Good Without God?

For those atheistical children in the crowd, I know that something that can be relatively confusing as you’re trying to sort out yourself and your identity is morality. And as atheists, we hear a great deal from the religious folk that God is necessary in order to have a serious moral system.


I am currently in a few philosophy classes, and after one of them, I got involved in a discussion with someone about agnosticism, which led to a question of morals and the question of whether or not someone can lead a moral life without God or without religion. The person I was talking to asserted that she wasn’t sure you could have morals without God, that while you could create a logical or coherent system to live by, you could justify nearly anything if there was no God.

I would assert exactly the opposite. When a moral system is only moral because it has been handed down by God, anything could be considered moral as long as it came from the right source. For example the Bible has multiple instances of people being killed in horrific ways as punishment for their sins. If we are to take this moral code literally, then killing people in horrific ways for being disrespectful to their parents is an appropriate moral action. If the test for morality were “did God say it”, then anything could be moral. If a holy book stated that we should maim our brothers and sisters, that would be legitimately moral. Indeed, in the past, moralities from holy books have been used to justify any number of horrific actions because God said that something was moral.

Contrary to this, a moral system that is logical and coherent as well as compassionate and empathetic (as I believe an atheistic moral system must be) will take more stock of the subjective viewpoint of the people in the world while integrating that with an objective eye to improving the world in terms of pleasure, pain, freedom, equality and happiness. These are all goods that we can understand as goods simply through logic and without acknowledging the existence of a God. And so because a morality that comes from an atheistic point of view must be justified, there must be a reason for actions beyond “it’s a rule”, I would argue that few things would hold as moral. To take the idea of punishment that was used as an example in the Bible, in an atheistic system of morality this would not be a moral action. Quite simply, it is immoral for an agent to cause harm to another agent, therefore a horrific murder is never an appropriate response to a “sin” or immoral action. While some people could logically justify capital punishment, it would have to be in a humane way so that we would be holding ourselves to the same standards we held the criminal-not causing undue harm. However in the case of disrespecting parents, we would understand that logically responses must be proportional to behavior, and that morally this child should be corrected, but not punished. Similarly, we would know not to kill our brothers and sisters because death is depriving someone of their right to choose life or death for themselves. It encroaches on freedom, it causes pain and harm, and it ends something that is inherently a good. None of these reasons require a God to ground them.

Therefore it seems to me that a more rigorous, humane and compassionate morality would be one based on atheism, because the only place to ground morals is in the human being, therefore we must understand empathy before we can be moral. It seems to me a greater good to be kind to your neighbor because you understand that as a human being they deserve your respect and kindness as they are working to understand their world and live well just the same as any other person than to be kind to your neighbor because you’ve been ordered to. For this reason it seems to me that an atheist morality may in fact be deeper than a theist one.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. Kalene
    March 2, 2011 at 3:08 pm —

    Thank you for this post. I am still amazed at the amount of people who subscribe to the “morals from God alone” camp and don’t think about it the reasoning behind the conviction. And that’s after having this discussion with many people, including the Dean of Students at my college!

  2. Rebel 16
    March 3, 2011 at 1:51 am —

    The Jews were not the first to develop morals, only the first on record to have attributed them to God’s will. Records of ancient civilizations show that they had laws that presumably reflected their societies’ morals. These concepts predate deific association by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Humans had “good” long before we had God.

    I think the reason people can frequently have problems understanding that God is not necessary for moral development is related to the old adage that if you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. The Jews ascribed morality to God’s will thousands of years ago; that’s a long time for a concept to settle in and take hold. I think this is also the cause for people thinking that atheism is a religion – religion is the only life context they have.

    It’s good to see Teen Skepchick up and running again. Welcome, new contributors, and welcome back old ones!

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