It can be difficult to read social media these days. With a presidential election looming in the United States, people seem to be less shy about sharing their views on what makes a good leader. Recently some of the candidates for the Republican nomination have claimed that atheists have no place in government because they are not moral people. As someone who lives without gods, I find that level of generalization and misunderstanding truly staggering. After all, I have managed to live well into my 50’s without having served jail time, murdering, assaulting, or harming my fellow man for personal gain in any of a thousand ways. While those who do believe in a god may not understand where I get my sense of right and wrong, I am similarly confused why those people believe that being moral in today’s society requires belief in a god or gods.
I was raised by grandparents. They were people who were born and raised in the early 20th century. They had lived through the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. They raised me during the tumultuous 1960’s with all of the hope and despair and promise that the decade brought with it. And even though they were both “Christian” in the sense that Jesus Christ was at the core of their respective faiths, they differed in how devoutly they followed those beliefs. In spite of their different views and adherence to their church doctrines, they taught me what they believed was the best way to conduct myself in society.
Their advice was remarkably simple: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be unkind or mean to people, be wary of strangers but help them if they truly need help, and other common sense suggestions. Work hard, be loyal, be fair, and be appreciative. Occasionally there would be some words about “God” being happier if I did these things or that there would be some price to pay in the “next life” if I didn’t try to stick to their suggestions But by and large, the advice was always practical and ignoring it would likely mean I would come to regret it in THIS life.
I recently read a blog post by Matt Slick on the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry website entitled “The Failure of Atheism to Account for Morality.” In it, the author suggests that because the atheist does not appeal to some divine, supernatural authority (in this case the Christian “God”), they cannot have “true” morals. Slick’s main point seems to be that, while atheists may be morally “good” people, it is only a coincidence that their behaviour happens to be consistent with what “God” wants. This, according to the author, is insufficient. Atheists, he claims, are free to assign whatever moral judgement they choose to things like lying, cheating, and causing others harm. By contrast, he suggests that “believers” have the benefit of “God’s” unchanging and objective morality set down in a holy book as a guide.
Remarkably, this same article allows that “atheism offers a subjective moral system that is based on human experience, human conditions, and human reason.” The sentence struck me because it sounded remarkably like my upbringing. It’s how my grandparents frequently talked to me. They told me of their experiences, their lives, and how the morality they were suggesting helped them along in this world. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I was shocked that the next sentence suggested that such a way of approaching morality is “dangerous” and “can lead to anarchy.”
Dog is god spelled backwards
This article is not the only example I’ve run into where people have suggested that without the authority of “god”, there can be no valid sense of morality. It has been suggested to me more than once that “right” and “wrong” cannot be determined without the guidance of a deity. I guess it was just luck that people who raised me had advice that seems to coincide with a lot of what most people think is “right” and “wrong.” Or was it? Secular philosophy and religion have grappled with the questions of morality for centuries. And it was always done in the context of our human experience and it may be that experience that provides the common thread when it comes to morality.
I’m a dog lover and I have spent the last dozen or so years studying modern training techniques based on psychology and behavioural science. It’s remarkable to me that the notion of an externally imposed morality such as that suggested by Matt Slick’s article looks very much like the “because I said so” approach to dog training that was so prevalent in the 1960’s and 70’s. Much of what I’ve learned to do in training my dogs is to show them how cooperation and certain behaviours will benefit them in both the short and long run. It’s a comfortable format for me because, after all, it is how my grandparents taught me about “right” and “wrong”!
For me, it is compassion and a desire for community that informs my moral choices rather than a desire to adhere to the rules passed on to me by some authority. I am a human in a society of humans. My first responsibility may be to myself but my very survival depends on the others around me. I have a responsibility for them as well. It is easier for me to understand that I can do kindness or harm to the people around me than to an all powerful god. My moral choices are for the humans I share my life with and not for some check list in a book. I don’t think that life is a test to pass or fail but a journey to share with others like myself. Moral choices make that journey more satisfying for me and those I meet along the way.
Some might call this a relativistic approach to morality. That what is “right” or “wrong” is dependent on the society and culture I live in. And I think that is essentially correct. As I was taught, it is “wrong” to steal from others because I would not want others to steal from me. Similarly I shouldn’t cheat because I don’t want others to cheat on me or lie because I don’t want others to lie to me. And suddenly this all sounds very much like the “Golden Rule” as it appears in the Christian Bible in the gospel of Matthew 7:12 – “do unto others what you would have them do to you.” Interestingly, “God” is not mentioned in that verse. There is no “because God says so” clause in there.
I was taught that the most important thing in this life was to keep the machinery of society running smoothly. Nearly every moral lesson passed on to me in my childhood has helped me in my life to do just that. The moral choices I have made have provided me with good relationships, a way to interact with others on a daily basis, and a way to get along in the world. Somehow that upbringing also taught me how to make new moral judgements without the need to consult a rule book for each and every new situation. Apparently I was taught how to “do the right thing” even in situations I haven’t encountered before.
It troubles me that someone might feel that, as someone who doesn’t believe in gods, I would not have a sense of “right” and “wrong.” That all of the rules of civilized society would seem arbitrary or optional to me. That without the threat of some divine retribution or the promise of some divine favour I would immediately fall into criminal or anti-social behaviour. And then there would be question of WHICH god and WHICH set of rules are the most truly moral. Given the wars and conflicts throughout human history, it seems to be a question that doesn’t have a universally accepted answer yet.
Martin Luther King, himself a Christian minister, once said that he had a dream that his children would be “judged by the content of their character.” Like Dr. King, I prefer that all people be judged for who they are and not by the labels that society places on them. I live a life without gods but I do not often refer to myself as an atheist. Too often “atheist” and “amoral” are confused. Too often “godless” is taken to mean “dangerous” or “evil” and that is just wrong. The Golden Rule – “Do unto others…” provides us a good way to measure the content of someone’s character. How a person treats others in society means more to me than which god they may believe in or what church or mosque they may attend.
In my view, a life without gods is decidedly NOT a life without moral choices.
Moral choices – Clayton Parker 2006 from Flickr