Not Everyone Understands How Atheists Can be Moral

Shannon Murphy, a senior at Bryn Mawr college in Pennsylvania, is surprised that students at her (fairly liberal) university would question how atheists could be moral:

In speaking to a fellow atheist friend about the [Deborah] Stone lecture, the topic of morality and religion at Bryn Mawr came up. My friend told me that she had been confronted by another student who knew her to be an atheist. This woman asked my friend, similarly, how she could be both atheist and moral. Where did her moral values come from if not from the Bible? This frightens me. It’s hard for me to imagine that even at a place like Bryn Mawr people could be so uneducated about atheism.

Morality comes from an understanding and respect for mankind and above that for living creatures in general. I know many atheists who are strong supporters of animal rights, human rights, and environmental preservation. It’s an innate preservation of species and respect for the earth that gives us our morality, rather than a book.

Do we consider the religion of an American when we judge their actions? Rarely. It’s only once we know their religion that we judge in comparison. A woman who donates her time every weekend to a homeless shelter is a good citizen, but a Christian woman is a good Christian. An atheist who donates her time every weekend to a homeless shelter is considered unusual. But is she really? Would you be surprised to find out that many Americans consider Atheists to be the least American individuals in the country?

I’ve mentioned the Brown Phenomenon before. It refers to the fact that the most liberal schools in the country — the schools you imagine would be teeming with atheists — are actually the schools where it’s most difficult to form an atheist student organization.

Similarly, I’m not surprised at Shannon’s reaction to her friend’s anecdote. You wouldn’t expect students at a liberal school to question where people get their morality from — which is precisely why it’s important to make sure you are constantly educating people about those things.

Can you be good without God?

What’s the purpose of your life if there is no God?

What happens when we die?

No matter where you go, there will be people who have not heard the answers to those questions.

Do you have an answer for them?

Short and snappy answers to those questions (and many more) are available in this PDF.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    I went to a liberal Ivy League university and I experienced the “Brown phenomenon”. The atheist group existed for about two months and then disbanded. About 8 people showed up and they all lived with each other.

  • HP

    Something that baffles me about this question from non-atheists goes way beyond questions of morality or ethics. They don’t seem to understand something as basic as actions have predictable consequences.

    You don’t have to be a master of logic to figure this out. Any moderately reasonable person can predict the likely outcome of the actions they take. Quite apart from empathy and respect for human life, I know that if, in a fit of rage, I murder a member of my community, I am going to make my subsequent life short and difficult. I’m going to have to go on the run, without resources, always looking over my shoulder for authorities or family members bent on revenge. And who wants to live like that? The fact that I do have a moral compass is almost irrelevant, because I realize that living in harmony with the people and institutions around me is the best way to live, in terms of my own comfort and security.

    It’s not so much that lawlessness and selfishness are morally wrong, but that it’s a colossally bad idea because the consequences are so disastrous.

    Epicurus figured all this out 2500 years ago. It worries me that there are so many people running around who seem incapable of considering the consequences of their actions.

  • mikespeir

    Where did her moral values come from if not from the Bible?

    We have to be careful here, because this isn’t the way the best Christian thinkers frame the issue. Obviously, people were moral long before there was a Bible. The claim is that our sense of right and wrong was placed in us by God. So if anyone–even an atheist–knows that this is right and that is wrong, he knows it because that knowledge was instilled into him by God. Now, obviously, this is nothing but a bald assertion, but it’s a little harder to refute. We have to present plausible alternative hypotheses, such as HP has done.

  • Aj

    I think it’s a problem of intelligence more than ignorance of atheism. Do these people seriously get their morals from the Bible? Not from all of it, which means they’re selecting parts they like based on a pre-existing morals. Also, as an ethical framework the Bible isn’t very satisfactory, just take the ten commandments, vague with little explanation and obscure rules half of them about believing in things, something you can’t force yourself to do anyway.

    It’s ridiculous, Christians have the larger task justifying why they have morals, and why they choose the Bible over other moral claims. All that an atheist has to say is that they were born with morals and explain how they might have formed if they can. Why aren’t we asking Christians how can they be moral while believing in fairy tales? Ask them to provide the evidence that the Bible is a revelation from God.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    I’ve been an atheist for well over a decade and I have never run into this. I find that people are confused that I “don’t believe in anything” (it’s not just God I don’t believe in but the supernatural entirely, no angels, no demons, no reincarnation, etc.). But I have never had anyone accuse me of being immoral or ask me why I am not a murderer since I don’t follow the 10 commandments. Maybe it’s because I rarely tell anyone that I’m an atheist before I get to know them, at least a little. So it’s pretty obvious that I am a moral person by that point. I do think it’s all about personal relationships. I never thought atheists were immoral because my grandfather was an atheist and I knew he was not immoral. For me, being born-again was never a means to becoming moral. It was a means for staying out of hell and pleasing God.

