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Atheist morality is…confusing?

April 24, 2010


That’s what a Christian I was talking with described atheist morality as. He seemed like a relatively reasonable fellow other than that…he’s big into social justice, puts his money (and time, and effort) where his mouth is. He’s not conservative, not a creationist, and even goes so far to say that, “If the science requires it, even the Bible must be cast aside.”

He notes that the traditional theodicies are “unsatisfying” and can understand why people would be unconvinced of a deity because of that. Yet, he has had extreme personal experiences that firmly plant the Christian deity — and Christianity itself — deep within his mind. And he feels that he must answer his “calling” to God to serve others.

So, atheist morality seems… confusing to him.

When I asked further about it, he provided an interesting response.

I know atheists can be good and all…but it seems to me the orientation is very different. The atheists I know tend to have moralities that are hands off…”Do no harm…” “Don’t do to others what you would not have done unto yourself.” However, as a Christian, I feel like I must proactively engage with others. It’s not enough to do no harm. But if I weren’t a Christian, I don’t think I’d be as motivated.

Seems, in a nutshell, to be the difference between silver and golden rules.

I must admit that I’m not much a fan of the Golden Rule. It seems to me most often to be a way to trample over others’ desires, by assuming that your own desires are what everyone else shares. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you sounds great — if what you would have them do unto you is, in fact, what they would have you do unto them. But in my experience, this is not often the case in major applications…

I have heard of a slight modification…the platinum rule…although it apparently isn’t as popular as either silver or golden rule…but it goes something like: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

This rule, I believe, requires most empathy, which makes it a notch above the rest in my book.

Nevertheless…if empathy is poor, I would rather people “do no harm” — a kind of negative duty — rather than people stab at “doing some good” where their idea of “good” is drastically different from mine and actually causes me some form of harm. Not only this, but I am also a rather hands-off kind of guy. That’s my personality. There are only a few issues that I truly get passionate enough to do something about it, so I know that if I’m trying to get into a competition on service or accomplishments or activity, I will most likely lose.

So, when the Christian dude I was talking raises such a point, at least when I compare myself with him, I can see a difference.

However, before we get into anything deeper, I would have to note that this is all very anecdotal. Me, him, and the people we know. I can’t say if this says anything about “atheist morality” or “Christian morality” in general. In fact, at least theoretically, I would say that such an atheist morality that he finds “confusing” (that being a proactive engagement) is actually easily explained…atheists, not driven by a personal and involved deity, must recognize that anything they want to happen must be done by people. And the responsibility can’t be deferred to others on a whim or a hope. We must personally be engaged in the causes that speak to us.


what I was also thinking was…why should his proactive approach be considered more virtuous (e.g., enough to call that “morality” and make “atheist morality” a confusion)?

Sure, sure, people don’t like negative duties when they could have positive duties. But I am still of the opinion that proactive engagement — without empathy — actually tramples over and alienates differently thinking people. I can’t help but feel as if it would be a little better if — sometimes — people left each other well enough alone.


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  1. But atheist morality is confusing. You have to figure out what to do all by yourself, with no books or interpreters to tell you the right answer! Phew, how do they ever manage.

    • Seth R. permalink

      I already have to do that as a Mormon anyway.

  2. Yeah, maybe after wading through the books that I *did* have, which were full of contradiction and paradox (much of which is now wholeheartedly celebrated by the blogging believers), it was just easier to go without. 😀

  3. FireTag permalink

    All morality is confusing. Hence the need for empathy (and understanding) in proactive approaches.

    I think the difference is less Christian vs. Athiest than a matter of personality.

    A pacifist may describe the responsibility of producing peace as “I will not harm you.”

    A Christian realist would add, “I will not let others harm you”., and then add “I will not let you harm others.”

    I suspect the same spectrum can be found to divide other religions within themselves as well.

  4. nktrygg permalink

    I think what confuses people who aren’t atheists is that atheism isn’t a system of belief or a behavior or moral code.

    It is simply a specialty area of skepticism – don’t accept claims without evidence. And in the case of atheism, it’s not accepting claims for deities without evidence.

    Atheism is nothing else.

    and, as I posted on my blog (shameless plug):

    If a person is unable to understand what’s moral and not moral without resorting to an external authority – then they aren’t moral – they are only following orders.

    And we know how that works out for society.


