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emilianate's avatar

Why do atheists believe in other objective moralities when there is no scientific evidence supporting them?

Asked by emilianate (594points) September 27th, 2012

Atheists don’t believe in anything that cannot be scientifically proven, yet I often notice online and locally, atheists believing in other objective moralities such as helping the sick, helping the poor or believing racism is wrong, stealing, murder and so on. All of these things are moral objectives yet none of these things can be scientifically proven to be an objective morality.

Religions are the same, in that they set the god/s as their objective morality. Atheists refuse this objective morality on account of there being no evidence but support other moral objectives which too lack in evidence.

This line of reasoning doesn’t make much sense to me.

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37 Answers

Coloma's avatar

Oh “lord” the can of worms is bursting at the seams. lol

Well, IMO, regardless of belief systems all you mention is simply part of being a “civilized” human living in a civilized society that needs to be based on cooperation and kindness rather than murder and mayham.
Large herds of any animal survive best in cooperative groups and usually don;t murder their own.
To live as a fairly evolved being means regarding, in at least some measure, law, order, justice and ideally a value system that is inclusive not exclusive.

wonderingwhy's avatar

It’s not morality that’s being rejected, it’s god. The evidence of the value of ethics is determined continually by the society and individuals that invoke them through observation, experience, and reason. They are not strictly objective but can seem so when a whole, or vast majority of, society agrees with the reason behind them.

josie's avatar

Half the things you mentioned are not governed by moral principle but instead are directed by social convention. Helping the poor and sick only become moral issues if one is forced to help them against ones will. Racism is wrong because it is irrational. It is irrational, thus immoral, to render a negative moral judgement against someone for something they do not control by choice, i.e. skin color.

augustlan's avatar

We don’t reject any particular morality. We reject the idea that there is a supernatural being who dictates it, that’s all.

emilianate's avatar

When it comes to god you require evidence but when none can be given, you reject it?

When it comes to morality, you don’t require scientific evidence and you except it based on majority agreement rather than scientific evidence?

What is the difference between a religious person believing in god or an atheists believing in helping the sick/poor? Both are objective moralities not based on scientific evidence. They actually share the same moral objectives, except god is an additional objective.

Why accept a moral objective because the majority of our society agree on it? If it has no scientific evidence than it’s no different than believing in god without proof.

SavoirFaire's avatar

First things first: it is not true that atheists don’t believe in anything that cannot be scientifically proven. They may also believe in things that can be philosophically proven, for instance. Morality is ultimately a philosophical issue. If there are good philosophical arguments for the existence of an objective morality, then, anyone who is willing to adopt the premises of those arguments can adopt the conclusion (i.e., that there is an objective morality).

Secondly: helping the sick, helping the poor, (not) stealing, and (not) murdering are actions, not moralities (objective or otherwise). People may choose to do them for any number of reasons—including, though not necessarily, because they are demanded by some sort of objective morality. Moreover, you are confusing yourself by saying that they are moral objectives, and therefore require morality to be objective. The word “objective” in the phrase “moral objective” means “goal.” That’s not what the word “objective” means in the phrase “objective morality.” One can have moral objectives (that is, goals) regardless of whether one takes morality to be objective or subjective.

Thinking racism is (morally) wrong is slightly different. If it’s supposed to be a true statement, then there would need to be moral facts to make it true. Many might be content to say only that racism is unjustified, irrational, socially counterproductive, and factually mistaken, however, which would not require a special class of moral facts. If practical and rational grounds are sufficient for condemning racist actions, then the lack of a special set of moral reasons need not bother us. Yet we may not even need to go that far if there are philosophical reasons for accepting an objective morality.

And finally: you seem to be conflating atheism with metaphysical naturalism. They are not the same. One can be an atheist and still believe in supernatural things. Jainism, for instance, is a religion that posits the existence of souls and an afterlife but rejects the existence of God. You are taking a small subset of atheists and acting as if they are representative of all atheists, which is not the case.

It may also be worth noting that some people think science does hold the answers to morality, and that the system which emerges from scientific research is an objective one. I happen to think that this is mistaken, but we should not pretend that the view does not exist or have any evidence in its favor.

Mariah's avatar

Not everything can be scientifically proven. Such as philosophic notions like morality.

