The Second Book Of Samuel

Dr. William Vallicella, in a recent post, considers the following quote from the atheist author Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, pp. 38-39):

If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers. In fact, they should be utterly immoral.

Dr. V., no fan of the recent crop of books promoting atheism, takes issue with Harris’s formulation. Let’s have a look.

Bill writes:

Harris’ enthymeme can be spelled out as an instance of modus tollendo tollens, if you will forgive the pedantry:

1. If religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers.
2. Atheists are not less moral than believers.


3. Religious faith does not offer the only real basis for morality.

The problem with this argument lies in its first premise. It simply doesn’t follow that if religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than theists. This blatant non sequitur trades on a confusion of two questions which it is essential to distinguish.

Q1. Given some agreed-upon moral code, are people who profess some version of theism more ‘moral,’ i.e., more likely to live in accordance with the agreed-upon code, than those who profess some version of atheism?

The answer to this question is No. But even if the answer is not in the negative, I am willing to concede arguendo to Harris that it is. In any case (Q1) is not philosophically interesting, except as apart of the run-up to a genuine philosophical question, though it is of interest sociologically.

Q2. Given some agreed-upon moral code, are atheists justified in adhering to the code?

Bill astutely differentiates the question of obeying a moral code from questions about its ontological underpinnings, and suggests that Harris has missed this important distinction. But I think Bill is misinterpreting Harris’s phrase “religious faith offers the only real basis for morality”, and by doing so is missing the point altogether.

It is important here to distinguish between religious faith itself, and the presumptive referent of that faith, namely an existing supernatural being from whose goodness objective moral truth is derived. The point Bill appears to be making is that if there is an “agreed-upon moral code”, then atheists certainly might happen to adhere to it just as well as religious believers, as seems indeed to be the case. The believer will tell you that the source of his moral intuition is God, while the atheist, denying that account, will offer some other explanation. But if we assume that all people have the same moral intuitions (which seems roughly true), then the moral rectitude of the atheist says nothing about the truth value of the believer’s faith. In other words, the fact that atheists behave morally casts no light upon the correctness of religious beliefs.

But this is not what Harris is addressing here. He is not considering the proposition that God is the only real basis of morality, but rather that faith itself is. It isn’t a question about the truth of religious beliefs, but about whether such beliefs are necessary for moral behavior, and in this sense the difference between the atheist and the believer is a significant one. This is the same point that Michael Shermer has made, and which Bill quotes in a comment below the post:

“What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge…If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. QED.” [Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 154-155].

I had exactly this conversation, or at least the beginning of it, many years ago, with an intelligent but unreflective assistant engineer — a Catholic fellow, in his early twenties, from Bayonne, NJ — at a New York recording studio. He asked me, a few days before Easter, if I had any special plans for the holiday. I explained that, being an atheist (I was in one of my more confident periods), I had nothing lined up. He seemed shocked, and gave a nervous laugh. “You’re kidding, right? “, he said. I said that no, I wasn’t kidding at all, actually, and this gave him pause. After a minute he said that he didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t believe in God. I found this interesting, of course, so I asked him what he meant. “Well, you know, I’d probably do all sorts of awful things!” I found this hard to believe, as he was such an affable fellow, so I asked if he really meant it: that he really thought he would be out raping and pillaging if he didn’t think that God had given him a set of rules, and was watching to make sure he didn’t break them. He said he needed to think about it — and I hope he did — but I could tell the whole idea was quite unsettling to him.

This is what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”, and is, I think, what Harris is questioning in this context: not the truth of religious beliefs about the source of morality, but rather the importance of belief itself in getting us to behave well. Many folks are quite sure, as was my young friend, that such faith is necessary to keep us in line. Harris is telling us that it ain’t necessarily so.

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  1. Could one could also say that the basis of morality in the major religions i.e. Dharma, Tao,
    Natural Law also applies to the atheist in that he also, whether or not he accepts it, is made in the image and likeness of God; aham Brahmasmi etc. In a sense then by asseverating this primal condition the religious person is opening up to a source of grace which can help him to modify his actions. There may be an overdetermination towards the good which becomes clearer when one looks at societies en masse. The degeneration of behaviour that happens when God is removed from the equation seems to indicate this.

    For the atheist; because religious faith has no referent, it can only be a species of belief in belief.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 2:58 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Michael,

    [The atheist] also, whether or not he accepts it, is made in the image and likeness of God…

    Well, that’s one hypothesis. “Could one say” it? Certainly. Is it true? I doubt it very much, but that’s just my opinion.

