One of the more misunderstood debates between believers and atheists is whether or not an atheist can have a morality. Some incorrectly understand believers to think that atheists are immoral or live lives that are sinful by our account. But this is not what is meant by wondering whether an atheist can have a morality.
It will be stipulated that many atheists and agnostics can and do live morally upright lives. For example, many among them get married, stay married, do not beat their wives, pay taxes, and may volunteer at soup kitchens and give to charities. Surely there is manifested in many atheists a natural virtue. It will also be stipulated that some who call themselves believers in God do not always live morally upright lives. And in both categories there is everything in between.
So the question about whether atheists can have a morality does not center around whether some or any of them can live good lives. Rather, the question centers around the basis of their assessment of what is moral, good, upright, just, etc. On what basis do they ascribe such judgments to certain acts? On what basis do they ascribe other assessments such as “wrong,” “unjust,” “bad,” and so forth?
For a believer in God, the usual answer regarding the basis of our judgments of certain acts is fairly straightforward. Christians make use of the biblical text wherein we believe God has set forth (among other things) a moral vision. He commands certain actions and forbids others. He praises certain attitudes and discourages others. Many believers (especially Catholics) also refer to what is called “natural law.” Natural law refers to the Book of Creation and to our capacity to use our intellect and reason to discern basic moral truths set forth by God based on what He has created and the intrinsic meaning He has given to His creation.
These are the basics sources of morality and the moral vision for the believer. But what are the sources of morality for those who both reject God’s existence and also deny that the created order manifest the intentions of the designer? Recall that atheistic materialists insist that creation occurred via a series of blind forces and random mutations with no intrinsic meaning whatsoever. For them there is no reality to go out and meet and then obey. Rather, for the atheist/materialist, reality is just “dumbly” there; it has nothing to say to us, per se. “Meaning” for them is merely something we ascribe, but which is not intrinsically there or discoverable. Everything is simply the result of random mutations manifesting no design, no law, no designer, no intelligence—no creator whatsoever.
Thus for them, there is nothing and no one extrinsic to whom all look for reference. Neither is there any intrinsic meaning in the material world, which according to the tenets of atheistic materialism has evolved in an absolutely blind process of random mutation. And who is to say what mutations might come next?
Thus, the question asked by believers is not whether atheists live moral lives by our standards, but rather what are their possible standards for declaring that they live moral or immoral lives?
Every now and again we hear vague attempts by atheists and secularists to answer such a question. We hear things such as “Be nice,” Don’t do evil,” and sometimes references to the “golden rule.” But how can there be rules in the random mutation world of the atheist? Is not everything for them just the blind lurches of random mutation? And further, what does it really mean to “be nice?” And even more deeply for them, who is to say what is evil or what is good?
As a faithful Catholic I hold that homosexual acts are wrong, unnatural, and sinful. Now suppose an atheist hears me say this and gets angry. On what does he base his anger toward me? If I am just a bag of chemicals interacting to produce a certain behavioral result, then why hold me responsible for what I think or say? Why call me names like “homophobe” or “bigot?” Why is there any indignity at all toward what I think? I am only doing what my brain chemistry randomly causes.
Further, if I believe in God, why get indignant or angry over that? After all, I am just a bag of chemicals producing a random result. In such a materialistic system, I am no more responsible for what I think or do than is a rock for falling from a cliff and hurting you.
But clearly atheists DO get upset with the behavior of others. But why? On what basis?
Perhaps, as some atheists and materialists posit, one is to look to the general norms of a culture for right and wrong. But as we all know, there have been some strange and ugly notions that have sometimes set up in the general thinking of the wider culture. Any look at human culture and we can see that genocide happens, so too slavery, concentration camps, holocausts, racial discrimination, Jim Crow laws, the eugenics movement, and so forth. Cultural norms of various times supported and even celebrated many such notions. Thus the wider or general culture seems to be a poor indicator of right and wrong because it changes and because it has suggested things that are pretty ugly and immoral.
Again we are left with trying to find some place that those who deny the existence of God go to find their moral norms.
For an atheist, who is to say that what one person calls “evil,” someone else will not call “survival of the fittest”? Maybe someone would hold that stronger nations should destroy weaker ones so that only the strong survive, systems are more efficient, and ultimately a nation of “supermen” emerges. Perhaps some would say that the weak and innocent should be killed, eradicated, wiped out, since the strong will usher in a better world, a superior race, etc.
I say that such things are evil, but I root my reasoning in what God has revealed, and what natural law indicates is necessary for civilization. But atheists have no such system to which they can refer. And this is why some wonder if an atheist can be moral. Who is to say? Perhaps they can be accidentally so, be accidentally in conformity with Judeo-Christian principles. But it would seem to be accidental, since there no real basis for them to say what is right or wrong without reference to God, or at least to the natural law set forth by God.
In the declining West, we have been engaged in a dangerous experiment as to whether there can be a “culture” without a shared cultus. Despite the bad connotations in English, “cult” is merely a word that refers to a common worship or belief. For culture to exist, there must be something bigger and higher to which all in the culture look and agree. It is this shared cultus that makes a culture. Without the shared focus and basis, a culture ceases to exist. As the modern age increasingly demonstrates, without a shared cultus a culture becomes instead a sort of “anti-culture.”
In America, while there have always been many sectarian divisions, there was once a basic and shared cultus wherein belief in God and His moral vision, as revealed in Scripture, was widely shared—at least in terms of basic morality and the vision for the human person, family, and community. Now this is gone and what is left of our old culture, rooted in the Judeo-Christian cultus, is quickly declining. The evidence is increasingly clear that a culture cannot exist without a shared cultus.
Hence a believer rightly questions an atheist as to the basis of the moral vision he claims to have. Some of the most pertinent questions must be these:
1. On what do you base your notions of right or wrong?
2. How are your notions better than mine or your neighbor’s?
3. Are not the very words “morality,” “right,” and “wrong” judgments? If so, what is the standard you use to make these judgments?
4. If I am just a series of chemical reactions, doing and saying what matter randomly “causes” in me, by what norm do you hold me responsible for anything I do or say?
5. And if I am not responsible for what I do, why are you angry with me when I do things you don’t like?
6. Whence your anger? And why don’t you like it? Is it not some sense in you that justice or what is right is being violated?
7. But where do these notions come from and why are your notions better than mine?
8. Again, if I may: on what do you base you notions of right and wrong?
9. Can you, an atheist, be moral? How? Says who? Where are your norms to be found if there be no God, no natural law, and if creation is without a designer and is simply a mindless succession of random mutations?