How Can an Atheist Be Moral?
For Goodness Sake
"If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? . . . Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God."
By Dan Barker
You notice a person drowning in a river. What should you do? If you agree with Jefferson, you should consider yourself a "social animal" with an "instinct" to compassion, whether you believe in a god or not. If you are a humanist, you will empathize with the sufferings of another human being. If you are a Christian, you will believe that person's life has value because he or she was "created in the image of God."
But whatever your basis for value, you still have to decide: "Should I jump in?" You can't pull a list from your back pocket to look up "Rule 127: What to do when someone is drowning."
Behavioral dilemmas involve a conflict of values, and in real life this means they are always situational. You can't simply follow a blind code: you have to compare the relative merits of the consequences of various actions; and the only way to do that is to exercise reason.
How far out in the river is the person? How strong is the current? How good a swimmer are you? Are you likely to cause two deaths instead of one? How many children are you responsible for supporting?
It would be pointless to ask, "Is it moral to dive in?" The only purpose of this irrelevant question might be to make you feel virtuous, or guilty.
Perhaps you bravely take the risk and dive in. Or, regrettably, you might reason that the most moral action would be not to jump in the river in this case, running for help, if possible. Your basis for value is not important: the facts of the situation are.
Quoting Dostoyevsky--"If God does not exist, everything is permissible"--many believers suggest that it is only theists who can have values, although, like Jefferson, they certainly know this is not true. We atheists are just as likely as Christians to jump in that river--perhaps more likely.
"How does an atheist account for the existence of objective moral values?" I often hear. "If you don't believe in God, then what is your basis for morality?"
We atheists find our basis for morality, of course, in nature. Where else would we look?
Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean they are "objective." They can't be. A value is not a "thing"--it is a function of a mind (which is itself a function). To be objective is to exist independently of a mind. So, an "objective value" is an oxymoron: the existence in the mind of something that is independent of the mind.
However, most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences are objective.
Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that "Morality" exists in the universe, a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word "morality" is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds. If no minds existed, no morality would exist.
Morality is simply the intention to act in ways that minimize harm. Since harm is natural, its avoidance is a material exercise. Organisms suffer as they bump into their environment, and as rational animals, we humans have some choice about how this happens. If we minimize harm and enhance the quality of life, we are moral. If we don't, we are immoral or amoral, depending on our intentions.
To be moral, atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no Cosmic Code Book directing our actions.
Of course, relative to humanity, certain general actions can be deemed almost uniformly right or wrong. Without the Ten Commandments, would it never have dawned on the human race that there is a problem with killing? The prohibitions against homicide and theft existed millennia before the Israelites claimed the copyright.
The way to be moral is to learn what causes harm and how to avoid it. This means investigating nature--especially human nature: who we are, what we need, where we live, how we function, and why we behave the way we do.
Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to whom we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering. By nature, those of us who are mentally healthy recoil from pain and wish to see it ended.
This is not the Golden Rule. Confucius, 500 years before Christianity, phrased the principle best when he said, "Don't do to others what you would not have them do to you." Although this is still not a fully adequate principle for ethics, it is much better than "Do unto others" because it identifies the avoidance of harm as the key to morality.
Of course, we often act in positive ways to stop the pain of others. This is compassion. Atheists can perhaps express compassion more easily than believers because we are not confused by fatalism ("Whatever happens is God's will"), pessimism ("We deserve to suffer"), salvation ("Death is not the end"), retribution ("Justice will prevail in the afterlife"), magic ("Pray for help"), holy war ("Kill for God"), forgiveness ("I won't be held responsible for my mistakes"), or glory ("Suffering with Christ is an honor"). Since this is the only life we atheists have, each decision is crucial and we are accountable for our actions right now.
Yet notice how leading theists deal with the real world: "Ye have the poor with you always," said the "loving" Jesus, who never lifted a finger to eradicate poverty, wasting precious ointment on his own luxury rather than selling it to feed the hungry (Matthew 26:6-11). "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ," Mother Teresa added. "I think the world is much helped by the suffering of the poor people." So much for theistic compassion!
Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an "instinct" because many appear not to have it--it seems optional. But it is fortunate that there are enough of us who love life enough to protect ourselves from those who don't. We have systems of law, enforcement, justice, and defense. We encourage kind, ethical actions through moral education and critical thinking.
But most believers, including Christians who are ordered to "bring into captivity every thought unto the obedience of Christ," have an underlying distrust of human reasoning. Yearning for absolutes, they perceive relativism--the recognition that actions must be judged in context--as something dangerous, when it is the only way we can be truly moral.
