Moral reasons for atheism

A few months ago I read a blog post – I was trying to find it, but couldn’t recall which blog – where a pastor wrote about an encounter he’d had the week before with a teenager from his congregation. The boy confessed that he no longer believed in God.  The pastor looked at the boy for a while, then asked, “So, how long have you been sleeping with your girlfriend?”  This, in fact, was the case.  The boy had no real issues of faith; what he had was an issue of morality.

I recall being told years back that most atheists rejected God for moral, not intellectual, reasons.  I have not presumed this in my dealings with atheists, and would never go so far as to apply this to all atheists.  However, over and over again I have run across outspoken atheists who are good machine-gunning intellectual arguments for atheism, but who turn out to have significant moral issues.  They deny that morality has anything to do with their beliefs, but often the coincidence is too obvious, and their arguments are not that good.

Morality may be, after all, one of the more common reasons for atheism.

In searching for the blog post I mentioned at the outset, I came across another story that was almost identical.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  However, for someone dealing with guilt, unforgiveness, or simply a need to believe that right and wrong are not absolute, the easiest way to resolve the isse is to mentally do away with God, at least the Christian God.

I routinely read a blog by a young atheist who is very bright, and writes about atheism from a very logical point of view.  He is somewhat refreshing as he does occasionally agree with the other side on a point or two, at least giving the appearance of intellectual integrity.  Recently, I discovered that he also is a proponent of polyamory – good, old-fashioned licentiousness.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.

Issues of morality for which atheism provides some conscience-relief include sex outside of marriage, including adultery.  As I mentioned earlier, unforgiveness – the inability to forgive or the resentment for not having been forgiven – can only be justified if there no God.  The same is true for self-righteousness, which includes many arguments about the problem of evil and suffering.  The only way to really make a good argument about evil and suffering is to somehow ignore the fact that you are a contributing cause; once that concession is made, the argument is somewhat deflated.

I am not saying that there are not purely intellectual arguments in favor of atheism (none are very good, in my opinion), or that people can’t sincerely believe in any of these arguments; however, more and more I see indications that people have reasons other than purely intellectual ones to chose to believe what they believe.

Obviously, I can’t prove this; however, this does seem to agree with Paul in Romans 1.  At the very least, morality plays a large part in many people’s decisions concerning religion.

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14 Comments

  1. The Barefoot Bum wrote
    at 3:49 am - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    You’re conflating different kinds of moral issues, and you seem unclear on the direction of the relationship between atheism and morality.

    It’s ridiculous and irrational to deny the existence of God because you want to behave in a certain way. In the same sense, it’s ridiculous and irrational to deny the existence of the federal government, the FBI and the Secret Service because you want to counterfeit money.

    The relationship goes the other way: if you do not believe in a god, then you do not believe any moral standard that depends only on the existence of a god for its basis.

    There’s no natural reason for me, as an atheist, to object to polyamory. Even though I personally am monogamous, another’s polyamory does not in any way, directly or indirectly, harm my own immediate interests. And responsible, consensual polyamory harms no one else, so it does not shock my empathy.

    Of course, there are certain behaviors we colloquially call “moral” that do have natural reasons underlying them, notably reciprocal altruism and biologically and socially evolved feelings of empathy. I do not want, for example, to be murdered, so it is in my best interest to establish, support and comply with laws against murder.

    If you have any moral beliefs that be supported only by appeal to a god for its basis, you are going to see some moral distinction between yourself and an atheist, just as you will see moral differences between people of different religions with different moral pronouncements supposedly coming from their god. People do not, for example, choose Islam because they don’t like pork; they choose not to eat pork because they are convinced of Islam’s truth. (Convinced as delusionally, of course, as those convinced of Christianity’s truth.)

  2. The Barefoot Bum wrote
    at 4:14 am - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    There is one sense in which one’s moral and ethical beliefs relate causally to religion: People will often choose an interpretation of religion to justify their prejudices, bigotry or irrational fears. People will, for example, choose an interpretation of religion that declares homosexuals to be perverts if homosexuality creeps them out; people will choose an interpretation of religion that doesn’t declare homosexuals to be perverts if homosexuality does not creep them out.

  3. Fred wrote
    at 12:18 pm - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    Well, I, for one, believe in a God who lets me sleep with my girlfriend for the past 22 years.

  4. me wrote
    at 1:19 pm - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    Barefoot, I am not necessarily conflating different moral issues, but I am being somewhat inclusive. I wrote this rather late last nite, so forgive me if I wasn’t clear.

