Is Relative Morality More Dangerous Than Objective Morality?

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”

Psalm 14:1 neatly summarizes the anti-atheist stereotype held by many people around the world, and further laid the foundation thousands of years ago for this modern Christian belief. It says so in the bible, thus it must be true. While some people of faith trust that the nonreligious are just as moral as they, others believe atheism makes one more likely to commit unethical acts or even that no one can be good without God.

Having already examined how deities are not necessary to explain morality nor to justify moral decisions, and having cleared up confusion concerning objective morality versus objective truth, it seems relevant to address the idea that relative morality (humans alone deciding what is right and wrong) is so much more dangerous than objective morality (right and wrong as allegedly dictated by God and outlined in holy books).

First we will look at theists’ “relative morality in practice” argument and then move on to the theoretical or philosophical question of which is preferable, relative or objective morality.

The “in practice” argument of course centers around the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, and other mass killers. “These atheists were responsible for the worst genocides in human history,” thus any morality devoid of gods is dangerous prima facie. 

This falls apart for several reasons.

First, one notes the personal views of the worst despots are sometimes misconstrued. Hitler repeatedly professed his Christianity in his books and speeches, often to explicitly justify oppressing the Jews; he also publicly criticized the “atheist movement” of the Bolsheviks. Privately, however, he made clear he was an enemy of Christianity, calling it an “absurdity” based on “lies” (Bormann, Hitler’s Table Talk). “The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity,” he said, because it led to Bolshevism. “Both are inventions of the Jew.” Christianity would be “worn away” by science, as all “myths crumble.”

However, anti-Christian is not necessarily atheist. Joseph Goebbels wrote that while Hitler “hates” Christianity, “the Fuhrer is deeply religious” (Goebbels Diaries). Hitler said in private that

An educated man retains the sense of the mysteries of nature and bows before the unknowable. An uneducated man, on the other hand, runs the risk of going over to atheism (which is a return to the state of the animal) as soon as he perceives that the State, in sheer opportunism, is making use of false ideas in the matter of religion… (Bormann)

Hitler said to companions, “Christianity is the most insane thing that a human brain in its delusion has ever brought forth, a mockery of everything divine,” suggesting a belief in higher powers.

And while some of Hitler’s policies attacked the Catholic Church and German Christianity in general, only those who stood up to the Nazis, like some church leaders and Jehovah’s Witnesses, were in danger of extermination. And Hitler also persecuted atheists, banning most atheist groups, such as the German Freethinkers League. Again, fear of the link between atheism and Bolshevism was a factor.

With no real evidence Hitler was an atheist, what of Stalin?

The Soviet dictator’s case is more straightforward. He became an atheist as a youth, while studying to become a priest (also what a young Hitler wanted to do). “They are fooling us,” he said of his teachers. “There is no god” (Yaroslavsky, Landmarks in the Life of Stalin). “God’s not unjust, he doesn’t actually exist. We’ve been deceived” (Montefiore, Young Stalin). Later, he explained that “all religion is something opposite to science,” and oversaw “anti-religious propaganda” to eradicate “religious prejudices” (Pravda interview, September 15, 1927). Such efforts were meant to “convince the peasant of the nonexistence of God” (Stalin, “The Party’s Immediate Tasks in the Countryside” speech, October 22, 1924). As implied above, Communism in the Soviet Union typically embraced science and secularism.

Stalin thought religion was “opium for the people,” an exercise in “futility” that wrought “evil” (Hoxha, With Stalin). “The introduction of religious elements into socialism,” he wrote, “is unscientific and therefore harmful for the proletariat” (Stalin, “Party News,” August 2, 1909). He favored the “struggle” against religion. He also said he did not believe in fate, calling it a “relic of mythology” (Stalin, interview with Emil Ludwig, December 13, 1931). In terms of policy, Stalin shifted from a relative tolerance of religious freedom to a reign of terror against the Russian Orthodox Church and other faith organizations in the 1920s and 1930s. Countless priests, monks, and nuns were exterminated (100,000 between 1937-1938 alone; Yakovlev, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia).

