I’ve been reading over the blog and responses, but had to stop lest I end up there all day.
But one recurring theme made me decide to comment, which is the issue of morality. I have my own view on this, and thought I’d share.
Most religious folk try to lead good, moral lives. While I’m sure many are just good people, I’m just as sure that a large percentage choose to do so because they feel they’ll get a greater reward in their afterlife or because they’re worried that their God will see if they do bad things. When I was a Devout Believer, I did this myself. If I insulted someone, for example, I immediately felt bad– not because I might have hurt their feelings, but because I might have offended God.
Now I try to be nice to others, not because An Interesting Idea wants me to, but because it’s how I would want to be treated. I try to lead a good life, not with the expectation of a reward, but because it’s the right thing to do.
So I have to wonder when people say atheists have no morals, when the good things we do are based on our own decisions, rather than instructions in a 2000-year-old text, fear of punishment, and hope of reward. One would think the sincerity of the act would factor into whatever “morality scoring system” is being used to argue against atheism.
Sort of the difference between a child being forced to say he’s sorry for pulling his sister’s hair, and a heartfelt apology because he genuinely feels bad for hurting her.
There are several flavors of “atheists have no morals”:
1) “Atheists don’t worry about doing wrong because they don’t believe in divine justice.” But, as you point out, there are social reasons to be moral. You can also have a desire to be a good person without believing that the desire was caused by a deity.
2) “Atheists have no system of morality” or “Atheists don’t believe in the 10 Commandments.” It’s true that there is no set of moral rules for atheists. However, atheists tend to agree with theists on most of the 10C, so far as morality is concerned (as pointed out on my Rights and Responsibilities page, to the annoyance of some atheists).
3) “Atheists think that, without God, anything goes.” Some atheists actually do seem to do this. For example, I’ve received e-mails saying, effectively, “I’m an atheist — who says I can’t cheat on my wife?” It’s definitely a problem, but these people don’t represent atheists in general.
4) “Atheists are moral relativists (that is, they don’t base their morals on universal laws).” It’s true that atheists don’t believe in a universal standard of goodness, but when a moral system is derived from self interest and human instinct, it ends up looking a lot like the morality theists say was delivered by a deity (ignoring the parts about purely religious topics, of course).
5) “Atheists are moral relativists (that is, they look for ways to justify their desires instead of trying to do what’s really right).” Some atheists do this, but then again, so do some theists. This is a problem of less-than-rigorous beliefs, not of atheism in particular.
Thanks for writing!