That's what happens. Religious people think that if you're an atheist, then you don't consider yourself accountable for what you do; that you think you don't have to "answer for your sins," so to speak. Since they don't believe in a God who laid down the law and holds people to it with rewards and punishments after death, they think they can do whatever they want, right? Wrong.
Most atheists actually have a very strong sense of morality. Most atheists believe that since there is no "higher" authority than us here on Earth, they need to be as just as possible, and follow the laws as closely as possible. They aren't "being good" to avoid getting spanked by God. They're "being good" because they have something called a conscience.
Conscience is present with or without the Bible or any religious text. I can assert this because I know there are things the Bible explicitly says Christians should do that they do not do on account of their feeling that it would be immoral. (Just look at how many times God commands followers to hurt or punish or even kill others for transgressions that aren't considered crimes today. Christians do not generally do this, and those who do get put in jail and tried, as well they should.) It is not a case of morality coming from a different source if you're an atheist. Christians don't get their morals from the Bible either. We all get it from our society's norms and by understanding the Zeitgeist of the times we live in. Children learn many things about morality long before they can read a Bible. It's because these lessons are engraved in their minds along with respect for their parents and potty-training procedures.
A common argument is that if we don't have ONE authority laying down the law, everyone will come to different conclusions about what is moral. It is true that different people have different opinions about everything, from favorite foods to morality. I think the main problem, though, is that theists often say that "bottom line" of morality should be determined by God. And since people have come to different conclusions about what God said and what God wants and in fact whether God exists at all, it is again resulting in different opinions about what is right. Trying to decide what God to believe in and what words of God's actually "count" as rules to follow is just as up to interpretation as any atheist's judgment of what is right and wrong. I just don't see how it is any more logical or results in any "more moral" behavior for different people to believe different gods want different things of them than it is to believe that people are capable of determining what is right based on their own opinions of the behaviors to be emulated or proscribed regardless of what they believe about God.
There are two possible ways to supposedly get laws from God. One is if God talks directly to you. The other is if you follow one of the books that humans claim He wrote. Now, if God talking to you isn't one of the most subjective experiences possible, I don't know what is. It makes just as much or maybe even less sense to say "this is right because God told me so" when faced with "this is my decision of what's right based on what I think and feel." If a guy claimed that he had to kill his son because he believed God told him to do it in a display of faith, that guy would be rightly jailed. Even if he only tied him up and came within an inch of doing it before the same voice in his head told him to stop.
People say "in atheism, there is no objective standard of right and wrong." No, there isn't--it's dependent on situational ethics. But guess what? This is NO DIFFERENT from people who believe the Bible is that objective standard; we do NOT get our views of morality from Scripture, even when we think we do. If we did, we would punish people for working on the Sabbath, or stone children for disobeying their parents, or try to encourage homosexual men to turn their lust on heterosexual acts by offering our virgin daughters to them.
The subjectivity of an atheist's moral reasoning is no different from a Christian's, because situational ethics are being applied by BOTH parties. Not to mention that no one has an explanation for what "subjective" still small voice causes one to choose one religious book over another. If the Bible (or another holy book) is the source of all morals, where does one get the authority to choose it in the first place? Either they believe the very first religious book they read and refuse to consider others, OR there's some personal choice they made to pick this Jehovah god over, say, the Allah god who wants you to pray five times a day. Where do they get off claiming that their morality is "objective" on those grounds?
In order to choose the Bible as the bottom line, a Christian has to have had some sort of experience (and that is as subjective as any atheist's morals), or some kind of revelation (which is subjective, like any atheist's morals), or just was raised to believe it and so can't imagine not doing so (again, subjective interpretation of experience), or had to have decided it made the most sense out of all the answers available (subjective!). In some way, a theist has to use personal judgment to choose a belief system in the first place before giving over will and decision-making to follow the moral guidelines outlined in the Bible. And on top of that, arguing that "there has to be one objective answer or we'll all get different answers" in turn gives no indication that said objective answer is the Bible anyway. It's the difference between saying "We can't all be right if we're saying different things" versus "We can't all be right SO I MUST BE RIGHT!!" Even if there WAS one all-encompassing answer to what is good and what is not, who says you can claim to have it?
