Can Atheists Be Moral? That’s the Wrong Question

Occasionally you will hear people question whether an atheist can be a moral person. But is this the right question to be asking?

Can an Atheist be Moral? Of Course, but that is the Wrong Question

As Christians we know that the moral law comes from a Creator God, and some think that those who reject Him are therefore unable to to have good morals.

In an effort to address the worldview of atheism, some will suggest that an atheist is incapable of being a moral person. But is this true? Is this even the question we should be asking?

As we begin to examine this issue, note that we’re referring to a person’s ability to be moral in a practical, everyday sense. Theologically, we understand that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

No person who has not been redeemed by the blood of Christ can be considered moral in a spiritual sense. This is as true of the atheist as it is of the person who sits in church every week in an attempt to earn their salvation apart from God’s grace.

For our purposes, “moral” is being defined as being able to distinguish right from wrong and make choices that we would recognize as “good.”

To say that an atheist cannot be moral is a misguided and rather uncharitable argument. No doubt you have met atheists that are perfectly pleasant people and upstanding members of the community.

They are able to be moral while simultaneously rejecting the One who gave us the ability to distinguish the difference between good and evil.

It’s not logical to conclude that a person who denies the existence of God cannot conduct themselves in a manner that we would consider moral. So while this argument shouldn’t find a home in your apologetics toolbox, there is a more meaningful question to be asked.

The Real Question: Where Does Morality Come From?

A moral atheist is no more an impossibility than an immoral “religious” person or a Christ-follower who struggles with sin. However, in the atheist’s worldview there is no satisfactory answer as to why we have morality in the first place.

Those who deny God can adhere to good moral principles, but when God is removed from the equation we are left without a source of understanding what good moral principles are.

Those who deny the existence of God are left having to explain the existence of an objective moral “law” in the world. While various attempts are made, each of them fall flat. Consider the following:

Morality is Not Subjective

Objective morals exist. Murdering the innocent is always wrong. Cheating is to be discouraged. Cowardice is not a virtue. While some attempt to be moral relativists, saying that there are no objective moral laws, these attempts breakdown  quickly.

This is seen when they say that you shouldn’t judge another person’s morality (itself a value statement; ie: it’s wrong to judge another person’s morals) or when they are upset at being wronged.

If morality was subjective and only a matter of personal taste and opinion, discussions about morals would be completely meaningless.

C.S. Lewis put it this way: “think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well imagine a country where two and two made five.”

Morality is Not Cultural

It is also not possible to attribute morality as a product of our culture. Yes, cultures have unique laws, but the reality of right and wrong transcend the law of the land. If they did not, it would be impossible to improve upon existing laws. For instance, outlawing discrimination could not be considered better than previous laws institutionalizing racism.

Our current culture could not point backwards at a previous one and say that they were unjust—we could only say it was different than our own.

If culture determined morality, holding the Nuremberg Trails to prosecute Nazi war criminals would have been a futile exercise. These men acted within the context of their own culture, after all.

The fact that we can judge another culture’s values to be immoral proves that morals are not cultural by-products. They are concrete ideas that are universal.

Morality is Not Genetic

It is suggested that perhaps morality developed by other means, such as evolution. However, ascribing our morality to our genes fails to explain its existence. Society still punishes criminals and we teach our children to share.

If we truly believed that we merely “dance to our DNA” as Richard Dawkins stated, we would have no reason (or grounds) to tell someone that what they have done is wrong or inappropriate.

This is further demonstrated by the fact that those who commit crimes but are deemed mentally incompetent are not treated as severely as someone who was capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. They may be treated or isolated for the protection of others, but their sentences are not typically the same as it is for others.

Morality is Not Mere Instinct

Similarly, it cannot be shown that morality developed over time as a means of self or group preservation. If this were true, doing what was in our own best interest, or the interest of our “tribe,” would by default be the right thing to do.

We know that acts of selflessness are celebrated, and selfish actions are met with contempt. In many cases, doing what is best for our own or our families self-preservation is still wrong. Even if it helps us get ahead, we still understand that cheating is not the right thing to do.

Might does not make right, and neither does the pursuit of our own self-interest establish a universal moral framework.

The very definition of altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” If morality was the result of some herd mentality, altruism could still exist. However, it would be deemed a weakness and not admired.

A Moral Law Requires a Moral Lawgiver

Whether it is being used by misguided believers or it is merely a straw-man argument being torn down by a skeptic, it is clear that asking if an atheist can be moral is simply the wrong question.

A more helpful discussion would be to explore this question: where does our concept of morality comes from to begin with? When you do so, it becomes evident that morality is something that truly exists, and that it exists outside of humanity.

You can then present the evidence that the only satisfactory answer for a transcendent moral law is the existence of a moral lawgiver.

Establishing the existence of objective moral values helps steer the discussion towards examining possible explanations for a universal moral law. This isn’t a mere process of elimination.

The “argument from morality” can be an effective way to help a skeptic be more open to the idea of God’s existence. While this does not in itself present the Gospel or make the case for the truth of the Christian faith, it does lay the ground work for theism.

After all, Scripture starts with:

In the beginning, God…

Genesis 1:1

For further reading on the subject of morality and atheism, I strongly recommend the article Do We Need God to Be Moral? (PDF, 4 Pages) in which John Frame presents the case “that an atheist or agnostic is not able to give an adequate reason for believing in absolute moral principles.”

