Burgers and morality

Imagine if someone grew up believing that hamburgers were the sole invention of MacDonald’s, and that this delicacy could be found nowhere else.

Imagine this person meeting, for the first time, someone who didn’t like MacDonald’s. In fact, this person never goes to MacDonalds. Ever.

Yet strangely, this MacDonald’s-averse person claims to enjoy hamburgers.

“That’s impossible”, exclaims our Big Mac aficionado, “people who don’t eat MacDonald’s have absolutely no idea what a hamburger is or what it tastes like, and they cannot be trusted with anything to do with hamburgers!”

The absurdity of this scenario is obvious: hamburgers, as everyone knows, are made and eaten by many restaurants and private citizens on a regular basis. MacDonald’s has no special claim on its invention or sale.

This, I think, is the mistake believers make when they regard atheists to be moral nihilists. Atheists cannot possibly be moral, they claim, because morality comes from God, and no one else.

It’s actually quite revealing to consider what this Christian viewpoint actually implies about human behavior. It implies that a mere 4000 years ago or so, as Moses allegedly descended the mountain with the Ten Commandments in hand, people suddenly began to believe that things like murder and theft were morally wrong, ending what must have been an uncontrolled murderous rampage.

(Unfortunately, the only murderous rampages reported in the Bible until this point were those supported by God himself, including the annihilation of most of the world’s population in the great flood, and the slaughter of Egypt’s first born.)

The Christian view also implies that a mere 2000 years ago, when Jesus asked us to love our neighbors as ourselves, the Golden Rule suddenly poofed into human consciousness for the first time. Try telling that to Confucius. Or Pittacus. Or Thales, Isocrates, Epicurus, the ancient Egyptians or the ancient Babylonians.

It seems, instead, that morality has been with humans ever since we evolved, and probably a lot earlier. We wouldn’t have survived without it.

In short, atheists can eat burgers too.


Update: A great summary of a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences indicates that most people, regardless of their religious beliefs, respond similarly to a range of moral problems, indicating that religion itself is probably not responsible for morality, or even for making people more moral than they were before.


11 Responses to Burgers and morality

  1. Not all atheists…

    You’re an exception to the rule. If they were all like you, there wouldn’t be a problem.

    What do you think about the atheists who know there’s a war, who are aggressively engaged in it as we speak?

    • kpharri says:


      It is true that some atheists are far more belligerent than I, and perhaps they regard themselves to be in a war. I think this is a matter of semantics, to be honest. They call it a war, I don’t.

  2. omg….the picture on this blog just reminded me that I’m starving. That burger looks delicious! Gotta get a bite to eat. See ya later and hope you’re almost ready for Christmas. We still have a few more things to do the next couple days. (waving)

  3. Hi there! I liked your comments on The Church of No People Blog and thought I would check out your blog.

    Your use of the term “believers” and “Christian viewpoint” make me believe that you are lumping all Christians into holding the viewpoint you are presenting here. I do not wish to argue with you or to deny that there are Christians who have this perspective. However, I do want to share why I personally believe that the Bible does not teach this viewpoint.

    I do not believe that Atheists are moral nihilists because the Bible says that God created man and woman in his image (Genesis 1 and/or 2). Based upon the fact that men and woman are physically different, I assume it means “bestowing His character traits.” Since my belief is that God knows what is right, all humans know what is right and therefore have a common morality. The problem according to the Bible is that sin entered the world and marred God’s image in man. Some people are more marred than others and everyone is marred in their own unique way, whether they believe in God or not. Our marred image means that all people, regardless of race or creed, choose to disregard some or all of the morality God gave us. Just to be crystal clear, this includes Christians.

    I also don’t assume that it was the law that brought morality into the world because, once again, the book of Genesis talks about people who acted morally, but not perfectly moral, without having a law to guide them, like Noah, Abraham and Moses. Furthermore, Paul, in the book of Romans (somewhere in chapters 3-5) talks about the purpose of the law was to give a name to wrong, not invent right. Regarding the Golden Rule which is attributed to Jesus, Jesus actually referred to it as an old Hebrew law (Numbers or Deuteronomy?) similar to the Golden Rule that told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But once again, as image bearers of God, we would have that rule in us already, which is why so many rules from so many civilizations have similar themes and common ideas on right and wrong. This also explains why Atheists can love, forgive, be kind and, in the case of my dad, adopt a child and love that child as his own.

