Does God Prefer Atheism?

In 2008 AD a debate took place at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst between Louise Antony and William Lane Craig which was entitled “Is God Necessary for Morality?” (audio: Part 1, Part 2)


At 51:39 into part 1 Prof. Antony stated:
“If he wants to know…why it’s wrong to cheat poor people, I can tell him. It’s the objective wrongness of cheating poor people. If he wants an explanation of why this is wrong, I can tell him that too. It’s wrong because it’s unjust, it’s wrong because it causes needless suffering. Those are observation facts, they’re obviously true and they’re facts whether or not God exists and they’re sufficient to explain why those actions are wrong.”

Being the debate’s premise, morality was discussed at length. Based on Dr. Craig’s questions Prof. Antony provided the answers above and yet, she only succeeded in engaging in tautology. In order to define “why it’s wrong…why this is wrong” she merely employs further moral-speak while never taking what it seems to me to be an eternal regress of sorts back far enough. To say that it is wrong because it is wrong is not to say why it is wrong but is merely repeating that it is wrong. This only creates further questions.

Prof. Antony

The issue was “why it’s wrong to cheat poor people” and the answers were:
It’s the objective wrongness of cheating poor people
So, it is wrong because it is wrong and we know that it is wrong because it is objectively wrong. But why is it wrong? How do we know that it is objectively wrong? Why should I care about poor people? Why should I care that they are cheated? Why should I not cheat them?

It’s wrong because it’s unjust
So, it is wrong because it is, and now we basically apply another term for “wrong,” unjust. But why is it unjust? Why should I care about justice or injustice?

it’s wrong because it causes needless suffering
So, it is wrong because it is, and now we basically apply another term for “wrong,” it causes needless suffering. But why should I care about suffering? Why should I care about needless suffering? Maybe if the poor suffer enough they will be motivated to work themselves out of poverty.

Her answer is perhaps due to the fact that atheist’s ultimate answer to anything and everything is to appeal to the brute fact—it just is—it is wrong because it is wrong.

It may be an “observation fact” but does not explain why it is wrong nor why I should be the least bit concerned about the plight of the poor. Thus, these facts do not take us one single step towards explaining why those actions are wrong but take us back quite a few steps.

Perhaps I am simply making a big deal out of nothing since it is enough that people do not cheat the poor because it is simply objectively wrong and there is no “why.” Is it not enough that the poor a not further suffering needlessly? Yes but. If atheist’s have no reason to do good they violate nothing when they want to do bad. If they do good for goodness own sake and do not do bad because it is just bad then there is no wall separating the two, no excuses, no justification, no barriers to cross, no hurdle to jump over from good to bad.

But perhaps Prof. Antony finally does explain why atheism is morally superior to theism and why God prefers atheism.

At 1:18:46 into part 1 she states:
“Catholics make a distinction between two forms of remorse for your sins: you can have perfect or imperfect contrition. If you have perfect contrition you’re sorry because you did something wrong and you offended God. If you have imperfect contrition you are only sorry because you are afraid of being punished. It’s ok if you have imperfect contrition, that will keep you out of hell. But perfect contrition, I was taught, was much better because it bespeaks the best possible motives for repentance. Not fear of punishment but hatred of sin, desire to do what’s right.

Now, as a young Catholic girl I always felt that my own contrition fell short. No matter how hard I tried to focus on the inherent evil of my sins I found myself thinking instead about what it might cost me later, how many days in Purgatory is this worth. Tease the cat, it’s worth it.

Later when I was in college I found my faith flagging and I was struck by I perverse insight. The perfect contrition that had alluded me hitherto might finally be achieved if I became an atheist. If I didn’t believe in God then fear of eternal damnation could hardly be a reason for me to repent of anything. If I as a non-believer felt bad for having done something wrong it could only be because it was wrong.

Much emboldened I took my reasoning a step further—maybe atheism was the only way to achieve perfect contrition, the only psychologically possible way for fallible selfish human beings to put aside concerns for ourselves in confronting our misdeeds. And wouldn’t a God who loved what was good be more pleased with creatures who saw what was good for its own sake than for those, than with those who did so only to curry favor?...atheists, if they commit themselves to justice, to peace, to the relief of suffering can only be doing so out of love for the good.”

