Can Atheists be moral?
This has been a topic of great debate in my online interactions with Theists. Religion, and particularly Christianity has always presented itself as the guardian of morality in the world – more and more as they find themselves having to relinquish (to science) their claim of ‘guardian of the mysteries of how the universe works’. Morality is one of the only things they have left to feel authorative about. But was morality ever their domain to begin with, and do they really have any authority in this area at all? As I’m sure you’ve already guessed my answers are no, and no.
Morality is the understanding that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, often replaced with ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
Let’s start with Christian claims to moral authority in the world. I will concede that if there really was a God who made everything, and he/it (could God really have gender) happens to be the God of the Jews and Christians, and that Jesus really is his son, and that the bible really is the inspired word of God, perfect in all its apparent contradictions… then sure, Christians would have authority in the area of morality.
Basically, the very definition of what is moral or not would be dictated by whatever set of rules the Christians (directed by God) wrote down, or preached, or declared to be true. If God says, “Kill your son”, then killing him is not immoral, as demonstrated by Abraham and others in the Bible. If God is real, as many believe he is, then morality (what is good or evil) is by necessity wrapped up in obedience to him/it. The fact that most Christians believe that the 10 commandments of Moses and the two commandments of Jesus (Love the Lord your God, and love thy neighbor) are the ultimate moral compass, demonstrates this point. Consider the first five commandments:
- Do not have other Gods before me
- Don’t worship idols
- Don’t misuse the name of God
- Keep the Sabbath day Holy (by not working)
- Honour your father and mother.
Are these really moral issues? I guess I could make a case for honouring your father and mother, but the rest are clearly the commands of a jealous God. Billions of Hindus, Muslims and Bhuddists are immoral based on the first four commandments. That’s convenient if you’re a Christian. Nevertheless, my point is that if God is real then this IS morality and most of us are screwed.
The same could be said of any of the Deities people subscribe to. If the Muslims are right and Allah exists, then Christians are immoral by the same principle; and in this world view Atheists are going to be immoral no matter what… which is pretty much how almost all Theists see us. Of course, that argument alone could convince me of the improbability of any of our gods being real, but that’s another topic and I won’t even start on HOW people decide what it is that God wants…
I don’t believe for one minute that any of these gods are real, and so I have to relook at the definition of morality from a human perspective. Do people that don’t ascribe morality to God have any moral code at all? What is morality if it’s not doing what God tells you to do? People have pondered this question since the dawn of thinking man. There are many theories around morality. Some think it’s about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Others link it to the pursuit of personal happiness. Others reject morality entirely and do whatever the hell comes to mind. Others see it as a social or societal construct, not dissimilar to law. The reality is that all of these views on morality – theistic, humanistic, fatalistic, anarchist etc. are all at play in the same world at the same time. So how do we sift through the jumble to determine what the best way forward is?
My personal approach is to consider the groups/societies where the greatest personal freedom, happiness and contentment for the greatest number of people, and where the lowest human suffering, enslavement and deception is being demonstrated. I find that the more pedantic and specific the moral code is the more it suits a smaller number of people at the expense of a larger number of “outsiders”. At the same time, to have no moral obligations at all results in anarchy, leaving almost nobody satisfied.
So somewhere there is a “sweet spot” on the scale that people will buy into for the maximum benefit to themselves and the greatest number of others. My casual observations (i.e. I haven’t done the polls and analysis) tells me that there are non theistic communities like Sweden and France where a great number of people within those borders enjoy great personal freedoms and minimal human suffering, and not because they think they’re “obeying God”, but because the general population has bought into some generally agreed moral principles.
In societies like this morality is not determined by sexual preference, smoking habits, how much alchahol someone drinks or what words people use to curse with. These are personal preferences that have no bearing on morality. Instead morality in these societies is based on principles like honesty, ethical business dealings, rejection of corruption, kindness, obeying the law (because the laws don’t produce misery) etc. Contrary to the opinion of many Christians, this is not a system where people just “do what they want”, but rather people consider their part in the larger scheme of things and make small adjustments and sacrifices as required for the greater good, without completely compromising their own happiness. Ultimately everyone understands that their personal happiness is linked to the happiness of others so an ‘economy’ develops that morphs and adjusts as required for the greatest happiness and the least suffering.
In this light “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” are logical moral imperatives that protect the greater happiness, and certainly don’t need to be issued by God. Evolution is doing just fine on its own. As a result slavery has been pushed out by the moral economy in most communities, as well as apartheid and misogyny, no thanks to the Holy Scriptures of most religions which at best permit these social evils and at worst promote them.
My conclusion is that Religion has very little to offer in the realm of morality and has often been an amoral force in the world. Morality is not about belief or disbelief – it’s about humans working out how to live together in a way that reduces suffering in the world. Can Atheists be moral? I think they have less superstitious complications to deal with than the average Theist and should therefore be in a position to live a good and moral life, the kind of morality that actually matters in a real world.
ARE Atheists moral? Well that’s a completely different question!