What do people mean by "morality" when discussing atheism vs theism?

I’ve noticed many times people say “religion teaches morality, atheism doesn’t”, and “atheists don’t follow a moral code, Christians do”, etc. What do they mean by morality in this case, because I’ve heard many religious people say “Morality is what God says is good and what is bad” but in the context of the first two statements I’ve made, I don’t think that definition applies. What exactly do they mean by morality then?

1 Like

If someone says: ‘This is the right thing to do’ then there has to be a reason for it. Even anything ordained by God.

You missed by my point, I’m talking about the debates by theists vs atheists, your point is irrelevant in this case.

People who think atheism doesn’t teach morality

  • generally have little or no understanding or appreciation of natural law. Morals are seen as coming from God/ religion only.

  • often think of atheism as always following the Aleister Crowley principle “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. And in fairness, some atheists have very publicly behaved in that way, while others have developed or chosen some sort of natural law-based moral code for themselves.

  • often consider “morality” to be the teachings of their particular religious faith and consider any other “morality” that deviates from that faith as being deficient or immoral or evil, etc. even if the other morality is based on some reasonable principle.

1 Like

I appreciate that. But that’s the point generally made by atheists when discussing morality with Christians.

There is “natural virtue” (justice, temperance, prudence, courage) that we can arrive at by our own efforts.

So atheism does “not” equal being a raging sociopathic maniac.

However, there is no underpinning for an atheist moral code, not definite standard to go by, so you’ll find atheists generally agreeing with what’s popular today.

You’ll also find people of every religion under the sun who “generally agree with what’s popular today” and find some justification for doing so, whether it’s “the Bible said” or “this priest on a blog said” or “I just don’t believe that part of my religion that says X is a sin”.

Some atheists agree with “what’s popular” - and often there are good reasons why some view is “popular”, because it seems to be promoting the common good even though from a religious perspective we argue otherwise - and some do not.

Atheists are individuals, and like all individuals (whether atheist, agnostic, “spiritual but not religious”, or professing membership in some religion), some atheists are very concerned with formulating a moral or ethical code to personally live by, and some couldn’t care less and just go with the flow. It is not a characteristic of atheism specifically to “go with the flow”. All groups, religious and non-religious, have a lot of people doing that. They just rationalize it differently.

It would be good if everybody would quit referring to “atheists” like they are a monolith. It is misleading and doesn’t help anything.


In that video, at 0:28, he says some sins are clearly worse than others, and says God has at least as much common sense as us. It seems here that he’s indicating he has as much sense as us to declare some sins worse than others. But it seems to me he’s saying his sense of morality doesn’t come only from religion. After all, what if God said all sins are equal, what would our “common sense” say then? As religion teaches, our feelings don’t matter, only the Word of God does.

What people mean can be any number of things. Certainly many atheists live by a code of ethics and morality which overlaps a great deal with our code of ethics or morality, for all of the differences. I think the most appropriate meaning to the statement is that Christians believe morality is an objective and real (mind-independent) standard, and that God as a principle is necessary to sufficiently explain having such objective and real standards (that doesn’t mean we have to subscribe to a Divine Command Theory for morality). Most atheists I’ve spoken to hold that morality is subjective and just culturally normative, without any real or objective basis. This doesn’t mean they don’t have an ethical code ingrained in their psyche, of course. In my opinion the subjectivity has lead to some moral condemnations from atheists that really make no sense when critically examined, but that’s kind of beside the point.

What they mean by “morality” is an objective moral basis. In Atheism there is none, hence each person decides for themselves what is “moral”. In Catholicism, each person cannot decide for themselves what is moral. Yes, a Catholic can decide to reject Catholic teaching (e.g. transubstantiation, abortion, etc) but that doesn’t change the Catholic teaching, which remains black and white.

Think of it like a soccer game. Imagine a soccer game with no referee and each player gets to decide whether or not they fouled the other players. That is Atheism. There is no objective rules on what is and is not a foul. Now if you have a referee where there is a clear black and white rules on what is and is not a foul, that is Catholicism. Just because one of the players defies the rules, doesn’t change that the rules are black and white.

1 Like

I think the main point of people of faith is that atheists do not have an objective morality but rather a subjective morality. And subjective morality is necessarily no morality at all, that is, it lacks stable and consistent moral values because it depends on the whims of each individual, each society, each culture rather than the objective morality ordained by a Supreme Being.


Well I’m pretty sure on Earth there are secular laws that need to be followed, so atheists still have to obey those laws, and lots of laws share their “rules” with religion. I’m not sure if the soccer non-referee analogy is perfect, but I get your point.

That just proves the non-referee analogy - on Earth there are countless conflicting secular laws.

There are also conflicting religious laws between many religions.

Hence the referee analogy cited Catholicism

The topic was about theism vs atheism. By specifying the specific religion catholicism, you wouldn’t be answering the original question posed.

Catholicism is a type of theism so yes it does address the posed question

The question posed references “Christians”, so under that logic even the question posed doesn’t address the question posed

What they mean is that by logic, atheism cannot lead to morality. If the end is cosmic dust, life is meaningless and in the big picture there is no reason to be moral. Such was stated by Nietzsche for example. On the other hand, a theist has to live a moral earthly life in order to reach eternal life. So big difference.

1 Like

I referenced Christians, but I mainly am referring religion in general. So no, my question I posed does not conflict with the question I posed.

Referencing Christians does not conflict with the question posed

But referencing Catholicism does conflict with the question posed

Glad we’ve cleared that up

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.