David Silverman, American Atheists and the Attempt to be Good Without God

Last week American Atheists issued a statement that they had fired their firebrand president of many years, David Silverman, as a result of moral failure.

In an interview, a spokesperson for American Atheists stated that Silverman was dismissed because of an issue regarding promotion of a recent book, as well as for a conflict of interest issue where he promoted a girlfriend to a high level position. It then came out that there were accusations of sexual misconduct with two other women who had come out to the media. Right before that story broke, American Atheists’ board quickly met to dismiss David Silverman.

The thing which is most intriguing about the statement from American Atheists is the closing sentence:

We have zero tolerance for the type of behavior alleged in these accounts. We will continue to demand the highest standards and accountability from our leaders, staff, and volunteers.

This brings up several very important issues:

If morality has no basis, then it is only opinion.

In the above statement, they mention demanding “the highest standards”. What are those standards, and how do they determine them?

The idea that people can be good without God is a major tenant of modern popular humanism and atheism. Many atheists would suggest that their ability to be good without God shows that they have more inner fortitude than “religious” folks, because they don’t need to have a threat of punishment over them in order to coerce them into good behavior.

Christians who understand the gospel are actually willing to agree with this in one sense. Belief in God does not automatically mean that a person will be morally superior to those who do not believe in God. It should not surprise Christians to find atheists or people who follow other religions who are honest, hard-working, kind people. After all, people do not become Christians by their moral effort but by their trust in God’s gracious work on their behalf.

The question is: is morality an innate thing, which people intuitively know, or is it a social construct?

Most prominent atheist thinkers argue that it is a social construct. As I have written about before – see “Why Ethics Depends on Origin” – prominent atheist writers say that ethics are not based in reality, they are social constructs which help our society to function better.

But what about when they don’t?

For example, eugenics (the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics) might actually help our society function better. If we were to abort all babies who were seen to have disabilities, if we were to forcibly end the lives of those who are a drain on society, then wouldn’t that be a benefit to society? That’s what the Nazis and others in the 19th and 20th Centuries suggested… And yet people push back against that and say it is wrong. Why? If morals are not actually based in reality but only exist to help society, then why not take that thought to its logical conclusion?

The reason is because:

Nobody believes that morality is only a matter of opinion.

The idea that morality is a social construct brings up other big questions, such as: what if my morality is different than your morality?

For example, David Silverman has denied any wrongdoing in regard to the above mentioned allegations. Essentially, he is saying that he thinks the things he did were just fine. In other words, the idea that he did something wrong is just the company’s opinion.

It could be argued that male-initiated, non-consensual sex is practiced regularly in some cultures of the world. So, they can’t really say that what he did was wrong, only that they didn’t like it.

The problem is: nobody actually believes that. We all believe that rape, murder and the like are wrong. Even with people, like David Silverman, who claim that nothing is wrong with what he did, others look at it and say: That’s wrong – and it’s not just our opinion, it’s just flat out wrong.

Mark Clark puts it this way:

We do believe in right and wrong. We believe hurting a child is wrong. We believe raping and pillaging the environment is wrong. We believe all races should be equal. That there is such a thing called justice that tells us mercy is better than hate. That loyalty is a virtue, and that there is evil in the world. All of these convictions give meaning to our lives, but if there is no absolute right and wrong, all of them go away; they are but a mirage. Meaningless. Weightless. Worth abandoning with every other construct of modernity.

Case Study: The Sexual Revolution vs. the Vietnam War

Take the 1960’s and 1970’s for example: On the one hand, there was a “sexual revolution” in which people were saying “No one can tell me what to do with my body, don’t try to impose your moral standards on me.” And yet, those same people protested the Vietnam War by saying that it was unjust and immoral because of the use of bombs and napalm.

They didn’t want anyone to impose a moral standard (regarding sex) on them, but they didn’t think twice about trying to assert their moral standard (regarding war and napalm) on others. They said on the one hand that morality is subjective, and in the next breath they said that there is a morality which everyone should accept as normative.

Case Study: Arguments

CS Lewis begins Mere Christianity by talking about the topic of: arguments.

