Can Atheists Define Morality?

I have been having a discussion with someone who believes that, as nonbelievers, we cannot know good and evil. He asked me, “….how do you know anything at all to be true according to your beliefs?”

This discussion was originally started on another site and was continued under another topic/post here at the end of the comments section.

It’s an interesting idea, and one worthy of discussion (and more appropriately under a new title). How DO we know if we have sound epistemology? How do we know what is good and evil if there is not a universal truth, handed down by god? How do we, as a society and as individuals, decide what is moral and what is not?

It’s important that those who do believe in god understand that morality, in our view, has nothing to do with god. I will continue the discussion with Derrick’s comment below, and if anyone on either side of the debate would like to join in, please remember that, no matter our views, we’re still on the same team.

@Anthony Interesting post to say the least.
I need to confront certain elements of your thinking in this post. However, I would like this to take the form of an open and public debate with words (by the good graces of our hostess, Deborah, and
good will of this on-line community).

You state: <i> Truth is that which corresponds to the mind of the biblical God. </I>

Let us begin with an understanding of the principle word at play in your argument: Truth. I am selecting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitions that seem most relevant to this discussion.

OED defines “truth” as…
I. The quality of being true (and allied senses).
1. a. The character of being, or disposition to be, true to a person, principle, cause, etc.; faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, constancy, steadfast allegiance.
2. Second, we cannot rely on Blaise Pascal’s assertion (or any similar assertion) since it is grounded in the idea that goes does exist, so the wager theory of god’s existence is off the table. We must agree that, like Schrodinger’s cat, we need to keep god in an indeterminate state for the purposes of this discussion: god both exists and does not exist at the same time until we reach a point where observation proves existence.
3. a. Faith, trust, confidence; b. Belief; a formula of belief, a creed.
4. Disposition to speak or act truly or without deceit; truthfulness, veracity, sincerity; formerly sometimes in wider sense: Honesty, uprightness, righteousness, virtue, integrity.
5. a. Conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought).
6. Agreement with a standard or rule; accuracy, correctness; spec. accuracy of position or adjustment;
7. Genuineness, reality, actual existence.
9. a. True statement or account; that which is in accordance with the fact: chiefly in phr. to say, speak, or tell the truth; b. loosely. Mental apprehension of truth (in sense 11); knowledge.
10. a. True religious belief or doctrine; orthodoxy. Often with the, denoting a particular form of belief or teaching held by the speaker to be the true one
11. a. That which is true, real, or actual (in a general or abstract sense); reality; spec. in religious use, spiritual reality as the subject of revelation or object of faith (often not distinguishable from 10).
12. a. The fact or facts; the actual state of the case; the matter or circumstance as it really is.

Of all the possible definitional uses, I want to address 5, 6, and 7 as those tend to be central to the debate. We will fundamentally disagree as to what constitutes “fact” in this case. You content that
god exists; ipso facto that is the truth. I contend god does not exist; ipso facto that is the truth. Because we are mired in “belief”at this point, we must find another means to verify our positions.

This gives rise to the biggest question: How does one prove god exists? In order to do this, we need some ground rules.

First, we cannot ask “Prove god does not exist!” since it is impossible to prove a negative (i.e., “Prove there is no such thing as a flying pink unicorn.”). Thus, we have to rely on proving god exists.

Second, we cannot rely on Blaise Pascal’s assertion (or any similar assertion) since it is grounded in the idea that goes does exist, so s existence is off the table. We must agree s cat, we need to keep god in an indeterminate state for the purposes of this discussion: god both exists and does not exist at the same time until we reach a point where observation proves existence.

Third, we cannot simply point to the universe as a whole and state “There is proof god exists.” It is physically beyond the means of either of us to test the whole of the universe. We must use reasonable, testable, and verifiable evidence. Proposed logic, so long as it survives scrutiny, can be used as evidence.

Forth, we need to avoid semantic arguments. Should we disagree over a phrase, we need to reach consensus regarding its meaning. Since this
should be a thoughtful debate and discussion, semantic disagreements need to be dealt with post haste.

Fifth and finally, we must refrain from ad hominem attacks and keep strictly to the debate of the issue. Since we do not know one another personally, we should not attack one another in words.

If you find this acceptable, it would be a pleasure to engage in this debate.



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23 responses to “Can Atheists Define Morality?


