The Moral Foundations of Atheism and Christianity (1996)
The following article originally appeared (without the postscript) in The Free Mind: The Newsletter and Forum of the University of Minnesota Atheists and Humanists 2(5), January 1996.]
Anyone who has debated the existence of God with a Christian is sure to have been presented with some variant of the following proposition: "If God does not exist, then there is no reason to do x," where x is any kind of behavior that most of us think morality requires. For instance, a missionary that intercepted me en route to the UIC Bookstore last month informed me that if God did not exist, then there would be no reason for one to remain faithful to one’s spouse or to care for one’s children. Such assertions are meant to imply that atheism is a path to evil, and Christianity a path to good. However, they actually prove quite the opposite.
Imagine that somehow, someone comes up with a conclusive disproof of the existence of God. What would happen to my missionary friend? He believes that if God does not exist, there is no reason to be faithful to his wife or to care for his children. So in the face of proof that God does not exist, this missionary would apparently give in to whatever lust and laziness he might feel, and thus wreck what should have been a close, loving family.
How about an atheist like me? What would a conclusive disproof of the existence of God do to my moral stature? Considering that I don’t believe in God to begin with, the answer is that a disproof of the existence of God would not cause me to change my moral views at all. But I think I can speak for most atheists when I say that cheating on one’s spouse or abandoning one’s children is not morally acceptable. As far as the atheist is concerned, the Christian assertion that "if God does not exist, then there is no reason to care for one’s children" is false. The Christian may believe that proposition if he wants, but we atheists will have no part of such immorality. Although, judging from their assertions, Christians seem to believe that it is wrong to abandon one’s children only if God exists, atheists believe it is wrong to abandon one’s children regardless of whether or not God exists, and this gives the atheist a much stronger moral foundation than the Christian.
A good atheist parent probably looks after her children because she loves them – love itself gives her every reason to not abandon them. But if the Christians really believe that the nonexistence of God leaves them no reason to not abandon their children – not even the reason of love – it follows that Christians do not love their children. But then again, what can one expect from a religion that teaches that the greatest manifestation of love is an entity that jealously tortures or destroys everyone who does not love, worship, and glorify it above everything and everyone else forever?
Postscript (August, 1997)
I have redone this postscript entirely to reflect new objections and responses, and hopefully make things a little clearer. Expect continued editing in the future, though.
Objection 1: "How can you argue that Christians are not loving people?" In actuality, my article does not argue that Christians are not loving people. In general, I believe most Christians are as loving as the next person (and no more so). Perhaps the misconception that I believe Christians are not loving comes from the statement I make at the end to the effect that "it follows that Christians do not love their children." That statement, however, should not be taken as a literal presentation of what I believe, as it is the consequent of a conditional whose antecedent I reject (as should be easily verifiably for anyone who looks at the whole sentence) – in actuality, I was trying to perform a reductio ad absurdum against the missionaries’ proposition at the beginning of the article. What I showed was that anyone who takes seriously the proposition that "there is no reason to care for one’s children (for instance) if God does not exist" adopts a position which is inconsistent with truly loving one’s children (for instance). All of this is meant to show not that Christians don’t truly love their children, but rather that since Christians do (on the whole) truly love their children, they can’t take their attempted anti-atheism proposition seriously themselves.
Of course, anyone who does not love his/her children and is prepared to admit it, need not abandon the proposition – however, since these people are truly immoral (since they do not love their children) they clearly have no authority in moral matters themselves. Either way, the proposition does not work against the atheist. That was the thesis of my article.
Objection 2. "If atheism isn’t a full worldview, complete with a system of morals, how can you argue that it is superior to Christianity?" True enough, atheism is not a complete worldview – it is simply a stance on whether or not any gods exist. As such, I concede that atheism as such is consistent with any set of moral propositions, be they good or evil. So how can I say that atheism has a stronger foundation than Christianity, if atheism does not have a moral stance built into it, to begin with?
First of all, let me note once again (echoing my response to objection 1) that the argument I presented in my article was a reductio against the missionaries’ proposition. With that understood, the article says nothing more about Christianity’s moral status – all that I claim is that anyone who really believes the missionaries’ proposition has as weak a moral foundation as one can have. As for Christians who would love their children irrespective of whether or not God exists – these people have as strong a moral foundation as anyone can.
