It is disappointing to see a Christian fulfill what I would have thought was a tired stereotype: asserting that a rival belief or argument is ultimately based on immorality. Aside from being a conversation-stopper, in today’s world it seems to exude the bunker mentality of a subculture that does not want to sincerely engage with the world around it. Jim Spiegel has written a short article in Christianity Today that implies “New Atheists” are atheists because they cannot overcome their irrational passions. He even goes so far as to suggest that unbelief might be best fought by traditional family values, a conclusion derived from another scholar who claims that many prominent atheists in history had what amount to father issues.

Between the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Europe atheism was generally thought to be the product of immoral and irreligious practices. If you held unorthodox beliefs it was widely believed that this was caused by a sensual desire to live as one pleased, reaching back to the primordial sin of Adam’s pride. Francis Bacon, for example, begins his essay “Of Atheisme” of 1598 with an exegesis of Psalm 14:1, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God”. Bacon interpreted the Psalm as saying that an atheist denied God in his heart, and not in his mind, because he wished to live as he pleased, not because he had intellectual reasons to deny God’s existence. After all, if the atheist turned to nature and investigated it rationally, Bacon insisted that he must conclude that an omnipotent being created and now sustained the natural world. The exact same exegetical approach was taken in hundreds of texts in the early modern period. And Jim Spiegel uses the same verse to promote his book, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality leads to Unbelief, and insists that atheists adopt unbelief because of the non-rational pull of the passions.

The argument that unbelievers and atheists were incapable of virtue was one that died hard in European culture – it was a scandal when Pierre Bayle suggested (1682, Pensées diverses sur le comète de 1680) that an atheist could be virtuous and that a society of atheists could exist. It wouldn’t be until the late nineteenth century that an avowed atheist by the name of Charles Bradlaugh could sit as a Member of Parliament in Britain. As I have written here at Patrol before, Americans still report that they desire politicians with traditional religious values as their representatives, which seems to suggest that politicians who do not believe in a traditional God are somehow untrustworthy or incapable of serving as political representatives because of their unbelief.

When Christians argue that atheists are atheists because of an underlying immorality they seem to be positing a simple relationship between belief and practice that has long since been rejected. At least the return of virtue ethics, perhaps most famously associated with the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, has given a philosophically sophisticated account of the relationship between practice and belief in a way that does not reduce the question to an oversimplified – not to say patently false – alternative between morality and immorality. Whatever one makes of MacIntyre’s project, he saw the need to given an account for how the connection between belief and practice was undermined in submitting the Enlightenment philosophy of David Hume, whom he perceived to represent that separation, to philosophical criticism that built upon philosophy’s history. In other words, MacIntyre recognizes that we cannot make an argument today about the relationship between belief and practice without accounting for the history of that relationship’s conception.

Put simply, there is no going back. There can be no pre-critical, “naive” argument about belief and practice – linking unbelief to immorality – that simply ignores the work of modern critical philosophy and its history. We cannot settle for seemingly neat solutions – in this case dismissals – in place of critical thinking; nor can we accept terms of debate that end dialogue rather than foster it. Again, even if you do not agree with MacIntyre, at least his position is taken critically and is articulated in such a way that it actually opens itself up to be contested in a rational way. Arguing that atheism is the product of immorality as Spiegel does is a shallow way of shortcutting the work of actually engaging with the arguments of others, especially those with alternative beliefs, on sincere terms. If we cannot convince a partner in dialogue of our position, we cannot maintain today that another position is wrong simply because we find it to be “non-rational”. This would seem to be all the more true given the fact that what one person calls non-rational, another calls conviction.

As Christians when we flatten dialogue into a stale debate we only contribute to the work of enclosure, of sealing up our ears so that we can no longer hear any divergent voice, let alone the Voice that we faithfully presume speaks to us. In order to have ears to hear, and eyes to see, we must be vigilant against all forms of distortion, including the distortion of philosophical simplification and prejudice, of silencing those we disagree with under the false banner of irrationality and immorality.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

30 Responses to Immoral Atheism?

  1. Very interesting. Some thoughts: Firstly, I find it peculiar that many Christians believe that, in the case of atheists, immorality (practice) precedes and invokes the consequential disbelief whereas in the case of Christians, it is usually believed that belief precedes and necessarily produces morality. So for atheists, immoral practice -> disbelief; for Christians, belief -> moral practice.

