How Can Atheists Be Moral?
Recently I came across a blog post regarding atheism and morality. It was reasonably well written and even cited a survey from an accredited University and some quotes from its author, but nothing else. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad, but it wasn’t written by an atheist. It was written by a Christian for a faith-based blog. There were no quotes from atheists. There was no mention of discussion with atheists. It was written in a manner similar to how one would discuss a particular plant species or a new restaurant that had just opened. It’s a very limited perspective and certainly not the most relevant one.
As a vocal atheist, this is one of my favorite subjects, because I feel it’s one where there’s a lot of opportunity to gain understanding. As I often do, the first step to gaining clarity is defining terms. In this case, we’ll start with moral.
moral 1.a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior
So where do we get our ideas of right and wrong?
It’s from a variety of sources, but I’ll start with the clear and obvious one: our parents. “But what about orphans?!?” the imaginary contrarian interjected. For this case, we’ll loosely define parenting as a transfer of values between fully formed adults and the impressible youths in their charge. In a word: nurture.
I can’t imagine anyone doubting there exists a transfer of values from parent to child. Anyone who as acted in a parental capacity has engaged in this process. As parents, we are influencing what type of person we wish our offspring to become. We teach our children to share. We show them affection and love. We teach them compassion. We teach them perseverance and tenacity. No two people have had exactly the same experience while growing up or while parenting, but there are a lot of common values transferred this way. While those values are usually transferred in a direct way, they are sometimes transferred inversely. Anyone who has said to themselves or out loud, “I’ll never do (thing that was done to me) to my child” has at least considered this notion.
In addition to nurture, nature absolutely plays a role in our notions of right and wrong. As humans, we are not above the laws of nature. We can observe what happens with other animals and see a lot of what we are in them. Here is a great article outlining some animal behavior closely related to human values. Why do they exist? To cut it down to a phrase, survival advantages.
Many traits described as positive values or moral behavior just make sense in nature. Would it make sense for an elephant to go chasing a leopard that wasn’t a threat to itself? Not on the surface. Do they have an innate drive to further their species? Probably. Do they have commandments to refer to that tells them to protect each other? No. It’s a trait advantageous to survival. Do polar bears hunt in packs? No. Do they kill each other? Yes. Why? They’re not social animals and competition for food is fierce. Are they evil? The notion is as ridiculous as it sounds. Snakes? No. Talking snakes? Go get some help.
Are praying mantises praying to Satan before they bite the heads off of their lovers? It would certainly be considered immoral behavior for humans. What doctrine do their values follow? Do they get a pass because they’re just animals? Once the egocentric notion that humans are above other animals is dismissed, we begin to gain a clearer understanding of our place in the universe, and it’s quite the antidote to vanity.
So… What else? Exactly why would there have to be something else? It sounds perfectly sensible when religious people claim that their source or morality is divine in nature or at least that the code for morality is written into their doctrine with clear instruction. Is it though?
Take any example religion: I’m most familiar with Christianity, so I’ll use it as an example here. The most common argument I hear is that the only suitable instructions for morality are spelled in the Christian Bible. The first example always seems to be the ten commandments. Let’s take a quick look at them (as they are currently written) and see what we see:
|T||R||LXX||P||L||S||A||C||Main article||Exodus 20:1–17||Deuteronomy 5:4–21|
|1||(1)||—||—||—||—||—||1||I am the Lord thy God||2||6|
|2||1||1||1||1||1||1||1||Thou shalt have no other gods before me||3||7|
|2||2||2||2||1||1||1||1||Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image||4–6||8–10|
|3||3||3||3||2||2||2||2||Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain||7||11|
|4||4||4||4||3||3||3||3||Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy||8–11||12–15|
|5||5||5||5||4||4||4||4||Honour thy father and thy mother||12||16|
|6||6||6||8||5||5||5||5||Thou shalt not murder||13||17|
|7||7||7||6||6||6||6||6||Thou shalt not commit adultery||14||18|
|8||8||8||7||7||7||7||7||Thou shalt not steal||15||19|
|9||9||9||9||8||8||8||8||Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour||16||20|
|10||10||10||10||9||9||10||10||Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s house)||17a||21b|
|10||10||10||10||10||9||9||9||Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s wife)||17b||21a|
|10||10||10||10||10||9||10||10||Thou shalt not covet (neighbour’s slaves, animals, or anything else)||17c||21c|
|—||—||—||—||—||10||—||—||You shall set up these stones, which I command you today, on Mount Gerizim.||14c||18c|
Lazily taken from this Wikipedia page.
Okay, so it’s already challenging making this a clear list of ten, but if you combine similar ones, it seems pretty clear it’s not that much to process. Here’s a breakdown with minimal paraphrasing:
Worship Yahweh only.
Seriously no one else, not even a little. He hates that.
Take Sunday off.
For some reason, this got translated to not buying beer on Sundays, but sometimes I forget ahead of time and it really sucks.
Listen to your mom and dad.
I can just imagine Moses’ mom chiseling this in when he wasn’t looking
Surprisingly, there’s a lot of leeway built into interpretation here. It’s as if it should be finished “unless you have a really good reason”.
No cheating on your spouse.
This one along with others seems to have no consequences if you tell Yahweh (not the people you’ve hurt) you’re sorry.
Obvious rule is obvious. This one is WAAAAAY older than anyone’s bible.
At least don’t lie about your neighbor. It’s about to become apparent this list was written by someone’s neighbor.
No Coveting Your Neighbor’s…
house, wife, slaves, animals and anything else. Apparently you need to wait until he sells it or moves away.
Let’s consider this list. All jokes aside, there are some decent examples of what to do and particularly what not to do. Today, would anyone consider these to be the most important rules to follow? There are certainly a lot of things that are conspicuously not on this list. How about rape? Is that less important than whether you wish you had your neighbor’s goat? Or how about slavery? How about not owning other human beings? Is that fine as long as you don’t wish you had your neighbor’s slaves?
Immediately we see the Ten Commandments would not be a good handbook for human morality. Granted there are other lessons in there. One could consider the seven deadly sins. Those aren’t actually in the Bible, but they get a lot of play. They had pre-Christian Greek and Roman precedents and serve as a reminder that Aristotle was talking ethics before Jesus. The golden rule you say? That’s a good one, but it was certainly invented long before the Bible. Here we have a fun chronology of some of its forms and where it was found.
Let’s consider the Bible as a whole: There certainly are a lot of instructions in there, but most of them don’t seem to carry any weight today. Here are a few off the top of my head: No shellfish. No tattoos. No blended fabrics. No pork. ABC: Always Be Circumcising. Here is someone’s hilarious post that seems to have a lot of winners in it. So which rules do Christians follow when it comes to how to live their lives and treat others? The answer is undeniable. They follow the one’s they agree with. The source of their morality is the same as anyone else’s, their own nature and nurture experience. The Bible then, is a justification of morality, rather than a source.
Think kindness is good? There’s a verse for that. Hate lying liars? The good book has you covered. The gays creeping you out? You can justify treating them as lesser humans. Your neighbor always lookin’ at your stuff? Well, you are in all kinds of luck, my friend!
Considering the body of evidence, the notion that anyone would refer to the Christian Bible as the authority on morality seems nothing short of ludicrous. I haven’t done the legwork on the Qu’ran, but I’ve certainly read enough of it to know I don’t agree with some of the versions of morality as described there, but I’ve also met enough of them to know many of them are quality people.
This is very important and I don’t want to get this lost in all of the mockery:
Religion doesn’t create your sense of right and wrong, but for better or for worse, it can shape or reinforce it. Take ownership of your morality. It was yours all along.