It not uncommon to see religious people arguing that without the moral center of a religious text, true ethics are impossible.

The reasoning goes that, without a fixed moral center, atheists are free to make up their own beliefs about what is right or wrong. And while the majority of them make the "right" choices, roughly in line with "objective" religious morality, nothing forces them to do so.

They could, for instance, adhere to the ethical arguments about stealing being the correct and moral thing to do in cases of extreme inequality. Or, in a more extreme case, justify killing other humans on the basis of their actions or beliefs.

Instinctively, this argument feels wrong to me. After all, if it's really that simple, why do so many atheists make the "right" moral choices? And why do some religious people go to great lengths to justify stealing from or killing those of other religions.

Yet I cannot formulate this argument into sensible propositions. Is there a good rebuttal?

  • 3
    Please clarify what you mean by "moral" or "immoral." You talk about religions defining what morality means in a religious text (and we can infer you are talking about behaviors), but it's not clear what being "moral" would be for an atheist without such a text. How do you define the behaviors that are "moral" or "immoral" for an atheist? (...I'm not sure whether this is an answer or not.)
    – jpmc26
    Mar 12, 2016 at 2:48
  • 3
    The argument presented here does not need refutation because it is not complete. For one thing, it depends on theists having a 'fixed moral center' that is denied to atheists. 'Fixed moral center' is not even defined here, so it certainly cannot be established that only theists have it. Of course, many theists believe they have something that fits the bill, but these claims are indistinguishable from self-serving wishful thinking. Empirically, we can see that many bad things have been done in the name of religion, and no, I don't have to define 'bad'.
    – sdenham
    Mar 12, 2016 at 3:53
  • 4
    The only way for a religious text to have any valid moral authority is through a direct and personal communication with the object(s) of one's religion (other people can always lie about their experiences). How else, for example, would one know the degree of Jesus Christ's approval of the New Testament as it stands today? Without that communication, the use of a religious text for one's moral center has exactly the same amount of validity as the moral core of an atheist. This would leave the reconciliation of moral differences to argument.
    – Adam
    Mar 12, 2016 at 6:43
  • 2
    You might want to look up amorality, which is sort of third option outside moral-immoral axis.
    – hyde
    Mar 12, 2016 at 14:36
  • 3
    Or, in a more extreme case, justify killing other humans on the basis of their actions or beliefs. Because clearly religious people would never do this.
    – Dennis
    Mar 12, 2016 at 18:42

18 Answers 18


The argument you want to rebut seems to come in two parts, the second of which doesn't get much attention from your idealised religious person:

  • morality requires a "fixed moral center"
  • religious texts are the only source of a fixed moral center.

I think the latter can be directly rebutted. Atheists could have an externally-delivered "fixed moral center" from a source other than a religious text, for instance:

  • What your mama told you was right or wrong.
  • The categorical imperative
  • The law of the land (or, if you are required to be literal about the word "fixed", the law of the land at the time you were born. That would be a very strange and dangerous way to found your morality, but it would be a fixed moral center. Frankly, one could say the same about founding your morality on Leviticus in the modern era, where many of the instructions given in Leviticus would be criminal acts. Fortunately most believers find strong moral reasons elsewhere in the texts to override e.g. the instruction to execute adulterers).
  • At a stretch, internationally-agreed doctrines like the UN declaration of human rights. However, this doesn't really speak to individual conduct, primarily it's about how governments should act, and so I'm not at all sure whether it will serve in practice as a set of moral imperatives.

The religious person might argue that "what your mama told you" might be morally incorrect, and therefore is not a moral center. For example, for all we know maybe she approved of stealing. But functionally as long as it's consistent it will serve as a source of moral imperatives, and so if the religious person argues this then they have been disingenuous. They are not really arguing that ethics is impossible without a religious text, they're arguing that true ethics is impossible without their religious text, the one they hold to be correct. Simply put two such religious people, of different religions or different doctrinal inclinations, in a room together, and leave them to rebut each others' arguments.

The former claim, "morality requires a fixed moral center" might ultimately boil down to a particular definition of morality. It does seem reasonable that ethics must progress from some set of imperatives, but it might be that the words "fixed" and "center" are being imbued by the religious person with some sacred aura that a non-religious imperative can't, in their mind, compete with. If the religious person ultimately is defining morality to mean, "following the commandments of a religion" then logically speaking they're absolutely correct, atheists aren't moral, but you can get into their axioms with them in order to establish that they're begging the question.

None of this is deep philosophy, but when the argument we're supposed to be rebutting contains the statement, "[atheists could] justify killing other humans on the basis of their actions or beliefs", as if this is something only enabled by their atheism, when in fact we observe many religious people who support war and/or the death penalty, then I don't think the philosophical big guns are really required. The argument you're presenting to be rebutted is pretty weak, and an expert could present a stronger version :-)

