I wasn’t sure how to answer an atheist friend of mine. He asked if I, as a Catholic, believe that morality comes from God then does that mean that atheists have no morality.
It flows from God in two ways - by Revelation (his Words/Commands/Counsels) and by nature (Natural Law). United together these are referred to as “Divine Law”.
Revelation (Divine Positive Law) is a “religious” path easily available to those of faith (Jews and Christians).
Natural Law is understood to mean those moral truths readily apparent to those of clean heart and mind who take time to reflect on creation and what is then seen to be the good of self and society. This is a “secular” path available to creatures endowed with reason.
So atheists, who are supposed to be well endowed with reason, have no excuse for their conscience will judge them…not for not believing (this is a gift which may be withheld) but for not reflecting or following the moral dictates of their intellect. Many atheists I am sure do try and follow natural law which they do readily see and will be saved.
There is not only a single concept of morality. Catholic moral theology relies on the divinely given law as its first principle for defining the boundaries of morality. Atheists craft their morality around thinking which appears rational to the human intellect and state of knowledge, but excludes any consideration of divine law (ruling such considerations inadmissable).
Commonly expressed forms of morality expressed by atheists are described as Consequentialism or Proportionalism. Pope J P II references these briefly in Veritatis Splendor. In systems such as these, the focus in deciding what is moral rests on an assessment of the consequences of human acts. In such a system, any act can be moral, so long as the anticipated consequences are good, and thus there are no intrinsically evil acts.
I think many atheists can be moral in some regards. Most atheists, I think, would follow most of the ten commandments (not steal, not murder, not commit adultery), but why? I think it’s because God made us, and there is a part of us that recognizes good and bad, and that comes from God whether we believe in him or not.
Compendium issued by Pope Benedict XVI
415. What is the moral law?**
The moral law is a work of divine Wisdom. It prescribes the ways and the rules of conduct that lead to the promised beatitude and it forbids the ways that turn away from God.
416. In what does the natural moral law consist?
The natural law which is inscribed by the Creator on the heart of every person consists in a participation in the wisdom and the goodness of God. It expresses that original moral sense which enables one to discern by reason the good and the bad. It is universal and immutable and determines the basis of the duties and fundamental rights of the person as well as those of the human community and civil law.
417. Is such a law perceived by everyone?
Because of sin the natural law is not always perceived nor is it recognized by everyone with equal clarity and immediacy.
For this reason God “wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts.” (Saint Augustine)
For the rest
Great answer and I believe you are correct.
They have morality, but not through any objective reasoning. They have morality because, as other have said, true morality is transcribed on the hearts of all people through the natural law. Unfortunately, since they do not recognize that this morality has an objective dimensions apart from their acceptance of it, they have no solid claims to any moral truths. Most often, they will make the assertion that something is immoral because that is the commonly accepted truth (an appeal to social norms), or because engaging in an “immoral” act brings harm to another person.
In the first case, an appeal to social norms is meaningless because social norms can change. Before Roe v Wade, socially, it was almost invariably immoral to actively murder your child (abortion). Now, this “right” has become something so right and just as be considered a divinely-inspired sacrament by its supporters. The views of society changed, and as a result the morality of abortion shifted in the eyes of those who reject objective morality.
In the second case, the argument is made that it is wrong because it hurts someone. While this is a stronger argument than the first case, the question then becomes “Why is that bad?” In order for something to be immoral because it hurts someone else, you have to prove that hurting someone else is itself immoral. This results in a circular chain of logic where it is immoral to hurt someone else because it is immoral to hurt someone else. Without an external force which dictates that it is immoral to hurt someone else, this argument cannot be proven.
Most other attempts to define morality without an external, objective cause can usually be boiled down to more complex expressions of one of these two principles. In either case, the claim for something being either moral or immoral is as fluid as the interpretation of the individual or society making the claim. As such, atheist moral precepts are ultimately meaningless constructs to hold because they are based on ideals rather than principles.
tl;dr: Atheists do have morality, and at times their morality can coincide with Christian morality. However, atheistic morality is fluid and subject to change based on the flow of ideals and societal norms; whereas Christian morality (well… Catholic morality… sadly many Protestant ideologies have adopted the more fluid approach to certain moral truths they once held to be immutable) is based on an external, unchangeable principle. As a result, Christian morality is the only one of the two which can truly be classified as a set of moral principles, rather than a set of accept norms.
Those subscribing to a Consequentislist/Proportionist approach would argue that murdering an innocent is acceptable if to do so will save a greater number of lives. Their argument is that to not act to save lives is to be responsible for the deaths. Thus, better to be responible for fewer deaths (by murdering) than more (by not acting). Note - I refer to the death of innocents here, not perpetrators.
All true, but remember the Christian “external principles” are ultimately reliant on faith. The atheist may establish some arbitrary principles, whereas the Christian believes his principles are given by God. For the atheist, the latter are every bit as arbitrary.
I disagree. While they may not acknowledge the source of our principles, they cannot deny that they are constant, guiding truths not subject to change. Well, they can deny it, but any honest examination of Catholic moral teaching throughout history will affirm that we view them as inviolate and unchangeable. Looking at any moral structure based purely on societal norms, on the other hand, shows that they are inconsistent, subject to change, and frequently wind up contradicting a position they once held to be true.
The difference remains in the derivation. Even if God didn’t exist, we hold the principles we base our morals on to be set in stone, and history bears out this position. Atheistic morals are based on either their own personal views, on social norms, or on the unprovable position that it’s wrong if it hurts someone else. In the first two cases, both of these things are subject to fluctuation over time; in the third case, their basis is irrational to begin with. (Circular logic, as demonstrated in my previous post) They can try to claim that their own views or social norms are set in stone, but there is no evidence to support this position, and plenty of evidence to conclude that those norms will not remain constant for the next decade, let alone the next 2,000+ years.
It’s not clear what of my post you actually have disagreement with!
While they may not acknowledge the source of our principles, they cannot deny that they are constant, guiding truths not subject to change. Well, they can deny it, but any honest examination of Catholic moral teaching throughout history will affirm that we view them as inviolate and unchangeable.
They don’t deny these things, they would challenge whether the guiding truths we hold are rational. Clearly they hold there is no proof that there is a God, let alone that said God gave laws.
Looking at any moral structure based purely on societal norms, on the other hand, shows that they are inconsistent, subject to change, and frequently wind up contradicting a position they once held to be true.
I think this overly limits the basis upon which the atheist manufactures his system of morality.
The difference remains in the derivation. Even if God didn’t exist, we hold the principles we base our morals on to be set in stone, and history bears out this position.
That our positions are fixed is not in doubt, only that they may appear irrational to the atheist.
Atheistic morals are based on either their own personal views, on social norms, or on the unprovable position that it’s wrong if it hurts someone else.
The latter point - broadened to “it causes harm” - is the more substantive basis used by atheists.
…in the third case, their basis is irrational to begin with. (Circular logic, as demonstrated in my previous post)…
Not necessarily circular - but rather arbitrary. The same claim is levelled (by the atheist) against the Christian moral system.
I think that statement hangs on the precise definition of morality, or at least of “right” and “wrong” being used. Can you provide the basis for your statement?
I believe Aquinas would disagree.
Atheistic morality may be relative, consequentialist or proportionality St… but that Aquinas would put down to the weakness of fallen intellect not to the impossibility of absolute morality being discernible in creation itself.
Mary could quite easily have been just as moral even if born into a heathen nation.