The Morality of Atheism and Lying.

One of the biggest reasons why Christians will not consider rejecting their faith has to do the morality of atheism. Christians do not think atheism provides an “ultimate” basis for morality. They will grant that many atheists can and do act morally, in that they can and do behave kindly and truthfully, but they have no “ultimate” standard for doing so. Their claim is that the morality of the atheist in today’s world is a borrowed morality from Christianity. Without the Christian set of morals atheistic morality degenerates into murder and pillage and mayhem as typified by Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin.

Several things can be said about this. I’ve already written about it before. Let me add to it:

In the first place I have argued that punting to God as the standard of morality has many problems. I previously argued the Christian does not have a superior basis for morality. Christians cannot even say “God is good.” They can only say that God is, well, God, and that’s it. If they recoil from the suggestion that “man is the measure of all things,” they should equally recoil at the suggestion that “God is the measure of all things.” I don’t think Christians fully understand this problem.

But let’s say there is an ultimate moral standard based in God and the Bible. Then what? Well, it means little or nothing that I can see. Just as there is no such thing to us as logic in the abstract (we are not logic machines), there is no such thing as an abstract moral standard (it is always a moral standard as understood by fallible humans). It means nothing to say the Bible provides a moral standard that an atheist doesn't have, for what they need to say is that their particular interpretation of the Bible is the ultimate moral standard, and that's something Christians cannot legitimately do, although they have slaughtered many people while claiming this. Which interpretation of Biblical morality is the ultimate standard, given the various ones Christians have espoused down through the centuries? Spell it out for us all. Professing Christians (the only kind we ever see) have justified American slavery, Crusades, and the killing of heretics and witches from the Bible. What makes them so sure they now have it right when the history of the church is a history of atrocities? I just don't think Christians fully understand this problem, either.

In truth, the way Christians interpret the Bible is what I call logical gerrymandering. Sam Harris called it “cherry-picking.” “Christians decide what is good is the Good Book,” he said. And how they do this is dependent on the social/political factors of which they live and breath. Today’s Christians would have been burned at the stake for believing heretics should not be killed, or that witches should not be punished, among a host of other things.

In any case, anyone who tries to show that no society can be a good society without Christianity needs a history lesson. He needs to study some of the great societies of the past, like Greece during the golden ages, or The Roman Empire, or several of the dynasties in ancient China, or the Islamic Empire under Muhammad, or the historic Japanese culture. None of these societies were influenced by Christianity, but they were great societies by all standards of history.

Even if Christianity was the main motivator in starting most all early American universities, most all of our hospitals and many food kitchens, and the like, these things still would have been started anyway, if for no reason other than necessity. Every society has these kinds of things in it, even those not dominated by Christianity. It just so happened to be that Christianity is the dominant religion in America for a couple of centuries, that’s all. Besides, these things were probably not started by Christian churches out of altruism, or any desire for a better society, but as a way for those churches to convert people. After all, who are most vulnerable to the Christian message? They are the sick (hospitals), the poor (food kitchens) and young people leaving home for the first time to enter universities (which were mostly started to train preachers).

Take the moral issue of lying as a practical example. The ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is used as the basis for condemning lying in the Bible, but Hammarabi had already condemned it in law #3: “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.” The Code of Hammurabi predates the Ten Commandments by about 500 years. Most scholars think the Mosaic law was adapted from the Code of Hammurabi, and if you look at it you can see why they think this. My point is that even if God condemned lying, humans already knew not to lie.

Even though lying is condemned as wrong, the Bible only gives a few examples of when lying was justified, as in Rahab and Abraham’s cases. How else do we decide when lying is okay and when it is wrong? Sissela Bok wrote the classic book on the topic, which can be found here. She discusses practically every issue raised by lying and makes some very reasonable conclusions about when lying is justifiable and when it isn’t, conclusions that I accepted even when I was a Christian. She makes these points based upon reason alone. We don’t need God to spell out when lying is justified either. Therefore, since we don’t need God to tell us lying is wrong and we don’t need God to tell us when lying is justified, we don't need God to tell us what is good!

Why is lying wrong? Lying is wrong because telling the truth coincides with our own self-interest, and it’s wrong because we ought to tell the truth. Let me very briefly comment on these two reasons why lying is wrong. I’ll save most of my comments about this for a later post.

Just think right now what would happen if you started lying to people, whether they are strangers, loved ones, friends, co-workers, customers, and/or bosses. When you think this through it’s really not in your own self-interest to do so. Why? You might get what you want from people initially, but they would catch on, and when they do you'll lose their respect, just as J.P. Holding has lost my respect for being dishonest. They will no longer trust what you say. So the price for some initial gains would be a greater loss to you down the road. Trust, friendship and social respect is much more valuable to rational people than the ill gotten gains from lying. Eventually you would make enemies, be lonely, and lose your self-esteem due to mental stress and the guilt of it all. If you sear your conscience by lying all of the time you will also lose track of what is real and true.

