Morality is Subjective – and That’s Okay

Atheists often face the charge that we have no true basis for morality. How can we, lacking a belief in a supreme law-giver, hold people accountable for their actions? Without God, isn’t morality just a matter of personal preference, with a nun’s opinion no better than a serial killer’s? Why should anyone follow anyone else’s standard?

Believers assert that only a transcendent, objective standard of morality, i.e. God, is sufficient for regulating human behavior. They say we need a standard that applies to all of humanity and is not simply one’s own individual opinion. However, a closer examination reveals that, even if divine morality can be shown to exist, it faces the very same shortcomings that believers ascribe to subjective morality.

Before they even begin the discussion, believers need to demonstrate that objective morality actually exists. More often than not, objective morality is taken for granted, but its existence is a claim that needs to be backed up. If believers want to point out deficiencies in subjective morality, that’s fine, but what if it’s all we have? You may wish you had a car that reliably starts and isn’t rusting through the floor, but if it’s your only form of transportation, you’ll have to use it in spite of its flaws!

What’s more, the objective morality asserted by believers simply wouldn’t work as well as they think it would. For one thing, God-based morality is not universal, despite the protestations of apologists. If the Christian God is held out as an objective source of morality, why should a Hindu care? Or a Buddhist, Taoist, Zoroastrian, and so on? If morality is based on any particular god, those who don’t believe in that god cannot be held accountable to that standard. In this way, a believer’s own “objective” morality falls short in the same way as subjective morality.

It gets worse. If we accept God is the source of morality, how do we then determine what is and isn’t moral? The problem is that objective morality is necessarily filtered through one’s own subjective human brain. If morality is revealed through a sacred text, then it comes down to the subjective interpretation of the reader. If morality is revealed through personal revelation, then of course this is subjective to the one who receives it. The end result is that every believer thinks they know objective morality, when in reality they can never be sure they have it right!

Observing the history of the church should make this obvious. Somehow, despite having access to the purported source of objective morality, Christians wind up on both sides of every major social issue. From abolition of slavery to feminism to civil rights to gay marriage to transgender issues, Christians seem to receive contradictory messages from their own God. How is this supposed to solve the “problems” of subjective morality?

The truth is that subjective morality is not as deficient as believers claim. Somehow, civilizations throughout history have converged on many of the same conclusions when it comes to moral behavior. There is no thriving modern society that allows for wanton murder, gratuitous theft, or unchecked rape. That’s because we’ve figured out that human beings thrive when we are all working together for the betterment of everyone. Barbarians don’t build skyscrapers, after all. Once we are no longer preoccupied with protecting our families and property, we can use the same time, energy, and resources for greater purposes.

Of course, there will be areas of disagreement as progress marches on, but the core tenets remain the same. Christianity is no improvement in this area. No one disputes the Ten Commandments, but practically all other issues are open to interpretation. All Christianity adds to the moral question is a dubious claim to divine authority and an unwarranted sense of superiority.

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Atheists Do Love to Sin – But There’s A Catch

For some reason, I’ve recently encountered multiple unaffiliated Christians making the same obnoxious claim about atheists. “See, all atheists secretly believe in God — they just choose to deny him because they want to remain in their sinful ways!” In order to make this statement, a believer must dismiss all atheists who found errors and contradictions in the Bible, or who have never had any supernatural experiences, or fail to see God react to human suffering, or see no logical reason to think any god exists, or who were raised without faith and just never changed — you see my point. So where did these believers even get such a crazy idea?

Romans 1:18-32 has Paul making a few broad claims about what he calls “unrighteous” individuals. First, they are well aware of God’s righteous nature; not only has “God shown it to them” (v. 19), but it has been revealed through creation, “clearly perceived…in the things that have been made” (v. 20). Are the unrighteous ignorant according to Paul? No, they actively “suppress the truth” (v. 19), and when it comes to belief in God, “they are without excuse” (v. 20).

Second, these individuals aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. (I’m sure some Christians love this part.) “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (v. 22), and so “their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). It’s easy to make the connection to the oft-quoted psalmist writing “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1).

Third, God has written off these people, allowing them to follow their base instincts like feral animals. Paul repeatedly states that God “gave them up”: to “impurity” (v. 24), to “dishonorable passions” (v. 26), to “a debased mind” (v. 28). As if he hadn’t already made himself clear, Paul concludes this section by reiterating that these wicked people know exactly what they’re doing:

Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (v. 32)

So that settles it, right? Well, no. Surprisingly, a 2000-year-old book speaking in vast generalizations may not have captured the true motives of each individual non-believer.

To Paul’s first point, it’s apparently quite easy to look at the majesty of creation and not see the Christian god in any of it. For the last hundred thousand years, mankind has studied nature and seen all kinds of gods that are not Jehovah. Even though the Bible asserts that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), civilizations throughout the millennia have gazed upon the night sky and seen a wide variety of pantheons represented, from Egyptian to Greek to Chinese and beyond. Modern astronomy has opened our eyes to the vast wonders of the universe without any inherent appeal to a deity.

Paul’s second point boils down to “You think you’re so smart!” Foolishness is by no means the proprietary domain of atheism. A Christian can declare, “Atheists are fools for not believing!” just as much as an atheist can say, “Christians are fools for believing!” Name-calling is no substitute for rational debate. I’d encourage both sides to give the other a chance to support their beliefs before we start dropping F-bombs.

If I were a Christian, I’d have deep misgivings about Paul’s third point. Imagine the implications of a God that gives up on people! Why would a loving god with the power to change anyone’s heart ever decide not to do so? Are some people just not worth it to him?

Christians, you know this can’t be the case. Haven’t you ever had a speaker at your church give an epic testimony of being lost in a quagmire of drugs, sex, or crime, only to be saved by the grace of God? If God didn’t write off Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz, or Nicky Cruz, why would he write off anyone?

So if the idea that “atheists just want to sin” has only dubious scriptural credentials, why does it remain so persistent? Is there any real-world support?

Here I must divulge a little trade secret: not all atheists have good reasons for rejecting God! I’m sure there are atheists who grew up in restrictive Christian households and, after seeing how much fun the rest of the world was having, decided “I want some of that!” So they rebel, ditch church, and go have themselves a good time.

However, pretending that all atheists reject Christianity for these reasons is just an excuse for believers to disengage. It’s way easier to reduce complex motivations to digestible stereotypes, and simpler to spout well-worn platitudes than wrestle with a tough argument.

I won’t lie, I enjoy being able to do certain things that were verboten as a believer. I drink with friends, I watch R-rated movies, and I still get the same rebellious glee from swearing as an nine-year-old who just discovered the word “ass”. But did I reject Christianity just so I could say “hell” all day long? Hell no!

Look at it this way: saying “atheists secretly believe but just want to sin” is like saying “Christians secretly don’t believe but just want hope in the face of suffering.” Sure, reassurance in times of trouble is a useful side benefit, but it may not necessarily be one’s main impetus for joining the church.

And if your main view of atheists is “they love to sin”, I’ve got bad new for you. Christians love to sin, too! They just take a break on Sunday mornings.