Skip to content
The Well

Is atheism destroying the moral fabric of society?

The debate goes back at least 400 years.
a picture of a man with a hat and a tarot card.
Credit: Vincent Romero, Jean-Baptiste Alliett / BnF, Drebbel / Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • Francis Bacon, who helped develop the scientific method, argued that atheism is intellectually shallow and morally pernicious. He believed, "They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility."
  • In the modern age, many people identify as "secular but spiritual," seeking a sense of community, inner reflection, and self-awareness outside traditional religious frameworks.
  • The debate between secular humanists and religious believers often centers on the source of moral authority, with believers asserting it comes from a transcendent Supreme Being and secularists viewing it as rooted in human feeling and judgment.
In Partnership With
John Templeton Foundation

In the time of Elizabeth I of England and Ireland the statesman Francis Bacon published a short essay On Atheism. “It is true,” he says, “that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

But atheism is not just intellectually shallow, he thinks; it’s morally pernicious. “They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility.” Atheism “destroys magnanimity” and deprives human nature of the “means to exalt itself above human frailty.”

That was in 1597 when atheists were pretty much outliers. But now, we live in an increasingly secular, “post-metaphysical” age, and significant parts of our populations don’t reject religion — it just isn’t part of their mental landscape. This alarms those believers who think that the moral fabric of society is being destroyed by this loss of religion. Secular humanists, on the other hand, assert that moral standards don’t depend on religious belief, and many secularists think that religion itself is pernicious — fundamentalist, obscurantist, patriarchal, repressive. This mutual antagonism isn’t the only possibility, of course, and fruitful conversation does take place, partners in conversation, listening rather than assuming, seeking common ground. 

Secular but spiritual and ceremonial

And there is an intriguing recent phenomenon that has become almost commonplace: “I’m secular rather than religious… but I’m also ‘spiritual.'” But what could this talk of spirituality mean if it is no longer grounded in religion? Maybe, though, there’s something to explore here, possible common ground between (some) believers and (some) non-believers.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas once talked of “an awareness of what is missing” in our post-metaphysical age. Perhaps it is this uneasy awareness that leads to the appeal of spirituality. Well, one of the things that has been missing is fairly straightforward: the solidarity and regular gathering of a community. And human beings are “ceremonial animals,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein said. Humanist ministers are starting to preside at naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals.

Surely something else is missing, though. Recall the words of King Lear’s daughter, Regan, about her father: “He hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Although secular humanism asserts that we can live well without religious belief, we still need to embrace a language of interiority, inwardness, self-awareness, and self-knowledge. This language is diagnostic, but it is also expressive. There is a poetic of the inner life and its relation to demeanor and conduct; it is agonized, despairing, hopeful, and struggling to overcome delusion, double-mindedness, and self-deception.

This language of spirituality has a history and continues to grow. It is anchored in ancient traditions that made theistic sense of the phenomena, but the phenomena survive the demise of the theistic sense. Moral life does not require religious belief, but it can be informed by the religious traditions. As the British philosopher Mary Midgley once said, Genesis is more nourishing than Dawkins, and she wasn’t giving voice to a faith position. One thinks here of Søren Kierkegaard’s talk of the necessity for what he called subjective thinking, the existing individual, a dimension missed by sticking merely to the facts.

But secular humanism is still associated with Bacon’s picture of atheism, perhaps because the rejection of belief was thought to entail a rejection of a way of life conformed to God’s commandments — that is, the rejection of belief being a kind of infidelity, a refusal of that way of life. But perhaps our deepest human impulses themselves inform this conception of God, human impulses that are not always available to us unless we search them out and break through our collective self-enclosure.

Two attorneys general separated by 400 years

Francis Bacon went on in 1613 to serve as Attorney General under King James I, and just over 400 years later, and on another continent, another Attorney General, William Barr, took up a similar cause. In his book Hatchet Man, the legal commentator Elie Honig said somewhat sourly of Barr that he had railed:

“…about the evils of secularism, opining that the country’s founders believed that ‘to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, these moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will — they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.”

