Is atheism immoral, evil, sinful, satanic, or unholy? Atheists are one of the most hated groups in the United States. Many religious people openly admit they think that atheism is immoral. I will argue that atheism is not immoral. First, I will give some evidence that atheists are despised. Second, I will describe two ways people think atheism is immoral. Third, I will provide arguments that atheism is not immoral. Fourth, I will take a look at arguments people use to conclude that atheism is immoral. If we have good reason to believe that atheism can be morally permissible (rational from an individual’s standpoint) and we have no reason to think atheism is immoral, then we should agree that atheism is not immoral.
Atheists are despised.
The fact that atheists are commonly despised is well supported by polls and scientific research. A study by the University of Minnesota found that 47.6% of Americans disapprove of a marriage between their child and an atheist.1 (This can be compared to 33.5% of Americans who disapprove of their child marrying a Muslim.) We should approve of our children marrying a person who identifies with any racial or religious group as long as the individual is a good person. I suppose being an atheist or Muslim is believed to automatically disqualify you from being a good person.
A gallop poll conducted in 2007 also found out that only 45% of Americans would vote for a well qualified atheist for president.2 (This can be compared to 55% of Americans would would vote for a well qualified homosexual for president.) Again, we should vote for the most qualified candidate. I suppose atheism and homosexuality are taken to automatically disqualify you from being qualified.
Not only is atheism despised by many people, but it is often openly despised. The Catholic Church officially states that atheism is a violation of the first commandment—Do not have any Gods before me. This is taken to mean, “Worship me, and no other Gods.” There are also websites that also provide arguments (or assertions) that atheism is immoral. For example, DailyMorality.com3 and Kreitsauce’s Musings4
Finally, the hatred against atheists have lead to intolerant behavior. Many personal accounts of discrimination can be found at Secularhumanism.org.5 For example, many atheists experience harassment. Some public intolerance towards atheism has also been documented on the Atheist Ethicist.6 For example, Representative Monique Davis condemned atheism during a testimony before the House State Government Administration Committee in Springfield Illinois.
Two ways people think atheism is immoral.
When people think that atheism is immoral, it isn’t always clear what that means. There are at least two different things it can mean:
- It is immoral to disbelieve in God.
- Atheists are immoral.
It is immoral to disbelieve in God.
To think it is immoral to disbelieve in God can mean the following:
- Lacking a belief in God is morally wrong.
- Believing that God doesn’t exist is morally wrong.
Atheists are immoral.
To think that atheists are immoral can mean the following:
- All atheists are immoral.
- Atheists tend to be less moral than theists.
- Atheism causes people to do immoral things.
Arguments that atheism is not immoral.
Why is atheism not immoral? Consider the following:
- It is morally right to believe whatever is sufficiently justified.
- Atheists are individuals and shouldn’t be judged as a group.
- We have no reason to think that atheism makes people immoral.
I will discuss each argument in detail:
1. It is morally right to believe whatever is sufficiently justified.
First, it might be true that many atheists have their beliefs for irrational reasons, but that is also true of theists.
Second, if anyone has beliefs for the right reasons, it would be people who study rationality, such as philosophers; and if anyone knows what religious beliefs are most justified, it is also philosophers. The fact is that philosophers have generally not been persuaded by arguments for God’s existence. The Philpapers survey found that 72.8% of philosophers “accept or lean towards atheism” and only 14.6% of philosophers “accept or lean towards theism.”
No argument for God’s existence is infallible. Arguments for God’s existence and objections to those arguments are available on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Third, we realize that the best beliefs are the “best justified.” To have unjustified beliefs, such as the belief that “torturing people willy nilly is right” is morally wrong, but to have justified beliefs, such as “torturing people willy nilly is wrong” is morally right. The proper function of our reasoning capacity is to produce well justified beliefs.
Fourth, is is not morally right to hold insufficiently justified beliefs. The idea that we should believe in God even if it is insufficiently justified is just as wrong as believing anything else without a good reason. Such insufficiently justified beliefs are dangerous. I discuss this issue in more detail in Intellectual Virtues, Dogmatism, Fanaticism, and Terrorism. I am not suggesting that believing in God can’t be sufficiently justified, but there are theists who think we can merely have faith that God exists.
