Reader Question: Atheism and Morality

9 Mar

The following is a question submitted to me by Jeremy, a Cupcake reader who is a theist. Jeremy was kind enough to permit me to post this.

If you know anyone who would like to submit a question or if you  have a question yourself, you are welcome to email me at  


Just wanted to let you know from someone who still considers himself to be a Christian that I’ve been reading your posts lately and they give some excellent insight. I am still wrestling right now with what I’ve been taught to believe but I am not at the point where I want to just give it up. I’ve been in too many situations where “the easy answer” or the “obvious answer” just wasn’t the answer at all. However I do take issue with certain things I’ve been taught. For example, the idea of heaven and hell. Heaven is supposed to be this glorious place where pain and suffering ends. But, not everyone is apparently going to make the cut. So, if a person makes it inside and finds that close family members and/or friends have not made it would that not invoke some feeling of pain or sadness? I also take issue with the idea of a “loving father” who damns you from the time you arrive on the earth with the hopes that you will eventually find “the way”. God apparently gives us free will, which is fine and dandy but in my mind if you love what you have created you don’t put a mousetrap in a room full of toys. So why still do I even hang on at all? Because if there is nothing greater in the universe, there really isn’t anything to stop me from doing whatever I desire. Sure, there are laws in place to protect moral decency but what makes them the “right” or “wrong” things to do? One of the burning questions I have on atheism (and no, this is honestly not an attack on it) is what moral foundation does the atheist community base itself on and how do they decide which human to listen to?

Anyways, I’ve made this way longer than it should have been but perhaps one day we can talk about all this stuff in person. Don’t worry- as long as I am stuck to the Christian faith I will never get to the point where I feel it is my job to convert anyone or force my beliefs onto others. However, I feel that if I just nod my head to everything I hear I truly don’t learn a thing so I hope you don’t mind if I simply toss ideas your way. I hope to talk to you soon. Take care!


Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for the message.  I definitely don’t mind if you toss ideas or questions my way.  I am also thrilled that you are keeping up with my blog, because I often feel like I’m only getting to people who already agree with me anyway.  So, hooray!

It sounds like you have been asking yourself some important question and I must say I think you are on the right track

You had a good question for me about the difference between religious morality and secular morality.  I hope I can offer a decent response for you.  You asked what moral foundation the atheist community bases itself on and how do we decide which human to listen to?

Well, for starters it is important to recognize that atheists are simply people who do not believe in a god or gods. That is it.  There is no unifying creed, dogma, or doctrine.  So you have a broad group of very different people who might have different opinions.  I’m only stating this because we have to be careful when we refer to the “atheist community” and acknowledge that there are plenty of atheists out there who may disagree with my approach.  What you are really asking, I think, is about secular morality.

Point 1. So what is morality? Morality has nothing to do with one’s relationship with a god or gods.  It has to do with the way we treat our fellow human beings.  We are social animals, so we live in close proximity with one another and rely on one another.  If we were not a social species, there would be no need for morality. Anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa approximately 200,000 years ago.  We were here long before god or monotheism. So morality (our way of interacting with each other) predates religion although undoubtedly morality has changed a great deal over time.

In my mind, immorality is anything that causes needless suffering to another human. Something that would contribute to human progress and alleviate or avoid suffering in others is something I would call moral.

Point 2. The problem with religious morality is that it is based on ancient texts that are often unclear.  They contradict one another and even, at times, themselves.  Someone looking at the Koran could read the passages about love and peace and come away with the interpretation that the Koran mandates we interact with one another in a kind and peaceful way.  Someone else could read the same book and come away with the interpretation that jihad and war are moral and necessary because Allah commands them.   It works with the Bible also. According to the Bible, plenty of things are moral, including treating women like property:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not go out as the male slaves do.  If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, she shall be redeemed. – Exodus 21 7-8

Rape is also moral:

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives – Deuteronomy 22 28-29

Stoning your children to death?  Also moral:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious.  He will not obey us.  He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.  So you will purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. – – Deuteronomy 21 18-20

A brief list of things that are forbidden according to the Bible?: eating shrimp (Deuteronomy 14 9-10), women wearing pants (Deuteronomy 22 5), wearing blended fabrics (Deuteronomy 22 11) and for some reason plowing with a ox and a donkey yoked together (Deuteronomy 22 10).

So you see, religion is based on ancient texts which make no sense in a modern context. History is filled with people who went to war and killed others because they thought they were doing something good and moral (i.e. defending the holy land, etc.).  Indeed, religious wars continue today because people believe the will of their god is the correct one.  The parts of the Bible that good people like you probably consider moral such as the sermon on the mount or the beatitudes for example are just parts that have been cherrypicked because they jive with our secular notions of morality.  We read them and say they sound nice and they’ll do as moral guideposts while ignoring the parts of the text that don’t fit in with our desired ways of interacting with other humans.