Theists are afraid people will think for themselves; atheists are afraid they won't.
When theists make a case for "natural rights," they often point to Locke, Jefferson, Paine, and other enlightened thinkers of the Age of Reason. It is enlightening to notice that they rarely quote from the bible. Nowhere in Scripture will you find an acknowledgment that each individual has an "inalienable right" to be treated with fairness and respect, or that "We, the People" are capable of governing ourselves. There is no democracy in the "word of God." In the bible, humans are "worms" and "sinners" deserving damnation, "slaves" who should humbly submit to all kings, heavenly and earthly.
Championing the "consent of the governed" over the authority of a sovereign, the Declaration of Independence is unabashedly anti-biblical. We Americans are a proudly rebellious people who fought a Revolutionary War kicking the King and Master out of our affairs; and to prove it, we produced a godless Constitution, the first to separate church and state.
But many American Christians see it differently: "Had Jefferson been influenced by Darwin instead of Locke," wrote Clifford Goldstein, editor of the Seventh Day Adventist Liberty Magazine, "Joseph Stalin's views on religious liberty would have been deemed progressive." In a "Darwinian universe," Goldstein contends, truth rests "on a foundation as whimsical as the electorate or whichever despot happens to be in control."
Oh? How does truth fare in the "theistic universe" where the despot is named Jehovah?
The God of Scripture slaughtered entire groups of people that offended his vanity, ordering young virgins to be kept alive as war booty for his priests (Numbers 31). "Happy shall be he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones," he advised (Psalm 137:9), threatening those with the wrong religion that "their women with child shall be ripped up" (Hosea 13:16), sending bears to attack 42 children who teased a prophet (II Kings 2:23-24), punishing innocent offspring to the fourth generation (Exodus 20:5), discriminating against the handicapped (Leviticus 21:18-23), promising that fathers and sons would eat each other (Ezekiel 5:10), and much more that we would find repugnant in a human being. In this theistic universe, morality is severed from reality and reduced to flattering the Sovereign.
If on a Saturday, for example, you notice a man gathering wood to warm his family, as a Christian commanded to "remember the Sabbath," what should you do? According to Numbers 15:32-36, you should stone him to death! Is this not whimsical?
Jesus incorporated slavery into his parables as if it were the most natural order, only cautioning masters to beat some slaves less severely than others (Luke 12:46-47). The Heaven's Gate cult, like Origen, accepted Jesus' advice: "There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Matthew 19:12) Is this good advice?
There are some good teachings in the bible, of course; but is a garden beautiful that is overrun with weeds? Jefferson thought that most of Jesus' words were insulting, although he spotted a few good teachings, "easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill." (To Adams, Oct. 1813)
Goldstein has it backwards. Had Jefferson been influenced by Jehovah instead of Locke, Adolph Hitler's views on religious liberty would have been deemed progressive! Hitler allowed Darwinism to be twisted for a political purpose, framing evolution in a "social" way not intended by Darwin himself; but it wasn't Darwinism that gave the theistic Hitler his basis for morality: "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work." (Mein Kampf) Hitler credited Jesus as his inspiration. In a 1926 Nazi Christmas celebration, he boasted, "Christ was the greatest early fighter in the battle against the world enemy, the Jews . . . The work that Christ started but could not finish, I--Adolf Hitler--will conclude." The creationist Hitler shared a thirst for blood with the bombastic biblical God in whose "image" he thought he was created.
There is no practical value in claiming that "natural rights" are rooted outside of nature. People who find "moral absolutes" in the revelation of a deity have never agreed what those absolutes are. Take any crucial social moral issue of the day--capital punishment, abortion, stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, women's rights, divorce, gay rights, corporal punishment, animal rights, slavery, pacifism, environmental protection, birth control, overpopulation, state/church separation--and you will notice that praying, bible-believing Christians have come down on opposite sides. The apostle Paul alleged that the biblical deity is "not the author of confusion," yet never has a single book caused more confusion or divisiveness than the bible.
If the bible gives us absolute moral guidance, then where is it? Why don't sincere believers agree on these important questions? It's clear that the bible is an inadequate behavioral guide, and that the tyrannical god of Scriptural mythology leads us to a lack of values.
When Jefferson wrote about the "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence, he was not talking about the Christian god. As a Deist, he viewed the "Creator" as a much less personal being than the biblical deity. The god of Deism was more like "nature" than "Jehovah."