In an article involving the "changing moral Zeitgeist"--in other words, the spirit of the times--Richard Dawkins mentioned how things said in polite company and by upstanding individuals just a hundred years ago sound racist to us now, and things said three hundred years ago sound diabolical and cruel--how can we say that stories depicting the standard of morality from the FIRST CENTURY are the highest moral authority we have, especially if it's demonstrably untrue?
If there is a claim that Christianity holds the patent on morality, it should follow that they have it all together on the moral front--that they both know the ultimate truth and practice it. Now, atheists are by and large law-abiding, decent citizens like any Christian, and occasionally you get an oddball who is a nutcase. Just like Christians. There are Christians who bomb abortion clinics, and then there are Christians who think the bombers are terrorists. In short, regardless of what the Bible says and what the Bible means, it is indisputable that there is not a consensus even among believers as to what every line suggests we do with ourselves, our rapists, our murderers, and our commandment breakers. If followers of Christ suggest that the Bible should be followed as the final word on these matters, then at least Bible-believing Christians should be in agreement about the proper way to behave, and they most certainly are not in agreement.
Different types of Christians are always fighting over what the Bible means in certain instances, and to tell you the truth you can probably find Biblical support for just about anything. If your answer to the morality crisis is "Christianity," I simply don't see that it's an answer--the Bible is up to interpretation by the translator, by the version of the Bible one uses, by the type of Christian one is, by one's preacher, and then finally by the individual, and yet people expect to claim Biblical morality as a standard? I believe that the Crusades and other violent acts committed in the name of the Lord were not perversions of Christian doctrine. They were expressions of it. God is not a moderate . . . at ALL. He was always handing out death sentences, even on very shaky ground such as "those people are occupying land that I want YOU to have, so kill them all." How convenient, no? (Don't worry about it if the enemy's god said the land belongs to THEM; after all, we all know their god is just imaginary. Ours is the real one!) If you believe the Bible is the Word of God and thus is the final word on all things moral, then . . . what do you do in the myriad instances of God contradicting Himself?
What doesn't make sense in this case is that folks who argue that we need a moral bottom line seem to think it automatically follows that that bottom line is God's Word, and there is no overall agreement even among people who believe the Bible IS God's Word as to how to apply it in our lives and to what degree. (Obviously selling our children into slavery, not working on the Sabbath, and not eating pork have become things condoned in the Bible that no longer apply, but verses written in the same context condemning homosexuality and encouraging barbaric behaviors are somehow still considered applicable.) What I don't understand is what those who believe in God really think the answer to the morality problem is--it certainly can't be the suggestion that we follow the Scriptures to the letter since that would result in an awful lot of violence.
I agree that it is hard to set a moral standard, but that is what *laws* are for, and while they are by no means perfect, they do have the capacity to be changed with the times (while supposedly God's Word is unchanging); they have the capacity to be changed by the people who are going to be made to follow them (while God's Word is laid down by one entity and there is no room for suggestion among those who must live inside them); and they have the means by which to punish those who break the laws.
To an atheist, God just doesn't have to exist in order for the cosmos to do so, and that does not mean they have no sense of morals. Whatever that voice is inside us that tells us something is wrong, it does not come from the Scriptures, because we often judge the Scriptures against that voice and say "Oh, well my still small voice says that even though God says the best thing to do with a rapist is to make him marry the woman he 'ruined,' I know that isn't right for the woman, and that the man should be punished in a way that doesn't involve having the woman given to him like property." The men who wrote the Bible lived in a society in which women WERE property--that's just what the Zeitgeist dictated, and it wasn't surprising that it was reflected in their literature. Somehow, we have a collective belief that this is wrong now. And yet so many say we get our sense of right and wrong from the Bible. Where?
Some theists claim that if there isn't a God to whom we answer, we should therefore be consumed with doing only that which our senses tell us is good. Basically, this view says without God we'd all be hedonists. That's like saying everyone would be a criminal if there weren't any cops. By this view, only that which gives us pleasure and that which promotes the species would be valued. Oh, but I have a very good response to that.
Say someone suggests that without morality, all men becoming rapists is the best way to spread their seed. Sure, if we determine the success of the species by how many women get impregnated, men running around knocking up all the women possible would constitute success when compared with monogamous relationships. Believe me, I understand this, but it doesn't take everything into account.
