Kant's Conception of the Conversion of the Atheist

by Philip McPherson Rudisill


My thinking as to how Kant might have wanted to deal with an atheist.

1. Recognition of the thing on its own as a necessary assumption for all human uses of understanding, and that we know it is real, but cannot say anything about it except as it

A. appears to us in the guise of the Object of Experience (subject to time and space and laws of nature), or

B. as the object of a self-consistent thought and without contradiction of the appearances.*

* To elucidate this point I conceive of an obvious fiction, namely a leaf which is free of the laws of nature. Whereas science has this leaf having to fall when the weather turns cold and the wind picks up, I assert here that the leaf did not have to let go of the branch but did so because it wanted to fly for a while in the air and this just happened by chance to be at the time that the weather had grown cold and windy. This cannot be seriously maintained, of course, but can be dogmatically asserted without contradiction if someone wanted to. The effect of flying through the air could then be seen as a function of two causalities, natural and free. Accordingly it is possible to assert the liberty of the individual, even though this freedom is not at all useful in the equations of science.They are not incompatible with respect to the event which is then seen as the simultaneous effect of a natural and a free causation.

This leaves open the door to the possibility of things which “don't meet the eye”. Not their actuality, but simply their possibility.

2. Recognition that the human is in fact bound by the moral law, which is an invention of pure reason, i.e., we are free of the necessitation of nature, and which can only make sense if there is a practical goal to be achieved (Highest Good of moral perfection and commensurate happiness) and this calls for an immortal soul and God. And so what was thinkable, but not recognizable, in an examination of knowledge (No. 1) is now made use of and given meaning and import. Now these possible thoughts have practical application.*

* Based on Kant's Thesis.

3. Here we turn to Kant's thought experiment* where a morally inclined man is given the opportunity of determining the relationship of happiness and morality in a world, in a world in which he will also have to live like anyone else. This proceeds as follows:

* Paragraph 2 of the first preface to Kant's Religion Within The Bounds Of Naked Reason.

A. Utilizing practical reason. This will tell us that we would not want to live in a world where there were no correlation of moral perfection (treating all people with decency) and happiness. Such a world would end up naturally as totally evil, so much so that the meaning of the moral and “right and wrong” would be totally removed from human consciousness, and with it we would lose our personality and thus our humanity. If Hitler and Dahmer end up as happy as St. Francis or Albert Schweitzer, then there is a complete incentive for going the route of Hitler and Dahmer. So in fashioning this world that he wants to live in, the rational and practical man would opt for the Highest Good as the end state of such a world, namely where moral perfection is possible and will be met with by a happiness commensurate to that perfection. Otherwise we would all end up as vampires preying on each other, and that is what is called hell. And no rational man would willing choose to live in hell (except Morzart's Don Giovanni, and so perhaps he was not rational). So obviously this rational and practical man will chose the Highest Good as the determination of the distribution of happiness in the world in which he is also to live.

B. Utilizing morality. Here we are dealing with the morally inclined aspect of the man, the one who wants to do the moral thing. And what would be the moral thing to do at the moment of fashioning this world? It would be to justify and promote the moral law itself by virtue of an end state of this world whereby the moral law is objective and binding and meaningful. He would so will this world, even if he weren't sure about his own capacity to attain to moral perfection in that world, because he would want to provide a purpose to his duties, to what he knows that he must do morally, and thus in a sense to rationalize his duties (unify them with the drives for personal happiness). This would be the moral thing for him to do at that moment of his fashioning of this world. And again, it wouldn't matter as to his evaluation of his own capacity to attain to moral perfection. He will see himself as duty bound to rationalize his duty (which can be accomplished solely via the Highest Good).

