The moral Atheist?

[Updated 2014-02-10]

Well, the Atheists are back. Yes, they are heading out on another publicity campaign. This time we can expect a billboard telling us, as far as I can understand it, that we don’t need God in order to be good. What are the sound bytes this time around?

“Praying won’t help. Doing will.”

“Without God. We’re all good.”

I’d like to consider this billboard from a few perspectives. First, I want to meander through the philosophical issues surrounding the relationship between moral realism and the Theism / Atheism debate (because I assume that’s what the ad is touching on) and then I want to consider it from the perspective of effective communication and public relations (because I’m not exactly sure what the ad is touching on). One overarching theme of these reflections will be a simple question that immediately popped into my mind when I saw the ad; what is their target market? Who are they reaching out to? What are they “selling?”

Can we be good without believing in God?


Ok, that was easy.

Atheists like to remind us that it just as possible for an Atheist to be morally good as it is for a Theist to be morally good. I suspect part of the inspiration behind reminding us of that fact is in part because a lot of Christians misunderstand the moral argument for God’s existence. C.S. Lewis wrote a very accessible explanation of the moral argument in the first few chapters of his book “Mere Christianity” if you would like to look it up, and I recommend you do. The argument basically says that Theism gives us a much better explanation of moral realism (more in a minute) than does Atheism. Without a God it is quite difficult to explain why reality would have any moral dimension to it at all, much less the particular moral laws we have.

First of all, what is moral realism? Briefly, it is the observation that when we perceive moral right and wrong we are perceiving something just as real with our conscience as what our eyes perceive when they see and what our ears perceive when they hear. The very concept of “right for me” and “wrong for me” is just as meaningless as the idea that there is a blue sky “for me” or that the sound of a whisper is quieter than the sound of thunder “for me.” Right and wrong are just as much a part of the fabric of reality as are colours, sounds and even mathematics. Atheists, by and large, are beginning to re-affirm the fact of moral realism; a point on which Theists and Atheists emphatically agree, interestingly. How we are to explain this fact of reality is where we part company.

Back to part of the cause of the rift. How Christians misunderstand the argument is by concluding that a rejection of God entails a rejection of the morality that rests on God, and inevitably results in lawless living. Philosophically, at least, this is not necessarily the case. It is theoretically possible to disbelieve in God at the same time as affirming moral realism and living accordingly. But many Christians miss this point and that error on our part (among a wide range of factors) has contributed to a long-standing rift between Theists and Atheists. This is part of the reason, I believe, why Atheists never get tired of reminding us that they can, theoretically, be just as moral as we can be.

The moral argument does not say that a person needs to believe in God in order to know these laws, or abide by them. It merely says that God is the best explanation of the moral law. That’s all. The fact that the moral law exists, and a general understanding of that law, is accessibly to Theist and Atheist alike, just like mathematics may have originated in the mind of God, but one need not believe in God in order to do math correctly.

Can we explain morals without reference to God?

If we accept that Atheists are just as capable of moral clarity and behaviour as are Theists, then we should still wonder whether Atheism, as a belief system, is capable of explaining the moral laws.

Morals are particularly difficult to explain in a purely Atheist worldview. But they try. Usually they try to reduce morality to some basic, simple, principle that all the moral laws are supposed to rest on. Some Atheists pick “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Others might choose, “whatever maximizes human flourishing.” The list of options is long and varied. It is assumed, then, that if you just agree with them about this starting point then all the moral laws just fall into place without God.

Viola. Like magic.

But there’s a problem. Suppose we are able to reduce the moral laws down to a single, basic, law upon which all other laws rest. Even if there is only one moral law, and it is “to maximize human flourishing” where in the world did that law come from? If reality is truly just matter and energy mindlessly swirling through the cosmos, and our existence is a bizarre accident in some tiny corner of an impersonal universe, then the entire concept of “ought” or “duty” – whether it takes the form of an encyclopedia of rules, or a single, universally applicable rule – is difficult to explain. Can F=MA produce “Thou shalt not murder?” Can a collection of rocks, a gas cloud, or electrical energy produce, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”

The underlying assumption behind any moral system is that something of value exists that needs to be protected. That could be “human flourishing” or “greatest good” or whatever other defining system one chooses. But how can any purely physical system have value? Who decided that the particular physical systems we can “human beings” are valuable? If we define ourselves as valuable, well, isn’t that just a little self-serving? The only way value can be assigned is by some authority outside of the thing being valued (can gold define its own worth?) and without a God there is nobody outside of humanity qualified to assign value to our happiness, our well-being or our flourishing. Without some value that objectively exists independent of our opinions there is no basis for any moral law, regardless of whether or not it can be reduced to a single “golden rule.”