Fifth, morality doesn’t determine what is true. Even if believing that gravity exists made us behave immorally, it would not be immoral to believe that gravity exists because it is obviously true.
Sixth, morality is a matter of choice, but we can’t always choose what we believe. We shouldn’t try to do things we can’t do. If someone can’t believe in God, then that person shouldn’t believe in God; and not everyone can believe in God.
I can’t believe in unicorns even if it made me feel great to have such a belief. I can’t help but believe in gravity even when I am falling out of an airplane to my death despite the fact that rejecting the existence of gravity would be quite comforting. Many atheists report their belief that God doesn’t exist to be like this. They would prefer that God exists because it is an exciting and comforting thought, but they have little choice but to disbelieve.
To conclude, well justified beliefs are morally superior than ones that aren’t well reasoned, but many atheists have provided a great deal of justification for their disbelief in God. We have no overriding reason to favor insufficiently justified beliefs over beliefs that are better justified.
2. Atheists are individuals and shouldn’t be judged as a group.
It is almost always wrong to judge a person merely on the basis of what group we associate that person with. More men go to prison than women, but that doesn’t mean you should dislike men in general. More ethnic minorities go to prison than Caucasians, but that doesn’t mean we should dislike ethnic minorities in general. To decide that someone is bad just because of the group they are part of is “prejudiced” because you are illegitimately prejudging what the person is like.
It might be that some groups primarily exist in the name of immorality, such as criminals or the Ku Klux Klan, but this is not the case for atheists.
3. We have no reason to think that atheism makes people immoral.
First, even though more men and minorities go to prison than women and Caucasians, that doesn’t mean that being a man or a minority makes you immoral. There can be something else causing men and minorities to become criminals. Some men are good people and some minorities are good people, and it isn’t entirely clear why certain groups are being overrepresented in prisons. In the same way there are some good atheists and some criminal atheists and there is no reason to think that atheism itself could make a person immoral.
Second, it might be true that belief in God can help motivate some people to have moral behavior, but that’s not true for everyone. Dogmatism and fanaticism are moral faults of some religious groups. Religion has often attempted to legitimize immoral behavior in the name of God, such as the inquisition and Al-Qaeda.
Third, it has been suggested that morality requires God, but atheists can have justified beliefs about moral facts just like everyone else. I discussed the fact that we can reason about morality and justify our beliefs in moral facts in Can We Reason About Morality? and such reasoning has nothing to do with God. In fact, most philosophers are (a) atheists and (b) moral realists. That means that most philosophers think that there are moral facts beyond our beliefs and feelings. The Philpapers survey found that 56.3% of philosophers “accept or lean toward moral realism” and only 27.7% “accept or lean towards anti-realism” despite the fact that only 14.6% identified with theism.
It should be noted that moral anti-realist philosophers attempt to justify the fact that we should try to be moral, and some moral beliefs are better than others despite the fact that they don’t believe morality is grounded in anything other than psychology and anthropology.
Arguments people use to conclude that atheism is immoral.
Many anti-atheists merely assert that atheism is immoral or leads to immoral behavior. I have already argued that such assertions are groundless. Now I will take a look at some actual arguments used by anti-atheists to prove that atheism is immoral:
- Atheism violates the first commandment.
- Statistics show atheists to be more immoral than usual.
- Many evil people were atheists.
- Atheist totalitarian regimes lead to more deaths than theist dominated cultures.
- Atheism is motivated by a desire to escape guilt.
- Atheism is immoral because it’s a lie.
- Atheists are arrogant because they can’t know God doesn’t exist.
- Atheists have no reason to be moral.
1. Atheism violates the first commandment.
The first commandment demands that we worship no god other than God. This can be taken to mean that we have to worship God, but we don’t need to worship any other God. However, a literal interpretation doesn’t imply that. The commandment doesn’t actually demand that we worship God.
