Atheism responses to main criticisms

On lack of motivation to be good

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Virtue is its own reward as opposed to the ‘bribery of heaven and terrorism of hell’. Being good is the only way to a fulfilled life, even though life is unfair indeed.

There is not enough proof that atheism leads to immorality. Many atheists want to be accountable for their actions.

There is no need for ultimate purpose, it’s enough to want to promote the purposes or goals or preferences of humans and other animals.


In response to the criticism of atheists potentially lacking the motivation to be good, Keith Parsons in his essay ‘Seven misconceptions about atheism’ said:

“Since atheists do not believe in heaven and hell, what motivation do they have to be good? As Bertrand Russell noted long ago, anyone who asks this question must have no concept of disinterested goodness. It is not clear that the question of what motivates morality really needs an answer. Isn’t virtue supposed to be its own reward?

Maybe, though, it is too optimistic to expect people to be good without a carrot and stick. What can atheists say to the person who says “What’s in it for me?” when admonished to be good? What can atheists offer to compare with the bribery of heaven and the terrorism of hell?

Atheists can reply with reference to an authority older than the New Testament: Aristotle. Aristotle said that the human is a “political animal” and that the only creatures who can live apart from society are beasts or gods. Hermits are very rare, and are almost always sociopaths or religious fanatics. Humans then, are by nature gregarious. We find our personal fulfillment only in relations with other people. Further, genuine well-being, eudaimonia for Aristotle, is achievable only through the practice of virtue.

Why be good? Because being good–living virtuously–is the only way to a fulfilled, self-actualized life. By living virtuously we sustain those vital social relations-friendship, family, community–without which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Vice leads to misery. Scrooge and the Prodigal Son were made miserable by their vices. Generosity, which lies in the mean between the opposite vices of stinginess and prodigality, promotes happiness.

But wasn’t Aristotle wrong in this? Aren’t the evil often happier than the good? Doesn’t virtue proverbially go unrewarded? Isn’t it often perversely the case that “no good deed goes unpunished?”

True, life is unfair. The good often suffer, and the evil often die old, rich, and impenitent. But it is not going too far out on a limb to assert that mean, rotten, nasty people usually have miserable lives. Prison is not a pleasant place. Even if they are clever enough to avoid prison, bad people usually have bad lives. They may have sycophants, but few real friends. They can buy sex from prostitutes or trophy wives, but they seldom know true love. Their neighbors won’t speak to them and their children abandon them. They may die rich, but they die alone.

The specter of eternal punishment is a bit too much for atheists to take, but atheists do have ready answers for those who demand “What’s in it for me?” Besides, all the efforts of fire-and-brimstone preachers have not succeeded in making hell real for most people. The fear of a miserable life in the here-and-now seems a better motivator.

… Can atheists be good citizens? Wasn’t America founded on Christian values? The short answers to these questions are “yes” and “no” respectively. Despite the old saying, there have indeed been atheists in foxholes. Nonbelievers participate fully in all the positive aspects of American life, including military service and jury duty. They pay taxes, struggle to raise decent, law-abiding kids, and contribute money to charity and time to volunteer work. There is simply no evidence whatsoever that atheists are any less honest, hardworking, or patriotic than anybody else.

But isn’t atheism an anti-American ideology, opposed to the Christian foundations of American society? The best answer to this question is another question: What Christian foundations? The Constitution of the United States is a thoroughly secular document. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the Constitution that justifies any claims about American polity or law being based on religion. If fact, the chief opposition to the Constitution during its period of ratification came from religious groups who opposed it as “Godless.”

Well, aren’t the conceptions of democracy, human rights, and human dignity grounded in the Christian tradition? No. Democracy was invented by pagan Greeks. The concept of “rights” is a product of thinkers of the Enlightenment who reacted against the Christian view that those who dissented from established dogma should be burned. As for the notion of human dignity, what kind of notion of human dignity can be grounded in a dogma that regards humans as worthy of eternal damnation?”

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Richard Carrier said in his essay ‘Does the Christian theism advocated by JP Moreland provide a better reason to be moral than secular humanism?’:

“…Beginning with J.P. Moreland’s central work, Scaling the Secular City, he outlines several reasons Christian theism offers to be moral. After outlining a lack of good reasons to be moral in various secular worldviews [2], he begins his defense of Christian theism by declaring that “my motive for being moral should be because I love God, I recognize him as my creator, I want to do what is right for its own sake, and I desire my own welfare in this life and the life to come.”[3] But a secular humanist can make a similar declaration of equal merit. For example, a secular version of Moreland’s statement might be, “my motive for being moral should be because I love humankind, I recognize my debt to society, I want to do what is good for its own sake, and I desire my own welfare in this life as well as the welfare of generations to come.” These statements provide equally good reasons for being moral, because they appeal to exactly the same values, and a Christian has no better reason to commit to these values than a secular humanist.”


