In 2007, atheist writer Adam Lee of PatheosDaylight Atheism wrote a post responding to and attempting to discredit a column from the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson in which Gerson argues that morality is ultimately untenable in the absence of God. In his reply, Lee commits a number of the blunders common to traditional atheistic moral arguments, fallacies that have been widely rebutted and thus will not be addressed here. In one of the arguments near the end of his post, however, Lee does raise an interesting point. Speaking to Gerson, he writes:

You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you’ve overlooked. Call it what you will—empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness—but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others—a mentality of “I win, you lose”—is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.

The utilitarian argument here presented for atheistic morality is a common (and insufficient) one, but Lee’s wording uniquely highlights one of its major flaws. Because he labels the sociological phenomenon he addresses as a “truth,’ his argument begs a pivotal question: how does he know that “happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others . . . is a mean and petty form of happiness”? Presumably, he makes this claim because his personal experience validates it, but thanks to the unavoidable principle of restricted access in human thought, neither he nor anyone else can definitively prove that this is the case for human beings in general. To assert such a claim, one must appeal to the knowledge of some omniscient psychologist—truly, to some revelation—to do so with confidence.

Indeed, the central crisis of naturalism is not a spiritual or moral crisis; it is an epistemological one. Undeniably, the existence of God is a difficult fact to incontrovertibly prove, but by even approaching the topic in a rational manner, the theist and the atheist alike make a perhaps greater leap of faith even than the theist’s belief in an invisible God by assuming that the inscrutable mind and especially the chemical complex that is the human brain can be trusted to follow a trail of rational arguments to truth in a metaphysical quandary. Even the theist is obligated to be slightly speculative to conclude that the rational mind can be trusted based solely on his belief in the existence of a rational God, but neither of these basic beliefs are remotely so flimsy as the atheist’s insistence that the trustworthy rational brain evolved through sheer chance. By his own logical dogma, the atheist ought to distrust logic because of the extreme improbability of its accuracy—which, ironically, he cannot do without justifying his suspicion with logic.

In the end, then, Lee’s mediocre argument for morality without God is potentially tenable only if God—or, if he finds God too extreme a term, some immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient being that upholds reason—does exist. Otherwise, the reason on which he bases his moral framework (and presumably his atheism as well) is highly unreasonable.

21 thoughts on “Morality, Atheism, & Reason

  1. Morality is a concept that evolves as humanity evolves, just like many many other concepts we’ve conceptualized into existence. Without us to conceptualize them, they would not exist; but the fact that we exist allows our concepts to exist as a result of our collective consciousness.
    Which makes it subjective only to the point that the majority of an era agree, at which point it is an agreed upon concept (but, like all complex concepts, there are always grey areas).

    The grey areas are what make people uncomfortable and seek the black and white nature of religion; when in reality not everything is black and white, much of reality is shades of grey.

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    1. Perhaps. But is the above an absolute claim about morality? Even if it is not intended as such, humanity has invariably historically proven itself individually and collectively incapable of relating interpersonally without an at least societal (and beyond this, strikingly universally uniform) and thus non-subjective behavioral standard. To be human is to be both rational and moral–we simply cannot escape our metaphysical impulses to think AND to morally judge.
      Moreover, in order for “shades of grey” to exist, absolute black and white must also exist. Religion (at least serious religion) does not attempt to deny the complexity of moral issues; it provides a standard by which the otherwise inevitable but reprehensible conclusion that all is gray can be avoided.

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      1. There is no reason or justification for avoiding what’s complex in reality for the sake of comfort and ease of mind; Suggesting that religion evaporates the fact that humans conceptualized morality into existence is simply out of touch.

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    2. Can you factually support this claim? With all due respect, I’m loath to label a position as “simply out of touch” unless there’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and you’ve failed to present any. Furthermore, the nature of morality is irrelevant to the main point of the above post–if the human brain is the chance result of random evolution, we have no good reason to trust logic (so, if you can legitimately logically argue that morality is humanly constructed, can you also prove that the logic on which this argument is based is absolute?).

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      1. You accept the theory of creation as fact or truth, and yet you want me to provide facts for explaining how basic biology and civilizations work?

        OF COURSE concepts evolve as time goes by; are you suggesting that our concept of morality now is no more evolved than it was when we were cavemen ?

