Are Atheists Moral?

Can atheists be moral? It is often thought that an atheist, one who does not recognize the dominion of God, or God at all for that matter, somehow cannot act ethically. One fundamental question is, if one does not recognize the laws of the Ten Commandments as commands from God, then is there a basis for being a moral individual?

Yet there are other criteria to be moral. Philosophical ethics propounds many ethical theories based on rational principles. Examples of these include Utilitarianism, where that which is ethical is that which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. Another example is Kantianism, which relies on such dictums as the Categorical Imperative where principles are universalized as maxims that hold true categorically.

Not surprisingly, there are many arguments in ethics about what constitutes moral principles, and what theory should be adopted, but according to Christian theists, one must accept the commands of God as interminable, that this position is not open to debate. Are the moral teachings of the Abrahamic religions beyond doubt? Is it possible to question such a position? Is fealty to God necessary for one to be moral? Does the existence of God ensure morality in the world? Socrates, who was executed for among other things impiety, addresses this issue in the Socratic dialogue the Euthyphro.

One charge against him, Socrates states, was that “I invent new gods and deny the existence of old ones”. Because of this charge, Socrates is especially interested in what constitutes piety. Talking to his friend, the theologian Euthyphro, Euthyphro tells him that he is pursuing his father for murder. A field laborer in a fit of drunken passion slew one of his father’s domestic servants. His father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch. A messenger was sent to a diviner by Euthyphro’s father to inquire what he was to do with the laborer. Before the messenger returned the laborer had died of exposure.

Socrates curious about this, wondered if the ethical principles gleaned from this event might be useful in his defense, wondering if Euthyphro was right to seek out his father for murder. Would the instructions from the diviner, have made a difference as to whether Euthyphro’s actions were pious or not? Euthyphro gives a definition of piety, as “that which is dear to the gods and impiety is that which is not dear to them”.

Socrates asks “the point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods” The preceding argument’s is a formulation is what is called the Divine Command Theory. According to Divine Command Theory, if something is not holy, and not moral in itself, but only if God commands it to be holy. A question can be raised that if something is moral in itself, does an ethical act require God to make it ethical? If it is true that God is needed to make something holy, then it seems God could command anything to be holy, which seems counterintuitive. On the other hand if something is ethical in itself then what is the role of God?

If God is not necessary to determine whether some act is ethical or not (i.e., a thing as moral in itself instead or being moral because God commands it), then what role does God have in this context? With the Divine Command Theory, God’s role in rooting out evil is unclear. Yet some might argue that because God gives one free will, one is free to not obey his commandments, and therefore suffer the consequences of sin, but this provides no insight into the direct role God plays in morality.

The atheist may claim, from a philosophical standpoint, that belief in God is not sufficient to determine ones moral being. The philosophical positions propounded by different philosophers regarding ethics are not settled issues either. Finding what is ethical can be elusive. Assumptions about ones certainty, about ones own ethical being or actions may be at the very least misguided, whether philosophical or religious. Nevertheless, The Divine Command Theory propounded by Socrates, casts doubt on the idea that only those that believe in God can be ethical, and furthermore can anyone make the claim to being ethical at all?

A more important question must be asked then what constitutes ethics? An even more radical question must be asked is, is ethics possible at all? Is there a basis for one to act ethically? All feel they can act ethically but what supposition must be adopted to insure that an act is ethical, and if one cannot be found, then what is the basis for saying one is a moral being? Finally the question must be asked that if there is no supposition to support the claim of some act being ethical, then is ethics simply a social construct? Furthermore if the virtue of ethical acts is simply a social construct, then can different people have different ethical systems and therefore are these ethical systems strictly subjective? Such issues are problems for a unified system of ethics.


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Doug Frame

I am a former professor who taught for almost 10 years. I have a BA and an MA in Philosophy. I enjoy writing about philosophy but ever more so I enjoy writing philosophy.

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