Is Atheism Ethically Rational?

Yesterday morning the local Dallas-Fort Worth Fox affiliate (KDFW, Fox 4) ran a story about a local group of atheists who are sponsoring some billboards in the DFW Metroplex targeting families and children. The billboards promoting the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason are specifically timed to be up during the Easter season and proclaim, “Our families are great without religion.” This same group focused advertising campaigns toward African Americans during Black History Month and paid for ads on the sides of Fort Worth buses leading up to Christmas that read, “Millions of Americans are good without God.”

With freedom of speech and freedom of religion in this country, the DFWCoR is certainly free to hold such beliefs and even to advertise to potential constituents. In the marketplace of ideas, however, we need to ask the question: Are their claims rational? Specifically of interest to me is whether or not their ethical claims are rational.

On their website, the DFWCoR makes the following claim:

For the religious community, we want them to realize that, although nontheists reject the supernatural, we share with them compassionate human values that most religious believers embrace. In most ways, we are like them, hard working, tax paying, moral citizens who care deeply about our families, our communities, our state and our country.

My question is on what basis and from which foundation do they reach the same “compassionate human values” that religious believers hold? For most “religious believers,” be they Christian, Jewish, Mormon, or even Muslim, they draw their morals and values from a source they claim to be divinely inspired. For Christians, we believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and that He communicates to us His expectations for our lives and our ethics.

Atheists, on the other hand, reject any supernatural source of revelation regarding ethics, morals, and values. At best, they rely upon their own reason to reach the conclusion that certain values are desirable or even (dare I say) required. Thus, an individual’s reason becomes supreme in the formulation of ethics.

This is not a new position. John Frame discusses the historical evidence of this position as he writes:

[T]he Greek philosophers sought to understand the world without reference to religion or tradition—and certainly without reference to the God of Scripture. Their chief authority was human reason, functioning independently of revelation and tradition. That view of reason I describe by the phrase rational autonomy.

The problem with such rational autonomy is that it is not inerrant. There are times when reason fails the individual or the society. Rather than blaming human reason for error and thus acknowledging that it is incapable of determining morals, the Greek philosophers blamed the universe. Frame notes:

Their most common answer was that if reason itself is our ultimate guide, then its failures must be failures, not of reason itself, but of the universe. The problem is not the knower, but in what he seeks to know; not the subject, but in the object of knowledge. We fall into error because the world in which we live is in some measure unknowable. . . .  But then the philosophical task proves impossibly difficult, for no rational account can be given of an irrational universe. Thus appears the rationalist-irrationalist dialectic.

Here we see the problem with a purely rational approach to ethics. When reason fails, the error has to be blamed on someone or something. If one were to blame reason, then the entire rational system breaks down and is proven worthless for ethics. If one blames the universe, then the rational person cannot rightly say that the universe is knowable; therefore, reason is incapable of reaching authoritative conclusions about a universe it cannot know.

At the end of the day, rational autonomy is inconsistent at best and most likely incoherent as an ethical system. The DFWCoR cannot rightly claim that they hold to the same “compassionate human values” that religious believers hold unless they reach a conclusion about those values on an irrational basis (tradition or divine revelation). So that leads us to the question: Are their families great without religion? If by great they mean upholding such “compassionate human values” believers hold, then the answer is no.

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Dionne Anglin, “Atheist Ads Target Families, Children,” KDFW Fox 4, March 26, 2012.

Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, http://www.dfwcor.org/.

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 73.

14 comments

  1. I don’t claim to have followed the ins and outs of it, but my understanding is that there are various evolution-based ideas regarding altruism and the like. How strongly evidenced they are, I’m not sure. Time will tell, probably.

    My own answer, though, is quite simple—enlightened self-interest. The golden rule, slightly expanded: if I wish others to treat me in a certain way, then I should treat them in that way. While some might not reciprocate anyway, most of them certainly won’t if I don’t.

    I could pose a counter-question, too: why is it moral or ethical to do good merely because you’re following instructions from a supposed superior being, but not moral or ethical if I do good because it’s the right thing to do? My personal feeling is that the latter is the more commendable.

