Atheist morals? Don’t Read This Unless You Are Very Brave

I see postings all the time about how atheists are “better” than believers because they have lower rates of divorce, abortion, criminal convictions, parking in handicapped parking zones, kicking sleeping dogs, and of going in through the out door. I’m sorry, but who decided that any of these things are good? Is there some atheist bible laying around telling us that divorce and abortion are bad, or are some people just still mired in the mindset of Christianity and Islam and continue to assume that these things are bad.  If your morality comes from a religion, then by all means just stay in that religion, because you are a marginal atheist at best. You dropped the concept of a supernatural agency -god - but you seem to be determined to live up to god’s commandments, or at least some of them, in the same way as believers pick and choose those religious laws they want to follow.

Dawkins and Harris constantly contend that atheists have some innate form of ethics, which is actually superior to those of the religious, as it lacks the moralistic absolutes and imperatives often found in primitive holy scriptures, like stoning disobedient children, committing genocide against your other-believing neighbors, and marrying your rape victim, among others. They often dub it as some form of “humanism.” but you will be hard pressed to find a definitive definition of what this is or who determines its parameters. Is this true, that atheists have some socially constructed morality (most of us developed within a society dominated by religion, remember), or are they afraid of a real debate on the value of ethics? I will let Frederick Nietzsche, the most stridently atheist of the modern philosophers, show us the way. Perhaps by the end, you will know whether you are still a slave to religion, despite disavowing god.

Nietzsche and Existentialism

“Man is the cruelest animal. [This is proven because man invented hell for himself.]”
“Morality is herd instinct in the individual.”
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
“All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”
(The conclusion of George Orwell’s “1984” is very much an example of this.)

- Friedrich Nietzsche -

I hope that you have read some of Nietzsche’s works. If not, then I will give you a brief overview. Nietzsche lived from 1844 until 1900 in what became Germany in 1871 (he was Prussian). He remains a highly influential philosopher remembered primarily for his concept of the “Ubermensch,” sometimes translated as the superman, and for his rejection of social Christian morals and values, which he deemed to be the residue of the slave mentality that permeated Judaism post-destruction of the temple in Jerusalem 70 CE, and Christianity as they tried to survive under pagan Roman rule during their development stages. He contended that this slave mentality persists to this day indoctrinated into the masses laboring within Christian dominated societies. Although he focused on Christian society, his analysis is also applicable to other societies dominated by major religions or even totalitarian systems which inculcate the society with their own similar subservient codes of conduct.

He was a prolific author, but for this blog, I would recommend you consider reading “The Antichrist,” “Beyond Good and Evil,” “The Genealogy of Morals,” and “The Will to Power,” with the middle two being the more important. But once you read them, I expect that you will not see your world the same way you did before. Many people I know who read Nietzsche in college could only utterly reject him, as they feared a world dominated by Ubermensch even though they were already in it. Nietzsche does not prescribe an ideal world; there is no Platonic Philosopher King, no invisible power of markets, no naturally arising morality within people as part of nature, no objective for social advancement. Only stark unblinking temporalized reality. He dares people to see the truth, although he knows that most people will be incapable of this, as they will be unable to shed their imbedded slave mentalities and their timidity bred of fear.

Together with the Danish Soren Kierkegaard, he is considered to be a founder of the school of philosophy known as existentialism. The online Oxford Dictionaries defines existentialism as “a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.” Sounds like a view espoused by most atheists I know, if they have the bravery to take it to its logical conclusion, so please read on.

The case study

When I was in law school, my criminal law professor taught about 1/3 of the entire class from just one case, Regina v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273 DC.  The case was about whether men on a raft were guilty of murder if they killed and ate their fellow shipmate in order to save their own lives. In my own poor way, I want to emulate that feat here by pointing out some key issues arising from a single situation. I hope it works for you.

First, let us imagine a world without religion. There is no hell to punish us after death, no god to trouble our lives in the present, and no heavenly reward in the future. No karma, no rebirths, no one with the universe and no law of man. There is only yourself and the earth. What you can experience is paramount, what is incapable of experience is mere fancy, a fiction of cognition and imagination. To look at it from an evolutionary perspective, each behavior to be retained must have a beneficial consequence for the individual, no matter how slight, to justify its continued retention and propagation.

So, in our godless world, there is a road. It is long and barren. No one can be seen in the distance in any direction. On the side of the road is a destitute female starving child, who is begging for a drink of water. Whether she is given the water or not, she will still die. You know this for a fact. She will not live long enough to make contact with any other person. You are walking on the road, and have more than enough water for yourself and her. Do you stop and give her a drink to ease her all-consuming, burning thirst before she dies?

