Do Any Atheists Live In A Moral Vacuum?

CaGoodWithoutGodn an atheist really be good without God? This seems to be an age old question and something organizations like the Illini Secular Student Alliance (ISSA) would have you believe with billboards and advertisements to boot. Well, what does God think? Does God agree with this sentiment that someone can be good while not believing in Him? Psalm 53:1 says, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.” Well, that was very direct from God’s Word. I guess that settles the debate. For the sake of argument, though, let’s dig a little deeper into this question of secular morality. There’s no question atheists are capable of practicing good actions. We all know non-believers who give to charity, work at homeless shelters, and care for hurt animals and people. So, how can this be if God’s Word says, “There is none that doeth good?”

You can consider this article somewhat of a sequel to a previous one I wrote: When Christian Reform Met Classical Theory. In that article, I explore some of the foundations of Western Culture. There is no question that different parts of the world have different cultures and cultural norms. Many of the prominent atheistic campaigns out today originate from culturally Western nations. Thus, to attain a better understanding of the influence of these campaigns, we should take a look at the framework of Western Culture itself. Western Culture has seen many changes from Roman culture and philosophy (heavily influenced by the Greeks) to Catholicism to the Renaissance and Reformation, to the Age of Enlightenment, and so on. All of these and more time periods, events, and movements have shaped how we, in the West, feel and think today. Berry, Poortinga, Segall, and Dasen (2002) state, “Human beings acquire patterns of behavior through experiences that are characteristic of the context of which they live.” Thus, we must find the context in which these atheists and their campaigns live.

As you can see with the different time periods which have contributed to the foundation of Western Culture, Christianity can be found to be a central factor. Alvin Schmidt (2001) posits in his book, How Christianity Changed the World, much of Western Culture bears a striking resemblance to Christ’s influence and teachings. Just look at one of the foundational moral codes of Western Culture, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Do you know where the Golden Rule originated from? It comes from Matthew 7:12, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” What about giving to charity as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have done which has been highlighted by the current Secular Samaritan campaign? Luke 18:22, “Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” 1 Corinthians 13:3, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”

Whether they like it or not, these atheists, including Gates and Buffett, live in a Western society which is greatly influenced by Christian principles. Instead of being good without God they are good because of God. The question of the day shouldn’t be, “Can an atheist be good without God?” Rather, the question should be, “Do any of these atheists live in a moral vacuum?”

Berry, John W., Poortinga, Ype H., Segall, Marshall H., & Dasen, Pierre R. (2002). Cross-Cultural Psychology: Research and Applications (2nd Edition). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Schmidt, Alvin J. (2001). How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Seth Osenkarski

Seth Osenkarski received his Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is currently attending Jacksonville University studying for his Master of Science in Nursing Leadership. Seth became interested in writing from an academic Christian perspective back in 2003 as a freshman in college due to multiple debates and discussions on Christianity, religion, and secularism honing his writing skills through multiple message boards and forums. In addition, Seth records music for his electronic rock project, Melchizideks Legacy, and writes for his personal blog, The Geek's Guide To Christianity, located at http://godfixated.blogspot.com.

  • Ajay Pollarine

    Well written, a good question to ask to boot. I’ve made a similar argument before, though I’m not quite as eloquent about it, I appreciated the intelligence of the post, actually I appreciate the intelligence in all of your posts. Much love and grace to you mate.

  • Seth Osenkarski

    Thank you man that means a lot and thanks for reading.

  • Descriptive Grace

    If “good” just means giving to charity, sure they can be “good” without God. But if good means sexual morality, they cannot be good without God.

  • Seth Osenkarski

    The giving to charity I mentioned is in reference to the current campaign by Secular Samaritan which points out that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett give to charity. However, they are greatly influenced by the Christian foundation of the culture which they live in. I definitely agree about the sexual morality point.

  • tildeb

    Seth, you write Do you know where the Golden Rule originated from? It comes from Matthew 7:12,
    “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do
    ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

    Hang on, there, partner. What is being quoted is the ethic of reciprocity, which has historical roots far deeper than you assume. The ‘rule’ did not originate from the bible but was well established in many cultures already. (See here for more specifics) Matthew simply ‘borrowed’ it.

    Now let’s stick this little gem back into your argument and now please explain how codifying reciprocity thousands of years BCE predates god’s more recent biblical moral revelations?