Firstly, I wish to mention that the concept of Purgatory is problematic to the point of being non-biblical (if you are interested in why I make this claim please see what I wrote here).

Next note that what we are really dealing with is not a logical problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine but the concerns of a little girl who had her doubts and finally got smart enough to become an atheist. My tongue is only partly inserted into my cheek at this point, I do empathize with the little girl but see that the young college woman’s conclusion is fallacious.

The fallacy is committed with extremely restrictive statements:
If I as a non-believer felt bad for having done something wrong it could only be because it was wrong.

…maybe atheism was the only way to achieve perfect contrition, the only psychologically possible way.

...atheists, if they commit themselves to justice, to peace, to the relief of suffering can only be doing so out of love for the good.

Just how does she know that atheist could only, is the only, and can only, the only possible way mind you?

This is the fallacious myth that only atheist have pure motives but there is no logical reason to arrive at such a conclusion. Except perhaps to talk yourself into believing that atheism is the only one true way and is more moral than thou. Certainly, a little girl’s rightful concerns found their ultimate answer in denying God’s existence but it is an illogical concept that the now Professor Antony should reconsider and reject.

This concept is based upon various assumptions:It begins by assuming that theists are doing good due to fear of punishment, thus assuming no other motivation.It moreover, assumes that atheists do good for its own sake and not for any ulterior motive.Yet, it is possible for both theists and atheists to do good due to good old fashioned selflessness, due to seeking self-esteem, recognition, peer approval, guilt, to get something back, to be thought of as good, to be able to say “I’m good,” or any other number of reasons both pure and impure.

And why would an atheist feel bad for having done something wrong? Perhaps because it was wrong. Or perhaps because they are embarrassed, or because they got caught, or because it negatively affected their self image, or because it affected their social standing, et al.

In fact various atheists claim the opposite, at least on occasion, of Prof. Antony’s “only” view. They claim, instead, that moral actions are to be performed for the purposes of self aggrandizement and stroking our self-esteems:

During a debate with Peter Payne (which I analyzed as “Dan Barker and the Alien Rape Voyeurs”) Mr. Barker stated the following reasons:
“1. “if you wish to be…a healthy person” (meaning mentally healthy).
2. “if you wish to be labeled ‘ethical’ by other people.”
3. “if you wish to be viewed by your society as ‘a good person.’”
4. “if that’s something you wish.”

The Humanist Society of Scotland:
It’s best to be honest because… I’m happier and feel better about myself if I’m honest.”

Although, why being honest should make us happy remains a mystery.

Reginald Finley (aka The Infidel Guy) and Matthew Davis put forth the following reason for moral behavior:
“if one does horrible things to people, that person will eventually have horrible things happen to him.”

This is certainly hip “My Name Is Earl” watered down karma but is obviously pseudo-morality based on the self.
Thus, maybe Prof. Antony did not stumble upon the only psychologically possible way but found a psychological band-aid.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Later this week I will post on the issue of whether theists cannot be truly moral for morality’s own sake due to the concept of divine punishment. It will probably be entitled “The Red Light of Punishment.”


  1. I'm surprised she made such an obvious mistake. I've noticed that with atheists over and over, but not so directly. They constantly, and often unwittingly, bring morality in the back door. They treat it as axiomatic, which it is, of course - but they can't explain why. As Christians, we know why.

    When I point this out to people they typically come back with more complex versions of the same thing. But more cleverly disguised smuggled in explanations are still smuggled in explanations.

  2. Two thoughts here:

    1) It is somewhat understandable that she makes this mistake (known as the naturalistic fallacy) due to the fact that nearly every major ethicist floundered at this point prior to the 20th century.

    2) She lives in the 21st century, and she is trained in ethics. She ought to know better.

  3. If I remember correctly, morality has no reason for you to carry it out. That is why it is morality and not intelligent self interest.

    So you can explain all about suffering, but you can't give a reason why you should do anything. All people have driving them are self interest and the desire to help others implanted in our brains... most of us anyone.

  4. The interesting thing is, that even if we all did moral things due to selfish reasons, for the Theist it actually means something.

    In a meaningless universe, selfishness is all there is and it doesn't appeal to anything higher. The Atheist does a selfish act regardless if it is good or evil, but the good and evil don't exist.