Although I guess you could even say that it has been scientifically proven in a way, e.g. we have observed that overall societal happiness goes down when people are hungry, so we try and prevent that.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Mariah But that’s just data. That societal happiness is something we should be worried about and trying to make go up rather than down requires a philosophical argument.

Mariah's avatar

@SavoirFaire Very good point.

Basically what I’m trying to say is that atheism doesn’t automatically equate with harsh cold rationalism. We still value things like happiness. It’s not that big of a leap of logic.

jaytkay's avatar

Where does this idea that science is the opposite of religion come from? I hear this a lot lately.

Is someone actively promoting it or am I just now noticing an old trend?

Berserker's avatar

Morality is something I can see happening, something I can observe, something I can do. Or not. Either way, what more proof do I need other than this that it exists? People make choices all the time, weigh in what they think is right or wrong, and so forth.
Atheists reject the idea of God, (or gods) which frankly has nothing to do with morality, as that’s something attributed to a god, rather than, in an atheist’s belief, (or lack thereof) coming from a god. One can believe in morality and not a god because it’s something we all go through every day. I ask again, what proof then, do I need? I guess that’s how atheists can believe in this, for lack of better words. It’s part of our daily lives, and it’s my personal opinion, anyway, that a lot of our daily lives have created the idea of gods and the religions which stem from them, rather than the other way around.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Mariah Indeed. I’m not quite sure where @emilianate got the impression that atheists were all committed to such a stark epistemology.

lynfromnm's avatar

My reason for being moral is unapologetically selfish: I want the world to continue, and that is much more likely in a world where people value human life, where individual rights are promoted and protected, where people are accountable for their actions, where rewards are based on merit rather than chance or whim, and a person’s worth is calculated in terms of their honorable character.

I want my life to be about my own choices, on my own merit, with my own work, with my own passions.

JLeslie's avatar

We learn through experience that helping others helps us all. We are taught it from our parents and other members in society. We observe it ourselves, the positive that comes from helping others, and how happy we have been to be helped ourselves. The Golden Rule does not have to be taught in a church. Every baby I have ever played with loves the game when you give them something, and then they give it back, and then you give it back to them. They will do it over and over again. I see children walk over to other children and offer to play. I think we are social beings, and learning the best ways to interact with society, with our community, is important to us as human beings for survival and fulfillment. We don’t need God to teach us how to behave and what is moral, we have our own brains, we can logically figure it out.

I don’t need something to be proven to believe it. Sometimes there is a lot of evidence and we can draw a reasonable conclusion. As we go through life, new information might be added, we might change our view, or discover alternatives to what we thought was true as we learn more. That’s life. At the same time an absence of evidence is reason enough for me not to believe something, or at minimum question it.

In my mind I can’t ever imagine a God that would be angry His children did not worship or believe in Him, as long as the people were behaving as God would want. I think if there is a God he would want us to be charitable, and kind, and responsible. That behavior would matter most. I never look to God for help or guidance, it simply does not occur to me.

gasman's avatar

Morality is not subject to scientific tests of validity.

Morality is a social construct, invented a priori by people. It’s a set of rules describing how people should treat other people. Different people or cultures might have different rules. There is nothing to be “discovered” in the way that science discovers physical reality. The validity of a moral code is by mutual agreement of the people involved – that is its only test! It’s nothing at all like science.

Why follow a moral code if not compelled by a deity? Because it makes the world a better place to live for everybody.

wundayatta's avatar

Objective morality? To me, they seem subjective. Where are these objective moralities you are talking about? Morality is a social agreement. The appeals to objectivity come later when people try to enforce their ideas about morality. But morality is subjective first, last, and always. All the rest is window dressing; especially the so-called “objectivity.”

I can’t believe any atheist would fall for the notion of objectivity in morals, ethics, rules, or any attempt to govern society. We, like everyone else, can barely agree on the criteria for determining what is good, much less the objectively best way to achieve that good.

Taciturnu's avatar

Very much agreed with @wundayatta‘s idea that morals are entirely subjective.

From my experience, there are two kinds of atheists.

There are ones who hate the world and everyone in it. They maintain a position of them being wronged in life and now it’s “every man for himself.” it seems most religious followers believe this is the standard.