For a quick, scholarly, take on the connection between moral realism and Theism / Atheism, here’s a video to whet your appetite.

Thoughts on Prayer

So here’s a second perspective on the billboard; that of effective communication. I’m not exactly a specialist when it comes to written communication, but I have written a self-published book and a significant part of my day job is writing technical reports. I’ve also been around long enough to have been exposed to a plethora of advertising, so I know a thing or two about communicating effectively. How effective is this billboard?

I would suggest it is not terribly effective. And it is the ineffectiveness at communication which is probably its greatest flaw. First, the claim is made that “Praying won’t help. Doing will.” Anybody with even a basic knowledge of logic will see this as a false dichotomy. It would be like saying “stop exercising to lose weight; just eat less,” or if I told my son as we were on a road trip to “take those headphones out of your ears and enjoy the scenery.” In all cases it is possible to do both. One can listen to their music and enjoy the scenery. One can eat less and exercise more. One can pray and do.

As well as being philosophically fallacious, that false dichotomy raises an interesting sociological question. Is there a correlation between prayer and action? Are those who pray more likely to actually do something, or will they just throw the responsibility on God and excuse themselves of their duty to help others? The numbers suggest prayer and action go hand in hand.

Twice as many atheists and agnostics (40%) donated a relatively small amount (under $100), compared to all donating adults (20%). Evangelical Christians are among the faith groups that donate the most: they are much more likely than average … to have contributed either $2,500-$5,000, or more than $10,000 (6% compared to 1%) last year. – Barna

Last summer, Statistics Canada released a survey on Canadians and their charitable habits. While less than one in five attend church regularly, those who do are far more likely to give to charities, and are substantially more liberal in the size of their gifts to both religious and non-religious organizations. The average annual donation from a churchgoer is $1,038. For the rest of the population, $295.

With respect to volunteer effort, two-thirds of churchgoers give their time to non-profit causes while only 43 per cent of non-attendees do likewise. And churchgoers put in twice as many hours volunteering. – MacCleans

If the billboard is intended to motivate people to action, I cannot help but circle back to the question I asked at the beginning, who is this ad intended for? If the target audience is those who pray then it seems somewhat pointless to tell them to “do” because they already are doing. In fact, they do a lot. They do more than their non-praying counterparts. If the passion behind the ad is to get people involved in making the world a better place it would seem the target audience ought to be those who are less prone to opening the wallet, and their daytimer, to those in need. In other words, the billboard should target those who do not pray; there is significant room for growth in that sociological demographic. But the billboard seems to be worded with the pray-ers in mind. Very strange.

But there is a second facet of that discussion worth considering. Prayer is often found at the end of all that can be done. The parent who watches their child throw their life away to drugs and squandered living, knowing full well the child will reject any attempt at correction. The mother who’s son has shipped out to the front lines of battle. The child who has lost their pet cat and has already put up signs around the community. When there is nothing more we can do, prayer takes a more central role.

Or, to draw this a little closer to personal experience, when a loved one is in a medically induced coma from which they may never emerge, you have no medical expertise and the doctors have done all that they can. When all human “doing” has been exhausted, who does one turn to? To say we should “do” instead of “pray” just sounds calloused to those for whom all has been done and prayer is the only hope left. Again, not a good sales pitch if you are trying to reach out to those who pray. A little market research would have gone a long way in this case.

We’re all good?

What about the second part of the ad? They claim, “Without God. We’re all good.” The problem with this part of the ad is, frankly, what the heck does that even mean?

First, I have to rant about a minor pet peeve with our present cultural tendency to butcher the English language. Since when did it become acceptable to start putting punctuation marks where they don’t belong? But I see this All. The. Time. Honestly, bad punctuation doesn’t make your point any stronger, it just makes you look linguistically incompetent. And this isn’t a criticism specifically against Atheists; all kinds of people do this.

All. The. Time.

“Without God.” That’s not even a complete sentence. On its own it means nothing. When taken with the second incomplete and meaningless sentence – and if we adjust the punctuation to something more meaningful – we get one of the following possibilities.