Additionally, if we take the commandment to demand that we believe in God, then the commandment would violate our need to have beliefs based on reasons rather than authoritarian demands. I already argued the importance to have beliefs that are sufficiently justified and not all atheists have sufficient justification to believe in God.
There are some other passages of the Bible that might imply that atheism is immoral, and some people think that atheism must be immoral if the Bible says so. This is circular reasoning. No atheist is going to care what the Bible says about morality. You’re going to have to prove that the Bible is reliable and that God exists before an atheist will have any reason to care about the Bible.
Finally, if the Bible requires you to believe something unjustified or allow immoral behavior, then that is a reason to doubt the infallibility of the Bible. Christians aren’t going to put up with Mulims using the Koran to justify illegitimate beliefs or behavior, and no one else should put up with anyone else using holy books being abused in that way either. If the Bible demands people to allow or endorse immoral forms of prejudice, then that is a reason to reject the infallibility of the Bible rather tahn than it reason to allow or endorse immoral forms of prejudice.
2. Statistics show atheists to be more immoral than usual.
Some people argue that atheists are overrepresented within prison populations or show a tendency to commit various immoral acts. I have already explained why this is in itself not a good argument. The fact that a group has been found to have a statistically significant characteristic does not mean that the group itself is the cause of the characteristic. For example, more men are criminals than women, but most men are not criminals, and we don’t think that being a man causes men to become criminals.
3. Many evil people were atheists.
Some people argue that Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were atheists; but even if that was true, it wouldn’t prove that atheism is immoral. There are immoral atheists and there are immoral theists. So what?
4. Atheist totalitarian regimes lead to more deaths than theist dominated cultures.
Some people argue that the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin killed more people than theist dominated cultures. Even if it were true that these regimes were dominated by atheists, it would not prove that atheists are more evil than theists. No causal connection is established.
It wasn’t long ago that theists were merely competing with Buddhist (atheistic) countries to see which culture was more moral. That was a much longer time frame to compare atheistic and theistic cultures and the Buddhist cultures didn’t seem particularly immoral.
Additionally, European countries tend to be much less religious than the USA, and they aren’t having as much problems with criminality. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator [within a country] correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”7 If religion is so important for morality, then we would expect Europe to have more social problems than the USA.
5. Atheism is motivated by a desire to escape guilt.
It has been suggested that atheism is motivated by a desire to escape guilt rather than from rational justification, but this is pure speculation and it is certainly not true for everyone. I agree that some people probably believe in atheism from irrational emotional responses, but that can be true for everyone including theists. Additionally, there are at least two reasons to think such a response is false.
One, most people (including most atheists) would prefer that God exists because it is comforting to think that an all powerful and all good being is out to look out for us.
Two, Christianity can be used to escape guilt. Criminals have paid indulgences to clear away their crimes. Some Christians even suggest that immoral acts will all be forgiven for believers. That sounds like a license to be immoral if anything is.
Three, many atheists are very interested in morality and personal responsibility. Almost no atheist thinks that God must exist for morality to exist, and most atheists agree that they should be moral like everyone else. It is possible that guilt isn’t necessary for morality, but most atheists agree that they should have a sense of shame and regret.
6. Atheism is immoral because it’s a lie.
First, not all atheists claim to know the truth. Some merely say they “don’t believe” in God. I don’t believe that we can make a spaceship that can take us to far off galaxies, but maybe we can. In the same way some atheists don’t believe in God.
Second, some atheists do claim that God doesn’t exist, and it is possible that such a belief is false. However, a lie is an intentional attempt to deceive. Not all atheists attempt to spread their belief to others, and not all atheists intentionally try to deceive.
Third, if you believe something is true based on sufficient justification, then it is morally right to believe it.
Fourth, atheism is not always willfully negligent because even the most educated and informed people who spend a lot of time thinking about religion can come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.
Fifth, it is not immoral to believe something false as long as your belief is sufficiently justified. Newton’s theory of physics was very accurate, but the theory was actually false. Einstein’s theory of physics was found to be superior. Still, it was not immoral for Newton to falsely believe in his theory. It would have been absurd to ask people to disbelieve in Newton’s theory of physics because his theory was so incredibly justified, and it would be incredibly unjustified to ask people to disbelieve in Einstein’s theory of physics for the same reason.
