Life after faith – how do atheists think about death?

I recently spoke with a former spiritual mentor and inevitably the conversation wound its way past the trivial pleasantries to the deeper questions about our existence. After an hour of stimulating debate, he looked me squarely in the eyes and said “if you’re right why would I want accept that?! If we die, and that’s it, what’s the point of me believing such a bleak truth?” His face had a hopeless, faraway look, as though merely contemplating the finitude of death had engulfed his mind with a dark and dreary cloud. Finally, he stepped backwards and vigorously shook his head, unable to consider this any longer and we kindly parted ways.

I had heard his question before on a few occasions. A couple of times it came from men who were in public ministry, preaching, leading worship, or even pastoring at a local church. Each time this question quietly emerged after a long, intimate, heartfelt conversation once the armor of holy confidence was finally put aside and we spoke “heart to heart.”

“Yuriy, if you are right, and it’s true that death is final, why would I want to accept that?”

One of these preachers, a dear friend of mine, has even said (my paraphrase) “Some of these arguments are really strong, and maybe you are right, but I simply can’t live my life and be happy if I accept them. So maybe it’s all false, but I choose to believe because it gives me joy and purpose.”

I will always remember that conversation, I was overwhelmed by this “brother” being so valiantly honest with me (it’s something he has never shared with anyone else) and yet I was tremendously grieved by the irony of the simultaneous dishonesty. How could someone willfully choose ignorance of the truth out of a desire to avoid discomfort?

Frankly, I too don’t like to talk about death, its not a pleasant topic, and yet, every once in a while, it’s prudent boldly think of that which is arguably the ultimate fear of every human being. So while my Christian hope in an afterlife has come and gone, the grim reality of death remains and it is this reality I want to confront in this blog post.

This essay will be broken down into four parts:

a. Death is sad

b. Death doesn’t prove anything

c. Six reasons eternal life would become hell

d. How to deal with thoughts of death

A – Death is sad.

Psychologists use a term called “mortality salience” to describe the awareness of the inevitability of one’s death. There are some studies that indicate people with a higher mortality salience have a higher level of religiosity. This makes quite a bit of sense to me. People who fear death are more likely to seek out an escape from that fear, whether that escape is real or not.

My wife seems to have a mortality salience of 0, she’s so filled with thoughts about life, beauty, creativity, she simply doesn’t have time to consider death. On the other hand, my own mortality salience is quite high (which is probably why I spent all my days reading theology books while my friends were out at the beach). That said I can certainly testify that it’s quite possible for individuals with a high mortality salience to live a happy life without existential terror or abnormal/irrational behavior. Dealing with death for the first time was utterly horrifying for me initially, but today it hardly bothers me at all.

If we are honest, I believe most people who think about death may at times experience both emotions: fear and peace. I have myself experienced both emotions during both periods of my life (Christian, secular). And even though the though the longer I live, the more peaceful I feel, I want to highlight that death is not a comfortable topic. For everyone involved, whether they are a believer or not. I know many Christians and atheists that claim to be completely unafraid of death and likewise people from both groups that admit they are terrified.

But in the end, everyone cries at funerals, whether they are religious or secular. Regardless of all of our beliefs or ideologies, we can be united in this.

B – Death doesn’t prove anything

Very often you will hear stories about atheists being absent in foxholes (the idea being that when faced with imminent death, everyone begins to pray.) This is, of course, untrue, there have been plenty of literal atheists in literal foxholes, but sadly many people prefer easy-to-memorize slogans rather than accurate information. I have known people to project their own fears about death onto others (i.e. “since I would be scared to die without an afterlife, you must be scared of it too.”) I have seen this kind of emotional appeal to the fear of death used as the ultimate argument on a number of occasions. When someone is unable to reasonably explain why their view on religion is true, they often cross their arms and end the conversation with something like “well, we will see how you will think when you’re close to death!”

Obviously their point is something like “it’s easy to deny God when you are distant from the horrifying reality of death, but when it’s tangible or near, then you will seek God because you will be scared of death.” Ironically enough, I think this is one of the most powerful naturalistic explanations for the existence of religion. All humans (and all mammals in general) are afraid to die. We will do, say, or believe just about anything to avoid or escape death. As a result of this primal fear, nearly all human have produced religious narratives that teach adherents how to avoid the inevitability of death. Is this mere coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe our fear of death is precisely the reason we have invented religious stories that tell us of ways to conquer death. Religious people believe that God is the cause of our fear of death, but I think it’s the other way around, our fear of death is the cause of our wishes about god and the afterlife.