What Kant intends to have established is that the morally inclined man will now undertake to do what he recognizes as his moral duty, to make himself a moral man. But it is highly doubtful that he will be successful in this by working on his own, and so what he needs is a support group, a moral support group and that is provided in an ethical commonwealth. This can only be distinguished from something like an animal shelter by being under the command of this Moral God that we attain to in the Idea of the Highest Good, for accordingly the moral core is not subject to debate, but is accepted as self evident and beyond discussion. It is absolute and categorical (see also John 5) and that is then only possible in a moral church (commonwealth under the command of God)

Here is what Kant had to say specificially about the morally inclinded atheist in his Critique Of Judgment, Section 87 "Of the Moral Proof of the Being of God", paragraph 7-9.

Translation of Paragraphs 7 through 9 of Section 87
"Concerning the Moral Proof of the Existence of God"

The numbers refer to the paragraphs and sentences of Section 87 of the original German. And Translator's comments are given as footnotes.

7.1 This proof, which can be expressed with logical precision, does not claim to say that: “it is just as necessary to assume the existence of God as to acknowledge the validity of the moral law”; and thus also not: “who cannot persuade himself of the former may judge himself to be released from the obligation of the latter”.

7.2 Not at all! Only the aiming at the final purpose in the world, operating through the compliance of the latter (as happiness of rational beings harmoniously commensurate with the compliance with moral laws, as the highest world best) would then have to be given up.

7.3 Every rational person would still always have to recognize himself as strictly bound to the prescriptions of morality, for those laws are formal and are commanded unconditionally and without regard to purposes (where purposes are the material of the wanting).

7.4 But that one requirement of the final purpose, as practical reason prescribes it to the beings of a world, is a purpose which is undeniably required via man's nature (as a finite entity). And reason claims to know this natural demand as subject only to the moral law as the inviolable condition (or also made universal according to that) and so makes the promotion of happiness in agreement with morality to be the final purpose.

7.5 Now to promote this final purpose as much (concerning happiness and morality) as is in our capacity, is commanded through the moral law; and letting the turn of events, which this striving may obtain, be what it will.*

7.6 The fulfillment of duty consists in the form of the sincere will, not in the mediating causes of the success.

* And so we are morally required to pursue the highest good even though we could have no guarantee that its natural and rational final purpose will be attained.

8.1 Assume therefore, that someone is moved partly by the weakness of all the exalted speculative arguments, and partly through some irregularities appearing to him in nature and the moral world and comes to the persuasion that there is no God. But still even in his own eyes he would be an unworthy person if he, for that reason, were to hold the laws of duty as merely imagined, invalid and nonbinding and to resolve boldly to overstep them.

8.2 If such a person could subsequently convince himself of the existence of God and overcome these doubts and were even quite exact in the performance of his morally required duty, he would still be an unworthy person in thinking about morally in that way and such that his compliance were based on fear or in anticipation of some reward and so where his disposition were not duty for the sake of duty.

8.3 On the other hand, let this person continue to comply properly and selflessly as a believer according to his consciousness and then as a thought-trial let him assume there were no God. If he were then to consider himself free of all moral obligation, we would have to judge that his internal moral disposition were not rightly ordered within him.*

* Strictly speaking Kant is correct here. However it is still true that most theists, upon becoming convinced that there were no God, i.e., becoming atheists, would find that the moral law along with everything else in existence were utterly inane and pointless. Accordingly there would be a natural tilt toward nihilism and a universal emptiness and absurdity. And there would hardly be concern about any judgment of their internal moral disposition. There would be a natural (but still not insurmountable) temptation to disregard the moral law. See 9.5 below.

9.1 Therefore let us assume a righteous man (e.g., Spinoza) who is firmly persuaded that there is no God and also no future life (because with respect to the object of morality the absence of any God has the same effect as no future life). How will such a man assess his own internal determination of purpose through the moral law which he actively honors?

9.2 He requires no advantage for himself from compliance with that [moral law] either in this world or in any other. Instead he will unselfishly promote only the good to which that holy law directs all his powers.

9.3 But his effort [in pursuit of that good] is limited.* Occasionally he can expect a chance cooperation from nature, but never any correspondence with his purpose according to regular and enduring rules (as inwardly his maxims are and must be) and which purpose he still feels himself bound and impelled to produce.

