Atheism/atheist morals


QUESTION: Hello Misses Placentra,

Most atheists I talk to, define "right" (lets put it in simple terms) as helping other people or stopping them of getting hurt, and "wrong" as hurting them. Basically a form of utilitarianism.

Based on that two questions:
1) Is there any way to rationaly prove that someone that holds a different concept of morals (for example, ethical egoism or amorality) is wrong, or is it just a matter of personal decision? And if there are actually no rational arguments, and it is a matter of personal decision of what kind of values you believe in, what makes my decision more valuable than that of the other person?

2) Do yo know any valid rational argument in an atheist morals, to say that any sexual behavior is "wrong" if it doesn't harm anyone? I don't mean homosexual behavior, which most athiests wouldn't say is wrong, but other kind of sexual behaviors that most society would consider an abomination.


ANSWER: HI Sebastian,

I have reread your questions several times, and I am not sure I am totally certain what you are asking. Nonetheless, I will try to respond.

1) I can only answer this from within the framework of spiritual development theory, which is something I write about quite a lot. Morality is not simply a matter of personal decision, but I doubt there is an objective way to prove anyone's concept of morals is wrong. Morality is determined by the breadth of the person's worldview. The least developed among us, who I call The Lawless (  judge right and wrong solely on the basis of what meets their own immediate needs. For obvious reasons this morality is lacking because one's one immediate needs and desires may impose upon those of others. Somewhat more developed than the Lawless are The Faithful (  The Faithful determine right and wrong according to preset rules that are laid down by either their church or their society, but in any case by some OUTSIDE force. Because everyone within the Faithful level person's religion or society agrees to the same rules, this person's worldview is larger than that of the Lawless. Most people in most religions exist at the Faithful level throughout their entire lives.

But - what most religious people fail to realize is that there are two general levels of people who are more developed, and therefore are not so reliant on outer-based rules to determine their morality. At The Rational level ( people are largely self-governing. So where there is no preset rule to tell them whether a certain behavior is right or wrong, they can reason it out for themselves. This is increasingly necessary as our society becomes more complex and situations arise in which the old rules, such as the Ten Commandments no longer suffice. I.e. stem cell research, genetic engineering, etc. So, at the Rational level, the person tries to determine right from wrong using his own conscience, and taking into account what is right for all of humanity, not just people of his own religion like the Faithful. This worldview is therefore more broad than that of the Faithful whose worldview includes only his own group, and definitely more broad than that of the Lawless, whose worldview includes only himself.

Then....there is also what I have called the Mystic level. ( This person's worldview includes even more than that of the Rational. The Mystic really does not need to worry much about morality because he feels connected to the entire universe and in the most extreme cases, would not do anything to harm even the smallest insect or plant. The Mystic does not need rules because he is governed by his sense of connection to everyone and everything in the universe, such that he understands that to harm anyone or anything is to harm himself.  Their worldview is even more broad than that of the Rational because it includes everyone and everything in the universe.

The perspective of spiritual development theory pretty much makes the idea of following "God's" rules irrelevant. To someone at the Mystic level, God is not a being in the sky, but an Ultimate concept, a symbol of whatever is good and true and beautiful in our universe. Symbols do not make rules or deliver punishment. One can be at the Mystic level and be an atheist, or a believer.  But if they say they believe in God, they are not talking about the bearded, judgmental being in the sky. To truly understand morality, I believe a person must be aware of the spiritual development perspective.

So when you ask, what makes my decision more valuable than that of another person, you must consider what part of reality are you including? If you are basing your decision only on rules that apply to one religion and that may exclude those of other religions, your morality is less inclusive, less mature and less right than someone who bases their decision on consideration of how their actions will affect either all of humanity, or all of the universe.