C. Six reasons eternal life would inevitably become hell

While I certainly think death can be frightening, and would want to extend human life by millions of years, I think that an eternal life would eventually become a curse, not a blessing. There are usually very specific reasons why people want to live forever. Each of these reasons appears, at least initially, to be very desirable, but upon closer inspection is filled with serious problems. (I’d like to acknowledge Philosopher Garrett Merriam, as this borrows heavily from his work).

1. We want to live forever to continue the experience of living.

I love life. Desperately. I want to live and keep living. I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to lose the sublime beauty of being alive. Emotionally I wish for an eternal life. Yet if we consider the logical implications of eternal life, it seems that if my wish were truly granted, eventually this eternal life would become morbidly dull. This is because rarity is a source of value. Consider how rarity is correlated to the value of a diamond: if tomorrow we discover an infinitely tall pile of diamonds free for the taking, will not the value of diamonds go down… infinitely? Can you truly treasure something of which you have an infinite amount?

Think back to your favorite memory. Mine is during our honeymoon, after a long day of exploring, Inna and I lost our camera. We ran back, zipping and winding our way through numerous streets of Disneyworld until we found it sitting on a lonely bench. Our moment of joy was interrupted by a wild roar of thunder and a torrential downpour of rain. Dazed and confused, we began running for shelter, getting so thoroughly soaked, that we began laughing uncontrollably. Drenched, laughing, and filled with unexplainable joy, we found shelter in what I recall as the most quaint little coffee shop in all of reality. That memory is my “happy place.” Yet what were to happen if I was stuck in a time loop, replaying that memory forever and ever? For the first few thousand days I would be overjoyed, but after a thousand years I would be bored. After a million years, I would be annoyed. After a trillion years, I would not be able to squeeze even an ounce of joy out of this memory. After a trillion, trillion, gazillion years I would be utterly horrified, and reliving this memory would become a horrifying prison of existential claustrophobia.

How would you feel a trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion years down the road, repeating the same exact thing over and over again until you know it so well there could not possibly be anything new or exciting about it? That is the curse of eternal life. The experiences we can have are finite in number, you can only “try the best ice cream for the first time” once, each time you try that ice cream afterwards, you will get diminishing returns of joy. You can only “see the most beautiful sunset of your life” one time, and each time you see it after, it is slightly more mundane. You can only visit a new vacation destination for the first time once, and each time you return, the sense of adventure, wonder, and fascination is replaced by a sense of nostalgia, déjà vu, and familiarity, which is not as thrilling as the first time, and can never be as tantalizing. This is why people in life are always looking for the “next best thing” whether it’s a bigger house, better vacation, or larger dose of heroin. It’s because we want to recapture that feeling, that fragile beauty of “the first time.” Alas, it’s something can never be found again.

2. – We want to live forever to be with our loved ones forever.

Another, very understandable reason that ideas about eternal life appear so pleasant is because we desire to have a reunion and an eternal friendship with our loved ones. And while this truly would be blissful in many cases, it would also bring about intense eternal suffering in many other cases. Consider how many people have unrequited love for others. In an eternal life, they would spend all eternity feeling the pain and misery of that unrequited love. Even worse, in almost every single narrative about the afterlife, there are large swaths of people that are condemned into an eternity of the most excruciating torment. Think how horrible an existence would be for a mother who knows her child is burning in hell below? How could anyone live with joy knowing their loved ones are being tortured and suffer the worst agony imaginable?

3. We want to live forever to see divine justice be done

The world is filled with such inexpressible evils that I too long for justice to be done. It breaks my heart to think of all the injustice and unfairness that has been incurred on so many people. And yet, and eternal life filled with eternal punishment does not solve the problem of injustice, but it multiplies is.

Humans are messy, we are a mixture of good and bad, honesty and shame, bravery and cowardice. Even the worst villains have done good, and the best saints have done evil. And often the things that drive us one way or the other are psychological, psychosocial, subconscious and not fully under our willful control. To simply punish people with an eternal punishment for a finite crime, is one of the worst acts of injustice that can be imagined. Literally. Consider a teenager that punched his friend, certainly it may seem fair to punch him back, so he experiences the same kind of pain he caused another person to feel. But what if a judge demanded that this teenager be punched in the face, a thousand times, every day, for the remainder of his life? Is this just? The ideas of eternal punishment found in most major religions are like this, but (literally) infinitely worse. No one is wicked enough to deserve eternal punishment, and no one is righteous enough to deserve eternal bliss.

4. We want to live forever to obtain meaning of it all

Some people think the only way there could be meaning to life is if it were eternal and unending. In another essay I have already mentioned that there are numerous irreparable problems with such a belief. Furthermore, I would argue that the exact opposite seems closer to truth: if there is an eternal life, then nothing in this life can have meaning. If a heavenly afterlife is the best thing that can happen to anyone, then the only thing in this life that matters is getting to this afterlife. No amount of finite suffering or joy in this life can ever compare to eternal suffering or eternal joy! In fact, if you could reliably get to the afterlife right now, there is absolutely no meaningful reason to remain in this life and wait.

