Can an Atheist Be Moral?
I read an article the other day accusing theists of claiming that God is the basis of morality and therefore an atheist cannot be moral. Just so we are 100% clear with each other: I’ve never heard a theist make this argument. The author of the article is making the classical mistake of conflating moral epistemology (knowledge of moral facts) with moral ontology (existence of moral facts).
Christopher Hitchens did this all the time. I always loved listening to Hitch debate, but he made this categorical error in almost every debate he was in. At some point in the debate he would put forth a question to the audience like only he could, “Name me one moral action that a theist can take that an atheist cannot.” Obviously, Hitch would say it much more eloquently. But he completely misses the point. The moral argument for God’s existence isn’t that atheists don’t know how to be moral, but that on atheism as a worldview there is no objective grounding for morality. The moral argument is often put forth like this:
- If God does not exist there are no objective moral facts.
- There are objective moral facts.
- God exists.
How does one arrive at the conclusion that theists are saying atheists can’t be moral? Of course they can! Christian theists believe that all people – including atheists – are made in the image of God and through the natural law that is present in all of us have knowledge of the eternal law which includes objective morality. All people know right from wrong, whether they believe in God, or not. I’ve never heard a Christian theist say otherwise.
The issue the atheist faces isn’t that they don’t know morality, but they can’t ground it objectively on their worldview. On the atheist worldview there can be no objective morality because morality can’t be grounded external to the human mind which was produced by natural selection of random mutations. It may be your preference not to murder, but you can’t say that it is objectively wrong. It may be beneficial for the survival of our species to act morally, but why should anyone value the survival of our species? What if someone doesn’t, can you say objectively that they are wrong?
The problem isn’t that the atheist doesn’t know morality, of course they do. My atheist friends put me to shame. The problem is that the existence of objective moral facts isn’t coherent with an atheistic worldview, yet we all observe these moral facts on a daily basis. There must be something external to the human mind, something transcendent in order for there to be objective moral facts. No such thing exists on the atheistic worldview.
Whether theist, or atheist, none of us can be moral enough. We know intuitively that there is a moral law and that we break it from time-to-time. We rightfully feel guilty when we do something immoral. Our guilt leaves us looking for salvation. Thankfully, God provided a way for salvation at the cross of Christ where he paid the price for all of our immorality and sinfulness.
Atheists can be moral. Theists can be immoral. The existence of objective moral facts only makes sense on a theistic worldview. Jesus paid the price for all of our immorality.