Religion precludes ethics

I received an email where someone asked me to respond to an atheist's comments.  Here it is.

"Religion precludes ethics. If you have to propitiate a supreme being who acts like a petulant 2 year old and if you don’t, will smash you, then you do not do the right thing for its own sake. Hence, no religious person can ever be ethical, only an non-religious person."

Since the objection is not arranged logically, I will try to extract the essential elements, so I can analyze it.  To preclude means to make unnecessary.  To propitiate means to satisfy wrath with a sacrifice.  To be petulant means to show easy impatience and irritation, to be petty, irritable.

It seems the atheist is stating that being religious logically excludes being ethical.  Of course, it is not stated which religion.  Instead, a broad over-arching and undefined term is offered.  Therefore, he's saying every single religion makes ethics unnecessary.  He bases his premise on propitiation.  Since propitiation is a biblical concept, for the sake of this article I will assume he is attacking the Christian God who sacrificed his own Son, Jesus.

Propitiation is ethical, as well as legal, in its nature.  Within the realm of biblical theology, propitiation is necessary when a moral offense is committed by breaking a law, in this case, God's law.  Biblically, the ultimate propitiation is made by God himself in the incarnation where Jesus died for the sins of the world.  This is a self-sacrifice on behalf of others to save them from the punishment due to those who break God's moral laws.  Since this self-sacrifice is an act performed on behalf of others to enable them to escape punishment for their actions (by taking the punishment due them upon oneself), it is morally good.  So, from the beginning, the atheist's argument is invalidated since propitiation by itself is an ethically good thing.  Therefore, he is using an ethically good thing to demonstrate how ethics are not necessary.  Therefore, he is offering a self-contradictory statement.

To say that God acts like an impatient, irritable two-year-old is an unsubstantiated opinion.  Opinions do not make logical proofs nor should they constitute the substance of an argument meant to convince or draw a logical conclusion.  His opinion is out of place in this argument and has no value in his assertion.  It would seem that he is upset with the idea of God sacrificing himself for others and bases his conclusion on his dislikes.

The atheist offers the term, "do the right thing for its own sake."  This is most interesting since an atheist can provide no objective standard of morality by which he can state what is and is not the right thing.  Also, he is begging the question.  He is stating that there is a right thing to do because it's the right thing to do as is demonstrated by the term "for its own sake."  In other words, he is saying you do the right thing because it's the right thing.  He offers no standard whatsoever to establish what is and is not the right thing.  He just says it's the right thing and goes on from there.

He then attempts to draw a conclusion that is completely unsubstantiated by the previous statements.  This atheist has made no logical case whatsoever.  He has made the logical fallacy of begging the question on what is and is not the right thing.  He has also offered an opinion as part of his evidence.  Finally, he erroneously concludes that only non-religious people can be ethical.  Of course, this is a completely illogical statement since ethics deal with what is right and wrong, and both theists and non-theists claim to behave ethically . . . and do . . . though the basis of the ethics may not always be consistent or logically supported.

In conclusion, the objection has no merit, is not logically necessary, is filled with errors, and demonstrates an unsound conclusion.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.