Atheist's Unanswered Question

When talking about religion and morality, it is often a favorite line of the atheist to say, “Anybody who does good things, or refrains from doing bad things, solely because they believe God is watching over them, isn’t very moral in the first place.”

Usually, this is where the atheist talking point ends. But I think there is a fundamental problem that isn’t being addressed: if belief in God really is the only reason somebody isn’t committing heinous acts, what would happen if that belief is stripped away?

What if the aforementioned people really would commit vile acts were it not for their belief in God?

I don’t think quoting statistics from other secular countries is relevant for two reasons. First, it wouldn’t pertain to Americans, who might be prone to do more vile acts for many unknown reasons. Secondly, there are inevitably theists in other countries who would also use the argument that “without God, there would be no morality.”

So what are your thoughts? Is this as big a problem as it seems to me? Atheists are ignoring the possibility that God, for some vile people, might prevent them from committing heinous acts.

I usually think about it in terms of complementation. A person who is predisposed towards antisocial acts is better off in a system that encourages and cultivates social behavior; whereas a person who is predisposed to conformity is better off in a system that is free of such constraints. The strict system leads to a socialized person if they are antisocial and a robot if they are conformist. The free system leads to wantonness in the antisocial case and productivity/innovation in the case of the conformer. No one system can be said to be ‘better’ in an absolute sense, you can really only address it item-by-item while making sure the path taken makes sense for the individual in question.

I’ve seen rather little evidence to suggest that specifically religious moral training is superior or inferior to non-religious moral training.

However, I think intilling intrisic values is always more relisent that teaching values through concequence- wheter that consequence be police or demons. For example if you teach your kid about sportmanship and expose him to good sportsman that he/she can admire, I think that would be more sucessfull than telling your kid “Say ‘goodgame,’ or I’ll hit you.”

Moreover, I think most good morals people learn in church stay with them if they come to be Atheists. Some might have a wild couple of weeks breaking taboos- drinking, dancing, eating fish on friday- but very few will start to rape and murder. Actually, I think I heard a statstic once that says Atheists are underepresented in the prison- that Rapist and Murderes overwhelming have a religion with a watchfull deity. So, go figure.

2 points:

  1. If someone is only law abiding because the cops exist, then they are still law abiding. Law abiding does not make someone nice.

  2. If someone were to remove all cops from the road in America, then yes…there would be massive problems on nearly catastrophic levels; remove religion in America, and much would be the same.

In America, one needs to keep in mind that the common person is in an environment where fast is too slow; where the floorboard of the car has a square hole in it to allow the gas pedal to go even further than designed.
This is a nation of product and purchase; gain to and gain from.
A nation that moves first, and considers the consequences more in depth afterwards.
A nation of technology consumption placed in market for marketing’s sake of the new; so that the dollar continues to move at the speed of that proverbial gas pedal.

This is a nation that does not pause or rewind on any decision that’s to be made without an extra fee .

So when someone considers the role of religion in such a place, a place where people simply do not stop and consider much beyond the dollar and desire, then it is readily apparent the appreciation one should have on religion.

It offers morality at the speed of God, which, luckily in this nation, is thirty minutes slower than the speed of a kick-off.

So rather than thinking, “They are only moral because God said to do it.”
One should start thinking, “Thank goodness their God told them that they shouldn’t kill!”

The live coverage observance of 9/11 was about as honestly moral as America has been allowed to be in a great long time.

Outside of those few minutes of time that stretched out into seeming eternity for a great multitude…“God” is just the best selling author of how to not feel crappy while living without consideration.

For America; “Amen” means the same as Goodbye.
I would suggest letting American’s continue to at least say Hello…even if it is only for the Saints to win.

I have to concede thouse points. But I think an Atheist would suggest not simply removing churches but replacing them. Friends have told me the YMCA has become progressivly more secular overtime. (It’s now called simply “the Y”.) So community groups and and youth orginisations would have to spread as chuch membership went down. Now it’s true that a secular orginsation couldn’t use hellfire like some religions. But we do have tangable prisons where real people will really shiv you, and spy satalites in space- so it’s close.

Xunz, I think this is a wonderful insight. But can you have the kind of flexibility where the social structures and influences adapt to the personality of each individual, in a religious institution? I think maybe you can, but the religious institutions I’m familiar with always push too hard for conformity. For example the Catholic church has an extremely conformist leadership, although many Catholics ignore the constraints of the system by becoming “cafeteria Catholics”.

