Godless Do-Gooders

Dan Etherington, 2008

When you really need someone to do the right thing, don’t pick an atheist.  That, anyway, seems to be the opinion of the majority of Americans.  According to a 2007 Gallup Poll, 53% of eligible voters would not cast their ballots for a well-qualified atheist presidential candidate endorsed by their party.  In fact, American voters are less willing to vote for godless candidates than they are for a homosexual (43%), a seventy-two year old (42%), or a Mormon (24%).

Although the poll does not reveal the reasons behind the public’s suspicion of atheists, a variety of arguments endorsing suspicion of atheists can be gleaned from public discourse.  Perhaps the most common motivation for questioning the moral commitments of atheists is a certain view of the relationship between God’s will and morality: morally good actions (character traits, etc.) just are the ones God wills, and morally bad ones just are the ones God forbids.  This view of the basis of morality, which philosophers call Divine Command Theory, is often used to condemn various practices believers find unsavory, such as homosexuality.  It also gives believers a way to explain their suspicion of atheists: being moral amounts to doing what God commands, and atheists don’t care about that – they don’t even believe a god exists!

Despite its appeal to certain segments of the American public, philosophers have long noted that Divine Command Theory has its own serious problems.  After all, we can ask, does God will actions because they are good, or are actions good because God wills them?  If it’s the former, then Divine Command Theory doesn’t give us an account of what makes things morally good or bad, and the grounds for denying atheists moral motivation or access to moral truths dissolves away.  If it’s the latter, then we are committed to apparently implausible conclusions, such as that sacrificing and torturing a few children for a community party would be morally good if God willed it.  Although contemporary philosophers have developed more subtle versions of Divine Command Theory as part of an attempt to avoid these problems (see Mawson 2009), the existence of plausible non-theological accounts of the foundations of morality indicate that the atheist is nowhere near being on the ropes.

Indeed, atheists have started to throw punches of their own.  This holiday season in New York, a billboard financed by the group American Atheists greeted passersby with a challenge.  Over a depiction of the three wise men walking towards a stable, was the message: “You KNOW It’s a Myth.  This season, celebrate Reason.”  The British Humanist Association ran a similar advertising campaign, emblazoning buses with the slogan “There’s probably no god.  So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  Philosophers are currently exploring questions about the rationality or reasonableness of religious belief that could help us evaluate these claims.  Does the existence of rational life on Earth give us reason to conclude there is a divine creator (see Manson 2009)?  How can we rationally decide which religious tradition, if any, actually gets things right (see King 2008)?  Is it morally responsible to be a believer even if we cannot give evidence to justify our religious beliefs (see Bishop 2006)? With any luck, careful attention to these questions will help us get closer to deciding what, if anything, being religious or believing in God has to do with being rational, reasonable, or moral.  At the very least, we can hope that public debates about such things will move beyond mere jabs and unreflective suspicion.


Bishop, John (2006), “The Philosophy of Religion: A Programmatic Overview,” Philosophy Compass 1/5: 506–534.

King, Nathan L. (2008), “Religious Diversity and Its Challenges to Religious Belief,” Philosophy Compass 3/4: 830–853.

Manson, Neil A. (2009), “The Fine-Tuning Argument,” Philosophy Compass 4/1: 271– 286.

Mawson, Tim (2009), “Morality and Religion,” Philosophy Compass 4/6: 1033–1043.

Author: jasonswartwood

I am a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Twin-Cities. I am currently beginning work on my dissertation, which will give an account of the intellectual virtues that help one succeed at moral inquiry.

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