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Can Atheists be Moral Without God?

A few days back, I promised that I would discuss the answer to a question that has been raging in the atheist-theist dialogue for a long time. It stirs up controversy wherever it goes. The question: Can atheists be moral without God?

The short answer: NO, absolutely, unequivocally, not. It is impossible to be moral without God.

I had best get to the long answer before I get flamed by my atheist readership, which actually amounts to 99% (if not 100%) of my overall readership. First, I must explain an important, and oft overlooked, distinction that will bring this entire question into focus: the difference between ethics and morals.

When he was learning the art of the psychological autopsy, NCIS’s Ducky was asked by Mr. Palmer to explain the difference between ethics and morals. Ducky said something akin to “The ethical man knows he shouldn’t cheat on his wife, while the moral man would not.” In other words, ethics govern solely the behavior of an individual, where morals begin with the heart and proceed out, modifying the behavior as a result.

It is quite possible for a man to watch rape porn, read erotica featuring rape or non-consensual scenes, constantly fantasize about raping women, and even request that his consensual partners fight him, beg him to stop, and cry real tears during sex. He literally views women as objects that exist solely for his enjoyment. What holds this individual back from actually raping a woman is the threat of jail time, the looming possibility of having to register as a sex offender, and the associated shame and loss of status all of that would bring.

This person actually quite ethical. He doesn’t act on his impulses. He obeys the law. By all outward appearances, he’s a fine, upstanding citizen. But his hidden dark side poses a problem with calling him  “moral.”

Ethics are solely concerned with behavior. A person can be ethical and even appear to bear the good fruit associated with the Kingdom of God, but essentially be a “whitewashed tomb full of dead man’s bones.” If you take care to wash only the parts that people can see, while continuing to live a robust life of mental evils, are you really moral?

If my neighbor, the guy with the really hot wife, the awesome job that I could never get in a million years, who paid off his house because he’s a millionaire in his twenties, and owns three fancy sports cars suddenly got divorced, fired from his awesome job, and totaled two of the three sports cars (in one day), how should I react to that?

Externally, if I offered a shoulder to cry on anytime he needed one and offered to help him financially if he needed to pay some debts or bills (no millionaire is completely without debt), and tried to help him get a job; would I still be good if in my mind I kept thinking silently, “I’m so happy! I want to see this S.O.B. fall further into despair. I’m going to nickname him ‘Job.’ May he total the other sports car, too!”

I’m thinking, “NO.”

That example is perfectly within our fallen natures. It isn’t that we can’t do good. We, in our fallen nature, can’t will good. We may do some (relative) good, but privately, we still entertain impure (or even evil) thoughts. Our behavior conforms to the good, but our minds do not.

Contrast this with a Christian, who is a Christian in both word and deed. I hate to say a “true” Christian, so let’s say a “sincere” Christian. Once his faith has been placed in Christ, a transformation occurs. He is a new creation. His inward thoughts are taken captive, to conform even those to Christ. Our carnal minds, after all, aren’t subject to God’s law (nor indeed can be).

Ethics are external. Those are what people see. However, morals work from the inside out. Instead of just doing good, we are good. That’s a far cry from simply acting ethical. Instead of not stealing thousands of dollars from the bank at which I work, the capability of that theft is no longer in my person. That, in a nutshell, is what it means to be conformed to Christ.

That, however, isn’t something that just happens the day of my altar call. It is part of sanctification, which is a life-long process where I work with God to conform both my actions and my thoughts to Christ’s example.

This is hard. But no one ever said Christianity was supposed to be easy.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on October 22, 2010, in Apologetics, Bible Thoughts, Morality, Philosophy, Sin and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. “It is quite possible for a man to watch rape porn, read erotica featuring rape or non-consensual scenes, constantly fantasize about raping women, and even request that his consensual partners fight him, beg him to stop, and cry real tears during sex. He literally views women as objects that exist solely for his enjoyment. What holds this individual back from actually raping a woman is the threat of jail time, the looming possibility of having to register as a sex offender, and the associated shame and loss of status all of that would bring.”