In mathematical terms both 1 and 1,000,000 are INFINITELY smaller than infinity; neither matters in comparison to infinity. It doesn’t matter whether you suffer 1 minute or 1,000,000 minutes, because in comparison an eternity of bliss is INFINITELY larger and more significant. It does not matter if you create the greatest art or music, write the life-changing stories, change the whole world for the better, save thousands of lives, or anything else, because if you don’t make it to heaven, you will be INFINITELY worse off for an eternity. It doesn’t matter how much good you do, because the infinite reward you get so vastly outweighs the good that it drowns out your nobility and sacrifice. No sacrifice or struggle can have any meaning, for it is infinitely swamped by an infinite reward. No great act of heroism, courage, or nobility can have any meaning for it is engulfed by the infinite chasm of eternity. Consider this: how meaningful is the sacrifice of a man giving away a penny to obtain a hundred trillion dollars? Not at all.

In this way an eternal life robs this ephemeral life of meaning, and makes only one thing matter: getting to the right place in the afterlife. It even robs us of the justification to weep for our loved ones upon their death, for we ought instead rejoice at them having achieved ultimate joy for eternity. But even more than that, when all of your experiences are eternally maximally good, without sorrow, grief, or pain, it seems to me we yet again return to the problem #1, the dull monotony of reliving the same thing forever ruins our ability to enjoy anything.

5. We want to live forever to obtain all the answers the answers

Most of us want to finally obtain all of the ultimate answers about reality, meaning, and existence. This is something I am very sympathetic to, yet, upon closer consideration we discover being granted this wish would yield more misery than joy.

“Eternity is the end of curiosity.” In an eternal life there is nothing left to ponder, wonder, investigate, or explore for there are no more distant lands or mysterious horizons.

In every single narrative of heaven it is said that we finally receive “all of the answers.” Consider the intellectual who has devoted his life studying and seeking answers, and now compare her to a lazy man who has comfortably coasted through life without ever struggling to achieve anything. In the eternal Paradise, both instantly get “all of the answers.” So what was the point of one person struggling, seeking, and learning to their utmost, when everyone will simply get the exact same “reward”? If all of the answers are at the back of the book, why study? Why strive? Why try?

6. We want to live forever to achieve all of our desires

And so we come to the final and most terrifying reason why people desire to have an afterlife: to achieve the culmination of all of their goals, ambitions, and desires. And yet an eternal life would accomplish the exact opposite, it would remove the purpose of our goals, struggles, accomplishments and cast us into a monotonous and changeless prison.

First, why ought we strive to achieve anything in this life at all? Why work diligently to build an better life here, when simply closing your eyes transitions you to the most perfect heavenly life you can ever image? It seems that the promise of a perfect afterlife, is the ultimate anti-motivator.

Worse than this, in an afterlife everything has culminated into “the perfect” and while this seems wonderful at first, it comes with a paralyzing consequence. There is nothing left to strive for! There are no more enemies to conquer, no more dragons to vanquish, no more mountains to climb, no cities to build, no puzzles to solve, and nothing you can do to improve your situation. Heaven is like that that moment when you have finally win a video game, and the screen blinks with the words “you have won!” You smile. You are first filled with joy, considering that everything has now been achieved. Then as you continue staring at the screen, it begins to dawn on you, there is literally nothing else left to do in this game! You can only stare at that winning notification and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you won. How long until you grow mad?

Even if we imagine that there will be some things to do in an eternal after, how long until those things become mindless, repetitive, routines? If you have an eternity of time, eventually everything that can be done, will be done. Eventually the last enemy will be vanquished, and what then? Eventually every last goal will have been achieved, and what then? Eventually every possible song will have been written, sung, remixed, and resung, so what then? Eventually every possible invention will have been invented, so what then?

Eventually every possible thought will have been thought, and every possible conversation will have been had. What then?

This is the horrifying reality of an afterlife, at some point in this afterlife, there will be no more goals, ambitions, desires, or dreams. There will be no more reason to exist. Eternal life would rob us of our humanity, making us, for all intents and purposes, dead.

D. How to deal with thoughts of death

If the beautiful-yet-tragically-flawed idea of an eternal life cannot offer us any solace or comfort, what are we left with? Is the mere idea of death a soul-crushing cataclysm that relentlessly throws us into an irreparable existential paralysis? I don’t think so. I have stared dead in the face and was broken upon its jagged shores. But I have also laughed at the absurdity of it all and learned to get back up and move on. In my own existential quest I have found a few lessons that were immensely helpful.