    As to the direction, I am quite clear. Yours is the typical atheist response; I am taking the opposite view. By the way, what is your issue?

    Atheism provides a neat way to avoid any absolute moral positions; you can’t deny that. To accept the God who revealed himself in Jesus, you’d no doubt have to change some things.

    I agree with your statement,

    It’s ridiculous and irrational to deny the existence of God because you want to behave in a certain way.

    Human nature is often both ridiculous and irrational. Just read the papers. This is, b

  5. The Barefoot Bum wrote
    at 3:02 pm - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    If a behavior has one rational and one irrational interpretation, the charitable default is to assume the rational interpretation. It’s tendentious and intellectually dishonest to simply assume an irrational explanation is the truth because it reinforces your own biases.

    I know a lot of atheists; none have become atheists because they wanted to escape any moral issues. Even your anecdotes do not make it clear that the atheists you know became atheists because they wanted to escape any moral issues, or if the escape from certain moral issues was a result of atheism.

    Don’t get me wrong: once the support of God is pulled out, many religious moral beliefs are either arbitrary and pointless or downright evil. If you want to support your moral beliefs by facts and truths requiring the existence of God, it is up to you to show that it is rational to believe a God actually exists. Otherwise your argument is merely circular.

  6. The Barefoot Bum wrote
    at 3:08 pm - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    And, by the way, you don’t know jack about atheism; your statement, “Atheism provides a neat way to avoid any absolute moral positions,” is ridiculous and entirely unfounded. I not only can deny it, it’s the sort of statement that does nothing but reveal your ignorance of thousands of years of moral philosophy, and (worse) your inability to evaluate your own lack of understanding.

    Atheism as well as the avoidance of unfounded moral beliefs (absolute or relative, universal or temporal) comes from the shared basis of avoiding unfounded beliefs in general, as to the nature of both reality and ethics.

  7. me wrote
    at 4:03 pm - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    Barefoot, re-read my post. I am making no assumptions; I am suggesting a possibility.

    So, tell me about “thousands of years of moral philosophy.” All I’m saying is that it’s possible that people choose what they believe based on what they want to be true. You can’t tell me that people don’t reject Christianity because of moral issues; I see it all the time. Many of them can’t form a logical argument to save their lives. A lot of atheists brag about reason, but I’ve seen very few who actually understand its limitations.

    I am not saying, by the way, that atheists can’t be moral beings (I know that bugs you). However, I still think it is very possible that morality and corresponding emotions have more impact on our beliefs than we might think.

  8. The Barefoot Bum wrote
    at 7:43 pm - 16th May 2009 Permalink

    Notheistic moral philosophy goes back to Socrates Euthyphro. Atheist philosophers span the entire range of moral philosophy, with the obvious exception only of specifically theistic moral philosophy.

    You can suggest possibilities all you like. The question is: is the possibility actually true?

    If you have any sort of argument or evidence to support the truth of your assertion, besides bigotry and bias, I’d like to hear it.

  9. Fred wrote
    at 3:52 pm - 17th May 2009 Permalink

    Gee. Bigotry and bias has always been convincing to me.

  10. Mike Haubrich, FCD wrote
    at 2:44 am - 18th May 2009 Permalink

    Alden, people find all sorts of justifications for engaging in what they believe to be immoral behavior. There are decisions to be made and balances to be scaled, and yes at times there are people who see their religious views standing in the way of what they want to do. Failing to find some sort of religious justification for making an exception to their religious moral code, they either choose a religion which has a moral code that fits what they want to do (and it isn’t hard to find,) or they declare themselves unbelievers.

    Of course it is also easy to find people who stay within their religion and act in ways which violate their own moral code, arguing that it is just a temporary thing and they will soon find a way to get back “right with God.”

    As Barefoot indicated, these are not likely the people who will find themselves atheist for other, more intellectual reasons. In my own case, if anecdotal evidence counts for anything, I became an atheist out of a frustration of not being able to connect with God and then realizing that it wasn’t my fault but that there was no god to connect with.

    I, too, found that moral restrictions based on my former religions beliefs were both unfounded and arbitrary, and so my behavior changed. The big difference is that I realized that there was no “original” sin for which I was being held accountable through no actions of my own and the whole idea of “forgiveness” from God through Jesus became a quaint and curious notion.

    In Loftus’ book, he describes his realization as the incident with the board meeting as the members of the board took the exact same passages of the Bible and used polarized interpetations as they judged whether or not to keep him on as pastor or to punish him. Even within a single religion, there is no discernible absolute moral code on which people can make their moral choices.

