Thanks for coming. I am willing to bet the title of this post played a rather large role in you deciding to read this. Because I respect your time, I am going to get right to the point and state my claim, make two clarifications, validate my claim, counter three objections, make two quick observations, and finally make a last clarification and have a final word. So maybe this actually will not be so quick after all. So, here is my claim:
Logically, all atheists that believe in moral standards are self-righteous.
That is quite the claim. How can I validate this claim? I will show you. But first I have to clarify something.
I am not saying that atheists are necessarily immoral. I do not want to have to read a bunch of comments saying that I claimed all atheists are immoral.
I know many atheists who claim to be morally good people. And as far as I know, they are. I am not completely surprised to find atheists who are still morally strong. Christianity teaches that God placed moral ideals in the hearts of His creations so it should not be surprising to find people who instinctively perform moral acts (Romans 2:14-15).
I am especially not surprised to find morally strong atheists in societies where Christian morals dominated the previous few hundred years. Many Western atheists do not give Christianity enough credit for establishing a moral society where they can live mostly unthreatened by their neighbor, and even loved.
I love atheists. I honestly love all people, and to be brutally honest, the people I struggle with the most to love are so-called Christians. So-called Christians are people who claim to be Christians but really are not. They show that they are not Christians by their behavior, and so give Christ a bad name. I cannot work alongside so-called Christians without telling them that they are fooling themselves if they think they are Christians. While I try to love them in hopes that they will see their error, I simply cannot condone how they mar the name of Christ by their actions.
Getting back to atheists, why do I love atheists? Well, first because God loves them, and since I love God, I love what He loves. Secondly because people who actually take on the title of atheist usually are people I can have fun dialogue with for quite some time. I love dialogue.
So if you are an atheist, please know that I am not trying to attack you. I am simply starting a line of honest conversation. I may be blunt at times, but I am not trying to be rude. Please forgive any part of my personality that you do not like. Please do not confuse my personality with my character. My character is to be honest. My personality is at times to be bluntly honest. I am sure you know some bluntly honest atheist; I certainly do.
Validation of Claim
Now for the fun part.
How can I claim that all atheists who believe in moral standards are self-righteous? I think the best way to demonstrate this is to share a conversation I had with a friend.
I have a friend with whom I greatly enjoy debates. I have come to the logical conclusion that all atheists who hold a moral standard are by very definition, self-righteous. I have been trying to show my friend that he has to admit that he is self-righteous because he is an atheist who still believes in a moral code that others should live by. I also have been showing him that the Christian worldview can consistently and coherently decry self-righteousness because in it righteousness does not derive from one’s self, but from God. An atheistic worldview cannot coherently condemn self-righteousness because in it righteousness – or goodness – derives from one’s self. There is a lot to this, but I thought I would share one part of my discussion with him. Here it is:
“My worldview can consistently and coherently substantiate the claim that self-righteousness is wrong. Your worldview cannot do that. Indeed, to claim that self-righteousness is wrong, it has to claim something else as right. But how does atheism determine right? By the choice of the individual. But if the individual is determining what is right, then self-righteousness is the only possible result.”
When I typed that I laughed so hard because it is impossible to get around. If one believes that one’s self determines right and wrong, then “righteousness” or goodness comes from the self, so by very definition, self-righteousness is logically inescapable.
Atheism must assert that morality is simply the preference of the individual. But again, if morality is determined by the preference of the individual, then self-righteousness is the inescapable result.
I am have had many people tell me, “But Curtis, the definition of self-righteousness is the belief that one is morally superior than another, not that one’s standards of morality is derived from one’s self.” I understand that retort. However, I am looking at this a little more deeply. Think deeply with me. I said any atheist that holds to moral standards is self-righteous. That means if an atheist young lady believes that her self-derived morality should be standardized for others, then she is self-righteous because she believes her idea of morality is better than someone else’s. So the only way to be an atheist and not be self-righteous is to never expect someone to live according to your own standards – not even one of them, like “murder is morally wrong”.
When discussing this with atheists, I have observed two things:
Observation 1: I have had many conversations with atheists and many times a very interesting line of reasoning comes from the atheist. Many atheists reason that they are more righteous than theists because they do not need a god to be moral. Well, correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that is the definition of self-righteousness: the belief that one is morally superior than another.
Are you an atheist and think that you are better than theists because you do not need a god to be moral? Then whether you are willing to admit it or not, you are self-righteous. I challenge you to admit this the next time you get high and mighty when looking at your life compared to someone else. Just admit that you are self-righteous and move on.
The next time you hear an atheist say that he is morally superior to you because he does not need a god to be moral, call him out on his self-righteous claim. Every time I have done this the atheist honestly has no idea how to react. They usually just refuse the title. But it is true. If you think you are morally superior because you do not need a god, then you are self-righteous.
