You sometimes hear this question, “Can an atheist be moral?”
There’s a fallacious line of reasoning that would lead one to answer “No.”
There’s a much more plausible one that would lead one to answer “Yes.”
I’m going to explore these two lines, and then add my own judgment, “Not fully.”
(1) The fallacious line of reasoning is this:
- The basis of morality is God.
- An atheist rejects God.
- ∴ An atheist rejects the basis of morality.
- ∴ An atheist rejects morality itself.
- One who rejects morality itself cannot be moral.
- ∴ An atheist cannot be moral.
This line of reasoning isn’t insane, but it is invalid. The error is that 4 doesn’t follow from 3. What follows from 3 is “If an atheist is rationally consistent, he will reject morality, since he rejects the basis of morality.” A rationally consistent atheist indeed logically ought to affirm nihilism, as Nietzsche makes so very evident, or Sartre, or more recently, philosopher Joel Marks, a Kantian ethicist for many years, who was finally, inexorably, led to the conclusion that atheist entails nihilism. See here. Also, see my own article on Why Atheism Entails Absurdism and Nihilism.
But even if one is a theoretical nihilist, which an atheist rationally ought to be, no one can actually, practically, existentially be a nihilist. Human beings are irreducibly moral creatures, and regardless of what one thinks, one will have an ethos, a moral character. It might be a bad, vicious character, but it is impossible to be a human being without one; thus, all human beings are “moral” in this loose sense, that is, their lives express preferences and beliefs about what is good and bad.
(2) Not all atheists manage to draw the conclusion that atheism entails nihilism. They often simply short-circuit the reasoning process—I suspect that people like Joel Marks, a philosopher, simply couldn’t live with the cognitive dissonance. Others, such as Nietzsche and Sartre (in their different and characteristic ways) manage to take a perverse delight (of a sort, one which usually lives alongside despair) in nihilism.
I think, though, for the most part, most atheists are intellectually content to simply hand-wave the question of the foundation of morality, and give absurd answers such as “The basis of morality is society” or “the basis of morality is evolution.”
This is, I believe, really just a kind of ad hoc patch. The atheist really does accept morality, just like everyone else (expect the sociopath and the very rare true nihilist), he is aware of moral truths like everyone else, and since he is aware of moral truths, that is, since he knows that there is such a thing as objective moral truth, he assumes that his acquaintance with this fact is sufficient to justify his acceptance of it. In a way, it is, since acquaintance is one way in which we come to be rationally justified in knowing something exists. In another way, it is not, since his atheism entails that he ought not to accept it, but to discount it as a kind of illusion. Of course, on atheism, one really ought to account all the deliverances of reason as illusory or delusional or at the very least, untrustworthy—but that’s another matter. The point here is that while the atheist does indeed have rational warrant for believing in morality, via direct acquaintance with moral reality, he or she also has a defeater for this warrant in his or her atheism itself. The atheist is essentially in the position of holding: “M requires F to exist. F does not exist. Therefore M cannot and does not exist. But at the same time, I am directly acquainted with M; therefore M does exist. Therefore M both does and does not exist.” M here stands for “morality” of course, and it is obviously a self-contradictory position to hold that morality both does and does not exist.
There are only two logically consistent ways to meet this dilemma: (1) the atheist can embrace nihilism and deny that morality exists (although he might still say that it has a kind of illusory being, in the way that moral relativists and moral subjectivists are able to talk about “morality” in kind of fictitious sense); this is the path of most intelligent atheists, such as Hume, Nietzsche, and Sartre, or (2) the atheist could accept the moral argument for the existence of God, and become a theist, since the existence of morality entails theism.
