Morality Without God—The Problem (Part 1/3)

You can be an atheist and you can be a sadomasochist.  You can be an atheist and a psychopath.  You can be an atheist and be fascist.  To be a communist, you practically have to be an atheist.  It doesn’t commit you to anything.  But it certainly does not commit you to the absurd belief that if you don’t have a supernatural belief you have no morals.  ~ Christopher Hitchens

If you have not yet seen the film Collision, I highly recommend it.  In it Christopher Hitchens takes on Christian apologist Douglas Wilson in a series of lively debates on the validity and value of Christian theism.  Hitchens’ trademark rhetorical style is on full display and does not fail to entertain even as it instructs.  Again and again Hitchens levels devastating blows to Christianity’s reputation as he makes the case that not only is Christianity untrue, but that it is a “wicked cult”.  The inconsistencies inherent in Christianity are serious problems that Christians must make sense of in order to convince thinking people to embrace their system, and Hitchens makes this painfully clear.

At the same time, Wilson puts Hitchens on the defensive repeatedly on one critical point:

I want you to give me the evidence for an objective moral standard that governs all of us.  You can’t appeal to innate anything because those conflict.  You can’t appeal to the general consensus because those differ over time.  You haven’t given any evidence whatever for all your comdemnations of this that or the other thing.  I can understand an atheist saying, “There is no God; eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die, and I’m going to embrace nihilism.”  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is the fierce puritanical denunciations of Jerry Falwell, and all the different people just doing their thing—doing what protoplasm  does at these temperatures and under these conditions.  Why the denunciations?

Hitchens replies:

It’s not unlike what professor Haldane said about the universe.  It’s not just stranger (or he put it queerer) than we understand, it’s stranger or queerer than we can understand.  I’m happy that the arguments of ethics and morality and philosophy remain unresolved.  See, I don’t look for certainty.  I don’t look for a final teleological verdict.  I know that I will always be arguing: why is it that the kicking of a pregnant woman in front of me is incredibly repulsive?   And yet I could demand the killing of her and her unborn child in different circumstances.  This argument will go on and probably can’t be resolved.  It doesn’t mean we have to capitulate the situational ethics.  But it is NOT improved, let alone solved, by the introduction of a supernatural authority. A supernatural authority is of no help to us.  And it may order us to do things that a secularist would cringe from doing, such as murdering his son to please a stone-aged idol, for example.

And then, as Hitchens stutters and stammers, Wilson attacks:

You say that the basic questions of morality are unresolved.  Here’s the deal: why don’t you write like they are unresolved?  [With] virtually everything you write (I think many times correctly) you denounce [them] as if they are completely and totally resolved.

Look, Christopher.  There is no God.  Shit happens.

Feels So Real

Even atheists are inclined to believe that a real ethical standard exists because it feels like it does.  Hitchens illustrates this here:

You see a woman thrown to the ground in the street by a man, or two men, and kicked hard in the stomach—a kick to the uterus.  What is your instant reaction?  Is it one of revulsion, or not?  Who is going to say they are indifferent?  You are perfectly welcome to do so if you like.  Do you need divine permission for this?  I would say not.  Add another question.  The woman is visibly pregnant.  Does that make it seem more revolting to you?  Is your revulsion thereby increased?  Who would not say “yes” to that? … Where do you think you got that knowledge?  Did you get it from Sunday School?   I believe this is our common moral property; without it, we’re lost.

But this is blatant appeal to the emotions of his audience.  It is not reason.  It is either a cheap trick and he knows this, or Hitchens himself cannot see that even he clings desperately to a faith—faith in the existence of an objective morality that we must know exists because we can simply feel and know.  It feels so true, so it must be.

We do experience moral indignation and moral admiration as if they are very real.  In fact, we experience this moral sense with such compelling clarity and realness that it is almost impossible to convince us that we ought to question it, let alone dismiss it.  Our conscience can “see” what is good and what is evil just as clearly as our eyes can see what is black and what is white.   This is why movie directors are rarely burdened with audience confusion as to who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy”.  Movies work because people almost universally recognize the “good” and the “bad” instantly without any coaxing or explanation.

