Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Godless Morality

This post was originally found at Finding Common Ground.

Atheists Can't be Moral.

If I had a nickel for each time I heard that! (I'd probably have around 3 dollars)

How is it possible for someone who has no fear of an afterlife, no fear of a god or gods, no desire to life forever and no obvious reason to care about anyone else, to have any form of a moral code? How can someone like this find the intestinal fortitude to help people in trouble? Why would they ever donate to a charity, be kind to strangers, or raise children properly? What stops them from murderous rampages, stealing, raping, torturing and other personal atrocities?

The list of possible negative moral outcomes of atheism is endless. Atheism has been attributed to some of the worst atrocities in all of our history, some of the worst decisions and worst economic policies.

So how can we expect to trust an atheist? How can they possibly be allowed to teach our children, run our government, lead businesses, or even participate fully in our society? Even one of our previous presidents, the first George Bush, specifically said that atheists can’t be citizens. When reviewing all the negative aspects attributed to atheism, he doesn’t seem crazy for saying this does he?

Of course all of this is bunk. There are somewhere near a half billion atheists on this planet and if we were really a bunch of murderous rapists, no society on the planet would survive. I’m also sure I don’t need to go into every single atrocity, bad policy, and bad person that had a religious background.

The problem is that there is a deep misunderstanding of where morals come from, or at least where atheist morals come from. An atheist can look out into the world of religion and see where religious people think they get their morals from. It’s one book or another, the teachings of one pastor or mullah or shaman or whatever. When we examine these books, however we as atheists are totally confounded as to how the religious folks think they derive morals from these books filled with killing, raping, incest, blind faith, power struggles, intolerance and so forth.

For whatever reason, human beings have the same basic set of morals. Religious folks think that God put them there (or at least he defined them and if you don’t follow them he will be condemn you), atheists generally think that we have them because they make us successful as a species (although there are a few who may think that aliens put them there). However, we all have them, and regardless of culture, religion, and background they are all very close to the same.

When faced with moral dilemmas people of all religions and background, for the most part, make the same choices as atheists. This sort of thing has been determined from a variety of scientists and anthropologists who would give moral dilemma tests as easy as “If you see a little boy drowning in the river, do you save him or do you keep you clothes clean and dry?” all the way to something like “You control the track a train goes on, you find that your parents are tied to one track and 5 well respected scientists you don’t know are tied to the other, which track do you choose?” [update: forgot to mention that I got these examples from the God Delusion, and Dawkins got them from somewhere else]

The supernatural is not needed to define a very high level of morality. Our actions and reactions can be vetted to produce these three effects:

  1. Increase happiness among our fellow human beings
  2. Decrease suffering among our fellow human beings
  3. Increase free will among our fellow human beings

These goals are not mutually exclusive, and in many cases, these three goals conflict. But it is in these three outcomes of our actions we can all agree are best for our society and humans in general. Religious background is irrelevant as these goals encompass all the morals described in any text that relate directly to people (as opposed to those that relate to deities).

Base, individual actions are easy to put up against these goals. Murder, rape and stealing all obviously conflict against all three of them. So clearly at the very root level they work very well. But when we examine things at a societal level it gets much harder. Conflict between these goals is inevitable. Using these goals as a pretext to any of the hot topic issues will immediately incite debate, measurement and evaluation.

But that is the exact reason for having morals. They keep us from actions that may eventually hurt other people. The best part of keeping this trilogy of goals in sight is that the debate will be about tangible, measurable, effects of proposed actions and keeps a discussion about what God wants out of it. Hindus, Muslims, Christians of the various forms, and atheists will not be able to come to a conclusion of the morality of societal level actions if we are bickering about what one version of God wants opposed to someone else’s version. Why god wants something may be a valid addition to the discussion, but ending debate simply with what god wants is not. This way everyone is free to enjoy their religion and do the things they think their god requires of them (including trying to get other people to believe them), but when it comes to populations as a whole, we are best served by those three goals.

Why would an atheist bother with even those goals? Is it not obvious? We want happiness, less suffering and increased free will, just like everyone else. Happiness comes with security (but not oppressive security) and prosperity, reduced suffering comes with community, and free will comes with tolerance. The small percentage of people, from all backgrounds and religious beliefs, who are bad, who cause pain, who are dishonest and so forth, interfere with these same desires all human beings share. Why would atheists have some bizarre sense of morals when we have the exact same base desires for ourselves and our families as most everyone else?

Religion provides no guarantees of morality, examples abound throughout all of history and current events. We must accept that regardless of religious upbringing, a certain percentage of our population will do bad things and make other people suffer, the best we can do as the thinking moral majority, is to make our actions and reactions, including legislation and enforcement, be subject to the trilogy of goals and measures by which they are evaluated against.

As I write more in the future on the various topics, I will often use this trilogy as a backdrop. I look forward to the various ideas and interpretations in our quest to find common ground.


On 11/16/08, 10:05 AM , Buffy said...

Of course atheists can be moral, no argument there from me, I know too many.

However, when most people are left on their own to make decisions about their own morality (like people do in a secular country now) they will often make some very lazy moral choices in order to achieve short term pleasure.

Christianity and Judaism definitely set the bar higher in terms of self-denial and self-control than I see in the secular society I live in. The fact that a lot of Christians and Jews (including me) fall short doesn't negate the value of the original laws or teachings.

On 11/22/08, 7:52 PM , Anonymous said...

The battle is not science versus religion.. that is naive. It is a battle of worldviews. What should be done, is that worldviews, sexual preference, etc. should not be preached in schools. Currently, the pendulum has swung from the right to the left. What would be proper is to teach hard sciences, not religious or evolutionary dogma, which most certainly shoved down the throats and brains of impressible youth. Take all the crap out, going to gay weddings, celebrating diversity, whatever, and start studying real science, you know, algebra, chemistry, physics... etc. America is on the decline, India and China will be kicking our butts not too far down the future. Fortunately now, we have a lot of immigrants, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, etc.. coming to our country because of opportunity, and they are innovating. In the not too distant future, they will not need to come over here, and then we are in big trouble because the intellectual capital of our youth is on the decline in comparison to other nations like China, India, etc.

On 11/22/08, 10:56 PM , Techskeptic said...


you are certainly right that there is a clash of worldviews, its just that science is not a worldview, but many religious people presume it is.

your comment has left me with some confusion:

teach hard sciences, not religious or evolutionary dogma

and then

start studying real science, you know, algebra, chemistry, physics... etc

You seem to have left out biology in that list, which most certainly includes evolution. I don't know what evolutionary dogma is, but I know that biology simply can not be taught, understood, or advanced without a fundamental understanding of evolution.

I don't know how you get that the pendulum has swung to the left. Just because we elected a democrat for president hardly means any fundamental changes have happened.

Not addressing intolerance in school and pretending it doesn't happen, is as bad as endorsing it. So sure, take diversity education and gay weddings out of the science class.... was it ever in there? There are other classes and general rules in a school that address these issues. The problem is that many folks presume that teaching tolerance is the same as indoctrinating one lifestyle over another.

I most certainly agree with your contention that America is on the decline not just in our sciences, but on a number of issues. Its not just me, looks like the National Intelligence Council Agrees.

On 11/24/08, 5:15 AM , Buffy said...

Blimey, school days consisting only of hard science.

Sounds like you need to read "Hard Times" by Charles Dickens, Annonymous and see where that sort of attitude gets you.

BTW: a lot of science consists of theories, not hard facts, that's what makes it so exciting.

On 1/6/09, 11:53 AM , Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip on this one. I'm always on the look out for good posts on this topic to bookmark. This will be one of them.

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