  • Michael

    Humans have existed as a social animal for at least 200000 years. Suddenly a sect comprising less than 1/3 the population that has been around less than 2000 years claims a monopoly on morality, it is beyond ridiculous.

  • http://retropolitics.tumblr.com/ EvilPoet

    I let my actions speak for me. If people can’t see what I am by the things I do that’s not my problem.

  • http://kathrynpetroharper.com/mindfullife Kathryn

    Thank you for compiling the questions and answers in a PDF. They are concise and thorough. Would it be all right if I linked to the PDF on my blog?

  • http://bornagainblog.wordpress.com Justin

    Can you be good without God?

    I do it daily. In fact, without a deity to confuse the issue, I can now see where I used to do awful things because I was a believer that I would never think to do now.

    What’s the purpose of your life if there is no God?

    To enjoy, to spread joy and, as a corollary to this, to mitigate suffering. I just wrote about this in my blog. (plug, plug, click my name! heh)

    What happens when we die?

    People weep. Some in grief, some in joy.

    My friends that have passed were wonderful people. I miss them. But I’ll not belittle the wonder of the life they lived by pretending they still exist. They lived, I was blessed by their presence, that is enough.

    Real spirituality will provoke in a person the humility to not wish the entire universe to notice that we’ve gone. Most religions have exactly the opposite effect: the prompting of extreme hubris, the thought that we individually are what matters in the universe and that, once we’re gone, the whole of creation requires reassurance of our continued existence elsewhere.

  • llewelly

    Would you be surprised to find out that many Americans consider Atheists to be the least American individuals in the country?

    Naw. But I wonder if they’re outnumbered by the number of Americans who agree with George H.W. Bush – and believe atheists can’t be American at all.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Can you be good without God?

    You’d be better off phrasing this questions as “What is your reason for being good without God?” I think that is the question most Christians would be most curious about. Most Christians are well aware that there are atheists who are good people (i.e. that you “can” be good without God). But what some aren’t familiar with are the philosophical underpinnings of why one ought to “be good” in an atheistic/naturalistic worldview.

    HP gave one good answer to that question (natural consequences), though the average Christian would then wonder “Does that mean if you can get away with something (i.e. no consequences) that makes it okay?” I think most Christians would want to know whether there are any other reasons beyond a utilitarian calculus for what atheists consider right and wrong.

    These are not an invalid questions IMHO, and I don’t think we should just be mocking those who have not yet heard your answers to it. Just because you know that you do have an ethical philosophy that underlies why you do what you do, doesn’t mean everyone else is familiar with it.

  • Daniel H.

    Morality comes from an understanding and respect for mankind and above that for living creatures in general. I know many atheists who are strong supporters of animal rights, human rights, and environmental preservation. It’s an innate preservation of species and respect for the earth that gives us our morality, rather than a book.

    This is very odd. Atheists more or less across the board believe in evolution by natural selection. We evolved from lower forms and are advanced animals.

    Animals steal and kill and fight and take over territory all the time, and are heartless in doing so. On what possible grounds can these actions be condemned simply because they are done by humans?
    Saying that you don’t like those things won’t cut it, because we have psychopaths among us who DO like those things. And even if no one likes those things and therefore we declare them “immoral”, who cares? Our descendants might call our morals disgusting, like what we say about our ancestors and slavery.

    Morality is castrated on atheist presuppositions. What’s moral about a rock? What’s moral about a trilobite? What’s moral about amino acids? What’s moral about a fizzing can of Coke? What’s moral about a collection of atoms called “Steve”? Why in this chance universe on our little blue planet which is spinning around a sun that will soon burn out, is it “wrong” for this collection of atoms called “Steve” to take a collection of atoms called “knife” and stick it into a collection of atoms called “John”?

