Atheist FAQ: What is the Atheist’s Source of Morality?

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We are all born free from all religious affiliations and only come to believe in such things after being indoctrinated in the religious beliefs and practices of whoever it is we are born to. If you are born to a Muslim family, you will be Muslim and if you are born into an Episcopalian family, you will be Episcopalian.

That is the order of things.

We do not choose whom and what circumstances we are born to.

Atheism is the default position for all of us when we are born. Religion, on the other hand, is learned.

When it comes to questions of morality, the common belief among religious people is that that religion is necessary as a guide to a moral life as it allegedly provides a guide to right and wrong behavior.  Proponents of theism argue that without a god or gods it is  impossible to justify moral behavior on metaphysical grounds and thus make a coherent case for abiding by moral standards. They believe that morality is something that can only exist and be expected out of people after they have received the guiding light from god and messiahs, and not because humans posses an internal compass recognizing  – independent of a god or gods and thus doctrine and dogma – that behaving morally (i.e. doing good vs doing bad) is desirable and an end to itself making coexistence possible.

Theists believe that morality is intelligible only in the context of religion.  In other words, religious people do not believe that we humans have an internal compass telling us the difference between right or wrong, or moral and immoral. We need religion to set that for us and enforce it. The reality, of course, looked and still looks much more sinister.

Why Morals Anyway? 

A human being is primarily a social creature having to co-exist with other human beings in what is a complex set of interactions coded in equally complex social structures.

Even the smallest society can’t exist and ultimately function without subordination and ground rules, of which morality is sort of the overarching umbrella as those rules often involve rewarding “good” behavior and punishing  – to varying degrees – “bad” behavior with the ultimate goal of creating more of the positive and less of the negative.  In other words, the goal is to maximize happiness and minimize suffering and unhappiness. Enter a multitude of governing structures and philosophies as to how one should make coexistence work.

Note that even the tyrant seeks happiness as the outcome. The fact that his actions cause suffering on his path there is something the tyrant both understands and accepts, but that doesn’t mean that he is not desiring a positive outcome for himself which would ultimately increase his happiness.

The reality is that regardless of what one’s philosophy and outlook is on life, no one, in any culture or society or of any creed, seeks and welcomes pain and suffering – emotional or physical.  A tyrant is seeking out his own salvation with diligence. His actions are immoral, however, because they cause suffering to a large number people, even though not toward himself.

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Ever since human beings left the caves and began sedentary lifestyles forming communities and engaging closely with one another, the need for some kind of an order has been recognized. When complex social interactions began developing, humans quickly learned what does and does not work in terms of furthering society and increasing ones odds of survival. They recognized that when they work together and cooperate, they increase their odds of survival and bolster their genetic variety through growing numbers.

Out of this understanding ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, and good vs evil were born. This is when morality began taking shape.

It should be noted that the idea that some actions, such as killing, stealing, hurting or lying are bad and that “adversity” is not good for ones odds of survival and the functioning of society, isn’t uniquely human. In fact, it’s something social mammals like primates understand very well and deal with on a daily basis. These very same ideas can be found in groups of primates who make business deals of sorts, build social hierarchies, have a sense of what’s fair and what’s unfair, refusing to cooperate when they feel mistreated or slighted, wage territorial wars, and seek revenge on those who anger them. Social mammals have to keep keep themselves in check through a social order in order to survive and prosper, an assertion that gave rise to religion rather than being the result of it.

Religion was one way to codify “moral” behavior, especially taking into account the rather savage lives human beings lead in the absence of such clearly defined moral codes. What was considered moral behavior, in turn, had to be institutionalized so that it could be enforced throughout society to keep in check or “punish” people for things that are “immoral” and “bad” for society. In other words, religion allowed us to deal with morality in an organized manner. That it later on lead to corruption and quite the opposite effect of what it had wanted to accomplish is not only a different story but also the tragedy of religion.

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Atheism and Morality

A lot of the moral codes we take for granted these days have actually taken some time to develop and be codified into society.

Atheistic philosopher Julian Baggini stated that “there is nothing to stop atheists believing in morality, a meaning for life, or human goodness. Atheism is only intrinsically negative when it comes to belief about God. It is as capable of a positive view of other aspects of life as any other belief.” He also stated that “morality is more than possible without God, it is entirely independent of him. That means atheists are not only more than capable of leading moral lives, they may even be able to lead more moral lives than religious believers who confuse divine law and punishment with right and wrong.