  • 2
    I've upvoted this, because I think it is one of the more philosophically engaged answers. But the "what your mama told you" is problematic not because of any question of its correctness or incorrectness qua moral advice but because it seems subject to a regress that makes it hard to fit as a moral source. In that respect, it seems to revert to a variation on your "law of the land". But the entire objection is that we hope for a law that isn't just of the land isn't it?
    – virmaior
    Mar 11, 2016 at 10:21
  • 2
    @virmaior: yes, at risk of hiding behind a feeble excuse that "it's just an example", I'm not claiming that "what your mama told you" is necessarily a very "good" moral source. Just that it satisfies the property that the argument to be rebutted ostensibly derives of a "fixed moral center": following it prevents the atheist being "free to make up their own beliefs about what is right or wrong". Mar 11, 2016 at 10:26
  • 1
    @JimBalter: well exactly. I chose that example because the argument to be rebutted could be seen as "do as you're told, don't do as you think best". Which is all very well except that what you're told might merely be what some other person thinks best. What your culture tells you includes a degree of consensus that my example deliberately removes in order to explore what it is the religious person should really demand of a fixed moral center. Mar 11, 2016 at 11:20
  • 2
    You missed probably the main source of non-religious morality: natural, or evolutionary, morality. Basically, any animal species is under selective pressure to help his close kin. For solitary animals, this means children; for social animals, like wolves and chimps, this extends to the whole pack. Natural morality has its limitations: niceness to close kin is accompanied by hostility to strangers. One may notice that many religious sources share the same principles: despite "thou shalt not kill", God often encourages genocide. I believe Pinker and Dawkins describe this phenomenon in detail.
    – IMil
    Mar 13, 2016 at 23:21
  • 3
    The crux of this approach is that you end up comparing rules of morality from different sources - government vs. religious leaders and/or deities - and at that point you have to ask "which is more likely to set "good" rules?", which requires you to ask "how do we measure how "good" something or someone is?" which leads to "how do we define "good" as a quality?" which is the basis of morality and ethics. Therein you find that if the definition of "good" is anything other than "whatever [your deity] says", then it's possible for atheists to measure "good", and thus be good without religion. Mar 14, 2016 at 11:12

I would argue that only an atheist can be moral.

Imagine two men in a convenience store: one walks to the counter, makes a purchase, and leaves. Another has a knife in his pocket and intends to rob the store. When he gets to the counter, he notices a police car pulling up, so he changes his mind, buys something, and leaves.

Which of these men was more moral? They both did exactly the same thing, but one of them only did so out of fear of punishment, while the other did so from his own intentions.

Being moral implies taking responsibility not only for your actions, but also for your own values and beliefs that lead to those actions. Otherwise, you're not a moral person, just an obedient one.

  • 50
    This argument has the implicit and spurious premise that all religious persons follow moral codes solely or primarily out of fear of punishment. Mar 10, 2016 at 23:27
  • 22
    ...or hope of reward. Or even just those who think command by authority is a rational basis for moral value. That's certainly not all religious folk, but certainly a large percentage. Mar 10, 2016 at 23:34
  • 9
    Please provide some references. As it stands, this is just your opinion.
    – user2953
    Mar 11, 2016 at 7:03
  • 6
    There are two points that might (weakly) support this argument. 1) atheists are empirically less likely to commit crimes, and 2) religious people often ask of atheists something like "If there's no God, what's to stop you from raping and murdering all you want?". (1) is possibly spurious due to a confounding factor such as educational level, and (2) is anecdotal. It seems to me that this comes down to a primarily psychological question about how people make moral decisions but AFAIK there simply isn't a lot of quality data from which to draw a conclusion.
    – Era
    Mar 11, 2016 at 15:32
  • 5
    I don't think you've really said anything useful. The idea that true morality lies in the intentions of the heart and not in outward behavior is not the question nor seriously debatable, as most everyone on both sides would agree. You've also suggested that not a single religious person has the ability to do the right thing from the heart but must do only what will avoid punishment ("only an atheist can be moral"). I'm sorry to say that this makes you look like a worse bigot than many religious people and it smacks of shallow thinking. You have an even worse problem, though: define moral.
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 6:12

As a religious person, the way I usually hear this argument presented is a little different:

  1. Either morality is objective or subjective.
  2. Certainly, many common conclusions of subjective morality make sense (for example, not stealing: many people appeal to a Social Contract style argument to say if everyone stole, society would break apart).
  3. However, subjective morality based on either what's useful or whatever is a social norm exists at a time leads to (arguably) bad conclusions - at different times and places abuse of children was seen as socially acceptable, and scapegoating people based on race was seen as useful. This means that morality cannot be subjective.
  4. Therefore, morality is objective.
  5. The only rational basis for a morality that is objective is one based on moral realism, and, ultimately, belief in a deity.

(So the argument goes.)

As to why atheists make the "right" choice: CS Lewis argues in Mere Christianity that all humans have an innate sense of right and wrong (many others have argued something similar). Since this is something humans share, we tend to come to similar conclusions. So, it's not quite right that religious people think atheists think don't have "a fixed moral center": all atheists share a moral center with believers, and because of original sin this moral center is flawed in all of us.

A rebuttal to all this that usually plays well is to say that people who are religious are no better then those who are irreligious. (There is a counter-rebuttal to that, I forget if it was Lewis or Chesterton: the thing that matters isn't whether a religious person is better morally than an atheist person, what matters is whether a particular person is morally better with religion than without.)

Another rebuttal would be to attempt to discredit objective morality: either that everything is just convention, and that the claim to objective morality just followed from the convention (Matt Ridley has a new book that makes this claim).

  • 21
    I don't see why moral realism would imply existence of a deity. Mar 10, 2016 at 19:11
  • 13
    I think this argument generally assumes that a god is morally correct. If a being has a choice about whether to follow a god, they need to make a moral judgement of the god. What standard do they use? It would seem to necessarily be something that exists independently of the god. Mar 10, 2016 at 20:01
  • 18
    The problem is with point 5. "The only rational basis for a morality that is objective is one based on... belief in a deity." This does not follow. In fact, if morality is truly objective, it cannot have a "source", because any source or cause would imply that the "deity" could have chosen differently, thus rendering morality subjective, from His point of view. Perhaps it's easier to think of morality as being absolute in the same way that arithmetic is absolute. It's eternal because it's conceptual.
    – Roderick
    Mar 10, 2016 at 22:27
  • 8
    I would actually argue that the issue with this argument is point 3: "Subjective morality ... leads to (arguably) bad conclusions...." Bad by whose standards? Obviously not the standards of the people who are doing these things. That point seems to devolve into the statement "Subjective morality means that morality is subjective", which doesn't get us anywhere in the argument. Mar 11, 2016 at 0:07
  • 3
    Given that belief in religion is a choice and which religion to believe in is also a choice (someone's choice, at least) and that interpretation of religious tenets is highly subjective, I don't see how this works. I think most people believe in religion as long as it fits with their personal moral beliefs. For example, I doubt most Christians or Jews would say it's moral to have a slave and beat him (just not too much) despite the fact that the Bible says it is allowed. They just (subjectively) choose to ignore that it says that.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 11, 2016 at 16:00

I think you indicate some arguments already in the end of your question.

