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KeithWilson's avatar

Do atheists have less constraints on their morality than theists do?

Asked by KeithWilson (833points) May 7th, 2010

Does the logic of atheism promote (even unintentionally) immorality?

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39 Answers

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Absolutely not. Atheism frees a person from the rigid moral ideas of a particular religious mindset, but this allows us to form a dynamic sense of morality that is based on logic and reason. Our morality can be better thought out, and more applicable to every day life.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

How can I be inherently good and/or evil if there is no god? First of all the concept of “good” and “evil” is one implanted by society. From a biological standpoint what you are really looking at is threat or non-threat or friend. Will this other animal take my food/shelter/water/etc? Will this other animal assist me in obtaining food/shelter/basic needs for survival? Morality is really about survival of the species, in my opinion… I believe it’s instinctive for most people.
Along those same lines of reasoning is precisely why human beings seem to be generally “good”. If you go way back in time there were more than likely tribes of humans who were predisposed to violence. On the contrary, there were probably tribes who were predisposed to working as a team to hunt and gather as a community. Guess what probably happened? It’s not unrealistic to think that the people predisposed to violence more than likely killed each other off (at least to the point where they were reduced in number compared to those who were flourishing by working together.) Therein lies the good of man that we witness today. We aren’t good because god told us to be good. We are good because our survival depends on it…. so I’m not really convinced that morals & religion really have much to do with each other. I think that religion is complimentary to morals, and vice versa… but I don’t think that’s a cause & effect situation.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

I particularly like this quote from Richard Dawkins, from the TV show Q&A on ABC:

“Absolute morality – the absolute morality that a religious person might profess would include what, stoning people for adultery, death for apostasy, punishment for breaking the Sabbath. These are all things which are religiously based absolute moralities. I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed and based upon, I’d almost say, intelligent design. Can we not design our society, which has the sort of morality, the sort of society that we want to live in – if you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people, among 21st century people, we don’t believe in slavery anymore. We believe in equality of women. We believe in being gentle. We believe in being kind to animals. These are all things which are entirely recent. They have very little basis in Biblical or Quranic scripture. They are things that have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, of sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. These do not come from religion. To the extent that you can find the good bits in religious scriptures, you have to cherry pick. You search your way though the Bible or the Quran and you find the occasional verse that is an acceptable profession of morality and you say, “Look at that. That’s religion,” and you leave out all the horrible bits and you say, “Oh, we don’t believe that anymore. We’ve grown out of that.” Well, of course we’ve grown out it. We’ve grown out of it because of secular moral philosophy and rational discussion.”

Full transcript here

evandad's avatar

If you need anything other than your own sense of right and wrong to govern your behavior then it doesn’t count.

tranquilsea's avatar

I am moral because I want to be because it is the right thing to do. Not because I’m afraid that God will smote me in some way or that I’ll be damned in some way.

SeventhSense's avatar

Interesting quote but from whence does the conscience sense of right and wrong originate? And isn’t it more than likely that the most violent have subjugated and killed the weak for centuries and have thus thrived as has been the state of the most powerful nations on earth including Mr Dawkin’s England and our good old USA? It’s only by a convenient retelling of history both past and present that we can by any means express such moral platitudes at present. The nations destroyed by America and Colonial England’s religious past and world view are certainly not feeling the love. And how is this current kinder gentler Atheist morality any less of a means by which we can subdue the “ignorant masses” who are worshiping their idols? We still live in a world where might equals right.

Silhouette's avatar

No it doesn’t, if anything it promotes morality with an eye towards personal responsibility.

Sarcasm's avatar

Does Atheism promote immorality? Absolutely not.
And honestly, such a question is insulting to your own intelligence.

Do you, as a Theist, only do good things for fear of repercussions from your god, or do you also do “good for goodness sake”?
I’ve never heard a Theist admit to the former. Given the two, they’ll always pick the latter.

You do goodness without the idea of God in the picture.
Exactly like Atheists do.