    There are passages in Proverbs and Psalms that say that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and that “a fool says there is no God.” There are also passages in the New Testament that talks about non-believers living in various stages of moral depravity. This is probably where the hamburger analogy comes into play because it is VERY tempting to say that, therefore, all Atheists are complete fools, or completely morally bankrupt according to the Bible. And yet, as much as I USED to believe it, the fact still remains that we are made in the image of God, who is Wisdom. Furthermore, several passages throughout the Bible talk about God giving gifts like rain and sunshine to every human whether they acknowledge Him or not. Why wouldn’t He also give wisdom and morality in various degrees and forms to everyone, regardless of whether they acknowledge Him or not? Finally, we have the fact that both Atheists and Christians and (just to be politically correct) all creeds make incredible discoveries in all areas of the sciences and contribute beauty through the arts and help their fellow human beings in some way.

    I DO believe that God is the unmarred source of all morality, wisdom, truth, and love. Furthermore, I believe that, as a follower of Christ (though my path might look like that of a drunken sailor in a hurricane), I have been given God’s Spirit to help me battle my own moral depravity. And this is where I believe that you and I will choose to agree to disagree.

    P.S. Not all Christians think that “In-And-Out” makes the best burgers either, though they are better than McDonalds :-). My dad makes the best burgers. Ever. IMHO

    • kpharri says:

      Thanks for your comment Kris, I appreciate the thoughtful response.

      I’m curious, though, about this process of God bestowing upon people his character traits. Do you think this happened in the straightforward way that a literal interpretation of Genesis suggests? Or are we each bestowed with God’s character traits at some crucial moment during our development in the womb (or out of it)?

      What I’m having trouble with, is that there doesn’t seem to be any room in the biological development of any particular individual, or in the evolutionary development of the species as a whole, for some sort of supernatural process by which God can bestow character traits on people. Indeed, everything we’re learning about character traits, i.e. psychology, neuroscience, evolution, etc., indicates that character traits have perfectly natural explanations.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment Kris, I appreciate it.

  4. Thanks for publishing my comment. I hope this answer in the Bible answers your question. It is from Romans 2:14-15. The particular Bible translation I am using is “The Message.”

    “When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. ”

    The “law” to which Paul is referring is the Ten Commandments which is part of Jewish law. It is part of an argument he uses that morality is not limited to any particular religion to refute the commonly held belief by Jews that they were the sole proprietors of morality because they were given The Law. Doesn’t THAT sound familiar :-)? Therefore, I need to amend something I wrote in my original comment about God giving everyone wisdom and morality to everyone in “some degree”. I should have have left out “morality” because, according to this passage, morality is as much a part of all humans as heart and lungs.

    I hope you enjoy your day(s) off!

    • kpharri says:

      Thanks Kris

      I think I would classify the scripture from Romans as more of a restatement of your original claim, than information about how the claim is brought to fruition. In other words, it states that morality is “woven into the very fabric of our creation”, without actually saying how the weaving was done. But that’s what I’m interested in. Does it occur in each individual at some point after conception, or did it occur to the ancestors of the human race at some point in our evolutionary past?

      The reason I struggle with this, as I mentioned before, is that there is a perfectly reasonable natural explanation for why all people should be imbued with basic moral instincts – we don’t really need to look to supernatural explanations. If I’m to accept the supernatural explanation then, I’d like to know more about how (and when) it works.

      • Hi Keith!
        I think we are at an impasse at this point, but I just want to throw out one more passage from the Bible because two points make a line but not a trend. Psalm 139:13-16, which is my favorite psalm, talks about the fact that God determines when life begins and is even involved in forming us in our mother’s womb. Though the passage doesn’t say exactly what God does to “knit us together in our mother’s womb, it does say that God is still actively involved in creation of each individual human and determines what that person will be like. And because it doesn’t give a perfectly natural explanation, which is what you are seeking, you are going to say that I have failed to help you yet again and that, furthermore, I am just repeating myself.

        And now we have officially reached the impasse, because I believe “God created” and you believe “Life evolved.” Now at this point, we could choose to embark on a Vizzini-like battle of wits to try to justify our beliefs (“I clearly cannot choose the cup closest to you…”). My experience is that these arguments all devolve into kindergarten debate tactics. Instead, let’s just celebrate that we have common ground in that we agree that all humans have a common morality and that Christians aren’t morally superior to non-Christians.

        Happy Holidays!

      • Keith:

        So be it. Peace be with you.

        Happy New Year!

  5. kpharri says:


    I’m not skeptical of supernatural explanations simply because they’re not natural. I’m skeptical of *any* explanation that has little evidence to suggest that it is true. And I’m afraid that a few vague words in a psalm about God’s intervention in the womb is just not very much evidence to go on. Looking at the development process of embryos all the way through birth, there is simply no stage at which any sort of supernatural intervention is evident.

  6. […] On Not Needing God to Be Moral: Hamburgers and Morality […]

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