  1. Allow me to share with you a theory I have. Not a hypothesis a theory, because it’s based on observation;

    Theists have a tendency to project their conscience or lack their of onto us, believing that, since we do not fear hell, we act the way they would act if they didn’t.

    This is based on the observation that, the harder it is to convince a theist that we have a conscience, the more belidgerant that theist is.

    It’s the same reason some people think the Dutch get high all the time, when in fact there’s LESS drug use in Holland than in America.

    It’s the “Forbidden Fruit” principal. Being told by your god you can’t do something just makes you want it more, and then you project that desire onto us.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

      I think you’ll find that your hypothesis will not hold up as an explanation for the existence of morality. There are three important problems with your conclusion:

        1) This groups all theists together to make the case that they “project their conscience” onto others out of a fear of hell. This fails to recognize that many of the world’s religions belief systems have no concept of hell; therefore you cannot attribute such a view to all theists. However, it’s likely safe to say your comment was regarding the Christian understanding of hell, which is addressed next.

        2) It’s not uncommon to hear it alleged that Christians fear death and/or hell and this is what motivates them to adhere to certain behaviors and avoid others. However, the entirety of the Christian faith is based on the fact that Christ has rescued His followers from the penalty of our sins (which is hell). According to the Christian worldview, believers in Christ are the only group that is not in danger of hell. For Christians, moral behavior is acting within the bounds of God’s law out of love for Him, not out of a religious duty inspired by fear of Him.

        3) Even if the human conscience and objective moral values were merely human constructs forced or projected on others by religious people, there would still be no explanation for morality existing outside the presence of religious people (in this case, Christians). Whether separated by time, geography, or another factor not every culture has been influenced by a belief system that has a concept of hell. Even at the individual level, those who are non-theists still recognize that stealing is wrong.

      This hypothesis just does not provide a satisfactory explanation for the fact that moral values do exist.

    2. I am searching, and can’t find the answer to “Why WOULD an atheist have morals?” If I were an atheist (and I’m not!) I would totally be all about me – drugs, sex and Rock & Roll. I’d be getting all I could get and not caring who I run over along the way. Why would I? If there was no God, no after life, no penalty for my actions, and when this ride is over I’d just disappear in a box in the ground, then why would I bother having morals? That, to me, is the real question.

  2. This article is one long rationalization. You’ve been taught that morality comes from a god, and you want it to be true. You know that atheists do not believe it, but you also observe that for the most part we behave morally. Instead of considering that your cherished but unsubstantiated belief might be wrong, you propose that atheists have no rational basis for morality.

    This is intellectually dishonest. You are holding onto a belief not because you can demonstrate that it is true, but merely because you want it to be true.

    Not only can atheists be moral, many of us became atheists because we are moral. We value intellectual integrity. We reject faith as an excuse for belief. We reject claims that cannot be demonstrated. Religion is rife with these. When you examine it critically, without bias, wishful thinking, or rationalization, it tends to fall apart.

    I expect you’ll probably delete this post because it doesn’t agree with your preconceptions. Before you do, ask yourself whether you are being intellectually honest. Are you afraid of opposing points of view because they might be correct?

    1. Thanks for your comment. You acknowledged that objective morality exists, but did not provide your view on where this comes from. The majority of your comment is focused on your assumptions about the mindset of the author rather than the substance of the argument presented. Do you believe that there is an option that is not addressed in the article that explains the existence of morality without God?

      The purpose of the post is to affirm that objective morals exist and then to evaluate the possible explanations for this fact. While you dismiss this as being a “long rationalization” it is difficult to see how we can interact with ideas in any other way. This is not merely holding to a “cherished but unsubstantiated belief” but is instead the same type of process that we do every day in evaluating things for which we do not have 100% incontrovertible evidence. I’ve never been to Poland, but I believe that it exists because of a similar process.

      Also, the main thrust of your argument assumes that only those who start with a preconceived idea are likely to reach the conclusion that God source of objective morals. This dismisses the reality of former atheists who have come to believe in God upon considering morality and other important questions. If you were to critically evaluate the various points of the post, as Tjaart Blignaut did above, your comment dismissing the article’s conclusion would be more substantial.

      1. I’ve met people from Poland, some of whom speak the Polish language and embrace a Polish culture. I’ve seen photographs of parts of Poland, and satellite photos of Poland as a whole and in great detail. I can read translations of books and watch films about Poland and produced by Polish people. If I still had doubts, I could take a flight to Poland, and see it for myself when I arrived.

        There is no such evidence for gods, devils, angels, demons, heavens, hells, souls, or anything else supernatural. You are not using a similar process to determine whether they exist as you do for Poland. All claims made about their existence are unfalsifiable, and there is no rational basis for believing that any such claims are true.

        1. The Poland example was merely to illustrate that we use evidences to reach conclusions which we cannot verify from our own experience. Your point is noted, yet debatable, as are the assertions regarding there being no evidence for God. However, these issues are not the purpose of this particular blog post.

          Feel free to interact with the article’s evaluation of the possible explanations for why objective morals exist and provide your own assertion. Thanks.

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