The more a person lies the less he can trust other people, and trust is the backbone for any relationship. He will think people are lying to him if he always lies to other people. Then too as we help to create an environment of lies people in turn will lie to us, since a liar forfeits his right to the truth. So he is helping to create an environment that does not benefit him, since he still would like people to be truthful to him. Lying to people is also tougher than not doing so, for if we lie to people we also have to remember what lies we told, and to whom. There is also the fear of being found out, and psychologists tell us such a fear is not healthy for us.

For all of these reasons I can also say that we ought to tell the truth, and I think this kind of reasoning can apply to the other basic moral issues we face as people.

16 comments:

david ellis said...


One of the biggest reasons why Christians will not consider rejecting their faith has to do the morality of atheism. Christians do not think atheism provides an “ultimate” basis for morality.


The amusing thing about this is that, if the Christian would only reflect on this opinion a bit, it would be obvious that the concern itself assumes that moral qualities have intrinsic worth.

They are concerned about having a substantive basis for morality because they experience love, kindness, decency and other moral qualities as being inherently worthwhile---but if these things have intrinsic worth (and I agree that they do), if they are of value in and of themselves, then they need no external sanction and cannot lose value because of the existence or nonexistence of supernatural entities (or anything else).

The basis of the value of love (and of the other virtues) is in the inherent nature of love itself---it requires no external sanction, divine or otherwise (as I've said so many times before in similar discussions).

Tommy said...

If my morality is borrowed from Christianity, then why does my sense of decency and fair play compel me to condemn religiously inspired homophobia?

Our basis for morality comes from our experiences and from the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the human race. We know what works and benefits us and what does not work.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I'll comment on the substance of the post -- one of John's best -- later, but since you mentioned the Code of Hammurabi, if anyone is curious, you can find it at
http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/ham/index.htm

adam s said...

Christians need to try and stretch their brains a little so they can accept the truth of this point. There can be no ulitmate reality, at least not one that is known to us. The reason why is that if there is an "ultimate" reality then it can not be understood by us because all that can be perceived by us is finite. The idea that god can speak is a denial of who or what the god Christians claim to believe in is. language connotes finitude, therefore disqualifying their god from perfection. If their god can be comprehended in any way, then he/she/it can no longer be considered to be infinitely different than us.

Lee Randolph said...

In my opinion,
while I'm not philosopher or ethicist,
I find that the concepts in game theory, such as the prisoners dilemma and 'envy free portioning' go a lot further in creating a win-win situation, most successful outcomes for the most people.

Reasoning has evolved, Christian reasoning is resisting this evolution. We can't afford anymore to believe what people tell us at face value, and we can't afford to lie to them. Fraud artists are getting more sophisticated, they are trying to get the best of people, but the best of people are sometimes naive of this fact.

An example: As the world gets more nuclear powers, this idea of being the biggest and baddest in the world to maintain peace is going to have to give way to win-win negotiation. What do you do in a situation where no one has an obvious advantage? You bargain, trade.

another example; Look at johns article on the witch trials. A different sort of legal process was in effect in those days. That played a part in the type of evidence they could justify accepting. That would'nt fly in court these days because reasoning and the legal process has evolved. Its not as good as it can get, but its getting better every generation.

The thirties brought us Karl Popper and the principle of falsifiability. This was a huge achievement for science. And I think it can be shown that the rapid pace we have enjoyed in science over the last century can in part be attributed to this philosophy.

I know why christians don't adopt principles of critical thinking. Its scary to think that you may be thinking thoughts that will get you into hell. And all those people can't be wrong can they? All those people that died for Jesus must mean something!
Right, but 70% of the world doesn't beleive in Jesus, and all sorts of people have died for their favorite belief.

Its time to throw off the yoke and put away childish things.

Followers of Goldstein said...

When committed atheists...which Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin definietely were, atheism being integra to Dialectical Materialism...have unrestricted power the result is imprisonment and exterminatin of believers.

My grandparents found this out first hand, and our family is dedicated to opposing control...to any degree...of this society by proponents of your philosphy.

There are many of us who know your claims are false, and protestations hollow.

exapologist said...

Oh yeah, and what about all those evil atheistic Canadians? And those horrible, ungodly Japanese? And the Swedes, and Swiss, and all the other non-Islamic western europeans? I know what you mean... it's just *hell* there. I mean, think about the crime rates and the economic conditions they have, and the oppressive foereign and domestic policies they have, especially compared to those with theistic populations, like the Middle East and the United States. Oh, wait...

adam s said...