    Here is my favorite quote by Albert Einstein. It best explains my thoughts on the subject of morality without a deity:

    “It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere… Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’a ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death”

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. The first problem I have is pinning anything on “the biblical god.” The moment someone uses the bible as the yardstick, they’ve lost me, because i don’t believe the bible is anything more than an ancient collection of myths and folktales. You can’t use the bible as proof of its own truth, and you can’t use god as proof of god.
    There’s really no need to even get all scientific and/or philosophical about it the question. The fact that many – most! – atheists are good, honest, caring, moral people is evidence enough that morality has nothing to do with any deity or supernatural force.

  3. It seems this post is mixing two things: “morality” and “truth”.
    Although they may be related based on one’s perception, IMO, they are
    two different things.

    As for morality, observations indicate that our sense of morality is
    rooted in evolution. Just look at other species, who have no concept of
    god(s). Why does a lioness care for her cubs? A mother caring for her
    offspring is considered an act of good. Studies on primate behavior
    have shown many similarities to human behavior, with primates not
    professing beliefs in a higher power (at least from what we can

    A theists may then argue that even if one does not believe in a god,
    one’s sense of right and wrong has been bestowed on us, and all living
    things (even bacteria(?)). This perspective contradicts the assertion
    that one must believe in a god to know good an evil.

    IMO, good and evil are relative and rooted in biology. Murder is evil
    because it is a detriment to our survival. Of course, life is more
    complex, so there are many shades of grey when one talks about good and
    evil. People like to think of themselves as rational beings, it is hard
    for many to accept that our behaviors are hardwired, instinctual.
    Something I always like to say, “Humans use our cognitive capabilities
    to rationalize our instinctual behaviors.”

    I think the concept of justice and fairness plays a role in the beliefs
    of good and evil. It is easier to accept the idea that those who do
    acts of evil, if not punished during life, will be punised in the
    after-life by a god. It is a hard reality to accept the idea that evil
    doers may never get punished. This may be why theists are concerned
    that non-believers may be prone to evil acts because a non-believer does
    not have the fear of every being punished.

    I wonder if this world-view is why many feel that threat of punishment
    is the primary method of affecting behavior. For example, if there was
    not the threat of punishment to taking drugs, then everyone will take
    them. Many overlook the concept of behavior being modified by rewards,
    where the reward may not be something immediate or tangible.

    An irony worth noting is how a religion may advocate acts that atheists
    would deem as evil, but the religion (based on its canon) says is good.
    For example, many religions advocate the persecution (and even death) of
    non-believers. I find this evil, and its seems modern society deems
    this also, hence most believers in a god do not truly following the
    scriptures (which is supposed to convey the “truth”) of their faith.

  4. This may be a valid argument, but it surely one I hate. The very idea that all morality comes from religious tenets, i.e. fear of getting god-smacked in a non-musical way, simply horrifies me. Because it always seems a sort of unstated/unwritten part to practice the religious ethics ‘in group’ and not much care what happens to “heathens” that are ‘out group’….

  5. “Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other “sins” are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful – just stupid).” ~ Robert A. Heinlein

  6. What is important for both believers and non-believers to acknowledge up front is that the morality touted as ‘Biblical’ is not. Biblical morality allows for many behaviors modern society has deemed illegal such as slavery, wife-beating, and marriage between close relations. Biblical morality likewise condemns behaviors modern society accepts such as charging interest on loans to the poor and hoarding wealth.

    Rather than counseling atheists on how to defend their morals, we should be educating believers that their own morals are not grounded in Biblical teachings. Attributing the moral principles of a modern society to the Bible is as flawed as attributing scientific principles of a modern society to the Bible.

    The next time someone accuses you of having no moral grounding because you do not follow Biblical morality, ask him whether or not he’d throw rocks at his child until she died as a punishment for sassing him. Ask him about his slaves and where he buys his solid wool and linen clothing (mixed fibers are forbidden). Ask him how he gives to the poor without counting the cost and whether or not he regrets getting married (because the New Testament ideal as lived by Jesus and preached by Paul is celibacy).

    For a complete list of the 613 Jewish (Old Testament) laws, see:

    • @Patti Some interesting items to think about here.

      I would just like to remind everyone that according to Leviticus, you are all going to hell for attending Red Lobsters Shrimp Fest or lobster specials.

      The problem with people who follow biblical laws is that they want to cherry-pick the ones the want to see enforced. One simply needs to observe Ned Flanders and his discussions with god to see how difficult it would be to try and live by everything in the bible.

    • fantastic position. thank you for sharing.

