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                                            The Moral Consequences of Atheism


"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death. [Albert Einstein, Religion and Science, New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930]

"If the only basis of morality is God's decrees, it follows that they might as well have been the opposite of what they are; no reason except caprice could have prevented the omission of all the "nots" from the Decalogue." [Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (1962) p. 38]


I suspect that the most lasting obstacle to the acceptance of atheism is a lingering belief by many that such acceptance would be morally, politically and practically disastrous. The presence of this perception can be attributed mainly to the persecution and denigration of atheists and religious skeptics over the past 2000 years by the hegemony of the two monotheistic leviathans of Christianity and Islam. Many humanists refer to this scandalous defamation, which continues to this day,  as the "evil atheist conspiracy." Christian proselytizers who continually rant about the "evils of secular humanism" have much more to fear from competing religions than they do from secular forces of humanist groups. The Humanist Association of Canada, for example, has a membership that is smaller than most Baptist Church congregations.

Secular v Religious Morality:

There are four main kinds of view about the general nature and status of morality. The first of these sees moral rules and principles, whatever other functions they may serve, as being essentially the commands or requirements of a god (or gods), backed up by the promise of rewards and the threat of penalties either in this life or in an afterlife. The second (Kantian, rationalist, or intuitionist) sees moral principles as objectively valid prescriptions, formulated or discovered by human reason or intellect, and autonomously author­itative, independently of any god. If someone who holds this view also believes that there is a god, he will see the goodness of this god as consisting in his exemplifying these independent principles. A third view is that there are objectively valid principles as the second view maintains, but they are in some way created and sustained in existence by a god. The fourth, an approach favored by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume is a sentimentalist, subjectivist, or naturalistic view is that supports the idea that morality is essentially a human, social construct; that moral concepts, principles, and practices have developed by some process of biological and social evolution. Their origin and persistence are due somehow to the fact that they enable human beings, whose natural situation includes a mixture of competitive and co-operative forces, and a need for co-operation, to survive and flourish better, by limiting the competition and facilitat­ing the co-operation. But morality is not, on this view, necessarily understood in this light by those who adhere to it: it is possible that its adherents should hold one of the other three views, and yet that a correct description, from the outside, of their thinking and conduct should be given by this naturalistic account.

Now if some adherent to a morality has held either the first or the third of these views, so that he has seen morality as essentially dependent upon some god, then it is indeed possible that if he then ceases to believe in that god his adherence to that morality will be undermined: hence the immediate moral consequences of his atheism may be deplorable. This is a good reason for not tying moral to religious teaching at a time when religious belief is itself fragile. The point is well made by Richard Robinson’s story[1] of a priest saying to a pair of well-behaved atheists, ‘I can’t understand you boys; if I didn’t believe in God I should be having a high old time’. But if either our second view (of an autonomous objective ethics) or our fourth (naturalist or sentimentalist) view is correct, there is no reason to suppose that such undermining will be either a lasting or a general effect of the decay of religious belief. Indeed, it is hardly even necessary that either of these views should be correct: it is enough that they are available to the atheist. But in particular if the fourth view is correct, then morality has a genuine causal source of its own. It is basically a matter of feelings and attitudes, partly instinctive, developed by biological evolution, and partly acquired, developed by socio-historical evolution and passed on from generation to generation less by deliberate education than by the automatic transmission of cultural traits. Since it has such a source, quite independent of religion, it is certain to survive when religion decays.

However, this may seem to be too abstract, too a priori, an argument. Is there any better, more empirical, evidence about the contrasting moral consequences of theism and of atheism? The only simple answer to this question is that there is no simple answer. Neither theists nor atheists have any monopoly of either the vices or the virtues. Nor is any statistical survey likely to establish a clear causal tendency for religious belief, or the lack of it, to encourage either virtue or vice. This is partly because the determination of what is to count as virtue or as vice, or of the relative importance of particular virtues and vices, is itself relevantly controversial; this is one of the issues on which believers and non-believers are divided. Another reason is that there are indefinitely many degrees of belief and disbelief. But even if we confined our survey to an agreed core of virtues on the one hand and of vices on the other, and to unequivocal samples of theists and atheists, any statistical results would still be indecisive. For if there were, as I suspect there would then be, some positive correlation between atheism and virtue, this would still not establish a causal tendency for atheism as such to promote virtue. It could be too easily explained away by the fact that, other things being equal, there is likely to be a higher incidence of disbelief among the ‘wise and learned’, for the reason hinted at by Hume in his essay on miracles.[2]

Since there is little prospect of reliable direct empirical evidence, we must fall back on some general considerations. What differences would it make to morality if there were, or if there were not, a god, and again if people associated, or did not associate, their morality with religious belief?

