Debating an atheist on morality at 40,000 feet

I can’t say I’ve been involved in many enjoyable debates over the years. But there was one occasion I recall with particular fondness. It was lively, passionate, personal and it took place 40,000 feet in the air.

While docked at the Calgary airport waiting for a new stream of passagers to join my flight a young studious woman about my age took the seat next to the seat next to me. I was happy when the plane took flight and nobody filled the seat between us. More elbow space. So I slumped back in my chair, pulled out a book and began reading.

About 20 minutes later as the flight attendants began passing out snacks I noticed that my neighbour was also reading a book. So being the extrovert that my wife says I am, I decided to start up some small-talk. “What are you reading?” I asked. I can’t recall her answer today, it was a novel of some sort. But when she asked me what I was reading, that’s when things got exciting.

I was reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I explained to her. Lewis was an atheist who converted to Christianity and the book sort of tracks his thought process.

That’s when she declared herself to be an avid atheist, but a good person. (Why she added that quip I don’t know)

The debate which ensued wasn’t exactly fair. I was in the midst of reading Lewis’ arguments from morality and my neighbour (let’s call her Julie from here on out), played herself right into that argument.

I won’t bore you with all the details (mostly because I can’t remember the details), but it was fun. We were loud and both quick on our feet with our responses. I’m sure the people behind and in front of us wished we would just shut up and go back to our reading, but we were having way to much fun to be considerate.

One thing I appreciated about Julie was her consistency. I don’t think she ever thought through the implications of her atheist worldview in terms of morality. But when I moved our conversation from the abstract (“universal moral goodness”) to the personal (Would she get married? Would she have kids? What moral expectations would she place upon them?) she strived for an incredible level of consistent.

By the end of our conversation she declared that she wasn’t going to get married and wasn’t going to have any kids. For how could she marry a husband and expect certain moral commitments from him? How could she have children and be angry with them if they steal $5 from her purse? Or how could anybody think it not right for a parent to beat their child black-and-blue? If we say that such things are deemed morally wrong by society (that was Julie’s earlier argument), then if society changes its opinion, are we then to deem such abuse morally right?

That’s not just an abstract question. It’s one playing out around the world right now.

The atrocities being committed by ISIS are so barbaric that it turns my stomach. I cannot comprehend how evil those people are. But as a person who believes in such a thing as good and evil, I am in a place to acknowledge that ISIS is committing what the international court calls “crimes against humanity.” Yet if morality is governed by society, then within ISIS’s society, they are doing what is right. And if we say that ISIS’s morality can be judged by the “international court” (i.e. the global society’s moral standard), we merely push the problem back. For what if Hitler had won? Our “global society’s moral standard” would look much different than it does today.

Allowing our morality to simply be governed by something as fluid as society – or the whims of the opinion of the masses –  is reckless. Because it may work today if you live in a society were black-and-blue child abuse is deemed as evil. But it may not in another place or time where black-and-blue child abuse is accepted as proper parental punishment.

And what then of the free will of the atheist? If morality is governed by the shifting whims of society, then the atheist cannot have a personal opinion about what is right or wrong. If society deems child abuse wrong, the atheist may happily agree. But if on a whim society changes its mind, the atheist would have to (begrudgingly?) agree also, because she’s made society’s shifting opinion her standard.

Nothing here of course proves the existence of God. On a purely intellectual level I would be happy if the atheist would strive for consistency and stop speaking about a “better world.” But I’m actually thankful for the inconsistent atheists because when they say they want I better world, that is something I as a Christian can give a hardy “AMEN” to.

As for Julie, well I don’t think the idea of never marrying or having children sat with her very well. As she was preparing to get off the flight in Winnipeg she stunned me with this comment: “You’ve got me thinking. Maybe there is a higher standard.”

Mission accomplished. I wasn’t out to make a convert. To hammer my Christianity down her throat. To baptize her with my little plastic cup of wine that the flight attendant gave me.

No. I simply wanted to get her thinking.

And as she was about to move down the aisle she handed me a piece of paper. “Here’s my email,” she said. “Let’s continue this conversation.”

My flight continued on to Windsor and I never did email Julie. It’s been more than ten years now.

But I hope this story will get you thinking too.

QOTD: Do you think the morality argument proves the existence of God? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Thanks for helping to keep the conversation focused and for being courteous.

  • Caroline

    Morality can be indivualistic, as it is but a set of personal standards. No that does not prove God. God is the face of forward moving time being positive, creation. Negative is present within time but cannot create, only destroy, hence it is necessary such as a trash compactor is. God is love. Creation, truth.

  • Derek, you know I’m solidly theist even though I’m not too pleased with most apologists’ arguments. But although I do not know a good argument myself, there are plenty of moral atheists around, and I’m not willing, without a whole lot more research, to call them all inconsistent or groundless. I took a partial look at the “Objective Moral Argument” as posed by Lewis and William Lane Craig, in the second half of this post: Popular Apologetics I Don’t Buy. You may find it of some interest.

    Having said this, I am glad you had a civil discussion … those are entirely too rare.

    • Hey Dan, I’ve never implied there are not moral atheists. In fact, I was shocked when the woman said, “but a good person.” I never supposed otherwise! The post never addresses a persons personal moral convictions. My charge of “inconsistency” is applied to when an atheist assumes a moral position that can be imposed upon others.

      For the record, I’m not one for apologetics either. If memory serves, Lewis’ hide got handed to him while debating a Humanist on this subject. So I’m also not trying to imply that a closed case has been made. On the contrary, this was to get people thinking and to start a discussion.

      (btw, define “a whole lot of research.” 10 books? 20 books? A dissertation? How much research before someone can form an educated opinion? 🙂 )

      • I don’t have a thought as to how much research it’d take Derek … but a lot more that I’ve done ; {)

        But i would still suggest that atheists i have known agree, for example, that society is right to enforce laws against murder, rape, and incest. Are you suggesting they can’t have a sound, rational (but atheist) basis to hold this? I need to find me a couple open-minded atheists and ask them, because I suspect (without knowing for sure) that there may well be godless arguments here that i might have no need to dispute.

        • No. Of course I’m not suggesting they can’t have a sound, rational basis for this. I am suggesting that whatever reason is given seems inconsistent with their worldview. 🙂

          And of course some well articulated atheists will have solid godless arguments.