When Jefferson claimed that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," he could not have meant "endowed" in the sense of a sovereign granting a privilege that might be denied. If something can be endowed, then it can be un-endowed. If a right is inalienable, it can't be withheld or withdrawn, not even in principle. An "inalienable right," if rights are endowed, is an oxymoron.
Human rights, if they are inalienable, could not have been granted--not by a government, society, or god. A "natural right" is a claim to a freedom, privilege, or power that you possess inherently, by nature (though you still might have to convince others to recognize and grant that right). Natural rights, if they exist, are indeed inalienable; but then they could not have been "endowed." We simply own them.
It is clear that Jefferson meant, figuratively, that since we are "endowed by nature" with common human needs, we are justified in expecting society to honor our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Christians think we should treat others nicely because we were all created in the "image of God." This gives us value, they suppose.
But they don't explain why. Why does the image of a god provide greater value than some other image? Why does it give any value at all? What does "image of God" mean?
"God is a Spirit," Jesus supposedly said; but what is that? The word "spirit" has never been defined, except in terms that tell us what it is not: immaterial, intangible, noncorporeal, supernatural. No one has ever described what a spirit is. "To talk of immaterial existences," Jefferson wrote, "is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise." (To John Adams, August 1820. This does not mean Jefferson was an atheist: he conceived of God as a material being, or as nature itself, which is consistent with Deism.)
Since "god" has never been defined, much less proved, its "image" can't be used as a basis for anything. "Nature," on the other hand, means something. Darwinism shows us that all living organisms are the result of a natural evolutionary process. We have been fashioned by the laws of nature.
This revelation can only fail to impress you if you have been taught that there is something wrong with nature, something shameful about being a mere animal in a debased realm beneath the supernatural, whatever that is. Many theists seem eager to play this game of nature-bashing. The "blind chance" of evolution, they say, is a brute force incapable of producing something as "lofty" as us humans.
But evolution is not blind chance: it is design that incorporates randomness--not intelligent design, but design by the laws of nature, by the limited number of ways atoms interact mathematically and molecules combine geometrically. It is design by extinction, by the way a changing environment automatically disallows organisms that happen not to be adapted, leaving the "fittest" behind, if any. The randomness of genetic variation is a strength of evolution, providing a greater chance that something will survive.
This is amazing. Instead of speculating about an unknown "creator," we can actually look at our origins. Evolution shows how complexity arises from simplicity: creationism can't do that. Creationism tries to explain complexity with more complexity, which only replaces one mystery with another mystery. If functional complexity requires a designer, then how do you account for the functional complexity of the mind of the designer?
Darwin's enlightening concept is empirical, testable, provable, and relevant to creatures that inhabit a physical planet. It shows us who we really are. We are not above nature. We are not just a part of nature. We are nature. We are natural creatures in a natural environment. Through the startlingly sloppy, painfully unpredictable, part-random, part-determined process of natural selection, life, imperfect yet doggedly hanging on, has become what it is.
And that's what makes life valuable: it didn't have to be. It is dear. It is fleeting. It is vibrant and vulnerable. It is heart-breaking. It can be lost.
It will be lost.
But we exist now. We are caring, intelligent animals, and can treasure our brief lives. Why is eternal better than temporal, or supernatural "higher" than natural? Doesn't rarity increase value? God is an idea, not a natural creature. Why should his "image" be more valuable than our own "nature"? What right would an immaterial existence--a ghost in the sky--have to tell us natural creatures what is valuable? Has he ever felt the pain of giving birth? Does he struggle to pay the rent?
If we were created in his unknowable image, then we have no idea who we are. But being fashioned in the "image of nature," we do know who we are, and we can find out more. Right in our backyard, here on earth, we can investigate, study, and continue to improve conditions on this planet. It wasn't faith that eradicated smallpox. Contemplating the "image of god" will not cure cancer or AIDS.
Science has given us much. What has theology ever provided?
Theology has given us hell.
The threat of damnation is designed to be an incentive to right action; but this is a phony morality. Humanists think we should do good for goodness' sake, not for the selfish prospect of reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment. Any ideology that makes its point by threatening violence is morally bankrupt. (Hitler's ovens, at least, were relatively quick. The torment Jesus promised is a "fire that shall never be quenched.") Anyone who believes in hell is at heart not moral at all.
If the only way you can be forced to be kind to others is by the threat of hell, that shows how little you think of yourself. If the only way you can be motivated to be kind to others is by the promise of heaven, that shows how little you think of others.
Most atheists will say, "Be good, for goodness' sake!"
Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister, is a staff member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.