The unsatisfactory character of the first, divine command, view of morality was pointed out by Plato, whose objections have been echoed many times.[3] If moral values were constituted wholly by divine commands, so that goodness consisted in conformity to God’s will, we could make no sense of the theist’s own claims that God is good and that he seeks the good of his creation. However, it would be possible to hold coherently that while the goodness of some states of affairs—for example, of one sort of human life as contrasted with others—is independent of God’s will, it is only his commands that supply the prescriptive element in morality. Or they could be seen as supplying an additional prescriptive element. A religious morality might then be seen as imposing stronger obligations.

Both these variants, however, as Kant pointed out, tend to corrupt morality, replacing the characteristically moral motives—whether these are construed as a rational sense of duty and fairness, or as specific virtuous dispositions, or as generous, co-operative, and sym­pathetic feelings—by a purely selfish concern for the agent’s own happiness, the desire to avoid divine punishments and to enjoy the rewards of God’s favour, in this life or in an afterlife. This divine command view can also lead people to accept, as moral, requirements that have no discoverable connection—indeed, no connection at all—with human purposes or well-being, or with the well-being of any sentient creatures. That is, it can foster a tyrannical, irrational, morality. Of course, if there were not only a benevolent god but also a reliable revelation of his will, then we might be able to get from it expert moral advice about difficult issues, where we could not discover for ourselves what are the best policies. But there is no such reliable revelation. Even a theist must see that the purported revelations, such as the Bible and the Koran, condemn themselves by enshrining rules which we must reject as narrow, outdated, or barbarous. As Hans Kung, perhaps the world's best known living theologian says, ‘We are responsible for our morality’. More generally, tying morality to religious belief is liable to devalue it, not only by undermining it, temporarily, if the belief decays, but also by subordinating it to other concerns while the belief persists.

There is, indeed, a strain in religion that positively welcomes sin as a precondition for salvation. Jesus himself is reported as saying ‘1 am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’. Luther says that ‘God is the god of the humble, the miserable, the oppressed, and the desperate’, and that ‘that pernicious and pestilent opinion of man’s own righteousness ... suffereth not God to come to his own natural and proper work’. And William James reports (at second hand) an orthodox minister who said that Dr Channing (the eminent Unitarian) ‘is excluded from the highest form of religious life by the extraordinary rectitude of his character’.[4]

 It is widely supposed that Christian morality is particularly admirable. Here it is important to distinguish between the original moral teachings of Jesus, so far as we can determine them, and later developments in the Christian tradition. Richard Robinson has examined the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as the best evidence for Jesus’ own teaching, and he finds in them five major precepts: ‘love God, believe in me, love man, be pure in heart, be humble’. The reasons given for these precepts are ‘a plain matter of promises and threats’: they are ‘that the kingdom of heaven is at hand’, and that ‘those who obey these precepts will be rewarded in heaven, while those who disobey will have weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Robinson notes that ‘Certain ideals that are prominent elsewhere are rather conspicuously absent from the synoptic gospels’. These include beauty, truth, knowledge, and reason:

As Jesus never recommends knowledge, so he never recommends the virtue ‘that seeks and leads to knowledge, namely reason. On the contrary, he regards certain beliefs as in themselves sinful ... whereas it is an essential part of the ideal of reason to hold that no belief can be morally wrong if reached in the attempt to believe truly. Jesus again and again demands faith; and by faith he means believing certain very improbable things without considering evidence or estimating probabilities; and that is contrary to reason. (Robinson, p. 149)

Robinson adds:

Jesus says nothing on any social question except divorce, and all ascriptions of any political doctrine to him are false. He does not pronounce about war, capital punishment, gambling, justice, the administration of law, the distribution of goods, socialism, equality of income, equality of sex, equality of colour, equality of opportunity, tyranny, freedom, slavery, self-determination, or contraception. There is nothing Christian about being for any of these things, nor about being against them, if we mean by ‘Christian’ what Jesus taught according to the synoptic gospels.