Then, there are the ones who do not believe in anything science does not support, but are humanitarians who want life to be better for themselves and the people around them. They usually have platforms they work from, such as helping the sick/poor as you mentioned. These kinds of atheists are actually usually fairly educated people.

Moral compasses may be enhanced by religion, but religion certainly does not dictate the capability of moral development. I, personally, have an atypical view of a Higher Power and I also create and develop my own religion. I also determine which morals and values I cling to or discard. What about us, the ones who follow no creed or doctrine, but still have a Deity of sorts? Which category would you put us in?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@gasman The OP doesn’t ask why atheists might act morally, but rather why atheists might believe in a very particular sort of morality (i.e., objective morality). The so-called “moral argument for the existence of God,” which contends belief in an objective morality requires belief in God, goes back to at least Immanuel Kant.

@wundayatta While I completely agree that morality is not objective, it does not seem bizarre to me that some atheists might think otherwise. None of the major objective moral theories require one to assume the existence of a God to get started (pace Kant), so anyone convinced of one of them is free to also be an atheist.

In fact, it seems more bizarre to me that theists would believe they somehow have some special claim to objective morality. Socrates drove a stake through the heart of that one over 2500 years ago with the Euthyphro dilemma: while there might be both an objective morality and a God, there certainly isn’t an objective morality because there is a God.

wundayatta's avatar

@SavoirFaire I’m not up on theories of objective morality. It’s not an argument I could begin to make. And I was being a bit over the top there, too.

But if any atheist wanted to make the objective morality argument, I would be interested to see how it goes. Hopefully it wouldn’t make me laugh.

But shoot. All the objective arguments I know of are fronts for subjective arguments—designed to help people fool themselves as to where the morality comes from. I mean, as soon as you admit that words are subject to interpretation, you are lost. Interpretations are subjective. Understanding is subjective. There’s no way around it.

You can use sophistry and say you have some unique understanding given you by some external objective source, but that’s still subjective as long as we only have your word that you experience this objective source directly.

Objectivity is just a marketing technique. It’s politics. It’s an appeal to authority—a rhetorical technique. It’s disingenuous, I think. So I don’t trust people who are unwilling to admit to their point of view and attempt to make it seem like their point of view is objective. That’s pure silliness, although many people do it in all seriousness. Which is sad, since if you get lost in those rhetorical mazes, it’s really hard to have a conversation. Unfortunately, that is often where conversations start and end.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@wundayatta Again, I don’t entirely disagree. But I think the first thing that someone who did disagree would say is that you are confusing epistemology with metaphysics. That our words are open to interpretation and that we have trouble agreeing on what is moral do not prove that there is not an objective morality out there. It just shows that it will be very difficult—maybe even possible—to get at. So while it may be the case that all known systems of morality are subjective, there may still be an unknown—but correct, and binding—objective morality out there of which we are simply ignorant.

The obvious response is to say that an objective morality that we cannot get at is irrelevant, and we might as well stop worrying about it. To this, I think the moral objectivist would again insist that epistemological worries are insufficient for answering the metaphysical question of whether an objective morality exists and then go on to argue that if an objective morality exists, then it is worth worrying about. This is why many have been concerned with showing that there really is no such thing as an objective morality, as opposed to merely resting on skepticism about our ability to find it.

Blackberry's avatar

I don’t even know what to say right now….lol. You’re asking why atheists believe in basic human rights?

rojo's avatar

I think your premise is flawed. Athiest do not believe an god but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in anything that cannot be scientifically proven. You seem to be confusing god with morality and as far as I can discern the two are not interrelated.

ninjacolin's avatar

Hi, @emilianate :) You said: “All of these things are moral objectives yet none of these things can be scientifically proven to be an objective morality.”

I disagree that they haven’t been proven scientifically.

We have centuries of evidence of what racism can lead to. We’ve seen all the atrocities that ignorance wreaks on the human condition. Books have been written, films have been made, footage has been captured. After generations of trial-and-error real-life evidence, things like racism, murder, stealing, drunk driving and so on have been peer reviewed (by all of us) and it seems, and I admit it’s hard to say for absolute certain, but it seems like these kind of activities reduce society’s sense of overall happiness and enjoyment.

