When someone asks me “How can atheists have morals?” they are typically doing one of two things: 1) They may be genuinely trying to understand how I can make moral decisions without believing in a transcendent, supernatural Lawgiver because they’ve never given it much thought, or 2) they are not genuinely trying to understand me but rather are picking a fight, challenging me and accusing me of holding a worldview which is inferior to theirs. I would like to address each motive separately (starting with the fight-pickers) because my answer depends on what my inquisitor is trying to do. Incidentally, it’s too bad I usually don’t know which I’m dealing with when people ask me this. Often I think it’s a combination of both. I’m beginning to suspect that the life of faith inclines people to such an unease about their own doubts that it compels them to continually prove to themselves that their view of the world is superior. I could be wrong, though ;)
The fight-pickers are not genuinely trying to understand why my morals remain intact without belief in supernatural beings, an afterlife, or Heaven and Hell. They are asking a question that’s not really a question. They are making an assertion that people cannot have morals without believing in a deity of some kind (preferably their own). The facts don’t support this prejudice, but I’ll get to that in a second. First I must point out how insulting this non-question really is to a person like me. When you do this, you are accusing me of being an immoral person. Perhaps you have never stopped to consider that this is what you are doing. Privilege blindness can be a nasty thing, and it’s far too easy to think less of people who don’t deserve it simply because they see things differently from you. If you have observed my behavior and have seen worse behavior from me than you see from people with your own belief system, then please point that out to me. If not, then perhaps you should rethink your assumptions about what makes people “moral.”
Can we also dispense with debates about dictators, please? See, the problem with citing unique individuals (like despots) is that, unlike groups, individuals can be psychotic, which makes them a very poor choice of reference for discussions about human nature. Psychotics can be found in every belief system (in fact, many psychotics are very religious…some of them may have been responsible for founding new religions of their own). It takes a certain kind of person to run a dictatorship, and this person poses a problem for both theists and non-theists alike. Mass killers have come from both camps. For every Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong (all non-theists), you’ve also got Cromwell, Sindikubwabo of Rwanda, and Hitler (all theists). Debates about these go nowhere, trust me. It’s better to stick to large groups when discussing normal human nature. Normal people don’t go around killing folks and abnormal people don’t make good representative samples for generalizing about morality. So let’s not waste any more time on that, please?
Statistically speaking, what is the outcome of non-belief on large populations? Internationally speaking, those countries with the lowest crime rates (like the Scandavian countries and Japan) are among the least religious in the world. On the other hand, the country with by far the highest crime rate (the U.S.) is among the most religious, particularly among developed countries. The same pattern holds true for states within the U.S. as well. Those states with the lowest crime rates (e.g. in New England and the Pacific Northwest) rank among the least religious, while the highest crime rates afflict the Deep South (aka “The Bible Belt”). If disbelieving in a divine Lawgiver led to immorality/amorality, these results should be reversed, and our prison populations would show a higher proportion of atheists than can be found in the general population. In reality, however, surveys of prisoners have shown that less than half of one percent of prisoners identify with atheism. So either atheists are in fact less inclined to criminal behavior or else they are significantly better at getting away with it ;)
Another favorite charge of the fight-pickers is that without a transcendent Lawgiver, your morals become subjective and therefore hopelessly mired in moral relativism. I see two major problems with this. First of all, the morals of a theist are nowhere near as objective as they’d like to think. The truth is that everyone’s morals are subjective—some just don’t realize it as well as others. While it may comfort you to think that your distinctions between right and wrong are transcendent and rooted in something immovable, even yours have moved quite a bit over time and where the lines are drawn now is likely very different from where they used to be many years ago. Appealing to a deity doesn’t really solve this “problem” because you have to first get people to agree which deity to consult in the first place (you do know there are others besides yours, right?), and those competing deities do not agree with one another, nor do their respective holy books. In fact, if you wanted, you could even limit the conversation to people of your religion alone, all using the same scriptures, and yet they will still arrive at wildly different judgments about basic things like sexual orientations, the place of women in society, and the concept of a “just war.” If sharing a common deity and a common scriptural canon provided a solid basis for decision making, there would not be 41,000 denominations of that one religion unable to even worship in the same room with one another.
