How Can Atheists Have Morals? (part two)

trainingwheelsFor those who would genuinely like to know how atheists can have morals, I’d like to attempt to offer my best explanation.  I’m no career philosopher or ethicist, so I’m sure this could be done better by someone else (like Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers), but I’ll give it my best shot.  One problem is that the term “atheist” isn’t descriptive enough because all that signifies is what you don’t believe, but it doesn’t say anything about what you do believe.  Among non-believers-in-gods you will find both naturalists and supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and skeptics, neo-pagans and new age spiritualists, and everything in between.  The variety is endless.  I couldn’t possibly address how all of them think (nor would I care to), but I will address how most atheists I know would answer this question. Most of my skeptical friends and acquaintances are philosophical naturalists, which means they don’t see any valid reasons for believing in supernatural things (ghosts, goblins, demons, magic, fairies, spirits or gods).  They see the natural world as reality and everything else as make-believe.  How can such people live moral lives without some transcendent Being telling them what to do?

First you must be clear about which question you’re really asking.  Are you asking, “Do non-theists live moral lives?” because if you are, the simple answer is “Yes.” Non-theists live lives just as guided by moral principle as theists, even though the two sets of principles often don’t agree with each other.  For example, while much of Christian moral teaching stresses comparatively narrow definitions of “proper” sexuality (married heteros only!), non-religious thinking on the same subject begins in a different place and therefore arrives at different definitions of acceptable sexuality.  But both systems of thought condemn exploitative sex or sex that brings harm to another (e.g. pedophilia, rape).  Both will stress the importance of mutual respect within intimate relationships and both will value honesty and condemn deceit.  I know this because I’ve discussed these things with more people from both camps than I could possibly count and the same underlying values are clearly there.  The same similarities could be demonstrated for pretty much any other topic we could discuss, even when the particular outworkings vary.

Furthermore, if you will listen to what naturalists have to say about those values (especially the humanists among them), you will often hear great passion for those principles saturating their speech, and you will see it in their eyes, too.  They care a great deal about their moral values, and nothing insults them more than to be told they don’t have any simply because someone else disagrees about the what those values should be.  This is bigotry, plain and simple.  If the critics of skepticism would only learn to listen with mutual respect, they will see that what separates their moral values isn’t as great as what unites them.  I’m disappointed to say the failure to show respect happens on both sides of this ideological divide so that neither is above reproach.  But you can disagree without insulting people’s character.  We need more role models on both sides demonstrating how this is done.

Once you can accept that atheists do have morals, and that they already live moral lives (even if the particulars don’t match your own), the next questions are “How?” and “Why?”  The answers to those questions could easily fill books but the essence of the answer is refreshingly simple:  The basis of all human moral reasoning is empathy, and empathy is a natural product of our biological evolution.  When a species takes care of its own, it thrives; when it does not, it fails and dies away.  Imagine two groups of animals, one hunting and sleeping and grooming in groups and the other riding solo, living as loners.  Which group will survive and thrive and live to pass its genes to the next generation?  The ones who take care of their own will fare better, and years down the road their kind will be the only ones around.  Apply the same concept to the long history of hominid development and you’ll find that solidarity—identifying with one another—lies at the heart of our evolutionary survival.  That’s why virtually all major philosophies and religions throughout human history (including those predating the Abrahamic religions by many centuries) have expressed some form of the golden rule:  treat others how you want to be treated.  All moral reasoning starts here, and humans share this value regardless of creed.  Atheists and Fundamentalists alike believe in caring for one another, even if how they work that out varies wildly.

Humans aren’t the only species which exhibits empathy and altruism, though.  Most members of the animal kingdom will protect their young even to the point of self-sacrifice, and most will look out for the other members of their group.  But many animals have even displayed empathy and altruistic behavior towards members of species besides their own.  Dolphins have been known to protect swimmers from nearby sharks and a beluga whale was once observed helping a swimmer when his legs cramped up at a theme park in China.  Well-controlled experiments and observations of many kinds have demonstrated that many animals—especially the closer they come to our own species (e.g. primates)—show a clear sense of fairness, equality, sharing and cooperation (I’d recommend The Bonobo and the Atheist by de Waal for a thorough investigation of this).  Rats will help each other out of cages when there’s nothing in it for them personally, even if it means giving up a reward like chocolate.  What this tells us is that empathy and morality aren’t products of religion; if anything, the reverse may be true.  It may very well be that our biologically ingrained sense of “do this but don’t do that” gave rise to, or at least reinforced, the many systems of belief in invisible spirits watching over us to ensure we are doing what we’re supposed to do.