9.4 Deceit, violence and envy will always sway about him even though he is upright, peaceful and well-meaning. And the upright people whom he encounters apart from himself, regardless of all their worthiness for happiness, will still be subjected by nature (which pays no attention to such worthiness) to all the evils of deprivation, sickness and untimely death that greet the other animals of the earth. And this will always be the case until a wide grave swallows them all together (upright or not--for here that makes no difference), and casts those who were able to believe in a final purpose of the creation back into the abyss of the purposeless chaos of matter from which they had been drawn.

9.5 In any case, therefore, this well-disposed atheist would have to give up as impossible the purpose which he had in mind, and should have in mind, regarding compliance with the moral law. But if he wants to remain devoted to the call of his moral, internal determination and not to weaken the respect (which moves him directly to obey the moral law) by means of the inanity of the single, ideal, final purpose commensurate with its higher demand--and this [weakening] cannot occur without injury to the moral disposition--then in the practical intention (which he also can very easily do, since at least it is not contradictory per se to make a concept of at least the possibility of the final purpose which morality prescribed to him), he must assume the existence of a moral author of the world, i.e., God.**

* He will be promoting as much goodness as he can, but will often find nothing good ensuing from his efforts.

** Here Kant tells us that without the Highest Good as the final purpose of the moral act, the respect for the moral law will likely weaken, and this can only be avoided by simply deciding that there is a God, i.e., by assuming a God and acting on that assumption. This is consistent with Kant's thinking in his Religion Within The Bounds Of Sheer Reason where it is not to be expected for an individual to maintain moral fervor in this evil world and where the only hope for moral improvement is in cooperation with others of a like spirit in a church (and which calls for God).


Here Kant is reminding the theist that it is a mistake to assert that an atheist cannot be a moral person, even in secret, because that makes the theist into the unworthy “hireling” so decried by Jesus. Instead he must insist upon the plausibility of an atheist's assertion of a commitment to the moral law. For everyone is expected to act morally, atheist and theist alike.

But then, as Kant is suggesting, we need to get inside of the head of an atheist and wonder with him at the pointlessness of existence in a world where the “cemetery” is simply a polite term for “garbage dump”. How does the atheist get his head around this in order to be moral in an obviously inane world?

If the atheist is plagued by the expected advantage that can accrue to him by disregarding the moral law, and of the inanity of existence in general absent any purpose to this law, then in order to overcome such thoughts and to remain true to the moral law, Kant advises him to assume the existence of God. The atheist is not in this way actually professing the existence of God (on a theoretical level), but just assuming it (practical level), i.e., saying, “I assume the existence of God and undertake to live a moral life because there is a final purpose to such a life and to creation in general (the Highest Good)".

So Kant is telling Spinoza: since the moral law is without purpose in the absence of God, and since pointless acts are silly, the only way moral acts can be rationalize is to make the Highest Good their purpose and this calls then for assuming the existence of God.

In conclusion and seeking now to speak as an atheist, I know that I must always be moral, but I have to admit that it does seem rather pointless according to the proper thinking of any rational atheist, especially the secret, wrongful acts which could be safe and profitable. And so while "moral atheist" cannot be counted as an oxymoran, such a person is attended with special temptations for transgression, and these temptations are lacking with the theist (both considered in the ideal).

Note: here again we see the need for the reconciliation of moral thinking and prudent thinking, and so we are back to healing this split in rational thinking by means of the Ideas of the Highest Good and God. This is the original logic in the Critique of Practical Reason. And surely this is why Kant suggests to Spinoza that he should just assume the existence of God and thereby to ease his striving to be a good and upright man.

Return to Sagan and Kant.

Return to Handbook for Atheists.

To contact the author or translator, please e-mail: pmr##kantwesley.com
and where ## is to be replaced by @
To The Table Of Contents on Kant Studies