  • Without God we’re all good.
  • Without God, we’re all good.
  • Without God; we’re all good.

Ok, the rant is over.

Each of these carries subtly different meanings. Which one are they trying to convey?

Perhaps it is speaking from a metaphysical perspective. If our universe lacks a God then all humans are, by definition, morally good. Is that what the billboard is claiming? This seems absurd on more than one level, but I’ll just pick the most obvious absurdity; we’re not all good. 9/11. Hitler. Stalin. The list goes on and endlessly on.

Or perhaps it could be making a sociological statement. Perhaps it means that those who disbelieve in God are all good. The moment one becomes an Atheist is the moment of a certain kind of “salvation experience” whereby all one’s past sins are forgiven and one is no longer capable of moral infraction. Atheists: the only morally perfect people among us. That is an equally bizarre way to interpret this; a quick glance through history reveals some pretty horrible Atheists. Not all Atheists are horrible people, obviously, but an acceptance of Atheism certainly does not carry with it an immunity to moral error.

[UPDATE: I thought of yet another way that this could be interpreted. Sometimes we use the phrase “it’s all good” or “I’m all good” or “we’re all good” or some variation on that theme to express the idea that there are no problems. For instance, if I trip on something, somebody else might ask if I’m alright and I might reply, “I’m good, I’m good” to let them know I didn’t break anything. Well, are we to believe that there are no problems with the world? Or, are we to believe Atheists don’t have any problems? This interpretation just adds to the list of possible interpretations that simply don’t make sense.]

We as a human race are not “all” good, and even the sub-culture of Atheists in our midst is by no means “all” good. What in the world could that phrase possibly mean? It’s the kind of phrase that comes across as far more absurd than it could possibly be insightful; it is not even coherent enough to be debated.

I’m certain a visit to the website referenced on the billboard would explain the message on the billboard, but it is a well known reality that most of the people who see your hook aren’t going to bite. It’s a basic fact of advertising. There needs to be enough clarity in the initial presentation to impact the way the audience thinks even if they never visit your store or website. Some forms of advertising strive to leave the audience intrigued, but it is never a good idea to leave them dazed and confused.


The billboard’s communication problem is frankly its biggest downfall. Those who drive by are more likely to end up scratching their head than to be persuaded to… um… whatever it is the billboard is supposed to persuade us about. Are we supposed to stop praying? Are we supposed to reject God because then we somehow magically become “good?” Are we supposed to visit their website so we can donate some money to their worthy cause (whatever that cause is)?

At least the bus ads from several years back (“There probably is not God, so…”) gave us something comprehensible to discuss. I disagreed with them, of course, but they at least gave us something comprehensible to discuss. These ads do little more than leave the impression that somebody in the Ministry of Propaganda at the Centre for Inquiry needs to find a pink slip in their mailbox.


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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11 Responses to The moral Atheist?

  1. Grundy says:

    Atheists, in part, feel the need to tell people that those who don’t believe in God still do good because the bible says otherwise and is quoted to us on a regular basis.

    “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.”

    I’m glad that you, at least, dismiss that part of the bible.

    • Paul Buller says:

      “I’m glad that you, at least, dismiss that part of the bible”

      I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Atheists say something along the lines of “I’m glad to see you reject that part of the Bible” or “I’m glad to see you accept this or that view that I hold.” It’s as if you guys feel as though you strengthen your case by making it (falsely) appear as though those with whom you disagree have actually conceded some point that they have not, in fact, conceded.

      Do you guys study together? Is there like an Atheists’ manual or something? I see it often enough that I find it hard to believe you guys all come up with the same bizarre tactics completely independently of each other. Does that actually work on anybody? It’s hard to believe something so transparently manipulative would work, but stranger things have happened I suppose.

      With respect to Psalm 14:1, that would be another example of Christians misunderstanding, and misusing, some data point; this time Biblical data. It would be similar to the misuse of the moral argument. In both cases Christians should know better. But no, I do not dismiss that Psalm. I dismiss none of the Bible.

      Small piece of advice; try asking questions of other people and discussing the issues with them before you boldly proclaim what you think they believe.

      • Grundy says:

        I only know of religious apologetics classes and Sunday School. I’ve never been to an atheist study group. You have to understand that I was being charitable in my belief that you might not take every part of the bible literal because I consider that to be a good thing.

        Okay, let’s discuss it then.

        How do you reconcile “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” with your belief that people who don’t believe in God do good?