    Héhé…first off, I think people can have such fantasies and want to keep them as such…fantasies…I don’t think they forcibly would commit such acts if not restrained by laws…though some would, of course…

    Secondly, you think non-believers can’t be moral (in your sense?)…héhé…so you think the only thing restraining us is fear of (earthly) punishment and hope for (earthly) reward? I don’t know for you, but I actually CAN will good…and I think many, many others can too…and this without (manifestly) needing God…maybe that’s because God has touched us without our knowledge, who knows?…

    • Héhéhé…but I recall that you said that you were once a porn-addict…maybe you know what you’re talking about…

    • Héhé…first off, I think people can have such fantasies and want to keep them as such…fantasies…I don’t think they forcibly would commit such acts if not restrained by laws…though some would, of course…

      Of course a few would only keep them as fantasies, but I know a thing or two about fantasy. You want fantasy to become reality, and that feeling gets stronger with each fantasy. Soon the fantasy isn’t enough. Granted, that doesn’t apply to everyone, but it’s the general case.

      Secondly, you think non-believers can’t be moral (in your sense?)…héhé…so you think the only thing restraining us is fear of (earthly) punishment and hope for (earthly) reward? I don’t know for you, but I actually CAN will good…and I think many, many others can too…and this without (manifestly) needing God…maybe that’s because God has touched us without our knowledge, who knows?…

      I forgot to mention that altruism can exist among nonbelievers as a motive. It’s one of the things that science can’t explain, especially in light of Dawrinism. Altruism seems to fly in the face of any notion of survival of the fittest, and is seen in humans and many other primates.

  2. “Externally, if I offered a shoulder to cry on anytime he needed one and offered to help him financially if he needed to pay some debts or bills (no millionaire is completely without debt), and tried to help him get a job; would I still be good if in my mind I kept thinking silently, “I’m so happy! I want to see this S.O.B. fall further into despair. I’m going to nickname him ‘Job.’ May he total the other sports car, too!” ”

    Do you mean we non-believers would be secretly thinking that? That, for us not to, we would need to believe that a man that walked the Earth 2000 years ago (or so we are told) was crucified to please his father who just needed that to happen (watch his son twist in excruciating pain) in order to allow a pre-selected group (Calvinism) to enter his kingdom, though they already had tickets to begin with (and let everyone else, because they weren’t lucky at the lottery drawing, to burn in Hell)?…Well, I don’t know what to say about that…

  3. I know many law abiding moral individuals who do not believe in God. However, being a moral person will not save us, only faith in Jesus.

  4. Are you assuming that all of us non-believers really think in the way your example provides? It sure seems that way. I don’t know of any studies that show that atheists commit more murders, rapes, robberies, or molest more children than theists. I think evidence supports that non-religious people are at least as moral as religious folks. Theists are often child abusers, rapists, and murderers. Some theists might find it hard to understand why an atheist would be moral if the only reason the theist is moral is out of fear of punishment for violating a divine command. Since we non-believers do not base our morals on fear of punishment in this life or an afterlife (isn’t this what you consider to be ethics?), we are not likely to run amok just because we don’t fear divine retribution. If you study history, you are likely to find that theists can rationalize just about any behavior, no matter how immoral. God is always on their side, no matter how evil their behavior. There is also the problem of sexual repression, a common perversion of religion, and all the problems it causes, but I won’t go into that here.

    While it’s true that I’ve had many bad thoughts in my life (and I’ll bet I’m no different than anybody else in that regard), the frequency and severity of said thoughts was the same even as a Christian. But at that time, I just stuffed them down even more and loathed myself for having them and thought how terrible I was for not having a mind of Christ. Why? Christ does not exist, therefore He has no influence. It’s still all of our own actions, and we have control of our thoughts. At best, Christ is a placebo.

    While I understand your point, and I see you’ve separated ethics and morals, you take extreme cases of immorality here, and seem to apply them to all of us non-believers, as if we just sit around all day plotting murder and rape in our heads. As if we don’t have good will towards even the worst of humanity. I do believe this is a grave error.

    • Are you assuming that all of us non-believers really think in the way your example provides? It sure seems that way.

      No, I’m not. As I mentioned to Hehe, there are many motives for doing good, and simply for the sake of doing good (altruism) is a valid motive. Unbelievers could certainly be altruistic. What I’m getting it is that unbelievers do good. That doesn’t mean they are good. That’s the difference.

      I don’t know of any studies that show that atheists commit more murders, rapes, robberies, or molest more children than theists. I think evidence supports that non-religious people are at least as moral as religious folks.

