Shermer refutes Prager’s view that you can’t be moral without religion

A while back I put up conservative Dennis Prager’s video (here) claiming that you couldn’t have a justified morality without religion.  And then I briefly refuted that claim, which wasn’t hard because it rested largely on the Divine Command Theory: good and bad are absolutely determined by God’s dictates. The Euthyprho argument, one of the great contributions of philosophy to clear thinking, refuted that conclusively.  (Yes, I know that Plato was dealing with piety rather than morality, but that’s irrelevant.) So does the cherry-picking of scriptural morality by nearly all believers, fundamentalist or not.

Here Michael Shermer presents an 8-minute video with a fuller refutation of this common claim:

Six minutes in, Shermer addresses the equally common argument:”Hitler and Stalin showed that atheism promotes big-time immorality.”

My only beef is that Shermer implies (though doesn’t say explicitly) that there are objective moral truths. I disagree.


  1. rwilsker
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    My feeling is that truly religious people can be obedient, but not moral. For me, being moral means making choices, whether or not they are painful or even terrifying, and acting on those choices.

    If you make no choice other than to do just what someone tells you to do, that’s not being moral.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      It is like altruism. Are there any altruistic acts? Does anyone ever do anything altruistically?

      It is incredibly difficult to argue that altruism exists. I may sacrifice my life for my son, but why? To preserve his life over mine. I have made the greatest sacrifice. But have I? It is easy to argue that I do this because I must. I cannot live with myself if my son dies and I have an opportunity to save him. That is selfish, not altruistic, even though the action is perceived as altruistic.

      What if I did the action without thinking; no intention, just doing. Then I have acted unconsciously due to my training as a person. I am no different than a robot, trained to save lives. The action, again, may be perceived as altruistic but is it really? In this case, there is no morality involved, maybe what one would call manners.

      The greatest altruistic acts then are more like setting the dinner table, taking the trash out, or opening the door for a stranger. Often done without question, without thought, without concern for sacrifice.

      Altruism can never outrun the shadow of avoiding pain, self-imposed obligation or manners imposed by our parents.

  2. BJ
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to bring up a few more points that Shermer didn’t.

    1. If the Old and/or New Testaments are the words of god and those words are where we get our morals, then isn’t it also wrong to eat shrimp, work on the sabbath, and all the other incredibly silly things the Bible says are wrong but nobody believes in or listens to anymore? Isn’t it perfectly justifiable to enslave many people and stone sinners?

    2. Which god or gods are we talking about? As Shermer did bring up, there are many holy books from various religions that are purportedly the words of god. Is Sharia law moral because that version of god said it is? What about the gods of ancient Greek times? The Gods of most cultures in those times were capricious beings with whom you curried favor so they would provide you with assistance, as they tended to enjoy occasionally screwing around with humanity. They had no morality and didn’t bother to espouse one; they simply were extremely powerful beings who you could ask for help and who basically enjoyed fucking around a lot, often with normal people and for their own divine pleasure.

    3. I’d just like to address how Shermer’s fourth point (absolute morality corrupts absolutely) provides us with yet another example of how the regressive left (and the extreme right, or any absolutist ideology) is very much like a religion. If the beliefs on an ideology are the unassailable truth of the world, then those who diverge from it must be punished and stopped from spreading their falsities. If we do not punish and stop from spreading their falsities those who diverge from absolute morality, then we allow for a world of anarchy and without morality or even kindness/goodness.

    Also, Jerry, doesn’t Shermer’s fourth point explicitly contradict your claim that he’s implying that there is an objective morality? It does seem like he’s implying that at the beginning of the video, but once you watch the whole thing, I think it becomes pretty clear that he doesn’t believe that such a possibility exists.

    • Syfer
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      The craziest most uncomfortable one, from today’s perspective, is the one forbidding clothes from multiple materials.

      Note: the crazies one goes to genocides of Canaan, which apparently was moral because Jahve commanded it

      • Walt Jones
        Posted April 11, 2017 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        That’s the one I agree with! Wearing a 50/50 t-shirt is like wearing a plastic bag.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted April 11, 2017 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

          Yes, the poly-blend t-shirt is an abomination; anyone caught wearing one should be stoned, and to have the iniquities of having worn it visited upon them, and upon their children, and upon their children’s children, unto the third and fourth generations.

      • BJ
        Posted April 11, 2017 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

        Does anyone here know why that was made a rule by who wrote it? I mean, I understand the idea of being Kosher back then for sanitary purposes/stopping the spread of disease, and other such rules from certain pragmatic perspectives of the time, but what was the pragmatic reason for that rule (if any — not that there has to be one, and probably isn’t)?

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted April 11, 2017 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

          @BJ It is *Shatnez* – in essence it has roots in the desire for the makers of laws to keep their flock in order & to ‘other’ those not of their ilk – Out-groups/In-groups nonsense

        • JonLynnHarvey
          Posted April 12, 2017 at 12:08 am | Permalink

          Anthropologists have offered various explanations of it, and I remember Mary Douglas’ book “Purity and Danger” seemed fairly persuasive, but at this point, I can’t remember what her thesis was.

    • Historian
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      For my own amusement, I occasionally watch televangelists. I just happened to catch a preacher responding to a question as to why Christians need not keep kosher. He cited a verse in the New Testament that overrode the kosher requirements of the Old Testament. Apparently, God felt a need for a version 2.0 of his commands.