But is this feeling of objective morality sufficient grounds to accept its existence—particularly for an atheist?  This is the same line of reasoning theists use regarding the existence of God—ironically, a line of reasoning most atheists gleefully scoff at, seeing it as delusional.  Christians feel the presence of God in their “heart” and so they know he exists.  But atheists succumb to the very same line with regard to objective morality.  They know what they feel.

Theists claim that an authoritative entity must have forcefully imprinted this sense of morality on our minds.  The Apostle Paul refers to it as the law “written” on our hearts:

…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.   (New International Version, Romans. 2:14-15)

The theist would go on to assert that in the absence of a divinely revealed ethical standard that there is no authoritative ethical standard.  The atheist has to concede that the theist has them on this point.  The atheist has to step back and realize that in losing a moral authority, he no longer has a platform on which to stand that entitles him to say, “That is wrong!”  He is no longer entitled to make that statement and have it understood in the traditional sense: a proclamation of universal, objective truth with regard to a platform of universal objective morality.  The atheist no longer has the luxury of such a platform.

When you point this out to an atheist they squeal.  Hitchens suggests that Wilson is “insulting” in making the “fantastically rude” claim that without Christianity that we “would not know right from wrong”.  Wilson retorts that he knows that Hitchens has “a very acute sense of right and wrong” but that Hitchens is not in a position to “give an accounting” for his morality given that he believes that our nature is evolved, and that our morality is also subject to evolution.  A morality in a state of evolutionary flux is not objective, and is therefore not authoritative.

In response, Hitchen’s preferred rhetorical tool is to discredit Christianity rather than deal with the untenability of his own position.  He loves to talk about the frightening displays of divine wrath in the Old Testament.  In so doing, Hitchens makes many valid points—but that is an attempt to evade the point.  Sure, maybe Yahweh of the Old Testament is a questionable source of moral authority.  Fine.  But with him out of the way, what is the atheist left to work with?  From what is the atheist going to form his objective morality?  His feelings of “rightness” and “wrongness” are not good enough.

Indecisive Breakup

As Hitchens illustrates, the atheist’s enthusiasm for the dismissal of God is not accompanied by equal enthusiasm for the dismissal of moral objectivity.  While he may be pleased to lose the “totalitarian system” (as Hitchens puts it) of morality imposed by God on him, he isn’t so enthused in losing the entitlement to impose his own system of morality in his expectations of others.

In actual practice, morality and religion are so closely linked that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins, or even which causes the other.  Morality informs religion as religion informs morality.  Hitchens rightly labels this religion-morality relationship as a “feedback loop”. He says that, “as far as I can tell, religion gets its morality from humans.”  Maybe it does.

Yet, Hitchens calls Christianity a “wicked cult”.  The very term “wicked” presupposes and invokes Christian moral authority.  During the late medieval period the witch-hunt was on, as the witch was seen as the antithesis of Christian morality.  “Wicked” derives from wicca or wicce—the Old English terms for a “witch”.  So in a very literal, etymological sense, calling Christianity wicked is like calling Christianity un-Christian—it’s an oxymoron.  Hitchens finds himself caught in the middle of the very feedback loop he himself describes.

I trust that the irony was not lost on Hitchens.

Wilson touches on this irony in his response to Hitchen’s assertion that substitutionary atonement (or as he calls it, “vicarious redemption”) is “immoral”:

You’ll notice that he’s not critiquing the Christian faith by appealing to a standard that overarches all human beings and that is obligatory for all of us.  When he says things like, “substitutionary atonement is immoral,” well—by what standard?  Who says?  What do you mean “immoral”?  What worldview considers it to be immoral, and why is that worldview in charge of the Christian worldview?  All ultimate truth claims are, to use postmodern jargon, totalizing.  You can’t talk about everything without talking about everything.  What Christopher has to do, in order to critique the Christian faith, is borrow ethical standards from the Christian faith and run a reductio where he says, “According to the standards that you adopt, as Christians—here let me climb into the Christian car and drive it into a tree.”  That’s what he’s doing.  But he doesn’t have any car to drive of his own.  Substitutionary atonement is immoral—how come?