Now, if you picked the former reasoning somehow (goodness out of fear of punishment eternal), you have to step back and look at yourself. If you lost touch with your god, then the only logical thing to follow, would be that you will do bad things without restraint. To me, that would sound like theism promotes immorality.

liminal's avatar

It seems to me that ethics and morals are not things one creates but rather things one discovers. It is hard for me to imagine stating that what I embrace as ethics and morals are found in my worldview, but I can imagine stating that ethics and morals illuminate my worldview.

It is easier for me to think about this as blindness, rather than constraints, limits one’s understanding of morality. Which, knowing me, is probably getting caught up in semantics.

Still the distinction seems important to me simply because any of us, regardless of worldview, can be constrained by blindness. The art seems to be about being able to lift our blinders in order to see. I don’t think determining who is skilled in this art is best identified by theism or atheism.

SeventhSense's avatar

I would argue that God is hardwired into the species and drives the process.

ETpro's avatar

@KeithWilson No, atheists and agnostics often have more constraints on their behavior than theists do. We do not believe we can do whatever we want without regard for how it will hurt others, then do enough hail Marys or plead the blood of Jesus or bow toward Mecca on a prayer rug while reciting some magical incantation and be absolved of all guilt. Neither do all Christians or Muslims, but enough do have that notion that it muddies the whole gene pool. Look at anti-gay crusader, George Rekers and how the religious community is circling the wagons now and saying that anyone can stray from the flock but the redeeming nature of Jesus will restore him. Restore him to his former hypocrisy? Come on!

@SeventhSense There is no more evidence that a creator wired up our minds than there is that there is a creator in the first place. And if there is a creator, there is no credible evidence whether he prefers to be called Yahweh, God, Jesus, Holy Ghost, Allah or Portmanteau Charlie. Who knows but what the universe itself is eternal and sentient, and doesn’t care a whit if we call it whatever we like or nothing at all.

Yes, violent people sometimes triumph, but often they who live by the sword die by the sword. That fact acts as a sort of social Darwinism, purging the gene pool of violent types over time. We learn. Being Vikings may be high drama at times, but the constant blood and gore, the constant nomadic wandering, the constant threat that you will come up against an even meaner bastard than yourself, it has to take a toll. It is possible that God wrote his moral rules on all our brains, but it is equally possible, in fact far more probable and provable, that we grew to realize what works to build a safe, enjoyable society and internalized those rules.

jaytkay's avatar

Religion can cause immorality, when people believe that their real purpose and reward are in the afterlife, so they feel no responsibility to this world and its inhabitants.

netgrrl's avatar

Absolutely not! As a secular humanist, I don’t need to believe in a supernatural being to live a good & ethical life.

Why do I do it? Not just that it’s the right thing to do. Important, sure, but not it.

I do it because trying to live the best life I can is the path that will mean the best chance for my happiness.

Immoral choices reduce self-esteem.

Living right is necessary for me to feel good about myself.

zophu's avatar

What’s morality?

jerv's avatar

Atheists have fewer constraints; there is no religious taboo against eating certain foods, no fasting during daylight hours, no tithing, etcetera. However, Athesim does not promote the sort of atrocities that have been committed in the names of Jesus and Allah among others. Atheism is not used as justification for ethnic cleansing, discrimination, extortion, theft, torture, terrorism, bombings, shooting doctors, stoning women, or as a shield against prosecution for pedophilia, so I would have to say that Atheists are definitely no more immoral than those who cling to religion.

YARNLADY's avatar

Morality is doing right no matter what you are told: Religion is doing what you are told no matter what is right (seen on a bumper sticker)

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@SeventhSense “Interesting quote but from whence does the conscience sense of right and wrong originate?”
Ideally, it should originate from wanting the greatest collective good, because that leads to achieving the greatest personal good. Imagine a microcosm where everyone pulls their weight, and makes no attempt to exploit others. Productivity would be sky high, all would feel a sense of achievement, and everyone would pull each other to a higher standard of living. The same applies for morality – when you consider what is best for others, the memes of ethics will spread (since everyone likes what is favourable for themselves) and in turn they will do what is best for you.