That helping is better than denying, building is better than destroying, living is better than killing,  cooperation and not warring lead to prosperity of the mind and body are better for an individual and society as such, making coexistence not only possible but also pleasurable, is not something that requires the dictates of higher law. In other words, you don’t need religion to understand that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct.

In the eyes of an atheist, a humanist, a morally right action is defined as that action which effects the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of people—is “non-transcendental”,  and makes no appeal outside human life, in particular not to religious considerations.  Standards of right and wrong, good or evil, do not only exist becasue they make sense but because they make coexistence possible.

Consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct.  Thus, a morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome.

As Christiopher Hitchens remarked “Our knowledge of right and wrong is innate in us. Religion gets its morality from humans. We know that we can’t get along if we permit perjury, theft, murder, rape, all societies at all times, well before the advent of monarchies and certainly, have forbidden it… Socrates called his daemon, it was an inner voice that stopped him when he was trying to take advantage of someone… Why don’t we just assume that we do have some internal compass?”

Atheists don’t need the crutch that is religion to understand what moral behavior is and how to apply it to their lives. In fact, humans don’t need the crutch that is religion because recognizing that positive inputs lead to positive outcomes is common sense.

On the other hand, the morals of religious people are elicited out of them by instigation of fear and shame and punishment and the wrath of god, messiahs, prophets and hell. Religious people often ask an atheist “but how do you define moral behavior when you have nothing to guide you and tell you what that moral behavior is?”, as if atheists where these mindless shells devoid of deductive reasoning and moral principles and could only be whole and moral if told by something or someone else what that good is. As if atheists were incapable of making that distinctions themselves by virtue of being a human being with a functioning brain.

There is just something deeply insincere about someone who believes they need to be good because some elusive divine power says so and not because they genuinely believe that being and doing good is better for all of us – whether some perceived divine entity endorses it or not.

If you are a good, moral person because you are afraid to be punished in the afterlife or go to hell, then you are selfish and only doing “the right moral thing” to dodge the bullet. But it means so much more if you are a good person because you really believe that by being good, being generous, giving, understanding, tolerant, charitable etc. the world will be a better place and everyone around you better off.

Moreover, being religious is nowhere near a guarantee that its followers and perpetrators will actually lead moral lives. Religious people have committed a wide variety of acts and held certain beliefs through history that are morally reprehensible. Christians have traditionally imposed unfair restrictions on the legal and civil rights of women and have condoned slavery of some form. Since Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Bible have changed over the span of history, what was formerly seen as permissible is now seen as impermissible. It is, therefore, intellectually dishonest for religious people to believe theism provides an absolute moral foundation apart from secular intuition. Since Christians and other religious groups do not acknowledge the binding authority of all parts of their holy texts (e.g., The books of Exodus and Leviticus state that those who work on the Sabbath and those caught performing acts of homosexuality, respectively, were to be put to death.), they are already capable of distinguishing “right” from “wrong.”

ath 4Religion Codified Morals in Order to Not Only Make Coexistence Possible but to Also Insure Obedience

As a result, things like god and punishment and hell were invented to scare people into submission including such things as loving one’s neighbor, not killing one another and so forth. Apparently being good for goodness sake is not actually an end to itself.

It should, however, also be noted that religion did not just codify moral behavior – which would be the more positive side of organized religion – but that religion has simultaneously been used as a tool to control and subjugate by appealing to morality.

In that sense religion has became precisely what it was intended to prevent, creating bigotry, narrow mindedness, ignorance, causing harm (the Inquisition; Jihad) and even prompting its followers to kill and hurt people in the name of their god.

Given the violent and bloody history and facts surrounding religion, it is quite ironic of religious people to argue that morality and a sense of what is good or wrong cannot or could never have existed without religion.

As Greg Epstein, the current Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University noted that “sociologists have recently begun to pay more attention to the fact that some of the world’s most secular countries, such as those in Scandinavia, are among the least violent, best educated, and most likely to care for the poor“.

In the end, it is imperative that ideology—be it religious or political—be thoroughly examined by each individual and not simply accepted or rejected on faith.  Along with this, an essential part of secular humanism is a continually adapting search for truth, primarily through science and philosophy.