    • I agree, Patti. I actually take it one step further by bringing up their heroes of faith in the Bible:

      Abraham=liar, rapist and bad father
      Esther=likely not a virgin on her wedding night.
      Ruth=more than likely had a sexual relationship with Boaz before they married. Contrary to teachings in Church of how single women should be “ladies in waiting”, she pursued him.
      Jesus had a short fuse, as well as the apostle Paul.

      The list goes on and on of men and women who did not keep God’s covenant, broke laws and treated others horribly. Many of them weren’t punished for their selfishness and sin. Often heroes of the Bible were blessed regardless of their actions, but others around them paid the consequences.

      I also find it incredibly uneasy that people who follow God believe he has the power to open and close the womb. Still, he gives abusers, murderers and rapists children. How is that even considered “moral”?

    • This comment pretty much sums up my views as well. When someone argues in favor of morals as defined by the Bible, you have to ask them which morals they’re talking about. Killing babies and murdering spouses are absolutely moral according to the Bible, and then they are also absolutely not. How did people who believe their morals come from the Bible decide which morals to believe? Maybe in the same way that people who don’t believe in those morals decided?

      I think the old Supreme Court test for identifying pornography applies toward identifying moral behavior: “I’ll know it when I see it.” It’s something that’s difficult to define in an eloquent way, and there are always exceptions to any rule, but I think most people tend to understand what is ok and what is not on an almost instinctual level. And those who don’t are kept in check by laws and other societal pressures.

  7. Hi Deborah,

    I think this is a great topic for everyone to think about. I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and unfortunately am at the current opinion that humans just don’t have the answers to these difficult questions yet.

    Any answers so far I have seen to morality being objective come in the form of faith statements that don’t seem to have enough solid evidence behind them to push me over the line to be sure that morals exist objectively outside of human minds, although objective morality is certainly something that I would love to believe in. (obviously preferences don’t determine truth though).

    Believers in gods make the faith statement that morals are determined by the particular god they believe in and for most religions this is somehow delineated in scriptures of choice. But as you know the scriptures of all religions we know of are so wrought with difficulties that believers are always left on their own to interpret exactly what the morality statements actually mean thus causing believers to be just like non-believers in the fact that we are all using our own feelings and minds to determine what is moral, as well as using our own feelings and minds to determine which religion is true or not based on whether it seems good to us (e.g. how many times have you heard a Christian say that the Muslim faith is obviously wrong because of terrorists? I’ve heard many say this.)

    People who don’t claim to believe in gods but do believe in objective morals take a few different approaches. Probably the closest one to religious objective morality is that of Shelly Kagan (his debate with WLC details this pretty clearly). He basically says that morals can be said to be objective and true in the same way that the law of non-contradiction is said to be objective and true – in other words these things are all just laws of our universe somehow. While I definitely see the possibility in this, I unfortunately can’t get myself to see how given the way morality has shown itself in history, that it is as sure as something like the law of non-contradiction. As far as how morality is determined by atheists it is typically said to be derived from ideas related to human flourishing (and perhaps including animal flourishing).

    But either way, I see all of us as being in the same boat as far as not having clear evidence based morality (although obviously there are many who disagree). However, when it comes down to it, if morality really does exist objectively I would guess that it is more likely that it has something to do with human and animal flourishing rather than the whims of ancient superstitious people who decided to write down what they thought was moral.

    Sorry for the very long comment.

  8. @Debbie The Second ground rule got sliced and diced for some reason.

    Should read…

    Second, we cannot rely on Blaise Pascal’s assertion (or any similar assertion) since it is grounded in the idea that goes does exist, so the wager theory of god’s existence is off the table. We must agree that, like Schrodinger’s cat, we need to keep god in an indeterminate state for the purposes of this discussion: god both exists and does not exist at the same time until we reach a point where observation proves existence.

  9. I think we only have to look at our children to recognize that morality is a result of societal teachings. We can so easily teach a child what is “right” and what is “wrong”. If a child grows up believing that it’s ok to kill someone isnt that the morality for that particular society? Also if you look back thru history those “morals” were tied to how a society was run. I remember taking an anthropology class in college and there was a case study done on a small society of tribes that were “discovered” in the amazon. These tribes used to have battles (wars) until there was 1 death. This was perfectly normal within their society and each battle was celebrated with great fanfare. It was during this class that I realized how we as a collective society shape what is right and wrong and how those views can be so different in different societies. I really think this is where “religious” minds are very narrow in their view of the world. They cannot see beyond their “own” teachings.

