Dec 22 2012

The Problem of Morality

Jack Kerwick’s article on Atheism and the Problem of Morality got me thinking. Why do people think atheists have a problem with morality. Well apart from the fact it is a typically carpenter god orientated article it’s filled with some of the standard and sadly all to common notions about our morality.

Morality is one of the things that religion claims as it’s sole domain and there are problems with dogmatic morality as we shall see.

Where was God when Adam Lanza went on a shooting spree at an elementary school in Newtown,Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead? 

It’s a distasteful choice of example. But I can field this quite easily. But not to begin with. To begin with we should examine why the notions in this article are wrong. It’s not my ideal choice of example but it’s the one Jack begins with. So let’s delve into Jack Kerwick’s article…

Atheists assume that if there is evil in the world, then there can be no God. What they need to realize, however, is that if there is no God, then there can be no morality. This is what Dostoyevsky meant when he noted that if there is no God, then anything is possible.


A terrible argument. For the following reasons.

1. We understand that there are bad things in the world and we may use the term “evil” but we don’t utilise it in the traditional Christian sense of the word. As in literally powered by an actual daemon. We use the word to indicate something we consider harmful to society in varying shades.

2. We don’t assume that the presence of evil is due to the absence of a god. We don’t think any gods exist because there is no evidence for them. Nor do we think that the presence of evil is indicative of a lack of any gods. What we say is that Christianity makes the claim that their particular god, Jehovah… Is good. He also has a bunch of powers that make him sound like he was thought up by a 5 year old kid as a superhero, but the most important thing is that if he so chose he could have halted all the “bad things” in the world. Yet according to Christians he won’t because of some stupid test. Although why Jehovah insists on testing only poor people and mainly Africans and Indians I will never know. I don’t see Jehovah testing the Queen of England, he seems more interested in testing a lot of people who don’t seem to have any purchasing power and who live outside Europe and America.

3. Christians and a lot of other theists consider nature beautiful which is fine. They also forget that nature for all it’s beauty is a cruel place where animals are locked in a struggle for existence. Where everyday can end in death or victory. The Lion Must Eat the Deer to Live. If they had a concept of evil, the deer would see the lion as evil. Just as our cows or sheep would see us as evil. This is because they view a sanitised nature. It’s not even the nature of the Discovery Channel it is the nature of the Goldfish bowl. If you think you were magically wished into existence by god then you have to accept that he also wished AIDS into existence too.

4. Morality is entrenched in evolution. We are a social creature but our society is not bound by the brute force of other apes. The dominant in our society is not based on who will win a fist fight. We work together and because we do we require a moral code. One that enables us to get along with each other. Now early morality is simple. Don’t Kill, Steal or generally make life miserable for people around you (There are no qualms about killing and stealing from other tribes though. But we have grown out of that) because that is needed for the survival of the group. To the point we probably would have teamed up to kill any selfish jerks. Old Timey Religion is filled with tales of brutal treatment of those who murder (eye for an eye), steal (amputation as punishment) or taking another man’s lady (you think stoning someone is bad? Hindu law states you get torn apart by dogs for that.). But did we ever consider why these punishments are so harsh? It’s because these were religions of tribes. Of people who were living on the razor’s edge. Anything detrimental was death to these people. They had to eliminate the people they considered evil or terrify people who thought of doing those things to behave. We don’t do that any more because we don’t have the same pressure. If someone nicks my TV, I will be pissed off but I won’t die. We invented insurance and I will probably get a new TV out of the deal. He should be punished but it isn’t the same as say “stealing a hunter gatherer’s kill”. We value the lives of everyone equally, even those who don’t value ours. It’s also why our morality has become less rigid and less absolute and less about throwing rocks at people who dislike us. There is a reason why a lot of punishment used to be social. Because it appeals to the origins of such morality. To the tribe who would not have had a judiciary and punishment system and would have solved their problems through the mob.

5. Without god, all things are not possible. All things are debatable. The Judeo-Christian god himself is a proponent of things we would consider as immoral today. Things we consider basic human rights.

