There Are No Good Atheists? Really?

Admittedly, the title on this one will be a bit misleading. I found a post by Pastor Rick Henderson called “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist” on the Huffington Post. It’s not my normal reading, but the title got me interested.

The article seems like he thought it through but he missed a couple of truly important points. I’m not going to defend atheism as I’m wont to here, rather I’m going to talk about why anything else is unnatural. By that term I mean things that go against or in stark contrast to the natural order of things in the animal kingdom – what we call life on this planet Earth.

Below, I quote the article… but not verbatim. I’ve shortened some of the post without trying to change the original intent or content. I apologize if anyone thinks I’ve changed the  content of what the pastor was saying in my paraphrasing. The content I quote/paraphrase appears in quotes but I urge you to read the linked article if you do not find my use of content earnest.

The pastor claims there are three affirmations for atheists beyond a lack of belief in gods or the supernatural and I’ll grant that these seem very reasonable.

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

He continues on this thought by thinking it through, so it would seem

Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless…

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.

What he has done here is impose his version of morality on the discussion by using an undefined version of moral in saying that calling an atheist good is nonsensical. That frames the rest of his article, how atheists compare under his version of morality – not objective morality, but his own version. I can fairly call it his version because he continues to describe why atheists are not ‘moral’ in the sense that he understands it. His assertion that morality protects us from despair shows he does not understand what morality actually is and why it will not protect you from existential despair. He’s using fool’s logic here.

To keep things tidy he wraps the discussion up in a black and white, on or off kind of way:

Based on the nonnegotiable premises of atheism, these are the only logical conclusions. But I’ve never met an atheist who’s managed to live this way. All the atheists I’ve known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality. How is this explained? In a Hail Mary-like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, two possible answers are launched.

Yes, there can only be two answers. There is no room for a third or a combination of the two or anything else. Therein lies the strawman he begged we not torch. (read the article).

1. Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution. This is a two-pronged attempt at justifying moral claims. First, a sense of morality evolved to ensure human survival. … Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.

Second, morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society’s borders or endure longer than a society’s existence.

Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code but the ones who intend to change it. This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral — that is, until they become the majority and institute change. I suppose they then become moral, and traditionalists become immoral. But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.

So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don’t affirm a national religion. It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.

This is certainly part of the subjective morality of our species, our genes and hormones work to push these priorities on our lives and societies… this is not morality, though could be said to be a foundational basis for morality. We do not choose these things, our hormones do. Where society is concerned, survival requires cooperation for survival and to complete the need to procreate safely. We are driven genetically to support these directives.

2. Morality is logical. Atheists who take this route start in a position of checkmate without realizing it. First, the temptation is to pervert this conversation into a debate about whether atheists can be moral. Of course they can. That is not the question. The question is how we make sense of moral claims if we play by the rules that atheism demands.

Morality may be logical, but logic does not equate to morality. The only way to make a logical moral argument is to presuppose morality and meaning to start with. Try making a logical argument that slavery is wrong without presupposing morality. It is impossible. A woman wrote to me with her attempt at doing just that. Her claim was that slavery is logically wrong because it diminishes other human beings. The problem is that that argument presupposes human dignity. In the strict framework of atheism outlined above, what reason is there to ever assume human dignity?

On face value this actually seems reasonable, so why is it that we might presuppose human dignity? He continues:

All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views. The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points. So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.

He has missed a couple of things here in this conclusion. In his effort to divide the issue into two halves he can argue against, he presumes that human thriving is not biological in nature. Clue, it is. To show that it is not he would have to show that all animals do not show a drive to this end. The contradiction he sees does not actually exist. I can tell you why, because it takes only one example to disprove his assumptions.


Intelligent people ask serious questions. Serious questions deserve serious answers. There are few questions more serious than the one I’m asking.

That sounds reasonable, no? He followed it with this:

How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.

To rephrase: What can we say that explains what we ‘KNOW’  without evidence to support what we know? That in itself is a pretty damn good question. He continues:

One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself — becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question. Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.

Here we can assume safely that he believes that a book and a supernatural deity are not outside of his worldview. If god is his worldview then he’s got a lot of explaining to do when he relies on science to tell him what the weather will be today, among other things. He regularly goes outside of his worldview to get through his day but doesn’t see that as a problem.

If your worldview can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it’s not worth your allegiance. This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery. Whoever you are. Wherever you are. Whatever you believe. You deserve a foundation that is strong enough to carry the values that carry you.

Clearly, only objective morality makes sense to him. He is not even attempting to find out why others feel as they do, simply arguing to prove they are not correct because they don’t believe in an unsupportable theory like he does.

You might wonder how I would refute this, aside from the division to create two strawmen. If some of the very stuff he claims as part of his objective morality is shown to be a natural part of the animal kingdom he’d have to explain why animals show the very kind of morality that he claims is objective and applicable only to humans.