  1. History shows that theistic and atheistic people do not differ concerning general accepted moral standards like no stealing, no killing, not breaking promises, no violence. Why is that so? Because a society, which violates these rules, is not stable, and nobody likes to live in a society with permanent threats.

  2. Kant's ethics based on the categorical imperative does not make any religious premiss.

  3. There exist further elaborated ethics as well as law systems without religious premisses, e.g. approaches from contract theory, spanning from Hobbes to Rawls' theory of justice in our time. Or take utilitarism as an example of a secular ethics.

  4. There is a well-known classfication of the reason why children and young adults follow a certain type of ethical reasoning, see Lawrence Kohlberg's six (or seven) stages of moral development. I consider religious argumentation, i.e. argumentation by authority, to belong to level 4, "where morality is still predominantly dictated by an outside force." While the higher levels 5 and 6 comprise social contract orientation and orientation on universal ethical principles.

  • +1 for things like Kohlberg. I am trying to advance to a level where I can make such arguments myself. Wait a minute... What made me get started on that goal?
    – user16869
    Apr 23, 2016 at 18:49

Firstly, simply asserting that you have some sort of absolute morality does not mean you do. So, really a religious person making this claim does not make any progress unless he/she can actually demonstrate that they have good reason to firstly believe such an authority exists and secondly that this authority is worth listening to. And that brings us on to the second point: not having absolute certainty in our decision-making should not be seen as a problem. That is the nature of human beings as well, animals, to put it crudely. We make decisions based on past decisions and experiences; our memories and senses dictate our actions. That's how it is, and unless somebody can demonstrate some sort of objectively better

  • The question is not so much about what we know as it is about what is true.
    – Era
    Mar 11, 2016 at 20:11
  • 2
    well my point is, the argument being made is not "true" - there is simply an assertion; a false premise. You counter false premises by pointing them out. Hence why I mentioned that we don't know if there is a god/absolute morality and so the argument falls apart at that point. Mar 12, 2016 at 21:46
  • @Era We can see what it not true: it doesn't work or hold up over time. We can see what has not failed yet. But we cannot see what is "true". The universe is simply not built that way. Any deity would have to be outside such a universe, and therefore we can never know anything from them. It would be like being able to predict the future, or a perpetual motion machine. Is this argument generally known? Why have I not heard it before?
    – user16869
    Apr 23, 2016 at 18:53
  • @nocomprende It sounds closely analogous to the Problem of Induction, except for the deity part.
    – Era
    Apr 25, 2016 at 14:24
  • @Era from what I see from a quick refresher, Induction is basically a Heuristic rather than a way to get to "hard knowledge" or "truth". If most of our success at dealing with the universe is basically due to induction, then I think this means that either we cannot ever get to "the Truth" because it is inaccessible, or that there is nothing more to it than what we see. Either way, I think a deity must be yet more inaccessible than everyday experience, so probably is right out of the realm of knowable truth at all. In that case, "Move along, there is nothing to see here." Truth is irrelevant.
    – user16869
    Apr 25, 2016 at 15:33

The rebuttal is quite simple: 1. There is no god. 2. Therefore, your religion is based on an illusion, not reality. 3. Therefore, basing your morality on your religion which is based on an illusion is just ridiculous.

The religious person might find that insulting, but then they started with the insults.

Interestingly, when you say "They could, for instance, adhere to the ethical arguments about stealing being the correct and moral thing to do in cases of extreme inequality. ", well, that's what Josef Kardinal Frings, the archbishop of Cologne, said. And then "Or, in a more extreme case, justify killing other humans on the basis of their actions or beliefs.". That particular disease seems to be very common among some religious types, so anyone using that as an argument against atheism really needs their head examined.

  • 5
    I see how your "rebuttal" represents what you believe, but how does that address the argument itself? Anyone can say to anyone, something to the effect of "you're wrong because you have really stupid beliefs", but I take it the OP wants something that addresses the argument on its merits rather than on its origins.
    – virmaior
    Mar 11, 2016 at 8:50
  • @virmaior : Indeed, and the same reasoning is an effective response to the argument in the OP's question. Anyone can assert he has an exclusive access to a fount of morality, but no-one is obliged to accept that claim.
    – sdenham
    Mar 12, 2016 at 17:06
  • I don't think that's the claim in the OPs question... I think he's saying moral realism (which seems desirable) meshes well with theism but is harder to substantiate without it...
    – virmaior
    Mar 12, 2016 at 22:08
  • @virmaior That is clearly not the question posed by the OP. The proper way, within the SE rules, guidelines and accepted practices, to ask a different question, is to ask that question directly.
    – sdenham
    Mar 13, 2016 at 14:10
  • Actually, that's what I read (past tense form) when I read (present tense form) the question and what the OP told me was an accurate understanding in comments on this question (deleted in a batch delete as the comments went sideways [not those particularly -- but comments are per SE rules fleeting and rather than sorting them generally just to be deleted])... The question you're describing would be off-topic, so per the SE rules, guidelines, and accepted practices you should raise a flag that the question is off-topic.
    – virmaior
    Mar 13, 2016 at 14:42

Deriving a more absolute answer, the first and foremost way to provide a rebuttal is via Kant and the categorical imperative. There a two quotes I can find that describe this well from a summary from the City University of New York:

  1. "The Categorical Imperative is supposed to provide a way for us to evaluate moral actions and to make moral judgments. It is not a command to perform specific actions -- it does not say, "follow the 10 commandments", or "respect your elders". It is essentially "empty" -- it is simply formal procedure by which to evaluate any action about which might be morally relevant."