      • BJ
        Posted April 12, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        And yet, is also infallible. And yet, totally screwed up with that flood thing and was super sorry about it.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Have been an atheist all my life and have yet to kill anyone. Never even had a traffic ticket so I must be hell bound.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      Aha, you haven’t killed anyone yet or incurred a traffic ticket, not because you’ve worked out that killing people or driving dangerously in your iron chariot is harmful, but because you are unconsciously living off the accumulated ethical capital of Judeo-Christianity. Checkmate, atheist!

    • Larry
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      But what about your original sin? What are you going to do about that?? What’s a parking ticking or a murder next to that?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

      Dang, don’t wanna be within rock-throwing range of you when it comes time for those without sin to cast the first stone. 🙂

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Divine Command theory is the worst possible justification of morality. It corrupts the motivations for being moral, and is a prescription for tyranny.

    It seems to contradict the views of some theists that you need God to account for why humans have a moral sense at all a la Francis Collins. If you claim that God implanted an inherent moral sense into humans, this IMO does not comport well with divine command theory.

    Shermer is quite right about Hitler not being an atheist (see )
    but Stalin embraced atheism as an adult. Acharya S believes he may have re-embraced religion after he mysterious retreat in 1941, but the evidence is unclear.

    • Posted April 11, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Not only are there numerous holy books with different notions of morality, but the Jewish and Christian holy books developed differing concepts of morality over time as they “evolved”. In all of them, the concept of morality changed as the cultures they were imbedded in changed and as the concept of God changed.

      Was it moral for the JudeoChristian God to tell Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of one tree and then punish them severely when they ate it? (as with small kids: “Don’t stick that bean up your nose!) If/when God commanded Israelites to kill all life forms except women in a town they were to take over as theirs in the Promised Land, that must have been moral, right?! And, ordering Abraham to kill his son. And having a bet with the Devil to test Job’s beliefs by killing off his family, taking away his wealth and giving him boils, etc. And on and on.

      In many concepts of God, he was a pretty mean dude; apparently not espousing a moral system at all.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted April 11, 2017 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

        How true.

        Some scholars argue that in all the passages by the J author (in which God is referred to as Yahweh), God is consistently more cruel and barbaric than in the passages by the E author (in which God is referred to as Elohim). This may be true, but I’ve never really troubled to tease out the different interwoven passages of the earlier books of the Jewish Bible.

        A minority of scholars have argued that the Jews originally thought of Yahweh and Elohim as two separate entities which later got conflated.
        I have far less expertise on the Jewish Bible than I do on the New Testament, so I don’t have much of an opinion one way or the other on the credibility of this claim.

    • Walt Jones
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      Hitchens argued that Stalinism was like a religion, and Joe didn’t want the competition.

  5. Mark Perew
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    An objection to Shermer’s examples of “murders” that aren’t wrong. Murder is unlawful killing. His examples of self-defense, capital punishment, and just war are all lawful and thus not murder.

    Aside from that, his rebuttal is quite on target.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      As per comment 5 [by Mark Parew] Shermer’s use of “murder” when he means state sanctioned killing or killing in self-defence is laughable given that he’s being making these sorts of arguments for at least 10 years.

      I also don’t see the use [or advantage] of having a “provisional morality” category between the absolute & relative morality categories. Relative morality can easily absorb his examples of provisional morality & in fact does so [depending on which definition of relative morality one goes to].

      All in all not a good effort from Shermer IMO

      • KD33
        Posted April 11, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        These observations seem pedantic to me. Clearly Shermer was addressing the broader concept of premeditated “killing,” whether lawful or unlawful. Also, I do find the category of “provisional morality” to be useful, if for no other reason to separate its shades of meaning from “relative” morality, a heavily loaded term that to non-skeptics would tar any argument of the type Shermer is making.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted April 11, 2017 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

          Shermer is too loose in in his use of language for it to be possible to dissect his arguments, especially as he doesn’t define his terms well [if he’d thought about these things he wouldn’t have made his “murder” blooper.]

          It seems as if he hasn’t investigated what philosophers have been saying about absolute versus relative morality & of course there is no requirement to view “absolute morality” as a loaded term if it is well defined. That’s where being a pedant is essential!

          Shermer adds nothing but confusion to what has been discussed for a long time. Pedantry can be a useful dollop of precision.

  6. Michael Fisher
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Adam Kemp [A Texan I think] from 2006:

    “Relative morality is often accused of being arbitrary or allowing for anything, but in reality the opposite is true. It is absolute morality which is arbitrary. Sure, absolute moralists have a definite, unchanging set of moral rules, but those unchanging rules change from person to person, religion to religion. One person’s mortal sin is another’s harmless act. That shows the brutal truth: there is no such thing as absolute morality. All morality is relative. Once we acknowledge this, we can start the real debate about what the rules should be, and that debate can be properly based in reason and fact.”

  7. Denise
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Debatable I suppose, but quite irrelevant to the question of whether or not God actually exists.

  8. Posted April 12, 2017 at 3:33 am | Permalink

    Some gods are not opposed to killing – take the christian/jewish/muslim one – it seems to revel in death!

  9. Travis
    Posted April 13, 2017 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    What good is a morality which is wholly independent of humans?

    That’s my rebuttal to even the concept of objective morality (as theists define it).

    That, and we can’t possible know exactly what god wants us to do because 1) he apparently relies on a crappy holy book for communication and
    2) even if he did communicate with us directly, we have imperfect perceptions and so it is still inherently subjective or prone to mistake. I argue this is just as bad as an arbitrary set of moral standards.

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