Think about how readily parents picked up the practice of telling their children that somehow Santa Claus “sees you when you’re sleeping, [and] knows when you’re awake.”  Those of us who perpetuate this untruth know this is a lie but we keep doing it anyway because it works.  Not infallibly, of course, but it does help keep the kids in line while also sprinkling a season with a bit of magic and wonder.  Ironically the song goes on to say they should “be good for goodness’ sake,” but then we turn around and promise them they will get things in return for being good.  For children, that’s a much more powerful motivator.  Santa’s virtual invisibility only makes him more powerful both because now he can be somehow anywhere and everywhere at once, and because you cannot disprove a being you can’t even see.  Clearly we are not above fabricating stories that are untrue in order to elicit the desired behaviors from our children.  Have you ever heard a parent tell a child at a restaurant to watch out for the manager because he can see how they’re behaving?  What exactly is the child supposed to think the restaurant manager will do to him?  It’s never really specified, but the feeling of dread it produces seems to be its own justification.  We will use whatever works.  That, I believe, explains how religious belief began.

But grown-ups put these childish fables away, right?  I mean, once you’re grown you should have internalized your codes of conduct so that you will essentially follow them even after you’ve learned that Santa is make-believe and that the restaurant manager isn’t going to beat you for talking too loudly at the dinner table, right?  Well, sort of.  Most will agree that once you reach a certain age these threats become silly and inappropriate.  But even as grown-ups we are still being told that an invisible Person is watching us while we’re sleeping and while we’re awake, and that he will punish us for our bad deeds and reward us for the good ones after we die. What, after all, are Heaven and Hell if not Christmas morning taken to the extreme? Many would argue that we must always keep this story around because without it people will go crazy.  They will all become addicted to porn and begin raping and murdering and stealing from nursing homes.  I think that’s nonsense.  People want to do good because it’s wired into them by millions of years of natural selection.  Even when they fail to follow this instinct, most normal people are still driven by it most of the time.  Dropping the Giant Invisible Man story won’t reverse that any more than removing training wheels will make a prepared child unable to ride a bike.  There comes a time when you “put childish things away” as one guy once said ;)

So is this morality, this “goodness,” rooted in something transcendent and objective?  Is it wired into the universe?  Yes and no.  Empathy is woven into the fabric of our psychology by natural selection but we also build on that and make the world we want to live in.  Like most traits of the animal kingdom, humans like to take things to a wholly different level.  Birds sing songs while humans compose symphonies.  Beavers build stick huts while people build skyscrapers.  Dolphins carry one another for days if they’re injured while people organize international relief efforts when a typhoon hits a region on the opposite side of the planet.  We like to use our developed cerebral cortexes to devise highly complex systems to accomplish the same things our animal cousins already do, only much bigger.  And while other animals situate themselves into primal hierarchies of leadership, complete with their own well-established rules, we develop legal societies and civilizations in which human capacities and resources can be optimally distributed for the good of our own species (and hopefully one day for the rest of our ecosystem, on which we interdepend).

We create human society, with its complex systems of rules and ethics.  It is a social construct, and its particulars will vary from place to place and from time to time.  The systems of morality we construct within those societies and cultures are our own inventions, and they are intended to arrange our lives the way we want them.  We like sleeping in our own beds, safe in houses not in danger of armed thieves, so we invent laws and law enforcement.  These are human inventions but they accomplish what we want to accomplish for ourselves, so we keep doing it.  We aren’t doing it because of a divine design; we do it because we want to do it in order to make our world a better place as we see it.  We would rather not fear being eaten by other animals so we arrange our lives in such a way that this becomes less and less of a possibility.  So on the one hand, our highly developed sense of morals is subjective because we are in fact the creators of these systems.  But on the other hand, they are rooted in the most basic instinct, which is the survival of our own species, and that is wired into us by millions of years of natural selection.