1. Realize you already know what it’s like to be dead.

Pause here for a second and let it sink in. You already *were* dead before. You already have experienced the feeling of being dead. For billions of years before you were alive… you were “not alive.” You missed some of the greatest moments in the history of our cosmos. You were absent during some of the most epic moments of human history. And how did you feel about that? Did it feel painful, tragic, or depressing? No. That is exactly what feeling “dead” will feel like. It’s still tragic to think about being absent from this life, which is a beautiful symphony of experiences, and yet, you won’t be around to feel that loss. As Roman philosopher Seneca said would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted?”

2. One day you shall tire of this restless and repetitive toil.

Recall again that an eternal life would involve reiterating the same functions over and over again. It would involve thinking the same thoughts, using the same language, feeling the same feelings, doing the same work, experiencing the same struggles or pleasures, and apprehending over and over again that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Though this may seem bleak, there is a strangely peaceful realization about the final restfulness of death. Death provides a way for each of us to finally rest from our struggles, burdensome responsibilities, difficulties, pains, and toils. For young people as myself, this is not an attractive prospect, however, I have heard numerous people who are far older than myself, speak of this rest with much peace and satisfaction. Perhaps our lives are far too short, and we would desire to live a few thousand years, but eventually all men tire. “Death is a release from all pains, and a boundary beyond which our sufferings cannot go; it returns us to that state of peacefulness in which we lay before we were born. If someone pities those who have died, let him pity also those who have not been born.” (Seneca)

3. Don’t waste time being anxious about things that are outside of your power to change.

Another profound lesson I have learned from the Stoic philosophers is that our worry about things outside our control is useless. It’s true that death can be a frightening thought. But will worry or negativity change any of that? Can worry make you live forever? Will spending large swaths of time in debilitating terror do anything at all to eradicate the inevitability of death? Fear and anxiety does not add anything to your life, nor does it do anything to eradicate death. It’s certainly wise to remember the fragility of our life at times, and ask deep introspective questions about its meaning, but living in fear does not add anything of value. Epictetus even wrote that the worry of death is worse than death itself: “It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things. For example, death is nothing catastrophic, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgment that death is catastrophic, this is the catastrophic thing.”

4. Be aware that it is possible to die peacefully

David Hume was one of the most prolific atheist philosophers of the 18th century, and possibly of all time. So when he became mortally ill in old age, many visited his deathbed, out of a sense of morbid curiosity, wanting to see a defeated, terrified creature gasping for breath. Instead what they saw was a joyful man, filled with great peace.

Adam Smith wrote: “though [Hume] found himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading books of amusement, with the conversation of his friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his favorite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying.” 

The myth that atheists die terribly, full of fear is an old wives tale. It is the projection of those who themselves fear death, and use their belief in an afterlife to as an inoculation against their own fear. The truth is, anyone can die in fearful agony, just as anyone can die peacefully. Years ago, when I worked in a clinical setting, I met an aging world war 2 vet, who gently told me he was had a wonderful life, and was ready to “sleep forever.” At the time, this horrified me, I could not imagine how he could be so peaceful without an afterlife; today I can. As Marcus Aurelius noted, our emotional response is ours alone: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

5. Dance while the clock is ticking

Now that we have dispensed with the comforting idea of an eternal life are we to remain with nothing more than the dilapidated ruins of our existential yearnings? No. As Alan Watts is fond of saying, most of us in the West have been raised in a culture that uses the metaphor of a journey to describe life. We have been inundated with the idea of doing things for some ultimate purpose, of walking to get to some destination that makes all of this “walk” worthwhile.

But that is the wrong way of looking at life. A better metaphor for life is a dance, not a journey.

A dance has no ultimate destination. You do traverse the dance floor in order to reach some distant location. That would be absurd! A dance is not about reaching something in the future, rather it is about being someone in the present. Likewise, a dancer ought simply to dance, not worry about the music ending, for if you spend all your time worrying about the music ending, you will neglect to enjoy the dance.

Ironically enough, I first wrote about this years ago, as a fundamentalist Christian. Even though I have left behind most of my naïve views of the world, this one has stayed with me, and the sentence below is probably the only piece of my writing from the past that I can earnestly support:

“Do you hope to achieve something amazing tomorrow? Do you want to become healthy? Fit? Smart? Rich? Do you want your life to be better? Do you want your dreams to be satisfied? Do you yearn to create an Eden someday? To make a place where everything bad is replaced and only good reigns? Are you neglecting your life today in order to build this “little heaven” tomorrow? Stop living for the future, for it shall never come. Take all of those hopes for tomorrow and discard them. Live in the present. Live slowly, intentionally, and purposefully today. Live now while you have life.”