The Jesus of the synoptic gospels says little on the subject of sex. He is against divorce. He speaks of adultery as a vice, and perhaps includes in adultery all extramarital intercourse. The story of the woman taken in adultery, which is of a synoptic character though it appears in texts of John, preaches a humane and forgiving attitude towards sexual errors. Jesus shows no trace of that dreadful hatred of sex as such which has disfigured the subsequent history of the Christian churches ... (p. 149)

Robinson goes on to comment on the morality of the Bible:

Newman said that when non-Christians read the Christian Bible ‘they are much struck with the high tone of its precepts” (Sermon on John xiii. 17). That is contrary to my experience. I shall never forget the first time I read the Old Testament after I had acquired the habit of independent judgment. I was horrified at its barbarity, and bewildered that it had been widely held up as a store of ideals. It seemed to describe a savage people, fierce and brutal, no more admirable than the worse of the savage cultures that anthropologists describe to us today, and a great deal less admirable than the gentler cultures they report.

Nor will Newman’s words fit the impression made by the synoptic gospels. They are a beautiful and fascinating piece of literature; and they preach the great precept ‘love thy neighbour’. But this precept is overshadowed in them both by the harsh unloving behaviour of the preacher, and by its absolute subordination to the unreasonable commands to love God and believe in Jesus, (pp. 150-1)

Robinson urges us to reject these commands and the associated values of piety, faith, and improvidence. He reminds us that ‘many of man’s most terrible actions have been done out of piety, and that piety is responsible for our shameful wars of religion’. He also characterizes the view that belief, or disbelief, can be sinful as a ‘blasphemy against reason’. He says that we should accept the precept to love our neighbours, ‘extended as Jesus perhaps extended it to love of all humanity, and still further to love of all life, as he certainly did not extend it’ (p. 152), and such consequential attitudes as generosity, gentleness, mercy, and the observance of the golden rule. However, we might well query (though Robinson does not) the precise command to love your neighbour as yourself. This seems unrealistically to prescribe a degree of altruism that is in general not humanly possible, and so to make of morality a fantasy rather than something that people can seriously try to practise and can ask of one another. Robinson does query the injunction to be pure in heart, and also the call for humility: it is better to make true estimates both of oneself and of others, and not lie about them, though in public ‘the right choice will usually be to refrain from drawing attention either to our superiorities or to our inferiorities’ (pp. 153-4).

 The later tradition of Christian ethics has tended to add to Jesus’ teaching some deplorable elements, such as hostility to sex, and many more admirable ones, such as concern with justice and the other requirements for the flourishing of human life in society, and ideals of beauty, truth, knowledge, and (up to a point) reason. But it has in general retained the concern with salvation and an afterlife, and the view that disbelief, or even doubt, or criticism of belief, is sinful, with the resulting tendencies to the persecution of opponents—including. of course, the adherents of rival Christian sects and rival religions — the discouragement of discussion, hostility (even now in some places) to the teaching of well-confirmed scientific truths, like the theory of evolution, and the propagation of contrary errors, and the intellec­tual dishonesty of trying to suppress one’s own well-founded doubts Many people are shocked at the way in which the Unification Church (‘the Moonies’) entraps converts and enslaves their minds and emo­tions; but the same methods have been and are used by many more orthodox sects. Religion has, indeed, a remarkable ability to give vices the air of virtues, providing a sanctified outlet for some of the nastiest human motives. It is fashionable to ascribe the horrors of Nazism to an atheistic nationalism; but in fact the attitudes to the Jews which it expressed had long been established within the Chris­tian tradition in Germany and elsewhere (sanctioned, for example. by Luther’s writings[5], and the Old Testament itself reports many atrocities as having been not merely approved but positively demanded by God and his spokesmen.[6] And while, following Robinson, I have spoken here particularly of Christian ethics, it is only too obvious that Islamic fundamentalism displays today, more clearly than Christianity has done recently, the worst aspects of religious morality. We do not need to go back in history to illustrate the dictum of Lucretius: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (So great are the evils that religion could prompt!)[7] By contrast, there is a long tradition of an essentially humanist morality, from Epicurus to John Stuart Mill and modern writers such as Peter Singer, including Richard Robinson himself, centered on the conditions for the flourishing of human life and stressing intellectual honesty, tolerance, free inquiry, and individual rights.