It seems we need to draw a distinction between moral behavior and the motivation for such behavior.

I don’t think anyone would argue that doing good deeds is a bad thing. It’s the source of motivation that is frowned at by atheists.

Surely we can all imagine a robot programmed to speak politely and act decently, standing by letting someone die that it could easily have prevented, simply because it wasn’t programed to save people, just to not hurt them. I dont think any of us would be willing to consider the “source” or “motivation” for the robots behavior a very good one nor that goodness was inherent to the robot.

I’d want to say that any moral behavior adopted as a response to a condition is doe to a failure of producing those same behaviors inherently. In short… you don’t WANT to be good… But you do good as a means to another end, which you want.

Mice don’t inherently want to press buttons… but they will if it means they get fed. so if we consider “pressing the button” the goal… then yea… it dosn’t matter how we motivate the mice. If however we want mice to VALUE the act of button pressing by itself… then motivating them with food is just an illusion. We could just as easily have made those same mice NOT press the button using the same food.

And so it is with religion… it CAN be used to motivate people to do good… but there’s nothing to stop those same people from doing bad, if their religion were used as motivation.

What we’d much rather have is a population that values good deeds, for what they are, and not for what they lead to or what they can buy you (God’s favor, love, admission into heaven, whatever)

Just a few thoughts…

Well, but that is just it! The Catholic Church is a fine example, as is any cultural institution. Plenty of Catholic Churches teach hardcore conformity, especially in America where they have to compete with Protestant Churches, but compare those Churches to the Catholic Churches that exist in Germany, in Italy, in France, and in Spain (both modern and, for fuck’s sake, Franco’s!). Hell, we could talk about the Maronites in Lebanon (Catholics all) where the Priests have special dispensation to marry so you can’t even . . .

Shit, I forgot what I was talking about. But you know? There are cultural institutions that allow for members that don’t do shit. But acultural non-institutions don’t have members that do do shit, you know?

I don’t know what Catholic churches are like outside of the US. They’re less conformist? Sounds interesting, do you know how they differ?

Also, you definitely sound like you’re on something intoxicating. Glad you’re enjoying yourself. I could use some of that shit myself right about now.

Bingo on the latter.

But take my buddy’s abu . . . abuella? Maybe? Abuela! Anyway. She was all about the Catholic Church. But also totally just thought Jesus was this dude who said some things then got his ass killed by some Romans (maybe Jews, she was old and kinda racist). But the main reason why she was Catholic is because she enjoyed the ceremony associated with it. She would wake up, go to Mass, hang out afterward and do things Spanish people do. But with other people from her Church.

And that anecdotal story seems to jive with the broad statistical trends. Look at the Catholic countries on the Continent (Ireland is strangely reactionary but I have an explanation for that. We can go into it, but it boils down to an old materialist saw that I suspect you already agree to. So let’s skip that part and agree I’m awesome;)). They all have relatively low levels of orthodox individuals, but they certainly have some orthoprax individuals. More importantly, they have broad swaths of the population that are neither/nor yet still somehow claim allegiance to some ideology.

In those cases, it is a cultural narrative as opposed to an ideological one and so ought be treated differently.


I don’t know, you ever been to a Catholic mass? Unless you’ve got some spiritual investment in the ritual it would be a pretty boring way to waste an hour just for some social activity afterwards. I’d much rather be playing bingo or bowls or some other old person activity, they have social elements too.

You kidding me? I went through this period in eighth grade. I combed my hair all nice, listened to Limbaugh, and went to Mass on Sunday. It was pretty radical, let me tell you. Really stuck it to my parents on that one!

But all tales of youthful rebellion aside, Mass is pretty awesome! When it isn’t done properly (you know, in Latin with fasting and incense) it loses something but it is still really cool. The priest says something and people all respond, it is simply beautiful! I love it.

Really? I mean I enjoy it but due to spiritual reasons, didn’t think it would push secular buttons. That’s cool

Naw man. There is a nice Church not too far from where I live that rocks it old school. Evidently the new Pope had let some people roll back the whole Vatican II-thing. When I wake up early on Sunday (not too often) and am feeling like it (occasionally, out of an already small sample) I’ll head out and rock it. Really good stuff.

