The Modern Breakdown of Moral Atheism

Around the year 2008, atheists in the UK and the US began promoting bus signs with various anti-religious slogans, one of which read “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy life.” 

This slogan succinctly sums up one of the attractive features of atheism: it is freeing of the guilt and moral restraint taught by religion. 

Atheists assure us that they can behave just as morally as Christians. As Hauser and Singer state in their 2011 paper – titled “Morality Without Religion”:

“…there are no moral principles shared by all religious people (disregarding their specific religious membership) but no agnostics and atheists. This observation leads to a second: atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles. They often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute to relief efforts associated with human suffering.”

Thus, atheism boasts that it recognizes and acts morally, while freeing people to do what they please without guilt. 

However, we may be seeing the consequences of this attitude in recent events related to the rising atheist movement of the last 15 or so years. 

Penn_&_Teller_(cropped).jpg

By Greg Dorais [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

In his 2014 article “Will Misogyny Bring Down the Atheist Movement?”, Mark Oppenheimer paints an unflattering picture of atheist conferences as having an undercurrent of sexuality which has become so aggressive that it has become a real threat to women inclined to pursue atheism as a legitimate philosophical interest. The article begins with the summary of a scandal which occurred in 2008 at “The Amaz!ng Meeting” – a well-regarded skeptic conference – wherein a young female skeptic, full of enthusiasm for the field, was lured into a compromising position by a distinguished and well respected atheist speaker. Further down in the same article, Oppenheimer says, “The Amaz!ng Meeting works precisely because it commingles the lowbrow and the highbrow. [Penn] Jillette can try to separate the two, but his annual Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party, which features exotic dancers (“male, female, and transsexual,” he was quick to point out), is still listed on the TAM website as “one of the highlights during TAM each year,” even though Jillette pays for the party and insists that it is unrelated to the convention. Right now, in freethought, the jesters fancy themselves intellectuals, and the intellectuals cavort like jesters, and the women among them wake up with the hangover.” 

This kind of cavorting in the name of moral freedom churns up a great deal of murky waters where atheists are finding themselves policing one another’s exercise of free speech and free sex when it is apparent that such “freedom” is becoming oppressive and hurtful to others – especially their own. In the same article, Oppenheimer cites the case of one female atheist blogger who, after taking a stand against the harassment of women in skeptic circles, was so flooded with graphically violent sexual images, death threats, and written abuse, that she became bedridden with a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

In a more recent event, renowned atheist speaker and writer Richard Carrier wrote a blog entitled “Coming Out Polly + A Change of Life Venue,” in which he announced to the public that he had come to grips with his sexual identity as “polyamorous,” meaning that he is a man who cannot be confined to a single sexual relationship. Along with this revelation, he further announced his impending divorce with his wife of 20 years. 

In a response article, another atheist criticized Carrier as being a “creepy, dishonest hypocrite.” Interestingly, this article also cited the undercurrent of sexual parties that seem to accompany some atheist conferences by quoting a previous blog from Carrier, which says: 

“Indeed, many of my friends in the atheist community are polyamorous, or actively participate in the BDSM or swinging communities, some even have orgies and sex parties… at atheist conferences! And you know what? All of them tend to be the most enthusiastic supporters of Atheism+. And of sound sexual harassment policies.” 

Notice that the last line of the polyamorous Richard Carrier is that his swinger atheist friends support sexual harassment policies. These are, presumably, rules that seek to police and to restrict speech and actions that would threaten others sexually. In other words, the very people who are attempting to shake off the bonds of moral restrictions that they see religion as opposing are having to admit that civil society requires some self control, and that rules are necessary because people cannot be expected to actually control themselves. 

Moreover, the man who supports these sexual harassment policies is being accused by his own of being a hypocrite because of his publicly shaming and then divorcing his wife who has supported him financially while he has pursued his intellectual interests. 

All of this serves as evidence that humans both recognize that there must be some kinds of moral laws, and that they are constantly in violation of those laws. 

Like all governments and religions, Christianity recognizes a set of moral principles which are necessary for human living. Grounding these moral laws in the very nature of God, Christianity further teaches that to violate the law is to earn punishment at God’s hand. 

So far, the message is just as oppressive as its critics would make it. However, it is here that Christianity takes a divergence from all other religious systems. Every other religion lays out a set of moral codes that adherents must observe in order to receive eternal reward. Buddhism teaches the eightfold path, Islam has its five pillars, Hinduism has the Vedas, and so on. The teaching of each system says that if someone is able to keep these laws closely enough, they win. Christianity, on the other hand, flatly teaches that humans are incapable of the kind of moral living that would earn them favor with God. Even when they do absolutely everything they can to please God, they have done no more than was their duty in the first place. 

If God is, indeed, the grounding of moral law, that grounding must be absolutist and totalitarian. God cannot choose to change or relax his very essence on occasion to let the well-intentioned mistake slip by. 

If this was all that Christianity taught, it would be a damning religion indeed. However, those atheists who have fled the despotic Christian systems which they found intolerable have a point: If God is the greatest being, there must be some aspect of freedom, love, respect, or forgiveness found in his nature. 

Indeed, the Bible teaches just that. One of the most seemingly paradoxical verses in the Bible reads this way: 

Numbers 14:18  (ESV) 

‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 

This verse presents a picture of a God who is both loving and condemning, both forgiving and damning, both patient and seething with wrath. How to reconcile the paradox? 

Of course Christianity teaches that this paradox is resolved in the person of Jesus Christ. By living a perfect life, Jesus appeased God’s moral requirements and by dying a sacrificial death, he met God’s demand for justice. God’s justice satisfied, Christ is free to dispense forgiveness to all who chose to receive it. 

Interestingly, true Christianity is one religious system that does not tell its adherents that the way to God is through living up to religious practices. Those branches of Christianity which preach this kind of “good works” path to God are the ones seen as being hypocritical and oppressive, and for good reason. Christianity is about grace and forgiveness, not law and oppression. 

Unfortunately, for those who refuse to acknowledge any moral law in the first place, obvious problems arise. Richard Carrier, author of Sense and Goodness Without God, has spent a great deal of his time developing grounding for moral principles such as honesty, compassion, and integrity outside of a religious or theological context. However, as one atheist blogger points out, his public announcement of his extramarital affairs and ensuing divorce – and his attempts to justify these actions with a newfound “sexual identity” – seem to violate the standards he, himself, has advocated: 

“…his behavior towards his wife in this situation certainly violates his stated ethical values, particularly those of integrity and compassion. His extramarital affairs and lying to his wife are an obvious integrity issue, but his refusal to own up to his mistakes or take responsibility for his actions also reflects poorly upon his personal integrity. He also has shown little compassion. He did not care that his wife supported him financially, in fact, he use that as a justification for his actions. Not only did he simply use her financially, but he has humiliated her in a very public fashion through his almost gleeful public announcement of his cheating. These are not the actions of a person who is compassionate.” 

One cannot remove and replace moral laws at one's convenience. If they exist at all, they will occasionally restrict one’s freedom to act however one pleases. If they do not exist at all, pity the weak victims whom these laws fail to protect or avenge. 

But if Christianity is true, there is not only freedom from the constant oppression of having to regulate one’s behaviors and the guilt that comes from failing to do so; there is also a redemptive process through which one may become a better person – not through their own limited abilities, but through their trust in a higher power.