  2. "Since by nature (according to Kant) the moral law is universal and impartial and rational, the categorical [imperative] is a way of formulating the criteria by which any action can pass the test of universality, impartiality, and rationality. That is its only function."

Kant would agree that since morals can exists a priori, and can be discovered by following these four laws:

The Formula of the Law of Nature: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature."

The Formula of the End Itself: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."

The Formula of Autonomy: "So act that your will can regard itself at the same time as making universal law through its maxims."

The Formula of the Kingdom of Ends: "So act as if you were through your maxims a law-making member of a kingdom of ends."

None of these include the necessity of following a religion within them, but always allow us to discover, and thus do, the universally moral and ethical action. The categorical imperative also seems to point out that a moral system provided by a religion may not provide universal morals and, therefore, not create universally ethical and moral action (i.e. human sacrifice, mass murder, execution, and fully shunning individuals). Altogether, we can know a moral system and, thus, act it out in our lives through the categorical imperative without following a specific religion. This allows atheists, and those who are religious, to be moral people as long as the universally moral and ethical action is lived out.

Finding a much more pratical answer, someone being religious absolutely does not equate to morality. Let's look at a recent case with a mega-reverend, Ted Haggard. He was head pastor of a church in Colorado for years and preached a very conservative message. However, it was discovered that he had had a relationship with a male prostitute and was using crystal methamphetamine. for three years while continuing his ministry. This, and many other cases with religious figures, shows that having religion does not equate morality ("Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself," James 2:17 NAV). One can live out religion and keep with good moral practice (i.e. love you neighbor, do not kill, do not steal), but, also, it is self-evident that one can have no religion and still keep these good moral practices.

  • 1
    First, there are some weird assumptions going on like "following these four laws". They are types of one single categorical imperative and objectivly the same (see GMM, Ak. 436). And, like written in GMM as well as the Critique of Practical Reason, the CI may be deducted without religious connotations, but not necessarily applied looking at Kant's notorious motivational problems. See e.g. philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/28448/kants-need-of-god
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 10, 2016 at 19:56
  • Wow, I think I understand the CI better now. It makes sense, my only addition would be that what it leads to is also "empty". We end up with rules that work, not because they are inherent in the universe, but because they... work. If that is what you are saying, then wonderful. If you are yet another person positing ideals and concepts supposed to have existence beyond what we see in reality, then I cannot agree with you. Either way, Thanks for all the Philosophysh.
    – user16869
    Apr 23, 2016 at 19:03
  • Definitely the best answer.
    – user10479
    Jul 30, 2016 at 8:39

So, the first problem you're going to have is people (including you!) throwing around terms without agreed on definitions. To wit:

"It not uncommon to see religious people arguing that without the moral center of a religious text, true ethics are impossible."

It's helpful to separate "morals" from "ethics", and this actually simplifies the question. Let us say that "moraliy" (from "mores") refers to the customs of a people. Ethics (which at its root, refers to the nature of a thing) is a measuring of actual good vs. bad (and we'll smoothly elide what "good" and "bad" are to keep this short :-)) in a particular situation.

Almost anyone can follow morals. Atheists do it all the time. Criminals have a hard time with it, that's why they're criminals. But the thing about morals is that they're based in the past.

For a contrived, simplistic example, let's say Chaim eats pork and dies of trichinosis, and so our people evolve a rule of "don't eat pork". But 5,000 years later, pork is pretty good. Chaim's people still don't eat it, because it is forbidden. A lot of people will say that's silly, but if you look at the root of the word "religion" you find "to bind", and our behaviors and proscriptions of behaviors are what bind us together.

So, even while the health issue—the root of the moral—may be gone, it still may be immoral to eat pork, as it weakens the bonds that holds a people together. I've known a lot of atheists who adhered to a moral code precisely because they saw the value of that bond.

But what about the question of good and bad, right and wrong—ethics, for the purpose of this response. Ethics and morals can clash. If we continue our contrived example, and Chaim is starving, and he must eat pork or die, the ethical response is for Chaim to eat it. Depending on the group he belongs to, this may or may not be viewed as something that requires atonement, and some groups might kill him for his transgression (at least theoretically).

Atheists* can do this as well, i.e., they're capable of weighting the rightness and wrongness of a situation.

Atheism, however, shares with religion the trait of being used as an excuse for bad behavior. Why, it's almost as if Man contrives to justify doing bad things, regardless of whether he uses Gnosticism or Marxism as an excuse. Strident atheists may become so because, say, drinking and fornication is prohibited and they love to drink and f***.

Too, religious splinter groups often emerge as a way to allow a certain behavior prohibited in the religion. Like: divorce, having multiple wives, theft (call it "from each according to his ability"). But also, on the flip side, things like allowing music, dancing, bathing and so on.

