A-theism is A-Potent and A-Moral

FYI: this post has been moved here.


  1. If you found a lot of atheist moral absolutists in the Bill Maher thread, Mariano, I'm quite surprised. I didn't participate, but I don't get that impression from reading it.

    You dismiss the alternative very quickly, which I think is...well, the best term is dismissive. The reason you give for avoiding moral relativism is not only true but self-evident, but it's not a good reason.

    Without an absolute, no action is absolutely, fundamentally or unassailably wrong, evil or immoral. That's not news. Neither is anything objectively good, right or just.

    This doesn't actually stop a relativist from declaring an action to be good or bad, any more than the fact that an objectivist's moral source may not really exist, or may not have the morals expected, stops that objectivist from doing the same thing. No source is fully reliable, not even gods.

    The only truly (hypothetically) objective moral source is a god. This is the upshot of disqualifying any other possibly objective moral source an atheist might suggest, which your team takes great pains to do. If one is an atheist, according to you, one must truthfully be a moral relativist or subjectivist.

    This is supposedly a reason to abandon atheism. That's an argument from consequences. It is more directly a reason for atheists to fully accept moral relativism, on the basis that their position implies that it's probably true.

    Atheism itself is indeed a-moral, and would have very little to say to the subjects of your exercise. That amorality need not carry to atheists themselves, as you will agree, but neither does atheism leave them with no defensible contribution to a moral issue. This is precisely where a theist perspective sends people down the wrong track: you seem to think that because religious people tend to condemn such acts as incest on religious grounds, the irreligious must use whatever they have in place of religion in the same situation.

    Religion or atheism would be the last thing on an atheist's mind in this situation. Incest has enough practical consequences that there are any number of reasons to stop. It's illegal. It destroys the relationship the siblings have built with each other their whole lives. It's potentially psychologically damaging. It can affect their whole family, even tear it apart. Any child which results will be inbred, prone to disease and disfigurement and viewed as an abomination. There is no system of values where the pleasure of sex outweighs all of this stuff.

    Sure, you could take any of these reasons as a general criterion and poke holes in it. For example, the illegal thing isn't always wrong; the American revolutionaries broke the law of the land because British law prevented the nation's freedom. Nothing on Earth points the right way all the time. Is that a reason to abandon law altogether? Of course not. We recognise that it's not perfect, and we work on improving it. Forever.

    Things like the law, personal interest and basic human empathy are highly subjective, but they're also highly common. Everyone is affected by them to some degree. This is as close as known things get to being truly objective: that which we have in common so completely that it goes without saying. We're all human, we all live around other humans, we nearly all answer to those humans in some way.

    My overarching point is that just because something is relative or subjective doesn't make it insubstantial. It can be good enough for everyday decisions, and even big, difficult ones. And if it fails, it's not the only guide.

    If nothing is morally absolute, we take what we can get, and we use it all together. (Corroboration is a great thing; if it hurts somebody, helps nobody and it's illegal, that's not "evil" but it's close enough.)

    The alternative is to claim a true absolute like a god, whose existence as well as its authority is forever in question. That's just as unreliable, if not more.

  2. “Firstly, athe“ism” has no morals since it is merely the non belief in god(s) and thus carries with it no particular worldview or morals. Atheism is a blank canvas upon which individuals pain various pictures of life, the universe and everything.”

    Well, that’s true. But you seem to be leaping from the claim that atheism carries no particular worldview or moral theory to the claim that atheists have no particular worldview or moral beliefs. But no atheist, strictly speaking, is just an atheist – in the same way that no theist is just a theist – any theist is going to have a definite set of beliefs about the nature of God(s), the nature of the world around us, etc. even if those beliefs are tentative or “agnostic”. Theism is easily compatible with amoralism or relativism, depending on what auxiliary premises are employed.

    “Any claim by any sect of atheism to absolute morality based on materialism is merely an a-potent ethic.”

    Maybe. But one can be an atheist without being a materialist, and so without trying to tease some sort of hedonism or utilitarianism out of materialism.

    “What makes morality absolute is not that I, society, or the government decide that something is absolutely wrong but that there is an establisher and potent administer and that there is accountability.”

    Moral absolutism is, if anything, the belief that right and wrong exist prior to the efforts or approval of any enforcer.

    ”Atheism guarantees that we suffer evil for absolutely no reason whatsoever, no ultimate good can come out of it (I do not here mean something as mundane as the benefit of burning your finger a little bit and so learning to not touch a hot stove again).”

