Atheists and Operating Standards

So, after my last post, some friends of mine pointed to this article and pointed out that atheists can indeed act morally. I have a very sophisticated and complicated philosophical response to that statement. Are you paying attention? It goes like this: yeah, I totally agree.

Not only can atheists act morally, some atheists can even act better than a lot of theists. No doubt about it. That, however, is not the point.

I don’t know whether Christians actually argue that atheism leads to being a horrible person. Some may, I don’t. What I will argue, however, is that atheism cannot justify being a decent person. Not that it keeps you from being a decent person, just that it can’t justify doing so. In other words, an atheist that is morally principled is inconsistent with his worldview.

This is because morality is about shoulds. You should do this and not that. You should hold the door open for the old lady, you shouldn’t laugh as she struggles to get it open herself. You should defend the helpless, you shouldn’t steal from them or kill them at your convenience.

An atheist cannot talk about shoulds. An atheist can explain why (as primates, or a highly developed species, or a herd animal, or whatever) we have a tendency to act morally in a given situation. But that just tells us why we act a certain way, it doesn’t tell us whether we should act that way. The same evolutionary explanations can explain why rape and murder are so common. Explanations have nothing to do with should and shouldn’t.

A theist (specifically, a Christian) can. Should and shouldn’t, and their synonyms “supposed to” and “not supposed to” all assume that there is some sort of purpose. Human beings are meant to act in one way and not another. We have operating standards to live up to.

But operating standards require a standard maker. In other words, people with a purpose require a creator to give them that purpose. Laws require a law-giver.

The article claims morality can’t come from such a Being. It asks whether the commands given by God are moral because he gives them or he gives them because they are moral. The first, we are to believe, leads to the possibility of God commanding immorality. This isn’t worthy of much attention, as in such a scenario, by definition, that would not be the case. The second, it is assumed, places a standard above God, and therefore God does not actually establish morality.

Try this on for size: Right and wrong, good and bad, the system of morality, is inherent in God’s nature. The same way it’s in some peoples’ nature to be friendly and outgoing, in others to be quiet and contemplative, that’s the way in which the whole plan of justice and righteousness is in God’s nature. He defines morality by who he is. Then he tells us “Be holy, for I am holy.”

The article then slaps down some well-worn “evidence” that the Christian God is immoral. I won’t bother answering those charges, since anybody really searching for the truth can find answers to those online, talking to a pastor, or in the Scriptures themselves. I find it more interesting that the author is judging God’s actions by a moral standard which he has no basis for. The closest he comes to giving an origin for these standards is when he says “few of us would see [various heinous things] as moral.” I won’t dwell on the problem of basing morality on majorities (few vs. most of us). That’s a path that’s been well worn, and the problems there should be obvious. Besides, I don’t think that’s really his standard.

In fact, when I see this same discussion played out among various atheists and Christians, I very rarely see an atheist provide any solid basis for his views on morality. He is always eager to prove he is not a monster (who wouldn’t be?), but rarely forthcoming with an explanation of why he shouldn’t be.

Most atheists grew up and continue to live in Christian or (supposedly) post-Christian societies.  When they reference their knee-jerk moral reactions, they give little thought to the history and underpinnings of the ethical culture they live in. I would suggest that most of the morality they feel flows directly from their hearts actually flows from over a thousand years of repentance, grace, and hard preaching they took in with their mother’s milk.

Today there are very few societies untouched by the Gospel, and most of us would not be eager to claim them as fine examples of moral rectitude. This only gets more true the deeper into history and the farther from the Gospel you look. Which is not to say that the moment you remove Christ we revert to cavemen beating each other over the head with sticks, but there is a reason Christian societies prospered and spread while others died out. Solid morality makes for solid societies.

So, to recap: atheists can be nice, but they can’t tell us why we should be nice. Standards require a standard-maker, something atheists refuse to believe in. I hope this gave you something to chew on. Good night, and God bless.