    Ironically, given the rampant disconnect between the “right” beliefs of many Christians and their behavior, it seems that they’re giving the atheists a lot of credit in assuming that their disbelief is always the perfectly consistent consequence of their immorality.

    Further, many Christians struggling with unrepentant sin still maintain their “right” beliefs; their immorality comfortably existing alongside “right” belief. Again, Christian belief and moral practice are not in a perfectly cause-and-effect relationship, so why is it insisted that disbelief and immorality are? I suspect that this is a necessary “consistency” that some Christians construct given a couple of underlying assumptions. With the “once saved, always saved” mentality so prevalent in evangelicalism coupled with an implicit idea that belief itself, being “moral”, sets morality as the default state of a Christian, it is then easy to marginalize the immorality of some Christians as superficial, out of character “anomalies.” Having established the self-protective hedge, they soon then find a threat to it in the form of seemingly virtuous nonbelievers. What’s the solution? Apply the same formula to the atheists, only inversely, such that their default state is immoral and any of their virtues can then be relegated into the same marginal and superficial category as the vices of Christians.

  2. I just want to say, being an atheist myself, thank you for taking the rational view when discussing atheism and morality. Your conclusions are interesting, and I do agree that it’s hard to know what’s truly right when you close your mind to alternatives, no matter what you believe or don’t believe; but what I am most thankful for is your respectful attitude, something that is often missing on both sides when we discuss those with differing beliefs.

    Many Christians often seem to feel that they are being “attacked” by atheists, and I know that they genuinely feel that and I’m not saying that they’re being disingenuous–the loudest of us are often the most angry and combative, hence why they are the loudest, I get that completely–but, quite often they don’t remember that they outnumber us by quite a lot, and it’s not a very good feeling when the majority of your countrymen seems to believe you are an immoral scoundrel when you think you’re a pretty decent person who tries to do the right things ^_^ Thanks again for your call to reasonable discourse.

  3. Jenny says:

    Um, I am an atheist, but you are a Christian with whom I would enjoy having a rational discussion. Wow! It’s really pleasant to know that you’re out there; thank you, sir, for being respectful, intellectual & sincere.

  4. PassionForChrist says:

    I disagree. The presence of God is written on every man’s heart. Only a dishonest man could claim to look inside of himself and ignore it. If someone is fully honest, they will acknowledge this and let it guide them to Christianity, the one true faith.

    There are two categories of men who ignore God’s call: liars (as established above) and people too obsessed with material pleasures to look within. That is why most Christians rightfully dismiss atheists as either lustful creatures or liars, men who are too prideful to admit the holy truth. Amen!

    • Bob Dobalina says:

      I’ve held a human heart in my bare hand. I didn’t see god’s signature, anywhere. You sir, are a liar.

    • NotStradamus says:

      How do you establish that Christianity is the “one true faith” when the same claim is made by many other religions? How do you make the distinction between a true faith and a false one?

      • PassionForChrist says:

        The difference is that Christians follow the one and true living God. When ANYONE reads the bible, they can feel the holy spirit rising in them. This just isn’t the case for anything else.

        You don’t even hear about the holy spirit in Islam. They’re just rituals, but unfortunately unless one is born again of the holy spirit, they are doomed. This is the case for atheists. If only they were honest to themselves. What a shame!

        • obvytroll says:

          So by christian, you actually mean a white person from america?

          • PassionForChrist says:

            Men and women from America stand a better chance than men and women from India or China. The fact that Americans happen to be mostly white is just incidental.

