Can an atheist say it’s wrong to steal your neighbor’s pig?

August 17, 2005 at 11:16 pm 1 comment

I said for a long time that there is no basis for morality without God. But I think I’ve changed my mind.

My reasoning, before I changed my mind, went like this: Without God, there is nothing to make a wrong action wrong. It might be inconvenient for me personally, but not wrong, per se. Without an objective outside source as the basis for morality, right and wrong are nothing more than individual preference.

That much is well and good, and I still believe there are valid points in those statements.

But then there is this question—or rather, these two questions: What does it mean that something is right or wrong anyway? What makes it right or wrong?

The only real response that I could come up with was that an action is “right” if it accords with God’s will and “wrong” if it does not. (One pastor I heard also suggested that something like lying is wrong because God is truth, but this rationale did not make sense to me.)

And of course, it is true that an action is right if it accords with God’s will and wrong if it doesn’t. But that’s not the real reason right is right and wrong is wrong. If it were, then right and wrong would be arbitrary. They’d be based solely on the fact that God decided to say lying and murdering and stealing your neighbor’s pig are wrong, and not on anything beyond God’s arbitrary decision on the matter.

But right and wrong aren’t arbitrary like that. It would still be wrong to steal your neighbor’s pig, even if God said it was ok.

(Not that anybody would be tempted to steal a pig, but we’re talking hypotheticals here. Stick with me. If you can pay attention better when thinking about stealing your neighbor’s road bike, or literature collection, or Perfect Pair of Shoes, or Rails reference text, then be my guest. And yes, I did just single out my four most regular commenters for special recognition in those examples. I hope you recognized yourselves. :-P)

But anyway…back on topic.

There are some things God can’t do, and one of them is to say that lying and murder and stealing are acceptable (or right). Those things are inherently wrong, because they are inherently against the principles of life and love.

In other words, stealing a pig (or whatever your obsession of choice happens to be) isn’t wrong for the reason that “God said so.” Wrong is not wrong because God said so; rather, it’s wrong; therefore God said so.

This is my reason for rescinding my belief that atheists don’t have a basis for morality. I think they actually do have a basis, since there are reasons outside of “God said so” that make something right or wrong. Actions that are unloving, or hostile to life, are unloving and hostile to life with or without recognition of God.

There is a small practical application of all this that I would like to mention, now that I’m on the topic. That is, it is somewhat counter-productive, especially when talking with non-Christians (but even when talking with those who are Christians), to claim that something or other is wrong just on the grounds that “the Bible says so.”

Of course, sometimes we don’t actually know why God says what He says; we just have to trust our past knowledge of His character and believe that what He says is true even if we don’t understand it. And that’s ok.

But God always has an underlying reason–He is not arbitrary. And as far as possible, for things such as lying, or stealing, or premarital sex, or homosexuality, we need to know why what God says is true, rather than just that what He says is true. If we are to truly understand His heart and His will, we need to understand His reasons as well as His commands.

While I have come to think that there is a basis for morality without recognition of God, I do think there are two things Christians have over unbelievers.

First, we have God’s revelation of the truth. This is important, because we would not necessarily know what is right and what is wrong unless He told us. We have a conscience, which is somewhat of a guide. But human perception is so limited as to not recognize the bulk of moral truths without instruction. Thus, while there may be a basis for morality without God, there is not necessarily knowledge of morality without God. (This, I think, is one major reason why the gospel is so necessary.)

Second, Christians have the comfort that there will be justice in the end, whereas the atheist does not. For an atheist, right and wrong may exist, but there is no ultimate justice for the unjust, nor final reward for the righteous. (This obviously leads to the suggestion that there is no reason to act righteously, since other people are most likely to take advantage of you, and you will get the short end of the stick. This is reminiscent of the prisoner’s dilemma, which I learned about in economics class, but which is interesting here too.)

And that’s the end of what I had to say. But I can’t think of a good conclusion, so we’re just quitting here. 😉

Oh, one more small note, mostly for JP’s benefit: This post is a perspective, not dogma, just like the restaurant post. Therefore, interpret accordingly. 😉

Now, do comment, people. 😀

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Khan Po  |  July 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    Pretend you’re an atheist for a moment. You allude to the notion that there may be a concrete basis for morality outside of a God. And you say that God’s morality may be a result of this, not a cause. But you don’t really discuss what this invariant notion of morality might be or where it might come from. I think that to develop a convincing argument you need to present the invariant.

    The closest you get to this is this: “inherently against the principles of life and love”. But this is awfully vague. Our conclusion (if we can reach one) by definition needs to be universally accepted by all humans. Your use of the word “life” strikes me as probably pretty close to universally acceptable. Your use of the word “love”, not as much so.

    The libertarian would probably advocate a definition such as “freedom from coercion”. The socialist might advocate equality (ironically enough, as defined/dictated by them) for everyone. In a recent political discussion about forms of government, a friend suggested that we use the metric of standard of living to measure the “goodness” or “attractiveness” of a particular form of government. This seems a pretty reasonable, although quite abstract definition. I might suggest that the universally accepted definition of morality might be, “that which maximizes a society’s standard of living”. Unfortunately there is no consensus about what the details of this definition might be. You can’t make laws around this.

    Anyone have a better suggestion?

    Reply

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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