Morality and Atheism

This essay was co-authored by Ed. Stoebenau and Charles Johnson, based on an earlier version that dates back to some time in 1997. The views expressed in the first part of the essay are no longer the views of the author of that part (Charles Johnson); indeed, his views are now almost precisely the opposite of those expressed. –C.J., 27 May 2002.

One claim that theists make often in #atheism is that one cannot both accept atheism and objective moral standards at the same time. They feel that at least one of these two views is true: objective moral standards prove that God exists, or that if there is not a God, then there cannot be objective moral standards. This paper serves a few purposes. First, it directly shows that there are differing views on morality between atheists. One of the writers is a moral subjectivist; the other is a moral objectivist. In the first half, Charles Johnson defends a subjective view of morality. In the second half, Ed. Stoebenau defends a view that atheism and objective morality are consistent; one can accept both and still be ration in these respects. This paper shows that the moral argument for theism can be defeated in both of its premises: either there are not objective moral standards or they do not need to be from a deity.

Moral Subjectivism

The first response to the theist’s question is to question why a totally objective moral code is necessary or even superior to a subjective one. Granted, the ethos of most societies have a few universal elements. Some of these include taboos against murder and theft (although definitions of justification for killing and confiscation of property may differ from society to society) and against incest. Beyond these, however, morality seems to vary from society to society and from individual to individual. The subjectivist view is that these are due purely to differences in personality between societies in general and between individuals in particular, and because of this, no more objective than taste preferences or impressions of beauty. Many atheists feel that moral codes that are subjective to one degree or another are the way morals should be and in fact are treated.

At this point, the theist may well inquire why there is any degree of universality to moral codes. This conclusion can be arrived at in both a moral objectivist and a moral subjectivist perspective without calling in gods by examining how certain behaviors affect animal populations. To analyze behaviors from this evolutionary perspective, it is highly beneficial to consider the concept of the meme, as pioneered by noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. A meme is, in short, an idea, thought, or memory which replicates itself from mind to mind (some refer to the mind which the meme inhabits as a host). By separating the replication process of the meme from its host, we can thus draw an analogy between the neo-Darwinian conception of the selfish gene and the replication of beliefs. Because moral systems are usually indoctrinated into children as part of the socialization process, it should be clear that ethos can thus be analyzed memetically, and therefore we can apply the basic principles of evolutionary biology to forge a useful tool for seeking out the roots of morality, through sociobiology. For example, consider murder, theft, and incest, three taboos which are commonly brought up in arguments of this sort.

Murder and theft are demonstrably harmful to animals that live together in communities (gregarious animals). If a animals in a group go about killing one another and do not have some non-arbitrary code of offenses, to be known and avoided, which merit death, then they will not tend to survive very long in groups. In order to survive, any gregarious species must develop reactions against behavior detrimental to the group. Although genetics would be one possible route, it is fairly infeasible to consider genes as a source for ideas. Thus, a meme complex which promotes a general abhorrence for murder is superior from a survival standpoint to a lack thereof in gregarious animals, and such a trait would be preferred in natural selection. Theft is a natural extension of the same reasoning; by unjustified confiscation of property from one’s neighbors, an organism creates animosity against it, so a general concern for the rights of one’s neighbors is genetically superior for gregarious animals. This leads to a more generalized trait, which could cover murder, theft, rape, and a number of other moral taboos.

The taboos against incest are also easily explainable from the perspective of evolution: heavy inbreeding, especially between close relatives, reduces the genetic diversity of a population, which makes the population as a whole more susceptible to extinction when their ecosystem is disturbed. For instance, in a highly homogenous population, if a particular disease to which the population is particularly susceptible strikes, the chances are good that it may well wipe out most or all of the breeding population. Also, genetic homogeny increases the likelihood that damaging recessive traits (almost all non-neutral recessive traits are harmful) will be expressed. A good example of this phenomenon can be found in the heavily inbred royal families of Europe, where the genetic disorder hemophilia (caused by a recessive gene on the X chromosome) became widespread to the extent that it was considered a royal disease. In the wild, hemophilia would be extremely disadvantageous, and the inbred individuals would probably be selected out of existence within a few generations. Therefore, in general, natural selection favors those organisms which do not inbreed heavily, or preferably, at all.

