AtheismPlus Part One: The Foundations of Atheist Ethics

Posted on August 25, 2012


This is the best image I found in a google search for “Atheist Morality”.

This is the first in a series of three posts about the development of a new wave of atheism, called Atheism Plus. In this post, I will begin to explain why I support this new development. I will start my argument from a point on which I do not think non-believers will disagree very much, then I will move into more controversial territory in the following two posts. If you haven’t heard of Atheism Plus, you should look it up at Blag Hag. This post, including the comments, is a good place to start.

Rather than blogging, I’ve been spending the past several months hammering away at a Master’s dissertation. You’ll be happy to know that it’s done and handed in now, thereby removing one excuse I had for not blogging. The latter stages of writing also gave me a good idea for a post. It seems, you see, that revising a 50 page word document is made much more bearable when you have something to listen to in the background, and I have a bit of a thing for youtube videos of formal debates. As it turns out, many of these happen to concern themselves with religion and atheism, and so that is how I found myself formulating arguments against William Lane Craig when I should have been looking for typos.

For those that don’t know him, Craig is a bit of a supervillain for atheists. He is a Christian philosopher who likes to debate against atheists, and is frighteningly good at it. He has won debates against such atheist heavyweights as Christopher Hitchens and John Shook. His success, however, is more due to his superior ability to organize his argument than to the strength of his reasoning. In fact, he tends to repeat the same handful of fallacious arguments, most of which are themselves hundreds of years old, in every debate he goes to. One that I found especially frustrating as I listened to him last week was the rejection of an atheist morality. Craig argues that an objective morality is impossible from an atheistic perspective. Here’s an example of him making this argument.

The reasons for my annoyance at this argument are twofold. Firstly, the suggestion that non-religious people are inherently unethical is both insulting and pretty definitively proven wrong when one considers the crime rate in predominantly atheistic countries like Norway. Secondly and more importantly, however, the suggestion that atheists have no way to ground their morality commits a blatant double-standard, by demanding that atheists find a way to avoid the is/ought problem, while exempting the religion from this demand. When one considers the claim in detail, it becomes clear that even the most fundamentalist religion is no more morally grounded than any secular system of ethics. I’m going to spend the rest of this post arguing that this is the case.

To demonstrate this, let’s consider the rather uncontroversial example of why murder is wrong, by looking at the most common justifications for condemning murder in both atheism and theism. They are actually quite structurally similar in each case, despite the fact that they frequently have very different content. When prominent atheists speak of the foundation of their morality, they generally make appeals to empathy, compassion, and human well-being. Based on that, we can say that the atheist argument against murder proceeds as follows:

  1. I should behave in such a manner  way that promotes human welfare.
  2. Murder causes suffering, which is detrimental to human welfare.
  3. Therefore, I should not commit murder.

Theists are correct to point out that there is a big logical jump here, namely that the first proposition is unsupported by any objective philosophical argument. I think I agree with most humanists when I say that it can be supported with an appeal to empathy, but that is a subjective approach that can be easily undermined by asking why anybody should listen to empathy. Humanist ethics requires the assertion of a foundational normative principle, and that principle must be asserted a priori. Centuries of philosophy have struggled in vain to escape this bind, and as much as I wish that they had found a way out, I’m afraid it’s time to throw in the towel.

A religious person reading this might exclaim triumphantly that I have conceded defeat, and that atheism’s lack of objective morality makes it inherently inferior to their belief system. They should not be so hasty. In order for the theist’s argument to be correct, they need not only to show that atheists lack an objective foundation for morality, but that theists have one. Let’s look at a theist’s justification for being opposed to murder to see if that is indeed the case:

  1. God is the all-powerful creator of the universe.
  2. God forbids the killing of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, I should not commit murder.

This argument actually suffers from exactly the same problem as its atheist counterpart, in that it provides no objective theoretical grounding for its normative foundation. There is a disconnect between premises 1 and 2: why should I listen to the creator of the universe? Why should an action have positive normative value simply because it accords with the whims of a very powerful being? A theist might answer the question by saying that the real purpose of everything was given to it by God and that we should respect those purposes, but that just moves the problem back one step: why should we respect the purpose of anything? Bringing supernatural punishment into the equation has the same problem: What philosophically obligation does anybody have to avoid hell?

The best way to show that one premise does not logically entail another is to think of a possible world in which the former is true and the latter is not. Accordingly, I’m going to motivate for the disconnect in theistic ethics with a thought-experiment. Imagine that there is a god who created the universe and has a plan for it, but he is the cruellest, most malevolent being imaginable. He revels in suffering in both this life in the next, and has engineered the universe and all its physical and moral laws to bring about that end. The only way to please this god is to be cruel to as many people as possible; people who do this will be rewarded with a slightly less painful afterlife.

If we lived in such a universe, I think it would be obvious that there is no strong ethical compulsion to act in accordance with the whims of its creator. There would, in fact, be a strong ethical obligation to rebel against this world’s cruel god, and to destroy his followers and even the god itself if that were possible. The divinely ordained purpose of all things would be to suffer, but we would be well-justified in ignoring that purpose. The avoidance of a painful afterlife would not impose an ethical obligation to please this god. In short, this universe presents a possible world in which there is an all-powerful creator of the universe who makes demands that are not justified.

A theist might try to escape the problem by claiming that God is, by definition, perfect and that his moral commandments are therefore inherently good and justified. The question then becomes “how do you know?”. Regardless of how they claim knowledge of divine perfection, their argument is sunk because an evil god such as the one I have described could delude people into believing that he is perfect by any number of means. He is all-powerful, after all, and would likely not have the same sort of respect for free will that the Christian God apparently does.

The thought-experiment demonstrates that a being’s status as creator of a universe does not grant it any philosophically compelling moral authority over that universe. The theist is therefore left in the exact same metaethical bind as the atheist. I’m going to let David Hume finish the argument:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason”

This is commonly known as the is-ought problem, and it is, to my mind, completely insurmountable. There is no logical pathway from a factual statement, such as “God hates murder”, or “Murder causes suffering”, and a normative statement, such as “I should not kill people”. This is a problem that believers and non-believers alike must struggle with, and so the frequent theistic attacks on the foundation of atheist morality are the result of either hasty and biased philosophy, or outright dishonesty. Religious believers cannot solve Hume’s problem, so they should stop pointing out that atheists cannot either as if that constitutes a philosophical triumph.

My next post will move on from this conclusion to consider how non-religious systems of ethics can overcome the is-ought problem, and how we can move on with a practical moral system regardless of whether our metaethical grounding is logically airtight. This will lead in to a discussion about how atheism entails particular ethical commitments, and how those beliefs lend themselves to the establishment of Atheism Plus, which explicitly ties itself to social justice activism. Stay tuned.


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