Are Atheists Amoral?

Are Atheists Amoral? The opposite ends of life and anything in-between

Presenter: Dr. Paul Kamill

It is not long since I was “attacked” by a religious relative, whose view of atheists, or more specifically me, was that they could have no morals or ethics as they ascribed to no set dogma such as the Bible or Koran. My response was to ask him if he believed me to be evil, and then to point out just a few of the clearly immoral things done in the name of Christianity and other religions. Just listen to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins!i

Before I retired I was a doctor, working as a respiratory physician and a family practitioner. In both these roles I had on many occasions to deal with morally conflicting decisions. My role as a respiratory physician entailed, among other things, the care of patients dying of lung cancer. More harrowing were those who were dying the slower death of either chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart failure. I was privileged in my dual role as family physician and respiratory physician to care for these patients both in hospital and in their own homes.(Georges et al. 2008)

At the other end of life I was often approached about termination of pregnancy. One of the partners in the general practice was a practising Roman Catholic, and refused to offer contraceptive services, or advice about abortion.(Grayling 2000) Having avoided the ethical burden herself this was transferred to the other partners in the practice. In the UK this is an accepted moral stance for doctors. Having never – well, not quite never — practised in Canada I do not know if this is the case here.

Recently, the British Parliament has had before it a private members bill, which passed its first reading, on the provision of sex education for young girls in school. It looks as if this bill may thankfully now have been defeated. The British Humanist Association, of which I am proud to be a member, has information on what was done to lobby members of Parliament.

The same MP in the UK who proposed this bill is vehemently anti-abortion.

She tabled a number of amendments to an earlier bill suggesting that the provision of counselling for abortion should be provided by religious organizations, which, as quite rightly noted by the BHA, would be unable to provide unbiased information.

The second issue I touched on above is the provision of end of life services. Most of you will be aware of the various cases in Canada,ii iii iv and perhaps those in the UK, and certainly of the death of Jack Kevorkian in the USA. In the UK there is ample provision for Hospice, end of life terminal care. There is also excellent training and support for palliative care physicians. Of course, some patients still die “badly”, but far fewer now than in the past (Saunders et al. 2003) — though things may change as the purse strings tighten.

The more widely held religious moral view is that ending a life prematurely is immoral.(Baume et al. 1995;Dickenson 2001) There are fewer ethical considerations than the religious ethicists would have us believe. James Rachels, the influential American ethicist, writing clearly stated:

“The traditional distinction between active and passive euthanasia requires critical analysis. The conventional doctrine is that there is such an important moral difference between the two that, although the latter is sometimes permissible, the former is always forbidden. This doctrine may be challenged for several reasons. First of all, active euthanasia is in many cases more humane than passive euthanasia, Secondly, the conventional doctrine leads to decisions concerning life and death on irrelevant grounds. Thirdly, the doctrine rests on a distinction between killing and letting die that itself has no moral importance. Fourthly, the most common arguments in favor of the doctrine are invalid. I therefore suggest that the American Medical Association policy statement that endorses this doctrine is unsound”(Rachels 1975)

Doctors in the UK are required to register with the General Medical Council a body that has powers to disbar doctors form practice. The GMC frequently issues well thought out guidance on ethical issues facing doctors. Among these notes was one concerning end of life decisions in which it stated:

“An act where the doctor’s primary intention is to bring about a patient’s death would be unlawful”

So, here is a limit to what doctors should be allowed to perform. But, on the other hand:

“There is no obligation to give treatment that is futile and burdensome”.

There is a distinction here between “active” and “passive” euthanasia. Here there are a whole host of arguments, into which I will not delve.(Delamothe 2010;Lachman 2010;Norwood et al. 2009;Panksepp et al. 2007;Smith-Stoner 2007;Wilson et al. 2007) A recently commissioned report for the parliamentary legislators in the UK can be seen here v if you really must!

Don’t worry, there is a 15 page (!) executive summary.

I am bound by a secular moral code, not by an ancient “Hippocratic” code which may be irrelevant Similarly, other professions are bound by secular moral codes.(Cruess et al. 2000) The “attack” as I mentioned above can be refuted.

We all use heuristics – rules of thumb – in our everyday life to simplify what we do. I would suggest that sceptics are more likely to question those heuristics we apply to living than are those using “blind faith”! The Roman Catholic GP who refused to offer contraception was following her moral heuristic “unquestioningly”. She refused on personal grounds. This is privileging her moral grounds over those of someone who probably does not subscribe to her moral code. There are worldwide overwhelmingly more non-christians than there are christians. Furthermore, there are any number of christian denominations many of whom may be considered apostate by one or another grouping.vii Trinitarianism as opposed to Unitarianism is but a simple example. As Richard Dawkins notes Polytheism is common among pre-christian religions and in any case may be represented by trinitarianism.(Dawkins 2006) Islam holds similar views to some Christian ideas concerning fertility.(Hedayat et al. 2006) Malcolm Potts writes about the overarching Paternalism of religious views about contraception noting that while it took over 30 years in Japan to market the oral contraceptive Viagra was approved within six months.(Potts 2003)

So by whose moral code should we live? And is it not possible that our heuristics may change with time, attitudes, and with better ‘evidence’?(Hesslow 1994)



iii One of the missions of medical schools and academic medical centers is to teach the core values of the medical profession — values that long preceded managed care, that conflict with it in important ways, and that are likely to persist long after managed care has been forgotten. These include, for example, the primary responsibility of physicians to their patients rather than to the rest of society, along with the professional autonomy necessary to fulfil this responsibility. This is not an absolute value, and it can conflict with other important social values, but it is part of the professional and ethical identity of medicine.(Michels 1999) (my emphasis)

iv “A community’s morality depends on the moral premises, rules of evidence, and rules of inference it acknowledges, as well as on the social structure of those in authority to rule knowledge claims in or out of a community’s set of commitments. For Christians, who is an authority and who is in authority are determined by Holy Tradition, through which in the Mysteries one experiences the Holy Spirit. Because of the requirement of repentance and conversion to the message of Christ preserved in the Tradition, the authority of the community must not only exclude heretical teaching but heretical communities from communion.” (my emphasis) (Engelhardt 1995)