In short, god is not the source of our morality. That any rigid moral structure will eventually become outdated as we tackle new problems.

Morality is objective.  It consists of norms that are held to be independent of human will.  Morality is not about what we do, or what we want to do.  It is about what we ought to do—whether we want to do it or not.  

Morality is subjective.

We have overarching notions of morality. Like “Don’t Kill”. But that’s black and white morality. Reality exists in the various shades of grey.

Let’s look at some examples

1. There is a car stuck on a train line, a train is bearing down on it. If you do not pull the lever the train will kill the 5 people inside this car. If you pull the lever it will shunt to another track. There it will strike another car with just 1 person in it. Is it moral to pull the lever and kill 1 random and innocent person to save 5 equally innocent people. Can you make that choice and pull the lever?

2. Your child needs to eat. You have no money. Will you steal to feed your starving child?

3. Someone is being threatened by an assailant with a weapon. In self defence the person kills the assailant. Is it right? Is it right for you to step in and kill the assailant instead?

4. You are a soldier. You are ordered to kill other soldiers from a different country.

Morality is subjective. Which is why we have Judges and Juries and Courts of Law. It’s why laws change and it’s why we as people don’t just have set punishments for different actions.

But if there is no God, the Supreme Law Giver and Goodness Itself, then morality loses the only objective ground available to it—and, hence, itself.

Not really, morality is generally decided by analysing whether an action was of benefit to person or society as a whole. The third largest religion is hinduism and it’s morality is subjective because it can accept that sometimes evil is done in the name of good and good in the name of evil.

And if we are to take Jehovah as the source of morality we must remember that in his moral code he has encouraged slavery, rape and genocide. Things we consider as evil. If morality is absolute then the Bible supports these things. Many revisionists claim that “The people they wiped out were inherently evil” (just like all brown people are inherently terrorists and all black people are inherently criminals…)

As for Jehovah being the “source” of morality? The Bible portrays early Jehovah as a violent, bloodthirsty god who condoned genocide, rape and slavery. If he is the source of “all morality” then he is a terrible source.

Mankind ill needs a saviour such as this.

Not so, many have retorted.  Morality is rooted in reason, or human nature, or biology. None of this will do. Reason, human nature, and biology may very well have a role to play in the moral life, but only if they are somehow ordained by God. Reason is fickle.  Over the centuries, distinguished thinkers—from Burke and De Maistre to Hobbes and Hume to Montaigne and Pascal—representing a variety of philosophical traditions have recognized this.  Adolph Hitler and Osama bin Laden (and Adam Lanza, for that matter) acted no less rationally in the pursuit of their goals than did Mother Teresa and Gandhi act in the pursuit of theirs.  Reason is all too easily, and frequently, subverted by the simplest of things, whether passion, impulse, fear, or sickness.

My morality does not require the existence of a magical entity who himself is arguably terrifyingly immoral.

Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, It is up to all of us to become his moral superior.
- The Patrician, Unseen Academicals

Reason is not fickle. Humans are a wide variety of people. Even our clones are different from each other through their personality. Our personality is built through our experiences and we make judgements based on our experiences.

The problem here is Jack doesn’t understand what it means to be able to reason.

Hitler and Osama are products of a lack of reason. We don’t know what was going through Adam Lanza’s mind and we probably never will.

Hitler was a product of a period of religious hatred against Jews. Of centuries of cultural hate followed by a convenient event of national defeat followed by a very draconian treaty meant to humiliate a loser of a war. Hitler was born out of hate and anger and he rode in on that power to take control and do what he did. He was a theist of sorts and a christian. He may have lost his faith at the end but for the war he was entirely quoting

Osama was a religious man and probably in his mind a good one. In the minds of those who follow him he was also a good man. Just as Hitler was considered a good man. Winston Churchill was considered a good man despite being responsible for gassing arabs. Considering you mentioned Gandhi in the same line Churchill when told about the massive starvation in Bengal that ended up killing around 2 million people responded with “If they don’t have food, how come Gandhi is still alive”

Osama and Hitler did not act on reason. They acted on religious hatred. Stirred up by blind faith.