We could go on, digging into the views of other tyrants. But moving forward to the second point, can it be reasoned that, all other factors remaining the same, Stalin would not have harmed anyone had he believed in God? If Hitler had been a Christian? It is logical to posit Stalin’s disbelief was a contributing factor to his holocaust against his own people, even the primary factor in his massacres of religious leaders, but considering what believers in God (and Christ) have been capable of throughout history it is difficult to conclude piety would have stopped Hitler’s war, the Holocaust of Jews, Roma, and homosexuals, or Stalin’s mass murder of political enemies, kulaks (wealthy peasants), and ethnic minorities (such as the Poles). Would faith really have cured the imperial ambitions, extreme racism, fanatical patriotism, authoritarianism, lack of empathy, and power lust of these men? This is the problem with arguing that atheism was anything more than a contributing factor, at best, to (some) of the worst crimes of the 20th century. There are countless other examples of horrific violence committed by men who were unquestionably religious yet exhibited the same evil, and whose actions had a much stronger connection to their faiths than Stalin or Hitler’s actions had to their more secular views (that is, faith was the primary factor, not a contributing factor).

The crimes of the sincerely religious are vast and unspeakable, stretching not merely a few decades but rather millennia. If we could step back and witness the graveyard of all who were killed in the name of God, what would that look like? How many millions have been oppressed, tortured, maimed, and killed because “God said so”? To please the gods? To spread the faith?

Look to the atrocities that no thinking person believes divorced from faith. The 700-year Inquisition, the torture and mass murder of anyone who questioned Christian doctrine in Europe or refused to convert in the Americas and parts of Asia. The 400-year witch hunts of Europe and North America, the execution of women supposedly in league with and copulating with the devil. The 1,900-year campaign of terror against the Jews in Europe, the “Christ-killers.” The Crusades, bloody Christian-Muslim wars for control of the Holy Land that spanned two centuries and killed millions. The European Wars of Religion during the Reformation that lasted a century (Thirty Years’ War, Eighty Years’ War, French Wars of Religion, etc.), killing millions. And these are just the major wars and crimes against humanity of Christians from Europe! (See When Christianity Was as Violent as Islam.)

We could look at Arabian Islam, from the bloody conquest to establish a caliphate across the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain to the murder of infidels, from the Shia-Sunni wars to the terrorist attacks of the modern era. We could examine the appalling executions and genocide conducted by the Hebrews, according to their holy book. We could study the human sacrifices to the gods in South American and other societies. We could investigate today’s Christian-Muslim wars and the destruction of accused witches in sub-Saharan Africa. The scope of all this so large, encompassing all people who believed in a higher power in all cultures throughout all human history. The crimes of 20th century tyrants were horrific, but is there really a strong case that they could not have occurred on just as large a scale had the tyrants been more religious?

You will notice that all these atrocities were more closely connected to the faiths of the perpetrators than the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin were to their anti-Christian or secular views. The Jews were not killed in the name of atheism. Hitler’s attempt to conquer Europe was not an anti-Christian campaign. Stalin wanted to destroy religion, but few would suggest that was his primary goal, ahead of eradicating capitalism, establishing Communism, and modernizing Russia into a world power. Secular beliefs may have contributed to atrocities, but unlike these other examples they were not the primary factors. If belief or non-belief only need be contributing factors to credit them for crimes, we could also look at religious persons who committed crimes against humanity that weren’t closely motivated by or connected to faith.

Doing so makes faith guilty of any crime committed by a person of faith. And why not? If the False Cause Fallacy can be applied to atheists it can just as easily be applied to theists! (Same with the Poisoning the Well Fallacy: these atheists were evil, so atheism is evil; these people of faith were evil, so faith is evil.)

The Ottomans committed genocide against the Armenians from 1915-1922, killing 1.5 million, 75% of the Armenian population. Prime Minister Mehmed Talaat was its principle architect, and because he was a Shia Muslim it must have been a belief in a higher power that enabled him to carry out this act. The Rwanda genocide of 1994 was not a religious conflict, but some Catholic faith leaders participated — a crime the Pope apologized for this year. Their belief in a god must be credited. Radovan Karadžić, president of Republika Srpska and a Serb, orchestrated the genocide of Muslims and Croats in 1995, during the Bosnian War. He saw his deeds as part of a “holy war” between Christianity and Islam. Would he have refrained from mass murder had he been an atheist? Would the old butcher Christopher Columbus? Would King Leopold II of Belgium? This Catholic monarch was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 10 million people in Congo. “I die in the Catholic religion,” he wrote in his last testament, “and I ask pardon for the faults I have or may have committed.” This game can be played with anyone in human history, from the Christian kings, queens, traders, and owners who enslaved 12-20 million Africans to the Christian presidents of the United States who intentionally bombed millions of civilians in Vietnam.

One could make the embarrassing argument that those who committed such evils were not actually believers in God (a “secret atheist theory”). Yes, it is difficult to know an historical figure’s true thoughts. But one could just as easily pretend Stalin and others were secretly believers. We have to use the evidence we have.