One of the advantages of this evolutionary analysis of morality is that, since it is derived from principles of biology, it may be evaluated as any other scientific theory, in terms of how well it fits observed data and how its predictions of further results hold up against observation. An example of such a verified prediction would be as follows: in more interdependent animal societies, social order is more important to social survival than in less interdependent societies. Therefore, in general societal interdependence should correlate positively with altruistic behavior–the more order is critical, the higher the selection pressure in favor of behavior which benefits the group over the individual. A verification of this can be seen by observing colonial insects and comparing altruistic tendencies to less tightly-knit social animals–say, humans. Colonial insects such as honeybees routinely sacrifice their lives for the betterment of the hive. While altruism is often exalted as a heroic ideal in human societies, it is not in any way expected, instinctual behavior as in colonial insects.

This evolutionary approach is, of course, not the only philosophical explanation for commonality in morals within an atheistic worldview. For example, the popular atheist philosophy of Objectivism, founded by Ayn Rand, believes strongly in moral objectivism based in philosophy and logic, and attributes morality to the fundamental truth or falsity of a statement, a property of the Universe itself. To Objectivists, those actions which are rational and those beliefs which are true, are good; those actions which are irrational and those beliefs which are false are evil. In the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand elaborates:

The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But the right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life–and therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license to do as he pleases and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a selfish brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes, or whims. (ix)

Moral Objectivism

Having considered the counterpoints to the theist’s question, we can finally address the arguments that he has brought up. On the first argument, let us assume that there are objective moral standards. What other premises then, would we need to prove that God exists? Obviously, we would need a premise like if there are objective moral standards, then God exists. But this premise is too question begging to accept in an argument. To add more steps, let’s try moral standards can only come about by decree. We can also add to be objective, a standard must come from an absolute supreme source. Furthermore, we must also use The only absolute supreme source is God. Then, we can conclude that if there is an objective morality, than God exists. But are the premises sound for this argument? Again, there is good reason in thinking they are not. The last is non-debatable. The second depends on the soundness of the first, for if standards do not need a standard-giver, than neither do objective standards need an absolute objective standard. The first falls to the Euthyphro objection. Standards by decree cannot be objective, because they presuppose the objectivity of the standard giver, but if the standards come from such a source, they cannot be objective because there is no reason to believe that a standard-giver would give objective standards, without assuming external objective standards. So external standards are needed, and the first argument fails.

The second argument is that if there is not a God, than there cannot be objective morality. Even ignoring the Euthyphro objection for the most part, for the theist’s argument to succeed, he would need to claim that if God exists, than there is a God-given morality, and that if there is a God-given morality, than there are objective moral standards. Furthermore, if there is a God-given morality, than God exists. He also assumes that if God does not exist, then there is not a God-given morality. Of these premises, the last two are obviously true, the second we will assume to be true because of ignoring the Euthyphro problem, and we assume the first is also true, even though it is not necessary (for example, the deist’s God might well not care a whit about human morality). However, from the premise that God does not exist, all we can conclude is that there is not a God-given morality. We cannot conclude that there are not objective moral standards, because we do not have a premise of either If there is not a God-given morality, than there are not objective moral standards, or If there are objective moral standards, than there is a God-given morality. The second of these was shown to be false in the first part, and there is no non-question-begging reason to assume the first to be true, as this would beg the question for a divine command theory of morality.

Some theists, especially Calvinist Christians object to this argument because it is not divine commands which form objective morality, but rather the divine nature of God. But what would be the case if the nature of God were the standards of morality, assuming that God exists? It would mean that omnibenevolence would only mean God is what God is. While it is certainly true that God is what God is, it is not the case that omnibenevolence is just what God is. Omnibenevolence itself presupposes that there is an independent standard by which God is morally perfect; to deny this denies any meaning to the word. So this argument also does not give any reason why an atheist should not accept an objective morality.

