Morality Without God—Toward a Solution (Part 2/3)

As noted in Part 1, the atheist is not entitled to make an assertion of moral rightness/wrongness and have it understood in the traditional sense: a proclamation of universal, objective truth with regard to a platform of universal objective morality.  Only a theist may do this.  To drive this point home, a healthy dose of moral nihilism is in order.

Moral Nihilism

To the atheist:  You are born with no responsibility to anything or anyone—living or nonliving.  You may do whatever you want to anything or anyone, living or nonliving.  At the same time no one and no thing—living or nonliving—has any responsibility to you either.  Anyone or anything may do anything to you.  There exists no moral authority whatsoever to say that you or they are right or wrong.  And so, appraising the intrinsic “rightness” or “wrongness” of any action is nonsensical.  After death, there will be no consequences at all for anything any of us have done to anyone or any thing.  None whatsoever.

For a Christian, the pursuit of righteousness is the pursuit of truth.  For the Christian, to declare something as “right” is to say that it is objectively true that this action is right.  Because of the influence of Christianity on western civilization, western atheists are inclined to approach morality the same way.  But the atheist may not pursue morality as if it is a real thing that he may discover, as if it is a treasure to find, or a righteousness that is true—a truth that is there to find.  In breaking with God, atheists must jettison the inclination to think this way.  In their dispute with religion, atheists are doomed to confusion and frustration if they continue to play this game by the theist’s rules.  Atheists cannot discover morality because it is not there for them to discover.

This is not to say that the atheist’s pursuit of the benefits of morality is futile; but he must approach his “morality” from a new perspective. Before the atheist can build a persuasive case for a proposed “morality”, he must eliminate all remnants of theistic thinking.

People—Dangerous and Awesome

No living thing poses as much a threat to my happiness as another human.  Humans are dangerous.  Any healthy adult would find it very easy to kill me or damage my property or my life.  At the same time, I could do the same thing to just about any other human.  We humans live in a state of perpetual vulnerability to each other.

On the other hand, no other living thing possesses as much awesome potential to contribute to my happiness.  Humans compose music, love me, entertain me, grow food, build roads, build homes, laugh with me, play with me, pay me, comfort me, help me, write literature, create art, have sex with me, teach me, and fascinate me.

Generally speaking atheists—just like theists—would seek to curtail the former unpleasant aspects of humanity while promoting and maximizing the latter pleasing aspects of humanity.

Atheists seem to have a problem.  They can’t have morality, but they need morality to maximize humanity’s potential for creating happiness.  They have a problem and they need a solution.

Morality—A Necessary Invention

My lodging is filled with lizards and rats;
But the architect exists, and anyone who denies it
Is touched with madness under the guise of wisdom.
Consult Zoroaster, and Minos, and Solon,
And the martyr Socrates, and the great Cicero:
They all adored a master, a judge, a father.
This sublime system is necessary to man.
It is the sacred tie that binds society,
The first foundation of holy equity,
The bridle to the wicked, the hope of the just.

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

~ Voltaire

Voltaire’s famous line: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” is generally taken as sneering cynicism directed at the weak-minded—those incapable of their own moral reasoning and needing God to do it for them.  But this is not what he meant at all.  When you read this line in its full context, you see that he was actually quite serious in his belief in the necessity of a moral authority.  He was so serious that he was sincere in his assertion that, in God’s absence, invention of such an authority would be necessary in order to have a moral framework.

Voltaire was halfway correct.

While it is not necessary to invent God, for the atheist who intends to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, it is necessary to invent morality.

Voltaire was a theist who could not could not divorce morality from authority.  And sure, to achieve the objective, real, universal, and unquestionable brand of morality that Voltaire sought, you do have to have an authority.  But that doesn’t mean that morality has to have authority to achieve Voltaire’s “…sublime system…[that]…is the sacred tie that binds society…”  To achieve this effect morality does not need authority; it only needs to be backed by the force of consensus.

Because most atheists seek to maximize humanity’s pleasing aspects, while curtailing its dark side, and they realize that a set of rules is necessary to do so, “morality” becomes a simple matter of a community agreeing on objectives, and then agreeing on the best set of rules to achieve them.

We create a set of rules, agree with each other to be bound by them, and then we work together to enforce them.  The power of “morality” is derived from the individuals persuaded to embrace and enforce it.  The greater the number of individuals who embrace and enforce it, the greater the power of this “morality”.

The primary break from theistic morality that atheists have to accept is to change the language they use to invoke this manufactured “morality”.  It’s not that behaviors are “right” or “wrong”.  It’s that behaviors are either in accord with, or in violation of the agreed upon set of rules.  You either live up to your end of the bargain, or you dismiss your responsibility.

The fortunate thing is that, as Hitchens repeatedly illustrates, most all of us—religious or secular—already basically agree on what this set of rules ought to be.  We experience moral admiration and moral indignation in roughly the same way in roughly the same instances.  As mentioned in Part 1, movies are effective because they tap into this stunning similarity in our reaction to morally charged scenarios.  We all pretty much agree on who the “good guy” is and who the “bad guy” is in movies.  Put another way, we already agree on many of the rules that we expect to restrain others, as well as ourselves.