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    3. A. Where do you get the idea that I accept creationism as fact? (In case you’re curious, I’m currently relatively agnostic about the process of the origin of life–I think Darwinian evolution can be reconciled with Scripture acceptably, but I refuse to ignore the blatant hurdles manifested by contemporary scientific discoveries.)
      B. Please do provide facts. Facts and their proper interpretation can be discussed and debated; unsupported propositions cannot be.
      C. Not to nag, but you still haven’t addressed the problem of reason on atheism.

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      1. “neither of these basic beliefs are remotely so flimsy as the atheist’s insistence that the trustworthy rational brain evolved through sheer chance. By his own logical dogma, the atheist ought to distrust logic because of the extreme improbability of its accuracy—which, ironically, he cannot do without justifying his suspicion with logic.”

        – It seems like you think religious theories and scientific theories (which atheists usually get lumped in with but dont always accept as fact despite what people think) are equal in validity and deserve equal consideration, not only this but that religion is somehow more reliable or sensible than science/atheism.
        You can see how this appears as a religious point of view, but even if you aren’t religious, I still don’t understand the underlying question here;

        Religions are COLLECTIONS of unsupported propositions. I need to provide research papers now for following logical consistency and using common sense to make conclusions? That’s way more than religion can say.

        What reason do people really need to reject religions? Every single human being rejects more religions than they practice.
        Why does there need to be a justification for saying “none of it is believable, so I’ll stick with ‘I dont know the truth’ for now” ? That is literally the atheist point of view, “I dont know but I’m not convinced there’s a god”, which is FAR more honest than any biblical claim of any religion.

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    4. Science and religion are not equal; they attempt to address two entirely different spheres, science the physical and religion the metaphysical. In order to justify belief in the legitimacy of the data we gather with our physical senses, we all make metaphysical (or, if you will, religious) assumptions about the nature of the world and our minds. And yes, these assumptions are largely unsupported. As Descartes teaches us, the only fact of which an individual can be absolutely certain is that of his own existence. To go any further than this, one must assume something.

      I’m not asking you to accept any explicitly religious claims. I’m simply pointing out that it is far more rational to rely on our senses and logic if we assume that our brains and/or minds were designed to perceive reality than if we assume they have evolved to promote survival. The atheist may certainly contend that evidence for God is insufficient for belief, but to do so s/he must assume that s/he is accurately perceiving and processing the world.

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  2. If I may, the main problem with Adam Lee’s statement above is that it uses feelings as an objective measure of goodness. Feelings are (a) malleable and (b) often misleading. We find pleasure in a great many things that are objectively bad for us, like drinking and gluttony. And we are seduced into addictions by drugs that target the pleasure centers, like crack and heroin. On the pain side, one of the greatest goods, childbirth, is also very painful. Same for vaccinations to prevent diseases like polio and measles.

    So, the correct sequence must be to first, discover what is truly good for us, and, second, choose to feel good about it. And this is the basic pragmatic function of Religion, to help us to feel good about being good and doing good.

    And that then begs the question, “How shall we discover what is truly good for us?” We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species. For example, we know that we need food, or else we’ll starve to death. So, the person who loves Good, and loves it for others as well as for themselves, may feed the hungry.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I largely do agree–but how do we determine what legitimate needs are? How do we prioritize these needs? Can we objectively condemn seeking pleasure through destructive means like drugs?

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      1. I think it was in a psych class in college that we went over Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (there’s also a Wikipedia article on this). The bottom layer is pretty indisputable: air, water, food, sleep, clothing, shelter, etc. But it all begins to get gray and fuzzy the higher up you go (what the heck is “self-transcendence”, anyway?). Maslow also suggested that the bottom layer of physiological needs must be satisfied before anyone can attend to higher level needs, so there is some built-in priority. For example, if you can’t breathe, that will be all you can think of until you get your breath back again.

        Moral judgment at the base level is pretty objective. For example, we can say that it is objectively good/right to give a glass of water to the person dying of thirst in the desert , but objectively bad/wrong to give that same glass of water to the guy drowning in the swimming pool.

        Regarding drugs, the destruction you mention would be a harm, especially with addictive drugs that often lead to criminal behavior. If it is objectively and unnecessarily harmful then it is objectively immoral. Where we get gray areas is in cases where medications necessary to relieve pain can result in addiction.

        Also gray would be alcohol or weed. For most people, these are not addictive. But for some people they can be physically or psychologically addictive.

