Atheism, Values and Sociopaths

I’ve read a couple of interesting articles over the last week or so, and both of them deal with atheism and values (as in the sense of morality). The first article was entitled “Famous atheists… reveal where they get their values from“. I found this absolutely fascinating: too often, atheists criticise religion without offering an alternative. As I’ve said before, atheism is not a replacement for religion – and so most of the atheists quoted in that article came out with humanism (which I’ve critiqued recently).

To my mind, one of the weakest points of atheism or humanism is the idea of values and morality: Bob may look at his fellow humans and decide that they are wonderful and that kindness and compassion are values he wants to live his life by. All well and good. On the other hand, John may look at his fellow humans, decide that they’re all worthless and reason that the best way to go about life is to lie, steal and cheat his way to the top. Which one is ‘right’? Well now, herein lies the problem. There is no ‘right’. As Dostoevsky wrote, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

This problem is not simply an academic one,  as the other post I’ve read demonstrates: “What sociopaths reveal to us about the existence of God“. The post is based on the video testimony of a former sociopath called David Wood. It highlights the problem atheism or humanism gets itself into when someone disagrees when it comes to morality: what do you do when someone dissents from morality as our culture tends to understand it? What do you do when someone takes atheism and concludes that we’re all a bunch of atoms, and that you might as well have a bit of fun while you’re on this earth – fun which includes killing other people?

If you read the article and scroll past the video, you’ll see three arguments presented by different people (Elton Trueblood, Immanuel Kant and C.S. Lewis) about the existence of morality. They argue that morality has to exist in an objective sense, otherwise – essentially – life as we know it would not make sense.

I think most people would say what David Wood thought was wrong – but is that a logical conclusion for those who believe there is no better standard to appeal to, i.e. that there is no objective morality? I think you could argue (to my mind, correctly) that he was simply being a consistent atheist. I’m curious to know if there was an atheist or humanist argument which could have changed his mind. I suspect not.


9 responses to “Atheism, Values and Sociopaths”

  1. We can say John is wrong because he’s hurting others. We don’t need anything else. John hurts others, John is wrong. We, as atheists, can tell John he’s wrong. If an atheism comes along who feels its okay to kill, we can also tell him he’s wrong – and put him in prison.

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment, welcome.

      I think in our hypothetical scenario, John could just throw it straight back at you and say why is ‘hurting others’ a bad thing? I mean, if we’re nothing more than atoms, what does it really matter for one fancy bald monkey to treat another fancy bald monkey in a particular way? It seems to me you can’t say he’s *wrong* – you can only say you disagree.

      Incidentally, I think most people only think “hurting others” is a bad thing because the Judeo-Christian ethic in our society (love your neighbour as yourself) is pretty strong. There are other societies throughout the world and history where hurting others – some of them at least – would be perfectly acceptable.

      The other thing is, I had a discussion a while back with someone who was claiming that what is right and wrong is simply a matter of ‘harm’ (or hurting others, as you put it). This is basically consequentialist ethics which I talked about here. Aside from the problems I mention there, defining an ethical system by avoiding ‘hurting others’ is absolutely fraught with difficulty and inconsistency.

      For example: you mention prison. Prison is a kind of ‘hurting others’, right? It’s retribution to correct something that someone did, and in the hope that they won’t do it again. So there is a kind of hurting others which is acceptable – even good. So you can’t just say “hurting others” is a bad thing in general.

      Another example: it’s beyond any doubt that divorce hurts children. And yet, there is no punishment for it. Why not? Why is some harm acceptable and some is not?

      1. Peter French avatar
        Peter French

        Hi Phill. Well, I agree with most of what you said, but in the case of divorce, it is probably not intended to hurt the children in a marriage. People sometimes are hurt unintentionally, and British law recognises that, which is why premeditated murder is considered more serious than manslaughter, because of the intention. Someone having an affair while married is different because it is hurting one’s spouse, and then one could argue that any resulting divorce IS hurting the children, a hurt which could have been avoided if either the person having the affair had not the affair in the first place, or the ‘innocent’ party in the marriage had chosen to forgive the spouse who had had the affair. However, some marriages fail for other reasons and in most cases, I am sure it is not the intention of either side in a marriage to hurt their children in the process of divorce.

