There seems to be a common misconception among a lot of people when they are confronted with labels like Deist, or Agnostic, or most shocking of all, Atheist! In their minds, apparently, these titles bring up images of immorality run amuck. From my own personal experience as a theist, I know that people do not want to accept someone they care about as being atheist. There was a time when I could not stand the thought either. Many people simply refuse to believe someone’s claim of being atheist if that person is a law abiding, respectable, good person. They might say, “So and so says he’s an atheist, but I don’t believe it.” It’s just too hard for them to fathom good people with no God. Without a God, how do we know the difference between right and wrong? Don’t all atheists believe that morality is relative, and others, that “Anything goes?” But atheists have comparable morals to theists. For atheists, morality is not a way of living just because God tells them they must; morality makes perfect sense when they consider cause and effect.
The religious theory that morality exists only because God has imposed it upon us makes morality seem like a thing we cannot comprehend. It’s illusive or mysterious, and we are all possible cheaters or murderers etc. unless there is an afterlife and a punisher to consider. It’s as if the most intelligent life that we know of, mankind, is too simple minded to comprehend the consequences of his or her actions. Perhaps the theory is that humans are naturally moral beings because God has instilled morality into our souls. Christians, such as the philosopher J.P.Moreland, say that the first and most important reason for morality is “because I love God, I recognize him as my creator” (128) He then adds that one should be moral for the sake of it and because he has concern for “this life and the life to come.” The latter statement is one that theists and non-theists alike can agree on except, perhaps, that atheists might be more concerned with future generations rather than an afterlife in heaven.
Religious believers think that the existence of morality is proof that there is a God. It is thought that without a God, or scripture, there would be no reason to restrain ourselves from whatever impulse we have. Where does morality come from, and who makes the rules? If there is no spiritual director and eternal damnation than what’s to stop us from committing robbery, rape and even murder? However, Charles Darwin reflected that the most significant and important difference between man and other, lower animals, is man’s “moral sense or conscience” (qtd. in Shermer 13). Darwin found himself in awe of man’s nobleness and willingness to sacrifice anything for what he believes is right or just.
Most religious persons have the comfort of knowing what is right and wrong because their priest, prophet, rabbi etc. tell them. But there are also many stories about religious fanatics using their beliefs to justify some of the most horrifying and deviant actions that most of society would consider quite wrong! For instance: recently, in Southern Utah, there have been religious believers who claim to be the posterity of Christ and plan to reincarnate him through incest. Some religious believers refuse life saving blood transfusions. Others make decisions based entirely on what their leaders have required of them, like circumcising a child, or whether a certain food or beverage is beneficial or harmful to their bodies with no thought to scientific evidence that suggests otherwise. In addition, of course, there are the polygamous societies who base their lifestyle around their religion and convince young women to enter into such marriages or else fail to receive “celestial rewards.” And how can we ever forget the fanatic jihadists who were willing to give their lives for their religion by flying planes into buildings, killing thousands of innocent people?
While it can be said that some individuals leave their religion and become atheists because of morality divergence, atheists are not typically amoral. Most atheists, in fact, are very moral and ethical. Some statistics seem to suggest that theistic countries, such as the U.S., often have higher rates of adolescent abortion, STD’s, homicides, and more marital problems. (Paul par. 15, 16) One would actually wonder if our theistic citizens misbehave because they believe they will be forgiven their “sins.” Or maybe they simply have a less final, and more comforting view of death? Whereas, an Atheist knows he or she is ultimately accountable to his or her own conscience and humanity, and that this life may be their one chance to make a difference.
For Atheists, science is the deciding force of good and evil; what supports life and what does not. Because of our innate social instincts, our need to be accepted by the pack, the human species has evolved to find ways to do just that, be accepted and acceptable. As noted in Robert Wright’s introduction to his book, The Moral Animal, humans have “a thirst for social approval, [and] a capacity for guilt” (9). We have a desire for life, love, family, peace: but even the most basic desires for food, shelter and sex must be satiated in an acceptable way in order to keep our secure place within our society. But it’s not just the fear of rejection or repercussion that makes us want to do good. We have a desire to see our fellow creatures happy and we have that “capacity for guilt” because most of us also have empathy. That is, we can imagine ourselves in someone else’s place. Over time we have adopted certain standards that work for the majority of people everywhere. That standard is now commonly known as the Golden Rule, Do unto others as you would have done unto you.
