New on AlterNet: Morality Doesn’t Need Religion

My latest article has been posted on AlterNet, We Don’t Need Religion to Have Morality. In it, I argue that morality is real, objective, and not dependent on theistic belief, and I explore the basis for this view and imagine what effect it could have on society if it were more widely adopted. To those who’ve read my essay on morality at Ebon Musings, this will be familiar ground, but I touch on a couple of new points as well. Read the excerpt below, then click through and see the rest!


The most common stereotype about atheists, the most common reason why religious people fear and distrust us, is the belief that people who don’t believe in God have no reason to behave morally. In the view of the planet’s major religions, the way we know what’s right and what’s wrong is that God tells us so, and the reason we follow the rules is because we fear divine retribution if we break them. This worldview is simple and emotionally satisfying and to those who believe it, it’s a natural implication that a person who no longer believes in God has no reason not to indulge their every selfish desire.

Now, I’ve never claimed to speak for every atheist. Because nonbelievers are a diverse and quarrelsome lot, there may in fact be a few who think this way. But if there are, they’re staying well hidden. The vast majority of atheists, like the majority of human beings in general, are perfectly good and decent people. This should be no surprise, as the evidence shows that human beings all tend to have similar moral intuitions, regardless of whether we profess a religion. But that doesn’t address how an atheist justifies acting morally. When we’re wrestling with an ethical dilemma, how do we make up our minds? What can nonbelievers appeal to as a reason for their action?

Again, atheists are a diverse bunch. There are some who would argue that morality is just an opinion, a mere matter of taste, like preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate. But I reject this view, just as I reject the view that morality can only come from obeying what people believe to be God’s will. I believe that morality is real, that it’s objective, and that it’s a thoroughly natural phenomenon that’s perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical, or supernatural.

Continue reading on AlterNet…

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex_Siyer

    Morality enforcement has traditionaly been a community task, and religion is more like a tool developed by the people to accomplish this task. This is a technological issue. So the specific question is: what tool should replace it?

  • kennypo65

    When I was pondering the decision to abandon faith one of the things that I asked myself was,”What is the basis for my morality?”. The only answer that made sense to me was the Popeye defense, “I am what I am.” I realized that my mores were an integral part of my personality. I could no more commit rape or murder now than I could when I thought I’d go to hell for it. My morality was independent of my faith. I knew I was still a good person, not perfect, but still OK. Over time I actually found better reasons for being moral. The best reason was that everyone had the same hopes as I did, therefore they deserved the same things I wanted for myself. That’s it, simple empathy.

  • Scotlyn

    Kennypo65 –

    I could no more commit rape or murder now than I could when I thought I’d go to hell for it. My morality was independent of my faith. I knew I was still a good person, not perfect, but still OK. Over time I actually found better reasons for being moral. The best reason was that everyone had the same hopes as I did, therefore they deserved the same things I wanted for myself. That’s it, simple empathy.

    Just so!

  • keddaw

    Summary: I want morality to be objective so I’m claiming happiness is the basis of all morality. Happiness is such a transient state and caused by so many varied things in different people at different times that I’m going to broaden my definition of happiness to anything that could impact their happiness. Therefore, on the basis of an unsubstantiated a priori claim and an unjustified redefinition of a fairly common word, I have show morality to be objective. In spite of the fact that the redefinition of happiness makes it definitionally subjective.

    I call shenanigans.

    I have no idea why people are so keen to claim objectivity for morality. I am quite happy to recognise that it is a transient and personal set of preferences that is quite often in conflict within an individual and yet is common enough among people that we can agree on rules for each other to follow while leaving individuals as free as possible to live according to their own morals.

  • Eurekus

    For me to remain faithful to my spouse is a natural extension of the way I want my spouse to remain faithful to me. I just treat her the way I want her to treat me. Quite simply, this is a morality based on rational thought, not religion.
    Funny enough, when I first became an atheist it seemed like she thought I was going to run off with a bimbo or something. Several years on, she is still and will ever only be the sole woman in my life.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com/2011/08/utilitariatheism.html Philboyd

    While I agree wholeheartedly that you don’t need religion to have morality, this essay slides past (with one offhand mention) the important point that there is no objective basis for any morality, religious or otherwise. I mention this not to argue for nihilism – god knows that’s a pointless philosophy – but to caution against blindly accepting utilitarianism as the ‘most rational’ normative ethics.

    (The link in my name is a more detailed post on that subject, if anyone’s interested.)


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