Assume both atheism and moral realism are true. Can a religious text, such as the Bible, still be a reliable moral guide? Or do the religious aspects invalidate the entire text?

To put this another way, can fiction offer moral knowledge?

  • 1
    Most of the bible is not made up of commands or ethical propositions, it is only useful in religious interpretation - i.e., it isn't really a moral guide to Christians (or anyone), but can be a source of inspiration, or means of revelation if one believes so.
    – user2953
    Sep 6, 2016 at 17:02
  • what do you mean "revelation"?
    – user6917
    Sep 6, 2016 at 17:03
  • Nothing else than what is usually meant by it (see e.g. wikipedia). The common Christian position is that the bible is a means of revelation from their god. From that, they try to derive ethical guidelines, but for most of the bible this derivation is not trivial.
    – user2953
    Sep 6, 2016 at 17:09
  • @Keelan ok sure. can you edit the question so it doesn't suggest otherwise? i think it makes sense
    – user6917
    Sep 6, 2016 at 17:11
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    I don't feel comfortable editing your question because I'm not sure what your question is. Those few and small parts of the bible that are direct commands can of course be followed by atheists, but they would have to have a reason (other than it-is-from-the-bible) why they would do so. For other parts of the bible, the person would first have to have an idea how what he is reading translates into moral guidelines.
    – user2953
    Sep 6, 2016 at 17:17

2 Answers 2


At face value, assuming moral realism, there's no reason any text whatsoever couldn't contain valid moral knowledge. Just start with valid moral knowledge, and add whatever you want to it. There are many atheists who do take the Bible in this manner --as some valid moral principles surrounded by a lot of (what they consider) nonsense. However, it's clear that your question is oriented towards principles that originate in the Bible (or in the religious communities that produced the Bible), not ones that it merely collects from external sources.

There is a wealth of what we might call "secularizable" moral values in the Bible. For instance, Jesus preaches at length about our responsibilities towards the poor and oppressed. Many secular humanists, such as Kurt Vonnegut, have espoused moral systems that are (fairly openly) secularized versions of Christian morality. With all that said, many of the moral precepts in the Bible are directly about the relationship with God. For those to be valid, God must be real. Conversely, a number of other Biblical moral precepts --including some of the ones the humanists most admire --are derived from the relationship with God. If those precepts are valid, it at least suggests the realness of the source. One of Jesus' own principles is to judge the tree by the fruit. If the fruit is a moral system, and we judge it good, then shouldn't we give the tree (Christianity) the benefit of the doubt?

Your final question is whether fiction can convey moral knowledge: Arguably this is true of much of good fiction. It dramatizes either good or bad moral choices, and we, the audience, learn from the experiences of the characters. The parables of Jesus can be viewed in this light, but they are almost exclusively oriented around the relationship with God. If we choose to view the stories of the Old Testament prophets in the same light, we see the same thing. (As far as stories from what are usually classified as the "historical" books of the Bible, it is often more than difficult to derive any moral lessons from them at all.)

  • good answer, if a little depressing ;)
    – user6917
    Sep 8, 2016 at 16:08
  • @MATHEMETICIAN Interesting --what do you find depressing about it? Sep 8, 2016 at 17:24
  • ah seriously, that it's literal or not at all. from a historized perspective
    – user6917
    Sep 8, 2016 at 17:26
  • @MATHEMETICIAN I wouldn't say that. For one thing, many Christian theists, such as myself, do not favor a "literal" interpretation of the Bible. For another, it's certainly possible to find a wide range of secularizable moral values in various places in the Bible. I may edit my answer... Sep 8, 2016 at 17:51
  • @MATHEMETICIAN I edited to change the emphasis a little, and expand more on your desired case. Sep 8, 2016 at 18:00

It is difficult to understand how we can still speak about Biblical revelation if we assume that atheism is true. ;-)

If you believe that Erich von Däniken is right and all the gods were just aliens which made contact with humanity... sure, in that case, a wise extraterrestrial could have revealed itself to the ancient Israelites (and they got a little bit confused). That could be a justification to take the biblical commandments seriously even if atheism is true.

But such "revelation" would still be just an appeal to authority.

If we don't make such fringe assumptions and atheism is true, then much of the Bible would be a very, very questionable authority.

To follow the Ten Commandments "just because" would be far less justifiable than arguing "Aristotle said that this is morally wrong, so it is morally wrong." – at least Aristotle didn't fraudulently claim / suffered from the illusion that his moral judgements came directly from God himself.

On the other hand, I don't know any meta-philosophical view that a fictional context would be a decisive refutation of any philosophical argument. No argument for Externism is disproved just by the fact that Externism is a fictional philosophical theory nobody took ever seriously.

But is there moral-philosophical argumentation in the Bible?

Ecclesiastes is a "self contained" very philosophical book of the Bible, which still makes sense if atheism is true. But it doesn't contain much moral philosophy.

One could also say that sometimes Jesus tried to sketch a philosophical justification for his moral guidelines, though most of it just doesn't make sense in a non-theistic context.

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