Can atheists distinguish between right and wrong actions?

Take a look at two atheists who try to affirm that morality is simultaneously objective and subjective.

Atheists deny that there is any design for the universe – they think there is no Designer. That means there is no way that the universe ought to be, objectively speaking. I.e. – when there were no humans around, there was no way the universe ought to have been. When humans appear, they evolve arbitrary customs and conventions in order to live together more peaceably. These are not real in any sense – they are just aids to survival and group cohesion. Different groups in different times and places evolve different rules, and no set of rules is any better than any other, because there is no way we ought to be. We call this atheistic/evolutionary form of morality “moral relativism”. It stands in contrast with the theistic view of morality, which is called “moral objectivism”.

In their view, slavery is not really right or wrong, it’s just a matter of opinion decided by majority rule in different social groups living in different places and times. Some groups in certain places and times think it’s right, and some groups in some places and times think it’s wrong. In our view (theism), God creates the universe, and he designs it to be a certain way. There is a certain way we ought to be. So if God thinks slavery is wrong, then it really is wrong, and his opinion of right and wrong becomes a duty for us.

What’s wrong with moral relativism?

I found this list of the seven flaws of moral relativism at the Australian site Faith Interface.

Here’s the summary:

  1. Moral relativists can’t accuse others of wrongdoing.
  2. Relativists can’t complain about the problem of evil.
  3. Relativists can’t place blame or accept praise.
  4. Relativists can’t make charges of unfairness or injustice.
  5. Relativists can’t improve their morality.
  6. Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions.
  7. Relativists can’t promote the obligation of tolerance.

Here’s my favorite flaw of relativism (#6):

Relativists can’t hold meaningful moral discussions. What’s there to talk about? If morals are entirely relative and all views are equal, then no way of thinking is better than another. No moral position can be judged as adequate or deficient, unreasonable, acceptable, or even barbaric. If ethical disputes make sense only when morals are objective, then relativism can only be consistently lived out in silence. For this reason, it is rare to meet a rational and consistent relativist, as most are quick to impose their own moral rules like “It’s wrong to push your own morality on others”. This puts relativists in an untenable position – if they speak up about moral issues, they surrender their relativism; if they do not speak up, they surrender their humanity. If the notion of moral discourse makes sense intuitively, then moral relativism is false.

I sometimes get a lot of flack from atheists who complain that I don’t let them make any moral statements without asking first them to ground morality on their worldview. And that’s because on atheism morality IS NOT rationally grounded, so they can’t answer. In an accidental universe, you can only describe people’s personal preferences or social customs, that vary by time and place. It’s all arbitrary – like having discussions about what food is best or what clothing is best. The answer is always going to be “it depends”. It depends on the person who is speaking because it’s a subjective claim, not an objective claim. There is no objective way we ought to behave, on atheism. What atheists are really talking about when they say that something is right or that something is wrong is that in our group, we have evolved these beliefs that this behavior is good or this behavior is bad – we have these group preferences.

The horror of atheism, then, is that they reduce murder and slaver to being matters of opinion. And these majority opinions are arbitrary and can be different in different times and places. When you are talking to an atheist, you are talking to a person who literally thinks that the decision to rape or not rape is the same as the decision to drive on the left side of the road or the right side of the road. In both cases, it’s just something that groups decide one way or another arbitrarily, depending on how they evolved in different places and at different times.

All Christians should be able to draw out the moral relativism of atheists and challenge them on it, because once they are forced to affirm objective morality, they have to affirm God as the moral lawgiver. Take some time and read the linked article, then ask your atheistic friends to justify their talk about right and wrong. What do they mean by right and wrong? Why would they sacrifice their own self-interest in order to do “right”? Is the only reason that atheists have to be “good” far of being caught and punished by their group for breaking these arbitrary rules that vary by place and time? Do atheists only do the “right” thing when others are watching?

8 thoughts on “Can atheists distinguish between right and wrong actions?”

  1. This is why I find atheists so funny! I know quite a few that make a big deal about things like human rights and morality, without any acknowledgement of how these concepts cannot coexist with their atheistic world view. It doesn’t stop them for thinking they are morally superious to theists, though.


      1. Oh, yes – every one of the ones I know are staunch environmentalists (and partly why I can no longer call myself an environmentalist). I don’t know about yoga, but there’s a lot of “holistic” living and admiration for Eastern mysticism.

        Being pro-abortion, of course, is a requirement.


  2. The apostle Paul commented on this quite a bit in his writings.
    Moral relativists are simply looking for a excuse for their bad behavior.

    I also see this in church history from the first century to now with Gnostic teaching of antinomianism.

    This is where I see the weakness in arguing/debating with atheists. There is a weak link in the armour. In order for a true witness of Christ to be present – there must be moral upright behavior and no money grabbing ( Does anyone wonder why Judas kept the money bag ? Everyone knew he helped himself to it. The answer is obvious – Christ didn’t worry about money).

    If the behavior of the person who says they are a Christian/saint/disciple hasn’t changed for the better – then the witness is non existent and the debate is lost.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s