Whether religious or atheist, it's also true that people looking to change things are the sorts who have no respect for Chesterton's fence. A really good example of this can be seen, routinely, in the area of sex, where science has drastically reduced the threat of disease or unwanted reproduction, yet there still seem to be noticeable, statistically observable effects regarding not just promiscuity but anything less than severe monogamy. (Nobody wants to hear it but if you want to be married for life, you should be a virgin and marry a virgin.) But the big jokes today are those who counsel restraint.

  • To really wrap this up, I need to point out that atheists have badly misnamed themselves. They are, more accurately, materialists. An atheist merely doesn't believe in God. Many Buddhists, with a strong belief in the spiritual world, are atheists (as Buddha himself did not claim to be divine). But most modern atheists are inclined to regard any spiritual thing as bunk.

This creates a genuine problem in terms of evaluating good vs. bad: If everything is matter, then literally nothing matters. There is no "good" and "bad" without someone to say "this is good" and "this is bad".

Someone said above that social stability requires morals, but it is not possible to explain why that's important without evaluation, and evaluation requires an observer. If Joe kills Bob or Joe puts out a fire, what's the difference? On what basis do you judge "life" (which must ultimately be a mere chemical reaction) over other phenomena.

And, to boot, who are YOU? The momentary delusion of consciousness created by electrical impulses in a brain? Why am I even trying to communicate with you? =)

But, really, this is something that materialists just glide over. You can see it in this recent popular thing about Star Trek transporters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQHBAdShgYI). He has to dismiss the ghost, but then comes up with the concept of "the conscious brain". This is the sort of magic materialists fall back on to justify being good and moral—something we can all be grateful for, and which suggests, perhaps, that Man, regardless of his moral and ethical structure, has a drive to be good. Because if we are nothing but arrangements of particles, it really doesn't matter if we're killed every time we step into the transporter.

Anyway, as religious people point out, it is totally possible for an "atheist" to discard all morals and ethics, and do whatever he thinks his best for him that he can escape punishment in attaining. But these people are called sociopaths, and they're perfectly capable of pretending to be religious.

  • 2
    What do you mean "atheists have badly misnamed themselves"? You seem to be the one assuming that atheism = materialism.
    – sumelic
    Mar 11, 2016 at 1:10
  • @sumelic I think the points the poster is trying to make is that literal atheism does not rule out belief in the supernatural, whereas Western atheists tend to use the term that way. "Materialism" is being misused when perhaps "rationalism" would be better.
    – Bob Tway
    Mar 11, 2016 at 9:19
  • 1
    This is a pro religious rant, the exact opposite of the answer the OP wanted. You seem to be saying atheists don't have souls so I don't need to answer their questions.
    – Jodrell
    Mar 11, 2016 at 11:41
  • @MattThrower Maybe, but rationalism carries with it a lot of other connotations besides materialism, which seems to be the primary thing binding "atheists". Mar 11, 2016 at 17:39
  • 1
    That's a lot of assertions there, buddy. =P Mar 14, 2016 at 4:05

All of the reasonings you mention start from an assumption of moral absolutism: the belief that there is indeed a universal "right" and a universal "wrong" which is common to all agents. If one believes this, and believes that the particular moral code they claim to follow is the one and only true moral code, it's easy to see why one would come to the conclusion that anyone who does not profess being bound to that particular moral code must be less moral.

In anything less than this perfect case, cracks in the argument start to form. If you are unsure whether your particular moral code is exactly the true one, you may be put into situations where the difference between your moral code and the true one become important and you repeatedly make the same moral choice over and over. From this perspective, a moral code that can move a little is capable of becoming more optimal. (This is highly related to a traditional religious claim that the universe as a whole is good, or just, or a similar claim. Otherwise the universe is in a position to take advantage of one's fixed nature).

Likewise, if you are incapable of perfectly following your moral code, it may not matter whether it is true or not. Consider a moral situation resembling the phase "the straw that broke the camel's back." Perhaps you are capable of acting morally through situations X, Y, and Z, but if you have to handle X, Y, Z, and W, you start to falter, and end up acting immorally in all 4 situations. A flexible morality may falter in W, but be able to adjust so that X, Y, and Z do not cause immoral behavior.

There is also the other side of the argument: moral relativism. If indeed the true moral code is different for each individual, you may find yourself being less moral because you simply don't understand why your moral code isn't shared by all.

Finally, consider that most moral "dilemmas" are in the form of very cut and dry yes or no choices. In the real world, there are many fuzzy regions where you may have more choices than that, and the best answer is less clear. You "know" its bad to steal, but they stole it from you first, so maybe stealing from the thief is okay?

In all, if you assume you are a perfect being with perfect knowledge of morality, and the universe is ruled by moral absolutism, those who do not agree with you are inherently less moral than you, atheists included. In other situations, it is less clear.

As a fun final takeaway, if one explores formal morality, where ones moral code is codified into a formal system, one can run into all sorts of interesting logical trickery, such as those discovered by Tarski and Godel. As a result, we find all major moral codes have some situations they do not handle in a formal manner, or we find they elect not to prove the morality of their code in a few key situations.