            Repent or you will perish in unimaginable fire that will burn your very essence for eternity, the smoke of your torment will rise up high forever and the worm will feed on your body but you will. NEVER. DIE. Imagine being trapped, being burned, but being fully lucid and aware that it can never end. One thousand years. One million. One trillion trillion trillion. You will never have the satisfaction of knowing your punishment is 1% done. You are doomed. FOREVER.

            Worship Christ, this is the moment of truth.

        • Bob Dobalina says:

          I’ve read the bible… I didn’t feel this spirit you claim to experience. you sure it isn’t just gas?

        • NotStradamus says:

          I have read the bible and never felt any holy spirit rising in me. Many others have had similar experiences. Some people have lost their belief in Christianity specifically from reading the bible. Most of the Christians I know have never read more than a few passages from the bible. Many atheists, like myself, have read far more of the bible than most believers.

          • PassionForChrist says:

            I pray to God that he has not hardened your heart. What horrible sin have you committed that God would doom you to reprobation? If you just OBEY, God will do everything he has promised to do.

        • TrentMan says:

          I know when I read all those passages about prostitution my holy spirit rises. I can’t see how anyone other than a sadistic sonofabitch could get a rise out of the Bible; which supports genocide, infanticide, patricide, matricide, rape, slavery, and many, many more!

        • NotStradamus says:

          Answering my question about your baseless assertions with another baseless assertion is not honest. If you wonder why I rejected christianity there is your answer. It is also the subject of the original article which you either dishonestly ignored or are too stupid to understand.

    • PassionForLogic says:

      I became a born-again Christian in high school. I felt the presence of the Lord and the emotions that welled inside of me when I worshiped him. Then, one day, I realized that it was all a sham aimed at keeping a privileged few in power. I realized that the ambiance of our worship and emotional pleads of our ministers were designed to wear us down to the point of willingness to accept whatever they told us. And, this is the case in every house of worship, every time services are performed. Religious faith can be broken down to one word: delusion.

      The god you put your trust in is, in most cases, the god your parents or friends believe in. That is, essentially, the only real reason any of us choose a religion/faith…to feel like we belong and to feel better about our path in life. To their credit, most religions/faiths carry a certain belief of doing good and taking care of one another. Unfortunately, most followers of most faiths conveniently warp those visions of peace and goodwill to suit their personal needs.

      Quite frankly, the most moral people I know are atheists. These people live their lives morally and do good works not because of a fear of the wrath of a vengeful god or eternity of suffering, but because of a genuine belief in doing what is right and humans taking care of other humans without conditions. Consequently, the most immoral people I know are people of faith…more specifically, Christians. These people claim to believe in spreading the peace and goodwill that their god teaches and, instead, offer assistance with conditions, obsess over material goods in attempt to “keep up with the Joneses”, and are oftentimes poor stewards of our earth because of short-sighted beliefs of impending apocalypse. Virtually everything Jesus Christ taught in the New Testament has been bastardized by the mainstream church to justify the material desires of it’s membership.

      I recognize that these are blanket statements. There are horrible atheists and wonderful Christians, and vice versa. However, the more I live and learn, the more I realize that people without faith are the true shepards of peace and humanitarianism, while people of religious faith are the enablers of bigotry, hatred, and division in the world.

      • PassionForChrist says:

        If you changed that quickly, I wonder if you really knew Jesus or you were just going through the motions.

        I’m not here to convince people of the truth. Look at the facts, they’re blatantly obvious. It’s up to God to put it in your heart.

        The God I put my trust in is the ruler of all realities. This is a Christian universe through and through, to the smallest subatomic particle. You may very well be doomed to eternal fire, to be amongst the lowest and most despicable creatures possible in eternal Creation. Don’t give up the truth for delusion. This is the most important moment in the whole of your creation. The moment of truth, for you can die tomorrow.

        • TrentMan says:

          That’s rich, “Look at the facts.” HA by definition of faith, one is supposed to IGNORE the facts. “Don’t give up the truth for delusion.” You, sir, have got to be shitting me. If you reject the scientific method for faith you are, by definition, rejecting truth for the god delusion. All hail the glorious FSM!