Jeff Lowder added more arguments in his article ‘An emotional tirade against atheism’ :

“Morality: Zacharias quotes extensively from Nietzsche, who thought that atheism entails ethical nihilism, the view that nothing is morally right or wrong (pp. 18-19). Yet he never explains why atheism entails nihilism. He simply asserts that to be the case and then–for rhetorical effect–quotes vivid passages from the works of Nietzsche in support.

The fact of the matter is that atheism does not logically entail any theory of ethics.[4] (Indeed, Zacharias seems to admit this point when he writes, “For a philosophy that defines life apart from God, there is a plethora of options” [p. 56].) To be sure, an acceptance of atheism means the denial of all theistic interpretations of morality, but that still leaves the door open to all of the various secular theories of ethics. If atheism is true, any one of a number of ethical theories–including nihilism, relativism, and, yes, even objectivism–could be true, in the sense that all such theories are logically compatible with atheism. (Here it is worth noting that Swinburne accepts a naturalistic account of objective morality,[5] whereas Zacharias seems completely unaware of such accounts in contemporary scholarship.[6]) Atheism alone will not determine the true nature of ethics.

At this point, three natural questions arise. First, to the extent that atheism is logically compatible with nihilism, would widespread atheism lead to an increase in immorality? Zacharias thinks so; he even blames atheism for the “large-scale slaughters” committed by Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao (p. 22)! However, as Sagi and Statman point out, “given the influence of religion on modern society, a ‘pure’ secular society without any traces of religion, suitable as a ‘control group,’ is hard to find.”[7] For example, they point out that Nazi Germany “was the product of almost two thousand years of Christianity, which shaped Nazi attitudes and behavior towards Jews.”[8] Thus, “large-scale slaughters” may actually be influenced by religion, not the lack of it. At any rate, as Sagi and Statman note, the claim that immorality is the result of atheism is an empirical hypothesis that must “be confirmed or refuted by empirical research,” using a suitable control group.[9] Zacharias’s claim that atheism leads to immorality is therefore unproven.

Second, if atheism does not logically entail a theory of ethics, how can atheists settle debates about the nature of ethics objectively? Zacharias claims that the atheist “is hard pressed to adjudicate between conflicting ethical norms” (p. 38). Yes, ethical disputes are often notoriously difficult to resolve, but atheists do not have a disadvantage in this sense. Theists may appeal to a transcendent moral law in order to justify their morality, but such appeals do little to “settle” the dispute if different theists have competing interpretations of the revealed ethical system.

Third, if there is no ultimate purpose to life (as atheism seems to imply), would that rule out the possibility of a coherent theory of ethics? Zacharias asserts that a “reasonable and coherent ethical theory” is impossible if life has no ultimate purpose (p. 39). However, Zacharias never explains why life must have an ultimate purpose in order for ethics to be “reasonable and coherent.” For example, why can’t an act be right or wrong according to whether it promotes the purposes or goals or preferences of humans and other animals?[10] Larry Arnhart, in his recent book Darwinian Natural Right, defends such a view: he argues that an action is right or wrong according to whether it promotes the biologically-based needs of humans.[11] Whether Arnhart’s theory is correct remains to be seen; however, Zacharias needs to consider such ideas before declaring that atheistic ethics are incoherent.

…Zacharias claims that wonder, truth, love, and security are “essential components for meaning” and that only Christian theism satisfies these conditions (pp. 105, 113, 115). Yet as Christian philosophers Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, and Basinger point out, “the burden of proof clearly lies with the believer… What the believer must establish is that nonbelievers who deny cosmic meaning but still claim to possess personal meaning are not justified in maintaining this position.”[19] And Zacharias simply fails to meet his burden of proof. First, he fails to show that his four “essential components for meaning” really are necessary for meaning. Second, he fails to show that those four conditions could not be satisfied if there is no God. As Peterson et al observe, “there appears to be no widespread scientific (psychological or physiological) or logical support for the claim that one cannot justifiably claim to have personal meaning if one denies cosmic meaning.”[20]

… The sinful nature of man: I agree with Zacharias that everyone has fallen short of an ethical standard: their own. I think any reasonable person would admit that they have failed at least once–if not several times–to uphold an ethical standard which they recognize. However, this is where our agreement ends. Zacharias claims that no human being wants to be accountable to anyone and that only an acceptance of the Christian God can correct that condition (p. 136, 143). Yet Zacharias offers no support for that assertion. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that assertion is false. Many non-Christians do want to live a moral life and be accountable for their actions.”

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