Whether you believe that morality derives from religion and supernatural authority, or you believe that our “innate” morality fuels religion, atheists have to frankly acknowledge that they are indebted to religion for its development of morality, even if they maintain the position that religion is not the genesis of morality. At one point in the film, an audience member points out the seeming high morality of European countries known to be predominantly secular.  But that secularism is a recent circumstance.  This sets up Wilson to make a powerful observation: if you look at the countries where Christianity has historically had its its roots planted most deeply, you are looking at the nations that we today consider to be “the first world”—the safest, freest, most prosperous, and most enjoyable places on earth to live.

The atheist icon, Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche , makes some particularly fascinating commentary on the influence of Christianity.  He criticizes Christianity harshly.  But he criticizes it for the opposite reason that Hitchens does.  In Nietzsche’s mind, to promote natural selection and survival of the fittest is to embrace the highest morality.  He saw Christianity, not as a threat to universal human rights, but as a threat to natural selection in humans because it promotes the notion of universal rights—in other words, universal objective morality!  And for this reason he labels it “poisonous” and an affront to “noble humanity” and the “aristocratic”:

The poisonous doctrine, “equal rights for all,” has been propagated as a Christian principle: out of the secret nooks and crannies of bad instinct Christianity has waged a deadly war upon all feelings of reverence and distance between man and man, which is to say, upon the first prerequisite to every step upward, to every development of civilization—out of the ressentiment of the masses it has forged its chief weapons against us, against everything noble, joyous and high-spirited on earth, against our happiness on earth…. To allow “immortality” to every Peter and Paul was the greatest, the most vicious outrage upon noble humanity ever perpetrated.—And let us not underestimate the fatal influence that Christianity has had, even upon politics! Nowadays no one has courage any more for special rights, for the right of dominion, for feelings of honourable pride in himself and his equals—for the pathos of distance…. Our politics is sick with this lack of courage!—The aristocratic attitude of mind has been undermined by the lie of the equality of souls; and if belief in the “privileges of the majority” makes and will continue to make revolutions—it is Christianity, let us not doubt, and Christian valuations, which convert every revolution into a carnival of blood and crime! Christianity is a revolt of all creatures that creep on the ground against everything that is lofty: the gospel of the “lowly” lowers.  ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

It is difficult for atheists, who have no objective moral platform on which to stand, to judge Nietzsche’s views as “evil” or “unjust”.  As Wilson would say, “by what standard do you say this?”  The most an atheist might say is that Nietzsche’s views are distasteful or unpleasant in some way.  But objectively wrong?  How come?

“Might makes right” is the natural order.  Uncle Nietzsche would label today’s atheists as cowards for not having the “courage” to recognize as poisonous superstition this “equal rights for all” nonsense that we get from Christianity!  What pansies!

Atheists seem to be unaware of the influence religion has had on them.  The notion that there is objective morality is entirely a religious concept.  There is no naturalistic defense for an objective universal morality.

Hitchens notes that societies throughout history have embraced strikingly similar standards of right and wrong—societies untouched by Christianity.  While this is true to a degree, it is not true that these societies have typically embraced these standards in a universal sense.  While there is always some sense of moral duty in any community (otherwise it would collapse), that duty almost always vanishes beyond some arbitrary delineation.  Racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism have always been the norm.

Sure, we may be born with some innate moral sense that we injected into religion.  But only religion is capable of taking that moral sense and developing it into something universal, objective, and authoritative.  You have to have authority to do that.  You have to have God.  Whatever innate moral inclination we may have, religion (particularly Judeo-Christianity) took that inclination and upgraded it significantly.  Atheists want to take that “upgraded” morality while dismissing the God that made it possible.

Atheists who still embrace a sense of universal objective morality, while dismissing a supreme moral authority, have not gone all the way with their beliefs.  They say they want to break up with God, but having been apart for a few weeks, they realize they liked some things about that relationship that they aren’t quite ready to throw away.  Atheists are quite indecisive regarding this relationship.

Again, the atheist’s enthusiasm for the dismissal of God is not accompanied by equal enthusiasm for the dismissal of moral objectivity.  While he may be pleased to be free of God’s imposition of morality on him, he isn’t so excited about losing the entitlement to impose his own system of morality in his expectations of others.

This breakup is clearly not finalized.

Read next: Toward a Solution

  1. Matt, I accidentally came to this page on the way somewhere else…but my impression of your concern over theism or anti-theism is that you must have unresolved issues.

    Were you forced to go to church as a child?