    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Daz. Enlightened self-interest is certainly an interesting approach. The problem is that many others would disagree with you. How do you respond when people take advantage of you? If self-interest is your goal (enlightened or otherwise), that self-interest will not sit idly by while others take advantage.

      Also, you made a value judgment in your last paragraph. You claimed that it would be more commendable to do good not on the command from a superior being but because it is the right thing to do. So I have a couple of questions. How do you know something is good? How do you know something is the right thing to do? How do you know something is commendable? My guess is you base that on reason and self-interest. But how would you respond if someone else says that the exact opposite is good, right, or commendable?

  2. That’s a pretty myopic view, and I’m going to charge at it head-on:

    Essentially, you are claiming that, because atheists don’t claim that their morality is divinely inspired, nonreligious moral codes are arbitrary. Simply put: “God didn’t give me my morals, so I just made them up.” If you believe that atheistic morals are arbitrary, I pose to you that if you are not one who follows every rule in the Bible (and I surely hope that you don’t), then your morals are just as arbitrary.

    My argument is simple:
    -You claim to derive your morals from the commands in the Divinely Inspired Bible.
    -There are commands in the Bible that you don’t follow, hopefully (examples: Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
    -The Bible gives no criteria through which to choose which of the Bible’s commands to follow.
    -Since you don’t follow all of the commands, and the Bible gives no criteria concerning which commands to follow, you make the decision as to which commands you follow.
    -Therefore, your morals are arbitrary.

    Now if you want to debate me on this, feel free.

    1. Thanks for the comment, MattyP. Your specific examples relate to the death penalty to false prophets and adultery/fornication. You are correct that I would not enforce the death penalty for a false prophet nor an adulterer. For one, the government would not allow such. These specific laws related the the nation of Israel and were their means of enforcing the law given by God. I would, however, agree with the premise of each law that both false prophets and adulterers have broken God’s law and stand in judgment before God.

      In addition, we see in the New Testament that grace is extended to those in sin, and they are given room to repent. So it is not that I don’t follow the commands (the condemnation of false prophets and adultery) but the consequences are the place of the government (see Romans 13).

      Finally, you still made no argument for why your approach to morals is not arbitrary. Can you prove your side?

      1. As to “proving” how my morals aren’t arbitrary… ad hoc would probably be a better description, to be blunt. I can’t predict what situations I will be in at any particular time, and any moral judgments I make refer to some simple moral rules were either specifically ingrained in me by my (atheistic) upbringing or are part of the Zeitgeist of the times I reached maturity. Not a particularly satisfying answer, but entire books have been written about how systems of morality develop.

        As for following the “demands” of Deuteronomy (I wonder, do you wear blended fabrics or eat shellfish), the Bible is [painfully] explicit about the punishments for adultery and false prophets (death by stoning for both, I believe). In fact, those punishments are explicitly demanded by the aforementioned passages, and, supposedly from the mouth of the man himself (Matthew 5):

        17“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. 19So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.

        As for Matthew 13… that is one of the most mind-bogglingly abhorrent things in the Bible. Are the Iranians commanded to be subject to the Ayatollah and their insane President? Were the founding fathers of our great country commanded, by God-mind you, to be subject to the King of England? Also, why would God create authorities who don’t follow his law?

        Matthew 13 has been the go-to chapter for tyrants for centuries… What better justification does a politician need for any action, any tax, than to merely say “My Authority has been established by God. Who are you to question God?”

        If we followed Matthew 13, we would still be bending knee to a British tyrant, and I’m happy that our founders found (at least) that section of the Bible irrelevant and silly.

  3. How are claimed god-based morals better?

    Christian: god prohibits polygamy
    Muslim: god allows polygamy
    Jew: god requires polygamy in some cases (brother dies without an heir, surviving brother is expected to marry widow)

    Please reconcile the above moral statements. You can’t. So why is this “better”?

    1. Merlynleroy,
      Let me take a shot at reconciling those statements. I agree with the first–Christianity believes God prohibits polygamy. For Muslims, they believe God allows polygamy. However, they do not claim to serve the same God of the Bible and believe in a different revelation (the Qu’ran). You have made a mistaken statement in the third. Levirate marriage for the Jews required the younger, unmarried brother to marry his brother’s widow and raise up an heir.