So you can see how the legitimacy of casual connections is highly important. One who doesn’t care about the strength of such connections could easily attribute Hitler’s crimes to his belief in a higher power! (One could then argue Hitler’s belief was far more dangerous than Stalin’s atheism, as Hitler oversaw the deaths of 11 million noncombatants, versus Stalin’s 6 million — in the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, researchers have determined the death toll estimate typically associated with Stalin, 20 million, is grossly inaccurate.) It is illogical to blame secularism for being anything more than a contributing factor to Stalin and Hitler’s actions in the same way it is illogical to blame faith for being anything more than a contributing factor to the Armenian, Congolese, or other genocides committed by religious persons. There are many events in history with faith as a primary cause, like the Inquisition, but it cannot be said the Holocaust and the Russian purges were primarily caused by atheism.

Third and finally, one could refute the notion atheists are worse people using scientific research. Children from nonreligious homes were actually found in a 2015 study to be more generous than those from religious homes. A “Good Samaritan” study found religiosity does not determine how likely people are to lend a helping hand. A study on cheating found that faith does not make one less likely to cheat. A 2014 study showed secular and religious people commit immoral acts equally. Some atheists trumpet the fact they are underrepresented in U.S. prisons, but shouldn’t due to the fact atheists are predominantly educated, middle-to-upper class whites, a group that is itself underrepresented. Similarly, some point out nations like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Japan, and others have some of the highest rates of atheism and lowest rates of crime in the world, but this should be avoided as a False Cause Fallacy as well. These nations are likewise disproportionately wealthy and educated — low crime rates and atheism are byproducts; they likely do not have a cause-effect relationship (but at least those worried about society falling into chaos and crime as atheism spreads can rest easy).

So is the belief in relative, godless morality so much more dangerous than the belief in objective, God-given morality? In practice, it appears not. The capacity for horrific actions in secular and religious people seems equivalent. Same with kindness and other positive actions.

From a theoretical standpoint, however, there are two facts that make relative morality better. They help explain why atheists are not worse people than believers.

First, objective morality has a glaring flaw: it cannot be known. Just as one cannot prove the existence of the Christian deity, there is no way to definitively prove that Christian right and wrong is the objective standard humanity is meant to follow. Why not Islamic right and wrong? Because one can’t prove which set of ethics is actually objective and god-decreed, each simply becomes one option among many and thus we have to choose among them (it’s quite relative!). Even if you believe in objective morality, there’s no way to actually know what it is. The person of (any) faith thinks he knows but might easily be wrong. “I’ve looked at her with lust in my heart, I’ve done wrong.” Well, perhaps not. It could be the higher power that actually exists doesn’t believe in thought crimes. Therefore, saying we should try to follow an objective morality, offered by a particular religion, is not particularly compelling. Relative ethics are of course known because we create them for ourselves.

Second, relativity allows us the freedom to make our ethics better. I understand why people of faith see a risk in humans deciding what’s right and wrong, but religion clearly isn’t any better in terms of danger to others (if you ask me why it’s because religion is man-made, so it all makes sense). We have gods saying all sorts of things are right: killing homosexuals, those who engage in extramarital sex, and people who work on the Sabbath (Old Testament); enslaving people and oppressing women (New Testament); waging Jihad on nonbelievers and cutting off body parts for crimes (Qur’an). Well, perhaps humans would like to base what’s wrong on what actually causes harm to others, not what insults a deity, which makes all that killing and maiming wrong and makes things like working on the Sabbath, homosexuality, and sex outside marriage (and porn, masturbation, smoking weed, etc.) ethically permissible. We have the ability to continue to improve our ethics to a point where fewer people get killed for nonviolent “crimes.” Relative morality allows us to move past the absurdities and barbarism of ancient desert tribes. We’ve been very successful at this.

Yes, it also allows us to return to barbarism, with no thoughts of angry higher beings to stop us. Faith-based appeals can prevent barbarism too (“I can’t kill, I’ll go to hell”). But at least we’re free to move in a more positive direction if we choose. Religion doesn’t really offer that. God’s word is perfect and is not to be altered or deviated from; it has been set for thousands of years. Being paralyzed by religious ethics keeps us stuck in the dark ages, from oppressive Islamic societies in the Middle East and Asia to the lingering hysteria in the United States over homosexuality, which is a very natural trait of the human species and other lifeforms. Progress on such matters requires putting aside ancient faith-based ideas of right and wrong (Americans were no longer allowed to execute homosexuals after 1786). The more humanity does so the more safe and free each of us becomes.