For Argument's Sake

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The Paradox of a Moral Atheist 

By Lance Spencer

Published: April 21, 2018

It appears that those who claim to be both moral and atheist find themselves in a bit of a paradox. These two concepts seem compatible on the surface, but upon closer inspection they are quite contradictory. These two beliefs cannot coexist logically yet people claim to be moral atheists frequently within modern culture. That is not to say that an atheist cannot be moral as morality would exist independently of one’s beliefs and preconceptions if it were a true concept.


So why is it an issue for an atheist to hold morality to be true? Well, modern atheism holds that there is no transcendent being and thus nothing outside the realm of the materialistic world. This poses a problem to the so called ‘moral atheist’. If there is no transcendent being upon which morality rests, then we are left with three options:

1) Morality is as fundamental to the natural world as the laws of physics. This view is what academics call Platonism.

2) Morality is based upon natural selection and the evolution of "herd mentality"

3) Morality is a product of society and our upbringing within it.

Do these potential explanations for morality hold true? Let's take a look at them in closer detail.


With regards to Platonism, there is even less reason to appeal to some cosmic law of morality then there is to postulate an omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient being. Platonism is a baseless hypothesis. It has no basis for explaining the existence of a moral law. It claims that these laws just exist as a fundamental part of the universe at large. The moral atheist always indicts the theists for claiming a deity exists without providing sufficient reasoning. So then the atheist should bare the same burden of proof. They cannot claim that the moral law “exists” without providing justification and any appeal on behalf of a universal moral law would be hard pressed not to appeal to a deity for its basis.


As for natural selection, it does a very poor job of accounting for things that have a universal moral value assigned to it. For instance altruistic behavior is almost universally recognized as morally good. However, we wouldn't necessarily see this in any system of morality solely formulated by a process of slight successive changes geared towards survival. Simply put, an individual of a species who sacrifices itself for the herd will be extremely unlikely of passing along its genetic material. Thus any individual with such traits would be likely to go extinct. On the other side of this natural selection does a very poor job of accounting for the universal moral reprehensibility of rape across all human society. In fact, if morality was purely dependent on natural selection then the rape would not be morally reprehensible, it would be advantageous. At the very most it might be socially taboo. However, that is in stark contrast with the reality. of the matter which is that it is a deeply traumatizing and morally despicable act.

Then lastly we have this idea that morality is a social construct. This is the same as saying that objective morality does not exist. Because different societies arrived at different sets of moral values, and since morality is socially constructed, each set would therefore be equally correct. Or since often times these moral value sets are contradictory and paradoxical all equally false.

The fact of the matter is that a logically consistent atheist must also admit that there is no objective morality. This is something that atheistic philosophers such as Stirner and Nietzsche freely admit. Yet it appears that modern day atheistic proponents such as Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are staunch moralist. They make judgments about religion and its adherents, calling them out for what they see as immoral acts. But wait a minute! What makes these acts wrong? If there is no objective moral law then why should a person listen when the moral atheist cries foul play. It seems incredibly disingenuous to claim that there is no objective morality and then to hold another person to what at best under your worldview is a subjective moral truth and at worst a nonexistent entity. Therefore, we are left with the paradox of the moral atheist.