Enter my pitbull … he’s awesome. Then meet my cat, also awesome. My cat is more than 15 years old. I’ve known him for 15 years and I know he was alive and well for years before that. Initially the two of them did not get along… most of the problem being on the cat’s inability to make friends with something that big that does not pet him. Well, he’s old now and doesn’t clean himself well, gets a bit sick now and then. He’s effing old. I have two dogs, the 55lb pitbull and a 20lb Mexican sausage dog (chiweinie I think). All of them are rescue animals, cat included. We keep them separated most of the time, mostly to keep the Mexican sausage from becoming a Mexican bowling ball at the expense of the cat’s food budget. So when I go to visit the cat every day I let the dogs tag along.

Surprisingly this is not an invitation for disaster. As I groom the cat the Mexican lends a hand and licks and preens the cat along with me. The cat seems to enjoy it, purring strongly. The pitbull isn’t so ‘caring’ but has offered his friendship as he is wont to do, showing no aggression, only passivity, trying to curl up and ‘cuddle’ with the cat using a very submissive and skittish behavior and his characteristic tongue cluck (roughly translates to love, peace, and harmony – used in context, means I’m friendly, won’t hurt you, how are you, let’s be friends) to assure the cat that all is well.

These behaviors do not prove moral behavior, but they do show that what looks like moral behavior is merely natural interaction. To not rape women, kill the sick, torture others… it’s not human nature, it is animal nature. It is demonstrated over and over again that such ‘moral’ behavior is part of the animal kingdom and when I hear people spout off that morality is the sole purview of humanity I want to kick them in the head and ask how it feels. If my pitbull can be gracious and kind to the elderly and diminutive, and my Mexican sausage help to preen the same … and of a different species, then it is no surprise that humans do so as well. It should only surprise us when humans do not do so… and that brings us back to believers… their dogma is not kind to other species… only to humanity. Think that through for a minute. Only humans are saved by their deity. Only humans have morality. Only humans are worthy. When you get that part down you’ll understand why morons like this pastor can’t understand morality in atheists…

The truth is that they don’t understand morality at all.

Existential driven morality is different, and I think Blade Runner summed it up perfectly…

As for his conclusions, he’s wrong. I do live consistently with my understanding of the world and for having done so I’m convinced that my pitbull knows more about morality than this cognition ‘challenged’ pastor.

Do you have any animal morality stories to share? I’d love to hear them.

  1. Well, what’s the purpose of morality? Why do we need morality? These questions moral theorists have to answer before they could expand on moral theory. And resoting that we need “good and just ways to live”, is just an example of a circular argument.

    • The simple answer is that we don’t need it. It is used to help us survive both as individuals and as societies.

      All morality can be found to have roots in what is known as the golden rule. This one thought encompasses all we know to be useful in surviving a social environment, boiled down to its simplest concept – don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. This promotes survival of the individual, the society, and the species. Such cooperative behaviors are seen everywhere in the animal kingdom.

      The well being of those around us is important to our own survival and the survival of our genes. We are genetically evolved to protect the weak and feeble, to promote a group health over individual health… think about it and it will make sense. If you are not worried about your species or in group, morality doesn’t matter or even exist. Sociopaths and psychopaths have a lack of empathy and lack some level of what we would all agree is moral behavior.

      As individuals we don’t need morality. As a species or society, it’s the best way that nature found to promote survival… that is to say that survival is enhanced with these traits and so those without them have died off as individuals that had no moral traits or not enough of them.

      Make sense?

      • “Make sense?”


  2. I love the way these theists always assume “meaning” has to come from a sky fairy.

    I find something positive here, though. The article in and by itself demonstrates just how terrified the captains of Christianity are of loosing all validity in society. They recognise their numbers are plummeting and they haven’t been able to present any new argument for their “faith” in the last 1,500 years. They seem to understand they’re dying and articles like this are little more than a desperate rearguard action to try and stave off the inevitable. The US is the last great bastion of religious nonsense, but those pockets of superstition are shrinking very, very, very fast… and they know it.

    • Indeed, it is the sound of religion dying.

  3. Animal morality story time:
    I had two female rats when I was growing up, an albino and a brown one. When the albino one got sick, the brown one took care of her. She would preen her hourly, stuff food in her mouth then deposit it in front of her friend, and I even saw her holding a grape in between her front paws, skinning it, before graciously giving it to the albino.

    Now compare these actions of care and (dare I say it?) love between two non-humans with the puzzled look of the veterinarian when I requested painkillers for said albino after her operation to remove a cancerous lump from her jaw. I was told that painkillers were not typically needed for small animals, and they usually bounced back fine without them. I suppose I’d also “bounce back” after having 1/4 of my jaw flesh removed, but I am also confident I’d want to not be in pain!

    Empathy for other humans may be low, but it seems nonexistent for our non-human cousins at times.

    P.S.- I ended up coating pieces of cheese with crushed baby aspirin, which seemed to help.

    • Thanks for commenting. How little it takes to show compassion … How poor we are for showing so little of it.

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