by Jay Johansen | Nov 11, 2021
Can an atheist be moral? The short answer is: obviously yes. I've known atheists who were decent people. (Maybe they had some deep dark secret, but you could say that about anyone.)
Atheists often assert quite forcefully that they are at least as moral as Christians. But ... by what standard?
Atheists often say that Christian morality is out of date, sometimes with deprecating comments about "invented by primitive bronze age people". They criticize the Bible for condemning things that they think are perfectly good and fine, or condoning things they find unacceptable. Like the Bible condemns homosexuality, which they see nothing wrong with.
So the atheist claims to be as moral as a Christian ... just not by the same standard. Well that's a meaningless comparison. To take a minor example: The Christian says that it's wrong to use vulgar language. The atheist uses vulgar language all the time. But, he says, he doesn't see anything wrong with it. It doesn't violate his standards. So he's just as moral as the Christian, even though he freely admits that he doesn't follow Christian moral standards.
It's like: I once visited the Philippines. I noticed that when I left Detroit it was 25 degrees fahrenheit, and when I arrived in Manilla it was 25 degrees Celcius. So, I joked to friends, it was basically the same temperature. To ruin the joke by explaining it, you can't compare numbers on two different scales. The comparison is meaningless.
If the atheist does not follow Christian moral standards, than by that standard he is not as moral as a Christian. Of course the atheist could say the reverse, that he is more moral than a Christian by his own standard.
One could take such a claim to a ridiculous extreme. Suppose someone said, "By my moral code, it is a positive good for me to kill people of inferior races, because I am improving the gene pool." That is, of course, not a fictional example, there are people who really say such things. Would you concede that such a person is highly moral because he is living up to this standard? I certainly wouldn't.
Atheists will say that their moral standard is superior to Christian moral standards. By what standard do you say that? To say that X is better than Y you have to have some standard by which you judge both. Like you might say that Detroit is colder than Manilla because we measured them both using the same thermometer. But how do you decide which of two standards is better? The only way would be if you had some third standard that is accepted as the authority. Like we might say that thermometer X is more accurate than thermometer Y because we compared both to temperature readings from the National Bureau of Standards. But what if someone says that the National Bureau of Standards is wrong? What would we measure them against?
For the atheist to say that Christians are wrong to, for example, condemn homosexuality and atheists are right to condone it, they must appeal to some higher standard. What is that standard? The only standard they offer is "sounds good to me".
I had a conversation on a web forum once with someone who said that he thinks we should all agree to throw out those silly, outdated Christian moral standards and just say that you can do anything you want as long as you don't hurt someone else. One might point out that this simplistic standard leads to all sorts of problems. Like, if someone tries to hurt me, can I hurt him in the course of defending myself? But that's not the real issue. The real issue is: Why should anyone agree to his standard? On the one hand we have the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe. On the other hand we have some guy on the Internet who doesn't even give his real name. Why should I accept the second as an authority over the first?
How does an atheist arrive at his standard? You say that you agree with Christians that it's wrong to steal or murder. Why? On what basis do you say that these things are wrong? That Christian rules against stealing and murder are good rules but Christian rules against homosexuality are bad rules? I've had this conversation with a few atheists. Usually they'll start with, "Because it's wrong to hurt other people." Why? Who says? What if someone says that it's wrong for others to hurt him but he should be allowed to hurt anyone he likes for any reason. What if someone says that he likes to kidnap small children and torture them because he thinks it's funny to hear them cry and beg? By what standard do you say that he is wrong? What authority do you have behind your moral code besides your personal whim? Why does your whim supersede this person's whim? If you can't give me any more reason than "I think this rule is reasonable", what if I say, "I don't think your rule is reasonable. I think this other rule would be better"? How would you prove that you are right and I am wrong?
One atheist I talked to said that stealing and murder are wrong because they hurt the economy. So ... by what standard do you say that it's bad to hurt the economy? Atheists have told me that rules should be fair to everyone and applied equally. Again, who says? What if I say that I think it's far more moral if I can steal whatever I like and no one else is allowed to stop me. That sounds way better to me. There are plenty of people who have a moral code just like that: I can steal whatever I want and beat up or kill anyone I want ... but wow, it's absolutely outrageous and unacceptable that someone stole from me and that the police used excessive force when they arrested me.
Another atheist I talked to said that he had asked a bunch of his friends and they all agreed that atheist morality was better. So there's a disagreement between atheists and Christians. He asked a group of atheists which side was right. And they said they were. Case closed, QED. Even if it was true that an opinion poll found that the majority of a representative sample of people -- not just "my friends" -- agreed that some standard was better, so what? Who says that the ultimate standard is majority rules? Who made that rule? Indeed my guess would be that if this person found that the majority were against him, he would say that that is irrelevant and that the majority are wrong.
A Christian says that God is the ultimate moral authority because he created the universe and he created us. The atheist makes himself the ultimate moral authority. And ultimately, his only claim to authority is that he claims to be the authority.
© 2021 by Jay Johansen
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