    Look, morality comes from our biology and is developed by our interactions with our environments, which explains not only highly moral behaviour of infants and very young children but crosses the species boundary. We find the same behaviour of reciprocity we exhibit in other mammals. Attributing such behaviour to some god is problematic; namely, if you make the positive claim that god is the causal agent for our morality then you have a burden to demonstrate knowledge adduced from reality to explain where god stores this information, how god ‘transmits’ this information, how we receive this transfer, and by what mechanism is in play to accomplish what you assume is true.

    Without any testable and verifiable explanations to back up your assertion about the source of morality, you’re just making stuff up while creating victims of moral bigotry, namely, that atheists cannot be good without god. The facts adduced from reality stand firmly against your assertion.

    • Seth Osenkarski

      Hmmm… Apparently you didn’t get the main point of my article, that of the Christian foundation of Western Culture and its inevitable influence on modern Western thinking Atheists. I find it ironic that you denote time periods using BCE because it shows the influence of Christianity on you. While BCE meaning “before common era” was an attempt to remove Christ from the timeline, a pertinent question must be asked. When does BCE end and CE begin? It ends and begins with the birth of Christ.

      So, let’s get to my article. It is quite clear that, yes, the ethic of reciprocity did not originate with Christianity; however, my intention was to describe Christian influence on Western Culture using the Golden Rule as an example and not to discuss the origin of the ethic of reciprocity. Though, if you want to discuss the origin of the ethic of reciprocity, let’s discuss. While Matthew 7:12 is definitely not the first time reciprocity is mentioned, one of the first records in history is contained in the book of Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your
      kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD,” and Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.” The Book of Leviticus is dated to around the 15th century BC by the New Revised Standard Version, the modern research Bible. Looking at many resources, this date seems to be agreed upon across the board.

      This date definitely predates Christianity, but it also predates Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam which all claim a version
      of reciprocity. It might not be the earliest depending on the dates of some
      Egyptian tablets, but it definitely has been much more influential still being followed among both Jews and Christians today. So, if Christ “borrowed” from anywhere, it was probably from the Hebrew Scriptures He was so familiar with.

      Now unto the Golden Rule; the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”) as it stands today is a foundational belief for many Christians and has become associated with Christianity in the West almost exclusively. Why is this? First of all, the Golden Rule is a paraphrase of what Christ said in Matthew 7:12. Jesus Christ, if I remember correctly is the head of the Church, so I think things He said would have significance to Christianity. Second, the Golden Rule is a form of reciprocity which is uniquely Christian, just as the Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists have their own unique versions of reciprocity as highlighted in the Wikipedia article. The Golden Rule just so happens to be the one which has had the greatest influence on Western Culture due to its Christian identity. Lastly, the term “Golden Rule” didn’t come about until the AD 1500s in a very Christian England. So, do I think reciprocity originated with Christ Jesus? No, but I do believe and have realized from research that it’s His version which has had the most impact on
      Western Culture which, incidentally, was the whole point of the article.

    • Seth Osenkarski

      Now let’s discuss biology. What is this highly moral behavior of infants you are talking about? Is it the crying to get food, get changed, and get their way? Sorry, that’s just a joke, but I do have to wonder what exact moral behavior you’re talking about. There is no question biology plays a part, but it can be inconsequential to the environment which one lives in. We have to remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here. Basically, physiological needs and safety have to be met before one can move on to questions of love, esteem, and self-actualization. Your argument about moral biology is all well and good for people who live in a first world reality where we can meet our moral needs. However, in third world countries, Physiological needs and safety might not be met and thus people living in those parts of the world have a totally different moral compass then we have due to having to learn to survive. See, environment and culture do have a huge impact on the way we perceive things.

      I like this part:
      “Attributing such behaviour to some god is problematic; namely, if you make the positive claim that god is the causal agent for our morality then you have a burden to demonstrate knowledge adduced from reality to explain where god stores this information, how god ‘transmits’ this information, how we receive this transfer, and by what mechanism is in play to accomplish what you assume is true.”

      Where does God store and transmit this information, how do we receive this transfer, and what mechanism is in play? That is a very easy question to answer and it’s found in Romans 10:17, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” See, the Bible or God’s Word is how He stores the information and transmits it to us. We receive by reading and believing in it.

      Look, when it comes to the question of whether atheists can be good without God, He has already answered with Psalm 53:1. I am just the messenger..