  10. Actually I would go as far as claiming that only unbelievers can define morality at all. The believers are not moral, just obedient.
    We cannot rely on a skydaddy but have to be good just for goodness’ sake. Also we acknowledge that this is the only shot we got, every single one of us believers and unbelievers alike. Add the Golden Rule and you pretty much have what it takes to lead moral life.

  11. I think we can assign certain confidence values to the truth and reliability of things based on evidence, but we should always remain open to being shown where we may be wrong when shown better evidence. The first part we all do every day with nearly every decision we make. The second part is much harder to do, especially when the truths were arrived at via faith and are closely tied to one’s identity.

  12. One of the problems with Anthony’s original premises was that truth was tied to the mind of god. Thus, in his belief structure, there has to be a god in order for truth to exist. He cannot, or perhaps will not, conceive of a situation where there is truth without god. Thus, my proposition to him has two parts: 1) first, we must divine [all puns intended] whether or not there is a god in order to 2) discover whether truth is, indeed, linked to the mind of god. However, before we can get to the second part, we would first have to prove definitively whether god exists.

    The basic premise of question to him was to show me the evidence for god that is testable, repeatable, and verifiable. Once we have that and can say god exists, then we can move on to the truth aspect. Without that, however, the remainder of Anthony’s arguments is null. In order for all that he stated in the other thread to be true, we must discover the actuality of god first. Otherwise his arguments have no merit.

    Just sayin’ (as LT puts it).

  13. Derrick and fellow blog posters,

    this is a great discussion. I posited this question to my ethics students, “Are religious people more moral than non-religious people or as Richard Dawkins argues, are religious people less moral because their morality only makes them accountable to an imaginary deity whereas non-religious people are accountable to real people?”

    Overwhelmingly, the students, many of them who hold strong religious convictions, replied that non-religious people can be just as moral as religious people. Saab93f made a similar point in his/her(?) post.

    Psychologist, Steven Pinker, attributes ethical behavior to Norbert Elias’s ‘civilizing process’ rather than religious morality. In fact, Pinker argued earlier this year that morality is the cause of, not the cure to, much of the violence in the world today.

  14. Alert: bringing the bible into this. It actually reads in Jeremiah that deity would one day put his “law in their minds, and write it on their hearts,” meaning no need for the book. Also, in Romans 2, the writer says that there are people who do not know deity that are actually moral.
    So, if you can believe it, these are just two examples which some religious people choose to overlook concerning their own textbook- that morality does not originate with religion.

  15. It’s been my experience that when this topic comes up, it’s commonly from people who are looking for an easy win in the “I’m better than you” game we used to play back in grade school. This isn’t a universal law, and I can’t say I know anything about Derrick or his motivation for asking … but I bring this up only because I feel it never really changes anyone’s minds.

    But hey, I haven’t poked my head from my hole in the ground for a while, so I’m about due. First, I think it’s pretty clear there’s no evidence for the existence of a divine being of any sort. The only “proof” I’ve been presented comes purely from ignorance (“you can’t prove he doesn’t exist”) or incredulity (“but … look around you!!”), neither of which are even remotely compelling. As atheists, the only thing we can say is that while we can’t prove God doesn’t exist … we can reliably, predictively, and repeatably explain natural phenomenon without the need to invoke the will of a personal or impersonal god. So, while it’s theoretically possible that God spoke the universe into existence, the evolution of our understanding of the natural world suggests it’s not very likely.

    The same can be said for the origins of morality. Of all possible explanations, the simplest one – based on evolutionary biology – is the most reasonable. Humans are social animals because there came a point during the evolution of our distant ancestors when working together in groups created an advantage to our overall survivability. The rules of conduct within that group became the foundations of what we understand as morality. Traits such as empathy further moved the evolution of our morality along to the point where not only is it used to maximize survivability as a whole, but also to minimize the suffering of others. As a result, the accomplishments due to secular moral philosophy and rational discussion have far outpaced the morality based on the will of God as given by the bible. It may have been effective for the Semitic tribes of the 12th century BC up to the times of the Roman Empire, but it’s not anymore.

    Last, atheists don’t have a common, shared belief system, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that most of us probably don’t know for sure if we’re absolutely *right* in our beliefs … but that’s good. We should be open to the possibility that we’re wrong and change our minds in the face of supporting evidence.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Back to Skyrim.

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