Atheists and Admirable Lives
The editor’s foreword of Man Without God said that this book “breaks out of the smugness and condescension of traditional theism to ask why it is possible for admirable men to live their lives not only without admitting the presence of God but in denying it ... a widespread Christian conviction that only theistic belief (preferably of an orthodox variety) can restrain the beast in man from taking over. The exemplary lives of many of our believing contemporaries are a refutation of that conviction–a refutation with which theology must somehow come to terms.”
They went on to say that “the motivation that persuades one to be a practicing Christian and a convinced atheist is much the same: to find value and meaning in human life. The Christian finds this value because of his belief in the revelation that God has become man. Thus he shares with the atheist two fundamental commitments; that no creature deserves to be worshiped as divine, and that human life could be more humane. If the Christian finds these two commitments bound together in a Christ who is divine and human, he must also respect a view of the world that proceeds from radically different premises to striking similar conclusions. But the atheist, for his part, must ask–or be asked–whether his view of the world and of man can perpetuate itself without a transcendent point of reference; in short, whether it is finally possible to be human without the divine.” (John Reid, Man Without God, New York: Corpus Instrumentorum, 1971, pp.ix-x).
It is true there are atheists who live good moral lives when judged by the general standards of society. By their admirable lives they commend their atheism and make atheism seem morally safe and sound. However, we must ask whether their morality is rooted in and nurtured by their atheism.
Why Are There Moral Atheists?
It is true that not all professing Christians try to live up to their creed (i.e., to what they believe), and it is true that not all professing atheists endeavor to live down to their creed. Why this is so may differ from individual to individual, but the following are at least some of the reasons.
First, God made man in his own image and the fall did not destroy the image of God. This includes the fact that man is a being with moral consciousness. Wherever we find man we find that: (1) Although men may draw the line between good and evil in different places (due to their knowledge, or their desires, their ignorance, etc.), sooner or later all men draw a line somewhere between good and evil. When the atheist points to the problem of evil he is appealing to the standard of good, for without such a standard there can be no evil. Unless the moral realm exists, one cannot speak of what ought to be, but only of what is. Things can be black, white, grey, large, small, etc., but in a world in which nothing but matter exists things cannot be moral or immoral, good or evil. (2) Sooner or later all men speak or act as if they are obligated. There is duty and man ought to do his duty. (3) Although sometimes men may say that they think there is some evil which they must do in order to achieve a good goal, men believe they are obligated to the good and not to the evil. Since even an atheist cannot get away from the fact that God has created him as a being with a moral consciousness, sooner or later he endeavors to define the good life and to justify his manner of life. His own actions out of a sense of duty, and not out of a sense of sheer physical compulsion, are a standing indictment against the truth of atheism.
Second, the man of no faith in God is the child of centuries of faith in God, and is surrounded by people and institutions who either affirm God or have been influenced by God and his moral teachings. They may consciously adopt the principles of the society, or they may simply grow up with these principles and continue to cling to them. These principles were woven into the fabric of their character as they grew up and they continue to live by them. They are severed branches in whom there is sufficient sap left to keep the leaves green for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, it may be that they would like to abandon these principles, but do not because they feel it will be easier to get along, and they will live a moral enjoyable life in society if they continue to adhere to the accepted moral code.
Third, it may be that they have such pride in their atheism that they endeavor to prove by arguments and by their own lives that atheism does not undermine morality. They will show us that atheism is not amoral!
Fourth, man is a being created with the capacity to live for a cause which demands his all. The atheist may accept a cause and not want to bring reproach on it by a manner of life which society will look down upon. Furthermore, he may be so dedicated to his cause that it consumes his life and he avoids dissipation.
Fifth, in some cases men may seem to live admirable lives but when one knows enough about their private life he may see that they live otherwise. This may be true, of course, of one who professes faith in Christ.
Sixth, an individual may want to achieve success in his field and he may realize that dissipation may keep him from doing it not only because of the wrong which he does which causes others to turn from him but also because he realizes it will consume his strength and keep him from success.