Now, the fact that we are able to agree on so much, morally speaking, is not to say that controversy doesn’t exist.  There is much controversy, and dealing with that is the task we are about to undertake.  The point is to realize that the task of the atheist ethicist is not to discover what is morally “right” or “wrong”.  Rather, the atheist ethicist has three tasks: The first will be to determine the things we value:  Ourselves?  Other people?  Other living things?  Other non-living things?  The second task is to propose a set of rules that, the adoption of which, will sustain and enhance those valued things.  The third task is to persuade others that the adoption of this set of rules will work; in other words it will indeed lead to the sustenance and enhancement of those valued things.

The Task

In the absence of ultimate authoritative accountability, there are still consequences in this life for failing to embrace certain sets of rules.  While nobody has to embrace any set of rules, the atheist ethicist would argue that life is much better if we do embrace one or more sets of rules.  He may argue that if we do not adopt one or more sets of rules that we are doomed to a life in which our satisfaction is far from maximized.

We don’t invent morality because justice dictates that we must or because we will in any way be held accountable if we do not.

We invent morality because our satisfaction dictates that we must.

Now, what “morality” results in desirable consequences?  What “morality” results in undesirable consequences?  And whose opinion of “desirableness” matters?  Tough questions.

And it is the atheist ethicist’s job to answer them.

But first, we need a new “moral” framework—a new “moral” language—for the atheist.  The atheist needs a set of tools that will allow him to break out of the theistic-moral-authority paradigm.

Read next: Introducing Pactualism

    • Matt
    • January 13th, 2013 4:23am

    As an atheist, I am incredibly offended by your accusation that we are “born” with no morality. I definitely know the difference between right and wrong, and the fact that you are so narrow minded as to accuse people whom do not share your beliefs as lacking moral sensibility is incredibly surprising.

    I have many Christian friends, and I respect their beliefs and even assist in church events on a regular basis. Because it’s the right thing to do. And none of those people are accusing me of not having any moral sensibility.

    • Matt
    • January 13th, 2013 12:08pm

    Matt, I think you may have missed the meat of my argument which was in Part 1. Please take a look at it.

    In it my argument isn’t so much that atheists do not “know the difference between right and wrong” rather that such a difference doesn’t actually exist and therefore the objective moral “rightness” or “wrongness” of a thing are unknowable. You were not only born not knowing, you will never know because there is nothing to know.

    The only way you can know is if you have a moral authority to tell you what is right and wrong.

    Now it is true that most of us are born with the inclination to respond with revulsion to certain acts (e.g., seeing a pregnant woman lying in the street and kicked hard in the abdomen by a man). But this indignant response, even if most of us share it, does not prove that this act is “wrong” or that there is even such a thing as “wrong”.

    In fact this common indignant reaction may be strong enough for us to band together and agree that we are going to use force to stop such behavior, and that is precisely what we do in creating civilization. So when you refer to “moral sensibility” it may exist in the sense that most people share this strong indignant response to many of the same things—strong enough that they may even create a pact amongst themselves to forcefully oppose behavior perceived as heinous—but it’s not because we are tuned into real stuff known as “right and wrong”. It’s because we evolved with inclinations to reinforce some behavior and to thwart other behavior. We evolved those inclinations because they are essential to advancing the survival of our species.

    Matt, in Part 1 I feel like I pretty thoroughly explored the points you make here and I am really interested to hear your thoughts. So please take a look at it an get back with me. I appreciate your feedback.

  1. There is only one thing that will make sense once you meet Jesus and that is how much God loves us and after that we want to please God but still fall short and are unable too. This world is temporary but eternity isn’t and you sound like a REALLY smart person however in life that doesn’t always guarantee success or happiness. When I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night (no matter how challenging or wonderful the day has been) my hope and joy is still there and that hope and joy is Jesus. Praying for you and that you will enjoy the wonderful teachings on

    • William C
    • August 5th, 2016 7:10am

    I happened upon your website by pure chance in a domain name search. I only read a few paragraphs and feel compelled to respond. It just may be that a higher power brought me to allow you to think outside the box even more.

    I think you bring up a lot of great points and I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of your ramblings. However, I think instead of preaching about a make believe god written by man, I believe education is key to staving off morality issues.

    For instance, children’s minds are very form-able and have the capacity to imagine far greater than most adults. To plant seeds of fairy tales may give them something to believe in, but we really don’t start asking where we come from until later in life. Most people have the capacity to know the difference from right and wrong, while some emulate. If we are able to teach our atheist kids the difference between right and wrong and how to identify manipulation then we give them the ability to protect themselves while they retain their right to choose how moral they wish to be.

    People are selfish, we grow up not appreciating things until other people want them. There is no changing our DNA, but through education we can prepare our children without brain washing them.

    • Matt
    • August 7th, 2016 12:48pm

    “If we are able to teach our atheist kids the difference between right and wrong…” assumes there actually are real, objective, universal, transcendent things called “right” and “wrong”. But there are not. Those are concepts atheists borrow from religion, but without religion, they make no sense.

    This is the point I attempt to drive home in the first essay in the series:

    There is no right and wrong.

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