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      2. Certainly. But why is love/doing that which is helpful good? Who can definitively condemn hatred if there is no omnipotent moral authority? Even if right and wrong are not dependent exclusively on our feelings, it’s practically no different than if they were if essentially equal human beings are the greatest power in the universe.

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      3. Someone (possibly my mother) said that God has no hands but ours to accomplish good in the world. I suppose because God created a stone so heavy that he could not lift it, called “free will”. So I’m not sure how “omnipotence” comes into play with morality (perhaps “omniscience”?). Morality is not about power. Morality is about love and caring for each other and doing right by each other because we care, and because we judge ourselves to be good or bad based upon what we do.

        The instructions in the Bible are incomplete. There is nothing in there about abortion, or about drugs other than wine. The Ten Commands are a set of principles. And the problem with principles is that they need to be brief enough to remembered. But that also means that they are not detailed enough to cover every situation.

        For example, suppose Ann Frank is in the attic with her family and Nazi soldiers come to the door asking if there are any Jews in the house. The moral thing to do would be to lie, to save their lives. But that’s not covered in the Bible.

        So, in the end we are stuck with the responsibility of making these specific moral judgments, without any specific guidance except to love God, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. And since “all the law and the prophets” are derived from that same rule, we derive the more specific rule to cover the case of the Nazis at the door.

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    2. Why is that which is objectively harmful objectively immoral? Obviously, it feels right to give water to one who is dying of thirst–but as you pointed out above, feelings are malleable and misleading. For morality to be truly objective, it must be based on something completely concrete, completely outside of humanity, and omnipotent to enforce morality (God, obviously).

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      1. It is not a matter of what “feels” right. It is a matter of doing what is actually good for ourselves and others and avoiding doing unnecessary harm. For example, a botanist can tell us what is objectively good and bad for different species of plants. Some plants thrive in full sunlight, while others require shade. Some need lots of water and others need to avoid over-watering. This is not a question of how the botanist “feels” about the plant, but about what she knows objectively to be good or bad for the plant. And anyone who loves their roses will want this information so that they can care for them more effectively.

        The same would apply to loving your neighbor, or even your enemy, or the guy dying of thirst in the desert. We know it is objectively good that people who need food and shelter should be provided for. Now, the reason I still love Christianity, even though I don’t believe in God, is because it inculcates this love for the welfare of others, into ourselves and our children. For us religious Humanists, there’s the Unitarian Universalist church, where theists and atheists are equally welcome.

        From a Humanist perspective, the Bible reflects the moral beliefs of the men who wrote it, as they were at that time. For example, at one time, up through the lifespan of Jesus, it was common practice to sacrifice animals to God. This stopped after Jesus was cast as the Lamb of God in the Christian movement. And there was a collection of rules in Leviticus for Jews that Peter and Paul argued over whether they should be required of the Gentile converts.

        My point is that the spirit of morality remains constant, to love good, and to love it for others as you love it for yourself, but that the rules as to how that is done have changed. And that’s the surprising wisdom in Matthew 22:40, which also explains how OT and NT expound different rules, but for the same goal: love.

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    3. You’re right; morality is not a matter of power from the human standpoint, but it cannot possibly be universally objective unless an afterlife and a God who is powerful enough to punish lawbreakers therein exist. (Incidentally, an omnipotent being creating a stone too heavy for itself to lift is an incoherent act description and hence logically impossible–God isn’t unable to interfere with man’s choices, He just generally chooses not to. Granted, I am a Calvinist, so I may be a bit biased, but if we’re discussing scriptural interpretation, I think it is the most biblical position.) Christians don’t deny that the ten commandments and related commands are insufficient to dictate moral behavior specifically in every instance, but we do believe that the absolute commands to love God and neighbor are utterly objective (and thus obligatory) because they are given to us by the God who made us and has full rights to our lives and affections. My true point, then, is that I really don’t think atheistic humanism can make such a claim to objectivity.

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      1. Right. The guarantee that eventually the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished is part of the Christian message. And that’s the part that created the problem for me. The idea that God would punish someone by eternal torture seems “unChristian” to me. I’m not sure what the Calvinist view of Hell is, but in the Salvation Army (offshoot of Methodism) where I grew up, it was the torture of eternal fire. And after my father died in a murder/suicide with a woman he was having an affair with, it changed from a theoretical issue to a matter of practical morality. And I concluded that eternal torture could not be justified, and was morally wrong.
        Such a god could not, must not, exist.