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    But what does moral absolutism have to do with theism? Mar 10, 2016 at 19:12
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    @AmeetSharma Whatever theism wants moral absolutism to have to do with it. As a general principle, we find many theist perspectives which support moral absolutism, because a deity is a great source for absoute morals. I intentionally did not word this answer directly about theism because its the moral absolutism that really makes the arguments. The connection to aetheism is merely because many who make the OP's arguments are theists, using moral absolutism to argue why aethists are immoral.
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 11, 2016 at 0:54
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    Ok. imo though, a morality that depends on a deity is by definition NOT absolute. Absolute morality requires the morals to stand on their own independent of deities (Euthyphro dilemma). Mar 11, 2016 at 1:00
  • @AmeetSharma There are philosophers who believe they have resolved the Euthyphro dilemma. One example of such a resolution is the idea that neither goodness nor deity precedes the other, but that goodness is an inherent aspect of God such that his subjection to goodness is not as to an outward standard but is a subjection to his own nature, and this subjection is what makes him absolutely good (being the only thing to which a god's subjection cannot render him un-godded). Thus, goodness emanates from God AND he is subject to it (in the form of his own nature), resolving the "which came first?"
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 21:04
  • @ErikE my way of understanding this dilemma would be to say that the deity preceded all else and was neither good nor bad, because those did not exist "then". A deity actually can not have any qualities. Qualities are by definition aspects of duality, which is "existence" or Experience. The only explanation of a deity that I find consistent is something like nirvana or the Void - no thing that we can describe in any way whatsoever. Such a deity cannot be the source of morality, or anything else to guide us. "We are made in God's image" but bear in mind the "Greenness Disappears" argument.
    – user16869
    Apr 24, 2016 at 15:30

Well the religious person isn't entirely wrong. We could imagine a hypothetical sociopath who believes in a religion. A religion where he will be punished in the afterlife for his crimes. He might be afraid of this, and therefore avoid committing crimes.

It doesn't even matter if the religion is true. The belief it is true has stopped a crime. A person could make a consequentialist argument that belief in religion has a net benefit on society. Regardless of whether or not the religion is true. I'm not sure if that's a correct argument, but it's valid.

However I'm not sure if that's really what you are asking. Perhaps you are asking something along the lines of "why aren't atheists sociopaths? What reason do they have to not do bad things?"

And that's because atheists still have empathy. When you see your friend hurting, you hurt. When you hurt someone, you feel guilt. We, as humans, have some kind of fundamental desire to "be moral", whatever that may mean. Regardless of what god we believe in, or whether or not we fear punishment.

An atheist might say that those feelings come from evolution. Perhaps humans that were excessively mean were banished by their tribe, and didn't pass on their genes. But the origin of the feelings doesn't really matter. The point is that they exist, and aren't connected to what religion you believe.

  • I feel this is actually the exact counter argument; if four people exist A, B, C and D. A and B are watched closely by the law (and know it), such that they cannot escape punishment for their actions. C and D are barely observed at all and could get away with anything. B and D are both bad people who would think nothing of hurting people to get what they want. Only D commits crimes because B knows they would hurt themselves if they commit crimes. The religious argument would have it that B is a moral person but they are actually incredibly selfish Mar 13, 2016 at 10:26
  • @RichardTingle "Religion is Selfishness" I think you are on to something there. That you left out saying that A and C are good people shows that it is not relevant. Thus morality goes 'phsssssss'
    – user16869
    Apr 23, 2016 at 19:35

The core of what you are asking lies in who is defining what is moral. The secondary issue here is that the assumption is being made that any decision or action is either wholly moral or wholly immoral. Lets address the core issue. Morality, in an almost over simplified definition, is the distinction between what is right and wrong. Right and wrong do not have a universal definition when we are talking about their definition by religions. Some might argue that right implies good intent and wrong implies bad intent. This is probably about as close to a universal right and wrong as most people will agree on. However, in the context of religion and religious texts, any religion that disagrees with another is inherently propagating immorality in the eyes of the first religion. Now for the secondary issue, is any decision wholly immoral or moral? This is linked to the definition of moral but also considers intent. It isn't a stretch to argue that someone who decides for them self whether some behavior is appropriate is more likely to make a more moral decision than someone who acts purely based on what they are instructed to do by their version of moral, as decided by their religion. Basically what this is saying is that free thinking or questioning your religion is inherently immoral. It is saying that if you aren't following a religion, unquestioningly, then you are inherently unable to make a decision based on good intent.

  • This is the only philosophical answer currently written, for a barely philosophical question. You have my upvote. Others look like rants or are seriously biased, quoting bare to no references at all. Don't know why the currently on-top answer is actually on top.
    – user14065
    Mar 11, 2016 at 18:07
  • Yes! Then all you have to do is look in to what "good intent" means, and the whole thing comes unraveled! Add that, publish it and we are done with this stupid issue once and for all.
    – user16869
    Apr 23, 2016 at 19:32

It seems to me that the simplest refutation goes like this:

There exists at least one moral-centered religious-text religion in the world that asserts the morality of killing non-believers of that religion, including theists of other religions.

You can't simply declare the entire religion immoral, as they do believe in God themselves, and are thus theists and not atheists.

Therefore the problem of morality vs. immorality, and the problem of relative morality, are not problems of theism vs. atheism. Because differing moral-centered religious-text-based religions themselves have contradictory absolute moralities.

  • This does tell us that merely being centered on a religious text doesn't make a system of morals correct; but it doesn't tell us anything about all religions and religious texts. And even if most/many religions have some (or even many) flaws, this doesn't mean that religions can't be the best or truest source of morality (a store is the best place to find ice cream for sale, even if some stores don't carry ice cream or some sell something called ice cream that isn't).
    – ErikE
    Mar 12, 2016 at 21:15

You cannot, at least not under their definitions.

You did not specify what religion are you talking about, but from the Christianity point (the ones who make emphasis on criticizing atheitsts' morality) God is the source if good (and bad) and so if you don't believe in God, you have no such sense of morality, so I will assume that (please correct me if I'm wrong).

Usually, morality is defined in terms of the society you live in (so the initial answer is: yes I'm a moral person in terms of the society I move in, if you are). This means: you can distinguish doing the right thing or wrong thing depending on the society or group you move in.

I will assume you, or someone close to you, is an atheist.