For the most part, though, atheists seem to sustain the cognitive dissonance of holding views inconsistent with atheism, by the simple expedient of not conceptually connecting the two ideas. Although it is not logically consistent with his atheism, nothing prevents an atheist from nevertheless using his conscience to be aware of moral truths, and he can easily share many of the same moral motivations as theists, for example, the peer pressure of social approval or disapproval, the fear of legal or social sanctions, and so forth. [ADDENDUM: After listening to Jacquelyn Glynn talk, I note yet ANOTHER way one can be inconsistent: one can firmly declare that morality does not, in fact, exist (since this does follow from atheism) AND also simply keep on making moral judgments, as if one’s conviction that morality does not exist is simply irrelevant to making moral judgments and decisions. I assumed the disconnect would have to lie in a spurious belief that morality can somehow be justified non-theistically; but apparently, one solution is just to reject morality in words, and keep being as moralistic as one pleases.]
While Christianity has a very definite moral teaching, the purpose of Christianity is not to foster moral behavior—indeed, Christianity tells us that we are fallen beings and that we will do evil, whether we think we want to or not. Christianity is about salvation, and this is something that every human being needs, the moral and the immoral alike.
Two quotes are useful here.
First, Our Lord himself says in Luke 5:29-32
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table[d] with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
And St. Paul says in Romans 2,
14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
What do these two quotes together tell us?
Firstly, that it is sinners who are in the most dire need of the teaching of Christ. We should no more be surprised to find the wicked among the Christians than we are to find the sick at a hospital.
Secondly, St. Paul’s quote points to the Christian teaching of the natural law, that all human beings have an awareness of right and wrong “written on their hearts” to which their “conscience bears witness.”
We have, in other words, a natural capacity to discern right and wrong (although this capacity is (a) darkened by sin, although not wholly obliterated, and (b) as enslaved by sin, we lack the power fully to do what we know is right and to refrain from what we know is wrong).
Now, a Christian may in some case receive a special grace of God which helps him or her resist temptation, but how could we say that God does not sometimes grant similar grace to atheists? God has His reasons for what He does.
I think the most we can say is that when normal motivations for right action and refraining from wrongdoing break down, an atheist will be left with considerably less to fall back on than a Christian. Atheists, for example, are not known for their sustained efforts at charity: they have, like everyone else, an impulse to charity, but once it becomes a burden, the atheist has very little reason to persevere in it, especially when he realizes that much of what he does is, humanly speaking, futile. Atheists often think they are trying to fix social ills, and should they conclude that a given problem is insoluble, they will often, “rationally” for a given value of rationality, stop trying to fix the problem; Christian charity, on the other hand, is not first and foremost about trying to solve or fix problems; we believe, in fact, that our deepest problems are simply not within our power to fix or solve. That is not the task to which we are called.
(3) And this brings me to my answer. An atheist should have a working conscience and can arrive at an understanding of the natural law without being a believer, so in what way would an atheist be at a disadvantage with respect to morality or virtue?
The only one I can think of is that an atheist cannot, eo ipso, have the virtue of piety. An atheist will necessarily be vicious to a certain extent, since unbelief or infidelity is in itself a vice and a sin.
It follows that an atheist cannot ever be fully moral, no more than can, say, a thief. A thief cannot be fully moral, because he is a thief; he steals, and stealing is, in itself, immoral. An atheist cannot be fully moral, because he is an atheist; he disbelieves, and unbelief is, in itself, immoral. An atheist cannot properly honor God as God, nor grant Him the worship He is due, which is a violation of justice (to withhold something that is truly owed); an atheist must display the vice of ingratitude towards God, since he cannot be grateful to one whom he does not acknowledge even to exist.
An atheist will not, of course, consider impiety or unbelief a serious evil, or an evil at all. But this very fact, properly understood, points not to the benignity of unbelief, but to a certain additional darkening of the intellect and corruption of the soul which is caused by unbelief.
I somewhat regularly post a remark of Fr. Josiah Trenham on Twitter, which is this:
Needless to say, this is not a remark that atheists like to hear. But Father Josiah has very good reasons for saying this, not the least of which is that it is true.
Atheism is in itself a great intellectual and moral corruption and it leads to yet further intellectual, moral, and spiritual corruption.
So in this sense—which is not negligible—an atheist cannot be fully moral.