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:

  1. If God does not exist there are no objective moral facts.
  2. There are objective moral facts.
  3. 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.





  1. Well written piece. I’d have to say that it is no mistake that atheists take this tack it is quite deliberate as a debating strategy. Though sometimes I do think they do protest too much.


  2. Interesting post. All good things come from God, including humanity’s moral compass. I’m doubtful, however, that you will convince an atheist of God’s existence with an intellectual argument. I fear sometimes we as Christians get caught up in the debate of isms and theories when, perhaps, we should be content–yes, more than that, embolden–to answer in faith.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a thought! I just finished a course about reconciling Christian ideas to scientific ones in a world of science and intellectual reason. I cannot say intellectual arguments are entirely useless, but I do agree that faith is often neglected in such situations. If we believe in a God who did the amazing things that me and my fellow Christians believe he did, we should believe that he will be better at convincing others of his existence than our logical arguments.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Let me preface this by saying that I am a moral anti-realist, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.
    But…I am familiar with realist arguments, and your argument is a little off. Those who argue for an evolved moral sense which picks out definitive moral circumstances could point to other evolved structures – the appendix for instance.
    There is no ‘grounding’ for the appendix, in the sense you mean, but tell that to the person with appendicitis.
    Utilitarians could say the same: Who cares if Happiness is ultimately subjective, we all have it, from time to time, or do you think we don’t?
    ‘Objectivity’, in your sense, is problematic no matter who you are. That notion is the source of the famous question, “Is it good because the Gods decree it, or do the Gods decree it because it is good?”
    It seems you have a choice between brute fact (and one which may be variously accessible), demanding divine concession, or fiat (which is subjective valuation, even if it is the judgement of a single subject, in the monotheist’s scheme of things).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been contemplating the same issue since a recent exchange with an atheist. He said that having an evolving sense of morality is better than relying on an old book and that religion is unnecessary for morality as we can see when bad things happen to undeserving people. I ask the question, what are the implications on the word “deserve” if literally everything is arbitrary, random, and meaningless? Is a middle-aged man fondling a small child objectively wrong in some way or is it simply deemed wrong by our ever-evolving society?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fundamentally, morally, spiritually – if what you are doing is harmful to others, even excluding yourself, it is wrong. Regardless of any God or belief, we know what is wrong or right. Atheist or believer, just don’t be an Arsehole!


      • You say that regardless of any belief, we know what is right or wrong. The question is where that moral compass comes from and why we have it if we are animals and nothing more.


      • There are unspoken mores, values and rules we all abide by. I believe our souls know. It’s not a tangible thing but an innate quality. Some have a better quality than others, is all. We are animals, complex, soulful,thinking animals. Like all earthlings


  5. 1 John 4:1 New International Version (NIV)
    On Denying the Incarnation:
    4 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

    I have tested ‘The Holy Spirit’ and I believe.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Morals can be self serving. I don’t have to believe in God to generally avoid murder. If I kill someone I have to consider the possibility that the deceased’s loved one will come after me. This would infringe on my ability to enjoy life. Moral living can be strategic – I can’t do something because society will hold it against me. No fear of God involved. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was non religious most of my life. Now I go to church and shockingly my morals have changed not one bit. I have always known right from wrong (not to say I have always done the right thing, I am human after all) and it is as clear to me as the direction of the sun rises in the morning. I believe in God but I don’t need religion to tell me right from wrong anymore than I need to read the Bible to tell me where to put a green house. I have learned to quit judging others’ path to righteousness. I don’t care if a good person is a Christian, atheist, Pagan, Muslim, Jew. Hindu or other. There are many righteous atheists and wicked Christians in this world. Actions matter more than words.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I understand your point!
    If there is no God then there is not absolute moral compass.
    Man as a collective decides what is and is not moral and that can change either over time or region to region. Island headhunters ( or Jihadist} don’t think is immoral to cut off someone’s head,


    • Thanks Melinda. I try to keep things simple because I’m a pretty simple guy! By all means, ask any questions you have, we welcome all. We may not be able to answer, but we’ll give it a shot!


  9. Hi, Haden. Interesting article, and I admit being on the fence about the subject of objective morality.
    But if we are to say murder and genocide are objectively wrong, and we need to find where that objective point is, it clearly is not the Christian God, as he explicitly murders and commits genocide.
    If bible god is moral, then morality is clearly subjective, based on the whim of God. We may be punished or not depending on his whim, but he clearly does not hold to a single standard of morality.
    What say you, kind sir?


  10. It’s interesting thespartanatheist seems to think he caused himself to be born and apparently was in charge of his parent’s evolution. He also seems to assume that everything that exists came into being for his benefit. I think he suffers from a bad case of ego inflation. There seems to be a lot of it going around.


  11. This is a great topic to write on. A little piece of my issue with my previous faith was that morality looked exactly the same to me. Whether I was in church or not, actions always spoke louder than words. Excellent post. I think that these are solid topics to talk about.
    However, the idea in the bible as you know is not right doing but right being to use a cliché. By being reconciled to God through jesus Christ a person has access to forgiveness. Then out of that new creation comes the fruit of the spirit and good deeds. You just made me want to write a whole lot more lol

    Liked by 1 person

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