Despite its many flaws, we could look at the American system of government as one of the first and longest-lasting social experiments in which a system of laws was devised without reference to one religion or another (in fact, it expressly forbids the intermingling of the two).  The U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention any gods at all* because it’s not predicated upon any religion, despite what many today would have us believe.  It has survived for more than two centuries even though it is secular by design.  The reason this worked is that after thousands of years of formation, human moral reasoning had finally reached the point at which it no longer required fear of the gods in order to bolster an ethical system.  It was time for the training wheels to come off, so they did.  That can be a scary thing, just like riding a bike for the first time.  People accustomed to the familiar supports of religion still fight the notion of a secular society, insisting it cannot work.  Yet here we are, still functioning under the framework of laws scribbled down more than 200 years earlier.  That says an awful lot.

We don’t need the gods in order to be moral.  Our moral instincts predate the invention of religion by millions of years, and they will move forward from this point on without the assistance of religion in the foreseeable future.  It’s time to put away childish things.  It’s time we grew up.


*Whenever you say the Constitution doesn’t mention God, some smart-a** always chimes in and says that since they followed the dating convention of the time they made reference at the very end of the document to “the year of our Lord,” as if that negates my point above.  This reminds me of my students who, when I point out that their page is still blank after 20 minutes of dawdling and doing nothing at all, tell me “Nuh uh!  See?  I wrote my name on the page!”  [eyeroll]

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  • grasshopper

    “¨When a species takes care of its own, it thrives; when it does not, it fails and dies away. Imagine two groups …. etc”.

    I understand what you are trying to say here, but unfortunately the mechanism which you invoke to to explain what I would call altruism is not a current favourite of evolutionary biologists, and it would give Richard Dawkins conniptions. Group selection, and evolution-for-the-good-of-the-species are evolutionary unworkable concepts.

    Refer to the following link for further information, or perhaps (re)read The Selfish Gene.


  • godlessindixie

    Thanks for the correction. Sounds like I’ve got some more reading to do so I can fine tune my understanding of this.

    So is the main error in seeing things as “group selection” rather than individual “gene selection” or “trait selection”? If so, then I could reword the way I explain this in the future, although the same basic idea would remain intact. Social animals thrive better than those which aren’t as social. Or to be more specific, OUR species came to be what it is today largely through its social nature. Does that sound more accurate?

  • Lee

    My general understanding is that the process will, over enough time, generate biology that exhibits traits that further the DNA’s chances of replication. Dawkins often admits that his title should have been “The Immortal Gene” to help sales and avoid confusion, but if you dig into it, it’s all about selfishness…its just that selfishness manifests sometimes as altruism, group preference, etc.

  • Christian Kemp

    Beautifully written and the example of the constitution is a brilliant one.It shows that we have moved away from gods but seems the yoke is hard to break.

    I am not sure how anyone can not see a link between doing to others what we would like done to us are not the beginnings of morality. It seems obvious that I should not steal fruit if I dont want someone else stealing my fruit.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    Whether morality stems from a biological source or not, most people who live in a social/tribal/familial situation and rely on the largesse of other members will cultivate that relationship to survive or fit-in for emotional gratification . I would like to think that humans gain a ‘good feeling’ when a positive response is given to the cultivation of that relationship. Like a junkie, humans keep doing those things that make them ‘feel good’. This probably happened long before the human species developed a need to explain or control good/bad with a religion.

  • Christian Kemp

    Said perfectly.It is that desire to do good that drives us.

  • Jim Jones

    Morality is doing right, no matter what you are told.

    Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right.

    — H.L. Mencken.

  • John Reagan

    The simplest response to goofy believers that think that man can’t have morals without a belief in a god is to ask them….If you, (or one of your family quit believing in god), then do you really believe that that person would ‘all of a sudden’ turn into a slavering rapist murderer? If so, then when believer’s have moments of doubt (and they all do), why do they not run down the street stark naked with a roll of toilet paper in one hand and a butcher knife in the other during this ‘episode of non-belief’?

  • Christian Kemp

    You would be surprised how many people believe thiswill happen. Maybe not to the extent of rape and murder, but extending to smaller crimes like sexual thought(heaven forbid). :)

  • rturpin

    “Social animals thrive better than those which aren’t as social.”

