Dear Morally Average Atheist,


An atheist said the following:
“Do you find it at all questionable that, since you can’t offer any evidence that Christians who claim a higher moral standard, actually live to a higher moral standard, and that if anything, the evidence shows that they, Christians, actually live a moral standard that is lower than the moral standard of non believers?
Why is it that you pretty much shrug off actual evidence? I am guessing that if you could show that Christians actually lived to a higher moral standard, you wouldn’t hesitate, but since you can’t, you just ignore the fact that the evidence shows that proclaiming to have a higher moral standard is futile and meaningless, since it (the higher moral standard) has no affect on how believers (Christians) behave.”

Surely, you are not saying it’s useless to try to follow a better standard because no one else does. Your observation does not diminish your responsibility in this area. For instance, if no one in the world got their math completely right and everyone averaged about the same amount of mistakes, striving toward perfect arithmetic would still be good. If, however, a group of people were told the right way of doing math, and chose to ignore the instruction, and still averaged the same amount of mistakes as everyone else, should a math enthusiast be content to be average just because it’s average? No, he should find out what is the correct way, and continue to do what is correct to do. That’s when real progress is made. The ones who know what is right and willingly do wrong should be counted as rebellious, deceived in some way, possessing a hindered mental ability, or persuaded the opposite way to the point of exhaustion.

It is the same with morality. A higher morality of the mind exists as instruction for the “human machine” to be run smoothly. If we are only concerned with others, we will do just enough to get by, and no progress will be made. Also, if the human machine isn’t run in proper order, men will hinder society eventually. The man who does right because his mind is right is in better working order than a man who does right because he is made to. The latter will eventually collide with other men and do harm.

In response to the statement that Christians do not follow their own higher moral standards, I initially did not know what to say. I could cite my own experience and show how I have progressed but that would be lifting myself up. I could have cited other men whom I know have followed this higher moral standard, but again that would be lifting up other men. Pride would be noticed in either statement, and my efforts would be useless because this pride would indicate the opposite of what I was trying to say.

Christians (who follow a higher morality of the mind), of all people, count themselves the vilest of men. When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. This is common sense, really. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. The man who strives for right knows where he has gone wrong. The man who is completely wrong in the mind, knows neither right nor wrong, but views all he does as acceptable until someone says otherwise. If men know to do right, they should do it, regardless of what others around them are doing.

(This post is a continuation of the post “Dear Moral Atheist”)

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27 thoughts on “Dear Morally Average Atheist,

  1. Hello, since I’m an atheist, and I would say something similar to what you quoted, please allow me the opportunity to respond.

    Surely, you are not saying it’s useless to try to follow a better standard because no one else does.

    Not at all. So your comments that follow attack a strawman. What “I’m” saying is that Christians, at least, don’t exhibit the elevated moral standard they lay exclusive claim to.

    A higher morality of the mind exists as instruction for the “human machine” to be run smoothly.

    This claim is a little unclear. Are you saying that a “higher morality of the mind” needs to exist? Then this is a claim you need to substantiate, not merely assert. If you’re baldly asserting that such a mind exists, then you’re begging the question.

    Even if one accepts the existence of a “higher morality of mind,” you still have a long way to go before proving the Christian god is it. There are thousands of other religions that make the same claim.

    The man who does right because his mind is right is in better working order than a man who does right because he is made to.

    I agree with you. This is one reason I object to theistic command ethics, in which the god tells its followers what is right and wrong, but never why. Also, you never know what the god is going to command its followers to do, who are obligated to carry out the orders regardless of merit.

    In response to the statement that Christians do not follow their own higher moral standards, I initially did not know what to say.

    While you may not have an explanation, I can venture a few. First, Christians are unclear about what moral standards they should follow, because the Bible itself is confusing. For example, for most of its existence, Christianity was just fine with slavery, but that only changed relatively recently (and only after a lot of bloodshed was spilled). Second, Christians aren’t in fact following “higher moral standards” but standards created by barbaric bronze-age peoples which Christians have for the most part progressively ignored, but only grudgingly. Third, if you believe in the existence of a divine plan, and that the Christian god laid out everyone’s days before they were born (Psalm 139:16), then Christians are in fact following, puppet-like, what Yahweh wants them to do.