“That’s my seat, I was there first”—“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”—“Why should you shove in first?”—“Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—“Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior, which he expects the other man to know about. . . . It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.

So, then – if morality is not merely a social construct, but is actually something we intuitively or innately know, then:

Morality points us to the existence of God.

The idea that there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong points us to the fact that there is a design. If there is a design, there must be a designer.

If there is a moral rule or standard, then there must be something or someone which determines this standard.

The Bible explains this point in this way:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires . . . they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14–15).

The fact that we are repelled by things such as sexual misconduct, lying and cheating, and that we advocate for equal treatment of all people regardless of their race, economic level, gender or physical ability – all those things things point to something beyond what is simply natural. They are proof of the fact that the heart of God is stitched into our very being.

51 thoughts on “David Silverman, American Atheists and the Attempt to be Good Without God

    1. Is that all it is? That actually only gives you guidance in a negative way, but not in a positive way. Furthermore, it gives no guidance whatsoever as to what exactly constitutes “negative harm.” For example: Colorado and a few other states just banned “conversion therapy.” Some people would argue that this is a necessary harm, and others would say it is an unnecessary harm. Your view sounds warm and fuzzy, but is far too simplistic for the complex reality of real life in this world. Hitler would have argued that the things he did were “necessary harm” which served the greater good. So there we are right back at the crux of the argument: if morality has no objective basis, it is only opinion, which can change from person to person. But nobody actually believes that. And the existence of a moral compass points us to God.
      Btw, this post had nothing to do with creationism. The point I’m discussing here is the moral argument for the existence of God.

      1. Wait a minute, so you’re suggesting that, because there’s not necessarily morality how we define it in nature, that implies that there’s a creator of the universe, who we’re for some reason obligated to worship?
        I dont follow that logic

      2. No, I’m suggesting that the existence of morality is a sign that we have been designed in a particular way. That points to the fact that there is a designer.

      3. Neuroscience would say that our ability to have morality is a result of evolutionary brain development.
        Other species in the wild exhibit compassion as well.

        According to your logic, is the existence of child rapists evidence for the lack of a creator? (Dont say there’s a devil because an all powerful creator could not only destroy a devil at the snap of a finger, but why would the creator invent child rapists to begin with? Why would a loving being create suffering and expect their creation to worship them? Isn’t that a bit weird?

      4. The creator invented child rapists? No one believes that. Rather the creator created people who chose to rape children because of their own depravity. What evolutionary reason is there for raping children? None at all. If neuroscience can create morality as you say, then does it also create depravity? And if it does, then why shouldn’t we just practice eugenics and euthenasia and get rid of all the bad ones for the sake of humanity. That’s what Hitler suggested and it is the natural conclusion of a purely humanistic way of thinking, because if morals are merely social constructions as you suggest, then they actually have no bearing on reality. Therefore there is no basis for human rights beyond the fact that you think there is. Obviously I don’t believe that, but that’s where the theory leads you, because it in essence says that there is no true meaning or value to human life; that your life or my life is no more valuable than that of a stick or a rock or a worm. Yet neither of us believes that is the case.

      5. The basis for human rights is the agreed upon laws of the lens. We vote to agree on these things. A creator is not necessarily a factor.

        Of course the brain creates depravity, where else would it come from?
        We shouldn’t practice consensual euthanasia because it’s unethical to kill unnecessarily. That’s why we have prison and the justice system.

