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Why atheism is more moral than religion.

April 16, 2011

In debates between atheists and apologists for religion, morality is often brought up by the religious. Religious beliefs, they claim, give us access to a standard of morality we would not otherwise have. Atheism, they claim, is amoral and by dispensing with religion’s guiding hand would lead to a world which held no moral standards. The debate then usually descends into accusations of immoral behaviour by one side or the other: Stalin vs the Inquisition, etc. It is worth pointing out that campaigners against religion are often acting for moral reasons, opposition to discrimination against homosexuals for instance, but I wonder if there might be a more rational way to look at this question.

To examine religion’s record as moral guide let us take the example of slavery. (I will be talking mainly about Christianity but the points apply to the other western religions, Judaism and Islam.) Slavery was common in the ancient world and, though many do not realise this, continued in Europe well beyond the fall of the Roman Empire. By some modern definitions, mediaeval serfdom would also count as slavery. The transatlantic slave trade was not an aberration but an expansion of practices already relatively common. Today, however, slavery is widely acknowledged as immoral and one would be hard pressed to find anyone who would wish to condone it, even on the internet. (There are of course many people, if not a majority, who implicitly endorse slavery. Many of the products sold in the west are produced by slaves and there are more slaves in the world now than at any other point in human history. Some have pointed out that since the Civil War, America has simply outsourced slavery, realising that it is cheaper to use slaves in the developing world than go to the expense of transporting and keeping them. From a Marxist perspective one might argue that capitalism is in fact necessarily dependent on slavery.)

It is clear that the establishment of a consensus about the immorality of slavery since the eighteenth century has coincided with the rise of secularism. While many of the nineteenth-century abolitionists were religious believers the moral basis for the condemnation of slavery comes from the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, a predominantly Deist philosophy. Christianity had for centuries, however, condoned slavery and it was not until 1965 that the Catholic Church unequivocally condemned it, over a century after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Pro-slavery advocates used Biblical arguments to justify holding slaves (in addition to arguments based on the right to property which I have argued elsewhere is not morally justified). Where is religion’s guiding moral hand?

Theism (as classically defined) implies the existence of objective truth and it would seem that this must include objective moral standards. For religion to take the moral high ground it must have access to these standards. (There are other philosophical issues with the notion of taking our moral standards from a god or gods which are pointed out by Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro.) If the morality taught by a religion can only at best keep pace with the moral standards of the culture at large then it seems clear that the claim to a higher moral knowledge is false. To put it more logically: if there exists objective morality then slavery is either immoral or moral and this will be true in all times and places. If slavery is immoral then religion cannot claim access to divinely inspired knowledge of the moral law. The alternative would seem to be that if religion is true then slavery can be justified. Who has the moral high ground now?

There are of course the religious liberals, or what one might call ‘Tony Blair Christians’ who would see no problem in religion updating its moral teaching to adapt to the standards of the time. These are the kind of people who talk a lot about ‘spirituality’ and would not dream of making absolutist claims or proselytising. They are difficult to argue with because they refuse to take up any kind of position and want, like Tony Blair, to be liked by everyone. (I should point out that most of them, unlike Tony Blair, are not war criminals.) They might stress that religion provides a moral inspiration to the individual rather than a guide to society as a whole. It is certainly true that many good deeds have been inspired by religious feeling but if the definition of good can change there is no guarantee of morality. Should society’s moral standard fall we would expect religion’s to also. And if religion endorses immoral behaviour then it will inspire such behaviour in individuals (as it clearly has done during the witch trials or in the cases of the murderers of abortionists in the US) who will consider themselves good and will see no need to reflect rationally on their actions. Thus, the liberal follower of religion is still worse off than the philosophical secularist who must work out a rational moral and ethical standard and constantly reflect on this and aspire to a higher standard.

It follows then that whatever consolation the religious believer takes from their faith, they cannot but be less moral than the non-believer who must not only make her or his own moral decisions but also take responsibility for them. To follow a Socratic line one would say that only the philosopher can be virtuous as only the philosopher seeks truth. As this quest for truth is based on the questioning of all conventional wisdom or received opinions it follows that the religious believer cannot be a true philosopher and cannot therefore be properly virtuous.

N.B. I’m well aware that atheism will not guarantee moral behaviour and examples of immoral atheists have no bearing on the argument.

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From → Philosophy

13 Comments
  1. Dear Nevard, You have just shown here how religion failed to condemn slavery, agreed, but then again, this is only half of the picture. Can you show how the alternative could be better, for example if atheism was present and in power, say for the last 4000 years, would it have the slavery problem too? Also if this did not happen it doesn’t show that atheism is more moral than religion, it has never been put to the test. Even if you follow the Socrates line I doubt if it would control social behavior. Religion and all common sense says, do not kill but then when has it ever stopped. also have you read about about Saloth Sar?