So don’t obsess over some future state of being, dont waste your life seeking to reach some destination; simply dance. Trust me, this ephemeral dance is far grander than any destination could be.

Life after faith – how do atheists ground morals?

It was an otherwise unsuspicious church service. The youth pastor asked for all the teenage boys to follow him into a private meeting room. Once we were all situated, he asked in a hushed tone “did you know that guys who masturbate start growing hair on their hands?” The room was quickly transformed into a wild frenzy as dozens of panicked young boys began closely examining their hands. After about few seconds, the dust settled, and all of us realized we had been tricked. The room was filled with nervous laughter. And then we listened to a sermon that taught us masturbation and premarital sex was a sin, because God said so.

An hour later, when the rest of the group rejoined the adults in the large sanctuary, the nerds among us found a secluded classroom and began to discuss the issue of sin and sexuality. We could understand why God would want to make murder or robbery a sin, after all, it harms the person who is getting murdered or robbed. But we couldn’t, for the life of us, figure out why God would have made most sexual acts a sin. One of my friends said it was because sex creates a supernatural spiritual connection, and that it can only happen with one person. Another friend said it was because it’s selfish and gives you too much pleasure. But all of us thought there had to be a reason to forbid it, God wouldn’t just designate some random act as an evil, for no good reason!

Would he?

It was then I first encountered that difficult question: what makes something good or evil? Is it the consequence of the action? Is it because God said so? Why would God designate one thing as good, and another as evil? Whatever the answers are, the question is not an easy one. There are thousands of philosophy books that deal with ethics and most are notoriously difficult for the average person to understand. So my goal with this post is to make things as simple as possible, and very practical, even if that means oversimplifying a really complicated topic that still sees much academic debate and disagreement.


From an early age I discovered that it’s very difficult to talk about ethics because people hold preconceived notions that are faulty. So before we dive into how atheists/agnostics can ground ethics without God, lets take an eraser to the chalkboard that is this conversation. Lets be aware of a big mistake that can make this conversation impossible: viewing ethics as a false dichotomy.

About five years ago, I was invited to a large Christmas party. There was food, games, prizes, and pretty girls (yes, my then future wife was there, and she was the prettiest). And yet, I spent 2 hours of this party discussing ethics with someone I had just met. He believed ethics could exist without God, and I tried to disabuse him from his error. Irrespective of how much I tried, I could not get him to see things my way. This was because I viewed ethics as a false dichotomy: (a) either moral standards come from God, or (b) they were mere opinions and philosophically ungrounded.


metaethics false dichotomy

And yet, things aren’t so simple. When I tried to argue “if you’re don’t believe in A, by definition you must believe in B,” I was completely wrong and naïve. The largest survey of philosophers has indicated that: 85.4% of philosophers do not believe in a personal God, and yet only 27.7% reject the concept of objective moral values. This means the vast majority of PhD level philosophers are neither  (a) theists  (b) nor ethical nihilists/relativists.

I was not prepared for this. I had only extrapolated the logical conclusion of my views upon other people, I had never sincerely considered things from their perspective, only “what I would think, if I was in their shoes.

Turns out that throughout the ages thousands of philosophers have written hundreds of thousands of pages trying to comprehend morality. There is a whole field of philosophy, metaethics, that aims to simply understand what ethical statements really are. What does ‘good’ and ‘evil’ even mean? How are they defined? Where do they come from? There is a second field of philosophy, normative ethics, that aims to understand the standards of ethical actions and figure out what kinds of things are right and wrong.

I created the following chart to show a simplified breakdown of the ethical situation in philosophy, to better present the actual choices people have. There are certainly more options than these 10 presented, but lets note that there are more than the 2 choices most people assumePlease click for a larger view.


metaethics taxonomy


a. Do we need God to have objective moral standards?

Most believers say that objective moral values can only exist if there is a God. Though having had many discussions with Christian friends, I’ve not heard a good logical reason why this has to be the case. Now it’s true that some propositions are simply axiomatic, meaning they are true without requiring a reason or justification; for example, the sentence: “Drawing four right angles is the only way to make a square.”  It is true because its logically impossible for it to be false. Because a square, by definition has four angles, it’s self-evident that you can’t make a square with more or fewer angles.

Is the necessity of God for objective moral values also axiomatic? No, it’s not. The sentence: “God is the only possible way to derive objective moral values” is not a self-evident truth. It is possible for this sentence to be false, and in fact, we can demonstrate that it is. To do that, we must simply provide one alternative account of objective moral values. Do such accounts exist? Absolutely! Here is just one example: objective moral standards “just exist – without explanation” in the same exact way theists propose that God “just exists without explanation.”