    I don’t see that as a bad thing. The idea that all evil and immorality is really just the Puppeteer’s way of bringing out the greatest good for the greatest number (or, as Calvinists believe, the greatest amount of narcissistic self-gratification), and so is in reality good and moral, seems incredibly bleak to me. More importantly, how could morality be said to exist, if everything is as it should be by definition? How could anyone make any moral judgments in such a world? The choice between murder and philanthropy would not have a moral dimension – whichever one chose to do, it would be the best thing one could possibly have done. And the argument that one’s choosing to murder would result in one’s eternal punishment* is a red herring; if, under this sort of theistic worldview, one chooses an action that results in one’s eternal damnation and torture, it’s still the best possible thing one could do, by definition.

    *To say that one is being punished assumes that one is a moral agent, but this worldview must at least deny morality, and most likely must deny agency as well (at least, for everyone but God). A better description of what is happening is that God works so that one both “chooses” to murder and is also eternally tortured. There may be a 1-to-1 correlation between people who do ‘wicked’ things and people who are eternally tortured; however the wickedness is not the cause of the torture, but rather, the torture and the wickedness have a single common cause in God’s irresistible will (either for the maximization of salvation, which is dehumanizing and really doesn’t even make sense, or for his own glory, which is just horrifying and even more dehumanizing).

    ”Moreover, atheism is a consoling delusion which presumes subjective meaning to one’s life in a universe which is objectively meaningless.”

    The universe is “objectively” meaningless in any case. A really powerful being, even an infinitely powerful being, having a use for me, or for the universe, does give me or it any “objective” meaning it would lack in the absence of such a being.

  3. What a lovely way to break in the new blog, with a discussion on - morality! (ta-daa)

    About your "important points"...ahem.

    1- Arguing for relative morals disqualified one from passing moral judgments or condemning any actions.

    Disqualifies? According to whose rules? What a baseless statement - within the culture that I live it is perfectly fine to criticize immoral behavior, regardless of my philosophical view on what morality is. You just try and disqualify me, see what happens. (hint: "nothing")

    2- The atheist claim to absolute morals is a mere consoling delusion of an assertion.

    You need to do better to show that atheists really claim objective morals, and what objective (or "absolute") means. In your definition, an innate (socio-)biological instinct qualifies for the "absolute" epithet just as well as a divine guiding principle does, with evolution being the "establisher and potent administer."

    3- Merely asserting absolute morality does not cause moral actions, does not prevent immoral actions and does not carries along with it accountability.

    Quire true. Also irrelevant - how is this an "important point" ? Are you not merely asserting absolute morality yourself? Is there a qualifier to your assertion that prevents immoral actions?

    4- The only morality that atheist or athe“ism” can logically claim is necessarily subjective and tentative and therefore, not absolute.

    Perhaps. So what?

    5- Atheism’s morality is premised upon arguments from outrage which are a-potent.

    Nonsense. Think for a bit. Do you think atheists have arrived at a “visceral dislike of incest” because we sat around the table and discussed it, and decided, in our outrage, that it must be wrong? I didn't make the decision to think of incest as immoral - that decision was made for me by other institutions, proximately the culture in which I grew up, but ultimately perhaps my (our) phylogenetic heritage has something to do with it as well.

    You're painting yourself into a corner with your insistence on absolute morals, which prevents you from accepting the simplest explanations that explain the most - culture, society, community, friendship, kinship.

    6- Atheism makes evil worse.

    Really? Is it really possible that such a sweeping generalization could be true? Don't you think that you ought to look to the people themselves, the atheists, and see whether they as individuals make evil worse because they are atheists? Show me the evidence for this. And please don't give me the tiresome argumentum ad Hitlerum fallacy.

    7- Atheism does not actually do anything about evil, except complain.

    Same as above - you have to show me that atheists are the ones not doing anything about evil. How about those top-tier scientists out there, a large fraction (majority, perhaps) of which are atheist or agnostic, developing cures for diseases and engineering drought-resistant crops? A doctrine or a worldview, such as atheism, doesn't actually do anything on its own, you know, it's the people.

    8- Atheism guarantees needles un-benefiting suffering.

    Examples? Isn't it true that catholics have campaigned against contraceptives in AIDS-ridden regions of Africa? Is that suffering inflicted necessary or benefitting? And you accuse atheists - talk about throwing stones in glass houses...you're throwing darts in your incubator.

    9- Atheism guarantees that evil benefits the evildoer.

    How? I shoot someone and go to jail or maybe get shot in return (or both), I don't see how I'm benefitted by being an atheist.

    10- Atheism is a consoling delusion.

    There's a new flea book out, called something like "Why there almost certainly is a God." Sounds like there's really no question about it, but where are those killer arguments - let alone the evidence - to prove it? Why are so many of us still unconvinced? The world is larger than the US, if you recall. Whole nations, large and small, go predominantly unconvinced of your particular God. To call atheism a consoling delusion when you have no evidence to support your own claim, is rather arrogant. Something atheists get called a lot, incidentally.

