The drowning stranger illustration challenges atheistic morality

Learning about right and wrong, good and evil
Learning about right and wrong, good and evil

This is by Matt from Well Spent Journey blog.


Here’s a thought experiment.


Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.

As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.

You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.


Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?

For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.

The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death.  Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.

For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.

Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.

Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.

In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).

In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.

When I read this, I was of one of the questions from one of my earliest posts, where I list a dozen interview questions to ask atheists. His question is very much like one of my questions. You may like the others in my list, as well.

It seems to me that on atheism, the only answer you can give for why you would do the right thing is “because it makes me happy”. And as we see with abortion – 56 million unborn children dead – it very often doesn’t make atheists happy to save someone else’s life. Not if it means any infringement on their own happiness. Every time an atheist votes Democrat, they are voting to declare that people who get in their way should not be saved. And atheists (the “nones”, anyway) are one of the largest Democrat voting blocs. According to the 2012 Secular Census, 97% of secularists deny that unborn children have a right to life. And the 2013 Gallup poll found that “nones”, people with no religion, are most likely to be pro-abortion. (Note that “nones” are not necessarily atheists, they may have some beliefs, but they are not observant). It’s not rational to inconvenience yourself to save others on atheism. You have one life to live, be happy, survival of the fittest.

9 thoughts on “The drowning stranger illustration challenges atheistic morality”

  1. Do Christians give an emphatic “yes” regardless of the likelihood they can really save the old woman?

    Here’s a similar thought experiment: You see an old woman jump off a cliff – should you jump after her to try to save her?

    I’m pretty sure the Christian response is more sophisticated.

    1. John,
      Although I am a Christian, I would not save her by jumping in the water (I do not know how to swim.). Your unrealistic & irrational cliff jumping experiment (although I did my best to prevent myself from laughing, it is not a realistic example of rescuing someone as WK’s) assumes that the savior can fly?

    2. Actually, if I was there, I would try and talk her out of it. Jumping off the cliff after her is rather stupid don’t ya think?

      As of the more realistic situation, I would not hesitate to jump in. Since I have had other various situations that caused me to make split-second decisions, I know what I would do.

      The issue isn’t what others would do, but rather what you would do. When you are in a situation that requires our of the ordinary actions or reactions, then maybe you can ask what someone else would do.

      But here;s one that happened to me back in November of 2015. I worked nights as a truck driver and finished up my shift about 2:30am. I was putting my things in the car and this kid appeared out of nowhere. pointed a .45 in my face and demanded something of value. Maintaining my calm, and constantly asking him to quit pointing the gun in my face, I shuffled through my stuff showing that I had nothing.

      I knew I was a moment away of entering eternity. I had a peace come over me knowing that at any second, I could be face-to-face with God. This peace I cannot express in words, but I knew that I knew, I would be with God.

      Now what would you do> Would you risk life to wrestle the gun away, cower in fear and ball like a baby, or maintain the situation?

      This is why I know I would give an emphatic yes to the drowning lady.

      Based in your question, I doubt you would.

  2. I am pretty sure most Christians would be as hesitant to jump in as an atheist would. It’s easy for an example to give the scenario but it can’t really be taken seriously until it is seen in action.
    It could be argued that an atheist would want to save her more as this life is the only one. And as a Christian, what would be the point in saving her if she’s going to immediately make it to heaven?

    1. Your comment misses the point entirely and assumes way too much, so let’s dissect it.

      >I am pretty sure most Christians would be as hesitant to jump in as an atheist would.

      Absolutely, but an inbuilt hesitation around danger common to almost all humans is no strike against the content of the post. The point of WK’s post is to illustrate that there is no moral reason for an atheist to leap to the rescue of a stranger. In fact, atheists can’t even ground objective moral duties, meaning to any consistent atheist, the question ought to be declared irrelevant.

      >It’s easy for an example to give the scenario but it can’t really be taken seriously until it is seen in action.

      This is irrelevant, we’re not comparing the bravery of one group to another. The post demonstrates that on an atheistic moral view there simply is no reason to help a drowning stranger. I’m sure we both agree that it’s right to help a drowning stranger but the question for atheists is “on what grounds?” If you can logically ground an answer to that question you’ll have made more progress for atheistic morality than anyone in the last few hundred years.

      >It could be argued that an atheist would want to save her more as this life is the only one.

      Why should the atheist care?

      >And as a Christian, what would be the point in saving her if she’s going to immediately make it to heaven?

      Because while heaven is best life is still good ergo worth preserving. Who’s to say the woman would immediately go to heaven? Has she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savoir?

    2. The problem is that the Christian doesn’t know if they’re “going to heaven”; that is the what is known as the sin of presumption. Christians act to save lives as a means of forwarding the message of the gospel and tell of Christ’s self-giving of his own life to save those who were already perishing in their sins, in the flood of their rebellion against God.

  3. Funny. We have at least two commenters who seemed to have very much missed the point. Of course we can’t know how any individual would act in real life. People often act irrationally in a panic.
    That isn’t the point. The point is that there is a logical disconnect between rationality and morality.
    One says that this is similar to trying to save someone after they jump off a cliff. No, because you’re not sure if you could make it or not in the water but you know you can’t fly. Another says that an atheist might save her because this is her only life whereas a Christian has no rational grounds because if she dies she’ll just go to heaven anyways. This has several issues with it. The rational atheist knows that personhood is just a mental construct and not something real so the woman’s life has no real intrinsic value. Also, she’s old so close to death anyway even if you did save her. And she’s going to die someday regardless of her age, why not now? After all, we’re all just stardust under the delusion that morals are real. There is absolutely no way to rationally ground in atheism other people as “ends in of themselves,” rather than just means to an end.
    Nietzsche understood that with the Christian God out you can’t have Christian morals and he ridiculed his fellow atheists for acting like they could.
    Whereas Christianity states personhood is real, it is an extension of humans being imagers of God, and that to let the stranger die when you could have saved her is an insult to God. It is irrational to the faith to treat people merely as a means to an end. (This is true regardless of the lady’s afterlife destination, which we don’t even hypothetically know because she’s a complete stranger. Not sure where R.E. got the idea that we did)

    1. Memytym,

      I don’t think most atheists are familiar with their philosophy and/or philosophers or past & present pioneers/leaders in atheist philosophy. I think WK should have included in his survey if atheists are familiar with their ideology and/or past & present leaders in the field (probably one could do the same survey with Christians? I saw a recent statistics delineating that more than 83% of people, who identify themselves as Christians, don’t read their Bible on a daily basis. You can imagine what percentage of people, who identify themselves as Christians, read & study their Bible, or attend church on a regular basis). I had a discussion with an atheist coworker, and he didn’t even know who Richard Dawkins or Nietzsche were or how these individuals have contributed to the development of atheism. If they knew, then would they still identify as or continue to be atheists?

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