        • Paul Buller says:

          I just assumed that the remarkable uniformity among Atheists and their approach to engaging Theists – even down to highly particular sound-bytes – was best explained by some kind of study group or Atheist’s manual. That so many of you end up saying almost exactly the same kinds of things in the same kinds of settings just seemed like it deserved an explanation.

          Anyway, on to something of substance. The key to reading any part of the Bible (actually, just reading anything at all) is genre. I do not read a physics textbook in the same way I read a history book, in the same way I read an instruction manual for my TV, in the same way I read poetry, in the same way I read a comic book, in the same way I read a billboard. Psalms is poetry. To be understood according to its literary genre, it should not be understood literally. At least not “literally” in the sense of “exactly at face value.” It falls in the same category as all the books from Job through to Lamentations. The reason this passage is not meant to be taken at face value is the same reason I would never take the poetic line, “my love is a sweet, sweet rose” at face value. To do so would be to fundamentally misunderstand what is being said because genre was ignored.

          The subject of Psalm 14 is the horrible moral state of humanity; probably with a focus on the Israelite nation (it is a Jewish religious text, after all). It says (in hyperbolic language) that “all” have turned away and “no one” practices what is good. Well it seems self-evident that at no time in history has “all” of humanity, literally, said “there is no God.” Rather, this Psalm is primarily bemoaning the general state of affairs, and pointing out that people are not living up to the standards that God has laid out for us; in particular the Israelite nation. It’s similar to what Titus 1:16 conveys, or Isaiah 29:13. Even 2 Tim 3:5-8. These complaints are not actually directed at Atheists, but at self-professing “believers” who live as though God is not actually watching us.

          • Grundy says:

            Okay, then I’m glad that you don’t take that part of the bible literally. Many, many do.

            Still, if it’s not meant to be taken at face value, does it have any value? If so, what? Why include a poetic line in direct opposition to the truth?

            • Paul Buller says:

              I do not take it literally because it is not meant to be taken literally. It is poetry. But I do affirm its truth. That’s an important distinction.

              And the fact that it is true (in a poetic form) answers your next question. Whatever is true has value, so that passage does still have value. On a personal level, though, it’s these poetic and prophetic passages in the Bible I find most difficult. I’m an engineer. To borrow from my previous example, I’d much rather read the physics textbook or the history book than some book of poetry. That stuff doesn’t really jive with the way my mind works. It may not have quite so much value to me – subjectively – but that does not mean it lacks objective value any more than a BMW lacks value just because I, personally, wouldn’t ever buy one.

              I have to acknowledge something very important. It’s not all about me. Humanity is a diverse population and it would be pretty arrogant of me to roll my eyes at the Bible just because the entire thing wasn’t written precisely to appeal to my, personal, way of processing reality. There are enough sections that do appeal to my personality – passages that are straightforward and literal – to give me something to hang my hat on, but to presume that the entire thing had to be written just for me would be ego-centrism of an unprecedented variety. Although I may not easily understand all the different genres, I welcome the diversity of “human nature” and I’m glad that God didn’t form us all from the same mold.

              And, as a quick clarification, that poetic line is not “in direct opposition to the truth” any more than the claim that it is raining cats and dogs is in direct opposition to the truth. The literal truth is that no cats or dogs are being rained down from heaven. None. Not one. But nobody would hear that phrase and run to the window expecting to see canines and felines descending from the sky. It is a person’s faulty interpretation that may be in direct opposition to the truth, but not what is actually being said, properly understood.

              • Grundy says:

                Again, in what way is “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” true? I know a heart doesn’t literally say “there is no God” because a heart can’t talk. Poetically this passage seems to mean that no atheists do good. You and I both disagree with that meaning of the passage. If that’s not what it means, then what does it mean and how do you come to that meaning?

                • Paul Buller says:

                  You raise too many interesting points (and good questions!) to effectively address in a combox. And I have already taken a first pass at answering some of them, so I’ll just offer some very brief comments, quote some other experts, and call it a day.

                  How we understand what the Bible actually says depends on carefully working through it ON ITS OWN TERMS. In other words, we cannot try to make poetry into something that poetry is not. We need to understand and abide by the laws of language. We must also consider the broader literary context instead of ripping a single verse out and quoting it on its own. I attempted to shed some light (albeit briefly) on the context of Psalm 14 in a previous comment. We also need to study the “cultural language” of the time (i.e. “cats and dogs” is not a phrase used everywhere in the world) which means we need to have a decent working knowledge of the Jewish “cultural language.” All of this takes time, energy and study.

