Atheism, Ethics, and Immorality
by Lenny Esposito
In my time of interacting with atheists, the problem of moral grounding comes up over and over again. Most atheists believe they are good, yet they cannot anchor their goodness in God. In fact, the UK Huffington Post featured a story on notable British atheists and where they find their morality. Many were asked if atheists were as moral as people of faith. The answers were pretty unanimously “yes.” Julian Hubbert said, “I’m always perplexed by those who believe that in order to have a moral code it is necessary to have a religious belief – it seems to me astonishing that people would have to look up what is morally right and wrong.” Richard Dawkins made the claim, “Atheists can be just as moral as religious people. And I think there is some reason to expect a statistical tendency for atheists to be more moral.”1
But the question becomes more complex when they are asked how one discovers moral duties. Comedian David Baddiel said, “I have only one principle, not even a moral one, really. Which is: to be as true as possible, both to myself and to some notion of objective reality, all the time.” He’s right there; such a code may be used as justification for all kinds of immoral behaviors. Polly Toynbee asserts that “everyone is born with an inbuilt moral purpose. It springs from mankind’s evolution as a social being, acting collaboratively, with altruism and good of the community hard-wired.”2 I don’t believe that matches reality at all. Certainly, as a newspaper columnist, Toynbee must read the papers and know the ongoing selfishness and violence people inflict upon each other every day.
As I’ve spoken to atheists, many of them have told me that they would deny absolute morality but they are ethical in how they live. One of our guest atheist speakers stated that he felt ethics was a much more interesting topic that morality. When questioned about the objectivity of their morality, other atheists tried to shift the discussion to ethics as well. But that won’t help…
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