Monday Morning Greetings 2023 #41 – Can an Atheist be Moral?

October 9th, 2023

Of course they can! I have studied the moral argument for the existence of God from the writings of the best Christian apologists. While they make very compelling arguments that it’s very difficult to validate the existence of objective moral values[1] without accepting the existence of God,[2] they make it clear that you don’t need to believe in God to have moral values—to love your children rather than abuse them or to be honest and not steal, for example. So, what is this post about?


Last week I was trying to complete a two-part series on the quotations of Saint Augustine from a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava perspective. What I realized was that besides Saint Augustine’s most famous quote, “Humility! Humility! Humility!”, which I highlighted in the first article, he had several other good quotes about humility that might make an interesting new post if I commented on them from a Gauḍīya perspective. I began with this insightful one: “Humility is the foundation of all other virtues hence, in the souls in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except mere appearance.” I started my commentary on this verse by referencing a somewhat similar statement from the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (5.18.12) where it states that if one is not a devotee of the Lord, they have no good qualities because one’s qualities are born of the mind and in service to the material energy.[3] According to my philosophical understanding, that declarative statement—that one who is not a devotee of the Lord has no good qualities—seemed a bit spurious, so I got stuck on trying to reconcile my understanding with what I just read in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, which I accept as authoritative. I therefore never finished last week’s post. I decided this week to have a go at it again and make a separate post trying to reconcile what I saw as a challenging point. I struggled again, but was able to break down my thoughts on the matter into three main arguments:


1. It is a challenge to hold true to any conviction, even one affirming objective moral values, if your over-all world view doesn’t support it.


Generally, atheism comes with an endorsement of naturalism—that ultimate reality exists in matter and the world is nothing but “blind omnipotent matter rolling on.”[4] It seems a stretch to justify the idea that personal choices are “good” or “bad” when what we “really” are is just clusters of molecules that come together by chance for a few years in the void.[5] It is thus not hard to imagine that when such a naturalistic philosophy becomes pervasive in society it will eventually have an effect on society in a Dostoevskian “if there is no god, all is permitted”[6] Are we not seeing that today as our worldview becomes increasingly Godless—that almost anything goes, and thus immorality and lawlessness are rampant?[7]


2. Without God consciousness, there are no good qualities.


To try to understand the import of this statement from Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 5.18.12, let me go back to my original post on humility where I described that from a theistic perspective the seed of humility and the emblem of character is the willingness to submit to a truth higher than one’s own whims, which manifest fully in unalloyed devotion to God. I think what the verse is saying, therefore, is that to the extent one does not have such full surrender to God, then the basis of one’s good qualities will be the mind that is grounded in the false ego, the desire for superiority and control. As a result, even the good qualities of such a person are bound to be co-opted in some way to exert one’s superiority, for example that I am more honest and just than others, and thus cease to be purely good qualities, but rather tools of the ego. Saint Augustine describes this phenomenon beautifully: “Pride will wrest from our hand any good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it. It is true that other defects have to be feared in our sins, but pride is to be feared in our very acts of virtue; otherwise, those praiseworthy acts will be lost through the desire of praise itself.”[8] I think that is what it means in verse 5.12.18 when it says that “one who is not a devotee”, which I have tried to show, means not being fully humble, “has no good qualities.”


3. This philosophy is affirmed by the character of a true devotee.


It’s been the second week of trying to understand and express this point. It hasn’t been easy. Thank Krishna that at 5:00 in the morning every day I can rest my mind as I walk half-way around Govardhan chanting Hare Krishna and praying for Śrī Giriraja’s mercy. Today, just when I was about to finish the parikrama on the lush forest path north of Jatipur, a cleanly-dressed young man in simple pants, bead bag in hand, was walking the opposite way. When he crossed my path, he stopped, and paid his obeisances. I don’t know why, but he sat on his knees for a few seconds looking up to me with hands folded in reverence as his eyes sparkled with devotion. I was taken aback by the joy emanating from his being born of his full acquiescent to God, whom he seemed to see in everyone and somehow now in me, a “respected” sannyāsī. He was a beautiful young Brijbasi named Giridhari Rupa, a local schoolteacher, who embodied the humility and state of pure goodness that I am convinced can only be found in the heart of an unalloyed devotee of God. Can an atheist be moral? Perhaps, but not like this!



[1] This is how William Lane Craig defines objective moral values: “Objective means ‘independent of what people think or perceive’. By contrast, ‘subjective’ means ‘not objective’. Or ‘dependent on what humans think or perceive’. So, for moral values and duties to be objective, what is good or evil doesn’t depend on the opinions of human beings.”

[2] For those who are philosophically inclined, here is an outline of the moral argument for the existence of God by William Lane Craig, arguably one the world’s most prominent theistic apologists: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-1/s1-moral-argument/moral-argument-part-1

[3] https://vedabase.io/en/library/sb/5/18/12/

[4] The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel’s description of reality according to his naturalistic worldview.

[5] Here is a quote by Steven Pinker, renowned Harvard cognitive psychologist and intellectual atheist on why in a naturalist viewpoint there are no objective moral values: “The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?”

[6] This was the famous affirmation made by the character Ivan Karamázov in the novel The Brothers Karamázov, by Fiódor Dostoiévski, in the 19th century.

[7] I have not researched or done a statistical study to affirm this. It is my observation, which seems self-evident to me. That also doesn’t mean that in the name of religion horrible things haven’t been done, but that is another discussion.

[8] There are too many good quotes from Saint Augustine on this subject to not share one more: “If humility does not proceed and accompany and follow every good work we do, if it is not before us to focus on, it is not beside us to lean upon, if it is not behind us to fence us in, pride will wrench from our hand any good deed we at the moment we do it.”


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