Gandhi may have been good but he did things that were not. India is as much a product of Nehru and Ambedkar’s secular humanism and atheism as it is of Gandhi’s mysticism. And Mother Theresa may have had good intentions but in truly hilarious fashion you would have to go read another faith’s books.

You can do good in the name of evil and evil in the name of good. Mother Theresa’s good intentions had some evil consequences. The House for the Dying didn’t really help people, merely gave them a place to die. The concentrated suffering helped win her millions of dollars of funding that simply were frittered away by her order. The house was expanded, but not improved. The nuns built more convents and more schools to teach their creed. But the people who needed it the most didn’t get it. Theresa didn’t “Help” people. She didn’t try and get them the medication they needed. She just collected suffering and while it may have made them feel better it didn’t actually help them. In India there are thousands of unnamed individuals who do what she does. Except they give the people they help the medication to live.

Mother Theresa also was a pro-lifer and flogged the hard catholic line on contraceptives. In India… She gave credence to the Catholic Church’s activities against the Indian government’s attempts to control India’s population which at the time was expanding at a rate of above 2% a year.

We can recognise whether someone’s actions are good or not due to reason. We can analyse what they have done, why they did it and what it’s effects were. Based on that we can judge whether an action is good or not.

Let us analyse a good action. You see a natural disaster. You decide to volunteer. You come round and you do something simple. You babysit some children and play with them. In the end you go home feeling good about yourself. You think you did something good…

I however see you coming down, taking the job of a local person, taking up resources solely for you to feel good about yourself. Because the job you did could have been done by someone locally and the space you take up can be used for extra aid or someone who does something more useful.

Why do I have this difference of opinion? Experience and understanding of the nature of such work. Why don’t you? Because you don’t have that experience. I am sure if you had the experience of that work and you knew your skills aren’t required you would not come and instead do something as mundane as sending money.

Those who would attempt to use reason as the foundation upon which to lay morality are like a man who tries to build a house on quicksand. And what is true of reason is just as true of human nature and biology. Biology is even less eligible of a candidate for a basis of morality.  Biology gives us instincts and impulses, needs and inclinations—in short, causes of various sorts.  Yet it cannot supply reasons.  Biology compels.  Morality, in stark contrast, presupposes the freedom to make choices.

This is an issue to a lot of theists because human morality changes and shifts depending on the situation. What is right on one day may not be on the second day. This morality is hard because you can no longer be sure anything you do is moral.

Which is a good thing. It means we have to genuinely think about the effects of our actions rather than just blindly follow a bunch of 2000 year old texts that we ascribe magic importance to.

The reason to survive is all you need. A single human being is very often a dead human being. We are products of our society. Survival is the sole purpose of life. Now this may insult you but frankly pretty much everything you do is utterly pointless in the universal scale of things.

However, what you do and what others do means something to those we live with. Due to our society we place importance in such things and that gives us meaning in our lives beyond “survival”. We are survival with panache. We die looking good.
We chose our own reasons for existing. For some it is material, for some it is a lot more immaterial. And yes there are people who don’t see the same value in things as others but that’s the thing. One man’s treasure is another man’s junk and that adds more variety to our lives.

If there is no God, then there is no spirit.  And if there is no spirit, then all is matter: reason and human nature boil down to human biology, and biology, in turn, becomes nothing more or less than the latest product of a resolutely non-purposeful mechanical process billions of years in the happening.

This is less evidence for a god and more wishful think that a god must exist or your world view invalidates your existence.

You are just chemistry.

Wonderful and amazing chemistry. The interplay of which is so complex that people like Jack think you were made by something so magical that he considers it omnipotent. But you know as well as I do that you evolved to be this wonderful chemistry reaction. To Jack this is terrifying because if he is just a chemical reaction then he is no longer special.