    In a Theistic universe, the Theist may do something selfish for good or evil, but there is a good or evil to be selfish about.

  5. Mariano,

    For me to respond to your post, I have to start by giving you a quick summary of how I see morality and how it appears to be very different from the way you see it.

    To someone like me who does not accept moral objectivism, moral argumentation is not a proof grounded in axioms, it is a process of persuasion. The reasoning must be sound, and the facts true, but the grounding out point is determined by the common experience of the participants.

    Our moral sense is a hierarchy of abstractions. It is made up of high-level (specific) intuitions like "don't cheat poor people", low-level (general) feelings like "pain sucks" and everything in between like "justice is right".

    The various intuitions that make up our moral sense have gotten there in different ways. Some intuitions are provided by evolution. Some are provided by our parents or teachers. And others were generated by a process of generalizing specific intuitions or making our general intuitions more specific.

    High-level intuitions are important because it would be impractical to derive the right action using reason every time we had to act. But when intuitions are in conflict, the ones that win are the ones that are logically derived from our general principles, because those are the most universal, and therefore most persuasive.

    So here's my point: I see Prof. Antony's explanation of why cheating is wrong not as a series of "it's wrong because it's wrong" statements, but instead as a traversal down this hierarchy, beginning with the specific and moving towards the general. As she moves along this path, she attempts to convince a larger and larger subset of people by appealing to more and more general intuitions.

    I would restate her statements as follows:

    It’s the objective wrongness of cheating poor people

    I propose that we adopt the principal that cheating poor people is wrong because pretty much everyone would agree with this statement without further thought.

    It’s wrong because it’s unjust

    For those of you who can't see why it is wrong to cheat poor people, I claim that cheating poor people is unjust, and I appeal to your sense of justice.

    It’s wrong because it causes needless suffering

    For those holdouts who lack an intuition for justice, I claim that the injustice in this situation is the needless suffering that it causes, and I appeal to your intuition that needless suffering is wrong.

    And so on...

    Now I assume that you don't actually disagree with any of her intuitions, but that you are simply playing devil's advocate. Your response that suffering is sometimes helpful is just a statement about balancing long-term and short-term suffering. We agree that suffering is bad, now we just have to debate whether or not there would be long-term benefits to make up for the short-term pain, which is primarily a factual question.

    Imagining the possibility of someone disagreeing does not destroy my view of morality at all, because I never claimed it to be 100% objective or universal. I am only interested in morality from a practical point of view. To show why my view of morality is dangerous, you must provide real people who are able to think logically, but that, because of differences in fundamental feelings, derive the intuition that cheating poor people is right. And not just that-- you have to provide a whole bunch of them before I'll start to worry.

    But I wager that if you were to look at the justifications of those who have managed to convince themselves that it's okay for them to cheat poor people, that they would not be logically implied by their fundamental feelings, but instead be the result of faulty logic or no introspection at all.

    As for her "pure motives" crap, I agree with you that it's a lot of bunk. Thinking that you can't be good with god is as idiotic as thinking that you can't be good without god.

    I think that Dan Barker and the Humanist Society laid out some benefits of good behavior. It would be pretty selfish if that were your only motive for good behavior. Out of context, though, I don't really know if that's what they were claiming.

  6. I think Samuel Skinner said it right. In evolution there is no concept of justice. There are no reasons under a system of self-derived ethics to do anything beyond that which you decide to do.

    I disagree that the desire to help other people is innate, beyond family. It needs to be taught, and therefore requires an objective basis. Otherwise justice would occur naturally and without law enforcement.

    The concept of justice varies between societies, and is notably lacking in the huge Atheist totalitarian societies, as well as totalitarian religious societies. In liberal societies such as our Christian western tradition, justice has become an expectation as if it were innate. But it is not.

    What is innate is the ability to choose a course of action using an innate capacity for discernment, a la Locke. The choice is frequently between self-interest and altruism. Under evolutionary theory, self-interest would be chosen every time. But justice is altruistic, in that we seem to wish it applied even to those who cannot threaten our position in the genetic chain.

    For those truly involved in evolution, justice would be defined by the fittest, and applied by the fittest for the benefit of the fittest a la Nietzsche, there being no necessary choice except personal aggrandizement.

