can’t you be honest?

        • Jon “get real” Studt

          More ad hominem, the refuge of those who have no answer.

          • Hominid

            Accurate description is not ad hominem.

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            Accurate description: You have shown conclusively that you fail at logic.
            Another accurate description: You project dishonest content and motives, but in truth you either misunderstand or can’t comprehend.
            [edit]
            Ad Hominem: Appealing to personal considerations rather than to logic or reason.
            Your descriptions are not accurate, but even if they were, they are still ad hominem (see definition above).

            I can explain further after your reply, which will show that you do not understand.

          • EqualTime

            Says the guy who believes in Santa.

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            True story: Santa will mean a lot more – and be much more real – to your great-grandchildren than you will ever be.

          • Hominid

            You’re projecting – another sign of irrationality.

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            Says the poster who projected in another post that I am a woman… LOL

  • Jennifer P

    Of course atheists can be fine citizens. But what does it mean to be a “fine citizen”? The problem with atheism is that right and wrong don’t exist because there is no God as ultimate lawgiver. Soft atheists will immediately argue that they acknowledge right and wrong, but what they typically understand as right and wrong is simply an inheritance from Judeo-Christian values. Over the long term atheists always replace individual rights with collective rights (think Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Castro).

    • Hominid

      I have yet to meet an atheist that lacks a moral code of right and wrong – no “ultimate law-giver” (whatever that is) necessary. Atheist don’t “replace individual rights with collective rights” – you’re just running your mouth. You’re full of baloney.

      • Jon “get real” Studt

        Everyone has a “moral code” – google ‘natural law’.
        Than yet more personal attacks, followed by stuffing one’s head into the sand to ignore history. “Running your mouth” – don’t you think that is sexist? Or does your moral code allow verbal attacks on women?

        • Hominid

          Did I claim they didn’t? Again, you are inventing lies. Ah, so you’re a woman.

          • Jon “get real” Studt

            I guess you must be a woman, too – and I am your enabler.

  • Bob

    The claim that only theists have a basis for their moral beliefs (God’s law), while atheists have no moral justification for anything they do is specious. Even if we assume that God’s law is the one and only basis for meaning and value in life, we are left with the obvious question: What is God’s law? Not only is there widespread disagreement among the different “followers” of God’s law across the multitude of religions, but even within the religions you can barely find two people who agree as to what we are obligated to do and say to be in compliance with God’s law. The one thing that virtually all theists can agree upon is that in spite of the fact that religious people around the world can’t agree on how to worship God, each person knows that his/her religious views are correct.

    The point here is that even if it is true that the only acceptable moral foundation for human actions is to be in compliance with God’s law, theists have the same problem as atheists. Nobody is sure what God’s law is. And it does no good to point to chapter and verse of your bible. Christians can’t agree on what those verses require us to do. Until God clarifies it all and is available to answer specific questions about capital punishment, same sex marriage, contraception, etc., we are all just guessing. And until that time comes, claims about the moral foundations of our behavior are all based upon what seems right and not upon what God says is right.