I always sit near the back though. About all I can do is awkwardly stand up and sit down. And shake hands at the end and say, “Pax vobiscum”. I still can’t do the thingy they do when they go to the pews, though I’ve gotten OK at faking it.

:slight_smile: The genuflect, half kneel thing? I still forget to do that half the time, here, have a dancing banana for your effort :banana-dance:

Yeah. I bow down and then sorta wave my hands over my front. I get it is somehow a cross, but has only three parts and involves my shoulders and forehead. But then somehow my stomach gets involved or something. So I just kinda move my hand around. I’d ask, but then I’d have to explain why I am there if I’m not really interested in what they are selling, you know? I have the same problem at organ concerts. I really like organ music, but the only place you can rock out is at churches.


Genuflection on Left Knee
Kneel on your left knee for a moment, bringing the left knee all the way to the floor and keeping the back straight. Hold for a moment, then stand. (it’s like doing a squat lift with only your right leg)

When greeting or leaving people more ‘clergy’ than yourself that are part of the Church (but only to the highest one present).
When on knee, kiss their ring and then stand up.

Genuflection on Right Knee (this is the one you are trying to get down)
How: Looking at what you are doing this toward, kneel on your right knee for a moment in the manner of a man proposing to a woman, (psst…make sure you touch your knee to the floor and straighten the back). Again, hold for a moment, then stand up.


  1. Genuflect toward the Tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and each time you pass in front of it (except when you’re in procession, such as standing in line for Communion, or returning to your seat afterward).
    You are also supposed to Pray mentally, “My Lord and My God”

If the Tabernacle is not on the Altar, genuflect toward the Altar and the Altar Crucifix.

  1. Before a relic of the True Cross when it is exposed for public adoration.

  2. On Good Friday to Holy Saturday, after the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross, genuflect when passing in front of the exposed Crucifix on the Altar.

How to make the sign of the cross:
A) Put together the first three fingers of the right hand
This symbolizes the Unity of the Holy Inseparable Trinity.
The other two fingers should be bent towards the palm signifying the descent of the Son of God to earth from Heaven (two fingers being the image of two natures of Christ).

B) The three fingers put together touch the body in the following order:

  1. First, touch the forehead
    To sanctify the mind,

  2. Second, touch the belly near the solar plexus
    For sanctification of feelings,

  3. Third draw a line from the right shoulder to the left shoulder
    To sanctify one’s bodily strength.

Extra mile:
Bow after (but only after) the hand is dropped along the body.

Why? Because you have just represented the Calvary Cross on yourself so it is proper to bow to it.
However, Do NOT bow simultaneously with the sign of the Cross.
This is referred to as ‘breaking the cross’.

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Cool! Thanks. I think I can manage those. Except for the receiving the sacrament one, because I don’t do that. I figure it would be pretty disrespectful to do that.


If the Catholic example is too far-fetched (and I suppose that is reasonable, there are more religious Catholics in the US than secular Catholics), we could substitute ‘Jews’ and the statement holds. There are a lot of secular Jews, many of them are even atheists. They still have the traditional structure in place and, should they choose, they can go and become religious Jews. But there is an option. It is there for those that want it and not there for those that don’t.

Xunz, that’s very true. I am a grad student in a top US university math department, and of course the place is stock full of Jews. None of them believe, but a substantial fraction practice to some level or another, and nearly all care deeply about the culture around their religion. Actually my dad’s brother-in-law converted to Judaism a while back – my dad viewed the conversion very negatively, but maybe now I’m interested in the thing from my uncle’s perspective.

Xun: yeah…I wouldn’t take sacrament either if I was in your shoes. It’s just dishonest and would bother me.

aporia: Go for the Judaic faith, have fun exploring it! I wish I lived near a community of Judaic faith that was a stronghold of the community. I would be there every chance I could steal away to do so! It’s ancient! How many religions can you interact with on such a scale that have the same relative footprint to Western Culture as Judaism?
And as I’ve said elsewhere here; it’s the first religion to explore the concept of man being aware of his own wrong doing as a man; without condition of rank in power, so that’s worth a massive amount in itself!
Imagine having a society of philosophers based around Plato that had been continued non-stop since Plato himself?