Controversial billboard raise questions about morality in atheism

I saw a link to this article on Facebook this afternoon.

A nationwide atheist organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has been posting billboards that focus on individual atheist’s own personal statements pertaining to how they can be moral without the belief in a higher power. The signs have been posted in a handful of cities throughout the country, including my hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

Over the past couple of weeks, there has been controversy about a billboard that has been removed from two locations.

The billboard (pictured at the top of this post) was originally removed last week, after a local church complained and insisted that it be taken down. The billboard was posted on property owned by the church.

The sign was reposted in another Columbus location, and was removed on July 5, after a local business complained, according to FRFF.

Supporters of the billboards are pointing to societal intolerance of the atheistic viewpoint. Dan Barker is the co-chairman of FRFF and stated through the organization’s website:

“Probably the number-one myth we need to dispel about atheism is that people can’t be good without supernatural beliefs, rewards and punishments, that people who don’t believe in a god are incapable of morality. Nonbelievers know that it isn’t what you believe, but how you act, that makes you an ethical or unethical person.”

Certainly an atheist can decide what he or she thinks is moral and virtuous and act in accordance with those beliefs. And, an atheist can act in ways that would be viewed as ethical by the much of our society; I think that very few Christians would disagree on that level.

But the problem is that the atheists are doing this out of a Judeo-Christian ethic, and simply removing God. For people to try to say they don’t believe in God and that they are moral is appealing to a standard that exists with mankind because there is religion.

Without a God, I think it is nearly impossible to establish an actually working ethical theory.

Here are some questions to think about pertaining to morality in a world without God:

• What makes something good? Maybe you could argue that things are good because they cause happiness, and are enjoyed, but why are those things good? What about the things that cause happiness and which are enjoyed but which society deems to be bad? Why are those things bad if they produce happiness and are enjoyed?

• Why do we have rights? I think most of us like to believe we have certain rights, but why do we have them? According to whom? In America, are the rights that we have established as rights rights just because we’ve established them? What if the founders had judged differently? Then would we not have those rights?

• For instance, why is murder wrong? Because it deprives someone of life? But then why is that wrong?

• In some parts of the world, people don’t enjoy the same rights that we do, is that right or wrong? When people are mistreated in other countries what is it that makes the mistreatment wrong? Is there an intrinsic belief that they have some type of value because they are humans? But that’s just an opinion, some would disagree. Perhaps someone like Kim Jong Il would disagree with you. Who would be right, you or him? Who wins? How do you decide? What is ultimately moral?

• Why are people like Hitler considered evil? Without a divine giver or objective morality and purpose, how were his actions bad? Was it because he was depriving people of basic human rights? In the grand scheme of things, how do those actions or those people even matter?

I think Ravi Zacharias puts it very interestingly:

“When you accept the existence of goodness, you must affirm a moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. But when you admit a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver. That, however, is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. For if there is no moral law giver, there is no moral law.”


7 thoughts on “Controversial billboard raise questions about morality in atheism”

  1. It’s pretty easy to state a bunch of rhetorical and unanswerable questions and chalk it up to a higher being as the underlying basis. I establish my moral compass from what benefits the Common Good the most. I act in ways I think will help my fellow human, sometimes in ways that Jesus acted in fact, but I do not base my actions on “What Would Jesus Do?” There are universal behaviors that are deemed to be “good” or “bad” without a moral lawgiver and those are ones that are found across all cultures (with and without organized religions), including murder, healing, stealing. These universal beliefs are in line with values like fairness and justice, and come from within, selected for over thousands and thousands of years of evolution. However, if you don’t believe in evolution in the first place it’s difficult for me to reason through that, so I don’t expect many to understand why morality does not come only from religion.

  2. You should check out Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape.” It’s generally a good read, and provides answers to pretty much all of these questions. (Whether or not you find them persuasive would remain to be seen, of course.) And it’s important to consider that no one learns that cruelty is wrong by reading the Bible or Quran or an L. Ron Hubbard book, in the same way that no one learns that one and one make two by reading a math book. It just doesn’t work like that — in fact, it is *we* that decide what is “good” in the Good Book.

    1. Thank you Jason. I will have to check that. I have read several things by Harris, so I’m always willing to hear his side. Also, in case their was any confusion, I do think the atheist group should be able to post billboards. I think it’s their right to have that view.

  3. If we go with the concept of there is no god, then we must look to the eveolution of human behavior to determine where our concept of morality comes from. At some point when humans first started grouping together they realized that giving and receiving pain was a hindrance to functioning together and staying together as a group. Our basic needs of food, shelter, sex, protection, etc. were facilitated by not hurting each other. This became described as moral behavior as our language and societies formed. And of course those people with more strength of will than others were able to codify a concept of religion and god to keep larger and larger groups of people together. This is a simple description of how morality formed, but I don’t have the energy to try to delve into all of the subclausal reasoning to try and prove my ideas. Try Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind to undestand the early schizophrenia of mankind and the voices they heard. I think the religious people who disapprove of these signs are proving how oppressive religion is because we all know that if I wanted to not hear intrusive church bells, or loud prayers, or see religious billboards they would not be taken down and I would be labeled intolerant.

  4. In the case of the first sign being taken down, the property was owned by a church and they didn’t want it on their land. I think it is perfectly reasonable for a church to not want billboards displaying messages contradictory to their beliefs and teachings on their property.

    With other signs, while there are people who have taken issue, I think that these are in the minority of the religious community; and the purpose of this post was more as an exploration of ethics in a world without God.

    If there is no God and morality is simply a convention of our evolutionary development, I don’t personally believe that it ultimately has any objective meaning.

    I don’t have a problem with an atheistic organization wishing to put resources into a specific advertising campaign, however the ethical premise which is espoused in the billboards is something with which I philosophically disagree.

    Thanks for reading, Mike. How ’bout those Lions?

  5. How ’bout ’em! Fun to read good stuff.

    So, do you know how many Becks, Coulters, Limbaughs, and O’Reillys it takes to screw in a lightbulb?

    There’s no light in their world.

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