      6. Amanda, you’re only helping to make my exact point. If “the basis for human rights is the agreed upon laws of the land” – then how can you say that there is anything fundamentally wrong with slavery, if slavery is the agreed upon law of the land? If, as you assert, morality is a social construct (laws of the land), then what about when the laws of the land are unjust? How about in the case of the Nazis, whose “law of the land” dictated putting Jews in ghettos and then executing them? How about in Stalin’s USSR, where the law of the land was persecution of homosexuals? How about Pol Pot’s Cambodia, where the law of the land was the eradication of the intellectual class? How about Jim Crow and racist segregation laws in the Southern States of the US?
        Is it only your opinion that those things were wrong, or were they actually objectively and fundamentally wrong? And if the latter, then why were they wrong – if human rights is just an “agreed upon law of the land”?
        Why do you think “it’s unethical to kill unnecessarily”? What if someone disagrees with you? Is that ‘just their opinion’, or are they ACTUALLY wrong? And on what basis can you say that they are ACTUALLY wrong?
        Those who argue for eugenics do in fact disagree with you. They think it is not unethical to kill people who are bad for the gene pool. This was the whole basis of the holocaust as well. This is the exact point I made in my article: If morality is merely a social construct, then it is only a matter of opinion – however, at the end of the day NOBODY (including you) actually believes that. You are drawing on an objective basis for ethics and morality and yet in the same breath you say that their is no objective basis for morality, that it is merely a social construct (“agreed upon laws of the land”). Your logic contradicts itself.

      7. Slavery is wrong because its unnecessary suffering, which is why the majority agrees and it’s outlawed.
        We agree with this based on our ability to have morality.

        How does your argument suggest the theory of creation is true?

      8. So Amanda, following this logic – woild slavery be morally acceptable if the majority of the population thought it was? Or are there things that are wrong even if the majority of people don’t think they are?
        What about when the majority of the population of the southern States thought that segregation was morally acceptable? Or how about Russia where the majority of the population agrees even today that homosexuals deserve to be punished for their sexual orientation?

      9. Its not bad because the majority thinks it is; the majority thinks its bad and voted to outlaw it; law and morality aren’t mutually exclusive

      10. So you’re saying that because we are “quite evolved” we are capable of discerning right and wrong? That still implies that there is objective right and wrong.

      11. So, are there times when people come up with things that they think are moral, which are actually not? I’ve given you a bunch of examples. Or do you condescendingly think that people who disagree with your opinions are less evolved?

      12. No the point is that we agree as societies what we think is moral based on our evolutionary stage.

        A hundred years ago we were a less evolved society and therefore practicing slavery had to get phased out with our evolving concept of morality.

      13. So you assume we are advancing and evolving as people and as a society. And yet, there is more violent crime today than in the past. There are movements of increasing subjection of minorities and gays in Eastern Europe.
        Sounds to me like you think that your sliver of the world is the most evolved and correct one (despite increases in violent crime).

      14. So now you’re denying evolution? Based on perceived more violence now than the past?

        So, viking era and pirates had less violence than our civilised society?

      15. Well, are we talking about biological evolution or social evolution? You’ve been going back and forth between the two, but the one is a matter of biology, the other a matter of sociology. What you’re talking about now is sociological. You yourself said that we are now more “evolved” than we were 100 years ago (btw Jim Crow was not that long ago, neither was the holocaust, Stalinism, Pol Pot, nor apartheid…). Let’s just take 100 years ago: is there more violent crime in our society (which you seem to think is the most evolved since it aligns with your opinions) today than 100 years ago? Yes.

      16. I’m talking about both; social evolution is a byproduct of biological evolution.
        I agree that wasnt long ago, which is why I gave the viking example.

      17. That’s a straw man argument Amanda. Why don’t you use another argument? Like Ancient China or the Pax Romana?
        Using your straw man technique, I could easily point to modern Somalia as an example against social evolution. But of course, you would call that a straw man argument, because it would be.
        Do we have more violent crime today than they did in the Pax Romana or ancient China. Probably we have either the same amount or more than they did.

      18. We have more media coverage and more access to the violence.
        Humans have always been violent (as well as peaceful), how is it pertinent to this topic?

      19. Let me point out another inconsistency in your logic here. According to what you are saying here, EITHER:
        1) Slavery was not actually an injustice in the past, it wasn’t actually wrong for people at that time, it is only wrong for us now because we have decided it is.
        OR
        2) As we have evolved, we have become more aware of what is truly right and wrong.

        The first option (which I assume you don’t believe, because it would be crazy) is the social construct of morality option (which you have been {inconsistently} trying to assert).
        The second option is the one which admits that there is such a thing as objective morality. Clearly you believe this based on what you’ve said above.