Because he cannot see the soul in chemistry, there is no beauty to him in the phospholipid bilayer, there is no thrill in understanding how ATP drives everything of how we regulate ourselves. Of how efficient our systems are. He probably wouldn’t grasp the elegance of a system that can eat the energy equivalent of a stick of dynamite in a slice of apple pie and not blow up, but release it in such a way that we can do stuff with it. How we use this energy is up to us.He cannot grasp how our body creates an organ dedicated to the creation and holding of acid without burning itself. Nor can he see the micro-scale machines that make up our cells do things.

Because he would rather all of this work through magic and fairies.

Than JUST chemistry. To say you are just a mechanical process is to not understand mechanical processes. Art is just colours. Music is just noise. You are a product of evolution. You are the only creature that we know of that has exceeded the grasp of nature and is instead self containing. We went from simple chimp to the smartest and most technologically advanced creature on the planet. Our technological dominance is so complete that we are the fastest animal on land, air and sea and with the biggest ranges. We can survive anywhere and thrive anywhere. We are frankly nuts! We don’t think twice about climbing the highest mountains or crossing seas. If you said that you wanted volunteers to go to Mars you would have no shortage.

Because that’s what “just” chemistry can do. The soul is just the illusion of an individual created by our advanced chemistry. We know this because we treat mental states using chemistry. The simple use of anti-anxiety medication prior to a surgery is an example of this.

Though an atheist, he scoffed at those atheists who held that we could preserve such traditional moral ideals as honesty, compassion, and justice while doing away with belief in God.  Rather, he admitted to finding it “very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with him [.]”  If there is no God, then there are “no values or commands,” no principles or ideals, that “legitimize our conduct.”

I don’t think you have read Satre if you think Satre’s ideas meant the death of honesty, compassion or justice. In actuality what Sartre meant and indeed clearly stated was that the experiences of the individual also temper what a person considers honesty, compassion and justice. To a Catholic compassion is reducing the dosage of morphine for a dying person so that they can be alert for their final confessional. Their actions are “compassionate” as the actions are of the doctor who gave the medication in the first place knowing it would cause the reduction of pain with the side effect of an increased chance of death. You may think that dying earlier is more or less compassionate depending on your outlook. The experiences we have do change our attitude towards traditional moral ideals.

To think that there is only one ideal moral response in this situation is to not grasp the shades of grey. A black and white morality is that of a child, not that of an adult.

So with this in mind lets go back to the original question of this post.

Where was God when Adam Lanza went on a shooting spree at an elementary school in Newtown,Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead?

To call Adam Lanza evil, is to completely not understand an endemic issue in the USA.

It is to place blame on the actions of one man on a mythological being. It is the equivalent of blaming your invisible friend for breaking a vase. To blame a god or the lack of one is to fail to realise the real problems that caused this tragic incident.

Adam Lanza was a human being, with human issues and somewhere in those issues he made the decision to shoot up that school. We will NEVER know why he did it but we know that the issues that caused it were human ones. The same applies to all men who do such terrible things. No god factors into this, only human beings and the solutions are not prayer but understanding and making changes to a culture that glorifies the use of guns.

The response of believer and unbeliever alike to Adam Lanza’s shooting spree in Connecticutis unmistakably moral in character.  Yet unless God exists, there is no basis for our conviction that it was an act of evil. And unless the atheist, in his own peculiar way, needed God as much as anyone else, he wouldn’t feel compelled to look beyond his world of material causes and cosmic insignificance to blame Him for not existing.

It is the breach of the right to live as human beings. It also disrupts the functioning of society and reduces the value of individuals within it. It spreads fear and distrust. All of these things disrupt the functioning of society. The rules against “murder” pre-date the Christian god’s arrival on the global scene. These rules are not innate to us, but they are necessary for society to function and so we acquire these rules rapidly. There are cultures where these rules do not apply in specific circumstances. They fail to understand how we cannot “kill someone” and we fail to see why they can “kill someone” in that circumstance. The best example of this is Honour Killing. The people who do it think they are “correct”. They know we don’t like it but still do it because they think we are stupid for not doing things their way. It’s the way their society worked, it’s not the way ours does.