      The DFWCoR is the group that claimed to have the same values as religious believers. I pointed out that all sorts of religious groups have a more consistent approach to ethics than they. At the same time, however, I would argue that Islam is also inconsistent and incoherent in their beliefs.

      Please feel free to prove your morals are better. And in addition, please logically defend how you can claim something is better.

  4. MattyP,
    I appreciate your honesty about your ad hoc system of ethics. What are some of those moral rules you reference? Why are they rules? Can they be broken?

    As for Romans 13 (not Matthew 13), Paul was writing that during Nero’s reign. So yes, I believe he was t instructing them to submit to the authorities even if that led to death. According to the Bible, we are all sinful; therefore, no rulers would ever follow God’s law perfectly. Romans 13 does not prohibit people from working within the system of government to effect change. I vote in every election attempting to shape my local, state, and national government. In addition, I have contacted city council members, state representatives, Congressmen, and Senators to express my opinion and seek change. Romans 13 does not require rolling over and being trampled, but it does say that God has granted authority to the government to protect the people and enforce the law.

    Regarding revolution, I do not believe the Bible supports revolution by force. Overthrowing a duly established government would be sinful in my view, though I admit not all Christians would agree. I also doubt that we would still be bowing the knee to a British tyrant since basically every British colony has subsequently become an independent nation, nor is the British monarchy tyrannical. I certainly did not get that impression while I was living in London.

  5. Evan, I’m replying on a new thread, so as to avoid the ridiculous narrowing that is the bane of nested comments…

    “How do you respond when people take advantage of you? If self-interest is your goal (enlightened or otherwise), that self-interest will not sit idly by while others take advantage.”

    I simply don’t deal with them again. If enough people agree that their behaviour is abhorrent, they will find that no one will deal with them.”Turn the other cheek,” in fact, with a practical outcome. If their behaviour was bad enough, I’d seek legal help in getting recompense, as would you I assume.

    Your next point, the definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’: Bad is that which causes unnecessary harm; good is that which promotes health and happiness.

    “How do you know something is commendable? My guess is you base that on reason and self-interest. But how would you respond if someone else says that the exact opposite is good, right, or commendable?”

    Well for starters, ‘commendable’ is a comparative term, not an absolute. That said, I’d argue that the further an action moves away from immediate self-interest (hope for reward etc) and toward enlightened self-interest, the more commendable it is.

    My response to the second question depends on circumstances and the subject at hand. Some things are unjustifiable, and anyone promoting them as good is just plain wrong: rape for instance. Things get complicated, generally, as the issue itself gets complicated. The less we can be sure of the outcome of, say, a fiscal policy, the less we can label it good or bad until we have the advantage of hindsight. By which time, it’s generally too late.

    But you also make a value judgement. Two nested judgements, in fact. Firstly, you assume that the holy book of your choice is, or contains, the word of a god. Secondly, you assume that the commands and wishes of that god are good merely because they are the commands and wishes of that god. On what grounds do you make these assumptions?

    1. Thanks for the reply. I, too, despise the nested comments, especially after they go more than one deep. So, we’ll keep this one as the farthest in we go. I think we can both agree on that.

      Refusing to deal with a person who takes advantage of your enlightened self-interest is noble, but there could be times when you cannot simply no longer deal with them. Perhaps it is a family member or even a child.

      Your definition of good also contains a subjective term–happiness. How do you define that?

      You also make the claim that there are some moral absolutes that are not dependent on situation or reason. You give rape as an example. How do you know for certain it is wrong? I agree it is wrong, but I base it on my belief in Scripture.

      As for my assumptions, they are faith commitments. I readily admit that. However, your reason-based approach is also a faith commitment because it assumes you are capable of reasoning accurately through a situation and making a “good” decision.

  6. Umm, okay, I did that using the main ‘post comment’ button. I have no idea how it ended up as a reply on a sub-thread. My apologies.

  7. Thanks for this post, Evan.

    It seems to me that atheists can have a values system of sorts. They can say that compassion is good, for example. But of course they cannot mean that compassion is objectively good (at least not without a contradiction).

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