  2. Indeed, my parents took me to church as a child. What “issues” seem apparent to you in my expressed concerns?

    • gary
    • November 4th, 2014 7:23pm

    The views of modern society regarding religion, and specifically Christianity, are in a state of great flux. Beliefs that were once sacrosanct are now being called into question. Is the day soon coming when the majority of people in society will view “the Holy Bible” as immoral and evil?

    Imagine if your grade schooler brings home a few books from the school library with these titles:

    1. Giving the Death Sentence to People who eat Forbidden Fruit

    2. Drowning Millions of Children for the Crimes of their Parents

    3. How to Murder First Born Children in their Beds

    4. The Genocidal Annihilation of Evil Foreign Peoples is Justifiable

    You would be horrified that your local school would allow such books in a library for children, wouldn’t you? But yet fundamentalist Christians would love to have the Holy Bible in the same library and would not bat an eye at the bloody, barbaric violence and twisted justifications for that violence and immoral behavior contained therein.

    “Oh but that was in another Era of time. It is a mystery why it was necessary for God to do these shocking acts, but we must simply accept by faith that God had good, moral reasons for his actions in the Old Testament.”

    Ok…so we will sweep all that barbaric behavior under the rug because Jesus has changed everything. All that bloody violence is no longer necessary because Jesus has ushered in the Era of Grace. We now are to love our neighbor as ourselves…not slaughter him in righteous anger.

    But there is one little problem: Slavery.

    I don’t see how putting shackles around the neck, ankles, and wrists of your neighbor and calling him your property is in any way, shape, or form “loving your neighbor as yourself”. And I also don’t see why a loving, just, Jesus would not have condemned this evil institution, which he did not, nor why the Apostle Paul would condone it, which he very much did.

    Any book that condones slavery is evil and should not be in any school library…nor on your child’s nightstand.

    • Jorge
    • September 25th, 2015 7:14pm

    I was born an Atheist and began believing in God tgrhuoh observation and logic.Atheists need to challenge those who believe in God and also do not believe all the stories in the bible. The evidence of God is everywhere, but you have to know what you’re looking for.

    • gary
    • October 4th, 2015 4:03pm

    Noah’s Flood: The Most Immoral Story Ever Told

    Dear Christian,

    I challenge you to watch this short but very provocative video clip regarding the morality of your God’s act of killing millions of little children in the Great Flood. After watching this film, if you can still claim that your God and your belief system are moral and good I will strongly and sincerely encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional.

    • Matt
    • October 4th, 2015 6:37pm

    Gary, while I don’t disagree with any point made in the video, I do feel like it distracts a bit from the point I attempt to make in the essay. I’m trying to get beyond the, “Christianity is irrational and horrific,” bit and move on to the, “OK, Christianity is gone. So now what?” stage.

    Let’s pretend religion has been eliminated from the earth. There is no longer a moral authority. In fact, morality doesn’t exist at all. So how do we deal with ethics in a post-religion world? That’s the problem I’m trying to tackle. And I’d suggest that most atheists haven’t really thought through the implications of a godless world.

    Most atheists I encounter gleefully and enthusiastically eliminate an “immoral God” while believing they may impose their own moral code in God’s place. But without God one person’s moral implications are as good as another’s. How do we deal with that?

    That’s the question I attempt to answer here.

    • Shiny
    • October 13th, 2016 4:48pm


    I actually ended up here on accident while I was looking for a different site.. but I was quite intrigued by this thread… “How to deal with ethics in a post-religion world?”
    While I believe that many of the acts committed by god in the old testament (and some actions condoned by god in the new) are morally wrong and reprehensible, I also believe that religion has made it easier, perhaps, to STAY moral. A child is usually more likely to behave if they know they will be punished if they don’t. I also want to point out that being religious or believing in god doesn’t make a person moral. Is it moral for Christians, after over 100 years, to STILL be murdering Hindu leaders in India. Were the crusades, or any other holy war for that matter, moral? Is it moral for televangelists to scam people out of money and live like fat cats because of it? Is it moral for an undetermined number of catholic priests to molest children and then was it moral for the church, in turn, to support and protect them afterwards, even pay off families in some cases? I think most of us can agree that these actions were not of morality even at its most basic. So religion does not automatically make a person moral.