I need to stipulate one more important point. She is not of your tribe or part of your social grouping, and this is evident from her physical characteristics, dress and accent. So any evolved compunction to help members of your own tribe does not apply. She is the proverbial stranger on the roadside.

  1. First Argument in favor of helping her: humans have evolved to help each other. By helping one person, we expect that another person may help us in the future.

    Bollocks. Humans have no natural sense of community beyond a relatively small tribal one. Our evolutionary heritage never prepared us for the tens of thousands, let alone millions, of people we now claim to identify ourselves with. Also, in my example, how would any other member of the tribe know about the charitable act, and therefore learn that we were worthy of some reciprocal action in the future.

    Atheistic apologists like to claim that we have evolved a propensity to help others of the tribe, and there is indeed some evidence that early human tribes in some cases may have kept an individual alive in the tribe, and presumably fed them, even when they had a debilitating condition. Other animals besides apes have been seen to do this too, in limited conditions. But again, we are talking about hunter gather units of at most a score or so of individuals. They had a personal relationship with each other in all likelihood. In any event, we see precious little charity of this sort in our world today at a tribal level. If you doubt this, I would recommend you read up on a the potato famines in Ireland of 1845-52 where between 20-25% of the population starved or emmigrated while the elites of English and Irish still exported food from Ireland for profit. Where was this supposed genetic propensity to save our own tribe then? And there are many other examples, far too many to list.

    The real test of whether this is true is a simple one. Your neighbor loses her job and is going to lose her house to the bank for non-payment of the mortgage. How many people helped in this situation? Many people would help their immediate family members, and perhaps some extended family members and maybe a very few close friends, but not much beyond that. That is the size of your “tribe.” How many people would you donate a kidney for? I asked one atheist this and he said “anyone who needed it” so I offered to drive him to the nearest hospital, since the waiting lists are years long. He didn’t take me up on the offer.

    Our dying girl, with wide imploring eyes and outstretched hands, is not part of our tribe and we would derive no benefit from helping her. She has no money to pay us, and can offer us nothing in return for our help. And as for the perspective of supposedly having some inherited tendency to help others, we know from history and our own societies that no such genetic compunction exists. So, we would just pass by.

  2. Second Argument: we should help her because it is the good thing to do. There is a natural difference between good and evil founded on the premise of treat others as you would wish to be treated – often called the Golden Rule. Since we would want water were we in her condition, we should give her water as that would be the good outcome in this situation.

    More bollocks. Where does this idea come from? Nietzsche would tell you that it is part of your slave mentality, indoctrinated into your culture from Christianity. It assumes that you have no control over how other people in the future will treat you. So you grovel, helping one and all in the lame hope that they will aid you when you are incapable of helping yourself.

    Elites in our societies do not follow this rule at all and this is indelibly evident in our world. By and large, the rich and privileged do not want to help the poor. If they really did, then they wouldn’t be so rich, would they? Indeed, the economic equivalent to this moral precept of human equality, which is what the Golden Rule is all about in its essence, was most thoroughly developed by Karl Marx, and forms the basis of the somewhat unjustly marginalized communist economic concept. The problem with communism arguably was that greed and corruption could not be expunged as intrinsic human characteristics. But today’s concept of retirement and investment funds actually corresponds well with Marxist doctrine, as it gives the workers an economic stake – if not control - in the enterprise capital. Many other facets of globally accepted Western economic practice, such as worker compensation, health care coverage, standardized working hours, retirement income, also had their origin in Marxist doctrine, but it’s a rare and bold politician who would actually acknowledge this academically undisputed heritage. The first country to implement these sorts of reforms was the newly unified Germany under Otto von Bismarck starting in the 1870s, creating the first Sozialstaat.

    Even in so-called liberal democracies the powerful do not readily accept arrogance, criticism or inconvenience from the lesser privileged. If people were not blinded by their slave mentality, they would see that the world does not operate in a Golden Rule manner. The elites take what they want, as much as they can manage, and they do not live by the same rules as the rest of society. People in our world routinely starve, are malnourished, have inferior educational or employment opportunities, lack proper police protection or access to judicial redress, live in squalor, die from preventable disease, and all the while those with the financial resources to remedy much of this just buy another home in Monaco and ensure that governments do not tax their trust funds. No one calls these elites immoral. Indeed, they are often idolized, and it’s no crime to fail to treat others equally – indeed, America’s stratospheric CEO to average worker pay ratios are ample demonstration of this principle in laudatory practice.