You have your own principles, and the main of them is that you do not believe on any kind of god, spirit, or goblin. Perhaps your morality (which is like a skill or trend you have) is defined in terms of the world you move on: you don't kill, you are not a sex-offending person, you don't steal...

It is not that you have your skill somehow diminished wrt to the religious people, but as for christianity, moral is based on bible commandments. This means, your morality -from their viewpoint- should make you obey stuff like this in the worst case.

Depending on the christianity school (say) they follow, they will try to bury you with their comments (you deserve hell), or just try to measure their accusations against you (you are partially immoral, you commit this sins a, b, c...), but remember always something: They accuse you of being immoral under their own moral principles, which you:

  • Cannot rebute them (referring mostly to totally morality-accusing christians) under their principles, if you do not believe in God. They also "live" in a society where believing in God is right.
  • Cannot rebute them (referring mostly to partially morality-accusing christians, since for the totally morality-accusing christians you are already dead in the previous point) under their principles, if -aside from being a non-believer- you do or support doing something against their belief. E.g. I'm an atheist, but I don't support abortion when mother's life is not on risk. They can think worse about my morality for partially supporting abortion, and will think even worse about morality of people fully supporting abortion. They use to take Romans 2:14 as a reference for what I said (there are similar references).
  • Can point a contradiction (e.g. Deuteronomy 13:9 and the principle of not killing), and so show them their morality is arbitrary. Get them angry, the discussions reaches a dead end, and perhaps it is time to fight.
  • Can rebute them under your socety's principles, since both you and him usually live in the same kind of society (perhaps even the same country), where killing is bad an illegal, the same for raping and stealing/robbing.

Finally: why would you care about them? If they accuse you of being immoral because you are atheist, they are not willing to leave a space or gap to try to understand your terms, since they are inherently wrong for not being based on true God's belief (even different christianity schools have a different meaning for that true I said).

  • It seems kind of like saying: "Yes, your religion says that atheism is inherently immoral, therefore your religion is self-contradictory." You say that one cannot rebut them in their terms, yes, but we could turn it around to show that their terms are not workable. Does Logic trump Morality? It must, or there could be no Morality.
    – user16869
    Apr 23, 2016 at 19:41

The best rebuttal of a position is to ignore it. If you are a Theist, you have your reasons for (perhaps) following a religious text based on your understanding of it and all the related issues. If you are an Atheist, you have your reasons for your choices, perhaps even based on religious texts. Both people are deciding for themselves. This is inescapable, and therefore there is no reason to label or to distinguish which is "better". They are the same. If you follow a math textbook and I come up with math principles myself, is one better than the other?

If you argue that people cannot come up with moral truth but can understand it if they read it, then you are arguing for something extremely dangerous, because someone who could manipulate the text would have absolute control. (1984, anyone?)

So be positionless. The argument is not worth answering, just live your life. No person and no book can save you from having to understand and decide for yourself.


Because Atheism does not contradict our reasoning as Faith does.

Believing without proof or verified reasoning provoques the person at subject to defy his/her own comprehension. Daunting I might call, and this doctrine doesn't stand there just to believe; it is directed to the "weak minded" who cannot comprehend what is done to them.

  • There's not much philosophy in this answer... Maybe it'd be clearer if you shortened down to the argument the atheist can use to counter the so-called moral argument for God? Instead, you seem to be both giving a very biographical and lifehack answer.
    – virmaior
    Mar 11, 2016 at 8:48
  • With what aspect of philosophy should I had expressed the answer, when a believer is going into mumbo jumbo and stating that society would crumble or wtv? I will modify the text and will be expecting your feedback. " Buddhism's main concern has always been freedom from dukkha (unease),[1] and the path to that ultimate freedom consists in ethical action (karma), meditation and in understanding the nature of reality (prajña)." Wikipedia Interesting questions
    – userDepth
    Mar 11, 2016 at 19:15
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    I get how this responds to a certain version of theists vs. atheists in morality. But I don't take that to have been the OPs intent in the question. As I commented above, the question is about a fit between moral realism (i.e., the belief that morality isn't something we made up and there are objective moral facts about the world ) and theism (the belief there's a god ). Then the inference from theism to moral realism vs. the difficulty in establishing moral realism for non-theists.
    – virmaior
    Apr 25, 2016 at 0:03
  • 1
    There may be a fallacy angle to be pursued against theists in terms of the tie in between theism and moral realism, but that's most definitely not written in the answer above. I suppose it could be along the lines that religion has taught them things that are clearly wrong about morality but then I'm not quite sure how that gives non-theistic accounts a strong base for moral realism.
    – virmaior
    Apr 25, 2016 at 0:06
  • 1
    'm not so convinced that bad things have negative consequences, and I'm not sure why it would matter. Just because violence doesn't work out well for someone in the end doesn't then make it wrong (i.e. something someone shouldn't do). You seem to be appealing to some sort of happy hope that violence just doesn't work, but considering every country maintains its borders by having armies that's hard to believe. My hope is that rape murder and pillage are wrong not just because they don't turn out well. That's kind of the advantage of moral realism. Drop moral realism and we've just got like/dis.
    – virmaior
    Apr 25, 2016 at 14:37

Morality is about how to solve problems in living: choices where people have conflicting ideas. For example, should I take a job repossessing property from debtors who can't or won't pay? Many think it seems mean to take stuff from poor people, but it also seems wrong to deprive lenders of their rightful property.

No fixed set of ideas can solve all moral problems for various reasons. New theories about how the world works may seem to bring current moral principles into conflict with one another. New technologies may open up new opportunities to do things that formerly were not possible and bring up new moral problems about when we should use the technology, e.g. - nuclear bombs and abortion.