      Nope. They can be just as ethical and as law-abiding, but they haven’t been changed by the Holy Spirit into new creations, totally free from their bondage to sin. This means that they are still fallen creatures, capable of heinous acts. My point is that the moral person isn’t even capable of conceiving of the evil acts anymore, much less carrying any out. Any unbeleiver is capable of conceiving of the act, and more importantly, of carrying it out.

      Theists are often child abusers, rapists, and murderers. Some theists might find it hard to understand why an atheist would be moral if the only reason the theist is moral is out of fear of punishment for violating a divine command.

      That theists are often moral only out of fear of punishment from God is sad. Theists should want to please God, but if their faith is in Christ they have nothing to fear from punishment. Instead, they should do good because it’s the right thing to do.

      The unbeliever has no reason to be moral, or even to be ethical. There is no ultimate authority to answer to, no ultimate meaning to any action. Therefore, the unbeliever may as well live it up and do whatever he or she pleases. I’m not saying that they will. As I already mentioned, some are altruistic. They do good because they know that they should. But they really have no reason to think that way, nor do they have any firm ground to define good.

      Since we non-believers do not base our morals on fear of punishment in this life . . .

      Then what do you base your morals on? I’m still waiting for that answer from unbelievers. Because “opinion” seems to be the only option, but no one actually wants to admit that. No matter how philosophically it gets dressed up, the answer always boils down to opinion.

      . . . or an afterlife (isn’t this what you consider to be ethics?), . . .

      No, having ethics means that you behave because you know you should. Behaving because there is no evil in you is moral, and that isn’t something that we see too often. Even from believers, who have been re-made to conform to the image of Christ and thus aren’t bonded to sin as an unbeliever is.

      . . . we are not likely to run amok just because we don’t fear divine retribution. If you study history, you are likely to find that theists can rationalize just about any behavior, no matter how immoral. God is always on their side, no matter how evil their behavior. There is also the problem of sexual repression, a common perversion of religion, and all the problems it causes, but I won’t go into that here.

      I don’t think that what Christianity (or any religion) teaches about sex is repression. The only sure way to prevent the spread of disease is abstinence, then complete faithfulness in a monogamous marriage. Your idea of sexual freedom is what spreads disease and creates unwanted pregnancies. The fact that people won’t adhere to a promise of abstinence is another issue.

      But the bulk of this comment is amiss. I don’t deny that some evils come from theists. However, atheistic regimes have caused more death and destruction in the 20th century than all of the theistic regimes from the last 2000 years combined. So don’t pull that card on me.

      In Romans 7, Paul talks about the spiritual warfare raging inside him. He still submits to the flesh, even though he knows he is of the spirit. Further, how did the devil tempt Jesus in the wilderness? He used Scripture. How did the Pharisees arrive at the laws that Jesus railed against? They used Scripture. Therefore, it’s not surprising that theists can justify anything that they feel like doing. They are re-made in Christ’s image, but their spirit still resides in this sinful flesh. It’s difficult to do the things of the spirit, but that doesn’t mean that the theist doesn’t know he’s supposed to.

      The fact that you could easily cite the Crusades, Inquisitions, or the Salem Witch Trials as misguided presupposes that there is a moral standard out there that we inherently have some knowledge of. My point is that it isn’t surprising that theists at the time could justify them. It all comes down to spiritual warfare, and that is best left as a topic for another post.

      In sum, atheists are bad, but can do good things. Theists are good, but (very often) do bad things. The war doesn’t end the moment you become a Christian, but it does become more critical that you find God’s voice and obey it.

      While it’s true that I’ve had many bad thoughts in my life (and I’ll bet I’m no different than anybody else in that regard), the frequency and severity of said thoughts was the same even as a Christian. But at that time, I just stuffed them down even more and loathed myself for having them and thought how terrible I was for not having a mind of Christ. Why? Christ does not exist, therefore He has no influence. It’s still all of our own actions, and we have control of our thoughts. At best, Christ is a placebo.

      I would debate you on whether or not Christ exists. He does, and he is very real and can exert influence over our thoughts and our actions.

      Beating oneself up over failures is a constant theme I hear among former believers. They got tired of feeling guilty all the time for not being perfect, so they stopped believing in God. That’s easier than trying to conform yourself to his will, I guess. But that’s a little like saying, “I don’t believe in nuclear power because it’s really hard to understand!” and then assuming that the next time an atomic bomb detonates in your front yard you will remain unaffected.