  • http://www.blogd.com/wp/ BlogD

    My favorite example of this is from this guy. Essentially, he uses presupposition: true moral acts can only come from a pure source, and that source has to be Jesus. Everyone else is just faking it, or just imitating Christians at best. In the end, it’s all about arrogance and/or blindness to everything outside their world: morality is whatever god says it is, and if you don’t listen to god, then you can’t be moral. Translate that to mean, “morality is what the church says it is,” which allows them to not only literally claim the monopoly on morality, but to claim that anything they want to do is moral, no matter how immoral it actually is. If the church god says “kill babies,” then killing babies is moral because “god” is the wellspring of morality.

    Naturally, this is frightening for a number of reasons, which is why I get real nervous when I hear the common “how can you be moral without being Christian” refrain. Either it’s a prelude to immorality, or ignorant support of those who want to wield the mantle of religion to do immoral acts and get away with it.

  • Hemant

    Kathryn– you are welcome to link to the PDF :)

  • j swift

    Daniel you are taking morality out of its context in human society and placing in the context of what, chemistry? Inanimate objects? Animals that do not have the level of intelligence to understand the concept of morality much less formulate morals to practice relativism upon?

  • http://darwinsdagger.blogspot.com Darwin’s Dagger

    Morality is castrated on atheist presuppositions. What’s moral about a rock? What’s moral about a trilobite? What’s moral about amino acids? What’s moral about a fizzing can of Coke? What’s moral about a collection of atoms called “Steve”? Why in this chance universe on our little blue planet which is spinning around a sun that will soon burn out, is it “wrong” for this collection of atoms called “Steve” to take a collection of atoms called “knife” and stick it into a collection of atoms called “John”?

    What’s moral about God? How do the whims of a baby drowning deity add up to genuine morality? Because he said so? Your morality has been castrated by its dependence on supernatural authority. There’s nothing real about it. The only thing protecting us from you is the delusion that “God” might punish you.

  • http://perceivingwholes.blogspot.com Jane

    Daniel H says,

    Morality is castrated on atheist presuppositions. What’s moral about a rock? What’s moral about a trilobite? What’s moral about amino acids? What’s moral about a fizzing can of Coke? What’s moral about a collection of atoms called “Steve”? Why in this chance universe on our little blue planet which is spinning around a sun that will soon burn out, is it “wrong” for this collection of atoms called “Steve” to take a collection of atoms called “knife” and stick it into a collection of atoms called “John”?

    Do you believe books are made of words? Then poetry is castrated on your prepositions. After all, what’s poetic about a dictionary? A thesaurus? How can a collection of words called a haiku have greater literary merit than a collection of words called a Google Ad?

    I don’t know any theists who deny that we are made of atoms, and I doubt you do so. But it’s not the atoms that matter. (In fact, the atoms in your body are replaced every seven years, on average.) Rather, it’s the PATTERN made by the atoms that matters. Morality is a property of certain patterns or systems of atoms (molecules, cells, tissues, organs), just as poetry is a property of certain patterns of words. Humans are systems of atoms that have the capacity to suffer, to be happy, to empathize and to conceive of right and wrong. This makes us moral creatures and yes, moral collections of atoms.

    As usual, Carl Sagan said it best:
    “We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering the stars: organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for the Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

  • Aj

    Mike Clawson

    You’d be better off phrasing this questions as “What is your reason for being good without God?”

    What is your reason for being good with God? Apart from reward (heaven) and punishment (hell) theists have the exact said problem as atheists in this regard, with the added problem of claiming to know the mind of God, or whether prophets were real or not.

    Daniel H.

    Animals steal and kill and fight and take over territory all the time, and are heartless in doing so. On what possible grounds can these actions be condemned simply because they are done by humans?

    a) That’s called the naturalistic fallacy. Just because it occurs in nature doesn’t justify it.
    b) Argument ad populum, just because it happens a lot doesn’t mean it’s right.

    c) I don’t know where you get your ideas from, but I don’t hear any atheists condemn actions because they’re done by humans. That’s complete nonsense.

    Saying that you don’t like those things won’t cut it

    Who says that?

    Morality is castrated on atheist presuppositions. What’s moral about a rock? What’s moral about a trilobite? What’s moral about amino acids? What’s moral about a fizzing can of Coke? What’s moral about a collection of atoms called “Steve”? Why in this chance universe on our little blue planet which is spinning around a sun that will soon burn out, is it “wrong” for this collection of atoms called “Steve” to take a collection of atoms called “knife” and stick it into a collection of atoms called “John”?