    Some wealthy families and individuals are known for giving so much to charity, yet somehow they remain among the world’s richest people. It is nice publicity though, so maybe fewer poor people will think about shooting them. Charity can be good life insurance, just ask any private banker to the super wealthy, as charity establishment is a standard recommendation for the notably affluent, which is why they usually name the charity after themselves and ensure that it gets lots of publicity just so everyone knows who are the nice rich guys. Marie Antoinette perhaps could have saved her head if she had just given 5-10% of her wealth to the “Marie Antoinette Foundation for Starving Children” and made sure that everyone knew about it. The fact that the charities actually may benefit people other than just the founding family members is a secondary consideration for many. Find this idea offensive? Try ridding yourself of your delusions and ask yourself why people who are truly charitable would need to name the foundation after themselves, publicize their efforts, and keep eternal control over the charity’s operations (yes, control passes to their descendants through trust arrangements most usually – the Fords still hold the Ford foundation four generations on now). Charities can also benefit ongoing business operations. Just do a bit of research on how the Gates Foundation went into India with charitable grants ahead of a major push there by Microsoft. But that must have just been coincidence…

    If the Golden Rule only applies to those at the bottom of the power spectrum, then it’s not a rule at all. It’s an admonition to help maintain order in the state and restrain people’s desires and ambitions that might otherwise be directed against the interests of the elite. Slaves need to know their place and should not fight amongst themselves.

    I have heard some atheists say that the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to economics. OK, so what is the point then? Treat others as you would wish to be treated, unless it involves money or property? What’s left? Saying “good morning” to each other? If the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to the most important thing in peoples’ lives, the thing that determines whether they live or die from access to food, water, shelter, and medical care, then it’s a pretty pathetic guide for any ethical code.

    For Nietzsche, what is good is that which heightens an individual’s feeling of power, the ascension of the Ubermensch to their desired objectives, the “will to power.” All that proceeds from weakness constitutes that which is bad. Obviously, my good and your good are not the same, although there could be instances where they were coequal.

    Would helping the parched girl help us? Would it increase our power? Should we do it because everyone else is treating us equally? Oh wait, they are not. The Golden Rule doesn’t seem to include the poor, the sick, the malnourished, the homeless, those in need, or virtually everyone else who needs help. We use it so sparingly that it is the rare exception, and certainly not a rule of human social behavior. So we watch our little girl, with cracked lips, protruding tongue, face flushed with agony, implore us for water, and we walk on by because there is no advantage to us in helping her and there is no overarching social compunction, no real Golden Rule, to do so.

  3. Third Argument: we should help her out of feelings of pity and mercy, which are natural human emotions.

    Since when? If it’s natural, then why is it so little evidenced in our collective history? Did the Mongols evidence this as they swept through the Asian continent? Were the Assyrians blessed with this attribute? Millions of people watch YouTube videos of people hurting each other, of having painful accidents, and this is considered to be humorous. Just watch an old “Three Stooges” movie if you doubt the efficacy of pain and discomfort as an effective laxative on human laughter. Or the entertainment value of the most recent blockbuster action or horror film. Yes, we know it’s not real, but I suspect we get the same physical adrenaline rush as the Romans did when watching real gladiatorial contests.

    If we were really creatures imbued with such inclinations as pity and mercy then why is violence such a popular form of entertainment? Why are we all not appalled by it? Why did people cheer for Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” when he was aiming a gun at a guilty but defenseless man? How about the children mutilated by the hand amputating fiends in Sierra Leone during its Civil War? How about the Americans in Vietnam gunning down unarmed civilians over and over again to make a body count. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly recommend “Kill Anything that Moves” by Nick Turse. Mercy as a natural human emotion? Don’t make me laugh.

    David Hume, 18th century Scottish philosopher and economist, noted that pity is akin to contempt, as we view the person afflicted as being beneath us. Hume is connected with the area of philosophy known as skepticism and empiricism. But Hume was locked into his own conditioning, as he ultimately held that ethics were derived from humans’ internal convictions, and he could never bring himself to fully break from Christianity.

    Nietzsche had this to say about pity: “To show pity is felt as a sign of contempt because one has clearly ceased to be an object of fear as soon as one is pitied.” Further, in “The Antichrist,” he noted that: “The weak and ill–constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill constituted and weak…” (from “The Antichrist”).

    If humans do feel pity, it is indeed more on the order of contempt, as it evokes so little response. We are surrounded by those less fortunate than ourselves, and little or nothing is ever done. The act of charity in response to pity is clearly the exception in our world. Even in highly affluent cities like New York, there is street level homelessness and marginal poverty, yet we do not see people being motivated by their pity for these individuals, to take them into their homes or help to support them to secure self-sufficiency. Perhaps the attitude can best be noted as “better them than me.” Drop the dollar in the hat if it makes you feel good for a moment. But let’s face it, everyone who drops the dollar is no different than the person who walks by. The dollar is dropped not because it will solve the problem of the homeless, but because it makes the slave feel less guilty for a moment or alters their status in the eyes of others. It’s like feeling good about praying for someone. Isn’t it better than nothing? No, it is nothing as it fails to solve the problem you supposedly have pity for and it’s hypocrisy in its rankest form.