    • Ben says:

      The author’s sentiments are the only type of thing that mitigates my desire to see religion disappear from the face of the earth. PassionForChrist, your comment brought it right back.

      • PassionForChrist says:

        You might think you have a lot to lose by surrendering yourself to the Lord. I am here to tell you that you don’t have to continue in your lusts. You gain more by abandoning them and following Jesus.

        Our desire for sin is sometimes stronger than our desire for truth. This article placates your desire for truth because it allows you to temporarily block out the fact from your mind that the only reason you are an atheist is because of your shortcomings. You want religion to disappear because you are so ashamed and comitted to your lusts.

        By all means, pretend to yourself you have intellectual reasons. (If there were any reasons, there wouldn’t be so many believes in God, atheist!) Just know that it will ultimately doom you.

        • NotStradamus says:

          We do have a lot to lose by surrendering to an imaginary being. Science gives us 3 things that no religion can hope to match – physical evidence, reasoned logic, and convergence. No religion gives us physical evidence for any of their gods, logical fallacies abound in their ‘reasoning’ and religious beliefs invariably diverge from each other. Your religion has more do do with your place of birth than any kind of evidence.
          Perhaps you can explain why there are thousands of different christian religions which can’t agree. They can’t agree on what the bible means, what it says, or even if it is the word of god.
          Science is based on evidence which doesn’t change if you are American, French, Russian, Brazilian, or even if you come from another planet.

  5. Euphemism says:

    @Caleb Roberts
    > So for atheists, immoral practice -> disbelief; for Christians, belief -> moral practice.

    Actually, this makes sense logically. One is the contrapositive of the other; if belief implies moral practice, then immoral practice implies non-belief.

    I for one am disturbed by those who would claim that only belief in God keeps a person (and thus, them) from immorality. It implies that deep down they are vicious beings who would commit horrific crimes, held in check by that tether called belief.

    • @Euphemism

      Point taken. However, I was not attempting to deem it illogical to say that belief implies moral practice while immoral practice implies belief. Implication wasn’t the verb I was looking for. Rather, I find it odd to say that moral practice is always, only, and necessarily the effect of the cause of right belief while non-belief is simply the final summation of immoral behavior.

  6. Vasilis says:

    @ PassionForChrist: Sir,(or Lady)…I am a Greek Orthodox Christian myself,and my experience says that there are just as many Christians obsessed with material wealth and passions as there are atheists!

    To dismiss someone as immoral without knowing him based on his belief (or to welcome someone as moral based on his belief)…well…it’s not in the Christian spirit at all 🙂

  7. @Passion… (I honestly don’t think I can end that line in good conscience) As an editor of this site I am going to suggest that this may not be the best place for you. The author of this piece represents quite well the guiding idea we have here at Patrol to consider the relationship between religion and the world. The conversation he started has been, for the most part, healthy and helpful. But, I’m afraid your comments have been anything but. If you are not interested in honestly engaging with ideas that are different from yours, perhaps you should not read (or at least not comment) here at Patrol.

    • PassionForChrist says:

      I will not return to this un-Christian place.

      It is unlikely we shall cross paths again, especially if you continue to reject biblical standards.

  8. PassionForChrist says:

    I am disgusted at the lack of a Christian response to this article. I guess it goes to show, the world is going to hell!

  9. Sir Atheist says:

    I think the following truth is too often overlooked: America, you will never grow and reach your potential as long as you’re tied down by religious dogma. But thankfully, your rampant desire for goods will continue to fuel the world economy. But your hypocrisy is well noted and laughably, mocked. If you ever break free, then you will truly soar and inspire and influence social advancement as you once did in the 20th century, in spite of your mythological handicap. If only you were completely free…where would the world be? 100 years ahead, indeed.

  10. Adalberto says:

    This is a topic that is close to my heart… Thank you!
    Where are your contact details though?

  11. Cristero says:

    There are many antichristian articles and books in the James Spiegels book style. Spiegel wrote similar book against atheism and atheist do not like it. They are agry because of it. Why? Can theists face similar attacks and atheist can not? Its pure atheistic hypocrisy.

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