The biggest problem in finding the proper balance of morality and ethics is that in almost any subject that comes to mind there is a controversy. The stem cell research debate for example. Is the manipulation of a human embryo going to devalue humanity? Or is experimenting with that embryo, for the benefit of others, the moral and ethical thing to do? Who gets to decide when life begins or when it should end, as with abortion, Capital Punishment or assisted suicide for the terminally ill? It takes scientific evaluation and thought to discover the answer to these questions, and others.
There is a wide disparity between non-theists and theists alike on many issues like abortion and Judy Ferris put that issue in a good perspective in her essay, Why Should Atheists Be Pro-Life when she said, “For the atheist who believes that when you die, your life is over, period, the taking of an unborn human’s life should be a very serious matter” (par. 17). How can a non-theist be any more comfortable than a believer with the loss to the world of any individual no matter how insignificant that life may seem to some. In fact, life should be even more precious because there may not be any other way for that individual to have a chance at life. Or even the comforting thought that the child has a loving family waiting in heaven. If there is not even a possible “reincarnational transfer” as she says, then one has to realize how serious and, possibly permanent the decision to take a life is. Ferris is an ideal authority on the subject because she once had an abortion and believed the dogma of the “Choicists” who told her the embryo she carried was nothing more than a “blob”, but during her pregnancies with her subsequent, younger children she became educated about the life of a fetus. She then came to believe that abortion is equal to murder.
Morality continues to evolve according to experience and new scientific revelation. Whatever actions or non-actions that help our species continue to live, and to live together in harmony, is the moral compass of the modern Atheist. Less than 200 years ago human slavery was perfectly acceptable to many people and deities, including the God of the Bible, as demonstrated in his speech to Moses on Mt. Sinai,
Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the
heathen that are round about you; And ye shall take them as
an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they
shall be your bondmen forever: but your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over the other with rigour. (Holy Bible Leviticus 25. 44-46)
And yet, today’s Jews and Christians would be horrified at the thought of slavery in their own time, which goes to show that thinking evolves as we gain wider perspectives.
Robert Wright points out, after a lengthy review of polygamy versus monogamy, that although polygamy (regardless of an inequality factor) could be more advantageous to women and less to men because of the ability it gives women to move up the socioeconomic ladder, that in the end polygamy is dangerous for society because it leaves the unmarried men to wander aimlessly about, generally behaving riskily (100). This is one person, using the scientific method, to discover what is beneficial in society and what really is not. Science is simple common sense, with no need to rely on religion to tell us whether a certain behavior is right or wrong. If the scientific method were applied to every aspect of our lives we would all make decisions based on logic, or common sense, rather than fear of eternal damnation, or anticipation of heavenly rewards.
Some of our moral instincts are definitely learned from experience. Probably some very basic, natural instincts have kept humans from danger and even extinction, such as the maternal instinct, or bond, between mother and child. This instinct is not necessarily God given. It is very likely a reaction to the hard experiences of pre-historic life. In order to keep her posterity alive, a mother must create an attachment to her young and a strong awareness of the child’s whereabouts and actions.
Some philosophers and scientists believe that religion was a response to early civilizations needs for a moral “code of conduct.” Humans have required rules and laws to govern themselves by. A belief in an omnipotent God, who will judge us all for our deeds, is, for many, a commanding deterrent. However, people who choose not to believe in such a supernatural being, can feel generally at ease with the laws created by their fellow citizens, and if the laws in place are not acceptable, then citizens have the right to collectively make a change. Michael Shermer, in his book The Science of Good and Evil, says that although religion has brought humans far in their moral evolution, “morality need not be the exclusive domain of religion” (20). Non theists know that their judges are all around them in the form of neighbors, family, community, even nature (22). Atheists store their treasures in the life they are living and the world they live in. Atheists are moral because they want to live in a decent world and they understand that their actions have a direct effect on the world around them, like a ripple in a pond.
Ferris, Judy. “Why Should Atheists Be Pro-life?” Pagans For Life. 08 March 2009. <>
Holy Bible. Salt Lake City, UT. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 2000.
Moreland, J.P. Scaling the Secular City. Baker Academic, February 1987. p. 128
Paul, Gregory S. “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religion & Society. (2005): 20 pars. 15 April 2009
Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Times Books. 2004
Wright, Robert. “Darwin and Us.” Introduction. The Moral Animal Why We Are The Way We Are: The New Science Of Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Vintage Books. 1995.