Think that is strange?  Maybe. But the mathematical truth of 1+1=2 just exists as a fact, and while that’s really strange, it’s no less true. It’s even more strange to imagine that an intelligent being like God can “just exist” without being created, so why exclude something far simpler, like a set of moral laws? (“But who made those laws?” Well, who made God? “But God has always existed!” Then perhaps moral laws have always existed?). In the end, because there is nothing logically contradictory about moral laws “just existing” we can surmise that it’s a real possibility. Thus the statement “God is the only possible way to derive objective moral values” is demonstrably false.

So why do people say God is required? There are two reasons, (i) moral epistemology and (ii) moral ontology.

(i) Some think God is necessary because we cannot learn about moral values (moral epistemology) without God’s revelation. But that doesn’t make sense. Just because I don’t have a math teacher doesn’t make mathematics disappear. If I have no one to reveal to me that 1+1=2 is true, that won’t make it false! If there was nobody to teach us that drinking poison was bad for our well-being, it would still be true that drinking poising would kill us. In the same way, if there are moral facts, but nobody to teach us what they are, those facts don’t just disappear. It seems, therefore, that God as moral teacher, is not required for the existence of moral truths, just like math teachers are not required for the existence of math facts.

(ii) Others might say that God is required not as a source of knowledge about moral facts, but as the source of those facts themselves (moral ontology). Without God, they argue, objective moral standards cannot be created, because “moral laws require a moral law giver.” But is this really the case? Why should objective moral laws require a moral law giver? Do mathematical laws require a mathematical law-giver? Is the proposition “1+1=2” false unless a math-law-giver says its true? Not at all! Is the law of non-contradiction (“X can’t be both X and not-X”) only true because a logical-law giver said so? Again, no. So why then should moral law require a moral law giver? In fact, simply saying that a particular law requires a law-giver, necessarily means that this law cannot be objective but must be subjective. If it’s only grounded on the law giver, it must be subject to the law giver. It must be contingent on his/her choices, and he or she could give any law that he wants to.

b. Is it even possible for God to be to source of objective moral standards?

If you think the problem above is difficult to overcome, trying to ground objective moral values in God’s commands has an ever greater problem, the Euthyphro dilemma. This is a question about how God determines what things are good and evil. The only two possible options are: (a) God produces moral standards from within himself or (b) he obtains them from outside of himself. If we answer with A and say God determines good and evil from within himself, then it follows that there are no objective moral standards, they are all subjective to God, and therefore arbitrary. God could easily say “rape is good” and “kindness is evil” and we would have no way of knowing otherwise. Yet, if the answer is B, God obtains moral standards from outside himself, then this means there is a source of moral standards apart from God, and it is a moral standard that even God must obey. This means God is subservient to something else.

The image below presents an outline of this serious problem.

eutyphros dilemma

Christian theologians try to overcome this problem by saying that God’s nature is what grounds his ethical choices. They say Gods nature and character is intrinsically good, and that God determines whether a command is good or bad, by looking inward at his nature. This answer misunderstands the problem and only pushes Euthyphro’s dilemma one step backwards. We can step back and still ask the same question: how can we know Gods nature is good? Are God’s character traits considered ‘good’ as a result of fitting some external criteria of what is good and evil? Or are those character traits considered ‘good’ only as a result of God having them? (If Satan’s character traits were given to God, would they too become good, simply because they are now Gods?)

So we still have the same dilemma. If you answer with: (a) God determines it by looking outward, it logically follows that there exists a moral standard outside of God that he has to obey. This moral standard is “more God” than God. If you answer with: (b) God determines it by looking inward, we can ask: how does God determine that this set of character traits are good, but not another set? What internal criteria does he use? If God uses his nature, to determine if his nature is good, is that not circular and arbitrary?

As an analogy, assume that I invented a ruler/measuring stick that uses a newly invented unit called “zibs” instead of inches or centimeters. If this is the case, then the only way for us to know that “3 zibs” is really “3 zibs” is because I measured it with this new ruler! Isn’t that completely arbitrary? We could make any kind of measuring stick, and use it to measure itself, but that is an arbitrary measurement! It doesn’t mean anything more than “if we define a zib as this, then this is a zib.” But there is no real, unchanging, objective thing called a zib, its just something we made up!