2) I cannot speak for atheists in general, and I am no specialist in sexual morality. But I would say once again, that the most mature among us do not base our decisions on rules made by religions or societies, entities outside of our conscience. Therefore, what society may call an abomination may or may not appear as such to a person who is adequately governed by his own conscience. Again, the determining factor in such a decision will be how does this behavior affect any one person, or all of mankind, or all of the universe? Certainly one can hardly imagine anyone justifying the abomination of child molestation on any terms because it is obvious that this type of behavior will have a life-long negative effect on the child. Same terms apply to rape, or doing any sexual act outside the limits of what mutually consenting adults (who are of sufficient power and intellect to accept full responsibility for their actions) may agree to.

I hope this has answered your questions. If not, please feel free to send further concerns.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: thanks a lot Misses Placentra for your in depth answer.

Please correct me if I misunderstood part of your words:  We could say that the larger the worldview in a moral system, the better the moral system.

My follow up for the first question is how can we know that having a larger, broader worldview is better or more "right" in any way? The Lawless for example, is not wrong in an objective way. He perfectly knows that his actions have an effect in more people and beings besides himself, its just that he doesn't consider other people as part of his morals. And probably he doesn't believe that a larger worldview makes a better moral system.
In other words, I'm asking if the belief that the larger the worldview in a moral system, the better the moral system, comes from an internal conviction that that's the way it should be, that's the way you feel reality is, or is it based in rational arguments.

My second question is that, if harm is the only measure for morals, there are certain type of sexual relationships that seem clearly wrong, but according to that principle wouldn't be. Please excuse me for using these examples, but last time I didn't get my point through. I meant, for example, intercourse with animals, if it could be proven that the animal is not being hurt by the relationship. Or sexual relationships between close family members.
Lets assume that you agree with me that these examples are immoral behaviors. Why would they be immoral, if no one is getting hurt?

The way we can know that having a broader worldview, and being able to take more of reality into consideration in choosing moral consequences is that many learned experts from many different parts of the world, and many different fields and even different centuries have described the spiritual growth trajectory as an enlarging circle of concern. (This was explained in far more depth in my book) If you haven't already, you may want to look at Kohlberg's stages of moral development ( for an example.

I am going to try and apply this to your question about the Lawless. His actions are governed only by his own desires. He feels free to manipulate people, lie, cheat, steal, etc., whatever it takes to meet his own desires, and never takes into account the effect his actions will have on others. All the other levels are governed by something, so their behavior is effectively kept in check by something that works (well, more or less and most of the time)

If you are asking is it my opinion, well, yes it is, but many/most people who have studied spiritual development see it this way. I can't see how anyone who had read and understood the things I have could possibly disagree. Trouble is those texts are pretty hard to get through, so I try to make them easier to understand. It is not based so much on rational arguments, but perhaps requires transcending the merely rational, and moving on toward post-rational understandings. This is way too complex to describe here....sorry.

Now, as for your second question: good heavens! I have not given matters like that any thought. Not sure I should opine at all. I don't think those issues have anything to do with my topic of expertise. With the activities you mention however, the word "unnatural" comes to mind. What if immoral applies when someone is getting hurt, and things that just go against the natural order of the world, or  "the way things are supposed to be" are wrong because they are unnatural? Strict religionists would say they go against God's rules, and therefore may call them immoral. But the more I think about it, the more I would say they are wrong because they breach the natural order of the universe. I would call those actions unnatural, and would not get involved in considering whether they are "moral" or not.

I don't know if this has helped. While I cannot give you exact answers, perhaps I have given you ideas of new ways to consider these issues.  


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Margaret Placentra Johnston


I am especially interested in helping people who may be in the throes of doubting their present belief stance - whether they are currently religious or atheist. I believe I can also lend perspective to those seeking to understand their own movement away from faith or that of someone close to them.


Despite a Catholic upbringing, I consciously discarded that religion over thirty years ago. However, in the last eighteen years I have been extensively researching the topic of belief versus non-belief and have discovered correlations among the experts that, seen together, lend a very intriguing perspective to this topic. My book related to this topic was published in October, 2012 by Quest Books: Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Washington Area Secular Humanists (and many others unrelated to this topic.)

Publications Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind.(Quest Books, October, 2012.)

Researched and wrote a book on this topic: Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind.(Quest Books, October, 2012.)

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