    If these are your "important points," I don't think you have any at all.

  4. You express a lot of skepticism about the possibility of a secular morality, but I feel that the same arguments could also be used against religious concepts.

    If God declares adultery to be wrong then that is surely a subjective (albeit divine) judgement. You mentioned "accountability", but this merely reduces morals to a set of laws and punishments.

    And I'm afraid that I agree with the other comments that since atheism is amoral it does not mean that atheists are amoral. I would go further and say that theism is amoral as well, with only the individual sects and beliefs conferring morality upon its subjects (even within a religion such as Islam there are polar disagreements).

    As for calling atheism a "consoling delusion", I must say that this type of comment has always baffled me. Atheism cannot be consoling as it does not convey any positive beliefs. Instead (if we are seeking consolation) we must turn to other things such as family, friends, philosophy, Mozart etc. The idea that we are really theists that pretend to be atheists in order to hide from the Ten Commandments is just silly, as we are either ignorant of the truth of religion or correct in our supposition. It is impossible to hide from the wrath of God while believing that we are vulnerable to it. If we know there is something to hide from, we would also know that we cannot be hidden from it.

  5. If these are your "important points," I don't think you have any at all.

    Ouch! That last post was quite the spanking.

    Mariano and the rest of the crew, just a friendly suggestion, keep your posts more consise, focused, and to the point, and most of all only as long as absolutely neccesary. That last post was 1500 words. I feel it was too kmjeandering for my taste.

  6. Give 'em a break, Anonymous. (You related to the anti-Scientology guy?)

    I don't mind that Mariano tends toward long posts. One of the team is entitled to be the essayist. If it bothers you, don't read his stuff. As you can see from the replies, others will certainly read it.

    It's up to them to be convincing and it's their choice how to go about it.

  7. Let A be the set of all possible actions, and f the function associating each 'a' of A with either 'right' or 'wrong'.

    If objective morality exists, then for each 'a' element of A, either f(a) = 'right' or f(a) = 'wrong'.

    No mention of God necessary. It might not ever be possible to find the values of the function f given atheism, but just because
    we can't find them doesn't mean they don't exist.

    I guess what confuses some people is that they think objective abstract realities can't exist. But many, many nontheist philosophers (including philosophers of math for example) would disagree.

  8. Smartalx, lighten up! I agree Mariano is an essayist, and that's cool, I'm just suggesting he tightens it up a bit, he'd be stunningly more effective. He's got some chops, but I've seen better from him. In others words, it was just alright for me dog.

    I'll add a name so it's easier to identify my knuckleheadedness.


  9. Kiwi, I think objective abstract realities could exist (the same way I think a god could exist - I just don't think they do), and it's certainly a tougher question to answer in mathematics, but if there are any such things with a moral bent we have no way of knowing what they are. So it's as if they don't exist.

    Benadick, that's all cool.

  10. "So it's as if they don't exist."

    Given theism, we could say the same thing. Every difficulty an atheist faces with objective morality, the theist faces it as well.

    Is there actually any serious philosopher of ethics who defends the moral argument like presented in the post? It only seems popular with popular "philosophers" like Kreeft or Craig.

  11. "Is there actually any serious philosopher of ethics who defends the moral argument like presented in the post?"

    Well, there are serious philosophers of ethics who hold some form of divine command theory, Robert Adams for instance. But Adams, at least, is actually careful to argue that we'd still have reason to believe in objective morality if it turned out that God didn't exist.

  12. All of this maundering about the relative moral qualities of atheism and theism or absolutism and relativity are meaningless.

    Unfortunately for the blogger, he makes the assumption of the existence a deity as the source absolute morals. This claim is unproven and unprovable, so his entire argument fails from the start. He is comparing a thing that exists, secular morality, to a thing that does not, absolute morals as dictated by a deity. Any claim of the actions of a deity must be preceded, logically, by proof of the existence of that deity and I see no such proof, on this blog or anywhere else.

    All morals are of a non-divine origin simply because no other kind can possibly exist.

  13. There's a recent New Scientist article that I would like to point out: Evolution myths: Accepting evolution undermines morality.

    You can follow the links in the article for more material. It's what I've been trying to say all along, but who listens to me; maybe if it comes from a more recognized source it will carry more weight. There simply is no truth behind the often expressed view on this blog that evolutionism or other moral relativism can not provide a basis for a moral code.

  14. Thank you all for very interesting comments.

    I note that this comment section is peppered with references to God(s), theism and theists.

    However, I fail to note where I argued from theism.

    I understand that the tu quoque argument is easy but it is responding to an argument that I never made.