    Did you have a stroke or something? This is pure jibberish.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    What is your reason for being good with God? Apart from reward (heaven) and punishment (hell) theists have the exact said problem as atheists in this regard, with the added problem of claiming to know the mind of God, or whether prophets were real or not.

    Certainly some Christians think of morality in the way you’ve described (i.e. in terms of divine reward or punishment). However, I also know many Christians who think of the foundation of morality not as simply obedience to divine commands in order to avoid punishment, but as living in harmony with the very nature of the universe and our existence as human beings. For these Christians, morality is founded not on rules, but on the belief that we are created in the image of God, which, for these Christians, means being created in relationship with God, self, others, and the world. They believe that relationality, and therefore morality, is inherent in the very ground of all existence (which is also why these Christians are Trinitarians, and not simple monotheists). Thus their “reason” for being good is in order to live in harmony with “the way things were intended to be”, and not in opposition to it.

  • http://darwinsdagger.blogspot.com Darwin’s Dagger

    Thus their “reason” for being good is in order to live in harmony with “the way things were intended to be”, and not in opposition to it.

    Remove the intentionality from that phrase and you understand atheist morality. We appreciate the harmony of the natural world and the attempted harmony of human society and see the value of contributing to and maintaining that harmony. We just don’t need some external authority in order to live that way. Which makes atheist morality superior to theist morality:)

  • Aj

    Mike Clawson

    …but as living in harmony with the very nature of the universe and our existence as human beings. For these Christians, morality is founded not on rules, but on the belief that we are created in the image of God, which, for these Christians, means being created in relationship with God, self, others, and the world. They believe that relationality, and therefore morality, is inherent in the very ground of all existence (which is also why these Christians are Trinitarians, and not simple monotheists).

    I’m hoping that made sense to someone.

    Thus their “reason” for being good is in order to live in harmony with “the way things were intended to be”, and not in opposition to it.

    God’s will, that wouldn’t be a useful reason for atheists. That doesn’t sound right, but I’ll take your word for it. When did you decide to “live in harmony” instead of raping and pillaging?

  • http://www.banalleakage.com martymankins

    I’ve not quite understood how narrow-minded people can be in their thought process about how someone who has no belief in God, could be moral. It’s as if no one has any sort of life-governing motive to them without having to check in with a higher power first (uh God… should I kill this person or not?).

    I guess I could see from the idea that Christians believe we came from God, but without that constant tethered purse string to the sky pixie, is that the assumption that non believers are just raping and pillaging without concern? Sounds judgmental to me.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    I’m not good for any reason. I have no desire to commit crimes or to hurt other people. (I’m sure there are trivial ways I break the law but that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to steal or murder or beat up people, etc.)

    It’s not even because I have empathy and can imagine how I would feel if I were the victim of a crime. I just have absolutely no desire to do these things.

    If Christians really want to rape and pillage and murder and just don’t do it because the Bible prohibits it, those are some frakking scary people. I’m glad they have found some way to control their vile impulses, but I don’t find people who have vile impulses and control them to be much better in the big picture than people who have the same vile impulses and act on them. That’s just disgusting.

  • http://perceivingwholes.blogspot.com Jane

    Mike Clawson said,

    However, I also know many Christians who think of the foundation of morality not as simply obedience to divine commands in order to avoid punishment, but as living in harmony with the very nature of the universe and our existence as human beings… They believe that relationality, and therefore morality, is inherent in the very ground of all existence (which is also why these Christians are Trinitarians, and not simple monotheists). Thus their “reason” for being good is in order to live in harmony with “the way things were intended to be”, and not in opposition to it.

    Take out the teleology, and this view of morality resonates with me. (Credit Madeleine L’Engle and Lewis Thomas.) However, it can be misleading. That’s why I first try to apply the utilitarian test — what would the consequences of this act be for sentient beings? — first. If that test is passed, the more subjective, poetic one comes into play.

    For example, some hunters justify hunting as a way of getting in tune with nature and wild animals. However, the result is the suffering or at least loss of enjoyment of an animal capable of experiencing these things. Unless the meat is truly necessary for food, the first test is failed and the second one is not activated.

    I certainly don’t always manage to do this or live out my decisions, but we’re all trying. :-)

  • http://www.jimloomis.deviantart.com Jimmy

    I remember the reaction of fellow students to my atheist views in a diversity class I took. We were given an assignment that involved us going to a place where we were a minority. I asked the teacher if I could go to a Christian church, and she looked puzzled.