7. Atheists are arrogant because they can’t know God doesn’t exist.
First, it might be that some atheists are arrogant, but many theists are arrogant as well. Religious arrogance has lead to religious fanaticism and terrorism. The USA does not suffer from atheistic fanaticism and terrorism to the same extent, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that some atheists are fanatics.
Second, not all atheists claim to know that God doesn’t exist.
Third, a person isn’t arrogant for believing something. We don’t know lots of things but our beliefs can still be sufficiently justified. Newton’s belief in his theory of physics was incredibly justified and he was not arrogant for holding such a belief. We don’t have to know something for certain for our belief to be morally right and rational. In the same way atheists might have sufficient justification to have their belief.
Fourth, I have already mentioned that most philosophers are atheists. It is incredibly arrogant to tell philosophers who spent their entire lives studying rationality and who have spent a great deal of time studying the arguments for God, and to tell them that they are arrogant for believing something that is based on their expert opinion.
8. Atheists have no reason to be moral.
Some people think that the only reason to be moral is the existence of God. If this is true, then atheists will have no reason to be moral and we might expect them to be less moral. It is true that atheists don’t believe in hell, but even many Christians admit that the threat of hell isn’t a good reason to be moral. We should be moral because it really is better.
Some people argue that atheists can’t possibly believe that being moral “really is better” than being immoral. That for atheists morality is just a social convention, instinctual response, or a result of empathy. This is false. I have already mentioned that most atheistic philosophers are moral realists, and no theory of moral realism I have ever read required us to believe in God. I find moral realism to be a common sense view with no need to speculate about a supernatural realm. This position is discussed in detail in my free ebook, Does Morality Require God?
Finally, even moral anti-realist philosophers who think that morality is merely a product of our psychology and/or is a human invention tend to think we have some reason to be moral. Social cooperation and solidarity has proved to be quite beneficial and it might be rational even from an egoistic standpoint.
People’s discrimination against atheism is incoherent. The fact that atheists are so despised contradicts the fact that Buddhists, Taoists, and other atheistic religions are not so despised. If someone is a Buddhist and an atheist as many atheists are, then are they hated or not? Perhaps atheists who create their own religions are no longer immoral.
Although atheists are despised by about half the population, such an attitude is misinformed bigotry. It is wrong to judge people based on their nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs. We should almost never judge anyone based on the group they are part of, and we have no good reason to do that to atheists. Atheism can be rational when it is based on sufficient justification and some people might have sufficient reason to endorse atheism. Finally, all the arguments that attempt to show that atheism is immoral are unsatisfactory and aren’t really reasons against atheism after all.
7/27/10: (1) I added more information about my position against potential Biblical assertions against atheism. (2) I added the objection to atheism that atheists have no reason to be moral. (3) I expanded the conclusion to mention the fact that discrimination against atheism is incoherent. (4) I added the fact that atheists probably don’t want to escape guilt considering that they tend to agree that morality and personal responsibility are very important.
1 Paulos, John Allen. “Who’s Counting: Distrusting Atheists.” 26 July 2010. <http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=1786422&page=1>. Published April 2, 2006.
2 Jones , Jeffrey M. 26 July 2010. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/26611/some-americans-reluctant-vote-mormon-72yearold-presidential-candidates.aspx>. Published February 20, 2007.
4 “When Faith Justifies Mass Murder.” Kreitsauce’s Musings. 26 July 2010. <http://kreitsauce.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/atheism-and-mass-murder/>. Originally published January 12, 2009.
5 Downey, Margaret. “Discrimination against Atheists.” Secularhumanism.org. 26 July 2010. <http://www.secularhumanism.org/library/fi/downey_24_4.htm>. Originally published May 27, 2004.
6 Fife, Alonzo. “Anti-Atheist Bigotry in 2008.” 26 July 2010. <http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/01/anti-atheist-bigotry-in-2008.html>. Originally published January 14, 2009.
7 “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religion and Society. 26 July 2010. <http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html>.