  • Guest

    Hmmm… Apparently you didn’t get the main point of my article, that of the Christian foundation of Western Culture and its inevitable influence on modern Western thinking Atheists. I find it ironic that you denote time periods using BCE because it shows the influence of Christianity on you.While BCE meaning “before common era” was an attempt to remove Christ from the timeline, a pertinent question must be asked. When does BCE end and CE begin? It ends and begins with the birth of Christ.

    So, let’s get to my article. It is quite clear that, yes,the ethic of reciprocity did not originate with Christianity; however, my intention was to describe Christian influence on Western Culture using the Golden Rule as an example and not to discuss the origin of the ethic of reciprocity. Though, if you want to discuss the origin of the ethic of reciprocity, let’s discuss. While Matthew 7:12 is definitely not the first time reciprocity is mentioned, one of the first records in history is contained in the book of Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD,” and Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.” The Book of Leviticus is dated to around the 15th century BC by the New Revised Standard Version, the modern research Bible. Looking at many resources, this date seems to be agreed upon across the board.

    This date definitely predates Christianity, but it also predates Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam which all claim a version of reciprocity. It might not be the earliest depending on the dates of some Egyptian tablets, but it definitely has been much more influential still being followed among both Jews and Christians today. So, if Christ “borrowed” from anywhere, it was probably from the Hebrew Scriptures He was so familiar with.

    Now unto the Golden Rule; the Golden Rule (“Do unto others
    as you would have others do unto you”) as it stands today is a foundational belief for many Christians and has become associated with Christianity in the West almost exclusively. Why is this? First of all, the Golden Rule is a paraphrase of what Christ said in Matthew 7:12. Jesus Christ, if I remember correctly is the head of the Church, so I think things He said would have significance to Christianity. Second, the Golden Rule is a form of reciprocity which is uniquely Christian, just as the Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists have their own unique versions of reciprocity as highlighted in the Wikipedia article. The
    Golden Rule just so happens to be the one which has had the greatest influence
    on Western Culture due to its Christian identity. Lastly, the term “Golden Rule”
    didn’t come about until the AD 1500s in a very Christian England. So, do I
    think reciprocity originated with Christ Jesus? No, but I do believe and have
    realized from research that it’s His version which has had the most impact on
    Western Culture which, incidentally, was the whole point of the article. Here’s
    a good read if you so choose.

    • Lion_IRC

      I think the ethic of reciprocity is entirely Judeo-Christian in origin.

      We first see the idea of being “our brothers keeper” in the Genesis account of the very first human beings on earth. And God makes a judgment against the sinful, Darwinian, selfish DNA myth that we should be only “looking out for number one” – survival of the strongest. (A concept well-understood in the free market capitalism which Mr Gates and Mr Buffet used to line their pockets and eventually get to the point where they were able to give away the unwanted $billions$ they NOW have in excess.

      I think it is nihilistic atheism which wants to live like there’s no tomorrow. And that is unethical.

      • tildeb

        I think the ethic of reciprocity is entirely Judeo-Christian in origin.

        You’d be wrong.

        • Lion_IRC

          Hi tildeb,

          It might be that you are wrong in thinking that I’m wrong.

          Only if you have time, would you mind adding some explanation for your three word gainsaying?

          I did, afterall, take the time to explain why I think it is entirely Judeo-Christian in origin

          …Genesis, Cain and Abel, the early human morality of being ones “brothers keeper” described as having existed long before Moses (or Hammurabi)

          • tildeb

            Sure. You claim the ethic of reciprocity is entirely Judeo-Christian in origin. If this were true, there should be compelling evidence to support it as well as an absence of similar evidence where there is no Judeo-Christian influence.

            Does that sound reasonable?

            In your support, you draw on a very specific set of writings that talk about this ethic and assert the influence is from this religious impetus without explaining how disparate religious notions produce the same ethic. To you, I suspect ‘religious’ is a catch-all phrase under which any written evidence of the ethic will support if the writer or the culture from which the writing originates comes into contact with ‘it’ rather than ‘them’. Clearly the ethic predates christianity and we find it expressed in both the far and near east when the judeo part was restricted only to the near. This alone is cause to doubt the claim.

            But there are a couple of other avenues of inquiry that has produced evidence of at least comparable compelling quality that stand apart from your claim.

            The first involved children too young to understand any religious teachings and too inexperienced to have environmental learning of it, and the second is from different species that exhibit the same behaviour of understanding and responding to reciprocity just as we do. Presumably, these other species – from not just mammals but many kinds of animals – do not share our religious sensibilities and judeo-christian understandings.

