Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Myths about Atheism: Atheists have no source of morals

The easiest way to disspell this myth is to borrow the argument of Richard Dawkins. The Bible commands that people who collect sticks on Sunday should be stoned to death, so we better hope that we don't get our morals from the Bible. Of course, the Christian response is that all those ridiculous commandments were in the Old Testament, which was nullified by the New Testament. But this is not the case for Jews, who still follow the law of the Old Testament...or at least, most of it. So why aren't Jews stoning each other for gathering wood on the Sabbath? After all, that's what the Bible commands. They don't do it because they know it's wrong, regardless of what the Bible says.

The point is that our morals come from something more innate than a book written thousands of years ago. After all, a man who has never read the Bible or heard of Jesus knows that it's wrong to hurt another person. And to suggest that my atheism allows me to rape and pillage without remorse is absurd.

So where do our morals come from? This is an area of particular interest to me, because it's obvious that we all have some kind of inborn sense of justice and fairness. The simplistic fairy-tale answer from Christians is that some thousands of years ago, a woman was tricked by a snake into eating a piece of fruit, and that created an inherent knowledge of good and evil in all of us. And the knowledge of good and evil in itself is a sin.

Like so many biblical one-sentance answers given by Christians, the truth is much more complicated and much more interesting. One of the best books I've read on this topic is Matt Ridley's "The Origin of Virtue." The book explains how if we were to make decisions based purely on logic and self-interest we would never be able to function as a society, and probably would have driven ourselves into extinction a long, long time ago. So our sense of virtue is necessary to the development of modern society, and it is necessary to our survival. So in short, our source of morals is evolutionary.


David B. Ellis said...

I agree that the values of humans have, in part, at least, an evolutionary basis.

But that only tells us something about the scientific question of how our values come to be what they are.

It says nothing about the meta-ethical question of whether there are moral truths---whether calling something "wrong" expresses anything other than a person's disapproval.

Let me put it this way: do you think a person can be mistaken about whether a thing is right or wrong? If so, why? In what way?

So far as I can see invoking evolution does nothing to address such questions.

Nathan said...

Whether there is absolute right and wrong is a completely different question, and you're right, evolution does nothing to address the question.

My answer to those questions would be that there cannot be absolute right and wrong, but we all have the same basic guidlines. I think it was in Dawkin's book that he discussed several controversial moral situations (often involving sacrificing one person's life to save many lives), and surpringly there was a pretty high consensus on what was right and wrong.

I just can't see how right and wrong can ever be a black and white issue. Christianity certainly doesn't provide such definition, because the New Testament threw out the laws of the Old, and Jesus left us with vague commandments like "love your neighbor." The black and white rules that most christians follow come from their own (or their pastor's) interpretation of what it means to love your neighbor, what's excusable and what's not.

david ellis said...

The meta-ethical question is what christians are talking about when they ask what reason atheists have to be moral. So addressing the ORIGIN of moral attitudes as if you were actually responding to the issue they are raising is just side-stepping the issue.

Let me ask again. Do you think its wrong for a person to force someone to have sex with you? That its a moral truth?

If yes, then why?

IF no, why not? And do you agree with christians in thinking the existence of a God who condemned it would make it a moral truth that it was wrong. Personally, I think not. If moral subjectivism is true, its true regardless of whether God exists or not.

Your comments on the fact that most people respond similarly on some issues is interesting but irrelevent to the issue. Even if people did have similar values on most issues this still only shows the similarity in human nature. It does nothing to address the issue of whether there is such a thing as moral truths---which is what christians are claiming---that their worldview, if true, provides a basis for saying there are moral truths while if atheism were true there could be no moral truths.

By the way, I'm an atheist. I bring up these questions because I think you're making a poor argument. I think the arguments of christians on the basis of morality are equally bad.

Nathan said...

I suppose I would have to agree with the assertion that without a god, there cannot be moral truths. Because the nature of any moral absolutes would have to come from a higher source.

However, we don't need moral truths because we do have an inborn sense of right and wrong. All mentally healthy humans can agree that certain things (forcing another person to have sex with you, for example) is wrong, but we cannot agree on everything, such as whether doing drugs or overeating, as being either morally wrong or proper.

So yes, you remove god, you remove any rigid set of rules that he may have set (though, as I argued, even those are subject to different people's interpretation). And yes, people will have different values of right and wrong. However the point I was making about people's similar view of moral dilemmas is that the disrepency would not be as dramatic as some christians might suggest.

I realize that the idea of moral truths is often desirable, and that's why christians use this argument so effectively. But (a) just because something is desirable doesn't make it true, and (b) many of the Bible's moral truths (slavery, sexism, and most recently homophobia) go against our inborn sense of fairness, and have led to a lot of pain and suffering.

If you can make an argument for moral truths existing in the absence of god, I would be genuinely interested.

david ellis said...

I suppose I would have to agree with the assertion that without a god, there cannot be moral truths. Because the nature of any moral absolutes would have to come from a higher source.

Then I would suggest you haven't thought the matter through very well. The Euthyphro dilemma refutes the idea that moral truths can have their basis in any God.

If you can make an argument for moral truths existing in the absence of god, I would be genuinely interested.

I think moral truths have their basis in the very thing most people mistakenly think is a problem for the idea of moral truth:


Specifically, in the nature of subjective experiences themselves.

The best way to make this clear, I think, is to start with the example of physical agony.

Is it a bad thing to be in agony?

Of course. And not because any "higher source" says agony is bad but simply because of the nature of the experience of agony. To look for a reason to disvalue it anywhere else is simply absurd.

And the truth that some sets of values are intrinsically superior to others (that some are right and others wrong) involves following the same sort of reasoning from the nature of subjective experiences.

Love and empathy, for example, are intrinsically worth valuing because of the nature of the experience of love. Because of what it is like to be a loving individual. Of what it is like to live in a community of caring individuals as opposed to hateful ones.

This meta-ethical theory, a variation of Ideal Observer Theory, based on the intrinsic qualities of various forms of experience avoids all the problems (like the euthyphro dilemma) associated with theistic meta-ethical theories.

Nathan said...

You're right. You have clearly thought this through more than I have. It is an area I am interested in, but still in the process of exploring (I just began reading "Moral Minds" by Marc Hauser).

So I'm going to end the discussion here on the basis that I have nothing left to contribute.

Thanks for the insight. Do you have any recommended sources (blogs, books, articles, etc.) for my continuing exploration of human morals?

david ellis said...

One of the best resources for a general online introduction is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Here's the address for their article on metaethics:


The links at the bottom on related articles are also worth reading. The articles all have extensive bibliographies for further reading.

I mentioned Richard Brandt's ideal observer theory and its the closest thing I've found to my own views on the subject of metaethics. Brandt's FACTS, VALUES AND MORALITY is available online at: