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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!


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