Whenever I come out Atheist .. they assume I must have no ethics or morals whatsoever and that I am willing to do just about anything --- like lie, cheat and steal.

Anyone else have this happen to them?

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This is why I've only come out to my husband, when we were dating, who it turned out was also atheist and to a friend of mine who told me she was atheist first. Whenever religion comes up in social settings etc I just don't say anything and get up to get a drink or whatever. It's sad.

It seems like recently (in large part due to  Reason Rally), it's become something we're 'allowed' to talk about as a whole, so more of us are raising our hands. It doesn't hurt any that the next generation is rejecting dogma and intolerance at an encouraging rate. Perhaps fundamentalism will burn itself out as the kids mature into our doctors, legislators, and educators. I have hope that before long, the scales will be more balanced.

In the meantime, I'm very glad to have found a community here where I don't have to censor my thoughts to make them more palatable, or carefully dance around 'unsavory' facts when discussing science :)

Chera I do try to avoid the topic ..yes

Yes, the fact that I'm an atheist comes up every time I get caught lying, cheating, and stealing.  It's the strangest thing.....

I've had to deal with this very issue on many occasions during failed attempts to convert me via family/friends.  I was raised Catholic (roman catholic) and lost my faith (if I ever had it which I highly doubt) when I was 13.  I've had plenty of arguments over what essentially boils down to Subjective morality vs Objective morality.  I'm often told that without an objective moral standard (ie GOD and the bible) there is no impetus to do good and no absolute punishment for doing evil.  Objective morality is also often used as proof for god; something I find ironic at best.  The theist states "there is an objective moral standard to which all people, regardless of their religion, follow.  If there is this objective moral standard outside of ourselves then it HAS to have an objective moral standard creator".  Sounds a lot like the argument for creation...right?  I personally do not believe in objective morality and I believe that all morality is inherently subjective.  I'm told that all people can agree that killing, theft, and slavery (slavery?!) is immoral and is therefore objective.  In debate I ALWAYS call nonsense on that.  For starters: the bible condoned slavery and was the main justification for the white slave owners in the south not but a century ago.  The fact that slavery is now outlawed only goes to prove that the idea of slavery being immoral is subjective and entirely at the whim of people and not some god.  The same thing goes with killing.  If someone commits a heinous crime and is sentenced with death, that is tantamount to killing (as the bible doesn't determine what is killing and what isn't).  In war, there are almost always casualties that are blanketed forgiven as being 'just a part of waging war'.  Regardless of the justifications for such actions, both are most definitely killing.  The mere fact that we can determine when it is OK and when it's wrong to kill goes to show just how subjective morality is.  Theft you ask?  Wallstreet...need I say more?  I have yet to be told of a single moral standard that is entirely objective (universally agreed upon and originating outside consensus of man). 

Thank you Devin for all your replies .. very helpful to me

In terms of "where do atheists get their morals" and who punishes people if there is no ultimate justicar after death.  I have this to say: our moral system (laws and ethics) are subjective which is why they vary from place to place.  Furthermore, they are a product of our evolution as a communal species.  There was a time when our ancestors would roam the lands in small family groups.  It was necessary to fight for our very survival.  If you came across land that was occupied by another family and they control of the food supply (hunting and gathering) you would take from them so that you could survive.  Eventually we learned how to till the land and create our own food.  This allowed us to stay in place and required increased cooperation.  The family group beget small villages which beget towns which beget cities.  As more people cohabited in smaller environments working towards a common goal, we determined that we needed laws to govern our behavior for the better of all.  If I steal your food or kill your family member, what is to stop you from doing the same to me.  A society without rules will likely fail.  This is the basics of our moral system and I could elaborate quite a bit on it.  As for "who judges us"..we do.  I am accountable not only to every other person where I live, but I am also accountable to our legal system.  I firmly believe that this is the only life I am going to live.  When I die, I die.  Why would I want to spend my one chance at life sitting behind bars in a cage?  Sorry for the all-over-the-placeness of this post and my previous one.  I hope this helps anyone who gets the same response the OP does when coming out of the closet (so to speak).