        But I agree that without the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we would not have the moral compass that allows us to tell right actions from wrong. I think that, whatever atheists and humanists may say about religion and morality, they too are influenced to some degree by the Judaeo-Christian ethic, even if they do not acknowledge it. I know quite a few atheists and most of them would follow the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

        1. Hi Peter,

          Thanks for your contribution – you make a good point about intention. I think you’re right that most people who divorce don’t intend to harm their children. However, the harm does happen whether they intend it to or not – and divorce is a choice, it’s rarely if ever the only option. Manslaughter carries a lighter penalty than premeditated murder, but it still carries a penalty. So I think the fact remains that just because someone’s intention was not to cause harm, the fact that harm is caused is still significant.

          I think many people in this country abide by mostly Judeo-Christian principles, even if they don’t appreciate that’s what they are. I find it interesting when people like Richard Dawkins etc claim that their ethics are entirely secular, as if entirely secular ethics were even possible!


  2. What is the point in my existence? I have no clue and don’t see why I should go to a hell because I don’t fully understand peoples plethora of beliefs. Life has been bad enough for so long I just don’t care about anything anymore. I have yet to hear any explanation from the various Christian denominations that makes sense about this subject.

    1. Hi, I’m sorry that life has been bad for you. For me one of the reasons that Christianity makes sense is that it means suffering isn’t pointless. If you’re an atheist, suffering is essentially meaningless – but if there is a God, although there may be hard times in life it has meaning and purpose. Plus, I think it’s important to remember that God identified with our suffering in Jesus – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews‬ ‭4‬:‭15‬).

      It sounds to me like perhaps you haven’t gone looking very hard for answers to your questions, maybe you could find a good local church where you could actually talk to someone. You might be surprised what you find.


  3. Oh dear.

  4. Interesting thoughts. I agree that John and Bob may look at their fellow human beings very differently. One may value them, one may disvalue them. That would be the case regardless of whether or not we are God’s creation or the product of purely natural processes.

    Dostoevsky’s words, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted” are correct if they are taken to mean that there is no cosmic justice in the world and cruel people can get away with harming others. An afterlife, in the traditional Christian sense, provides the opportunity for reward and punishment, but the prospect of punishment in the next life does not seem to have much impact on the motivations of many self-described believers. They do as much harm as non-believers.

    I agree that sociopaths often don’t care about other people, so trying to persuade them to change their behaviour can be a fruitless task/

    What reason would they have for changing?

    The word “reason” in that last question is where a large part of the philosophical debate lies. What is a “reason”? Sociopaths who can get away with harming others may have no motivating reason to care about others. Still, some atheists and theist philosophers would agree that they still have a normative reason to care about others. In other words, they have sufficient reason to (“should”) care about others, regardless of whether or not they are motivated to do so.

    One way to think about this is to consider our own well-being; i.e. what is good for us. We are not always motivated to do what we know is in our own best interests. People take up smoking knowing it will risk future health problems. They stay up drinking and partying late at night knowing it will cause problems at work in the morning. Maybe the next morning, they will say to themselves “I should have gone to bed earlier”, maybe they won’t, but if they do regret their decision they will have recognised the normative reason they had to do what was best for themselves despite that reason not being sufficient to motivate themselves to behave more sensibly last night.

    Of course, this is scratching the surface of a deep debate, but seeing morality as being about having reasons to do what is good and avoid what is bad, is accepted by many theists and atheist philosophers alike. Morality often isn’t an atheist vs theist thing. Atheists and theists find themselves on the same side of these debates even as other atheists and theists sit on the other.

    One of the important takeaways is that this understanding of morality I’ve described, shared by some theists and atheists, would apply regardless of whether or not we were the result of natural processes or supernational creation.

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment. I am somewhat curious as to what brought you to my blog, as you may have noticed this post is ten years old. I’ve written quite a lot about atheism over the years but not so much lately, except for my latest post.

      As I said there, I have wasted far too much time debating the question of atheism on the internet, I’ve decided that it’s more profitable to spend the time elsewhere. (This post was written before I made that decision!)

      If you are interested, I would recommend reading one of the good books available such as ‘The Reason for God’ by Tim Keller, or ‘The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist’ by Andy Bannister, or ‘The Air we Breathe’ by Glen Scrivener. Many thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related posts

Like this? Subscribe to my Substack.