There are, then, some marked dangers in a distinctively religious mobility. But they are dangers only, not inevitable consequences of associating morality with religion. We can echo, in reverse, Kung’s concession: it is possible for even a religious believer ‘to lead a genuinely human, that is humane, and in this sense moral life’; even theists are not necessarily narrow-minded dogmatists, intolerant persecutors, or propagators of timid credulity and a crudely calculating selfish version of morality itself. Even within Islam there have been thinkers who have tried to develop its humane and liberal tendencies, and to tone down its cruelty, intolerance, and its unfairness between the sexes, though at present their influence is in decline.

But are there no corresponding dangers in a distinctively non-religious morality? Admittedly, there are. As Robinson says, the Roman Catholic Church is only ‘The second most intolerant and active body in the world today’ (p. 216). Communist parties are expressly anti-religious, and profess an overriding concern with human welfare, but they are also intolerant, ruthless, and, once in power, they too make virtues of tyranny and persecution. And one must recognize that the Catholic church, despite its own illiberal tendencies, sometimes contributes significantly to the resistance to tyrannical states, whether communist or not. More generally, humanist moral thinking is prone either to illusions about necessary progress or to an over-optimistic voluntarism - that is, to assuming that “we” (whoever that may be) can make or remake the world as we would wish it to be, forgetting that the interplay of many different purposes is liable to result in the fulfillment of none of them.

An alleged weakness, not of non-religious moralities in general, but specifically of moralities explained and understood in the naturalistic way outlined above, is that different groups of people can develop different moral views, which will produce conflict when these groups are in contact with one another, and that there is, on this basis, no clear way of resolving such conflicts. This is true. But it is not a distinctive weakness of the naturalistic approach. Absolutist arid objectivist moralities, including ones with religious attachments, also differ from one another, and there is no clear way of resolving their conflicts either. That each party believes that some one morality is objectively right is no guarantee that they will be able to agree on what it is. Indeed, conflicts between rival absolutists are likely to be less resolvable than conflicts between those who understand morality in a naturalistic way, for the latter can more easily appreciate the merits of compromise and adjustment, or of finding, for the areas of contact, a ius gentium, a common core of principles on which they can agree.

Another supposed weakness is this: it may be thought particularly difficult to derive any respect for non-human life, any valuing of nature in general, from a purely secular, human, approach. But it is worth noting that Robinson, for example, specifically includes among his ‘atheist’s values’ a ‘love of all life’ (p. 152; see also pp. 186-7). In fact there is no question of deriving a morality from the facts of the human situation. What we can do is to understand how moral thinking can develop and what functions it serves; and we can also understand how it naturally extends itself beyond a quasi-con­tractual system by the operation of what Hume called ‘sympathy’.[8]

In contrast with any such real or supposed weaknesses in non-religious morality, we should note its distinctive merits, in particular its cultivation of a courageous realism in the face of the less palatable facts of life—and of death. But we need not dwell on this merit, since, as we have seen, it is dramatically recognized in D. Z. Phillips’s attempt to take over, in the name of religion, the traditional non-believers’ attitude to the loss of one’s friends, the attitude of coming to terms with such loss without either denying it or suppressing it. The non-believer comes to terms with the inevitability of his own death in a similar way. Kung has likewise tried to take over in the name of religion the traditional non-believers’ view of morality itself: ‘We are respon­sible for our morality’. Robinson says that ‘The main irrationality of religion is preferring comfort to truth’ (p. 117). Phillips and Kung are implicitly recognizing this traditional weakness in religion, and arc proposing that religion should follow atheism in doing without it.