And that’s the very reason why we attempt to keep them to a minimum (if they have to happen at all): Simply because the evidence speaks for itself and we can’t help but abide by whatever seems to be the right way to do things.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Science isn’t any more than this: Drawing conclusions that seem to produce the best kind of results. And by the way, “true-seeming” results happen to have proven themselves over time to be the “best” kind of results to scientists and atheists alike.

Seek's avatar


Your argument is what is known as a “Straw Man”. You posit that atheists believe in nothing that isn’t scientifically proven (a statement that is inaccurate at best) and that there is no objective scientific basis for social morality (which is also inaccurate). Attacking an inaccurate statement posited as facts is like beating a man made of straw. You can’t hurt that which is not real.

I recommend the book “The Blind Watchmaker”, by Richard Dawkins. I recommend Dawkins because his books are easy to read for a layman, informative and entertaining.

In several of his books, including “The Blind Watchmaker” and “The Selfish Gene”, Dawkins suggests that many activities we consider to be “moral” have evolved through natural selection: raising our dead relative’s children, for example, will allow our genes to be passed on, even though they are not our own biological offspring. This is but one example.

We also have the benefit of being sentient beings who can use reason and logic as tools to understand our universe. These days, we have reasoned that there is no good reason to assume a person with little melanin in their skin is any “better” than a person with a lot of melanin in their skin. In fact, it has been scientifically proven that there is more genetic variation between samplings of two groups of the same “race” than there is between a sampling of two groups of different races.

However, religious morality can posit whatever it likes (black people are descended from the son of Noah who looked at his naked, drunk father and are thus cursed, for example) without bothering with such things as facts. So all in all, I find religion to be a very poor source of moral teaching, and science and reason to be very good ones.

josie's avatar

Morality is not about how we treat others. That is social and legal convention.
Certainly they overlap, but…
Morality refers to how we make decisions to survive and thrive in accordance to the values dictated by our specific nature. And since our ideas are abstractions, and since it is impractical and potentially dangerous to reconstruct reality every time we have to make a decision, morality is often integrated into a code, a set of behaviors, that we can quickly refer to when we need to. Which is just about every time you select a voluntary action.

tedd's avatar

Actually there is quite a bit of scientific research and theory that supports the idea of us all working together and succeeding more as a result.

If you’ve ever seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, think of it like the scene where he points out which girls they should go after at the bar. There’s one blonde who all the guys like most, but if they all go after her all but one, or even all of them, will go home empty handed. If however they work together and each go after one of the many still attractive brunettes, they’ll all go home happy. It’s that concept.

You could think of it as “morality” for the sake of progress.

wundayatta's avatar

@SavoirFaire I follow the arguments. They are helpful.

My question is why would anyone attempt to prove there is no objective morality? That is impossible to do. The same as it is impossible to prove there is no God. It is always possible that one of those things is out there, and we just haven’t found it. At best, we can say it is extremely unlikely. Which is good enough for me—I equate extremely unlikely with saying it doesn’t exist, even though I know they are different. But for functional purposes, it seems like there is no difference.

LostInParadise's avatar

There are some atheists like Sam Harris who believe that there is a scientific basis for morality, but they certainly don’t account for all atheists. The rest of us have the courage to say that we must each choose our morality without making up religious fairy tales for justification.

dabbler's avatar

@SavoirFaire beat me to my answer right out of the box:
“Atheists don’t believe in anything that cannot be scientifically proven” is a ridiculous premise regarding Atheists.
That’s a description of some sort of stupid science religion.
I say ‘stupid’ because it’s clearly ignorant of all of facts and reality that is experienced but hasn’t been analysed, described, and understood by science. And science certainly has not been applied to everything humanity experiences.
In many cases scientists just haven’t got around to that corner of the universe. Research is in progress on many scientific fronts and on each of those fronts things cannot be proven. And in plenty of cases science will probably never have good traction on the subject, as mentioned above…including morality.

