By Paul Almond, 4 December 2005
An argument often used against atheists suggests that religion is needed to provide objective ethical values, that atheists cannot have any ethics, or any ethics that have any validity, and that any ethics that atheists have must be based purely on personal preference rather than the purportedly objective principles in various religious texts.
The implication is that any genuine atheist should not be trusted. Either he/she does not even attempt to behave ethically or his/her idea of ethics need have no relation to what everyone else thinks.
This argument is often stated in the form of a question which challenges an atheist to show how society could have any ethics if there were no religion. The question is clearly intended to make the point that society could not be ethical in the absence of religious belief to provide ethical values by the presumed inability of an atheist to answer the question satisfactorily.
The purpose of this article is to refute the argument implicit in the asking of this question. Previous arguments have already been made which provide good refutations of it. I do not want to detract from the validity of these previous arguments: they are necessary and from a logical point of view are probably stronger than what I will be saying here. This article will not be presenting a strong logical refutation of the theistic argument: instead it will be more of a social objection intended to show inconsistencies and double standards in the thinking of someone who proposes it. I will not be attempting to show that the argument is wrong - in fact I do not even intend to examine possible justifications of the argument - rather I will make a more direct observation that shows that directing the argument at an atheist, when done in a certain way, is questionable.
Ethically Based Arguments Against Atheism
Theists often attempt to use ethics to argue against atheists. Different arguments are mixed together and it may seem to many people that there is only one argument: God is needed for ethics and atheists do not have God - therefore they do not have ethics. In fact, there are two theistic arguments about atheism and ethics which are commonly used. Things are complicated because people using them often fail to separate the two arguments, which are about different things. The two arguments are as follows:
- Argument about ethics - This argument states that ethics is objective, meaning that good actions are really good and bad actions are really bad, independently of the opinions of any observer. Ethics can only be objective if they are actually asserted by God and God must therefore exist. The atheistic refusal to believe in God can be shown to be wrong simply by pointing out that ethics exist. Any claims by an atheist to have ethics which have the same status as the ethics of religious people are also wrong. This does not necessarily mean that atheists cannot have ethics. It simply means that any ethics that atheists have can only be by virtue of God's existence, whatever atheists think. An atheist may think that murder is wrong while not realising that he/she is only able to make such an assertion due to the existence of a God. The main thing about this argument is that it is about ethics. It takes a position about the objectivity of ethics and the dependence of that objectivity on the existence of a God. It is not really about atheists, even though some things about atheists could be inferred if the argument happened to be correct.
- About atheists - This argument maintains that religious belief is needed to have ethics. Religious belief provides ethical guidance and atheists do not have this ethical guidance. Atheists must not have ethics as they do not have religious belief. They may claim to have something like ethics but in fact it is founded on nothing whatsoever and is not to be trusted. It certainly cannot have the same status as ethics that come from a religion.
The Difference Between the Two Theistic Arguments
The two arguments are often confused. In fact, I expect that some readers are wondering what the distinction is after I have said all this. To show why such a distinction should be recognized let us look at this at the second argument. The second argument could be held to be true even if a God does not exist. Somebody could use the second argument to suggest that atheists are amoral while not being interested in the matter of whether or not God exists. In fact, just such a case is made by some people who advocate an idea known as the noble lie  - the idea that religion is necessary for society's welfare irrespective of the truthfulness of the claims of religion. Taking the noble lie to its obvious endpoint, a rational person who believed this yet did not believe in God would still attempt to teach others that there is a God because he/she would think it necessary for the welfare of society
The first position on the other hand is certainly predicated on the existence of a God; however, it does not in itself suggest that atheists do not have ethics. It simply suggests that right and wrong exist in some real way because God exists. There is nothing in that argument itself to prevent an atheist from tapping into the same ethics of the theists, those ethics being made to exist by God.
Although the two arguments are distinct there is a strong connection between them. Most theists who accept one of the arguments probably accept both of them to some degree. They can be used to work together to form an argument which says:
- Ethics is objective.
- Objective ethics can only come from God
- Religious belief makes those ethics available to humans
- Atheists do not have religious belief; therefore they are completely outside all the ethics that are made real and proposed by religion.
The first argument, that God is needed to assert objective ethics, already has a number of refutations, a well known one being the Euthypro argument, based Plato's description of a discussion involving Socrates . This article will not be concerned with the first argument, but rather with the second idea that atheists do not have ethics. Whether this claim is being based on the idea that a God exists or is being proposed as some kind of social observation irrespective of the existence of a God, does not concern me here. I will be restricting myself purely to the second claim.