                  Practically speaking, though, I would never expect an Atheist to invest the time to carefully study a book they believed was bunk anyway. Therefore, practically speaking, unless you are willing to do precisely that, you’ll have to trust those who have. To that end let me provide a number of different commentaries that speak to the fact that “Atheism proper” is not what the Psalmist had in mind in this passage. All of these are available online so you can double check them.

                  Keil and Delitzsch – “The subject of what follows are, then, not these atheists but men in general”

                  New English Translation – “The statement is probably not a philosophical assertion that God does not exist, but rather a confident affirmation that God is unconcerned about how men live morally and ethically”

                  Clarke – “The word is not to be taken in the strict sense in which we use the term atheist, that is, one who denies the being of a God, or confounds him with matter. 1. There have been some, not many, who have denied the existence of God. 2. There are others who, without absolutely denying the Divine existence, deny his providence; that is, they acknowledge a Being of infinite power, etc., but give him nothing to do, and no world to govern. 3. There are others, and they are very numerous, who, while they profess to acknowledge both, deny them in their heart, and live as if they were persuaded there was no God either to punish or reward.”

                  Biblical Illustrator – “Practical denial or neglect, of His working in the world, rather than a creed of negation, is in the Psalmist’s mind.”

                  Thanks for the excellent conversation.

  2. Grundy says:

    Thanks for the charitable conclusion. I feel like my questions have gone unanswered, and it certainly seems like the original post is in conflict with the bible’s message, but I am as happy to end this exchange as you are. Just think about what I said. If you can reconcile your beliefs with the cited passage in the future, maybe you can write a new post about it.

    I have read and studied the bible as a Christian for the first 20 years of my life. Granted, I don’t know Hebrew or Arabic or other relevant languages to examine the original text, but…few Christians do. “You’ll have to trust those who have” you said. I assume you only mean those who agree with your faith, because there are many biblical scholars who self-identify as atheist or agnostic.

    Thank you also for the conversation and allowing my comments. I will likely continue to read from time to time.

    • TMB2 says:

      I’m curious: It seems as though you really really want to call yourself a ‘good’ person, but what definition of ‘good’ are you using? Why should we think that your definition is significant? What level of adherence does your standard of ‘good’ demand?

      Example: Good is defined by the self. Good is that which makes me happy. Goodness requires that I act in accordance with the definition at least 75% of the time in order to meet the standard.

      I’m sure you get the idea. Please let us know what you mean by good, and why should we care?

  3. Leah says:

    There is ZERO historical evidence, starting from January 2014 and going backwards in history to suggest that Christians have been any more moral than anyone else, including atheists.
    Either in their day-to-day personal relationships or in how each and ever group (both large and small) has practiced and dramatized their collective politics on to the world stage.
    The history of Christian Europe prior to say 1848 was a never-ending slaughter, with ALL of the slaughters being justified by the local ecclesiastical establishment of the multi-various warring factions.
    Everything was Always permitted!
    The USA for instance was founded on grand theft of the lands and resources of the native “Indians”, genocide against the “Indians”, and massive slavery (which is both theft and systematic murder of both the body and soul of the slaves).
    ALL of that was justified as “manifest destiny” or bringing “christ”, “god”, and “civilization” to the “heathen savages”. “Christian Amerika” as the last-great-hope of humankind, the “light on the hill’.
    The brutal colonial/imperial invasion and plunder of the America’s was also “justified” by the papal bulls of 1455 and 1493 which “authorized” it all in the “name of god” and for the “glory of christ”.
    There are now more Christians on the planet than ever before, both in total numbers and as a percentage of the human population.
    The world is saturated with Christian propaganda of all kinds in both paper and electronic forms. The “catholic” church alone runs the worlds largest propaganda machine, the tentacles of which reach into almost every village on the planet.There are more Christian schools and universities than ever before, and more missionaries too.
    And yet the world is becoming more and more insane every day. Indeed some of the principal vectors of this now universal insanity/psychosis are right-wing Christians – any and everyone associated with the Manhattan Declaration for instance.
    Applied Christian politics/history 101:
    Check out:
    Columbus & Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes
    The American Holocaust by David Stannard
    Books by Vine deLoria Jnr – especially God Is Red, and Custer Died For Your Sins

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