No gods exist, there is no evidence for any god. Atheists don’t blame him any more than we blame the gun fairy or the bullet pixie. We blame the individual for the crime and the system which immortalises these murders but not the victim and which glorifies the need for guns as a solution to the problem of “guns”.

At no point does a god ever factor into this. There are human reasons for this utter tragedy, to drag “your god” into the argument is to show a complete lack of tact by trying to make this about your particular sky fairy rather than the fact that children died due to a systemic issue with the USA due to a consistent problem with firearms unique to the USA and the incidence of spree killing.

It’s easier to have objective morality. But it’s also not fair and therefore not moral to be objective. The objective morality of the Taliban is not fair by our standards because we live in a subjective world. Demanding we create a system similar to theirs is just dreadfully short sighted.


  1. 1


    we really enjoy your atheist forum

    do a search on youtube for skepticality

    a little souvenir

    it is the video about the PIGS

  2. 2
    Daniel Schealler

    Why do people think atheists have a problem with morality?

    I have an idea on this. It’s not just limited to atheists and morality either. It’s all over the place.

    Short version: We often fail to see the assumptions that shape our opinions about the world, because our assumptions are (figuratively speaking) what we use to see the world in the first place. It’s like how I’m not aware of ‘seeing’ the lenses in my glasses while I’m looking out at the world around me.

    I find that among the religious, the notion ‘morality is objective’ is often considered to be beyond discussion – even when that person themselves cannot coherently define what ‘morality’ and ‘objectivity’ mean when placed in the context of each other. Because that’s just how the world works – both in their view, and (more importantly) in the view of nearly all of their peers.

    This isn’t something that we as atheists can feel too chuffed about either. Sure – we’re more aware of how the assumptions underlying morality are open to discussion and refinement. But that’s because we’re confronted with it more often.

    But that’s not to say that we can’t have the same level of stubbornness when it comes to failing to recognize the assumptions that shape our interpretations of the world in other ways. It’s just part of being human.


    On a related note: I’ve been reading you for a while now, and I really like your blog so far! Sorry to lurk and not say anything – but it feels a bit weird to just come in and say: “I like your blog. KTHNX BAI!”

    You’ve helped me with one thing in particular. A friend of mine is a South African Indian from a Hari family. I’ve often been perplexed by his opinions on various issues – particularly on whether society as a whole has gotten better over time (my view) or whether everything is breaking down and on the way out (his view).

    If I take the Age of Kali thing as one of his unconditional assumptions (he’s too much the bad-boy to come across as super-religious, but does take the Hari thing very seriously) then I can start to make sense of how he views the world a little bit better.

    Which is good. So thanks for the information and the context. I’ve found your blog so far to be highly interesting and informative, and I’m looking forward to more to come.. ^_^

  3. 3

    Most laws are based on what the majority of society considers “immoral” (e.g. why the religious used to get away with calling abortion “immoral”). When something is labelled immoral, it is easier to make it illegal. That is the goal of the religious: Claim that atheism is immoral so that it can be criminalized, to imprison and punish atheists. It has nothing to do with right and wrong, with what actually is moral and how morality is relative (re: the examples you gave).

    Since there are no “gods”, religious people are no different morally than atheists or anyone else…except when the religious obey dogma that contradicts what most people consider moral (re: equal rights for gays). The religious are duped, brainwashed and threatened into obedience by the dogma and ideologies they believe, to act against what the believers themselves know to be right. (See: Steven Weinberg and his quote on religion.)

    Dogmas are control systems invented to ensure obedience. But since atheists cannot be controlled, since we do not believe in theirs or any dogma, we are seen as a threat to the control systems of religion. If the religious realize that atheists can live ethically without religion, then believers will question why they should obey or believe. We are a threat to religions controlling the masses, so therefore we must be eliminated by criminalization or violence.

    To call Adam Lanza evil

    Evil is an adjective, not a noun, no matter how much the religious want it to be or claim it is.

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