Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mortality, Atheism, and Euthyphro's Dilemma

Because theism is so dominant in our society and many Atheists are closeted out of justified fears of discrimination and persecution, many misconceptions about Atheism exist unquestioned. One of these misconceptions is the idea that Atheists are either inherently immoral or are less moral than theists because Atheists do not believe in a god. This assertion doesn't hold up for many reasons.  After all, different theists believe different things regarding morality. There are many different religions and many different deities, each making different assertions regarding morality. Even within the religion of Christianity, there are many different denominations holding different beliefs of what is right and wrong. As there is a lack of consensus between theists as to what is moral and most theists have not made a study of Atheism and morality, it makes no sense for them to claim that Atheists are immoral or less moral than they are.

As different Atheists believe different things regarding morality, just like theists do, I can only speak to my own morality. It is most important to first point out that while I am now an Atheist, my morality is veritably indistinguishable from when I was a Christian. I believe killing, stealing, harming/abusing other people, breaking promises, greed, envy, and pride are generally immoral, with exceptions that are generally held by most people.

Apart from what we should not do, I hold many beliefs about what actions are moral and virtuous. These include love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, discipline, humility, skepticism, independence, commitment, flexibility, generosity, optimism, perseverence, personal responsiblity, altruism, and self determination. Of particular relevance to this article are virtues of honesty, courage, and integrity, which largely motivated me to come out of the closet regarding my Atheism. Remaining in the closet about this would only perpetuate a life of fear and dishonesty.

Much of this theistic misconception is based on an assertion I've heard many theists say, which is that if no one believed in God, human beings would plunge themselves into immorality, lawlessness and chaos, with people running all over raping, killing, and pillaging. I'm really struck by this assertion because of the implication of what these people are saying about themselves. It is as if they are saying that the only thing holding themselves back from these horrendous acts is some god telling them not to do these things. Atheists are living proof that people can be moral without theistic and supernatural beliefs. I don't commit immoral acts because a god tells or threatens me not to. I don't commit these acts because they harm others and I believe we should treat others with the respect and kindness they deserve and we would want for ourselves.

Genuine altruism is a very important virtue as well. Finding a stranger's wallet on the ground and returning it to the person without taking anything from it is a very moral act. However, when people choose to believe in a god who judges them by their actions, they make it more difficult to support their assertion that they are altruistic, relative to people such as Atheists who do not choose such beliefs. After all, such believers typically believe they will obtain some eternal payoff for good behavior after they die. J.C. Watts is known for saying, "Character is doing the right thing when nobody's looking." For theists, God is always watching, so it's never possible to act without a witness and therefore they cannot act altruistically. However, when Atheists do the right thing, such as give or sacrifice of themselves for others, they know there is no, nor will not be, some supernatural payoff for their actions. We act not for supernatural reward or avoidance of supernatural punishment, but act genuinely based on what is moral and right. I believe the vast majority of people are inherently good and strongly believe that all theists would continue to act morally even if they stopped believing in a god.

An excellent response to the assertion that god is necessary for morality is the story of Euthyphro's Dilemma. Written in the time of ancient Greece, Plato tells a story of Socrates asking Euthyphro, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Translated into our contemporaty times and colloqial English, the dilemma is to answer whether something is moral because God says it is, or whether something is moral because it is inherently moral and God is beholden to the morality as we are.

If the first case is true, then morality is subjectively decided by God and has no objective basis outside of God. God could then command anything and the only reason it is right is because God says so. Therefore, a god could tell one group of people to kill another group of people and because the god said so, it is moral. A god could also endorse slavery, which the Christian God does in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Ephesians, Timothy, and Luke. Since, morality would then be subjective, we can choose to agree with this god or not. If the second case is true, then morality exists outside of God and we can skip the middle man, or God, and just go right to what is moral.

Regardless of either of these, Atheists believe and are proof that virtue and morality can and do exist outside of belief in a deity. In the most simple and general terms, I find that such morality is based on the avoidance of inflicting pain on others, be it mental, emotional, or physical. In my own view, morality is too complex to be reduced to black and white rules. There are some actions that are always universally wrong without exception, such as slavery or sexual contact without consent. There are other actions, which are generally wrong, but for which there are exceptions to the rule, such as killing another person. We continue to struggle with moral dilemmas, yet critical thinking, logic, and reasoning are important parts of resolving such dilemmas and therefore Atheists, for these and other reasons, should not be wholly rejected from such discussions and decisions. Rather, we should have a seat at the table in such discussions and when moral decisions are to be made, for we have much that is positive to contribute.


  1. I can't vouch for the veracity of this link as I haven't done the research myself, but if the article is to be believed, atheists make up less than 1% of American prison populations.
    Go figure.

  2. Yes, good point. I had forgotten that. I also seem to remember statistics showing lower divorce rates among Atheists relative to other theists.