Devin, interesting replies. I'd thought a lot about this stuff too, and subsequently went to college to study philosophy to get a handle on it. I started out in pretty much the same place as you, and though I think my view is somewhat more sophisticated, it should also be said that my professors for my ethics classes don't seem to have as nuanced a view as you or I do. That said, morality does get trickier to nail down besides simply calling it subjective or objective. I will lead with my conclusion - I think morality is both objective and subjective. An example: if I told you I had just been out all night stealing babies, then raping and killing them and leaving their dead bodies on their parents' front door step, wouldn't you be horrified and think that it really wouldn't matter from what culture or century I'm from, that's just downright disgusting and morally wrong? And you reference evolution as well, so you know there is something about morality which is objective.


As I said, even my professors didn't seem to have a handle on morality. It appears to me that most people really haven't got the faintest idea of what makes something wrong or right, they work off of gut instinct or social norms or vague rational ideals, but being able to state explicitly what morality is and where it comes from is not easy, not by a long shot. I've spent many years now thinking about this ad nauseum, and it seems to me that ethics/morality cannot be explained in a brief manner. Perhaps when the right kinds of explanations have filtered their way down through our culture and everyone is made firmly aware from a young age just what the relevant concepts are, it can be explained with reference just to those most essential elements, but as it stands one must basically start from scratch with each new person one encounters to get at the meat of the subject. And this is clearly very bad, especially for us atheists, and is of such great import that I think we as atheists have got to do a much better job of understanding ethics so that we can explain it not just to theists but to ourselves as well.


And anyone wishing to get my version of a philosophically complex treatment of ethics is more than welcome to contact me, I obviously can't shut up about it. :-)

Hey Phoenix-Wanderer

Very interesting post which definitely gives me a lot to think about.  I agree that the actions you spoke of are things that I would find horrendous regardless of how I was raised and the beliefs I came to accept through my own quest for knowledge.  I also agree that there are probably hypothetical situations we can create that would offend even the most heinous of people.  In that sense, yes, I do suppose that there are objective moral stances that we can all agree upon.  It's an interesting way to frame your supposition that morality is objective and subjective at the same time (a concept that is admittedly hard to grasp at first glance).  I still have a hard time believing that truly objective morality exists.  It's possible, albeit hypothetical, to think of some group that would view your example as justified due to their personal beliefs.  In the bible, all first born males were killed. When Mohammed would conquer new lands, his followers would kill all the men and steal/rape the women.  Throughout history we hear tales of human sacrifice.  The Spartans would throw 'unfit' children off of the side of cliffs because they weren't deemed strong enough to live in their civilization.  Look at honor killings in the middle east where women are killed by their own blood relatives for shaming their family by being raped against their will.  Even Hitler (I hate to bring him into any conversation) believed he was justified in what he was doing and had some tacit approval of the Catholic church.  I will fully admit that morality is a man made construct and is nearly impossible, if not impossible, to determine where it comes from.  Now that I think about it, I understand how arguing that ALL morality is subjective is similar to arguing "there is absolutely NO god".  It's a positive claim that I cannot prove because I lack evidence or even a total understanding of what morality is since there are so many different understandings of it.  However, just as I will say "I do not believe in god because there is no evidence to support a god's existence" I will also say "I do not believe an absolute objective morality, based on my understanding of it, because there is no evidence that absolute objective morality exists".  If that makes any sense.

I totally agree that defining things is difficult and obfuscates the conversation a great deal.  I come across it all the time when debating or even conversing with theists.  I have to start every conversation off with "an atheist is someone who does not believe in god" because I am almost universally asked "why do you reject god" or "what is your proof that god DOES NOT exist".  It's frustrating, to say the least.

Interesting post.  I 100 percent agree that you probably know a whole lot more than I do about morality and ethics as I only have a wikipedia-esque understanding of it.

Hey Devin,


A very good reply. Btw a heads up, if you want to put actual breaks in between your paragraphs add a space when you hit enter the first time. Someone just pointed this out to me recently and I appreciated it.