            The explanation that seems best able to incorporate all the evidence is that the ethic of reciprocity is a product of our biology.

            • tildeb

              There is a host of material available exploring the role of biology in ethics and morality here.

  • Seth Osenkarski

    Sorry, somehow my comment posted as me and as a guest.

  • tildeb

    Seth, christianity has a huge influence on the world. But to attribute the basis for human morality to its influence is too far a reach. It is also too far a reach to claim it as the basis for western culture. But, hey, since when did religious claims ever recognize any boundary to its own proclamations?

  • tildeb

    It’s important to realize what Seth has done here, not for setting up a way to view moral and ethical actions carried out by everyone – believers and non believers alike – to be attributed to his god and the cultural influence of monotheism but for finding a way to continue to malign and misrepresent non believers who are moral who are ethical, who do not need religious belief to be so. What Seth has done is create a claim that cannot be falsified, where no evidence other than amoral vacuum can counter it. He has claimed that any moral or ethical act will be evidence for his religious belief to cause morality and only a vacuum of ethics and morality – an impossibility when dealing with real people – will count as evidence against it.

    Of course we should be concerned that the claim is absurd. But what’s of even greater concern to me is its insidious effect on considering me to be an autonomous moral agent. Seth’s argument here promotes ignorant statements like the one made recently in TIME magazine about relief efforts in Oklahoma by Joe Klein (“funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals”) to be perfectly in sync with the larger culture, which tends to treat the entire secular community with indifference at best or outright hostility. Seth’s piece adds to that treatment by marginalizing moral or ethical actions done by non believers to be owned not by those who do so – in the name of humanism – but (wink, wink) the religious culture he supports, thus helping to maintain the fiction that moral and ethical concern is a religious purview where voices other than religious – like secular humanists – don’t matter… but, if they do, then they are a religious voice because they matter.

    • Seth Osenkarski

      Are we debating historical fact or evolution vs ID? How is my position unfalsifiable? It is easy to falsify if you can just historical evidence to the contrary.

  • Frank

    I would like to challenge the some of the premises of this article and hopefully Seth will respond.

    With regards to the question of can an atheist be moral, it seems to me that there should be zero wiggle room on this if you are a Christian. Psalm 53:1 does not say “there are some that doeth good if they are in a Christain-influenced society”. It says “there is none that doeth good”. That is not a debatable statement. No one can call that an allegory. For you to stay true your religion, you must believe that not a single atheist can be anything but a “corrupt” doer of evil. This must be hard to swallow if you are a Christian, especially since you know there are atheist that do good. I’m not sure how you reconcile this one, unless you close your eyes and ignore these kind of verses. This is a great example of something the bible claims that seems completely inconsistent with reality.

    Also, it’s interesting that you say that morals are transmitted through the bible. Most apologetics these days are not saying that there is “absolute morality” that is imprinted on every person’s heart, and this is proven by the fact that their are common threads of morality across all the societies of history. But you are saying that is not the case. You, and apparently the bible, appear to be saying that morals are exclusively transmitted through the bible. I see two problems with this position: first is that there are plenty more moral questions that must be answered in real life than are located in the bible, second is that there are morals in the bible that our society considers repugnant (e.g., homosexuals must be put to death – Leviticus 20:13).

    • Guest
    • Seth Osenkarski

      I thought I made that very point quite clear when I said that Psalm 53:1 settles the debate. I knew, however, that would not be satisfactory for some in argument and, thus, I wanted to show that if anyone was to consider an atheist as doing “good,” it would have to be at least indirectly related to what God has considered good, mainly the Christian and the Word.

      I have not heard that the apologetic stance is that absolute morality is imprinted on the heart. Most stuff I have read clearly shows that man is inherently sinful due to the fall caused by Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. I, also, disagree that the Bible is inadequate to serve all moral questions. God is our Father and thus has outlined in the Word all of His own opinions on all matters.

      In addition, you must consider that some passages written in the Old Testament are not written to the modern Christian with them in mind. Romans 15:4, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” This is a totally different administration then what the Israelites were under because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Matthew 22:36-40, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

      Also, God’s attitude toward man has changed since the OT as evidenced by 1 Timothy 2:3-4, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” This is a far cry from God’s position in the OT where Israel was God’s only chosen people.