Imagine if someone grew up believing that hamburgers were the sole invention of MacDonald’s, and that this delicacy could be found nowhere else.
Imagine this person meeting, for the first time, someone who didn’t like MacDonald’s. In fact, this person never goes to MacDonalds. Ever.
Yet strangely, this MacDonald’s-averse person claims to enjoy hamburgers.
“That’s impossible”, exclaims our Big Mac aficionado, “people who don’t eat MacDonald’s have absolutely no idea what a hamburger is or what it tastes like, and they cannot be trusted with anything to do with hamburgers!”
The absurdity of this scenario is obvious: hamburgers, as everyone knows, are made and eaten by many restaurants and private citizens on a regular basis. MacDonald’s has no special claim on its invention or sale.
This, I think, is the mistake believers make when they regard atheists to be moral nihilists. Atheists cannot possibly be moral, they claim, because morality comes from God, and no one else.
It’s actually quite revealing to consider what this Christian viewpoint actually implies about human behavior. It implies that a mere 4000 years ago or so, as Moses allegedly descended the mountain with the Ten Commandments in hand, people suddenly began to believe that things like murder and theft were morally wrong, ending what must have been an uncontrolled murderous rampage.
(Unfortunately, the only murderous rampages reported in the Bible until this point were those supported by God himself, including the annihilation of most of the world’s population in the great flood, and the slaughter of Egypt’s first born.)
The Christian view also implies that a mere 2000 years ago, when Jesus asked us to love our neighbors as ourselves, the Golden Rule suddenly poofed into human consciousness for the first time. Try telling that to Confucius. Or Pittacus. Or Thales, Isocrates, Epicurus, the ancient Egyptians or the ancient Babylonians.
It seems, instead, that morality has been with humans ever since we evolved, and probably a lot earlier. We wouldn’t have survived without it.
In short, atheists can eat burgers too.
Update: A great summary of a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences indicates that most people, regardless of their religious beliefs, respond similarly to a range of moral problems, indicating that religion itself is probably not responsible for morality, or even for making people more moral than they were before.