“We still live in a world where might equals right.”
Unfortunately that is largely true, but less so than in the past. Most civilised countries now have good welfare systems to assist those at a disadvantage, and the might of the society has largely been handed back to the people. It will take time to achieve a higher ethical standard, but I have faith in the power of humanity, and I believe we will get there.

wonderingwhy's avatar

Not at all the difference is simply where the morality comes from and the reasoning behind it.

the100thmonkey's avatar


It is a mistake to conflate religion and morality – one is not a consequence of the other.

downtide's avatar

My morality comes from my sense of compassion for others, and is derived from rational thought, empathy and ethical philosophy. Religion has never had anything to do with it.

SeventhSense's avatar

Where do you think the term live by the sword die by the sword came from?

ETpro's avatar

@SeventhSense “Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” — Matthew 26:52

SeventhSense's avatar

Yup..same place

ru5150's avatar

I don’t think atheism is a ‘logic’ You are making the error that many theist deliberately make to try to collect atheist into a group so that they may be criticized as a collective whole. There is no such thing as ‘atheists’. Only individuals without a belief in a higher power.

Secondly I would say that religion leads to ‘sin’. Look at the crusades and the gazillion religious wars throughout time. More people have dies in the name of religion than for any other idea in history. Religion also forces unnatural states onto people – perversions if you will. Forcing gays to hide their true biology, women to submit to rape, female circumcision, slavery….blah blah blah. I could go on for days. When was the lat time a group of atheists forced anything on anyone – and I am talking a group here – not individuals.

KeithWilson's avatar

@ru5150 In like manner, there is no such thing as “theists.” Only individuals with a belief in a higher power. The conflict over religion just goes to show you how relevant the concept is to humanity. Also, the old testament is way outdated and must give way to the concepts in the new testament, which basically sums up the Law by saying “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Instead of having a complex set of rules and regulations for living, this concept gives you the freedom to decide which rules are best for following the golden rule and which rules need to be ruled out. Things change and its best to let go of old ideas and embrace new-improved ideas. The arcane laws you learn about in the Old Testament were fine for their time and were the best solutions to the problems they had back then. It may seem foolish in hindsight, but lets not be too hard on our ancestors. Embracing this idea of letting go of the old and accepting the new we can apply that to our own time and the changes that society has gone through. We have to let go of old ideas like the inferiority of women or the immorality of gays. I dont agree with some of the things that were done in the name of religion, but Im not going to throw out the dishes with the wastewater.
As a side note, I think its much easier to defend the views atheists than it is theologists. Religion has been at the forefront of humanity for a very long time and presents its broadside to modern atheists. Maybe in the future our descendants will look back on atheism in much the same way as atheism is looking back theology.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I’m not sure the bible was written with the intent for people in the future to “pick and choose” what still applies and what is “arcane.” If it’s the word of god, shouldn’t it be applicable to the human race until the end of time?

KeithWilson's avatar

@TheOnlyNeffie Only if the human race itself doesnt change over time. The bible implies that change is necessary. Jesus threw out the rule of an eye for an eye and said love thy enemies. If that rule was meant to apply indefinitely, He wouldnt have disregarded it and proposed a new idea. And just because Jesus is gone doesnt mean that the human race isnt capable of making those kind of descisions for themselves.

ETpro's avatar

@KeithWilson Surely an omniscient being wielding omnipotent power in creating humans would have known exactly how humans would change over time.

phoebusg's avatar

No. Though it would depend on how short-sighted the exploration and logical ability of the person is. If you look far enough to see that general fairness and moral behavior is in fact also to your own benefit, it makes no sense to go against it. You don’t need fear to reinforce morality at all. The biological “altruism” does even pre-logic, which is in fact a selfish act, protecting the well being of the self as well as the group. Because due to our social dependence, there is no survival of the individual without that of the group. Could go on but my direction is obvious :)

I would instead go as far as to say that atheists may have more “constraints”, but not necessarily constraints. But simply, more awareness of the why and how moral decisions affect life and themselves sooner or later.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@ETpro my thoughts exactly.

SeventhSense's avatar

I’m not sure the bible was written with the intent for people in the future to “pick and choose” what still applies and what is “arcane.” If it’s the word of god, shouldn’t it be applicable to the human race until the end of time?

