How Philosophy Can Help Atheists and Christians Understand Each Other

One of the most common misunderstandings, in even the most gracious and empathetic conversations between Christians and atheists, occurs because of the difference between ontology and epistemology. But with a little philosophical reflection, we can clear up this confusion and help atheists and Christians understand one another.


Those are hundred-dollar words, so let’s break them down into simple (really simple) definitions:

Ontology: a discussion of what really exists. Example: “The world is real.”

Epistemology: a discussion of what we should believe to be true. Example: “I know that the world exists because my senses are reliable.”

Now, how do these distinct philosophical categories cause such confusion, hurt feelings, and unproductive conversations?

Here’s one way this happens in conversation:

Christian: My belief is, if God didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any morality.

Atheist: Are you saying I am not a moral person because I lack belief in God?

Christian: Well, no, not exactly. I think you’re a really nice person.

Atheist: And some people who believe in God do bad things because of their religious beliefs, right?

Christian: Sure, that happens. But I don’t think religion should be used to hurt people.

Atheist: I’m glad we agree about that. So how does believing in God make someone a better person?

Christian: Well, I know that when I became a Christian, I became a better person.

Atheist: And when I stopped going to church, I became a better person.

This conversation is somewhat common, as two people honestly try to hash out their difference of opinion about God.

But because they weren’t clearly distinguishing between ontology and epistemology, they missed out on some valuable insights.

Part of the problem they had is that, for many people, ‘morality’ now just means ‘my personal opinion about right and wrong.’

To get closer towards understanding how this matters, let’s look at this conversation on another subject: the cosmological argument, which has to do with the existence of physical reality (instead of moral reality).

Christian: …so to conclude, if God didn’t exist, the world wouldn’t exist.

Atheist: Are you saying I don’t exist because I lack belief in God?

::wait a second:: no one would ever say that! let’s try again:

Atheist: I see. Where I disagree with you is your second premise, ‘the universe began to exist.’ I think a good argument can be made for the universe always existing.

Christian: Interesting. I’m curious to hear how that relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics…

The argument is “Because God exists, the universe exists“: so you are discussing ontology. This conversation is conceptually and categorically different from discussing epistemology: how we know or come to believe that ‘the world exists.’

Here’s another way of thinking about it: “Ontology” is discussing the world outside of your mind. “Epistemology” is discussing the beliefs inside your mind, how you got them, and how they fit together.

In other words, the primary issue, for both the moral argument and the cosmological argument, isn’t what we should believe or the implications of our beliefs (epistemology). The issue is what is real, what exists (ontology).

With this distinction in mind, let’s revisit the moral argument:

Christian: …In conclusion, my belief is, if God didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any morality.

Atheist: Are you saying I am not a moral person because I lack belief in God?

Christian: Oh, definitely not. I think you’re a very nice person! I wasn’t discussing epistemology – the implications of our belief or lack of belief in God. Instead, I was discussing ontology – the existence or non-existence of God. If God – a morally perfect being – exists, then God could issue a perfect moral law, and we as His creatures would be morally obligated to obey His moral code. So, if God exists, this moral code exists.

By contrast, if no morally perfect being exists, then there would be no perfect moral law, and no objective moral duties for us to obey. So if God does not exist, this objective moral code does not exist.

Of course we can totally redefine the word ‘morality’ to mean ‘the actions our sociobiological conditioning leads us to prefer,’ but in my original sense, there would be no morality of that kind at all. No God, no objective moral law.

Atheist: But I think that morality just is our personal and cultural conditioning.

Theist: Right. And that is how I would define ‘morality’ if I was an atheist. So, let’s talk about the relationship between that ‘herd morality’ and the ‘objective morality’ I was discussing…

Now that the difference between ontology and epistemology has been sorted out, the conversation can stay on track. The moral argument no longer sounds like a personal attack on the (supposed) immorality of the atheist. Rather, it is a reasoned disagreement about what ‘the moral code’ really is: an objective code given to us as a gift from a perfectly good God – or – an ever-changing socio-biological adaptation that either helps or hinders the survival of human beings.

With this distinction in mind, what’s the next step? To go study these arguments in more detail!

Whether you agree or disagree, be sure to remember this point: make sure you know what the conversation is about!