A Refutation of Atheism
In spite of all their efforts it is impossible to ground morality in atheism. Therefore, the moral atheist is a living refutation of the falsity of his philosophy of life. This is just as true as a man refuting his philosophy that there is no reason in reason by giving reasons to prove that reason can never be trusted.
For the atheist to say that no creature deserves to be worshipped as divine is to appeal to moral law which his atheism cannot restrain. If an individual can persuade others to worship him, who can say that he is wrong? Furthermore, if atheism is right, man is the supreme being since there is no mind, consciousness, or being in the world who is higher than man. Man is the supreme being.
To say that life can be more humane is to affirm: (1) Man is a being of intrinsic worth. How can this be if atheism is true? (2) There is a standard of what is humane and what is not humane. Where did he get the standard? (3) Man is obligated to respect other men and to work for a more humane existence for all men. Why am I obligated? I may desire to do it, but who can say I am obligated to do it. Furthermore, how can the person who seeks a more humane life claim that he is better and actually more humane than the one who seeks the opposite? Why should he be so proud as to think that he is such a superior being in thought that he understands what humane life is and such a superior being in life that he lives on a higher level than the non-humane? If he is so great, perhaps he should be worshipped. And if man wants to worship a creature, who is he to say that man is wrong in so doing? Where is the moral law which says that thou shalt not worship a creature and that life ought to be more humane-where are the grounds for these assertions for a universe in which all, including man, is but matter in motion responding to physical pressures (and there are no other forces in life if materialism is true)?
Not Led by Reason
If atheism is true, matter in motion is the only reality and all thought is but matter in motion. One thinks as he thinks because of internal and external pressures. To say “I ought” is to refer to a physical sensation physically caused just as surely as to say “I itch.” To say that “I think” is also to refer to a physical sensation physically caused and there is no ground to say that it is an insight into reality. We may know where to scratch when we say “I itch,” but where do we scratch when we say “I think”? The atheist cannot be consistent and say that he has arrived at the conclusions, by reason, that: (1) atheism is true, (2) a creature ought not to be worshipped, and (3) life should be more humane. These conclusions are just how his muscles twitched or nerves jumped, or whatever physical movement caused him to reach these conclusions. He cannot say these are true and conclusions which contradict them are false. They are both the “true” outcome of specific physical pressures.
Although one must respect the feelings of another in that he tries to avoid arousing antagonisms and prejudices which will keep them from reasoning with you, it is right to show that: (1) Atheism undermines reason. (2) It leaves the atheist without a base is for morality. (3) Therefore, the Bible is right in saying that the atheist is a fool (Psa. 14:1). However, instead of starting off by railing him a fool, one should show how his philosophy of life undermines rationality and leaves only the category of the fool.
Living Down to Atheism
Although there are atheists who live admirable lives, when measured by a limited standard, it is right to point out: (1) Communism, the largest atheistic movement in the world, undermines moral law today and dehumanizes and brutalizes those who live by its reversal of the moral law. For every atheist who lives an admirable life, we can point to thousands of Communists who do not–even though when in certain positions they put on a front in order to cover up their lives of subversion. (2) The atheist cannot sustain moral principles by atheism. (3) The atheist therefore cannot say that anything is bad any more than he can say anything is morally good. (4) His own life is a refutation of his theory of life.
It is my conviction that we should not only point out the moral bankruptcy of atheism, but appeal to the atheist with morals that he is obligated to search for the world view which undergirds and nourishes morality. Starting where he is, with the moral principles which he sees, we should show that step by step he must go on to faith in Christ in order to be consistent. His implied affirmations (in his acceptance of moral principles) point to the falsity of his atheism and the truth of theism.
I have endeavored to deal with some of these things in a book on atheism entitled Man on All Fours.
JAMES D. BALES
James D. Bales was a long time professor at Harding University. He wrote extensively in the field of Apologetics during the 20th century, and was a recognized expert on Marxism. He served as moderator for Dr. Thomas B. Warren during his monumental 1976 debate on the existence of God with Dr. Antony Flew.