Violent, forced sex in order to pass on the seed is one way to assure that the seed is passed on. But it's also true that one of the more important adaptations in our species (as well as in those of other animals and great apes) is the altruistic adaptation--it benefits us to try to assure the health, happiness, and well-being of others with our genes and others within our clan because they help ensure our survival and the survival of our children.
With many eyes and ears looking out for the collective and with many hands and feet to hunt and gather, a group can be much more successful than any one individual who has to do all necessary jobs alone. Need for acceptance among kin and clan is a much stronger motivator than sex drive in most humans. And men are often territorial about their women. If there was a man around who obeyed an overactive sex drive, he would probably be less accepted among other men (and certainly around other women), and wouldn't get as many chances to be part of a clan that would watch out for and feed him, and would likely be killed or cast out if he was seen as a threat. Passing on the genes at all costs is not the only motivator within the human physiology. The welfare of kin and clan--morality--was invented and lived by LONG before the development of the higher brain functions necessary to even conceive of or believe in a God.
A Christian must take what the Bible says and decide what it means. That doesn't mean the atheist has nothing to pull from just because of not having e a book that says "the answers are all in here, and anyone who disagrees is going to Hell." Why would the process of "coming to a conclusion based on understanding human nature and a logical process" be considered completely useless, as if it's the same as an answer pulled out of the air by a *random* process? That's just completely writing off the atheist's point of view as necessarily unsubstantiated no matter what it is because there is no ultimate authority laying down the law. An atheist's opinion is not based on "nothing" just because it might not match an overarching law. There might be an atheist out there who comes to a really stupid conclusion based on evidence and his opinions, sure. And there are just as many Christians who come to really stupid conclusions based on their interpretations of the Bible.
To sum up, an atheist who forms morality by thinking through a logical position with a dash of opinion is NO less likely to be moral than a Christian who interprets the Bible with an imperfect, emotional brain. A Bible functioning as a given is no guarantee that the resulting proof will be right, because there is no guarantee that the person doing this math problem knows how to handle a proof. Also, assuming the Bible's givens ARE correct is an act of faith (and at that point you'll not be taken seriously if you try to use logic FROM that point--it's like saying that because all of a building's architectural design is sound from the ground up, there's no way it will ever fall even though you have no way of proving you did not build on a fault line or sinkhole).
On top of all this, most atheists don't believe in an afterlife. Most of them think that this is "all there is," and are determined to make this life the best it can be. It hardly makes sense for them to run amok and destroy things just because they have no sense of a big daddy God watching over them. I can't speak for others, but I behave well because I feel it would be wrong not to, not because I think God will send me to Hell if I don't. (Of course, some people have a different idea of what good behavior is, but I mean, I don't go out and steal and murder and be a complete jerk just because I don't believe I'm going to get punished.) This is like saying that everyone would go rob banks and commit murder if the police went on strike--like the sole reason people don't commit atrocities is fear of retribution. I don't commit atrocities because I have no reason to do so and I respect my fellow people. I don't know what this has to do with God.
It is very common for theists to scold atheists by admonishing them that they must have no soul, or no connection to the world, if they don't acknowledge the divine in everyday life. I think that it is still possible to be "spiritual" and/or spellbound by the beauty of life . . . and yet not believe in a caring, loving God. I would consider my experience of the world, for lack of a better world, sacred, even though my idea of deity does not include a conscious being.
A lot of theists think the actual act of not believing in God is immoral, and still other theists think that since atheists don't feel accountable to a God, they can break the worst "commandments" and feel no remorse. This is not true. Actually, I think that people have broken more commandments in the name of God (how about the Crusades?) than they have in the name of disbelieving that the commandments were issued by a deity. Like I said above, a lot of atheists are actually bleeding-heart liberals who try to help their fellow man as much as they can--not in the name of God, but because they truly care about other people.
I want to make it clear that I don't think doing something "in the name of God" is necessarily bad, or that feeling that you serve a higher purpose than the one "down here" is stupid. I appreciate that you are inspired to behave in a fashion that helps your fellow people. But I'm talking about using the idea of God to hurt people through any action from prejudice to murder--you see a lot more violence in the name of righteous justice than you do of people committing crimes because they're not afraid of God getting the paddle out.
