The Moral Contradiction of Atheism

There is a lot of confusion about what Christians like Francis Schaeefer mean when they discuss the problem of morality for Atheism/Naturalism/Secular Humanism/etc. The argument was never that Naturalists were necessarily more immoral than anyone else, Christians believe that man was made in the image of God, that we are all tainted by sin, and even after faith, growth takes time. But this isn’t the point of the moral argument. The moral argument is in point of fact that atheists do have ethical beliefs but their moralizing is irrational. George Marsden states succinctly,

“Contemporary university culture is hollow at its core. Not only does it lack a spiritual center, but it is also without any real alternative. Although many of the most prominent academics are preoccupied with politics, they are unable to produce a compelling basis for preferring one set of principles over another. [emphasis mine] on the contrary, while they tend to be dogmatic moralists, many also espouse theories that would undermine not only traditional moral norms but their own as well.”[1]

Let me provide a few apparent moral disconnects for consideration.

Problems for Consideration

  1. Many moderns who do not believe in God note that we need to preserve other animal species. But if Darwinism is true and there is no God, we should of course accept the extinction of animals like the polar bear as an indication that they are unfit for their current environment and rest assured some new species will eventually arise to take their place. If climate change is really human caused (I am not raising an argument on this one way or the other, I’m simply assuming it for the argument) and it really does threaten other species, why should a naturalist care?
  1. On facebook an atheist asked who would have an abortion to save their child, and then attempted to substitute emotional blackmail for argumentation by suggesting they would take a sick child and sit them down and tell them they could, but would not save the child’s life. This of course, seeks to discuss the abortion debate by appealing to our natural altruistic love of a child. Some have suggested that there is benefit in altruism genetically to a society, and if we discuss altruism in the abstract, this makes perfect sense. But lets flesh this out, lets say we are discussing a child who has a congenital illness, a heart malfunction of some sort.

Wouldn’t this in a truly atheistic Darwinian world be “excessive altruism?” In this case, what grounds support terminating a pregnancy of a child that does not have the same congenital illness in favor of a child that will pass this trait on? Doesn’t this decision maintain an unfitness in the species? Some might argue that excessive altruism is a negative side effect of a more useful altruism, but why should society, in recognizing that this trait is a negative one, allow it to be perpetuated?

  1. Why should we care for people with Alzheimers? One can argue that the elderly are a useful source of wisdom and caring for them provides a benefit to society. But when someone has advanced Alzheimers, on what grounds does a committed atheistic Darwinist argue we should allow them to continue to use and consume resources? Many might argue this again, is a byproduct of positive altruism, but the above argument applies.
  1. No one is a fan of Hitler, so much that some now speak of comparisons to Hitler as an Ad Hitlerum fallacy. But, why all the hate? One might very well argue that Hitler’s society was not viable and lost, but on what grounds are his ideas really more moral or less moral than those of anyone else? This isn’t a polemical question, it’s the same basis as the others – on what grounds can we argue that he was morally wrong and those opposing him were morally right? One could of course argue that his methods were a bad means to an end, but if this is actually the reason to reject Hitler, it doesn’t actually explain the rhetoric.


The argument that is being made is not that Atheists have no understanding of morality, but that their ideas about morality and their moralizing is contradictory to their ontology, or as C S Lewis puts it, “they are better than their principles.”[2]

[1] George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 3.

[2] C. S. Lewis The Abolition of Man, (Harper: San Francisco: 1944) reprinted (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House: 1971), 23

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