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Atheism and Morality: Good Without God?

Atheists are often asked- especially by theists- how they can be moral without God and religion to guide them. This is a question which has always intrigued me; I consider myself a largely moral person who tries to do good when possible, but there is no particular belief or doctrine which forces me to do so. There is the encouragement of society, of course- but no threat of eternal damnation should I choose to shun a socially acceptable lifestyle. Why, then, do I attempt to do good- especially if it may have negative consequences for myself?

I have always found the assumption of many theists that one must follow a set of “rules” defined by a higher power strange- the idea that, without God, humans would resort to evil. However, it’s easy to take issue with this assumption. For example, take a basically accepted rule of general society: it is wrong to kill. Is it wrong to kill because the Bible tells us so, or does the Bible tell us so because it is fundamentally true? A similar question is raised by Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma, which discusses the nature of piety. One must first examine the former option: that it is wrong to kill because God deems it so. To say that morality depends on God is to say that that basic statement is untrue unless God exists. This is a somewhat extreme claim to make, and would require theists to accept that they would sanction or accept killing if they were non-believers. The latter option, then- that some actions are fundamentally moral or immoral, and that this is why the Bible states them as such. It can then be hypothesized that if God has justification for passing such edicts, people can use reason to come to the same conclusions, and God is no longer required. This may explain why many atheists have their own sense of morality; moral conclusions can be reached through careful thought and consideration even without a God to put forward commandments.

Another interesting point is the idea that although religion may inspire many positive feelings and actions, it has also driven many to act in ways which are widely considered immoral and which are not even sanctioned in their own commandments. It can inspire bigotry and prejudice, and has provided the justification for countless wars. There is no substantial evidence for the existence of God, and even less which would allow us to assume the nature of such a God. Therefore, theists are free to invent a God which serves their own ideology in some way- which can serve as a force for evil as much as it can for good. When someone acts in a conventionally “immoral” way but sincerely believe that what they do is the will of God, it may be very hard to dissuade them. In theory, it should be easier to reason with a non-believer than a theist, as they cannot hide behind claims of holy sanction. Take again the example of killing- if an atheist is happy to kill, it may be possible to change their mind through explaining non-religious, moral arguments against the action. A theist may be much harder to dissuade, as their conviction is based in religion and they may deem any argument a person could make inferior to divine command.

This is not to say that all religious people would kill for their God, nor that all atheists are moral or rational. As with all factions of society, both groups and their sub-groups contain both good and bad people, and any number of those between. The above points make no sweeping judgement over the moral state of either group- they simply serve to address the dubious claim that one cannot be moral without divine guidance. It is perfectly possible to act in what is conventionally deemed a “good” way through an innate sense of justice, or even through reason and practicality. The commandments put forward in the Bible are largely advisable ones to follow- and the only huge difference between religious and non-religious morality is that they are derived from different sources, and not that one is superior to the other.

N.B. Please assume that the God mentioned in the above post is predominantly that of Christianity.

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1 Comment

  1. February 24, 2014 at 10:34 am —

    I don’t mean to say this to troll people. Honestly, Marilyn Manson taught me a lot about morality.

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