    No. There are plenty of animals that are not at all social. And that thrive, in a biological sense. Big lobsters happily eat smaller lobsters.

    “Or to be more specific, OUR species came to be what it is today largely through its social nature.”

    Yes. But the problem with trying to derive morality from nature is the rich variety of nature. We are a social species. We also are a species that has a fraction of psychopaths. Who sometimes do quite well on some measures of success.

  • Christian Kemp

    This is very true, but we have psycopaths with and without religion. Look at the Oslo/Norway massacre in a secular society and the Oklahoma bombings in a religious society.

  • Bonnie

    “No. There are plenty of animals that are not at all social. And that thrive, in a biological sense. Big lobsters happily eat smaller lobsters.”

    Yes, but humans would not have survived if we did not live in groups. One reason is the way we raise our young. We are too vulnerable as young children and demand too much attention to have survived without at least a family group. Another is that the ability to gather/kill food is more effectively done by a group than an individual.

    Psychopaths are not the ‘norm’ but a biological abnormality.

  • Bonnie

    Maybe biological abnormality is the wrong word as it’s estimated as many as 1 in 30 people are psychopaths… how about biological deviation?

    Psychopaths are very capable of functioning within a social group though. They simply feel no remorse about exploiting others. It would makes sense that they survived evolutionarily speaking, even if they aren’t always ‘good for the whole’.

  • Lee

    To argue morality based on absolutes is craziness. Ethical treatment of one another and to some extent individual morality are just ways we describe those traits that best suit that organism’s chance at survival within its environment. The context/variables at play and specific to each organism, culture, system, etc. will be just that…very specific. What is undeniable, in my opinion, is that the process of determining what traits are beneficial to survival are most certainly rooted in the processes of natural selection and are more or less consistent among all living things. Its also quite important to maintain appropriate perspective when considering these “softer” theories of natural selection (ie. morality). Most of human culture today lacks the ability to “scale” such extreme measures of time and population. Its a primary reason why religion and myth have such strong holds on society…its just natural to avoid such difficult scale problems and so many just chalk it all up to supernatural. Indeed, the “devil” is always in the details, and with respect to morality and ethics, I believe the details will eventually vet out what we’ve found to hold true in every other such question…its all natural. When considering such scale, there will always be exceptions…in fact the process relies on it. Psychos, serial offenders, etc. represent a small portion of the exceptions, but simply do not offer a valid counter to the general argument.

  • simgiran

    A small note: Pedophilia isn’t a kind of sexual activity. Pedophilia is a sexual orientation. Someone having pedophilia is attracted to children sexually, but also romantically, pedophiles often fall in love with children. Pedophile doesn’t equal child molester. A vast majority of pedophiles don’t want to hurt children. And a lot of pedophiles realize they can hurt children if they have sex with them. Also people who have sexually abuse children aren’t all pedophilies, some studies suggests, that majority of child sexual abuse offenders aren’t pedophilic.

  • godlessindixie

    Etymologically I suppose your definition of pedophilia is correct, but I would not agree that a pedophile “doesn’t equal molester.” If we are talking about sexual relations with a pre-pubescent child, you’ve got an asymmetrical relationship, not only because of the difference in emotional maturity, but also because a child has not yet reached the point wherein s/he can experience the reciprocity of sexual intimacy the way two consenting adults (or at least post-pubescent people) can. It’s inescapably exploitative for one person to pursue sex with a person who has not yet reached an age at which s/he can even appropriately physiologically respond and therefore understand what is going on.

    TL;DR – I think it is “hurtful” in more ways than one, and I am generally supportive of legally enforced ages of consent.

  • mikespeir

    Could we call any harmful deviation an “orientation”? Looks a little like getting carried away with euphemism to me.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    I always understood ‘sexual orientation’ had to do with heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality. All others are ‘sexual preferences’, based on cultural, societal, religious, or psychological influences. Those that are considered ‘aberrant’, like pedophilia or zoophilia or necrophilia, are usually harmful to individuals or to society and are outlawed by law.

  • –Davidinark

    Being an open-minded Christian, I enjoyed reading both parts of your article! I fall into the second category – the genuinely curious. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! The only issue I really have is you closing statement in relation to an earlier statement. You say, “But you can disagree without insulting people’s character” and then you tell non-non-theists to grow up.