At the end of the day, grounding ethics on God’s moral edicts is very difficult and filled with many paradoxes and problems. I think there is a much better way, that is both more pragmatic and more logical.


a. What is good & evil? (Moral Ontology)

Our first question is a question of moral ontology, or what do the concepts of good and evil really mean? When it comes to ethical or moral statements, according to my naturalistic view, I define good and evil as two types of ‘states of affairs’ that correlate to sensory experiences by cognizant beings. Rocks and trucks cannot be the recipients or agents of moral good and moral evil, only sentient beings that are capable of experience:

  • Moral Good: the state of affairs in which a sentient being attains well-being and flourishing.
  • Moral Evil: the state of affairs in which a sentient being attains ill-being and harm, or is derived of some moral good.

It’s certainly true that for some people different things contribute to their well-being in different ways. If Joey is allergic to peanuts, giving him food containing the allergen causes harm, which is a bad outcome, but for Sandy, who is starving and doesn’t share Joeys allergy, it causes a good outcome, she is fed. Does this mean moral assessments are relativistic? Since we can judge the action of “giving a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” to be both good and bad, depending on person whom it is given to? No.

The specific actions may change, as they depend on one’s nature, but the ultimate consequences can be judged objectively. For example, some plants may need to be submerged in water year round, others watered daily, and some never at all. Yet, each of them has a specific set of circumstances, which are an objective fact for that plant, that produce the state of affairs we call health. Just because each plant requires a different set of actions to produce the consequence of health, doesn’t mean everything is now simply a matter of opinion. It’s not an opinion. We can take a microscope to the plant, and objectively evaluate its status. We can ask, “has watering helped or harmed this plant?” And we can know the answer as a fact, not an opinion.

Objective moral judgments are not a series of meticulously specific laws that apply to every single action, situation, and person for all time, but rather objective assessments we can make about the ultimate consequences. (For example the specific command that “lying is always bad” seems to prevent you from lying to a group of Nazis, in order to save Jewish lives. On the other hand the assessment that “harm is a bad thing” might encourage you to lie in order to prevent the Jews from being harmed.)

So how do we figure out what things are good for what beings? We will discuss this in section C below, but first we need to understand the complexity of moral situations.

b. How does an ethical decision work? (Moral Taxonomy)

When it comes to describing an ethical situation, I would describe it as having at least three parts which are not reducible to one. In every case when I want to understand a moral scenario, I need to know at least three things about it. These are

(i) moral intentions, which produce

(ii) moral actions, which in turn result in

(iii) moral consequences.

In other words, first someone desires to kill you, then they stab you, finally this results in your death. Each of these steps in the chain is vital to narrating the whole story, and we should do our best to avoid simply calling the whole chain “good” or “evil” because there are instances where its composed of different parts.

First, we can have scenarios where good intentions produce evils. My intentions can be good, while my actions and the resulting consequences can evil. For example, I may believe that pressing a blue button will help all people, but instead it launches a nuclear weapon that kills them. The consequences instantiated by my action were truly evil, but my intentions were sincerely good. Of course these good intention don’t justify the consequence; it is undeniably evil. Yet, in this scenario, the problem was a disconnect between my desires and the outcomes, I am to blame for knowing the wrong information about the button, not for desiring to kill everyone.

Second, we can have situations where evil intentions produce good. Imagine a sadistic person who wishes to cause severe pain and death to everyone on this planet, and so he clicks a red button. hoping to instantiate evil. Yet, this button simple causes millions of balloons to be sent to children in hospitals worldwide, making them quite happy. He inadvertently caused a “good” action, one that he did not intend. It would be far too simple to say “he did a good thing” for the whole story shows us his intentions were evil, and the good outcome is an accident.

Finally, we can also imagine scenarios where some parts of our moral chain are missing. For example, someone who is sleep walking and (i) without intention causes (ii) an action that results in (iii) another person’s harm. Or perhaps a ghost who (i) intends to harm innocent people but (ii) cannot act in a way that (iii) causes any kind of outcome or consequence.

Examples like these demonstrate that while terms like “good” and “evil” are appropriate words to describe moral situations, they should be used carefully and not be overly simplified. Knowing the full chain of events, we can far better grasp the whole moral situation than simply shouting “evil!” or “good!”

c. How do we know what things are good? (Moral Epistemology)

This is the question of moral epistemology, or how can we know what things are good? In my opinion, this is an easy question to answer, at least at a theoretical level, but can be a bit more difficult in the real world. Simply put, our goal is to discover what is “good,” or what is “the state of affairs in which a specific sentient being attains ultimate well-being and flourishing?”

Ideally, we would take each sentient being, put them into a theoretical laboratory, subject them to every single possible action/consequence, and then see which of these things result in well-being and which result in ill-being (biologically and psychologically). This would provide us with a comprehensive answer. Yet, we neither have the time nor resources to do this. Besides, experimentally subjecting people to every possible bad thing, is… well, bad.