    On what basis are you qualifying atheist with “morally average”?

  2. Robert said,
    “Not at all. So your comments that follow attack a strawman. What ‘I’m’ saying is that Christians, at least, don’t exhibit the elevated moral standard they lay exclusive claim to.”

    This is the history of the question:

    I said,
    “Each atheist goes about living the way he sees fit.”

    An atheist said,
    “As does each Christian…so…what’s the difference?… Is it at all disingenuous to claim a higher moral standard if you don’t follow it?”

    I think my response was appropriate, and indicates it is not disingenuous.

    You say this isn’t what you think. Fine. I never said it was. What do you think about living a higher moral life that affects your mind?

    You said,
    “Christians are unclear about what moral standards they should follow”

    Can you provide evidence of this? Some statistics would help. I, as a Christian, am very clear about what and what not to follow. I don’t meet many Christians who are unclear.

    You said,
    “the Bible itself is confusing. For example, for most of its existence, Christianity was just fine with slavery, but that only changed relatively recently (and only after a lot of bloodshed was spilled).”

    I have already addressed this issue, but here it goes again:

    Property in foreign slaves was a patriarchal custom Gen_17:12. Such slaves might be captives taken in war (Num_31:6 following; Deu_20:14), or those consigned to slavery for their crimes, or those purchased of foreign slave-dealers. However, it was the object of Moses, not at once to do away with slavery, but to discourage and to mitigate it. The Law would not suffer it to be forgotten that the slave was a man, and protected him in every way that was possible at the time against the injustice or cruelty of his master. For example:
    Killing a slave merited punishment.1 (Ex 21:20) Permanently injured slaves had to be set free (Ex 21:26-27) Slaves who ran away from oppressive masters were effectively freed (Dt 23:15-16) The law also gave slaves a day of rest every week (Ex 20:10, Dt 5:14). When one Hebrew owned another Hebrew as a slave, the law commanded lenient treatment: Slaves were to be treated as hired workers, not slaves (Lev 25:39-43) All slaves were to be freed after six years (Ex 21:2, Dt 15:12) Freed slaves were to be liberally supplied with grain, wine and livestock (Dt 15:12-15) Every fiftieth year (the year of jubilee), all Hebrew slaves were to be freed, even those owned by foreigners (Lev 25:10, 47-54) In special cases, slaves could choose to remain with their masters if they felt it was in their best interests (Dt 15:16-17). If a Hebrew sold himself as a slave to a foreigner, he reserved the right to buy his freedom (Lev 25:47-49) and was still to be treated as a hired man (Lev 25:53). Laws like this made it hard to hold on to slaves. This example of slavery is not at all like we think of slavery today. And it was eventually done away with which was the real goal.
    This issue is an example of God’s direction given at one point in time. It was given to guide them into the morality they should have. That’s why your use of this issue is a bad example. It doesn’t provide a picture of the correct morality. It was a fault of the Jews, not God.

    If you’re concerned about “changing laws” in the Bible, anyone with children can explain why God says “yes” at one time and “no” at another. You tell the child not to cross the street when they’re young and let them do it on their own when they’re older. It was a law in the beginning and you punished them for not following it. You had your reasons. As they matured, the law was no longer necessary. You forget, God is a person. Laws can change as does our interaction with him.

    You said,
    “Are you saying that a “higher morality of the mind”needs to exist? Then this is a claim you need to substantiate, not merely assert. If you’re baldly asserting that such a mind exists, then you’re begging the question.”

    No. I’m saying it does exist:
    “Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). Pray for your enemies, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matt 5:44). Renew your mind (Romans 12:2) Don’t think about having sex with anyone other than your spouse (Matthew 5:28). Don’t envy, Don’t put yourself first, Don’t think evil of other people, Be glad in the truth (I Corinthians 13)… These moral directions don’t just deal with action. Most of these affect the mind. Get the mind right and right actions will follow. Non-Christians will tell you this as well.