So are you a theist or an atheist? If you are the latter you can’t honestly say how the “intent for people in the future is” of the book since you are by nature prejudiced.
The requirement to not “pick and choose” only conveniently supports your premise. The problem with this approach is that it also would “conveniently” place “the others” as irrational and unable to discern and glean truth. Making your straw man all the more one dimensional.

The truth is that some people can discern and glean wisdom from multiple sources. Assuming that every word, dot and tittle of a book is without error is assuming that man is perfect. Man is fallible and therefore any of man’s works including the revelatory word of God transcribed will be fallible. Yet it does not mean that the work as a whole is flawed. Again you would have to create a condition to create this conclusion as to the nature of it’s supposed flaw. As a scientific text surely it’s demonstrative of the limited understanding of the time-seven day creation etc. As a means to supply solace it has aided billions-“yea though i walk through the vallery of the shadow of death i shall fear no evil.” As a practical guide to evolved living- “blessed are the peacemakers”, “become like little children”, “give and it shall be given unto you”, “love your neighbor”. It just means it was written by men. And men have the capacity to reason and intuit wisdom from among the dross. Hell you can find wisdom from a homeless man. But if one is only waiting for wisdom to come in the form of a flawless work you might miss the sagacity of a bum or an imperfect book. Wisdom is always an incomplete work in progress but she is tireless.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

Is it “convenient” or is it just true? I think @ETpro put it very well. If the bible is even remotely accurate in it’s portrayal of god as being all knowing, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that s/he would have known how humans would change over time? I think that’s a perfectly fair assumption regardless of my own beliefs regarding any god, including yours.

SeventhSense's avatar

Again you’re presupposing that you would or could know how an all knowing God would in fact think assumes that you have the capacity to conceive of all knowing or are in fact all knowing yourself. And like you say you are simply left with your assumptions which are of course pure conjecture based upon the actions of those who are also not all knowing. None of which can be simply a reflection of an all knowing entity because all are subject to very specific and subjective opinions.

ETpro's avatar

@TheOnlyNeffie & @SeventhSense It is not just an assumption, and it is certainly not assuming we can think for God. it is an absolute requirement of being omniscient. It goes to the very heart of what the word means. All knowing. All includes everything from the beginning of time to its end.

You may believe that GOd isn’t all-knowing. I suppose if you want to read the Bible in deli fashion, taking a little bit here and a side-dish there, that is fair enough. But if you accept the book’s assertion that God is omniscient, then claim he didn’t know at the writing of the book how humans would change, you are holding inconsistent ideas. You are holding contradictory beliefs.

zophu's avatar

Those who define their own “morality” don’t necessarily have less constraints. But, regardless of whether one’s rules-of-life are adopted or invented, shared or acted out alone; one should always analyze and question their codes whenever they have the energy to do so. And no leader (or parent) should be without the energy to do so.

The idea of morality suggests solidified values that do not change with the environment and thus can not adapt. There is resolve, but resolve takes strength—there’s no simple compliance statement you make to forever be “in the right.” Old codes are like undying cells in the body, a cancer to all of society. They will eventually be destroyed by nature no matter what: the only question is what damage will be left behind. How many people have to live only to die?

SeventhSense's avatar

If the bible is even remotely accurate in it’s portrayal of god as being all knowing, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that s/he would have known how humans would change over time?
Yes of course and?. You’re making assumptions on multiple levels and I would love to know what correlations/implications you are implying.
What exactly is your point?

ETpro's avatar

Sorry to chime in so late, but when I saw this clip, I remembered this question.

I just ran across this YouTube clip of Dr. Darrel Ray, an atheist, taking a call on a call-in talk show from a Christian named Andrew. Setting aside the problem that Andrew was fighting way above his intellectual weight class, Dr. Ray’s answers are directly addressed to this question.

Ron_C's avatar

I would venture to guess that you would find more of the faithful acting as dictators, committing, atrocities, and punishing the wicked than atheists.

Atheists tend to follow the rule, “treat people like you would like to be treated” and are less judgemental than the faithful of any ilk.

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