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.”

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