    You said,
    “the Christian god laid out everyone’s days before they were born (Psalm 139:16), then Christians are in fact following, puppet-like, what Yahweh wants them to do.”

    Psalm 139:16 talks about the body, soul, and spirit that you will have when you are born. I don’t see any words indicating that God laid out everyone’s days anywhere in there. There are better verses to support what you are saying. “Divine Plans” exist and so does free will. The two co-exist. This, however, is getting into deeper water that does not completely stay with the topic of morality.

    I don’t follow God without reason. Believers should question why they believe what they believe. A faith unchallenged and unquestioned is not a faith worth having. There are reasonable answers.

    You said,
    “On what basis are you qualifying atheist with ‘morally average’?”

    People, not just atheists, that are concerned with actions only, like in the math example, will average the same mistakes. People that are concerned with getting better will “renew their mind” as the Bible indicates. Atheists are mainly concerned with actions as they affect society.

  3. What do you think about living a higher moral life that affects your mind?

    I think I live a moral life whose standards exceed others, but the real question is, what does a “higher moral life” consist of? That question will always bedevil us.

    Can you provide evidence of this? Some statistics would help. I, as a Christian, am very clear about what and what not to follow. I don’t meet many Christians who are unclear.

    The confusion is readily apparent. Here are but a few examples:

    Can we use contraception?

    Is divorce forbidden for every reason except adultery?

    Can women hold positions of authority over men in any situation?

    Is homosexuality to be rejected or accepted?

    Is lieing forbidden in every circumstance?

    Should heretics be put to death or otherwise punished?

    Can whites marry non-whites?

    Can we suffer a witch to live?

    In every case, I can find Christians on both sides of the question. Remember, the confusion is not just demonstrated in the present day, but throughout history.

    This issue is an example of God’s direction given at one point in time. It was given to guide them into the morality they should have. That’s why your use of this issue is a bad example. It doesn’t provide a picture of the correct morality. It was a fault of the Jews, not God.

    Your statements are contradictory. If God issued regulations on slavery, how was it the fault of the Jews? Why didn’t God simply make it one of the commandments not to have slaves, period? God knew what slavery would become, yet said nothing about when it should end. The instruction not to own slaves is still not in any Bible I’m aware of.

    If you’re concerned about “changing laws” in the Bible, anyone with children can explain why God says “yes” at one time and “no” at another…Laws can change as does our interaction with him.

    Yes, which should make us ignore anything a Christian says about morality. How do we know what the Christians says about morality today, will be the same tomorrow? “Laws can change,” after all. This would be a problem even if all Christians agreed on what’s moral and what’s not. Add their squabbling into the mix, and you have an impossible situation better left ignored.

    These moral directions don’t just deal with action.

    Again, these are merely a list of commands, not any explanation about why these commands are moral, which seems would really help the mind. And how do we know these commands won’t change?

    Psalm 139:16 talks about the body, soul, and spirit that you will have when you are born. I don’t see any words indicating that God laid out everyone’s days anywhere in there.

    Let’s reference the verse then:

    “Your eyes saw my unformed body.
    All the days ordained for me
    were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.”

    Seems pretty clear to me.

    Atheists are mainly concerned with actions as they affect society.

    “Can you provide evidence of this? Some statistics would help.”

  4. You paint a terrible picture of what it means to be a Christian. Neither I nor anyone I know embody these “contradictions”. I think you have a wrong picture of Christianity.

    The issue with Psalm 139:16 is a version issue, and I do not wish to go down that road. Suffice it to say that if you understand that “God’s will allows man’s will” some confusion should clear up.

    Concerning slavery, how am I to know why God didn’t take it away all at once? I wasn’t alive during that time. Slavery was probably such a part of the culture that the culture itself would have been shattered if slavery had been taken out. You, however, have a tendency to confuse laws with morality. A law is not a morality.

    “How do we know what the Christians says about morality today, will be the same tomorrow? “Laws can change,” after all.”