Point 3. If you are avoiding doing things that cause harm to others simply because it was mandated by an ancient text or because you think you are being watched over, I would venture to say that is not morality.  You said if there is nothing greater in the universe (I assume this to mean god) there really isn’t anything to stop you from doing whatever you desire.  I don’t believe that you really think that.  You are a better person than that, and I think you know what suffering feels like and wouldn’t want to cause suffering to a fellow human being.  If you need the watchful eyes of a space daddy on you at all times to keep you in check, then you are not moral.

Point 4. Finally, you asked how do atheists decide who to listen to?  Who is the authority when two sides disagree?  Well, most atheists I know of are freethinkers, meaning they prefer to think things through for themselves rather than appeal to an authority. Also, most atheists will demand some sort of evidence to back up any claim.  For example, if the Pope (someone who many people would call a moral authority) says condoms are immoral and they are bad for Africa, most atheists would ask for some data to back up the claim that condoms are bad for Africa.

Personally, I don’t believe in moral authority because I don’t believe in an absolute morality.  I believe that morality is preventing or minimizing human suffering, whatever that means in any given case.

Jeremy  – I appreciate your question. If you are serious about thinking through these issues, I highly recommend you start with reading 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison.  It is the most respectful, eloquent book in the atheist genre that I have read yet and I would literally recommend it to anyone.  Harrison is an atheist, but he wrote this book with believers in mind.

Thanks and Keep THINKING!



7 Responses to “Reader Question: Atheism and Morality”

  1. pianoman97365 March 9, 2011 at 6:46 am #

    Hello Jeremy. I am what I like to term a “recovering christian” so I understand the questions you raise because I struggled to answer most of them myself. I am very comfortable being apart from the faith community on a number of levels, but the single most important one is I am now free to love and embrace people without regard to their faith. For the first time I have been able to extend and receive spontaneous altruistic love — which is also one of the definitions for what might know in the church as “agape” love. It has given me the ability to operate with an unselfish concern for the welfare of others, without having to have the restrictions placed on that kind of love by most of the major religions of the world — love the sinner but hate the sin. Now I just love the person, period.

    As an atheist, I still have to operate within societal guidelines that start first with the basic principal: How do I want to be treated, and if I wanted to be treated a certain way then I have the obligation to myself to treat others in that same manner. You probably recognize the principal in christianity as The Golden Rule, but what you may not know is that that principal is a guiding directive of all the major religions of the world — its one of the few things they all rely on. It is a secular principal embraced by all churches because it is one of life’s basic truths. You do not need someone else’s definition of morality to live a good life. What you have to do is examine your own heart and motives to see if they help or advance the growth of the human experience, and its already built into you. The church has over the centuries tried to gain the distinction of setting the morality of humankind but has always ended up distorting it to suit their own ends.

    A majority of the writings of the major religions are not bad, Jeremy. They have just been polluted by selfishness and the quest for power. Thomas Jefferson, one of the worlds great freethinkers (a label we like to attach to ourselves) even went so far as to strip his bible down to only the words attributed to jesus for the very reason that he felt men through history were distorting the message he felt jesus was bringing to the world. You can still buy copies of the Jeffersonian bible by contacting the Jefferson Estate in Monticello, Virginia.

    Freethinkers, by the way, have led the charge down through history knocking down barriers and prejudice within our own society. It was freethinkers who first supported the cause to give women the right to vote, who helped support the underground railroad before the civil war, who challenged the churches of the land to get off their butts and oppose slavery in this country (northern churches dragged their heels because they didn’t want to “upset” their southern brothers — shameful as that sounds). Our cause is a proud and wonderful story and I would encourage you to check out a copy of the book “Freethinkers – A History of American Secularism” by Susan Jacoby and read about the great people in our history who I consider to be my personal heroes.

    The basic thing we all seek in our lives is love, Jeremy. Not love in anyone’s name but your own. If you follow that. If you let that be your guiding light, you will have a great life and you will never have to question whether you are doing the right thing or the wrong thing by some scale established by somebody else.
    This may be a simplistic way to look at it, but it works for me. When I became an atheist it was like a breath of fresh air. I no longer fear death. I am not one who believes our life here is all there is. I have had personal experiences that have proven to be there is an afterlife — its just not like what christians want you to believe, nor is entrance granted solely on the yardsticks of morality they say you have to live by.