So what’s our alternative? We use the very best of our knowledge of human nature, accumulated over thousands of  years. We ask our fellows, “what kinds of things will harm/benefit you?” because most people can accurately gauge many things through introspection. And finally, we experiment, we try new things, we observe, and we learn.

Let’s revisit the mythical story of Adam and Eve. Before anyone had ever been poked with a sharp object, how could Eve have known that poking Adam with a needle would cause harm and pain? Unless God magically implanted that knowledge into her mind, the only way she could have known is by poking herself or Adam and observing the reaction. Before that, nobody could know what would happen.

At the end of the day, its that simple, but also that difficult. It leaves us in the position of ethical agnosticism regarding some future outcomes, especially concerning new things we have never encountered. We don’t know the exact consequences of some future actions on certain people. But it also gives us an objective methodology for assessing any actions that have been committed in the past. We can evaluate the motivation, action, and consequences of actions in the past, and apply what we learn to our decision making.

Recall that moral scenarios includes these three parts: (i) moral intentions, (ii) moral actions, & (iii) moral consequences. Using this trilemma, we can summarize the situation in moral epistemology as follows:

(i) Moral intentions: we can evaluate intentions by asking introspective questions, like “why did I/you intend to do this action?”

(ii) Moral actions: We can evaluate actions by examining the direct casual outcomes they produce

(ii) Moral consequences: We can understand outcomes because they correspond to the mental and physical well-being of the subject.

e Why should we do things that are good? (Moral Motivation)

Alas, we have come to the hardest question. The question of moral motivation, or what kinds of things compel us to act a particular way. Hume once called this the “is-ought” problem, and to this day, it’s never been adequately answered. If we all agree that something is good, why ought we do that thing? Sure, it’s good. But, so what?

Let’s imagine that God was real, appeared before me, and then commanded me to give all my money to the rich because “it is a morally good thing to do.”

So what? Why should I care?

Even if I agree, and say “okay God, that is indeed a morally good thing to dowhy should I actually do it? What could God or anyone else say to motivate me? Why is it right to do a good thing? What compels me to do good?

  • If God says “jump,” I can ask “why?
  • If God says “because jumping is good” I can ask “why is it good?”
  • If God says “because I said so” I can ask “why does that matter?
  • If God says “just do it, because it’s good” I am back to asking “why”?
  • Just because something is good, doesn’t give us motivation to do it.

In most religions, especially Christianity/Islam the only obligatory motivation is punishment/reward. Why should you refrain from sin? Because if you don’t you will be burned in hell. Why ought you pray and read the holy texts? Because ultimately you will receive a reward from it (whether that be 70 virgins, paradise, or the joy of eternity with Jesus). At its core, the only possible obligatory  motivation in any religious worldview, is simple self-interest.

  • The only obligatory motivation for repentance is to be saved from pain, and enjoy eternity.
  • The only obligatory motivation for avoiding sin is to avoid the harm caused by sin & hell.
  • The only obligatory motivation for good deeds is to be loved/rewarded by God & people.
  • The only obligatory motivation for loving God, is the personal fulfillment experienced.

But religious people aren’t alone in this, in fact, I believe it’s nearly impossible for anyone to be motivated to do something without any self-interest. My suspicion is that most people who claim otherwise, are motivated by the mental satisfaction that arises from acting in a selfless manner! This does not mean I think everyone is evil and doesn’t genuinely care for others, I believe most of us do frequently behave in a selfless manner, but the positive mental experience of loving others and knowing “I caused that person joy, without expecting anything in return” is indeed a selfish reward of its own.

In fact there are all kinds of self-interested motivators, and without them action is impossible. They include being rewarded with (a) physical possessions, (b) pleasant mental/spiritual experiences, (c) respect/affection from others (d) the internal mental experience of doing such a good deed, causing others happiness, or even of doing something good, just for its own sake without expecting a reward.

If there is nothing at all to motivate a person to perform some moral action, there will be no action, unless it’s random and unintentional. This really strips the issue of ethics to its core and exposes the greatest fear of most religious people: If there is no God who will punish/reward you, what guarantee do I have that you will continue to do good to me?

There is no magical guarantee that I can offer, and that seems frightening.

Yet fear not, most human beings, by nature are social and altruistic creatures, we are wired to create bonds with others and flourish best when working cooperatively together. We achieve our own personal flourishing best when we promote flourishing in others. We satisfy our own safety best when we create societies where violence is illegal, and when we don’t act violently towards others. We promote our own good, when we treat others in a way that is good. As Jesus said, “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword” and so “do to others what you would want them to do to you.”

Even Jesus appealed to self-interested desire to motivate listeners to act according to his greatest ethical commandment. There is no reason atheists can’t do the same.