    You’re still confusing law and morality. If you keep what I said about laws in context your statement here is unnecessary. Laws don’t change arbitrarily. There are reasons. If I can find them, you can find them. I’m sure you are also smart enough to figure out why a certain morality is good. I gave you a reason and you agreed with it. Again, if I can find out the “why” about a morality in the Bible, you can too.

    Concerning your examples of Christian moral confusion: We are not unreasonable. Biblical morals do not always provide specific direction but rather moral guidance. The most important thing is that we keep trying to get these issues settled. We cannot, however, always trust ourselves to be right in all controversial areas. Only a perfect man can give a perfect answer. We are not perfect and must therefore try and try again till we get it right, being careful not to stick to any one decision dogmatically until we get it right. Although, it may never happen. We should at least try. Just like in school, you will get some marks for an imperfect answer, but no marks are given for no answer at all.

    If you want evidence that some atheists are mainly concerned with actions as they affect society, watch the video of Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer I added to the post called “Dear Moral Atheist.” I do acknowledge that there are some atheist that are concerned with morality of the mind.

    1. Daniel, you said: “You, however, have a tendency to confuse laws with morality. A law is not a morality.”

      I would agree that man’s laws are not always moral. But aren’t the laws in the Bible the laws of God? Doesn’t that automatically make them moral?

      1. Let’s think of a man who smokes packs of cigarettes a day and is addicted to nicotine. In an effort to stop smoking, he may regulate himself to one pack a day, and then half a pack, and then one cigarette a day. His self made laws help him to be free of his addiction. You wouldn’t call his self made laws immoral. They are laws meant to guide him to the behavior he wants.

        Concerning slavery, God met the Jews where they were at. He put regulations on them to point them in the right direction. They may not have understood that slavery was wrong, but God did, and he continually molded them into the people that they should be using laws. In the New Testament though, he changed his tactic. He stopped changing people from the outside in, and started changing them from the inside out. He indicates this in Hebrews 10:16-17 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.”

      2. Hi Daniel,

        How can a self-imposed change of behavior be considered a law at all? This change in behavior is not being imposed on others, either by revelation or constitution. This is not a law. And if you read back you will see that I never said that all laws are immoral.

        Regarding the morality of his actions in stopping smoking, simply cutting down and stopping smoking does not have a moral consequence in and of itself. If in so doing, he is eliminating harm to his family through second-hand smoke, and to himself, then that is better. If he has to beat his wife to get through the cravings, or takes even more harmful drugs as a result of giving up cigarettes, then that that is worse.

  5. I think you have a wrong picture of Christianity.

    If you can show me that Christians have not both answered affirmatively and negatively my questions–often contemporaneously–by all means go ahead. Until then, the “terrible picture” is entirely Christianity’s own doing.

    Suffice it to say that if you understand that “God’s will allows man’s will” some confusion should clear up.

    Well that’s the thing. Verses like Psalm 139:16 don’t really allow for man’s will. The existence of a “divine plan” also calls it into question. To what extent are we merely puppets, and to what extent we truly direct our actions, Christianity cannot say.

    You’re still confusing law and morality.

    True, I had assumed that if Yahweh had issued a law, from the Christian perspective, it was inherently moral. Since morality is immutable, according to Christians, and laws are not, then one must necessarily conclude Yahweh issued immoral laws. One should also wonder what laws currently in effect are immoral as well, meant, as you say, to “guide us to the correct morality,” which we don’t currently possess because our culture itself could be shattered if we did.

    Once again, we round to my original point: Christian pronouncement on moral issues are not trustworthy and should be ignored. If among yourselves Christians cannot come to a consensus on what’s moral or not, you have no business instructing others.

    If you want evidence that some atheists are mainly concerned with actions as they affect society.

    I hope you understand there are a variety or moral systems in existence. For the most part, they overlap (e.g., the golden rule), but on some questions they differ. Atheists, by virtue of being atheist, don’t subscribe to the same moral system.

    Here’s a question for you: Is the 9th commandment against bearing false witness still applicable, everywhere and at all times?

