One can simply pick and choose about which values one accepts

Kenan Malik did this talk at the Global Humanist Conference a couple of weeks ago that I’ve been meaning to read.

Right at the beginning we run into a funny (odd and haha both) idea.

Every year I give a lecture to a group of theology students – would-be Anglican priests, as it happens – on ‘Why I am an atheist’. Part of the talk is about values. And every year I get the same response: that without God, one can simply pick and choose about which values one accepts and which one doesn’t.


Of course one can pick and choose about which values one accepts and which one doesn’t, and one had damn well better do exactly that, because the alternative is simply unconditional obedience and the perils of that ought to be blindingly obvious.

Yes, clerical friends, that’s exactly what one can and should do. Yes, you do actually have to think about what values to accept and what values to reject. There are plenty of values that ought to be rejected – aversion to other races for instance, or to same-sex pairing, or to women in public life.

Kenan of course says the same thing.


  1. Athywren says

    Of course, people can – and do – simply pick and choose which values they accept or reject, even when they do believe in a god. That’s kind of why there’s more than one denomination of each religion. Ok, so there’s more to it than that, there are some theological contentions too, but that’s certainly a large part of it.

  2. says

    Yes, you do actually have to think about what values to accept and what values to reject

    Exactly!! This has always been one of my favorite points about the immorality of religion. If the idea is that we get our morals from god, it means we’re adopting divine morality unquestioningly (indeed, we are compelled to adopt it under threat of eternal torture) so: what if god is evil? If you cheerfully adopt divine morality – as you are coerced into doing – you are potentially accepting a set of immorals. Questioning our morals and our beliefs is a duty that is conferred upon us by having enough brain-power to understand the question. If we simply walk away from the problem, we are betraying our duty. If we simply accept divine morals, we are bowing to authority. You know who else bowed to authority? And the “we were just following orders” defense didn’t work, did it?

    That god supposedly threatens eternal damnation for making up your mind differently directly refutes the idea that we have free will; free will under compulsion is negated. Ironically, the notion of divine morality is hugely immoral.

  3. Al Dente says

    The Christian god is profoundly immoral. He endorses genocide, rape, slavery, infanticide, and murder for trivial offenses.

  4. says

    If the idea is that we get our morals from god, it means we’re adopting divine morality unquestioningly [etc.]

    Of course, the real kicker is that the religious get their morals (when they don’t get them from their empathy like the rest of us), from *other people* It’s not god’s authority they’re obeying, it’s that of the men who wrote the scripture or who formulated the theology or who are promulgating from the pulpit. This makes the duty of questioning incumbent even on those who believe there is a god out there who ought not to be questioned himself. And belies the notion that anyone is not merely “picking and choosing”.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Given the Babble’s many contradictions (quick – which counts for more, faith or works?), True Believers™ have to pick bushels of cherries themselves.

  6. says

    Also, it’s always fun to point out to christians, particularly, that there are other moral systems that have priority. Indeed, the only important moral rules in the christian bible are … already in the works of Lao Tze, Confucius, and the code of Hamurrabi. It’s a bit awkward to explain how a pre-jew king cooked up a moral code without the assistance of yahweh. And, as Christopher Hitchens used to like to point out, since moses was allegedly a prince in Egypt he would have grown up familiar with Egyptian law. One can imagine how eye-rollingly bored moses must have been while yahweh explained to him the bit about killing being bad, “yeah, yeah, I know…” After all, the Sumerians invented beer thousands of years before yahweh saw fit to tell his chosen people the all-important bit about keeping the sabbath holy…

    I wrote a piece about this back in 2009 ( ) which was not particularly popular. My favorite bit was the part where Hamurrabi shows he’s way ahead of the christians and muslims by not engaging in victim-blaming regarding rape:

    If a man violate the wife (betrothed or child-wife) of another man, who has never known a man, and still lives in her father’s house, and sleep with her and be surprised, this man shall be put to death, but the wife is blameless.

    Babylonians FTW.

    I just searched around and managed to find this:
    by Christopher Hitchens, right after he had completed “God is Not Great” and just before he was diagnosed with cancer. It’s one of his better performances and I particularly like the stunned silence at 53:40 where he says that no aid money should be allowed to go to Israel that came from taxpayers.. Aah, Hitch, you self-hating jew, you.

  7. Claire Ramsey says

    oh jesus mary and joseph I got in so damn much trouble as a child in sunday school with that thinking about stuff business. . .

  8. =8)-DX says

    Even with Gawd you have to pick and choose which values have priority… basically you have to decide on the “value” of the values anyway, because neither the Bible nor Christian theology in general are clear on that. Even the 10 commandments aren’t clear about this… I mean are cursing, not going to church and childhood disobedience worse than murder? And even if you take into account that “god says this is bad’ you have to evaluate every particular situation for extenuating circumstances, intent, ignorance, social norms, etc. etc. etc…

  9. Kevin Kehres says

    @11…they’re all equivalent. Murder is the same as coveting your neighbor’s ass. We know this because the penalty for not honoring the Sabbath is to be stoned to death (at least before Jesus invented NASCAR).

  10. martha says

    Thank you for this post, Ms. Benson. I was unaware of Kenan Malik and have spent an interesting couple of hours reading his most recent blog posts. (Also looking forward to reading his forthcoming book on the global history of ethics.) In doing so I came across this:

    “And where once antihumanism was the province of reactionaries, today it is at the heart of supposedly ‘progressive’ movements – antiracism, anticapitalism, environmentalism. Disillusionment with liberal humanism has led many to give up on the project of humanism entirely. Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in a famous preface to Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth, ‘is nothing but an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage; its honeyed words, its affectations of sensibility were only alibis for our aggression.’ Any attempt to pursue a humanist project needs to engage with such claims, and to counter the pervasive influence of contemporary antihumanism. ”

    This seems like a significant challenge to atheists like me who are interested in participating in humanist communities of some sort. I wonder if you are aware of any humanist or atheist philosophers who have, as he says, engaged substantially with these claims and whether you might consider covering them in some future blog post?

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