    As for the “degeneration of behaviour that happens when God is removed from the equation”, I don’t share the assumption that any such degeneration need occur. The Scandinavians, for example, are the least religious people on Earth; their behavior compares favorably with that of many fervently religious groups I could name.

    For the atheist; because religious faith has no referent, it can only be a species of belief in belief.

    No, you are conflating two distinct entities here: actual religious faith — which to the atheist is simply a false belief, however sincerely held — and the meta-belief that religious faith is itself of social or psychological value, and therefore worth keeping, which is an empirical scientific fact, the truth of which is still unknown.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Regardless of the correct interpretation of Harris’ words, what I find most troubling is the notion that avoiding the wrath of a rule-maker, whether a deity or society, has anything to do with ethical behavior. Kohlberg viewed this as the most primitive stage of moral development — I view it as pre-ethical.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I quite agree, Bob, and was startled to see such an attitude in my young assistant. As I said, he was a very intelligent young man, but had grown up, I think, in a rather rigidly structured blue-collar Catholic environment. He told me once that he had only read one book “cover to cover” in his twenty-odd years: The Baseball Life of Mickey Mantle.

    But the basis of some people’s insistence that morals must be rooted in God is not always of the primitive, fearful sort you describe, but is often, rather, a sense that without such an absolute anchor for our moral intuitions — that is to say, if they are simply products of our evolutionary history, like our fondness for sweets — we have no compelling reason to adhere to them. But regardless of whether that should be a cause for concern (and I think it isn’t), it has, of course, has no bearing on the truth or falsity of religious beliefs.

    My own opinion, of course (see this previous post), is that our moral intuitions are indeed rooted in nothing other than our natural and cultural history; that we can speak of an act being “objectively” right or wrong only in the sense that most (human) observers will see it the same way. While some see this as a normative catastrophe, I think we are better off: we can, by accepting this fact, begin to emerge from our long childhood, and start to take some responsibility for the course of our own cultural future.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    I agree that there are much more subtle ways to ground ethics in theology than to view a diety as a superhuman “enforcer.” I don’t think, though, that the “objectivity” of ethical norms rests on consensus, whether of people generally or of “experts” (the latter are imaginary creatures…). As I’ve said before, I think the objectivity of ethics derives from the objectivity of reasons.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    “Objectivity” seems to be a rather elastic term when people speak about ethics. In the post of Bill’s that I cited here, he writes:

    [D]on’t we all object to child molestation, killing of human beings, rape, theft, and lying? And in objecting to these actions, we mean our objections to be more than merely subjectively valid. When our property is stolen or a neighbor murdered, we consider than an objective wrong has been done. And when the murderer is apprehended, tried, and convicted we judge that something objectively right has been done. Let’s not worry about the details or the special cases: killing in self-defense, abortion, etc. Just imagine some minimal objectively binding code that all or most of us, theists and atheists alike, accept.

    But is he right to speak for us all in this way? After a murder, I, for one, wouldn’t insist that something objectively wrong has been done; all I would say is that according to my moral compass, something wrong has been done. Whether it is objectively wrong is beyond our epistemic reach.

    But “objective” might mean several different things here. To the theist, it would mean that an evil act is wrong according to God’s law. But what would Bill say it means for the atheist in his example? I don’t know.

    One might say that “objective” refers to something that is the same for all observers; and for all human observers, with few exceptions, acts such as torturing babies are wrong. So in that rather weak sense, consensus might be used to connote objective moral truth, and that seems to be the sense in which Bill is using it here, although he may suppose that even an atheist might posit a godless, Platonic realm in which genuinely objective moral truths are kept. For some atheists that may be the case, I guess; it certainly isn’t how I imagine things to be.

    I’m not sure I understand your move from objectivity of reasons to objectivity of morals, except in the sense that there are what Dennett calls “free-floating rationales” that account for evolutionary “design” generally, and such rationales are also the likely reason we have the moral instincts we do. Is that the sort of thing you mean?

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm – I appreciate just how slippery the notion of “objectivity” is. As I’m using it, it connotes little more than “impartiality” or “lack of bias.” I think the beginning of ethical awareness is the recognition that reasons don’t privilege anybody’s interests. So far as reason is concerned, your joys and your sorrows count in just the same way mine do. But, as I said, that’s just the beginning of a long story.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 4:21 pm | Permalink