Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Are Atheists Bad People?

Richard Feldman, in his essay, "Reasonable Religious Disagreement," comments that it is sheer nonsense to think that an atheist could not be a decent person or a good candidate for public office. He cites columnist Cal Thomas as an example of this kind of thinking, though he believes it is widespread throughout our culture.

So if it is nonsense to doubt the moral fiber of a man simply because he does not believe in God, when why do so many people think this way? I certainly wouldn't put it past myself or other Americans to believe nonsense, but why is this particular error so common? I think Feldman may be confusing two claims.

1. Atheists cannot be moral people.
2. Atheists are less moral than religious people.

I think (1) is clearly false. I've never met an amoral atheist, and I've known lots of atheists. Most of them are decent people. But what about (2)? I think this may be true, depending on what 'moral' means. If 'moral' just means kind, generous, and helpful, then (2) is probably false. But if a 'moral' person is one who submits himself to the authority of a traditional moral code, one who believes that he has certain moral duties that are not mere human artifacts, then I think (2) is true. Atheists just don't typically think this way. Religious people typically do. Whether this sense of 'moral' is good or bad is irrelevant. It may be the case that people who are moral in this sense end up being intolerable prudes. But it would still stand to reason that atheists are less likely to fit this description than religious believers.

So, I think it may not be nonsense after all to believe something like (2). If the majority of Americans think a public official ought to be moral in the more duty-oriented sense, then it is not at all unreasonable to prefer a religious person over an atheist.


Anonymous Curtis said...

"It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil."
--Alexander Solzhenitsyn "The Gulag Archipelago"

The question, who is more moral group A or group B, is the wrong question. What would that moral atheist be like if he truly met Christ? What would that less moral Christian be without Christ? No group holds a monopoly on 'goodness'. Only God himself can hold that.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Hey Curtis -- good to hear from you. Although I don't quite understand your comment in relation to my post. So are you saying that true Christians are morally better than atheists? In the sense of their actual behavior, or in the sense of their standards/beliefs?

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Curtis said...


I am not laying out a philosophical argument as I find myself growing weary of philosophy for the sake of philosophy without practical application. So, I tried to address your questions, but in a 'round-about way.

I'm saying mainly that I have become tired of folks laying claim to superior morality on the basis of identification with 'Group A'.

I'm specifically saying that Christians should not so pridefully claim superiority in morality. This is most likely untrue and harmful to any ministry we may pursue. What I as a Christians should boast in is that I am superior to the person I would be without Christ.

I really like the quote I shared as it so eloquently describes how as humans we all have a remanent of the Imago Dei (the Image of God) within us alongside that sinful nature. This remanent of the Imago Dei suggests claim 1 in your post to be false. This sinful nature within us all (including Christians) suggests claim 2 to be false.

So, to answer your recent questions more directly...No, true Christians are not necessarily morally better than atheists or members of another religion in the sense of their actual behavior. The Christian, however, is morally better than the person would be as an atheist (because of Christ's sanctifying work in his life). Of course I will assert that Christians are better in their beliefs. I wouldn't remain a Christian if I wasn't convinced of this (said in both confidence and humility).

6:30 PM  
Blogger Smiley_Gracey said...

I am an atheist-that does not make me a bad person at all. When people think of the word 'atheist' they think oo, that is unacceptable, but we're normal people, not demons just because we don't share the same belief.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an atheist I respect your opinion but disagree with it. I realize this is an old thread, but I felt compelled to comment. The Merriam Webster definition of “Moral” is “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ethical.” As you state, even in your more stringent definition, morality relates to essentially fulfilling human obligations and adhering to a code of ethics. I fail to see how believing in an omnipotent deity furthers both the inward and outward practice of morality as defined here. From personal experience I have volunteered on more than one community project (feeding the poor, building habitat homes, etc.) where I was sweating away for the good of my fellow man a group of “Christians” would show up for a 30 minute photo op and leave. Who was being more moral? Several studies have also shown that Catholics and Protestants (particularly Baptists) comprise a substantially higher percentage of prison inmates. I do not want to dwell on history, but I cannot recall any atheist inquisitions or crusades. Genocide has never been committed in the name of atheism. Can Christianity make that claim? No. I recently moved to The South, aka the Bible Belt. In reviewing local crime statistics, per capita, the Upstate, SC region has some of the highest crime rates – including murder – of anywhere in the country – while simultaneously having 4 Christian universities in the immediate area, including Bob Jones and one of the highest proclaimed Christian population densities in the country. Help me understand this. The company I work for has three times the loss prevention staff as similar sized stores in Miami – due to higher theft (both internal and external). The only answer I have ever been able to arrive at is that Christians believe they can do anything so long as they ask forgiveness afterwards. Atheists realize that there is no viable forgiveness and that it is best to simply not commit crimes against others. By the way, the single largest humanitarian is Bill Gates. Outspoken atheist. Again, I do not in any way mean to challenge your beliefs as you most certainly have the right to believe as you wish. I would, however, respectfully ask that you consider comments like this carefully. I am subjected to hate speech daily from the lips of those forgiving Christians that do not need further encouragement.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ponder a simple thought for a moment:

Christians do good because they believe that God wants them to and they will be rewarded for doing so. They avoid doing evil for fear of punishment, in particular of Hell. Atheists do not believe in Heaven or Hell, so when they do good things it is because they feel it is the right thing to do. It is no different than a mature responsible child cleaning up his room versus an irresponsible one who cleans his room for fear of his father’s belt leather. In this regard, which of the two is actually being more “moral”?

5:51 PM  

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