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  1. #1 by Garlynne on September 21, 2013 - 3:40 PM

    I believe that Atheism and morality can coexist. What matters is how well or conscientious one is in abiding to a certain code of morality; whatever your ethics and opinions on morality are. They differ greatly from cultures. I am not here to endorse theism any more than I am here to denounce atheism. This article makes erroneous accusations about religion, mainly Christianity. They claim that human atrocities are the causation of religion, as if there was no other barbaric social order to blame other than religion itself. This is fallacious reporting which I am sure the author is guilty if not a victim of academic fraud. Religion constitutes a micron of mass murder and suffering when compared to other forms of social injustice. Sub-Saharan Africans slaughter each other, albeit in the name of Allah, Voodoo or impulsive primordial urges. Jews of the Main stream media have instigated hate crimes and are also complicit in perpetuating lies to deceive the public. They control a brainwashing entity which is afflicting the minds of our children. Jews also played a huge role in the American slave trade.
    This article began with heavy handed, yet sincere reason; then ultimately denigrated into false accusations.

    • #2 by popreflection on September 21, 2013 - 5:09 PM

      First of all, it is not true that religion constitutes a micron of mass murder and suffering. History tells a different story as well as current poltiical and social affairs, from hate crimes in the name of religion to entire wars, in the name of the same (see, for example, the Middle East and the Arab/Jew rivalry and how many people have died over a piece of shit strip of land). Secular societies are more peaceful, less violent, less criminal, less hate filled. Research has shown (http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/Zuckerman_on_Atheism.pdf) that Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread. And “Of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries.” And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be the highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be the among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon.” Rates of all violent crime tend to be higher in “religious” states and atheists are very much under-represented in the American prison population (only 0.2%).

      Atheists and agnostics have lower divorce rates than religious Americans and a study in Canada found conservative Christian women experienced higher rates of domestic violence than non-affiliated women.

      A 2009 study found that teens who make religion-inspired “virginity pledges” are not only just as likely as their non-pledging peers to engage in premarital sex, but more likely to engage in unprotected sex.

      The most secular nations in the world report the highest levels of happiness among their population.

      Altruism: Secular nations such as those in Scandinavia donate the most money and supportive aid, per capita, to poorer nations. Two studies show that, during the Holocaust, “the more secular people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews.”

      Numerous studies shows that atheists and agnostics, when compared to religious people, are actually less likely to be nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, dogmatic, ethnocentric, and authoritarian. Secularism also correlates to higher education levels. Atheists and other secular people are also much more likely to support women’s rights and gender equality, as well as gay and lesbian rights. Religious individuals are more likely to support government use of torture.

      It is also interesting how you cite entities that are violent but supposedly not in the name of religion, but in the very next sentence you cite religious affiliations for their behavior. make no mistake about Jews and how they are what they are because of a feeling of superiority – which they got from a bokk then themselves wrote – in which they are considered the chosen people in god’s easy etc.

      yes,human being can be violent and murderous even if they are not religious but religion is the opiate of the masses and for fat too long religious people have used belief, god and deities to commit and justify their crimes. After all, it is much easier ti persuade people to go kill others and hate on others if you do it in the name of a higher power. And, as the numbers show, secular societies, cultures and nations are less likely to be bigots, violent, haters, hypocrites and dysfunctional that religious ones.

  2. #3 by My Heathen Heart on January 12, 2013 - 3:20 AM

    Well said!

  3. #4 by Debilis on January 12, 2013 - 2:39 AM

    This is a well-written post.
    As a religious person myself, I completely agree that there is no reason to think that atheists are any less moral than anyone else. I’d also agree that there are quite a few inane statements made about atheism and morality by religious people.
    However, there are two things that I think should be added:

    1. The question, in its intelligent form, is not asking why an atheist chooses, personally, to behave morally, but about what’s called moral ontology.
    That is to say, social contracts or appeals to human nature don’t answer the question of whether something is intrinsically right or wrong – they simply tell us what is more beneficial for goals we happen to want. This makes such comments non-rational positions (because they are based on subjective goals), something many atheists claim to loathe.

    2. The characterization of religious morality is deeply wrong.
    While there may be religious people who behave only based on the threat of hell (or some parallel), no intelligent understanding of any of the major world religions would assert this as a basis of morality. Most argue that moral truth is an objective feature of the universe, quite apart from any reward or punishment system. Christianity even famously eschews a punishment system.

    In my experience, atheists tend to be very wonderful people, and have forethought about their actions. This does not, however, mean that their reasons for living morally is particularly rational, nor does it mean that theistic morality is based on a brute threat.

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