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Moral Argument For Atheism

by Francois Tremblay



This argument is detailed by Raymond Bradley in The New Zealand Rationalist & Humanist (spring 2000) pages 2 to 12, and subsequently reprinted in “The Impossibility of God” on page 135. It contends that everyone agrees on five basic moral principles, which are the following:

  1. It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.
  2. It is morally wrong to provide one’s troops with young women captives with the prospect of their being used as sex-slaves.
  3. It is morally wrong to make people cannibalize their friends and family.
  4. It is morally wrong to practice human sacrifice, by burning or otherwise.
  1. It is morally wrong to torture people endlessly for their beliefs.

    Bradley contends that these principles are universal and unquestioned, as least as regards to daily life. I would also add that these are also, generally, examples of gratuitous evil, in that they are not necessary to implement positive values at all. (1) to (5) are not in fact necessary when lesser evils can implement an equal amount of good. Some of them, like (4), plainly have no relevance to any rational goal at all.

    Based on these principles, Bradley gives examples of Biblical “morality” that contradicts each of them:

     

    1: It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.

    God himself drowned the whole human race except Noah and his family (Genesis 7:23), he punished King David for carrying out a census that he himself had ordered and then complied with David’s request that others be punished instead of him by sending a plague to kill 70 000 people (2 Sam. 24:1-15), and he commanded Joshua to kill old and young, little children, maidens, and women (the inhabitants of some 31 kingdoms) while pursuing his genocidal practices of ethnic cleansing in the lands that orthodox Jews still regard as part of Greater Israel (see Joshua 10 in particular). These are just three our of hundreds of examples of God’s violations of (1).

     

    2: It is morally wrong to provide one’s troops with young women captives with the prospect of their being used as sex-slaves.

    After commanding soldiers to slaughter all the Midianite men, women, and young boys without mercy, God permitted the soldiers to use the 32 000 surviving virgins for themselves (Num. 31:17-18).

     

    3: It is morally wrong to make people cannibalize their friends and family.

    God repeatedly says he has made, or will make, people cannibalize their own children, husbands, wives, parents, and friends because they haven’t obeyed him (Lev. 26:29, Deut. 28:53-58, Jer. 19:9, Ezek. 5:10).

     

    4: It is morally wrong to practice human sacrifice, by burning or otherwise.

    God condoned Jephthah’s act in sacrificing his only child as a burnt offering to God (Judges 11:30-39).

     

    5: It is morally wrong to torture people endlessly for their beliefs.

    God’s own sacrificial “lamb” Jesus will watch as he tortures most members of the human race for ever and ever, mainly because they haven’t believed in him. The book of Revelation tells us that “everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the Book of Life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8) will go to Hell where they “will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the Holy Angels and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torments goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest day or night” (Rev. 14:10-11).

     

    Based on these conflicting facts, we can make a formal argument in this way (with slight modifications for clarification):

  2. Any act that [the Christian god] commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible. (by definition)
  3. The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that [the Christian god] commits, causes, commands, or condones. (Christian doctrine)
  4. It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit, cause, command, or condone acts that violate our moral principles. (by definition)
  5. The Bible tells us that [the Christian god] does in fact commit, cause, command, or condone acts that violate our moral principles. (as we have seen)
  1. The Christian god does not exist. (from I, II, III and IV)

    The argument itself is perfectly logical, and thus irrefutable. Some parts, however, may be questioned, especially (I) and (III).

    As regards to (I), Christians may argue that their god is good by definition, or that its standard of morality differs from that of human beings. Both objections are in fact the same: that our standard of morality does not apply, and that therefore we cannot pass judgment on the Christian god.

    But this assertion, while in theory it answers the problem, has a fatal consequence: it denies the meaning of “good” as we use it, and therefore makes assertions such as “the Christian god’s actions are morally permissible” unintelligible. How can the Christian god’s actions be “morally permissible” if we have no idea what the “morally permissible” is as regards to such a being? The answer is that such statement is now meaningless. And this being called “God” can no longer be called good at all, at best, amoral, which is a fatal blow to the idea of a being worthy of worship.

    As regards to (III), a Christian may answer that one needs a basis to determine what one’s moral principles are. It is perhaps insufficient for us to declare (I) to (V) as universal. While the Bible obviously contradicts them, these principles may be false, thus undoing the argument.

    There are two points we can reply to this objection. First of all, it is not clear to me that universality is not a sufficient criteria for the scope of this argument. If a believer thinks X is true, and yet contradicts X by his beliefs, then he is contradicting himself. And the contention here is that no one would ever change his mind about (I) to (V), for to do so is the equivalent of declaring oneself a psychotic. If (I) to (V) can in fact, despite all appearances, be demonstrated to be rational, then that could be a problem.

    But as I pointed out, the contrary of (I) to (V) is not just evil but gratuitous evil. To deny them would require the Christian to show that the denial of (I) to (V) is not gratuitous (or to use a simpler term, that it is not “overkill”) for any rational value. This is a much more important burden than simply demonstrating that it can effect rational values.

    secondly, one can argue that rational virtues do indeed demonstrate the validity of (I) to (V). from the objectivist standpoint, (i) to (v) are justified by the trader principle, which is to say, that individuals should treat each other as equals, and trade to achieve mutual benefit. this is, indeed, the basis of civilization.

    Without this principle, our very standard of life is under attack. Genocide has never brought about any improvement in the human condition. Eternal torture serves no possible role. (I) to (V) are also based on physical and mental well-being, which are essential components of morality.

    For more information on the trader principle, see Chapter 6 of Logical Structure of Objectivism (pdf).

    Last updated: March 4, 2005