I think that morality in general involves treating other people the way you'd want to be treated. I don't see what's so complex about that, of course, but then there're a lot of things people call "moral" that really aren't anyone else's business--people tend to concern themselves a lot with what other people do and how they think and how they behave in private when it has nothing to do with anyone else and doesn't hurt anyone.
What's really scary is that so many people HAVE to feel they are being monitored, watched, or considered for punishment if they are going to be expected to behave. Kind of like there are TONS of people who will openly admit that they would commit a crime if they for some reason knew they would get away with it. With the idea of God, many people will never commit a crime punishable by Hell because they fear God's wrath, but openly admit that if God wasn't real they *would* lie, kill, cheat, and steal. I tend to think that those of us who fear no afterlife punishment and yet still behave decently actually occupy a higher moral ground if anything!
Similarly, I don't respect people who are nice to me only because they're afraid of getting spanked by God. I would rather they be nice to me because they want to be nice to me and they care about me. And similarly, when people do humanitarian work because they feel it's what God expects of them and will earn them a place in Heaven, I have a lot more respect for the atheist or the person who is *not* doing it solely because God expects it. The end result is the same--humanitarian work is done and people benefit--but in the end it's the difference from benefiting from a gift or from a duty. Of course, there are plenty of people who do humanitarian work in the name of their religion but also honestly care about people and would honestly still do the work even if they didn't think they were going to be rewarded.
To sum up, the only thing that makes someone an atheist is a disbelief in God. It does not mean the person is jaded or empty; it does not mean the person wantonly commits crimes without fear of judgment; it does not mean that the person cannot have strict moral codes. It just means that to them, the idea of God doesn't make any sense. And that's it.
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Comments from others:
Jyle: I think that America has intertwined god and morals to mean the same thing. To believe that a person needs to have fear of god to dictate their morals is ridiculous. Any person who has had the common sense to take a step back from religious dogma knows that morality has been ingrained in our souls, not through religion but through the laws of the lands.
Herminio: I think you are missing the point when comes to atheism and morality. It is not that we theist think that are atheist are all immoral; on the contrary I am sure there atheist who live more 'moral' lives than most theist! The issues is that atheism cannot account for morality. morality becomes a matter of opinion. what one person considers evil, another person considers good. if atheism is true then what is the difference between murder and charity? One's conscience? that is the same as saying ones opinion. If we are the products of mere chance (ie natural selection), then moral is simply what furthers the species. Here is the result of that ideology:
"No one knows, nor is there currently enough evidence to decide the question either way. A better question is whether or not a rape adaptation in humans is conceivable. Here, I think the answer is clearly yes. That rape might be an adaptation is a reasonable hypothesis to pursue, and the proper framework is intersexual conflict. Nature is rife with violent conflict--conflict between members of different species (such as predators and prey), conflict between members of the same species (such as males competing for females), and conflict between males and females (such as the killing of offspring by unrelated males during harem takeovers). Further, many organisms clearly possess adaptations to successfully engage in violent strategies (e.g., fangs and claws). There is no principled reason why animal nervous systems could not be specialized for coercive mating, including rape." -Edward H. Hagen, Institute for Theoretical Biology, Berlin
"We deny that there are really ethical facts – we argue that, in some sense, a claim like "rape is wrong" is a fiction (perhaps a very useful fiction) in a way that a claim like "roses smell nice" is not."
"What we argue is that evolution has not only given us a moral sense but a feeling that morality is objective, that is, that it does refer to something. Because of this, morality works as a social facilitator. In other words, although we do not think that morality is objective, we think that part of the moral sense is that morality is objective. If we did not have 'this added illusion', then we would all cheat and morality would just break down."-Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University
do you think morality is a necessary 'illusion'?
swankivy: I debunked pretty much everything Herminio said in the same article he's responding to, but I think it's interesting that so many theists insist that natural selection is "random chance." It isn't. No scientist claims that it is. Natural selection encourages morality the way we think of it. Natural urges without balancing constraints is not how the human mind formed. When a person does obey certain natural urges without constraint, that person is shunned, because for nearly all of us, compassion is a natural urge too.
Stephen: The deal with atheism and amorality is simple. No supreme comsic force choosing what's good and evil and creating us = no objective morality. You see, we as humans are not fit to make our own moral laws, but more importantly, we are devoid of any objective moral authority unless we were created by the same being that created morality.
