For 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,1 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 personally 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 don’t always 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, and pretty much everything about the relationships in Fifty Shades of Grey, albeit for different reasons). 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 people from both camps 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 notice they can be quite passionate about what they believe about how we should treat one another. 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 would see that what separates our 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.
The Basis for Human Morality
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 starting point for answering these questions is pretty simple: The original impetus for 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. That’s where we start, and that serves as the foundation upon which our moral systems are built. Empathy alone won’t be enough to guide all of our actions, but it’s where it all starts.
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 toward 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 Frans 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.
Just-So Stories that Keep Us in Line
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 of the year 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 because now he can be 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. 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, 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 insist we 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 ethical systems on top of that and make the world we want to live in. Like with most traits of the animal kingdom, humans like to take things to a wholly different level. Birds sing songs while humans compose entire 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 roles, 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).
Man-Made But Still Useful
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 this because our religions tell us to; we do it because we want to do it in order to make our world a better place according to how we see it, and we work toward codifying those principles which will enable the most people possible to enjoy that same benefit. We would rather not live in fear of 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 artificial 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. That creates a common functional basis on which our societies can build common systems of ethics.
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 all2 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, by the time of the Enlightenment 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. In time more and more countries have followed this example and have built secular governments for themselves. It appears to be working just fine for them.
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.
1. For a much more detailed breakdown of the philosophical issues surrounding this topic you can mosey on over to Camels With Hammers, the blog of Dan Fincke, who undoubtedly will want to “tweak” a good deal of what you see in this article.↩
2. 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]↩