Atheism and the Problem of Moral Relativism

According to moral relativism, the concept of right versus wrong varies from person to person. One person might consider adultery to be wrong, while another could decide that open marriages are copacetic.  For something to be recognized as universally wrong by everyone, a supernatural God must exist and serve as the consistent arbiter of right versus wrong, or good versus evil.

A helpful example to easily illustrate the difference between moral relativism and moral absolutism would be Hitler and the Nazis, responsible for the Holocaust. In order to demonize someone with whom you disagree in modern society, all one needs to do is call that person a Nazi, or a Holocaust denier. Six million innocent Jews were slaughtered like sheep. Presumably, only an incomprehensibly cruel person would tolerate the genocide of an entire group of human beings. But we know that the Holocaust really happened, and that six million people were murdered by the Nazis in cold blood. The Nazis were moral relativists because they decided that Jews could be exterminated like vermin simply because of their religious beliefs.

While we know there were courageous German dissidents like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, willing to sacrifice their own lives for others, there were also people like George Soros — a secular atheist of Jewish heritage himself, and current financial supporter of the Antifa movement — who collaborated with the Nazis, and admitted years later that he felt no remorse about watching his fellow Jews stripped of their personal property before being shipped off to concentration camps, and eventually death.

Obviously, the Nazis managed to reconcile their collective conscience with the attempt to systematically exterminate the Jewish population in their midst, so we cannot deny the existence of moral relativism. The only question that remains is, can we assume that moral absolutism also exists, and that there are some things that are inherently wrong?

Atheists are not evil or especially immoral people, but they cannot apply consistency to their moral beliefs. Although many Nazis were atheists, they didn’t murder the Jews because of their atheism, and many were also not atheists. The Jews were exterminated because Hitler promoted nationwide bigotry against them. Decent German people opposed to the slaughter were powerless to resist the Nazis, because their guns had been confiscated.

So, what does all of this have to do with atheism and the problem of moral relativism? Everything. Atheists want to be able to proclaim moral absolutism exists when the scenario suits them, but they don’t know how to apply moral absolutism with any logical consistency, due to their lack of belief in a supernatural God.

Consider, as an example, the online debate between Matt Dillahunty, the host of the Atheist Experience, and theist David Robertson, on the “Unbelievable” podcast hosted by Justin Brierly, who also served as the debate moderator. Matt is a very intelligent person, and an eloquent advocate for his atheistic worldview.

So the outcome of their debate was quite surprising. Right around the 25 minute mark in the video above, Robertson exposed a major vulnerability in a very typical atheist’s worldview.

Matt tried to insist that he’s not a moral relativist, but then contradicted himself almost immediately when Robertson ambushed him by saying, “If there is, as Dawkins says, no good and evil, then how can I say that Auschwitz is evil?…If I’m an atheist, then I just have to accept evil as just something natural.”

Dillahunty rejected that claim and noted that it was not his responsibility to defend Richard Dawkins, assuming that the paraphrasing of his comments about Auschwitz had been accurate.  Then he added,

The idea that good and evil aren’t things, that they’re not extant things, is pretty common. But I’m not a moral relativist. I’m not portraying a view, as you have adopted, or have claimed that atheism adopts, that morality is just opinions or social constructs and things like that…Killing people, killing six million people, slaughtering six million people, is obviously, flatly, in conflict with well being, both of those individuals, and of the society as a whole. And nothing could be more clear…

Poor Mr. Dillahunty didn’t see that he’d just boxed himself into a corner, but Justin Brierly quickly recognized the fatal flaw in that argument. He focused Robertson’s attention on Dillahunty’s peculiar choice of a certain word in his answer– that word being “obviously.”

The conversation segued into this rather remarkable, rapid-fire exchange:

Dillahunty: It’s not obvious to you that killing people is against their wellbeing? How else could you define wellbeing, if it doesn’t preclude being slaughtered?

Robertson: Well, that’s true. That’s interesting. So, you would say that it would be against the wellbeing of the child in the womb to kill it?

Dillahunty: Well, yes.

Robertson: So, you’d be against abortion, then?

Dillahunty: No.

Robertson: So, you think that killing the child in the womb is against the wellbeing of the child, but you’re for that.

Dillahunty: Did I say I was for it?

Oddly enough, Mr. Dillahunty didn’t seem to realize the contradiction in logic that he’d blundered into making. He quickly tried to soften his position on abortion by substituting the euphemism “pro-choice” but Robertson wouldn’t let him off the hook, finally hammering home his point by saying, “So, your whole argument against me (which) was, is it not obvious to you that killing someone is against their wellbeing, is completely superfluous.”


The debate was only halfway over, but Dillahunty was pretty much finished. It never got any better for him for the remainder of the podcast.

It is difficult to understand how a person as obviously intelligent as Mr. Dillahunty could be so adamant that the Holocaust and murder of 6 million Jews is so obviously wrong that everyone would agree and condemn such a horror, but that same person has no moral qualms about the medically-assisted murder of 55 million or more unborn babies in the U.S. alone.

Doesn’t terminating the life of an unborn child harm it’s wellbeing? Isn’t it detrimental to society as a whole?

Aren’t the answers to these questions obvious?