Observation 2: Most atheists do not just decide on a personal morality; they also conclude that other people ought to live by their moral standards. This I find to be remarkably incoherent. Even though their own worldview would state that morality is defined by the individual, they still insist that others are wrong if they come to different conclusions.
I am amazed at how many atheists I meet who claim that morality comes from the mind of the individual and yet still chide others for a weak morality. This simply does not fit.
By the way, the belief that morality comes from the mind of the individual is called moral anti-realism. It basically states that morality does not exist outside the mind, or it is mind-dependent. This is what many atheist philosophers believe, granted not all, and it is what the majority of people in America believe.
Some atheists may claim that morality is not determined by the individual but morality is the objective goal of maximizing happiness/well-being while minimizing harm/suffering. Some atheists may claim that since this is an objective goal, then the individual does not choose right and wrong, the individual must live to the above mentioned standard.
There are two problems with this claim.
First, the definition of morality is: the discussion of the principles of right and wrong. Morality does not make any moral claim itself; while morality discusses right and wrong, it does not actually describe what is morally right and morally wrong. By defining morality as the goal of maximizing happiness while minimizing harm, the atheist has redefined morality to include a moral claim. The atheist who defines morality in the above way is not describing morality in general, but instead describing a form of morality called utilitarianism. Morality cannot be placed into such a corner – there are many competing views of morality, even inside atheism.
Second, maximizing well-being and minimizing suffering is certainly not objective. There are many areas in life where well-being is not easily measured. If well-being were merely physical, then it would be easier to determine well-being – although still not perfectly objective. But well-being also includes the mental, emotional, relational, social, and spiritual aspect of a person. These areas of life are not easily measured and certainly not purely objectively measured.
Some atheists claim that logically Christians would also be self-righteous by definition since they choose to follow Christianity because it must be that they simply like the creeds of Christianity.
Here is the problem with that claim.
Claiming that Christians choose to follow Christianity because they like the creeds is judging the Christian worldview from an atheistic perspective. It is an atheistic claim that people decide for themselves what morality is, it is not a Christian claim.
When I stated that logically atheists cannot escape self-righteousness, that was a claim using the atheistic worldview. The atheistic worldview is what concludes that morality is a creation of the mind, so I was judging the atheistic worldview by itself. The Christian worldview states that morality comes from God, so the Christian must live to God’s standards, not their own. Morality comes from outside themselves, not from within.
So I was showing the logical weakness of the atheistic worldview by using its own claims. When an atheist says that Christians do the same thing as the atheist in how he/she picks his/her morality, the atheist is using his atheistic worldview to make a claim against Christianity. Comparatively, when I say that atheism fundamentally leads to self-righteousness because morality is derived from the self, I am using the atheistic worldview to make a claim against atheism.
A Last Clarification and a Word for the Christian
I am not saying that all Christians are not self-righteous. Certainly not. When I was younger I was a self-righteous individual and I still struggle with it at times now. However, I am saying that Christianity can coherently claim that self-righteousness is wrong and as a worldview it does not logically lead to self-righteousness as atheism does.
Christians should never display self-righteousness. Ever. Christianity adamantly time and time again condemns self-righteousness. Christian, please rid it from your life. The Christian worldview teaches us that we are desperately wicked and in need of a Savior to cleanse us from our unrighteousness. We are by nature unrighteous, righteousness does not originate from us, so there is no reason for us to act as if we are better than others. We are sinners in need of a Savior just like everyone else. Remember that Scripture teaches us to never malign someone but to always be gentle and remember that without Christ we are also lost (Titus 3:1-3). One of the worst and most contradictory things in this world is a self-righteous Christian. Christian, do not be contradictory.
I know that some people interpret confidence in one’s religious beliefs as self-righteousness. I also know that some people look at a Christian trying to live a holy life and just assume that they are self-righteous even without ever speaking to them. But we cannot control that. What we can do is purposefully and actively demonstrate humility, brokenness, and gratitude for a Savior. The default for most people in America is to assume that Christians are self-righteous. We need to work to show that this is not true in most cases.
Logically, atheists cannot avoid self-righteousness if they make conclusions on moral standards. This is due to the fact that atheism logically concludes that morality originates from the individual’s mind. Since the ideas of what is right and wrong are determined by the individual, then self-righteousness is the logical result.
Christians have a worldview that adamantly opposes self-righteousness and can coherently condemn self-righteousness. Unfortunately not all Christians actually live out their worldview and rid themselves of self-righteousness. However, every Christian ought to do this because the Christian worldview calls all Christians to it.