    I know the blog post to which you refer, and the writer was taking the position that we are atheists because we want to disobey God. This may or may not have been the case with the young man in the story, but there is no real way to tell because the story teller simply made a quick judgment and assumed it to be the case. If, once we are no longer hold to a religious belief and then act in ways contrary to that religious belief then a shallow examination would indicate that we no longer hold that religious belief so that we could act in that manner. Bur then, what the person passing judgment is doing so within a limited perspective and not the broader perspective of the person they are judging.

    To use one oversimplified example. If the church I leave considers tithing to be an absolute moral behavior, I would not continue to tithe if I left that church (or church, period.) It would make no sense for me, as an atheist, to give to a church whose faith I no longer followed. A member of that church would then be justified from their perspective to assume that I had left he church because I no longer wanted to tithe. However, I had made the decision after I realized that the church no longer had value for me and not tithing was a logical decision.

    In many cases, even extramarital sex, atheists weigh their moral decisions against many factors; but it may look to the religious person that they have become atheists so that they can act in contra their prior religious beliefs.

  11. The Barefoot Bum wrote
    at 3:34 am - 18th May 2009 Permalink

    Alden, people find all sorts of justifications for engaging in what they believe to be immoral behavior.

    The situation is more complex. People find all sorts of justifications for doing what they want to do; what they want is often socially and culturally held to be immoral. It gets complex because our social and cultural context strongly influences what we want: human beings, especially children, are strongly susceptible to conditioning. When those social constructs are in harmony with our inherent desires (good or bad) a person is morally integrated. When those social constructs are in conflict with our inherent desires, you get certain kinds of neuroses and moral conflict.

    Raised as a Quaker, with few arbitrary and unjustifiable moral beliefs, I’m not at all conflicted about my sexuality. I was raised to be empathetic and care deeply about the happiness of others, but these moral beliefs are easily justifiable by appeal to mutual benefit; I refrain only from benefiting at the expense of another’s suffering or want.

    I do not believe that people — aside from the occasional sadist or psychopath — have an inherent desire to harm others. On the other hand, we don’t appear to have all that much inherent desire to seek others’ benefit. We can be socialized either way. We do, however, have a strong inherent desire to seek our own happiness; much of the moral and psychological conflict I see in Christians comes from those social constructs which impel us to sacrifice our own self-interest with no compensation.

    Neurotic people are easier to control and exploit. People who are guilt-ridden for no better reason than wanting to be happy can be manipulated by offering them divine forgiveness. Is it any wonder that historically, the vast majority of religious institutions have cooperated with and supported the ruling class du jour in the exploitation of the masses of people?

  12. DeafAtheist wrote
    at 9:45 pm - 23rd May 2009 Permalink

    Seriously?

    Atheists have a different perspective on morality than Christians do. Morality is a lot of ways a matter of opinion. To an atheist morality is subject only in regards to how their behavior affects other people. If my behavior has a negative affect on someone else then I am doing something wrong. Christians have a different morality. Their morality goes to include stuff like homosexuality, and premarital or promiscuous sex. These things are not morally wrong to an atheist because the actions are shared between consenting adults and no one is getting hurt.

    This doesn’t mean that atheists actively encourage or do all of those things ourselves, we just simply don’t find it to be a moral issue unless our behavior has a negative affect on someone else.

    Christians see us as morally bankrupt because we don’t share their moral views, and in fact argue with Christians about appropriate behavior. We don’t think anything is wrong with homosexuality, but feel there IS something wrong with anti-gay bigotry. While Christians struggle to suppress homosexual equality, Atheists struggle to encourage it. To us it’s a civil rights issue, not a moral one.

  13. Dan wrote
    at 8:27 am - 30th May 2009 Permalink

    Chickening out, Alden? I’d like to hear your responses to the comments. It seems your hypothetical conjecture is nothing but a slur.

  14. me wrote
    at 6:06 pm - 30th May 2009 Permalink

    Dan, you are lucky I took a moment to browse the comments in my spam filter…

    Chickening out? Never mistake simple disregard for “chickening out.”

    However, here, I did neither. Rather than just continue on in comments, I followed this up with another post, here, were I addressed the issues further. If there’s something you feel I haven’t addressed, let me know.

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  1. From aldenswan.com » Blog Archive » More on morality and atheism on 18 May 2009 at 9:15 am

    [...] post follows up on the discussion on my prior post, Moral reasons for atheism, in which I suggested that many atheists choose not to believe in God because of moral issues – [...]

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