    I hope this helps answer some of your questions. Feel free to write me at any time. If I can answer your questions, I will do so. If I cannot, I will tell you that as well and maybe together we can find the answers.

    My spirit to yours,

    • Jeremy March 10, 2011 at 10:43 am #

      Thanks for the response, Bill. Hearing these things from different people help to clarify the thoughts and questions that I have.

      As I told Amy, I do not love with the hope that I will make enough points to get into heaven. I feel that by loving out of fear that god will get mad at me otherwise is an act of selfishness- something done to cover my own butt and not truly a selfless act of kindness.

      Also, thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll have to check that out when I get time. Also, if you would like to converse with me anytime please feel free. I am not always online but when I am I would be glad to toss ideas around. Take care!

  2. Tony V March 9, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    This is a great rhetorical nuke for concerned family members. I’m so glad you brought it up in this post.

    “If you love me, but you think I won’t make it to heaven, maybe will be tortured forever, or even just not be with you, why would you want to go there?”

  3. Warren Senders March 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    Terrific blog, Amy! Your responses to Jeremy (and to Georgia Purdom) are spot-on; your guest post at PZ’s place was a beautifully expressed thought that I tried to share as widely as I could. My daughter is six and she’s being raised without the burden of religious indoctrination, as I was, and as was my father before me. I wrote about life as a third-generation atheist in a long post at my own blog: . I’d love to hear your response sometime (you too, Jeremy!).

  4. Jim B March 11, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    Amy, well done. I came here via PZ’s blog.

    I just wanted to add a couple thoughts, one pedantic. You probably meant “jibe” and not “jive” above.

    Back in junior high, every morning at the designated time, the principal would get on the intercom and read the day’s announcements, and would end with the “thought for the day.” I only remember one of them, but it has stuck with me for the past 35 years. It went something like this: “You can judge the morals of a man by how he behaves when he knows he won’t get caught.”

    I’ve often heard this canard that if there is no God then there can be no morality. It scares me to think that the only thing stopping these people (or so they think) from raping and pillaging is the thought that God is spying on them. It seems impossible that they are really that lacking in empathy.

  5. Matt W March 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    Another re-direct from Pharyngula here — though I’ve just added you to my feed subscriptions. I wanted to say that I really appreciate Jeremy’s question and your response. I’m currently in the slow process of acknowledging my own atheism and managing my family relationships as a result. Raised evangelical, educated by Jesuits, married to a Catholic theologian, I continually find myself trying to pit reason against my religious instincts, trying to be fair to both points of view, because I still see religion (though maybe not faith) as a _potential_ value-added proposition: it can provide a community atmosphere geared toward a shared values and a shared response to suffering, it can provide an impetus for group-based social action, it can provide a link, via ritual and liturgy, to our cultural history and traditions, and it can provide a foundation for morality.

    All of these, I suppose, are contentious, and particularly that last one. But here’s my take: I tend to think that pretty much everyone arrives at the answers to moral questions in the same way: we take our cues from our society, our culture, our laws, our upbringing, our friends, our religion. No one, when confronted with a moral quandary, sits down and works through Kant’s categorical imperative. We already know that shooting the guy who just cut us off is wrong, and most of the time we’ve never worked out why; we just know it. Most religious folks (that I know) don’t do the right thing because God is looking over their shoulder; they do it for the same reason everyone does — because they don’t want to be bad people; they want to be able to live and operate in our society; they want people to like them and think of them as good. It would be nice to think that I, a humanist, always appeal to my favorite higher moral principle (mitigating human suffering) when I make a moral decision, but I rarely do. Even when I do, I make objectively arbitrary value judgments; I certainly care more about my daughter’s suffering than the homeless guy on the street corner. (That there is almost certainly a biological explanation for this does not have much bearing on the moral question.) Even humanism is somewhat arbitrary; why should I more concerned with the suffering of another human than with that of rabbits or lungfish or broccoli? (Some) religions have a ready answer: because humanity is infused with or reflects the divine. I don’t believe in the supernatural: there’s no heaven, no hell, no afterlife at all, no gods or demons, no angels, no miracles. But the idea that humans reflect the divine strikes me as a powerful image: a mythic shortcut, if you will, to the reasoned stance that underlies humanism and humanistic ethics. I must say, I’m not ashamed to plant my flag there and claim it as my own.

    • Warren Senders March 12, 2011 at 2:51 am #

      No one, when confronted with a moral quandary, sits down and works through Kant’s categorical imperative.

      Well, my parents raised me on the categorical imperative. I wouldn’t say I invoke it consciously when I face a moral decision, but I’d like to think that’s because I’ve internalized it to some extent. Otherwise…wonderful comment!

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