        And that’s when I began looking for other answers. For example, Humanists don’t believe in life after death. We lose the benefit of eternal life, but death by annihilation is actually a “step up” from eternal Hell. 🙂

        But, getting back to objectivity, my mother used to say that “God’s rules have a reason” and that his rules are “good for us” and would ask “what if everyone did that?”. All of which suggest that we might reason out why this rule is good and that rule (example: slavery) is bad.

        Oh! And the question I asked her: “If God is telling us what we should do, and Satan is cleverly tempting us, then how do I know which voice is God’s and which is Satan’s?” Her practical answer was, “God will only tell us to do what is good, and Satan will tell us to do what is bad.” Thus, it falls back in MY lap to determine what is good and what is evil, to judge whether I’m being encouraged by God or tempted by Satan.

        From a practical standpoint, whether we bring God into it or not, we are left with the problem of creating and judging rules according to “the best good and the least harm for everyone”. We presume that a loving God would want that for us, and, in any case, that is the only criteria that can command universal agreement, even if we disagree about which rule (slavery or not, gay marriage or not, abortion or not, and so on) is most likely to achieve it.

        If we wish to establish God’s will in these matters, and God does not appear before us to explicitly tell us his will,
        then all we have to go on is to love good, and to love it for our neighbor as we love it for ourselves, and to try to find the practical way to best do that.

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      2. Unfortunately, if we interpret Scripture and the world based only on what “seems ‘unChristian’,” we very quickly enter the realm of feelings and preferences. (Once again, can the humanist objectively condemn as wrong that which is detrimental to society without ultimately conceding that it’s only his preference that everyone help and love each other? As human history and even daily interpersonal interaction demonstrate, altruism is not self-evidently preferable to most people.)

        For this reason, our best option for an objective moral standard is the words and life of the man who historically rose from the grave after claiming to be God (the factuality of which is highly contested, of course, but the fact is supported by as much historical evidence as almost any other event from the period). And, as uncomfortable as it may be, those words and that life attest to the fact that God takes sin against Himself and those created in His image so seriously that only an eternity of His wrath is sufficient to respond to it. I understand entirely that the doctrine of God’s wrath is a painful one, but if God is not powerful enough to punish evil, morality may practically be as relative as if He didn’t exist at all.

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      3. The objective criteria is “the best good and least harm for everyone”. This is not a matter of “personal preference”. It is an issue of empirical fact. The variability in moral judgments, when using that criteria, is not due to the criteria itself, but to our lack of knowledge as to how things will ultimately turn out. Will there ultimately be greater good or greater harm as a result of redefining marriage, or permitting abortion, or setting the speed limit to 55 instead of 65, etc.

        Personal preference will indeed come into play, for example, as some people value speed over safety. So different people will strike that balance differently. But God is unlikely to step in and tell us what the right speed limit should be. God, in theory, is omniscient, and has foreknowledge of all the ultimate outcomes. But that is useless to us since He doesn’t share that knowledge, but rather leaves that moral judgment up to us.

        Again, as a Humanist, my perspective is that God’s opinions originated from humans anyway. So we gain no additional objectivity there. The value of Christianity is that it sets the heart on the right course, to seek what is objectively best for all of us, as best we can.

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    4. I agree that maximizing benefit and minimizing harm is a relatively objective guideline for determining what is right or wrong–I simply don’t agree that there can be any ultimate obligation to follow this standard if there is no God. After all, egoism is reasonably agreeable to most people, so why not seek one’s own good over others’ good if there are no long-term consequences for doing so?

      I’m truly grateful for your time and your thoughtfulness, Marvin, but it does seem like our fundamentally different root assumptions are showing themselves, precluding us from making much progress at this point. ☺️ I’m always open to more debate if you’re interested! I wish you the best in your philosophical pursuits.

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      1. In practical matters, it becomes a question of what we are willing to expect, or even demand, of each other. We create laws to establish expectations and enforce them to demand compliance. One of the benefits we’d all like to maximize is personal liberty, so we are motivated to create laws only when they become necessary, like the Dodd-Frank law after the banking failure, etc. We (hopefully) learn from experience.

        Although our sources seem different, I think that all people who profess morality are the potential ally of every other. And I remain grateful for my Christian upbringing, even though I’m no longer theistic.

        It has also been pleasant for me talking with you Ruth. Thank you for allowing me to put in my 2 cents.

        Marvin.

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