The Case Made By Theists
The case made by theists, as it is being argued against here, takes the form of a question, directed at an atheist, challenging him/her to show that society could have any ethics at all if it were full of atheists. Examples of this sort of question are as follows:
"If everyone were an atheist what basis would there be for ethics?"
"What is there in atheism to make people do good instead of bad?"
"Don't you think we need religion to control society? If everyone thought as you do there would be no morals at all!"
"Without religious guidance how would people know right from wrong?"
"Don't you think that religion is needed for people to have any ethics?"
This article is only dealing with situations where questions like this are directed at atheists. In my experience this kind of question is common.
Some questions are more personal in nature, but could still be interpreted as a challenge to the atheist to explain why his/her lack of religion is not damaging to society. An example would be:
"Why should you not do bad things? You may obey the law out of fear of consequences, but if you had an opportunity to steal or murder without risk of being caught why shouldn't you do it?"
This sort of question is somewhat different from the other ones above because it is more about the ethics of the person at whom it is directed, rather than the ethics of society, so this article is not concerned quite as much with it. What I will be saying in this article will relate to it in part because the question is still like ones above in part: this sort of question may still have some element of challenging the atheist to explain why his/her position would not be to the detriment of society,
The Argument Implicit in the Question
If we just take this sort of question literally and read nothing else into it then it could merely be a question, directed at an atheist, demanding nothing more than an answer. We are not obliged to consider any motive in the question or any assumptions on the part of the questioner.
Human language, however, has conventions. What humans say tends to have lots of implicit meanings. When this question is directed at an atheist by a theist some implicit become clear as follows:
1. Both the questioner and the atheist at which the question is directed think society should have ethics.
To want something you must care about it, so:
2. Both the questioner and the atheist at which the question is directed care about whether or not society has ethics.
and from this it follows:
3. Both the questioner and the atheist at which the question is directed care about the fate of society.
Society is just people in the aggregate, so anyone who cares about society cares about other people so it follows:
4. Both the questioner and the atheist at which the question is directed care about other people.
This last implication of the question is the most interesting.
What I have just said may seem strange, but as an observation about the use of language in questions like this, within the context of how language is normally used, it is quite valid. We can ask what sort of answer the theist asking this question (to an atheist) really does expect and what the motives are in asking the question. The asking of the question amounts to an admission that the theist accepts that the atheist actually cares about the issues of society, ethics and what other people may or may not do to each other. When the question is asked he/she is expecting to receive some justification in reply - some argument showing that atheists have ethics. He/she is expecting the atheist to defend the idea of ethics, possibly to explain why he/she or she has them and to show why religion is not needed to have them. He/she is not expecting the atheist to answer:
"Ethics? Why would I want such a silly thing? Who cares if society has ethics? Society can burn itself down for all I care. Your logic is silly. Now give me your wallet or I will beat you up."
The Problem with the Question
Suggesting that religious belief is needed for ethics is equivalent to saying that religious belief is needed for people to care about other people, yet the question has an implicit assumption that the atheist at whom it is directed does care about other people! The rhetorical nature of the question implies that atheists cannot have ethics while simultaneously assuming that the atheist at which it is directed does have sufficient ethics to care at all about the fate of society and whether or not other people treat each other ethically.
If the question is directed at me and, as the questioner appears to think, I have no ethics, why should I actually care what happens to society? If the questioner has no reason to think I care about society then why ask me questions that presuppose I do care?
That is it. We are done with the main point that I wanted to make: it is as simple as that. It may seem to be an almost trivial observation about those who ask atheists this sort of question, but it is it is an important one because this sort of question is asked frequently and using it rhetorically is disingenuous and suggests an ulterior motive of taking an ad hominem position against someone rather than actually attempting a reasoned debate. I am prejudiced against the god concept and like the idea of having the option of striking at an argument "early", before we even get round to discussing deeper issues about its merits.
Why the Questioner Does It
I think the questioner in this sort of situation is probably being disingenuous but I do not think that he/has typically thought of the point that I have made here and decided to disregard it. I think the reasoning is much simpler. The questioner simply assumes, without really thinking about it, that most people have some kind of ethics - including the atheist at which the question is directed - which is an inconsistent way to act if the question is going to accuse someone of having no ethics.
Possible Responses to the Question
Let us presume you have just been asked, "Don't you think we need religion to control society?"
If you happen to be an atheist and this sort of question is directed at you, what could you do to exploit the inconsistency? I make no claim here of being a brilliant debater, but I will suggest some responses.
Ultimately, I think the question should be met by whatever other arguments you would have used against it anyway. If you want to exploit the double standard described in this article you could, however, do one of a number of things first:
- You could directly accuse your opponent of inconsistency in assuming that you care about society while suggesting that atheists do not care.