Science is NOT good at everything. It is what it is, and it is is very powerful within its limited domain.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@wundayatta I don’t think many people go into philosophy assuming that nothing can be proven. Moreover, it does not seem to me that proof requires 100% certainty. I consider germ theory to be proven despite the possibility that some observation will be made tomorrow that requires its total revision or abandonment. Even if it turns out to be the case that we cannot prove things, however, that doesn’t mean that attempts to prove something cannot at least yield strong reasons for believing it. Since you seem to agree on that much, at least, I might suggest that we don’t need any further justification for the pursuit itself.

LostInParadise's avatar

There are some things that we can objectively say about morality. We can talk about things like harm/benefit, group loyalty and freedom. The problem comes when different moral qualities come in conflict with one another. At that point, it comes down to making a choice. I can’t imagine some moral calculus that could measure all the factors and assign a comparative number.

nofurbelowsbatgirl's avatar

We are human. Humans are hungry. Regardless of making sense for centuries we have needed something to follow and we are always searching not just for answers but something to love, some order, and even sometimes some chaos. It gives us something to fight for, it breathes life into us and there is no rule that says whether it should be faith inspired or not, it is a way to leave a legacy, and gives us something to believe in and to live for, it’s what we do.

wundayatta's avatar

@SavoirFaire We may have run into a little linguistic conundrum. I think we can prove the presence of something. I don’t think we can prove the absence of something. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, it does seem to me that when you have a hypothesis for which there is not a shred of evidence, that even though it is possible we are just missing the evidence, somehow, it is still best to take action with the presumption that that thing does not exist and will never be found to exist.

LostInParadise's avatar

There is no such thing as pure subjectivity. Your morality is manifested by your acts. You may not be able to verbalize the rules behind your choices and they may not even be available to your consciousness, but those rules must surely exist. How else can you choose between available alternatives? Take a look at the section with header Reasoning and Rationalizing in the Moral Instinct article by Steven Pinker.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@wundayatta I disagree. I can prove to you the absence of square circles quite easily so long as you understand what it takes to be a square, what it takes to be a circle, and the fact that the two are mutually inconsistent. It’s a popular notion that one cannot prove a negative, but it’s also a false notion. If the notion of an objective morality contains a contradiction, and if that contradiction were exposed, we would know that there could be no such thing. Regardless, I agree with you about what we are to do in the absence of such a proof. On the more important issue, then, I take it we are of one mind.

@LostInParadise The ability to objectively say things about morality in no way means that morality is objective. Nor is everyone who takes morality to be objective committed to there needing to be some sort of calculus for assigning acts comparative rankings. Only utilitarians are committed to anything even somewhat like that. Nor does having rules underlying your moral choices mean that morality is not purely subjective. The points made in Pinker’s article, for instance, are exactly the kind of thing that support those who think that morality is subjective. I think the problem here might be that moral philosophers mean very specific things when they talk about morality being objective or subjective, but the words “objective” and “subjective” have many different meanings in the English language.

Seek's avatar

@SavoirFaire Proving the nonexistence of a square circle involves defining the parameters of a circle.

Whenever one provides definite parameters of such things as “god”, I’ll be happy to prove nonexistence. I can disprove Zeus because one of the parameters of “Zeus” involves living on the top of Mount Olympus and throwing thunderbolts. This one is painfully easy as we know there is no god-home on Olympus, and that there is no such thing as a bolt of thunder, not to mention we know full well where lightening comes from, and the forge of Hephaestus doesn’t enter the story.

However, when one says “you can’t disprove god/faith healing/homeopathy”, and then refuses to define parameters, or uses parameters that are inconsistently changing, we are at an impasse. It is at that point the burden of proof shifts to the believer.

LostInParadise's avatar

@SavoirFaire, How does a person make a moral choice? There must be criteria for it. We don’t do things at random. People will differ in their choices, which precludes any general moral calculus, but a given person must have a high degree of consistency. We may not know the specific rules and may even be in denial about them, but they are nevertheless present. It is like asking why a person conjugates a word in a particular way. The person may not be able to verbalize the rules being followed and may say that it just “sounds right,” but there are in fact general grammatical rules for a given language with well defined and limited exceptions. I am sure you are familiar with the ideas of W D Ross (I give the link for others to follow). I think he was overly ambitious in laying out his moral guidelines, but there is something to be said for the general idea. I do believe that for a given individual there is a moral calculus.

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