As for moral relativism, I can think of few squishier concepts than Divine Command Theory, which states that “good” is defined as “whatever God says is good.” The first problem with that concept is that if you believe people can make mistakes, you must also acknowledge that they can miscalculate or misperceive what this deity is telling them to do. You certainly can’t run an entire country on “God spoke to me and told me we should all do this.” I hope that anyone can see the danger inherent in that arrangement. The second problem is that under this theory absolutely anything can be called good or moral, no matter how repugnant it may be. Should you sacrifice your middle-schooler on an altar? Depends. If God tells you to, then it’s good, amirite? The Bible teaches that God was pleased with Abraham, not because Abraham didn’t finally kill his own son, but because he was going to. That’s what earned Yahweh’s praise. Should you run swords through women and children living on land that you want for yourself? Absolutely, if God tells you to. That makes it right. In fact, if God tells you to kill some people and you don’t, your resistance to his command is now “evil” and the killing is now “good.” I’m not making this up—these two instances both came from the Bible and they are defended daily by Christians. I’ve already explained how people’s treatment of the story of the conquest of Canaan settles this “objective morality” question once and for all. I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone can defend the murder of the Canaanites and then call me a moral relativist. I have never been able to find an atheist willing to defend genocide (again, I don’t interview psychopaths from either camp) but I wouldn’t have to look very long to find several dozen of my own Christian friends ready to justify it as long as “God said to do it.” You can’t get any more relativistic than that.
And yet people still accuse atheists of moral relativism, immorality, and amorality, but why? Clearly this judgment doesn’t arise from empirical observation, so why do they keep saying this? I can think of three reasons. First, I think it originates from the same basic xenophobia which says that anyone who is different from you—not “one of us”—must be inferior. This is a natural human trait and while looking out for your own kind has its benefits, it can also help our larger human society to think bigger than that. Learn to expand your horizons a bit and identify with people not entirely like you. It’s a growing experience and I highly recommend it.
Second, I think this prejudice toward atheists (for that’s what it is) gets reinforced every time a Bible teacher asserts that goodness can only come from the active presence of the Holy Spirit within the believer. I know that while growing up I was taught that humans are morally weak and fallen, prone to wickedness apart from the saving presence of God. “You must have Jesus in your heart” they always say. Congratulations, you have just declared yourselves better than all other people on the planet. “Oh no!” they tell me, “It’s not us, it’s God who does the work!” On paper this sounds like it fixes the humility problem, but you’ve still just written off billions of people because they don’t have the right religion. According to this theology, the Muslim and the Hindu are just as incapable of goodness or morality as the atheist. Perhaps it makes you feel better that you only believe this because a book tells you that you’re supposed to, but I say that is only a good excuse when you’re too young to think for yourself. By now you should have passed the point where you uncritically accept what you were taught as a small child. If you had been born in Saudi Arabia, you would be defending Islam and the Koran instead of the Bible right now.
Third, I think the fight-pickers keep asking this non-question because they’ve learned to do this from Christian apologists trying to protect their faith from a worldview which they feel threatens them more than any other out there. I’ll write more about this another day but there is something fundamentally scary to a Christian about atheism. They feel uniquely threatened by it more so than anything else because it implicitly questions the very core of their religion: faith itself. Other religions don’t do that. They share a common belief in belief itself. What makes atheism different is that it rejects the notion of faith, which undermines everything the believer holds dear. In fact, they feel so threatened by the mere existence of atheism that the skeptic need not ever say a negative word about the Christian religion—simply knowing the atheist is out there is intrinsically offensive and threatening. If you don’t believe me, I’ll refer you to the outrage expressed over a billboard in Texas which asserts little more than that atheists exist. Calls and letters pour in over even non-confrontational advertisements like these, often getting them taken down because even that is too much for many to hear. Talk about touchy! How fragile must faith be that even the existence of an atheist is perceived as a dire threat?
One last consideration and then I’ll go on in my next post to answer the question “Where Do Atheists Get Their Morals?” for the benefit of that first group of inquisitors who sincerely want to know. When a fight-picker asks me this question, I’ve learned to first ask him: If I demonstrated that atheists live moral lives too, would that really mean anything to you? Since you clearly believe atheist immorality would be evidence against our worldview, would you concede that goodness among atheists is evidence against yours? His answer will either be “Yes” (in which case good luck with that conversation because now his entire belief system depends on demonstrating that you’re a moral monster), or else he will say “No” (which leads me to ask “Then why are we even having this conversation?”). More often than not, this question is a red herring, a distraction devised to divert attention away from whatever people don’t really want to talk about, like the messiness of the Bible or the subjectivity of religious belief in general. Honestly, I’d rather not waste much time having this discussion if that’s all this turns out to be.
But some genuinely want help thinking through this question, so for those folks I’ll post part two soon, attempting to explain why atheists are just as moral as everyone else.