- You could ask your opponent why he/she thinks you care about whether society has ethics or not and see the reaction. It is possible that he/she will attempt some evasion by claiming not to have assumed anything and not to have been expecting any reply from you which suggests that. Your opponent is, of course, hardly under any legal obligation to answer. If your opponent refuses to answer you can simply comment on this and move on.
- You could give your opponent something unexpected by simply saying, "Ethics? Society? Why should I care? I would just laugh if people start stealing each other's wallets - especially if I could join in - and if they start setting each other on fire maybe I can video it and send the recording into one of those home video shows to make money." The whole point of what I am saying in this article is that someone who asks a question like this is probably not expecting this. He/she knows you probably have as much concern about society as many other people. Your opponent is likely to be surprised - particularly if he/she is someone you know well. If your opponent displays any surprise, or any indication that he/she did not just take what you said totally seriously, you can then point out that his/her surprise is strange as he/she just asked you what basis there is for people like you not to act like that. You can then point out that the very asking of the question assumed you had some consideration for society - strong evidence being that he/she was surprised when none was forthcoming - and maybe he/she should desist from asking silly questions. Proceed to give further more standard answers at your discretion if the conversation continues beyond this point.
Objection 1: You have said that anyone who wants ethics for the rest of society would have to subscribe to some sort of ethics himself. This is not necessarily true. An atheist could want ethics for the rest of society but not subscribe personally to it.
The most likely reason for somebody wanting anything for society is because he/she considers it to be good. If an atheist lacks ethics why should he/she particularly care what the rest of society think or do? It may be that a society with ethics is one in which he/she is in which he/she finds it easier to function as an unethical atheist, but I think the question suggests rather more than this. The question does not seem to be suggesting to me that an atheist may have some strategic motive for wanting ethics for everyone else. The question really does strongly suggest that it is a very obvious thing that anybody would want ethics for society and would want ethics for society in a way that is undeniable.
Objection 2: The question does not imply that atheists have ethics. Atheists all lie about this. An atheist has to act like he/she has ethics when in fact he/she has none. The person asking the question does not really think the atheist has ethics and he/she does not really think that the atheist believes that society needs ethics; rather, he/she is expecting the atheist to go through his/her act and pretend that he/she wants ethics.
If the questioner is doing this then it would be better if he/she is clearer. He/she could simply say, "You pretend to have ethics but you have none. If I were to ask for a philosophical justification for ethics from you then you would make one up." The questioner does not do this, instead adopting an approach of speaking as if he/she assumes that the person at which his/her question is directed thinks that ethics is naturally a good thing for society. It is reasonable to argue against what is said according to the preferred meaning of it that we would obtain by interpreting language in the way that we normally interpret it. If somebody wants to be interpreted in a different way then he/she should speak in a different way.
Objection 3: Maybe the atheist at whom the question is directed has ethics but other people would tend not to have ethics if they had religious belief.
This is very flattering for the atheist answering the question. He/she is clearly a role model for everyone else!
My observation of a double standard is not a total refutation of the the theistic claim that atheists lack any ethics: in fact, I would admit that it does not even come close. It is merely a social observation of a double standard in the behaviour of someone making a certain argument. It is intended to weaken the argument implicit in the question about ethics and it can still do this even if there is a possibility that the atheist at which the question is directed lacks any ethics.
If nothing else, if this is all a theist has to defend the question then my observation of the double standard applies to some degree when asked. If a person thinks that most atheists lack any ethics then whenever he/she directs this question at an atheist he/she should think that that person probably lacks ethics - which still raises the question of why he/she is asking questions about the welfare of society that implicitly assume that the atheist cares about it and, therefore, has some ethics.
A theist could answer that most atheists do lack ethics, but it is possible to discern which ones have ethics and which ones lack them before asking the question and the question is only ever directed at that tiny minority of atheists who do not run around stealing wallets or sniping from clock towers. This seems an extreme claim to me - I doubt that theists are that selective in choosing whom to direct their questions at - but I will leave it to the reader to assess the plausibility of this.
Objection 4: A question like this does not imply that atheists have ethics. It is simply a question. Why do you want to read so much into it?
It is easy to ask questions which are rhetorical in nature - meaning that they actually make a point - and then seek refuge in claiming that you were only asking a question and that nothing else should be inferred from it. Human language is not like that: there are lots of conventions about how we talk and how we express things that mean that questions can imply all sorts of things. The idea that a question can imply things is not my own invention. It is a well accepted use of language. Many of us are probably aware of rhetorical questions from teachers such as:
"Do you do that at home?"
"Do you think that is funny?"
"Do you think that is clever?"
"Do you think it is good idea to jump up and down on the desks like that?"
"What you like if someone did that to you?"