  5. Nina, I agree. Since there is little in common among atheists that is inherently implied in the word atheism (I’d argue that atheism doesn’t even imply skepticism. Rather, that just happens to be a common genesis for atheism in our empiricist/rationalist era. We can easily think of people who do not believe in deities, yet harbor other [sometimes frustrating to us] mystical or magical beliefs), it’s tough to pin much down on us.

    Of course, then you could get pretty hairy with that second part (if a person is unable to understand what’s moral/not moral without resorting to an external authority…). After all, what if a great deal of morality must be socially primed/is dependent on an outside group (e.g., society) inculcating certain values? Does that mean that we all are not moral, but following orders (whether overtly or covertly)?

  6. nktrygg permalink

    Hi Andrew

    Yes, you can be an atheist and not a total skeptic – I would imagine that lots of atheists accept woo “medicine” claims or maybe ghosts or Big Foot…..

    morals evolve with us – outside sources should affirm what you understand to be self-evidently moral, not determine them.

    But I also don’t accept that morals are rigid or absolute.

    Part of how we know what’s moral is what we see around us – a mix of teacher/validation

    we also evolve with morals – after all – if our earliest and earlier ancestors weren’t willing to cooperate, be fair with each other – we never would have gotten a critical mass of numbers to continue social development from the simplest roaming groups to agricultural to industrial to the information age and beyond.

    cooperation by necessity is the don’t steal, rape, assault, murder from people in your group or else be banished and starve

    it’s too many rats in the cage turning on each other and we have lost the interdependancy we once had when our number were smaller.

  7. “cooperation by necessity is the don’t steal, rape, assault, murder from people in your group or else be banished and starve”

    OK, I can work with that. But we by far would not view that as a great moral standard today. Namely, because of that “in your group part.” Different societies and different eras have produced different ingroups and outgroups, some of which we respond with in astonishment and others of which, people today aren’t even totally on board with.

    So, if we are to look at the history of rights and enfranchisement, just as an example, are we supposed to conclude that people have just been getting “more moral” over time as more rights have been awarded? Yet, this progress isn’t totally evolutionary. Much of it is (and remains) social.

  8. nktrygg permalink

    Loving the discussion, btw

    I don’t think that the extension of rights is any measure of morality.

    After all, if the majority could be trusted to be fair, then minority rights wouldn’t need to be particularly established and protected by law

    because discrimination isn’t at all moral, it’s baseless knee jerk xenophobia.

    also, I think rights are an interesting legal fiction – if we all had an understanding of human rights and they were really self evident and inalienable

    would we even have to spell them out?

    can we really be so arrogant to think that in the 200,000+ years of modern humans existing that the last century of the western nations is the pinnacle?

    even the western democracies are not so far removed from bronze age mentality.

    morals do change with each age of each civilization – that tells us there’s no such thing as an absolute moral

    the range of morals is wide and since there is no absolute true set of morals – then, who’s to say if liberal values are really better than fundamentalist ones?

  9. I’m also loving the discussion. Thanks for the many comments! It’s giving me some great ideas for future posts too!

    I agree with you that because the majority cannot be trusted naturally with the protection and extension of minority rights, minority rights need to be specially preserved. However, I think that this has implications for your “internal” or “evolved” idea of morality.

    You have said that discrimination is not moral. it is baseless and xenophobic.

    And yet…xenophobia *isn’t* baseless. It clearly has an evolved basis. “Us” vs. “them.” As you had noted in an earlier comment, evolved morality involves people “in our group.” The problem is that “our group” can be limited or fractured by many superfluous things (e.g., gender, race, sexuality). We aren’t very good at including.

    You later note that rights are an interesting legal fiction. But if you’ve already tied the notion of equality (or at least, not discriminating) to morality, then wouldn’t that mean that morality is — in part — a legal fiction?

    I think that when we get rid of the idea and reliance upon absolute morals, then we can be more creative in how we answer more relevant questions relating to relativistic morals. Who is to say if liberal values are really better than fundamentalist ones? It’s not God. It’s not evolution (alone). It’s not any one thing, because these things aren’t “absolute” or “objective.” Rather, it is up to us as a society to determine these things, because WE are the ones who determine “better” and “worse.”

  10. nktrygg permalink

    Wow, I have to admit that you nailed me on the xenophobia thing.

    It is the result of evolutionary self preservation/safety, You’re right – I totally forgot the long view.

    Well, I guess it really comes down to the best moral code was created by Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek

    we can discriminate..ToDAY

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