The question we atheists probably get asked the most by Christians is, “Where do you get your morality from?”
When I was a Christian — and even soon after I left Christianity — that question seemed deep and meaningful. It was among the reasons I didn’t leave the Christian faith sooner than I did.
But the more time I’ve spent as an atheist, the more confusing that question has become. It’s hard to answer the question relevantly — most of the time, answers to the question that I give are ones the Christian tends to mock, as if I’m totally missing the point. To be honest, though, it’s hard to see what the problem is, and in answering the question I often have to engage in mindreading to see why the Christian might think there is a problem, and then correct that perception.
I think I’ve found a succinct way to explain what I mean.
You know how we all know that 2+2=4, right? If you have two items, and you add two items, then you have four items. 2 plus 2 equals four.
Let’s add a monkey wrench in there. Suppose someone said, “No, no, no, no. It doesn’t just equal four. Thor makes it equal four. So you have two items, then you have two more items, and then Thor works his magic, and then you have four items.”
That’s perhaps a bit counterintuitive at first. But if you’re told that, repeatedly, day after day, and that’s the way you learn math…then you may take it for granted that you need Thor for two plus two to equal four.
You see what I’m saying? All you have to do is attach an entity that supposedly enables a part of the equation to happen — that is the conduit or authority of that part of the equation. And then, every time the equation proves useful or important, you can ascribe its utility to Thor.
And if you say that Thor makes 2+2 equal four, and convince someone of that deeply enough, you could build on that to further state that Thor can make 2+2 equal whatever he wants. After all, he’s in charge of whatever function makes 2+2 equal four. So he could also, say, make 2+3 equal 8 if he wanted. Who is to say that he can’t? Are you proud enough to say you’re in charge of the function of all equals signs? No? Then who are you to question Thor?
Now, if you had this absurd theory, you would have to explain a couple things. First, you’d have to explain how people who don’t believe in Thor seem to be able to do math perfectly well without him. You could do this by saying that Thor has given everyone the ability (in his great mercy and wisdom) to come up with the answer “4” for 2+2=4. But without Thor, 2+2 would not equal 4, so the position of the a-Thorists is illogical — although Thor lets them have the correct answer anyway.
But the fact is that not all people can figure out that 2+2=4. Some may have severe mental disabilities. How do you explain that? Well, you could say that, long ago, people didn’t trust Thor’s wisdom, and that lack of trust has made it so that Thor simply is not able (or even refuses) to let everyone know that 2+2=4. But in his mercy, he does as much as he can (or, depending on your sect, as much as he’s willing).
Second, you’d have to explain how Thor sometimes seems to get results that don’t look right. It’s hard, for example, to do math problems when you think that Thor makes 2+3=8. To deal with this problem, some might say that 8 is a metaphor for 5. Others would say that the answer is 8, and regardless of the disasters that occur with that variable in the mix, we can trust that Thor will make it all work out perfectly at some unspecified point in eternity. You could further state that everything bad that comes from the wrong answer to the equation happened because Thor planned it that way as part of a Grand Equation that will have a solution so beyond our understanding that you just have to trust it’ll happen.
And yet, in spite of this system, you and I both know that this is nonsense. But it would be nearly impossible to argue it with the Thorists. Say that he adds nothing to the equation, and they’ll say, “Yes, he does,” because they’re used to thinking that and worshipping him for it. They’ll also say you’re arrogant, because you can’t make the function at the equals sign work. And every time the system fails to work, they’ll respond by saying that it’s part of Thor’s grand equation that you couldn’t figure out, and that the reason it seems difficult to make things work the way Thor prescribes is because people like YOU didn’t listen to Thor.
It would be nearly impossible for you to convince someone with this view that you don’t need Thor to justify 2+2=4, right?
So…when I make a moral decision, I take variables like empathy, avoidance of harm, happiness, cause and effect, social pressures, etc., and put them together in a kind of a equation of sorts in my head, and out comes a moral answer. Much like a math problem with certain variables plugged in. I don’t need God for it at all.
In fact, the statement that I would need God is nonsense. How do I know God is good? I’d have to have a definition of “good” to start out with, right? Well, if I had that definition of “good”…what do I need God for? God would be measuring up to morality. He wouldn’t be necessary for it.
One way people rebut this is to say that good isn’t outside of God, but that what God does is good by definition. But that makes “good” meaningless — if everything God does is good simply because He did it, then the definition of “good” becomes quite useless. Why can’t I say everything I do is good simply because I do it?
But anyway, a lot of people use their empathy, their sense of happiness, cause and effect, their social environment, and so on, to figure out the variables of morality, and to make moral choices. But just before that moral choice, religious people often insert this “God” at the equals sign and say the moral choice was enabled by Him. And they get so used to the idea of God representing and enabling that equals sign that they can’t imagine making a moral decision without acknowledging His supposed role in the process.
Now, if you’re a theist who believes this you have to explain two things (notice the parallel with the earlier Thor example). First, you have to explain how people who don’t believe in God seem to be able to do make moral decisions perfectly well without Him. You could do this by saying that God has given everyone the ability (in His great mercy and wisdom) to come up with the correct answers to some moral questions, like the question of whether you should murder someone in cold blood. But then you’d argue that without God, there would be no rational way to say that someone shouldn’t murder someone in cold blood, so the position of the atheist is illogical — although God lets them have the correct answer anyway.
But the fact is that not all people can figure out that you shouldn’t kill people in cold blood. Some are psychopathic. How does the Theist explain that? Well, they often say that, long ago, people (like Adam and Eve) didn’t trust God’s wisdom, and that lack of trust has made it so that God simply is not able (or even refuses, depending on your theology) to let everyone know that you shouldn’t murder people in cold blood. But in His mercy, He does let most people know.
Second, you’d have to explain how God sometimes seems to make moral declarations that don’t look right. It’s hard, for example, to make many moral decisions convincingly when you think that God makes same-sex marriage is wrong. To deal with that, you could tweak it. Some might say that the verses that seem to be against homosexuality are really somehow saying it’s fine or not commenting on it at all. Others would say that the answer is that homosexuality is wrong, and that regardless of the disasters that occur with that misguided moral judgment in the mix, we can trust that God will make it all work out perfectly at some unspecified point in eternity. You could further state that everything harmful that comes from the stance that gay marriage is an abomination happens because God planned it that way as part of a Grand Plan that will have a solution so beyond our understanding that you just have to trust it’ll happen.
And yet, in spite of this system, you and I both know that this is nonsense. But it would be nearly impossible to argue it with the Theists. Say that God adds nothing to the morality, and they’ll say, “Yes, He does,” because they’re used to thinking that and worshipping him for it. They’ll also say you’re arrogant, because you can’t make the function that enables us to make moral statements “work” like God does. And every time the moral system seems harmful or clearly errant, they’ll respond by saying that it’s part of a grand plan that you couldn’t ever figure out, and that the reason it seems difficult to make things work the way God prescribes is because once upon a time, people in rebellion from God — people like YOU — didn’t listen to Him.
It would be nearly impossible for you to convince someone with this viewpoint that you didn’t need God to make moral decisions, right?
And so the beat goes on…