I do not know anyone who would seriously think that when teachers asked us these questions when we were younger they were simply expressing curiosity about whether or not we thought bad behaviour was funny, grown-up or should be conducted at home, etc; rather, a statement was being expressed.
It is just like this when someone asks a person how his/her position will account for "something" or give rise to "something" without even asking him/her if he/she wants that particular "something". When this happens it is probably being assumed that the "something" that is supposed to result is assumed generally within society to be desirable and the person to whom the question is being directed also wants that particular "something".
If I still seem to be assuming too much about this let us consider another situation - this time a more hypothetical one.
You see two people in a coffee shop. They are having a discussion about politics. You only here one thing clearly: one of the people says, "Okay, I understand how running the country like that would make some things better, but how will it help get rid of the black people?"
Without thinking about what else has been said in this article - what would you think is likely about these people?
- Nothing: it is a perfectly innocent question.
- The person asking the question is a racist, but we do not know anything about the person at whom the question was directed.
- This is probably a conversation between two racists. At the very least the person asking the question is a racist and he/she is acting as if he/she thinks he/she is talking to another racist, so if these two people know each other they are probably racists.
Racists often do not communicate themselves as articulately as in this imagined discussion, and the language would probably be cruder, but ignoring that, I think most people's intuitive reaction would be to choose the third option - that we probably have two racists here. Mine certainly would be. I may not be certain, but if I just had the above excerpt from a conversation I would give it a high probability.
The reason for this assumption is that when people talk to each other they make assumptions about sharing a common culture of ideas and opinions. The most obvious of these are the meanings of uncontroversial words like "chair" and "table" and this common vocabulary allows these words to be used, but it goes further than this. Some things are likely to be associated with a common culture of ideas and, in this example, when one person asked another what value his/her opinion would have to racism, this made more sense when we presumed that he/she thinks that he/she shares a common culture of racism with the person to whom he/she is talking. Similarly, challenging someone to show how their philosophical position would provide ethics in society makes most sense when we presume that the person issuing the challenge thinks that he/she shares a common culture of wanting ethics in society - and thereby caring about society - with the person at whom he/she is directing the question.
I accept that a number of meanings could be read into the question and I certainly cannot say that the question is always accompanied by the assumptions that I have described here. If, however, we interpret the question in the most obvious or preferred way - the way in which it is going to be most often used - then it contains these assumptions. Someone considering using the use of this question should be aware of this and should ask him/herself if the question really is to satisfy curiosity or is rhetorical and whether or not any assumptions are implied by it.
Objection 5: What you have said in this article is purely a social observation of those who ask how atheists can have ethics. It does not refute their position. You have said nothing to show that atheists have ethics and nothing to show that ethics are not contingent on God and that adherence to ethical principles is not contingent on religious belief.
I never claimed that I was going to do that. This article is not intended to be a total refutation of that position. There are much better arguments that already do that. It is intended instead to weaken the case against those who say that atheists have no ethics merely by attacking this particular question. The article is not intended to stand against this particular theistic case in isolation.
Question 6: You said you like to strike at an argument "early" - hence this article - but in your earlier article The Diminished God Refutation  you proposed a strategy that you called "late refutation". Would you be consistent please? Do you want refutation of theistic arguments to be "early" or "late"?
The late refutation concept was proposed to deal with a very specific form of theistic argument - just as this article deals with another one. I like refutation to be both "early" and "late", as well as at all the stages in the middle. I think argument against claims of God's existence is best served by as much knowledge as possible of weaknesses and inconsistencies in them. Any objection to theistic arguments which is sound should be available and proposed - at least somewhere.
Asking somebody why their position should involve any ethics at all or give rise to such ethics, by the normal conventions of language, is equivalent to accepting that they actually care about whether or not society has ethics. This implies that they care about society and have the ethics needed to care about society. For this reason the motives of anybody actually asking this question s a challenge to an atheist should be questioned.
This is not a rigorous proof that atheists have ethics, but it does weaken the strategy of asking atheists how atheism can provide ethics in society.
 Web Reference: Urdaibay, A. (1999-200?). Religion - the noble lie, Atheism Central for Secondary Schools. Retrieved 3 December 2005 from http://www.eclipse.co.uk/thoughts/noblelie.htm.
 Web Reference: Holt, T. (2003). The Euthypro Dilemma, Philosophy of Religion .info. Retrieved 30 November 2005 from http://www.philosophyofreligion.info/euthyphrodilemma.html.
 Web Reference: Almond, P. (2005). The Diminished God Refutation: Why unlikely sequences of events do not prove a god. Retrieved 24 September 2005 from http://www.paul-almond.com/TheDiminishedGodRefutation.htm.