    But Ethics, as a philosophical class, is just another personal opinion in an environment where all other inputs are denied, in favor of one's own opinion. So Ethics, as a force, has no strength. Every Atheist is free to make up his own personal Ethical "standards". The problems arise when the Atheist tries to coopt the standards of the religion he has rejected. As the Nietzsche-heir-apparent Michel Onfray says,

    "militant secularism leans heavily on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which it is often content to merely copy."


    "What descends from heaven is not erased but reacclimatized for earth."


    "...in the end, both fight for an essentially similar world"

    Onfray's position is that an Atheist ethic should look significantly different from a religious, Judeo-Christian one, and that coopting the Judeo-Christian ethic in the service of materialism is relativism, which he describes as "crushing". Current militant secular relativism is thus intellectually false, according to Onfray.

    While an Atheist might disagree with Onfray, that only displays the relativism and lack of force that Atheist ethics possess.

  7. Stan,

    Under evolutionary theory, self-interest would be chosen every time.

    False. Natural selection favors genes that construct vessels (like us) that are good propagators. If an altruistic vessel is a better propagator than a selfish vessel, then genes that build altruistic vessels will be favored.

  8. What a bunch of falsities are spread in here. This sentence and its own "debunk" says it all, really:

    it’s wrong because it causes needless suffering

    So, it is wrong because it is, and now we basically apply another term for “wrong,” it causes needless suffering. But why should I care about suffering?

    I think that the writer should have needles torn himself up so that he could "see" why suffering is wrong.

    This is what theists in this blog will never admit: that morality comes from empirical experience and evolution of solutions against suffering, towards happiness. WHY should I care about happiness? BECAUSE I'm a human being and I objectively produce chemicals that make me feel GREAT when I am in the state of "Happiness", and some other chemicals that torn me apart and make me cry and shout in pain when I am in the state of "Suffering".

    It's called meat. It's called flesh. It's called chemistry. It's called reality. Atoms. Bounding forces of the universe. Anatomy, etc.

    To read what you commonly say would mean that all live in a fantasy abstract world where "suffering" and "happiness" are but illusions that only come true if we accept the reality of the supernatural!

    Get a Grip. Really.

  9. Kuhlman said:
    "False. Natural selection favors genes that construct vessels (like us) that are good propagators. If an altruistic vessel is a better propagator than a selfish vessel, then genes that build altruistic vessels will be favored."

    Of course. And if selfish propagators breed and thrive better, then the selfish will be favored. In the natural world, evolution doesn't favor altruism over selfishness because breeding and survival is selfish. Altruism can sacrifice an entire genetic line in favor of another unrelated one.

  10. Of course. And if selfish propagators breed and thrive better, then the selfish will be favored.

    The question is not closed, though. One had to simulate it in order to really check what would happen. Life has a funny way to evolve that I think that surpasses your imagination.

    In the natural world, evolution doesn't favor altruism over selfishness because breeding and survival is selfish.

    Perhaps you are right, and of course that we can all remember the christian rule: "grow and multiply". It is a good example.

    Irony aside, altruism is favored if the system is favored. If there is a group that shares the same gene of "altruism" for the group, then the group gets stronger, for that particular altruism helps the group in wars, competition, etc., in contrast to other groups that don't have such mechanism and fail to even acquire social order.

    Thus, we reach the conclusion that for a particular gene (be it truly physical or only cultural) to survive and evolve better than the others, it should have altruism in it. Without, of course, forgetting self-preservation.

    Altruism can sacrifice an entire genetic line in favor of another unrelated one.

    Well, not every thing is positive. Sometimes, martyrs don't get their genes to the future. Culturally speaking though, if altruism is also a cultural gene, then it is boundless by procreation. All we need to make these examples survive is to tell their stories to our children, and why they were so great.

  11. Barba Rija,
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment.
    My point was that Prof. Antony was finding different ways of stating the same thing but never getting to the heart of “why.”
    I moreover, pointed out that other atheists claim that good deeds are to be done for the selfish reason of making oneself feel good.
    You first claim that morality comes from chemicals and you repeat the selfish-feel-good notion by admitting that you do good deeds because your chemicals “make me feel GREAT” when you do good deeds.
    Well, I do good deeds because people need good done to and for them.
    I wonder what would happen if someone’s chemical make up were different than yours and their chemicals made them feel good about committing evil acts.

