Atheism’s Moral Problem

I read an article this week that I would like to dialogue with in this post. The article was posted on the website called the Atheist Alliance International and is titled Can Atheists Be Moral? The response written by this Atheist group is an effort to defend itself against one of the most common arguments posed by Christianity against atheism, the Moral Argument.

The Moral Argument for the existence of God sounds like this. The Bible claims that there is a self-contained eternally existing trinitarian God who has communicated with His creation objective moral principles. These principles are not just values that are to be held by those who choose to believe in God, but rather they are universal objective declarations of what is right and what is wrong, of what is good and what is evil. Therefore the Christian knows that murder, stealing, adultery are evils that are not good for a society because that line has been objectively drawn by God through His Word. Further, God’s law is unchanging. For the Christian this poses a comprehensive, sustainable, and consistent view of the world and of ethics.

The problem lies in the camp of the Atheist who claims that there is no God. The Moral Problem with claiming there is no God, is that once you remove God and His revealed Word as the underpinning upon which you build a system of ethics, you no longer have any foundation to build any system of ethics whatsoever. Without God revealing objective morality it is impossible to arrive at any sort of objective morality. In other words, without God all morality is ultimately subjective to someone or to some group’s ideas of what they desire to be right and wrong. An atheist might believe that their view of morality ought to be universal (that killing, stealing, adultery, and racism are bad everywhere at all times), but without God revealing that higher law, there is no actual grounding to make such a claim.

Throughout history there have been many attempts to develop a system of ethics that does not require God’s Word at the center. I’ll summarize a couple of them below so you can get a sense for how the atheist’s understanding of ethics are inconsistent and problematic. But I have found it helpful to be familiar with these systems as a Christian so that I can better understand the various ways people think about what is right and what is wrong. (See Moral Choices by Scott B. Rae for an excellent chapter on these and other ethical frameworks).

Ethical Egoism: Ethical Egoism is a philosophy largely advocated by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) which essentially argues for a purely self-interested ethics. Actions that we take that bring us the most self interest or personal gain are moral. Those actions that we take that bring us less self-interest are immoral. In order to make this work Hobbes assumed that most people shared certain desires for prosperity and the universal good. The problem with this philosophy is that a world with no ethical guardrails and where everyone did what brought them the most personal gain would quickly fall into anarchy. Secondly, the ultimate result of this philosophy is that Egoism truly has no actual method for solving disputes between parties. If each person is doing what brings them the most self-interest then in any dispute, no matter how great the consequences, there ultimately is no method for finding a judgment. Both parties are right at the same time. This is clearly not the world we live in. We live in a world where evils and wrongs take place, and we must have a system for defining evil objectively.

Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism basically believes that what is good is that which brings about the greatest end result for the greatest number of people. This philosophy of ethics was developed more fully by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stewart Mill (1806-1873). At the time he proposed theory it was truly radical because of the fact that he was divorcing ethics from divine revelation. In a way utilitarianism is a very collective way of determining ethics. It operates in terms of large groups. On its surface, this sounds like it could work. Why couldn’t a nation come together and decide collectively what is right and what is wrong? There are a few problems here. First in this system it becomes very easy to persecute minorities for the sake of the greater gain. The horrors of American chattel slavery could be justified by this philosophy of ethics where only a smaller minority have to suffer for the greater economic gain. As modern readers we immediately say, “No – slavery was wrong because it’s wrong!” The question that has to be asked though is why was it wrong? If the argument you want to make is that ‘American chattel slavery was wrong just because everyone knows it’s evil.‘ Well – then you’re appealing to a universal objective law which would require a universal objective lawgiver. Essentially you would be arguing from the Christian’s worldview, not the utilitarian’s.

The second issue with utilitarianism is that throughout history entire nations have picked up causes that were evil, and they did so collectively. The simplest example here is Germany in World War 2 where an entire nation bought into a belief that validated the murder of millions of people. From a utilitarian perspective, it’s very difficult to argue that Hitler’s Germany was wrong, after all they all collectively agreed that it was right. I’m not saying that modern atheists think Hitler was right, rather what I’m saying is that if the modern Atheist is going to say Hitler was wrong they need to have consistent justification for doing so. To argue that Hitler was wrong would require a different framework for determining ethics beyond utilitarianism, it would require universal objective laws.

The Christian today argues similarly against abortion. Many within the United States (and most Western countries) have determined that taking the life of a child in the womb is acceptable, and in many cases celebrated as good. Here we see the inconsistency of determining ethics as we go. How did we determine that this was morally acceptable? On what grounds and what framework was used? Was it because a group of people said so? And if so, who were those people, and what gave them the right to determine what was good and what was evil? It certainly was not on the grounds of any objective law that taking an innocent life is wrong. Again, the atheist’s worldview has a deep problem with consistency in application, and if you look and think carefully, it is very easy to spot.

Let’s return to the article from the Atheist Alliance International mentioned at the start. In this article the author writes:

Actions that unnecessarily cause suffering or harm to humans are morally wrong, and actions that contribute to human wellbeing are morally right. Once we have criteria for right and wrong, we can say that some actions, such as randomly hitting a person with a hammer, are objectively morally wrong and other actions are objectively morally right. This logic has two important implications: there are objective moral truths that can be discovered using reason (and science), and the process does not require belief in a god.

Quote From Can Atheists Be Moral by the Atheist Alliance International

The problem here is that despite the article’s best efforts to present a consistent worldview, they fail thoroughly. The article says, “Actions that unnecessarily cause suffering or harm to humans are morally wrong.” It seems like what the article is arguing for is a world in which every person has dignity and value and worth, a world where people ought to, “… love their neighbor as themselves (Mark 12:31)” and that somewhere in the invisible cosmos there is an invisible rule that harming another person is morally wrong. But that claim is rooted in the Christian’s worldview, not the atheists. The Christian believes in these things and can consistently apply them because God’s Word has revealed this objective truth. The atheist has no such grounding to make such a statement. Where is the atheist appealing to discover such a universal objective law?

The writer goes so far as to say, “…there are objective moral truths that can be discovered using reason (and science).” But this statement, by appealing to a higher law, completely undermines the Atheist’s worldview. It would be far more consistent for the Atheist to say that there is no objective universal law, but that we as humans must strive to come up with some kind of ethical system that works for the sheer sake of existence. But then again – we are right back where we started.

As it turns out, the world we want to live in, is a world governed by objective universal laws that validate the dignity and worth and value of every person. We want to live in a world where murder is objectively wrong, where stealing is objectively wrong, where we can all agree that rape and torture and lying and are objectively wrong. That world only arrives out of the Biblical worldview. The atheist can claim to lay hold of it, but they are simply borrowing principles from Christianity. Speaking for Atheism a bit more consistently is Richard Dawkins, the very vocal Atheist who says:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is wrong, but at least he applies his atheism consistently (well… on this quote at least… the fact that he daily argues for what he believes is “right” and “wrong” demonstrates that even Dawkins cannot be consistent in his atheism). Not only does this universe have all the properties of a designed universe, but we as image bearers of God have all the qualities of moral beings, purposed beings, compassionate beings, of beings made with an internal awareness that we are not alone, that there is a God, and that God has spoken!

Written by Raef Chenery

I'm a pastor in Chicago at Park Community Church - South Loop. I'm a husband to my beautiful wife Sara and a dad to three sweet girls, Ruth, Joy, and Mira. I'm blessed to be surrounded by a number of men and women who love to think about the ways that our faith interacts with our culture. This blog is as much for me to get my thoughts in order, as it is for those who might benefit from it and engage in the conversations as well. I would love to get your feedback through the comments on each post.

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