I also had the same problem with any sense of morality being objective as you do. The example I gave to my ethics professor was that of the Borg (hopefully you are familiar with Star Trek). If we encountered the Borg, what would make it seem likely that our sense of morality would in any way resemble theirs? I apparently didn't think enough of her answer to commit it to memory. So I was where you are until I hit upon that baby-raping example. And yes, the Spartans and other cultures killed/kill (there are families in Africa who can't afford their babies and drown them) their babies, but they don't torture them first for sadistic pleasure. One might wonder about the people who do torture babies/people for pleasure, if maybe that can be considered moral for them. If morality is subjective, then we have to say yes. But I think we can tie morality into objectivity by tying it into things like evolution, sustainability, etc. People or cultures that torture for fun are engaging in a (hopefully) obviously unsustainable way in that people/cultures that value life (a necessary precondition for sustainability) will abhor such acts and act to repel such beings, creating conditions highly unfavorable for torture to persist. Clearly then there is some necessity to make morality relevant to living beings, at least ones capable of empathy. And perhaps this helps answer my Borg question, because they may be much more like robots or, more precisely, a computer virus, geared more towards death/unsustainability than life. And maybe that's why we find them kind of scary. We don't talk about rocks or inanimate objects as being in any sense moral, because we don't think morality applies to non-living beings. A rock is amoral, not immoral or moral. So life is I think a good starting point for basing our morality, but as I have come to realize, it is just a starting point. Still so much more to be said! Did you find this argument compelling?

I do believe there are compelling aspects to your argument.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that I am not a fan of Star Trek.  I was always more a fan of Quantum Leap and Lost in Space so I never watched much Star Trek.  I do know of the Borgs though.  When it comes to objective morality in relation to evolution I can see your point.  There are things that are objectively wrong because they make society unsustainable.  People who murder/steal/etc are detrimental to society and it's long term survivability. In that sense, I could see some validity that there are objective moral standards we all must live by if we want to progress as a species.  It becomes an issue of defining morality as either something we "feel" to be right or wrong vs a social imperative and that is where it gets tricky. This is why I am very much interested in reading more about morality and ethics.  I've always thought that objective morality is something that everyone, regardless of how they chose to act, would agree with.  So, even if someone - or a group of people - were to commit mass murder they would still know that what they did was wrong and without moral justification.  There are so many cases where people justify acts that run counter to the needs of the collective.  If we look at it from an evolutionary standpoint, regardless of what these people do, it is objectively wrong because it's ultimately detrimental to the well being of all.

 To be a stickler though: I would have to say that objective morality, as a means of necessity, is still subject to change and therefore subjective.  There was a time where killing the men of a different tribe and taking their women/food was necessary for your own survival.  There was only so much food to go around and leaving the competing males alive would open your tribe up for retribution and further competition for scarce resources.  Even objective moral standards can change to suit the needs of the collective.

 Altogether very interesting conversation and I thank you for it.  I'm going to retire now and catch up on some shows I've been putting off for a while.  I'm glad to see I joined this site for a reason and I am already being challenged.

Well you've got some sci-fi in there and you are familiar with the Borg, so that's good! The morality plays of all sci-fi are pretty good, which is the better half of what I watch it for.


There are two points I would make in response. The first is that we do feel objective moral standards just as we reason about them. We have a moral intuition handed down to us through evolution which guides us away from monstrous behavior, which is somewhat unfortunately also countered by competitive/aggressive instincts which push us towards such behavior. I say "somewhat" because we couldn't survive without those instincts, or at least not up to this point in history. So as far as social conventions go, these are just the intuitive sense of right and wrong being interpreted by the more recent parts of the brain responsible for language and reasoning and then shared with the collective, and the main problem as I see it is that a lot often goes wrong in the translation. People mistake one powerful intuition to be all-important and play it up to the extreme and to the detriment of all other intuitions, resulting in extreme behavior and bad moral behavior.


The second point is that what you seem to be concerned with is context, and this is very good reasoning on your part. So I would say that it is completely compatible with a viewpoint that morality is at least partly objective to say that what one should do depends upon the situation. A set of circumstances dominated by the context of war is of course morally different than one dominated by peace, or famine and plenty, or survival and flourishing. So morality is clearly more sophisticated than simple absolute rules like "Thou shalt not steal"; it is rather like "you shouldn't steal UNLESS..." And then the difficulty lies only in ordering our sets of values so that we can determine which are the ones that are the most basic, the ones that supersede all other concerns and which should be held as universal values, and which values are far more derivative, dependent upon circumstance, and relative to the desires of the individual.


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