  12. Have you seen the even more recent 2008 William Lane Craig debate in New Zealand?


  13. I have listened to it Madeleine......I almost felt bad for Cooke he was in so far over his head.

    Not only was he woefully unprepared to handle Craig's arguments, he was unprofessional in that he wouldn't even address the topic of the debate.

    Craig had this to say in his newsletter for this month:

    "Like so many representatives of these atheist groups, Cooke was long on rhetoric but short on substance. He was clearly not prepared to really debate: he declined to address the question before us and was incapable of re-defending his points after they were criticized. He's used to just getting a free pass on his assertions and was at a loss what to say when challenged."

    Craig is a gentlemen but he obviously gets great enjoyment from laying waste to these arrogant blowhards.

  14. Craig definately was happy that Cooke's case collapsed (I was manning Craig's powerpoint in the video so spoke with him afterwards) but I got the sense that he prefers his victories to be won rather than handed to him on a platter.

  15. "It’s wrong because it’s unjust, it’s wrong because it causes needless suffering."

    Could it then be said that murder is not wrong if the victim doesn't suffer - i.e if they were to die instantly?

    If, as Prof. Anthony asserts, it's the suffering experienced by "sentient" beings (i.e beings that are conscious) that should be the basis for our moral rationale then it follows that it's not objectively wrong to kill infants - if you don't make them suffer.

  16. Just because it doesn't cause suffering to the person you are doing it to doesn't mean it causes no suffering. As Aquinous pointed out 1700 years ago, violence has a dehumanizing effect on those who commit it, even if it is against animals.

    In addition, people who know said individual are hurt, other people have to deal with the fact there is a killer on the lose and someone died for no reason.

    For those who don't know, killing someone instantly is like torturing someone while under a memory blockery or raping someone when they are unconcious. It is still wrong! It still causes pain and suffering.

    Do you think people are independant atoms? They have connections to each other and to kill one is to collapse the whole. Even the homeless have people who care about them and deal with them.

    You have to remember the whole picture- it isn't just said individual- there are others affected.

  17. Just because it doesn't cause suffering to the person you are doing it to doesn't mean it causes no suffering.......In addition, people who know said individual are hurt....

    I agree, but a trend in materialist thinking likes to suggest that our actions are merely the manifestations of chemical processes in our brains and not the product of an impossible immaterial consciousness.

    So, whilst it's likely to be true that the murder of someone causes those aware of it to suffer, it can be no more immoral than death that results from a dead branch falling on your head. Both are unjust, both cause suffering, both are the result of the natural processes of nature.

    There is no materialist basis on which to measure the morality of an action. If nature is all there is, then all expressions of it are justified whether it causes suffering or not.

  18. I love how Christians argue that only religion can provide moral standards; if there were no God, then of course, everyone would kill and rape each other. (This negative association with human nature in the Christian tradition is born from the concept of original sin, which, of course, is trying to obtain knowledge).

    So, things are good because God says they are good. But, why should we assume that what God says is good is in fact good? Duh, because GOD is good. (Hmm...that makes sense? The fact that people rely on a circular argument that yields no definition of either God or good, and therefore no the entire statement is meaningless, obviously shows us that they haven't a clue what the hell they are talking about).

    In fact, the father of modern ethics, Immanuel Kant, made this point when he argued that any true ethical theory must be established before the existence of God could ever be supported (and of course, God would only be responsible for the events of the phenomenal world in Kant's philoshy, events that had yet to be explained in his time; in other words, God=I have no idea.)

    Kant's ethical theory that aims to establish universal moral law by means of absolute reason. And, what do you have at the end of the road? Well, you have the moral rules that are most emphatically applied in the courts of law, many of which Christians have tried to somehow pull out of the complete mess of the Bible.

    The right and just men, as defined by the Word of God, in Genesis have sex with their children while God kills entire races of people.


  19. Mariano has beaten me every day since we were married. he has rapped me over and over and left me a bloody mess. He has no idea of what God is. He will burn in Hell forever.
    His beaten wife.