  6. Are God’s guiding laws only immoral or is there another perspective? Is there no possibility of man being free to choose what he wants if God exists? Do you have perfect answers to the moral questions you and others have asked? Are all moral systems good? Are your beliefs the only good ones? Do you ever violate your own personal morality? Why do you expect perfection from Christian people who are saddled with the same flaws as everyone else? Are laws only to be followed when you understand the reasons for them? If you think your moral standards exceed those of others, why do you insist there is no higher moral standard? Why do you only use a single scripture verse as the final word on an issue?

    The ninth commandment: Don’t bear false witness. I think your question about this is a baited one. I think truth should be spoken rather than a lie. If people provide an imperfect picture of reality their information is not accurate. If we have no first hand knowledge of what went one, lies can pass for the truth unless experience after the fact says otherwise. In my experience, lies are believed quicker than the truth. (I’m not talking about religion in the last sentence)

    1. Daniel asked: Are laws only to be followed when you understand the reasons for them?

      Laws should only to be followed when you understand the consequences, to yourself and others, of following them, and find those consequences to be moral to you.

      1. A child may not understand that when he puts his finger into an electric socket he will get hurt, but the parent will impose an appropriate law on him just the same. You can see here that your statement doesn’t apply in all cases. Indeed, we may not understand every reason behind laws God imposed, but they are for our good just the same.

      2. Hi Daniel,

        Sorry, I didn’t qualify my statement as pertaining to a thinking, morally aware adult. Now that I did, may I have another example?

        Thanks.

      3. When I was deployed to Al Dhafra Air Force Base we were instructed not to walk on the rocks. Never mind the fact that the whole base and the whole country was covered in rocks and dust. We either had to walk on the sidewalk or on the road. To this day, I don’t know the reason, but I was still required to follow the rule. We weren’t required to understand the reasons, although we knew the consequences, we were just expected to follow the rule.

        (I understand your use of the word “consequences” to be that of inherent danger or pain if the law was not followed. I use the word “consequences” here understanding the pain to be administratively imposed.)

        Another case:

        Suppose you were standing under a tree and a poisonous snake was inches from your head, only you didn’t know it. If a person told you to get away from the tree and you didn’t move till you understood the consequences, it might be too late for you.

        Here is what I think: A law doesn’t become invalid if you can’t figure out the consequences or the reason. If you lived by your own reason, it wouldn’t be long until you violated the law of the land. Oh, you had your reasons, but they had theirs too, and they don’t care if you had yours.

        There is something to be said for understanding a law. The man who understands it can follow the spirit of the law and not just the letter. Better is the man that has understanding than the man who blindly follows. But, as I said, you are inevitably not going to understand everything right away. You may have to obey first and understand later.

      4. Hi Daniel,

        I can’t imagine that walking on sidewalks vs. on the rocks can have any consequences, and thus no moral implication. Following or not following this law is morally neutral, so you follow other reasoning to decide whether to obey or not. I speak of consequences as the causing of harm to yourself or others. Of course, you may become aware of consequences later, and adjust your behavior accordingly.

        Jumping or not jumping out of the way when someone says “jump” does not, in my opinion, translate to following or not following a law, where you would normally learn of the law and have time to contemplate it before being required to follow it. However, I will say that blindly jumping away from a snake may cause you to jump off a cliff or in front of a speeding car, so some split-second calculation of consequences would be in order even in that contrived circumstance.

        Thanks.

  7. Morality is not the issue. Almost everyone has some sense of obligation to morality at some level. Whether or not we can act moral depends more on who we are, not what we do. Our actions will sooner or later reflect who we are on the inside. Christians know this. They are not perfect, nor should they claim to be. However, by repentance and acceptance the gift of Christ into their lives, they are not only forgiven, but they have the hope and assurance that they are on their way (for it is a journey) to becoming like Christ (reflecting the new life of Christ within them now). They struggle, they fall, they are chastised, but they rise again with their eyes on hope.

    This is not the life of a robot, but of freedom to make our own choices, learn from them and having the power to change.