    For Nietzsche, pity is to be avoided: “Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious.” (From “The Antichrist”.)

    In this case, our little girl has no audience which could be awed by our exhibition of power over her, so we walk on by.

  4. Fourth Argument: we should help her because of our feelings of compassion.

    One of Nietzsche’s acknowledged influences was the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, who died in 1860, but left behind the highly influential “The World as Will and Representation” which has been credited with strongly influencing philosophers and scientists alike. But it is his “On the Basis of Morality” that he argues for compassion as being the driving principle of human morality. He was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery and of equality of all humans, and was strident in the promotion of animal rights. He was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and this comes through clearly in his writings. Perhaps I should have used Buddhist teachings themselves on compassion to make the case for our dying child (the Dahli Lama can make a pretty convincing case), but since Nietzsche himself acknowledged influences from Schopenhauer, I thought it would be a stronger case to proceed from this source and will also note that Schopenhauer was an atheist.

    I will not get into Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will, which is quasi-supernatural, despite him being an atheist. Suffice it to say that all human motivation was derived from human basic desires, which are not good and need to be controlled by the individual in such a manner so as to reduce suffering (not by others, but by each person – this is taken almost directly from the Buddhist idea that life is suffering). According to Schopenhauer, people are motivated by three compunctions: compassion, egoism and malice. Now this is beginning to look more like the real world.

    Egoistic actions benefit the actor, in terms of delivering pleasure, happiness, or as an exercise of power, but not Nietzsche’s concept of power, and we are all familiar with those. Acts of malice are just like they sound, an expression of ill intent towards another for no reason other than to cause harm. He acknowledges that people often hurt others even though it does not benefit them to do so.

    On to compassion. Compassion is different from feelings of mercy or pity, which separate the observer from the observed sufferer. As noted previously, pity is really a form of contempt, and mercy intrinsically includes an element of superiority on the part of the observer. Compassion for Schopenhauer, and for Buddhists, is different. It is an equality of suffering between the afflicted and the observer. As Nietzsche noted, to feel pity is to cause oneself to suffer. Schopenhauer would agree with that, but would add that it is not possible for people to choose whether to feel this way or not. The element of compassion within humans means that they do feel it, and the only way to alleviate the feeling is to aid the person afflicted as you would aid yourself, and the distinction here between yourself and the other person is immaterial.

    Noble sentiments. But does everyone feel compassion in the same degree and in the same circumstances? I remember being in Korea in the late 1980s in a movie theatre seeing the film Gandhi. There is a scene where the protesters line up and move towards two guards who wield staves that they use to beat the people with. As the first line of people are struck down, the second steps up to be struck, in a show of non-violent protest. For me it was a powerful moment, but for the Korean audience, they burst into laughter. One man’s compassion is another’s entertainment.

    I will concede to Schopenhauer that compassion may indeed be an inherent and uncontrollable human trait that would cause us to go to the aid of the destitute girl by the roadside. And I fully admit to possessing this characteristic myself. However, not everyone has it in the same degree nor, as in my Gandhi example, do they feel it in the same circumstances. But compassion is a hard one to argue away. I reject Schopenhauer’s universal Will concept. Upon reading it again, it sounds a bit like the Force from Star Wars. I wonder if George Lucas read Schopenhauer? His case for compassion as an unbidden human emotion is strong.

    So, in the final case, I will allow our traveler to quench the thirst of our dying child, to sate her desire for the fleeting relief of water. But this is not an absolute. It may also be that the traveler does not feel compassion for her, or an insufficient amount of compassion to help. There is no way of knowing what the relative probabilities are, but in some percentage of cases, I agree that compassion would result in some people helping her. So at the end, there is no absolute reason to help her, it all depends on the compassion of the individual.


Where humans derive ethics from, and whether they are even necessary, has been a conundrum within philosophy for as long as there has been philosophy. Atheism is not a philosophy, and atheists need to accept that most philosophies that promote a form of ethics that they seem most comfortable with are linked to religions and conceptions of absolute good and evil – which Nietzsche would contend do not and have never existed and the mere postulation of such absolutes is itself evidence of self-delusion by persons locked within their slave mentality.

As Nietzsche said: “There are two different types of people in the world, those who want to know, and those who want to believe.” I wish to be numbered among the former, and not the latter, both when it comes to religion and when it comes to an understanding of morals and ethics. Nothing should be assumed without question, even when it comes to comforting dying children by the roadside.

For another great piece on Nietzsche, click here

Photo Credits: Anne-Lise Heinrichs

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