What can atheism teach us about ethics? A lot.
The question probably surprises some atheists. My answer may surprise some Christians.
First, atheists often tell us there is no such belief system as “atheism;” it’s just the lack of belief in God. Whether that’s true or not I do not need to argue right now. For this post I’m talking about a very common and specifically identifiable form of atheism: the belief that life and the universe came to be through natural processes alone, and that there is no God. There’s enough there to call it a definite belief system for purposes of this post.
But atheists might also be surprised I would raise any question that might raise specters of charges you’ve heard that “Atheism is amoral,” or “Atheists are bad people.” I’m aware of those sensitivities. After you read this I think you might decide there’s no substance to those specters this time. If not, then I’m open to learning still more from you, and I hope we can have a good conversation about it in the comments.
Some Christians, on the other hand, think that moral truth is to be found strictly in the Bible, so they would be surprised to hear me say we can learn “a lot” from atheism. But the Bible never claims that it’s the only source of ethical knowledge. Where does Proverbs 5:6 tells us to go, to learn the value of industry? To the ants! If we can learn wisdom from ants, then we don’t have to learn it all from the Bible.
But I still think God’s word is the real authority, and the existence of God is still necessary in order for there to be any truly objective morality, any real truth, independent of human opinion, to ethical statements like “This was right!” and “That was wrong.”
I think the one best place to go to learn moral knowledge is a Bible-believing Christian family or church. The Bible is the only final authority. It just isn’t the only place to go to gain moral knowledge.
So with that, here are six things atheism can teach us all about ethics.
- Morality matters. I’ve never known an atheist who wasn’t trying to be a good person. If morality matters among atheists, it must matter within atheism: and it does. There are moral discussions going on all the time on the atheist Internet. Some of them get pretty passionate. Check out the Shadow to Light blog for some interesting observations on that.
- If morality matters, there must be some reason it matters. Sam Harris wrote on this in The Moral Landscape. Alonzo Fyfe promotes “Desire Utilitarianism,” one of many non-theistic utilitarian and consequentialist ethical theories. Atheists are deeply involved in the conversation over the basis for morality.
- These things (1 and 2) can be known to be true without knowing or believing there is a God.
- It’s possible to be good “for nothing.” (I did not say “good for nothing.”) That is, atheists sometimes challenge Christian-based morality as rewards-based morality, whereas atheists who are doing good do it (sometimes at least) simply for the sake of being good.
- It seems that Christians haven’t done a good enough job of understanding the basis of our own moral beliefs, or else we haven’t done a good enough job of explaining it to others. For one example (there are many others) the fact that some atheists think #4 is true demonstrates that they’ve misunderstand what Christian morality is about. (It isn’t just rewards-based.) I don’t have any way to prove this but I suspect their misunderstanding has more to do with Christians’ failure to explain than with anyone else’s failure to listen or to comprehend.
- You can deny God but you can’t run from him. (This one I don’t expect atheists to agree with.) Christianity includes the belief that God created all persons in his image, and that we have an innate knowledge of right and wrong because of the way God made us. Atheism can teach us true facts about morality because atheists demonstrate true things about being humans expressing the image of God, not because atheism is right about there being no God.