  8. “This is not the life of a robot, but of freedom to make our own choices, learn from them and having the power to change.”

    Carol, do you believe this statement can be applied to both believers and non believers?
    In other words, do you think non believers are just as able to “change” as believers are?

  9. Yes, to both questions, but to what end? The believer’s goal is to reflect and to enjoy Christ, it is not just to become moral. To be moral without Christ is indeed possible.

      1. There must be a better reason than just to be a good person. I suppose maintaining an image or status in society is motivation enough for some, but that speaks of pride. The reason for morality must exist outside of one’s self, or it is self centered and self indulgent.

      2. Hi Carol,

        My morality is based on my life experiences, what I read, my formative years in the bosom of my family, and seeing what I consider injustices and hoping not to perpetrate them myself. I bet that this is where your morality comes from, with the addition of one more set of beliefs, your religious beliefs.

        Our morals cause both of us to to go through life treating other kindly, helping others when we can, and righting wrongs. Neither of us would treat others differently because of the one difference in the source of our morals.

        We both are good people.

        You said, “There must be a better reason than just to be a good person.” Please explain what is missing from our lives.

        You also said, “The reason for morality must exist outside of one’s self, or it is self centered and self indulgent.” Please explain how my morals are self-indulgent and self-centered, where yours are not.

        Thanks.

  10. The average person thinks he’s better than the average person.

    The world is full of moralists. (Oh, whether or not they talk about it – everyone is in the buisness of showing themselves to be more moral than the next guy.)

    Why?

    Have any of you questioned why all the hoopla? Why is good the standard, and not bad? Why is honesty revered the world over, across countries and centuries?
    (This isn’t stupid question, but one Philosophers have asked for milenia.)

    The question for “shall we be moral at all” is why?

    (And it is insufficient reason to say “it’s so that society will survive… ” because a man jumping into a raging river to save a child, is not survival of either necessarily. No, rather it’s something that “trumps” survival” as C.S. Lewis argued).

    Why the compulsion to do things that actually undermine our survival?

    Morality is an obligatory “law” or rule that is outside of us. It’s an objective thing, not subjective. How many folks think it’s wrong for them to steal, but that others may steal to their heart’s content? Zero. Everyone deeps down thinks morality is an objective set of rules for everyone. Anyone who utters a moral statement eg. “I think it’s good to help the poor and disabled,” really means that it’s good for everyone to do it. No one lives as if their morality is relative or subjective (no matter how much they talk that talk).

    So the next question is: where does it come from if not from within us. Philosophers all the way back will tell you the answer to that. Objective oughts and ought-nots which have a built-in obligation and to which we feel obligated, cannot come from thin air. Just like the law of gravity is, and the laws of mathematics – they are objective, and exist outside mankind. (Yet they must find a cause – like everything – of either an Event or an Agent) Call it God, or a “Pre-universe event”… but Gravity, math and morality live there, came before and outside of us.

    If you think that the universal and utlitmately compelling moral law such as “it is good to be honest” and “it is wrong to steal from others” come form an event, so be it. But I’ll factor the rest of the universe’s design into it and take the most logical simplest and adequate cause (Occam’s Razor) and call Him God.

    So the question of why and what is it come together nicely. Morality is what God says and because He’s God, we have an obligation to follow.

    Folks, if there isn’t a God, then all your talk and busyness regarding morality is just dumb. As wise men the world over have said. “Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”

    Do I want to spend my life serving in a homeless shelter? Do I want to be like Mother Theresa, day in and day out shuffling around amidst poverty and disease? Heck no! UNLESS … unless, unless … there is a God, an objective law-giver who says it’s right and good to do that over the other.

    IF there is no God, your whole discussion above is silliness, pompous and empty talk swirling around and emanating from persons who are mere blips on a timeline and headed to become food for worms and then cosmic furniture.

    However, if there IS a God who has made all of this, and He has planted “morality” – emanating from His very character – and our sense of obligation comes from our deep-seated acknowledgment that He is there and sees and knows us…. well, then, my friends, only then, does all our discussion have a whit of reason and purpose!

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