  2. Also Christianity, Islam and Judaism failed to condemn slavery not because their moral standards had defects but the fact that people never put in power the moral standard that should have been applied. You also have to give the weight to the fact that in earlier times, majority of slaves were prisoners of war and there were two options, either put them to death or use them as slaves and that is true of all slave harboring nations even the pagan ones. Slavery in the ancient world was almost global. I think you are replacing social behavior with a default “follow your religion philosophy”, it can be used in an argument but it is not practical since all philosophies can fail on general behavior and as you yourself quoted, only the philosopher would be virtuous but then again, how many philosophers ever condemned slavery or decided – not to have slaves, even in antiquity, which you quote and did they make a change? I looks to me, a straw man tactic but I do not think that is your honest intention.

  3. Also can you please complete your argument and show, how atheism is more moral than religion? since you have only showed that philosophers are more moral than others. You are assuming all philosophers to be non-religious, well that is not the case.

    So back to the original question, what higher truth has atheism contributed to the the enlightenment of the world and what better moral have they invented, introduced or discovered?

  4. My point is that God, if She/He exists, did not reveal to Jews, Christians or Muslims that slavery was immoral. A believer who keeps slaves is not ‘failing to live up to their religion’ because their religion condones slavery. Thus, as I consider slavery to be immoral, I have a higher moral standard than God. The historical context is irrelevant because God can surely see beyond that. Jesus preached pacifism and told his followers to give up private property, both of which made little sense in his historical context. (I have never met a Christian who follows those instructions however.)

    In my last paragraph I tried to argue why religious belief and philosophy are incompatible. The philosopher does not take things on faith.

    Since the Enlightenment moral standards have risen in the West. This is seen not only in the abolition of slavery but also in things like feminism, the end of racial discrimination and discrimination based on sexuality, the end (at least in most civilised countries) of capital punishment and torture, greater legal protection of children, etc. The Enlightenment was driven by the rejection of religious dogma. (In this context I think it matters little whether we are talking about deists, agnostics or atheists: they must all find moral standards without reference to a higher power.) The philosophy of this period led to moral improvement by using reason. To see examples you could look at Kant.

    Atheism is more moral for the existential reason that the individual must take responsibility for her own actions. A believer might give money to charity because God told them to and it will help them avoid an eternity in hell. A non-believer gives money for the sake of the recipients themselves. A Christian loves her neighbour for the sake of God: an atheist loves her neighbour for the neighbour’s sake. Which is more moral? (For more on the immorality of Christianity have a look at Nietzsche.)

  5. About your argument on slavery I did a small response, hope you might have something to share you can find it on my blog.
    http://johnadavid.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/why-atheism-is-not-more-moral-than-religion/

  6. To quote you “Atheism is more moral for the existential reason that the individual must take responsibility for her own actions.” This is hardly the case, it is an ideal situation one that assumes morality to start with. In the above post that I gave the link of, I have addressed how I think otherwise.

    Thanks for your response. Hope we have a learning experience.

    • The believer takes no responsibility. Good acts are only possible because of God while bad acts can be blamed on the devil. Without freedom and responsibility morality becomes like a game where one follows a few arbitrary rules in order to win.

  7. “The believer takes no responsibility. Good acts are only possible because of God while bad acts can be blamed on the devil.”

    I am sorry but you are either misinformed or in the wrong context. Please provide references to back up your statement, otherwise it is a straw man stance.

    I wonder where do you get this kind of interpretation, This is the one point that baffles me regarding atheists, do atheists really believe that almost 86% of the world’s population is blind and stupid for following their religions. That they never have questions like this and if so what responses make them go on in their paths.

    • It might be unfair to characterise all believers in this way but the idea is certainly present within some forms of Christianity. And what about predestination which does away with moral agency entirely?

  8. That idea is only present in Calvinism and Full Preterism. I know that it exists but it would not be a wise stance – to pick up a single form of thought and paint the entire religion with it. Main stream Christianity agrees upon free will, Calvinism and full Preterism do not even represent one third of the religious following.

  9. I’d say that it colours most of Protestantism and still provides a knotty problem for theists of whatever kind.

    You haven’t responded to this:

    “A believer might give money to charity because God told them to and it will help them avoid an eternity in hell. A non-believer gives money for the sake of the recipients themselves. A Christian loves her neighbour for the sake of God: an atheist loves her neighbour for the neighbour’s sake. Which is more moral?”

    which I thinks is the more interesting question.

  10. on your question regarding “You have failed to account for the fact that secularism has resulted in higher standards of morality, including the notion of human rights.”

    When you get time, jump over to my blog, my thoughts n it, for what its worth.

    http://johnadavid.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/has-secularism-resulted-in-higher-moral-standards-than-religion/

    Take care

    P.S: will comment your question soon –
    “A believer might give money to charity because God told them to and it will help them avoid an eternity in hell. A non-believer gives money for the sake of the recipients themselves. A Christian loves her neighbour for the sake of God: an atheist loves her neighbour for the neighbour’s sake. Which is more moral?”

    which I thinks is the more interesting question.”

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