      As I’ve discussed above, it’s no surprise that you continue to have evil thoughts. Paul discusses his problems in that regard in both Romans and 1 Corinthians. But what you do with them is telling. You suppress them, then feel guilty and hate yourself for having them in the first place. I’m no psychologist, but this sounds a bit to me like you have some deeper issues for which you haven’t learned to forgive yourself.

      God’s already forgiven you for all of your sins: past, present, and future. He saves to the uttermost those who draw near to him thorough Christ (Heb 7:25, you should tattoo that verse on your forehead!). No exceptions. Feeling separated from God is normal, which is why you need to remind yourself constantly that he is not only there, but he loves you and wants the best for your life. That isn’t always making you rich, as some preach. Helping you to reach spiritual maturity, on the other hand, is something that God will help you with.

      You, however, will undoubtedly have stumbling blocks along the way. Something deep in your past, it seems, has prevented you from forgiving yourself (hence the self-loathing). But it hasn’t prevented God from forgiving you, and I am confident that he will help you overcome this. It won’t, however, drop from the sky. It’s up to you to avail yourself of the solutions God has provided in your life.

      While I understand your point, and I see you’ve separated ethics and morals, you take extreme cases of immorality here, and seem to apply them to all of us non-believers, as if we just sit around all day plotting murder and rape in our heads. As if we don’t have good will towards even the worst of humanity. I do believe this is a grave error.

      I did use extreme cases, but I was trying to illustrate a particular point. That’s called hyperbole. I didn’t mean to insinuate that just because you’re an unbeliever that you plot murders and rapes in your spare time exclusively. But I don’t believe that you have a purely good will toward anyone, and that even your altruism can be somewhat self-serving (even if it only makes you feel good after you did it). Pure good will toward fellow humans requires faith in God to re-make you in his image rather than allowing you to be steeped in your sinful flesh. That level of faith, however, eludes even believers and there probably isn’t a single believer on earth now (or ever) that has a purely moral spirit with no hint of evil. That sort of spirit is what we’ll have in heaven.

  5. Cory said:

    “Beating oneself up over failures is a constant theme I hear among former believers. They got tired of feeling guilty all the time for not being perfect, so they stopped believing in God. That’s easier than trying to conform yourself to his will, I guess. But that’s a little like saying, “I don’t believe in nuclear power because it’s really hard to understand!” and then assuming that the next time an atomic bomb detonates in your front yard you will remain unaffected.”

    “As I’ve discussed above, it’s no surprise that you continue to have evil thoughts. Paul discusses his problems in that regard in both Romans and 1 Corinthians. But what you do with them is telling. You suppress them, then feel guilty and hate yourself for having them in the first place. I’m no psychologist, but this sounds a bit to me like you have some deeper issues for which you haven’t learned to forgive yourself.”

    I call shenanigans.

  6. I don’t have any underlying anger issues, and I base my morals on what I believe benefits humanity as a whole. Time tells all. What is tried and true I work with, and what doesn’t work should be thrown out the window.

  7. The bible says faith without works is dead, so in a sense I guess I agree with your statement if it don’t work throw it out the window. If our faith in God does not produce good works, then we might as well throw it out because it is worthless and dead, to no profit. The bible also says that the steps of a good man are ordered of the Lord. If you other guys believe the bible, and an atheist is “good” in your sight, would this make him led of the Lord. Just a question that come to my mind.

  8. I do good works, and I have immense hope for mankind. I do this because I want to. There is no divine source pushing me to do these acts. I LOVE to help people. I LOVE to educate and understand. What do you make of this Mr. Calvinist. I was once “saved” but now reject the Christian faith and ALL of its’ doctrine. Where does this come from? Where do my morals come from? I was raised in a non-faith-non-religious background. Explain this in light of Calvinism…?

    I can be VERY moral without the god of the bible, therefore the story doesn’t end here…

  9. I want you to remember an incident. An incident so intense that it drove me to your house, unannounced, without god, and confess a trespassing to you. I did this of my OWN will, because I knew it was wrong, regardless of the consequences… so what do you make of it?

    You claim that I cannot have morals without god, yet I clearly exhibit better morals than those who claim to know god… explain this…

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