Morality FAQ

(This post is part of my Christians’ questions feature.)

If you believe in God, you may have wondered how atheists think about morality. The following answers to frequently asked questions may be of help.

Q1: Surely there is no basis for morality if God does not exist?

A1: To answer this question, we have to look at what the word “morality” means to secular thinkers. Most secularists consider morality to be about resolving conflicting interests among a group of people. It is important to resolve these interests because we cannot otherwise live in a peaceful, happy, cooperative society.

Even if society weren’t a factor, there would still be no reason to assume that my interests were more important than anyone else’s. In fact, if I thought my interests were more important, then there would surely be someone else who thought their interests were more important. Which of us would be right? Unless we can come up with a reason why one person should be considered more important than another, the only logical solution to this problem is that everyone’s interests are equally important. And if everyone’s interests are equally important, we can’t settle conflicts by saying that the most important person’s conflicts win. Instead, we need a set of rules that evaluate the competing interests on their individual merit. This set of rules is what constitutes morality. Importantly, at no point in this line of reasoning is it necessary to assume that God exists.

Q2: If there is no God, then there are no consequences for bad behavior, so why bother being moral?

A2: As explained in the answer to Question 1 above, motivation for moral behavior does not derive primarily from the threat of punishment, but from the necessary conditions for a well-functioning society and the recognition that no person’s interests are inherently more important than another’s.

That said, we all act selfishly and irrationally from time to time. It’s in our nature. Unfortunately, then, deterrents – like punishment for bad behavior – are sometimes necessary. And systems of punishment can (and do) exist without us having to assume that God exists. These systems range from the informal shunning of recalcitrant individuals to the formal enforcement of criminal justice systems. And they are carried out not by fear of God but out of concern for the proper functioning of society.

Even if we did have to rely on the threat of God’s punishment as a deterrent, it’s not clear this would actually work. Consider prison populations in the U.S., which tend to be no less religious than the general population. This suggests that the perceived threat of punishment from God is no more effective as a deterrent than the threat of being thrown in jail. Indeed, the U.S. has higher crime rates than most developed nations despite having an unusually religious population, suggesting again that the fear of God’s wrath is not especially effective.

Q3: Isn’t secular morality relative?

A3: If by “relative”, you mean the idea that one person’s (or country’s) moral system is just as valid as any other’s, then no, secular morality is not relative. Once we agree with the answer to Question 1, namely that the motivation for morality is a peaceful, happy, cooperative society, then some moral viewpoints stand out as being better or worse than others. For instance, the idea that women should have the same access to education and employment as men is morally superior to the view that women should be repressed. This is because societies with well-educated women who take part in the economy tend to be happier and more peaceful than societies that repress women.

Q4: Isn’t theistic morality the only objective morality?

A4: No. But let’s be clear about what “objective” means. A claim is objective if it holds regardless of the personal preferences or beliefs of the person making it. For instance, the squaring operation in mathematics makes claims that are objective: 2 squared is 4, 9 squared is 81, etc. These claims are always true regardless of the personal preferences or beliefs of the person carrying out the operation.

Applied to morality, we can say that an objective moral rule is one that recommends a particular behavior regardless of the personal preferences or beliefs of the person considering that rule. So, for instance, the claim “do not murder” is objective because its recommendation does not depend on the preferences or beliefs of any one person. On the other hand, “do not murder unless you think it’s permissible”, is not objective because its recommendation does depend on the preferences of the person considering it.

Note that our definition of “objective” holds whether God exists or not. For sure, “do not murder” happens to be found in Christian morality, but it is found in secular moralities also, and is no less objective because of this.

Q5: Why should you care about other people if you’re an atheist?

A5: This question is partly answered in Question 1: if we want to live happily and peaceably with the other people in our society, we cannot avoid acknowledging that their interests must be considered along with our own.

Furthermore, loving and caring for other people can be deeply rewarding. If we want to create a happy and fulfilled society, it therefore makes sense for us to take care of other people.

Finally, we must consider the care between parents and children, because this is a special case. It is special because when a person decides to have a child, she commits to looking after that child. You cannot have a child and then expect other people to do all the work of raising that child (although they can certainly help!). In this sense, then, parents are obligated to care for their children. Luckily, as already discussed, caring for others can be very rewarding, and this is probably most true in the case of the parent-child relationship.

Q6: If you don’t believe God exists, then what stops you from just running out into the street and murdering, raping, and stealing?

A6: This is very similar to Question 2, so have a look at the answer to that question before reading on. What I’d like to add here is that the vast majority of people have a very strong natural aversion to committing heinous crimes like murder and rape. And the fact that you, as you read these words, do not have a strong urge to run out and kill people, has little to do with the existence of God. Instead, it has much more to do with your biology. As humans evolved, traits that reinforced cooperation were selected for, while traits that encouraged conflict were weeded out. It is therefore no surprise, from a biological perspective, that people have a natural aversion to violent acts.

There is, perhaps, an exception to this rule: people seem to be much more comfortable with the idea of killing their enemies than their beloved friends and family. This in-group vs. out-group distinction is also a likely result of our evolutionary history. Unfortunately, it’s not a very productive instinct for all concerned – it leads to war and all the unnecessary death and destruction associated with it. It is in our own best interests to channel these violent energies into more productive means of conflict resolution.

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