Pointing to the atrocities of communism is moot. Hitler believed in a god. He wasn't an atheist. All it takes is one psycho to wipe out millions, not necessarily a philosophy.

adam s said...

"It is impossible for God to lie." Hebrews 6:18

"He sends a powerful delusion so they will believe the lie." 2 thesolonians 2:11

Mark Plus said...

When committed atheists...which Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin definietely were, atheism being integra to Dialectical Materialism...have unrestricted power the result is imprisonment and exterminatin of believers.

So, you belong to the Russian Orthodox Church these Soviet leaders persecuted? Many American christians consider the doctrines of eastern orthodox christianity false, and therefore its adherents deceived and lost. All those Russian christians would have gone to hell for their false beliefs any way, if they had died in the course of nature.

By contrast, notice that christians never got too worked up over the communist persecution of Jews, Muslims and Buddhists.

Vorax said...

For another Atheists view on this topic and that of hope, please check out my blog at:

http://cerebralthinking.blogspot.com

I was hoping to get added to your list of blogs but, of course, it's entirely up to you guys. My blog is all about challenging theists to think about their beliefs and hopefully that in itself will expose some of the problems with religion and if nothing else, help stop some of the demonification of Atheists by showing that we are human too.

Peace

Anonymous said...

Highest rate of murder: Netherlands

The Alpha said...

Anonymous,

Why not broaden your analysis? Here's a study that should interest you.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it should be, how many actually live by what they say they believe in? Christianity: LOVE ALL. No murder, no stealing, no abortion, no cheating. A number of people in the U.S say they believe in God, and then turn and steal and kill. Guess what, Satan and the demons believe there is a God too.

Also, you should look at the differences between Christianity and the "religion of peace" Islam.

It's quite obvious to see the downfall of the United States. It's losing it's morality, just as all great civilizations have done in the past, and soon it will be destroyed from the inside out. You just see daily things happen that are amazing. Judges letting off people without justice. People telling students to go out and take drugs and have sex. Illegal immigrants are a good thing and they should be allowed to come in freely. The U.S government was behind the 9/11 attacks. I mean, what is this country coming to? I'm pretty sure I know the answer: it's becoming secularized.

In my eyes, one of the biggest causes of athiesm is the world is to people who call themselves "christians" and then go out and do everything that is against what christianity is for. You must remember, that faith and works go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other.

Anonymous said...

"One of the biggest reasons why Christians will not consider rejecting their faith has to do the morality of atheism."

This is not one of the biggest reasons. And I liked how you worded that. You did not give any specific evidence but you said one of the biggest, not the biggest but one of the biggest. It is a vague statement based on your prejudgment or maybe you used it as a base board for the rest of you article.

Christianity is not about morals and organizing and controlling society. It is a spiritual relationship with God who, if that relationship is true and sincere, will change you so that loving, and giving, and caring and forgiving become things that you sincerely desire to do in your heart. Many are called but few are chosen. This may seem unfair, but it actually is very fair.

Anonymous said...

There is not even one intelligent argument in this post that I can see. It is the typical "Atheists are as nice as Christians just more enlightened" nonsense.

The code of Hammurabi is not morality! It's a legal code. A random legal code made by man obviously has no inherent connection to morality.

Atheists (and others) always make the mistake of confusing kindness with morality because they are afraid to state openly what it means to be a human animal in this world.

Of course kindness would exist without god - it already does. Monkeys and parrots are nice to each other sometimes too. That has nothing to do with morality. Morality is doing what is Right (which might well be unkind). In order to have Right, you must have a foundation. God is a foundation. You cannot remove the Christian god, or any other, and maintain their morality. (Morality today in the West - human rights, equality, etc., - is sublimated Christianity derived from myths about equal, infinitely valued souls.) Your examples of ancient societies are offbase - though they were not as moralistic as Christian societies and didn't have the same notion of sin, they often invoked deities as well.

You will not find a rational or selfish or any other foundation for morality. There is none. Maybe I am better off drowning my partner in the bathtub and stealing the money. That one wolf eats another is not very nice, but it is not Wrong. The same amongst human animals. That Hitler is a beast of prey means we should protect ourselves against him, not that the universe has decreed anything on the matter. That we can live together, show some kindness, and follow some rules is valuable to us from a broad perspective (though certainly not from that of other animals we imprison and slaughter), but there is nothing Right about it.

We are tiny bugs hopping about on a tiny rock in space for a brief moment of time. Before and after us lie billions of years of nothingness. During our time we create our own world and find our own way no matter what lies we tell ourselves.

Stop being cowards and be atheists - humanists - if that's what you really are.