    I understand the argument that without religion there would be no moral standards but I feel like it is kind of a chicken-egg situation. And what you believe depends on what you believe IN. If you believe there is a god than you believe that he set down this moral code for people to live by. But if you believe there is no god, and that people are naturally altruistic then we could say that people created religions out of a need to understand the world around them, thus injecting religions with the morals they already had. This would possibly explain why god is more of a dick in the old testament: as the bible was written, perhaps morals changed with the times and so were changed in the good book??

    Altruism is also seen in nature. Animals have no religion and don’t necessarily follow the moral code that humans do but still, altruism exists in the animal kingdom. If altruism is natural to some extent in animals then it would also be in humans too. And as humans evolved so did our altruism. Just a few centuries ago, many people thought slavery wasn’t such a bad thing. Now we find it disgustingly reprehensible. This is not a monkey to human evolution that religious people think of when the word is used. This is a cultural and moral evolution. Just in the past few years has gay marriage been gaining support and was finally legalized. So even in our lifetime we are witnessing an evolution, a growth and change of our collective morals as human beings.

    I think that if the day came when religion died out or disappeared that humans would keep the basic morals that we have today. Most places around the world have laws that dictate public morality. Don’t murder, Don’t rape, Don’t steal, the big basics that we all know are wrong. Without religion our government doesn’t suddenly stop working and we don’t suddenly think murder is ok. These laws don’t suddenly stop and for the most part people are going to follow the law (its easier to behave under threat of punishment, remember?). I think that basic morality is so ingrained in humans that it probably wouldn’t matter if religion dies out or not.

    Even with all of this I still come back to your question about ethics in a “post-religion” world and honestly I don’t think that is possible. Just like it is probably impossible to solve the question of where morals come from. I don’t think that there will ever be a “post-religion” world. A little over 2000 years ago Christians were just crazy Jews who believed the messiah had already come. But Christianity has grown and evolved and split into different sects. Just as Roman and Greek gods eventually fell out of fashion, 2000 years from now, Christianity may very well erode until it is no longer popular and by then there will a new “crazy” religion that will grow in popularity. People like to have something to believe in, something that gives them hope for life after death, something that is watching over them. It makes them feel safe and I don’t think that will ever change.

    • Matt
    • October 29th, 2016 3:16pm

    When you say, “People like to have something to believe in…and I don’t that will ever change,” you are likely right. But when you say, “it is probably impossible to solve the question of where morals come from,” that is kind of the entire point in this series of essays, and I’m not sure I made that central thesis clear. Let me try to put a finer point on it.

    It’s not that we don’t know where they come from. It’s that outside of religion there is no such thing as morals. They do not exist. When you say, “Don’t murder, Don’t rape, Don’t steal, the big basics that we all know are wrong,” I would dispute that. Those are all things I personally do not want others to do, but they’re not in any sense “wrong” or “immoral”. Now it just so happens that most other humans happen to also want to to discourage those types of behavior, and are even willing to invoke violence to defend against them. But your and me personal disgust with theft doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes the person who does it our enemy, and perhaps we’d even be partners in defending against it in some context. When you say it’s “wrong” the most you can say that means is that, “I really do not want people to behave this way.” That’s not the same thing religious people mean when they say it’s wrong. They say it’s wrong because it violates a transcendent universal standard dictated by God. Without God, your preferences for the behavior of others carry no particular weight outside the scenario where you reach an agreement with your fellow human beings to defend against certain repugnant behavior. And while you mention the “big ones” (murder, theft, and rape) when you venture into other areas, consensus isn’t so clear. Think welfare, the environment, the role of the US military in the world, etc. In all of these things people promoting a particular position will typically invoke the “right thing to do” language. That means there is a moral imperative, they know what it is, and they believe it is everyone’s duty to cooperate. I’m saying there is no such thing as morality so that is a nonsense assertion.

    • Elona Cervantes
    • November 7th, 2016 12:43pm

    I, too, stumbled across this blog by inadvertently and was pleasantly surprised. Very interesting.

    • Colton
    • January 22nd, 2018 2:18am

    My opinion is that even without religion, there would still be laws made by Rulers to maintain order. Those laws would depend on the ruler and I’d bet there would be majorly differing laws per country/group. These laws would be what is considered “good” or “moral”.

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