William Barr is hardly alone in making this kind of assessment — and in making this kind of assumption about the role of human will. But I think it is an important error: It abstracts the will from the sensibility that informs it. It is intriguing that Jean-Paul Sartre’s atheistic existentialism made moral values a product of the human will because they could no longer be thought of as a product of God’s. This proposition lies at the heart of religious criticism of secular humanism, but the issue is also a deeply political aspect of the so-called “culture wars.”

Barr is obviously right to say that human beings are “willful,” and it is surely right that we have a prodigious (if not an “infinite”) capacity to rationalize. But the unreliability of the human will is common ground. The ancients, after all, saw our weakened capacity for virtue along a trajectory from moral turpitude to slow moral improvement, from wanton indifference (akolasia) through weakness of will (akrasia), to self-control (enkrateia), and to the ideal of temperance (sōphrosunē), in which moral action flows from a person without inner resistance.

Where does moral authority come from?

But something else is going on here, which is why I mentioned Sartre’s popular thought that we “choose” our values. Barr’s conservative position seems to be that it must be the case that if moral values don’t rest on a transcendent authority independent of the human will, then they must be thought to rest upon this human will with its infinite capacity to rationalize, and the inevitable outcome is precisely systematic rationalization, permissiveness, promiscuity, relativism, and moral instability. Even in the case of apparently shared values, their authority for a secularist must lie in the human will. For the believer, on the other hand, their authority lies in the divine will, the will of the transcendent Supreme Being. If the human will is so wayward, fickle, and unstable, then that’s not much of an authority; at least religious people know when they are sinning, whereas the secularist has, allegedly, lost any secure sense of their own sinfulness.

Subscribe for a weekly email with ideas that inspire a life well-lived.

But why are we talking about authority here at all? And why, specifically, of the (weak) authority of the wayward human will? Talk of authority belongs to a language of commandments, imperatives, prohibitions, and requirements. But they relate more readily to what we do rather than to our dispositions. As to our dispositions, human beings are frequently cruel, vindictive, and ruthless in the pursuit of their interests, and these dispositions are only sometimes tempered by quite different dispositions of solidarity, sympathy, compassion, benevolence, cooperativeness, and, to recall Bacon, magnanimity. Autocrats and their admirers tend to treat the latter as weaknesses. The rest of us, however, are merely conflicted, and if we feel remorse, it is not because we have broken a rule but because we have done someone harm.

Believers and non-believers unite

One possible theology conceives a good God as creating human beings with an innate capacity for goodness, their constant and willful straying from which is represented by the myth of the Fall. Believers will not be happy with the idea that this conception of the Supreme Being is a projection of our own liberated impulses and dispositions, nor that imperatives about behavior are attempts to recall us to our own stifled dispositions. But whether we are believers or non-believers, the phenomena remain roughly the same, and spirituality includes a methodology of moral renewal. Moral values naturally dissolve into patterns of disposition, demeanor, and conduct. We are so formed that we are motivated by considerations we might summarize as a natural ethic of care. As the American poet Stephen Crane wrote:

The voice of God whispers in the heart
So softly
That the soul pauses,
Making no noise,
And strives for these melodies,
Distant, sighing, like faintest breath,
And all the being is still to hear.

There is a Buddhist echo in these final lines. We have to still the clamor of greed, hatred, and delusion if we are to hear and then see the world as it were for the first time. Perhaps Crane’s stillness is precisely the grace of nature that is a condition of hearing our own inner voice protesting against our own  hardness of heart. Francis Bacon said that atheism “depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty.” But maybe it has nothing to do with whether you are a believer or not: The long discipline of learning to listen, both to oneself and to others, may release a passion for justice and a care for our suffocating planet. This is ground, beyond the fray of the culture wars, on which believers and non-believers can stand together.


Up Next