In Phillips, the moral take-over bid is linked with a strong tendency to disguised atheism on the theoretical side, and Kung’s concept of God is so complex and so indeterminate that his position, too, may not be really so far removed from atheism. Should we then object to such takeovers? So long as the position adopted is, in substance, atheistic, what does it matter if it is called religion? After all, Epicurus was willing to postulate happy and immortal gods safely isolated from all contact with human affairs; Spinoza was willing to speak of Deus sive natura, identifying nature with God; and even Hume proposed a compromise:

The theist allows that the original intelligence is very different from human reason: The atheist allows that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it. Will you quarrel, Gentlemen, about the degrees, and enter into a controversy, which admits not of any precise meaning, nor consequently of any determination.[9]

Today, however, it is more honest and less misleading to reject such compromises and evasions, which can too easily serve as a cover for the reintroduction of characteristically theistic views both on the intellectual and on the moral side.

Alternatively, is there any merit in R. B. Braithwaite’s approach, in retaining the religious ‘stories’ as a psychological support for a morality, while explicitly rejecting any suggestion that they arc factually true? This we might allow, provided that the morality they support is not of the kind we have been criticizing as distinctively religious. Apart from their other faults, such moralities have a tendency to be dangerously over-optimistic. Particularly in the field of international affairs, leaders who have too strong or too fundamentalist a faith may pursue policies which they know to be reckless, in the expectation that God will prevent the worst and—and for humanity, final -disasters. The recent actions of the Bush administrations pre-emptive attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq are a case in point. Such reliance would be quite different from the ‘funda­mental trust’ which Kung has reasonably advocated on purely human grounds. There are inevitable uncertainties in human affairs. Machiavelli speculated that ‘fortune is the ruler of one half of our actions, but... she allows the other half, or a little less, to be governed by us’[10] Damon Runyon put it more briefly: ‘Nothing human is better than two to one”. If so, the only reasonable plan is to do the best we can, taking all possible precautions against the worst disasters, but then to meet the uncertainties with cheerful confidence. Trust in God and keep your powder dry’, understood as Braithwaite might understand it, may be good practical advice. But to trust God to keep your powder dry for you is the height of folly.

Final Notes:

[1]  "The United States is the most religious of all the industrialized nations. Forty-four percent of Americans attend church once a week, compared with 27 percent in Britain, 21 percent in France, 16 percent in Australia, and 4 percent in Sweden. Yet violent crime is not less common in the United States--it's more common. The murder rate here is six times higher than the rate in Britain, seven times higher than in France, five times higher than in Australia, and five times higher than in Sweden. Japan, where Christianity has almost no adherents, has less violent crime than almost any country....Within the 50 states, there is no evidence that a God-fearing populace equals a law-abiding populace. The Bible Belt has more than its share of both praying and killing. Louisiana has the highest churchgoing rate in the country, but its murder rate is more than twice the national average. The same pattern generally holds in the rest of the South..." - Steve Chapman in Praise the Lord, Pass the Ammo.

[2] Another source of data on religion and morality is statistics on religious beliefs of prisoners compared with beliefs of the general population. This data indicates that theists are more than 40 times more likely than atheists to end up in prison. We should not read too much into this large number, however, since it is influenced by many factors. One consideration is that atheism is positively correlated to such things as educational attainment, higher scores on intelligence and achievement tests, and higher income, while crime is negatively correlated with these things. Religion, on the average, is apparently not a positive moral force. A vastly superior moral framework is provided by secular humanism which uses human reason and empathy to construct moral values. Humanists believe that morality should be based on human values, not arbitrary edicts from an imaginary god.



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[1]  R Robinson, An Atheist’s Values (Oxford University Press. 1964: paperback Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1975). P 137- ‘The story is no doubt apocryphal. This book as a whole gives a very full answer to the question of the moral consequences of atheism.


[2]  Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Section 10; cf.


[3]  Plato, Euthyphro


[4] Matthew 9; 13. The passage from Luther is quoted by James on pp. 244 s of The Varieties of Religious Experience (see n. 1 to Chapter 10, p. 178, above) and the story about Dr Channing in n. 1 on p. 466 of the same work.


[5]  E.g. On the Jews and their Lies, in Vol. 47 of Luther’s Works, edited by H.T. Lehman (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1971), pp. 121-306, recommends the burning of synagogues and of the Jews’ houses, confiscation of their books, forbidding of worship and teaching, or alternatively expulsion of the Jews from the country.


[6]  E.g. Joshua 8, 10. and 11; Samuel 15


[7]  De Rerum Natura, Book I, line 101


[8]  See J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, pp 193-95


[9] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XII


[10] The Prince, Chapter 25


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