With that out of the way, let me confess as a start that the title I chose did not exactly encapsulate the real comparison I was trying to make. The language of the title suggested that I was comapring a moral foundation present in atheism as a whole to a moral foundation present in Christianity as a whole. That, of course, is not what I am doing, precisely for the reasons the objection brings up: atheism (as such) carries with it no particular moral stance, and therefore atheism (as such) cannot have any moral foundation whatsoever. My apology is a limited one, though, because a title that accurately encapsulated the point I was trying to make would have been horribly unwieldly. In general, it is advisable for one to pay more attention to the thesis of the article one reads than to the title, anyways.
So what was I trying to show, anyways? A Christian who believes there is no point in loving her children unless God exists has a weaker foundation than an atheist who believes one should love her children even though God does not exist. If acceptance of the missionaries’ proposition were a necessary part of Christianity (which I assumed for the purposes of the reductio), then all Christians would have a weaker moral foundation than the aforementioned atheist. Christianity would not allow the possibility for one to love one’s children. On the other hand, atheism, while not necessitating that one love one’s children, would allow for one to hold the superior moral principles of the aforementioned atheist. So it is not that atheism has a stronger moral foundation than Christianity – it is that atheism allows a person to have a stronger moral foundation than Christianity does (once again assuming hypothetically that Christianity necessitates adherence to the missionaries’ proposition). In that sense, atheism has some kind of moral superiority to at least the so-called "Christianity" the missionaries espoused. To encapsulate that in a convenient title is a task I cannot fathom.
Once again, of course, this article says nothing about how Christianity rates compared to any atheist’s morality if Christianity is consistent with the rejection of the missionaries’ proposition (which I believe it is – hence the reductio presented to Christians).
Objection 3: "Your article presupposes an absolute foundation of morals independent of God." This is a good objection; in fact, it is precisely the kind of objection I think should occur to one. Nevertheless, I do not think it works in the final analysis. I don’t believe my article relies upon any conception of absolute morality independent of theism – I would say that my article serves more to demonstrate to Christians that they themselves presuppose an absolute foundation of morals independent of God, since the belief that morals depend upon God entails propositions (it is OK to abandon your children if God does not exist) that even a Christian will not accept. In other words, I am appealing to human moral intuitions, which means that my case works regardless of where those intuitions come from (i.e. it is consistent with both absolutism and relativism) – the moral experience of the individual is what is important. A die-hard Christian may object at this point that one must sacrifice one’s moral intuitions if they conflict with the alleged will of the biblical God, but this is clearly ridiculous when one describes what such an act would constitute – sacrificing one’s morals to get an absolute foundation for your morals, it would be inconsistent to look for a foundation that requires you to give up your morals – if you are willing to take that step, you have adopted what seems to me to be a stance closer to moral nihilism than the moral relativist’s stance.
This, of course, does not affect the (as far as I can tell very few) Christians who actually believe for some reason that it is OK to abandon one’s children if God does not exist, and not OK only if the Christian God exists, but if they wish to demonstrate this seemingly immoral position to others, the burden of proof is upon them to produce a good argument for their position. Otherwise the moral intuitions of those who disagree with them provide sufficient reason – even if grounded upon nothing – for those people (who also happen to form the consensus) to reject such deviant moralities. To successfully argue, as the missionaries tried to, that atheism entails complete moral nihilism, and that belief in the Christian God is the sole provider of any kind of moral reasons, one must demonstrate that the existence of the Christian God is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for the grounding of any moral proposition at all. But this task is probably hopeless, as I have argued in Against the Moral Argument.
Objection 4: "You are ignoring the different kinds of love: Although it may be possible to have eros-type love, or philia-type love even if God does not exist, it is not possible for people to have agape-type love, which comes only from God." Whatever kind of love it is that makes a person adopt as a basic moral principle that it is wrong to abandon one’s children – that is the kind of love in question, that is the only kind of love my article claims is possible without God, and that, moreover, is the only kind of love that is important. If one wants to define some kind of love (agape or whatever) that is by definition a kind of love that can come only from God, then the concept is probably vacuous, and at the very least completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.