Modern science, astrophysics and whatnot, postulates that there probably isn't a God and that the cosmos was created by the random collocation of atomic structures. Logically, neither chance nor atoms hold any moral authority whatsoever, and therefore all things subsequent to that one random occurrence are also devoid of moral authority. Therefore, if we are the result of a random "cosmic accident," if you will, then we humans and our ideas, our love, our thoughts, our actions, cannot have moral meaning. In other words, humans can't reflect a morality that doesn't exist!
Say, for instance, that an atheist thinks humans are born with certain inalienable rights and that there's an objective, if vague, moral code which we're all born with (or something along those lines). The problem with this is that one must trace the moral authority back to the original being or event who set it all in motion if one is to find the source of morality. However, an atheist, who believes what most modern sciences will tell him, cannot find this source. So the only possible way to still have moral authority is if we get morality from evolution or the Big Bang or it comes from nowhere in particular. Some would say that humans are the moral authority because we are the only animals we've yet discovered who have a sense of morality. However, recent studies and observations show that some animals beside us show signs of a moral code. Besides, that argument is a logical fallacy: saying humans have morality becuase they think they experience it. But humans are devoid of moral authority because we were created by accident, and therefore so are all of our ideas and feelings about what real morality is. So, since humans' morality has can only be traced back to our own conscience and consciousness, which is without authority because we are an accident of nature, humans morality has no source. However, the elementary rules of both logic and science say that every effect has a cause, or everything that can be observed must have a source, even if the source isn't observable. Therefore, since human morality has no source that has intrinsic moral authority, objective (true, real, absolute, whatever) morality doesn't exist without a cosmic force who is morally correct intrinsically.
One of the most popular and outspoken atheists in the world right now is Richard Dawkins. He agrees that no God = no real morality, which is why he pretty much says that our point as living humans is to procreate, or, as he puts it, to pass on the genetic code. I think this is ridiculous because that's like saying the point of the cake is to pass on the recipe... but whatever.
Synesthesia: Sometimes it seems like warped morality is overlooked, the sort of morality which
folks claim is trickled down from God, but it allows for such cruelty as beating a
small child into submission with a flexible stick. Or the warped morality of
shooting a woman for talking to a man. I'm glad we've evolved as a species for the
most part to be revolted by stoning a person to death, or flogging a person, but
there's still pockets of the world where things like this still happens, these
countries are ruled by religious authorities who are incredibly harsh, to put it
It's not to say that systems without a religion haven't been cruel, it's just that you can't say a person is without morality, which to me is about treating a human being with respect and compassion, simply for not believing in God.
Lanavis: Ok, 1st of all: THANK YOU FOR THIS! I've grown up in Catholic schools all my life, except Kindergarten and perhaps Preschool. And ever since I really thought about it -pretty early- I saw the MANY obvious plot holes (yes, plot holes, the Bible is a story written by a bunch of sexist men raised in a sexist society). In fact, someone even had the nerve to tell me that unbaptized people go to HELL and that was one of my teachers and I'm unbaptized. Which I'm glad she said that b/c that's when I 1st realized the errors of the Bible.
But anyway, it's good to read something by someone who is open-minded and
understands that being Atheist isn't the same as being a lover of Satan or an
immoral baby-eating demon that lives only for pleasure and seeing others suffer. In
fact, someone even told me I worshipped the devil b/c I was Atheist. I yet it go b/c
it was a kid, but it irritated me knowing that their are people out there who
teaches their kids that those who are against (or more accurately, don't belive in)
the Bible are EVULZ!
Also, I juts have to say that this made me cry a bit at the end. It just touched a part of me and it really made me glad to read this. SO thanks again. I always enjoy your rants and I always will.
Felix: @Stephen "The deal with atheism and amorality is simple. No supreme comsic force choosing what's good and evil and creating us = no objective morality."
Even if there were a supreme cosmic force, creator, or deity, there still wouldn't be any objective morality, would there? Any moral laws laid down by said entity would still be subjective. Your 'argument' is full of double standards like this, which make it completely flawed.
Anyway, that was a brilliant essay. It's nice to have someone who can eloquently explain the facts of atheism, considering the current tide of willful and accidental misinformation that abounds about it.