There is also, in my opinion, a conclusive argument that objective morality and atheism are logically consistent: it is the deductive problem of evil. This can be shown by the following proof of consistency, where means it is logically possible that, and is strict implication.

if [⋄(A & C) & (A & C) → B], then ⋄(A & B)

It must be noted that neither A, B, or C need be true; they only need to be possible. Now let us let A be there is an objective morality, B mean there does not exist a deity and C mean the amount of evil in the world is so much that God does not exist. Now it is certainly the case that even if one does not exist that an objective morality is possible, and so is it possible, even if it is not the case, that the amount of evil in the world is so much that God does not exist. It is also the case that A and C in this case are consistent: it is possible that there is an objective morality and there is a large amount of evil in this world. But as these two premises together imply that God does not exist, then it must be the case that atheism and moral objectivity are consistent.


Memetics and evolutionary origins of ethics:

Theistic and atheistic origins of ethics:


Note 1: For this paper, the following terms should be differentiated with respect to morality: objectivism, subjectivism, relativism, and absolutism. Moral objectivism is just the view that morality is objective: there is such a thing and it does not depend on how it is perceived. Moral subjectivism is the view that there is not an objective morality: moral codes depend on the perceptions of the persons. It should be noted that moral subjectivism does not necessarily lead to moral anarchy, the view that anything goes. Moral relativism, while generally considered to be synonymous with subjectivism, is just the view that the morality of an action is not just an either/or thing: there are degrees to right and wrong. Moral absolutism has two differing meanings. In its first form, it is just the view that morality is universal, and so is a subset of objectivism. In its other form it is a view that there are not degrees of right and wrong; there are no shades of gray. A moral objectivist can be a relativist or an absolutist of either form, and even a relativist and an absolutist of the first form. A subjectivist can hold that someone can be any of the relativists or absolutists.

Note 2: Although there is plenty of debate in the field of aesthetics as to whether beauty is objective or subjective, I think we can agree that impressions thereof are fairly subjective.

Note 3: Be sure to note the difference between Objectivists, adherents to the philosophical system founded by Ayn Rand, and moral objectivists, adherents to the philosophical position that morality is independent of the individual. Keep in mind that all Objectivists are moral objectivists, but not all moral objectivists are Objectivists.

Note 4: Rand, Ayn. Introduction. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet Books, 1964. vii-xi.

Note 5: The problem of evil given here does not need to be sound. All needed for this argument are the possibilities of the statements. An atheist can be consistent in believing that the deductive problem of evil is unsuccessful and that it can be used to show the logical consistency between atheism and moral objectivism.

3 replies to Morality and Atheism Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Jennifer Brock

    I am not trained in the technicalities of formal logic and argumentation. However, your paper doesn’t address how one moves from what simply is (naturalistic universe, selfish genes, what is necessary for survival) to the universal sense of “oughtness”. Your paper seems to argue that “morality” is only what is helpful for survival.

    This is not the Christian sense (or even the sense of the atheist crusading for human rights, environmental protection, and so on) of morality. “Wrong” is not merely something that is unhelpful to the species in these instances, but a violation of something in humanity that is objectively, universally, almost sacredly, inviolate.

· November 2007 ·

  1. moshe averick

    the Euthyphro argument as a challenge to Monotheism, is really nothing more than philosphical sleight of hand. Plato was speaking about pagan “gods”, in his dialogue, which are really the same things as The Flash or Superman.

    I recently wrote an article entitled, “The Euthyphro Argument: A Philosophical Dinosaur.” I hope that within a month it will be posted on the NISHMA website. In the meantime, anyone who would like to read the article, please email me at , and I will send you the article as a WORD attachment.

— 2010 —

  1. Matt

    Now it is certainly the case that even if one does not exist that an objective morality is possible,

    Not obvious to me this is correct, some moral principles are such that if they are true they are necessarily true. I.e the principle its wrong to inflict suffering on another for no reason at all. But then if objectively true principles exist in one possible world they exist in all and if they do not exist in the actual world they exist in none.

    and so is it possible, even if it is not the case, that the amount of evil in the world is so much that God does not exist.

    Again doubtful, most conceptions of God are such that he has necessary existence hence a theist would be commited to claiming there are no possible worlds where the amount of evil is enough to show God does not exist.

    Moreover, there is the distinction between moral and natural evil in most versions of the problem of evil. Hence, even if there is a world where say pain and suffering is so great that it shows God does not exist it does not follow that objectively true moral principles exist in this world. It could simply be natural and not moral evil that is being utilised.

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