    “Why would you feel like a minority at a Christian church?” She asked.

    “I’m an atheist.” I replied.

    The whole classroom gasped.

    I was shocked at the reaction, but I also realized that I’d never came out as atheist before. I was at a fairly liberal school in a very socially liberal class.

  • http://vaneramos.livejournal.com Van

    I’ve enjoyed reading here lately, and you have inspired a couple posts on my own blog:

    http://vaneramos.livejournal.com/610052.html
    http://vaneramos.livejournal.com/604750.html

    Re: A Jew’s First Bacon….One of these days I’ll write about the day evangelical Christianity lost its hold on me.

    Cheers,
    Van

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I think it is actually a difficult question what basis there is for moral behavior. When I reason about morals, in the end, I reach certain basic principles, such as the Golden rule, at which point it becomes unclear how to “objectively” justify these basic principles. Prudential justifications, such as in HP’s post, are not really moral arguments. In the end, I just have to say “that’s how people should behave,” but I have no empirical justification, or way of convincing someone who has different basic moral principles, and there’s something unsatisfatory about that.

    However I don’t see how introducing God gives any additional justification for ethical behavior. It gives strong prudential reasons, since God threatens you with eternal hellfire for immoral behavior [1]. But how does the existence of God give a stronger logical basis for behaving ethically? Mike Clawson, you say:

    However, I also know many Christians who think of the foundation of morality not as simply obedience to divine commands in order to avoid punishment, but as living in harmony with the very nature of the universe and our existence as human beings. . . Thus their “reason” for being good is in order to live in harmony with “the way things were intended to be”. . .

    Mike, how is this different from my atheist end-position of “that’s how people should behave”? I see that you believe in a powerful entity who wants us to behave in a certain way, but leaving aside prudential reasons, I don’t see how this differs from “that’s how people should behave.”

    [1] Actually, if the portrait of God in the Bible is at all accurate, He threates you with hellfire for not following manifestly immoral standards, which actually makes the prudential religious position immoral, but that’s another issue.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I’m not good for any reason. I have no desire to commit crimes or to hurt other people. (I’m sure there are trivial ways I break the law but that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to steal or murder or beat up people, etc.)

    It’s not even because I have empathy and can imagine how I would feel if I were the victim of a crime. I just have absolutely no desire to do these things.

    If Christians really want to rape and pillage and murder and just don’t do it because the Bible prohibits it, those are some frakking scary people. I’m glad they have found some way to control their vile impulses, but I don’t find people who have vile impulses and control them to be much better in the big picture than people who have the same vile impulses and act on them. That’s just disgusting.

    If you’ve honestly never had an impulse to willfully hurt another human being, or act selfishly at someone else’s expense, I’m guessing that puts you in the minority among the rest of humanity. Even the best of us have a dark side in my experience. In fact, the most insufferable people to be around (though I’m not saying this is you) are those who don’t think they have a dark side, and therefore assume that they are so much better than all those “sinners” out there.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Which makes atheist morality superior to theist morality:)

    Yes, and apparently you’ve got us beat in the humility department too. ;)

  • http://ieatedyourcooki.livejournal.com Cooki

    Honestly, I am an atheist and I’ve my own set of morals.
    I think we are a product of our environment, regardless of religion. My mother was soul searching when I was a child and we tried many different religions. I became so confused I had to throw it all out and figure out what was important to me. Myself. How did I want to portray myself to the world? How did I want to portray myself to… myself?
    I make judgements based on benefits to myself and to others. By killing someone, I gain nothing. I faint at the sight of blood, I go to jail, social ostracism, someone loses their life, many people lose a loved one.
    BUT If i knit a scarf and give it to charity, i enjoy myself and someone’s neck is warm. If I fill someone’s empty parking meter I empty my pocket of some extra weight and save someone from a ticket.

    I don’t need a god to show me those things. They’re simple.

  • http://ieatedyourcooki.livejournal.com Cooki

    to elaborate… (i didn’t seem to make my point well because i went off on a tangent)
    some persons raised in the bible belt as christians will chase a man and his family out of town for not saying the pledge of allegiance with “god” in it. but somewhere in Europe, a whole town is indifferent and accepting even though the majority of them are christian.
    So then behavior in this case is specific to the area. And only used as an excuse to act out things that are opposed by the religion itself. “forgiveness first for the jew, then for the gentile”.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X