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.


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

Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason,

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