    You may stat that I must be arguing from a theistic presupposition but my argument is purely materialistic.


  15. "I understand that the tu quoque argument is easy but it is responding to an argument that I never made.

    You may stat that I must be arguing from a theistic presupposition but my argument is purely materialistic."

    Please don't be silly. If you are going to address these issues, do so seriously. Also, please do not back pedal from the calims you are making, that is very poor form. I quote you again:

    "An elucidation of what is meant by “absolute” is that something is what it is and it is the way that it is—whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, whether we would prefer that it be different or not, whether we ignore it or acknowledge it. An absolute moral applies to all people in all times and places (sometimes from the time it is established onwards). What makes morality absolute is not that I, society, or the government decide that something is absolutely wrong but that there is an establisher and potent administer and that there is accountability."

    Before any other aspects of what you call "absolute morality" can be addressed, it seems to me that the question of whether it exists must be established. By your quote above, it's source is some unidentified "establisher and potent administrator". Since you have claimed that your argument is purely materialistic, what is the materialistic nature of this "Establisher and potent administrator"?

    On the other hand, perhaps your argument isn't purely materialistic, it is dependent on the theistic assumption, and I am right to question your argument in the way I have. Maybe there are other possibilites but I do not see any.

    So, I look forward to hearing one of the following:

    1. A materialistic description of the "establisher and potent administrator".

    2. An admisson that your argument is inherently dependent on theism and the requested proof of the validity of that position.

    3. I hope it is this one, as it will be most interesting, something I have missed.

  16. “I note that this comment section is peppered with references to God(s), theism and theists… I understand that the tu quoque argument is easy but it is responding to an argument that I never made.”

    An example intended to highlight the particular error you are making is not a tu qouque argument, any more than a gratuitous insult is an ad hominem argument.

  17. Thank you all for your comments and thoughtful observations.

    tu quoque: "You, also” - I am being told that theism does it also but this does not answer my argument.

    Anonymous - if that is your real name :o),
    Even if I was arguing from theism, and therefore theism was on the same boat as atheism in this regard, that would not answer my argument.

    I certainly would not argue to prove a materialistic establisher and potent administrator since I was arguing that, as far as I know, there is no such thing.

    But I infer that your comments are based on my claim to be arguing from materialism and so referencing an establisher and potent administrator implies theism. No so.

    I do not have to argue from theism in order to note that a moral system is a-potent if it lacks an establisher and potent administrator. In an absolutely materialist universe there is no establisher and potent administrator then there is no such administered moral system but merely a set, or various sets, or personal opinions (some backed by governmental authority).

    Indeed, I do not need to argue from theism to envisage an establisher and potent administrator.

    For instance: let us imagine a materialistic universe and a country on a planet where many people die because other people speed through red traffic lights and crash into them. I may notice that no one (or no government) has established that all traffic is to stop at red traffic lights. Ergo, a materialistic person (or no government) could act as establisher of a law.

    Also, I might notice a country in this universe where a materialistic person (or no government) could act as establisher of a law that states that birds should not fly. But upon noticing that birds fly anyways I would conclude that the establisher is a-potent to administer the law and hold accountable the birds that do fly.

    Thus, I might argue that a materialistic establisher and potent administrator could be a selfless gene that causes us to be moral and punishes us with infertility if we are not. Or a Big Bro government who scrutinizes the minutia of our everyday life and holds us accountable accordingly. Or a race of alien overlords whose vastly superior technology plays the same role as Big Bro above.


  18. “tu quoque: "You, also” - I am being told that theism does it also but this does not answer my argument.”

    Well, insofar as your argument is that atheism qua atheism must result in amoralism, I think it does answer your argument by showing that it is not atheism qua atheism – but rather something common to both atheism and theism. And that if in the case of theism, even though ‘theism itself’ is amoral it is compatible with a number of moral theories – why is the same not true of atheism?

    Anyway, my main disagreement with you is that I don’t believe that absolute morality requires – or is even compatible with – an ‘establisher’. As for a ‘potent administrator’ – unless everything that happens is morally good, there is clearly no such administrator. Now you may mean by potent administrator, not someone who ensures that morality is always followed, but someone that punishes all immorality. But if so then you’re committing a bait and switch when you bring up the example of decreeing that birds should not fly, and observing that they still fly. It seems to me, at least logically possible to ‘potently administrate’ the decree that birds should not fly in the same way as absolute morality would supposedly be administrated (by God or whatever) – namely by shooting down any birds that happen to fly.

  19. Well, atheists could simply ask themselves what criteria a God would use for deciding morality and use that. After all, if theists claim that morality is none arbitray AND God given, than you can find the rules behind things and justify them.