      20. I’m saying neither.
        Slavery is something humans created (another evolutionary thing, notice how other species dont enslave) and most societies now agree is immoral, some societies still practice slavery, because their agreed upon concept of morality is different.

        What does this have to do with theism?

      21. So are you still trying to say that slavery is not an injustice if people don’t think it is? Or are you admitting that it is, whether they think it’s okay or not?

      22. No I’m saying that we agree slavery is unjust based on our moral agency, which has evolved over millions of years.
        Different civilizations progress at different paces which is why slavery still exists.

      23. Oh, so in the past it was not actually unjust? And for those who still practice it, it is not unjust? That’s just our opinion that it’s unjust?

      24. It wasn’t unjust based on the agreed upon standard of morality at the time; however humanity will always look back and find injustices in history, no matter how evolved we are.

      25. Oh, so you actually are trying to say that owning another person and treating them as your property was and not fundamentally immoral. That’s absolutely ridiculous.
        I suppose you think the same about racism, rape, etc.
        I don’t think you actually believe that. But you’re right that that is the logical conclusion of your belief system.

      26. Morality doesn’t exist outside of our current definition of it;
        Is slavery wrong based on our current degree of moral agency? Of course it is.

      27. No, I haven’t. But it is non-sensical to believe that an inanimate object has a telos.
        Consider this quote from a former atheist:
        “To continue in atheism, I’d need to believe nothing produces everything, non-life produces life, randomness produces fine-tuning, chaos produces information, unconsciousness produces consciousness, and non-reason produces reason. I just didn’t have that much faith.”

      28. We don’t believe nothing produces things; We simply acknowledge that we don’t know the origins of the universe and assert our lack of belief in the theory of creation.

      29. Actually you do assert that inanimate objects created intelligence and that unconsciousness created consciousness. And what you’re now describing is agnosticism not atheism.

      30. How does unconsciousness create consciousness? That’s not scientific. Science measures observable and repeatable data. That’s the definition. What you’re describing is neither observable nor repeatable. Which means it is what you…(wait for it)…BELIEVE.
        It is a faith system on the same level as a person who believes in God.
        If you’d admit that much then at least you’d be intellectually honest.

      31. “Create” is your word not mine.
        I never said creation is scientific.
        Just because the origins of life are unknown to us does not provide evidence for a creator.

      32. Feel free to swap out “create” with “originate”. You still have the same problem, and your beliefs are just as much beliefs as I said in my prior comment.

      33. And either way, you still have the same problem, and they equally reveal the fact that you believe in something which can neither be observed nor reproduced.

  1. Lewis’ argument is its own redctio. A person who says, “Get out of my chair, I was there first.” does not appeal to some chair law, or even some more general law.
    The displaced person appeals to empathy.
    Empathy is a way that someone feels about a set of facts – a sentiment – which is what I take you to mean by “opinion”, rather than a theoretical interpretation of a set of facts, like a legal opinion.

    1. That still begs the question of why we are empathetic creatures, since empathy often does not help either the species or the individual advance. This is my point in the final section.

      1. Yeah, but that’s another question, is my point 🙂
        Sentiments are different than rules, and I don’t think you can have the deontological intuitionist mash-up which you seem to be suggesting

  2. Nick, your arguments are well founded and make sense to any willing to accept that a creator exists. There is no doubt that the existence of God can be proven intellectually, but it requires a heart decision to accept it. Logic and reasoning do not penetrate the mind of an unbeliever whose heart is hardened against the existence of a higher being, and more specifically the Judeo/Christian deity. Even if a hardened un-believer is intellectually convinced in the existence of a creator, they will reject the idea of a God who defines morality or any other self defined social construct that would cause them to change their life. I am not in any way suggesting that you not continue your pursuit to educate the believer and the non-believer in a logical reason to believe. I am merely suggesting that you not be discouraged from doing so because of those with hardened hearts.

    1. Thanks. The argument from morality is one of about 2 dozen philosophical arguments for the existence of God according to Professor Alvin Plantinga. You’re right though, and Romans 1 essentially says what you are saying: that it’s not a lack of knowledge in many cases but an unwillingness to follow the evidence where it leads because of the implications for the individual’s life.

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