Any book only contains a finite number of ideas and the authors can't anticipate new technologies and explanations, so no such book can answer all moral questions. Some books may have a lot of good content and solve a lot of moral problems, but even understanding such books requires recreating the explanations in that book for yourself constrained by keeping your ideas consistent with the book. And applying such ideas to your particular situation requires thought even in the absence of new technology and knowledge.

There are problems with the idea that god is the source of morality pointed out in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro. If some moral act is good just because god says so, that's a bit unsatisfactory. If it's good for some other reason and god advocates doing good for that reas, then that other reason explains why the act is good rather than god.

Living a better life than you could by following tradition and religious books would require having good ideas about epistemology and improving on religious books and traditions. Most secular people have bad epistemology such as inductivism, which was criticised by Popper and his followers: see "Objective Knowledge" by Popper chapter 1, "Realism and the Aim of Science" by Popper chapter I, "On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance" by Popper in "Conjectures and Refutations" and "The Fabric of Reality" Chapters 3 and 7 and "The Beginning of Infinity" chapters 1,2 and 10 both by David Deutsch. And secular moral philosophy is a train wreck with very few exceptions: secular philosophers have almost all tried to tear down tradition and replace it with ideas that couldn't stand up to determined criticism, e.g. - the advocacy of socialism despite its refutation by Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand. The average secular person is coasting on what remains of religious moral traditions and couldn't explain a moral idea if his life depended on it.

The standard religious and secular moral traditions are both deeply flawed and need to be reformed. A start at such reform has been made by William Godwin and Ayn Rand, there is a small amount of moral stuff by Popper and David Deutsch, and Elliot Temple has written some good material, see



A short argument that I find convincing is that people are free to choose their religion, which dictates which moral code they adhere to. While atheists do not choose their moral code based on a religious text, the choice is there for both the theist and the atheist. The theist has just chosen a "popular" code of ethics, rather than constructing their own based on observation and experience.

Both religious and atheistic ethics center on axioms about what is good and right; the assumptions exist for both though their motivation may be different (one is based on God's will, and the other centers on the developed moral code of the person). To say one of these is correctly moral and the other is not assumes that there is indeed a God with a moral code, and that these morals were correctly communicated to the religious community maintaining that code (not to mention the plethora of religious moral texts with differing messages, how do you know you follow the right one?)

This argument is not meant to imply that there is some moral superiority to the morals of an atheist, but rather to say that both atheist morals and those that are religiously motivated are both equally lacking in "true ethics," they are both based on assumptions that cannot be proven.

  • 1
    Please provide some references. As it stands, this is just your opinion.
    – user2953
    Mar 11, 2016 at 7:04
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    I agree that the argument for morals assumes that they exist, or that some larger framework exists. It should be sufficient to point this out to people (so that they realize that the whole thing is in their head), but for people at a Concrete or low Formal Operations stage of understanding, it is not. And no amount of reasoning with them will cause them to see it.
    – user16869
    Apr 24, 2016 at 15:16

It seems to me that we can associate and even define the term morality as a kind of order. We often use the term "moral code" as a recognition that morality is a system of some kind. For instance, most people (ok, probably all of us :-) consider murder to be morally wrong. Yet killing for self-defense can be morally justifiable. In short, I'm trying to demonstrate that morality has an order to it. It is a coded system with rules because the taking of human life is not always morally wrong.

Now, if we can successfully go here, then the next part of our argument is simple:

Order is a universal.

One has only to look around and observe in order (ha!) to discover that organization and pattern is everywhere. As a basic example, note that our solar system is a system, an inherently ordered thing. Acorns become oak trees, and fertilized human eggs become humans. Organization seems obvious when we simply look around.

Now I do not suggest by this that there is a higher intelligence (i.e. gOD or what have you) that has implemented or informed this order. I'm simply stating that order exists.

Since order exists then, and morality is a kind of order, than whether or not one believes any particular religious teaching is essentially irrelevant. An atheist simply recognizes that there is order to the universe and the world at large. Thus the moral code is universally available to all humans, regardless of religious belief.

  • Can I get some feedback on the reason for the down vote? Open to constructive criticism (i.e. learning).
    – etipaced
    Mar 18, 2016 at 17:38
  • Was not my downvote, but Aside from whether you are right or not: (1) without citations it is easy to drift into writing a personal opinion (as in your first paragraph); (2) "murder" is not universally held as wrong: consider eg roman pater familia, who could kill his children unprovoked; (3) for your concluding paragraph, some atheists would agree with you (there is an order), but others would say either there is an order, or that order is subjective or conventional; (4) all you've argued is that knowing there is a moral code is available, not what the rational basis for a moral code might be Apr 21, 2016 at 5:07
  • I upvoted because I think there is a good argument here, but it is not a proof of anything, instead a pointer to possible "truth". The observation of Order in things at large is something we are biased towards. It is a necessary bias also. But it cuts both ways: it neither affirms nor denies that the order we believe is there is actually there. It undermines the religious argument without adding anything to the "atheist" argument for morals. It simply clears off the tabletop and you have less there than ever. (which is good) (in your opinion) (my opin... sh!t) (ha!)
    – user16869
    Apr 24, 2016 at 15:21
  • @JamesKingsbery Thanks for your helpful feedback. I'm clear and in agreement on your points except #4, but I'm not certain I fully understand what you're saying there either. Does it help clarify my argument if I state that, since there is a natural order available, it makes sense to follow this order rather than to go against it and create friction? Thus an atheist (or anyone) would find it natural to follow a moral order over a chaotic impulse.
    – etipaced
    Apr 26, 2016 at 21:03

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