A young man has written to the list a few times. He seems to be “atheist curious” and apparently is being influenced by religion. But rather than blindly accept what he’s being told, he is sending the apologetics to us to say “What do you all think of this?”
Whenever I’ve replied, he’s been extremely polite and expressed gratitude. And in his last correspondence, he asked a common question: If atheism offers no beliefs or guidance in life, on what grounds does an atheist tell anyone else they’re behaving morally incorrectly?
Here is my reply:
This is a very involved question with a lot of angles. I’m going to include some links, and explain why I believe they are relevant. This is a question many different people in many different cultures through time have attempted to address. In the end, as with all such questions, you are going to have to process the data and try to draw the best conclusion you can based on your observations and values.
First of all, let’s start with the prior base [which he had already agreed to in a previous e-mail], that humans are demonstrably social animals. You can see we are. We live in societies all around the globe. Other social animals we observe include lions, wolves, dogs, and so on—any animal that lives in a community and requires cooperation, generally, to survive. Lots of animals aren’t social, but we can see when they are; and humans clearly are.
This means we have evolved things like compassion, guilt, concern, and so on. We have all the individual survival instincts, but also instincts that cause us to care about others to some degree. People will have these to different degrees. Some will be so compassionate they won’t hurt a fly. Others will be so uncaring they will be labeled as sociopaths. Nearly all physical traits, whether they affect our minds or bodies [obviously not intended in the dualistic sense, but in context of a discussion on morality], will be spread through the population on a bell curve, where there will be a “normal” range, where most of us fall, but then extremes on either end. So, we see most people have brown eyes around the world, or cholesterol that falls in a certain range, or are within a normal weight range, or have normal intelligence, etc. And there are always people who fall within more or less “normal” ranges. This diversity is actually beneficial to us as a species, because adaptability depends on being able to move the population in different directions. The “normal” ranges for us now are simply “where we’re at” currently, but people can, for example, get to be “taller” on average than they were 200 years back.
So, we have these basic sets of normal emotional ranges that encompass our interactions with other people. But they are very basic. You can see this in domestic dogs. We are able to train dogs easily because, like us, they are highly social. So, they have some of the same emotional ranges we do when it comes to understanding “right” from “wrong” behaviors. People can easily get a dog to understand good behaviors by rewarding the dog. And likewise, we can train a dog that certain things are “wrong”—such as biting people or jumping on the sofa. If the dog “knows” it can’t jump on the sofa, it will display behaviors of submission if you catch it on the sofa. So, it may put a tail down, or whimper or slump—to show you it knows it did what you don’t want it to do. The dog is socialized, and this is why it is easy for people to train and work with dogs.
People are similar. We have basic sets of underlying feelings about cooperative interactions. Some authors talk about an underlying sense of “fairness.” You can see this at an early age. If a child possesses a thing it likes, and you grab it away, the child becomes upset. Nobody likes to have something they like taken from them. That’s a basic feeling most of us share. Also, nobody likes pain. And to a high degree, if we’re healthy and well, most of us prefer living to dying.
Now, in reality, there are societies where “fair” includes things that here in the U.S. we don’t think are fair at all. For example, in some areas of the globe, if a woman walks down the street unescorted, she might be killed, and it’s actually sometimes considered correct for people to harm or kill her for that behavior.
The question you are asking is: What do we do when we think it’s wrong to treat a woman this way—but an entire other society thinks it’s OK? How is that resolved?
But the problem is the same within a culture, as well as between cultures. Here in the US, we have disputes about whether or not many things are OK, or not OK, for people to do. There are a lot of arguments about whether drug use should be criminal or whether abortion should be legal. And you probably have seen or heard people arguing about these things.
You are absolutely correct that atheism does not resolve any of this. Atheism only means you don’t believe a god exists. So, atheism really would not be the right place to look if you wanted to know about something like “what is moral action?” For that, you’d want to consult behavioral psychology or even philosophy. You’d have to do a lot of reading and thinking to figure out what you think is right and what you think is best.
Here are some links as examples:
For myself, I tend to think that if I wouldn’t want to be treated badly, it’s best not to treat others badly. Jesus used the Golden Rule, and a man named Stephen Covey used a Platinum Rule. Jesus said it was best to treat people how you’d like to be treated. Stephen said it’s actually better to treat the other person how the other person would like to be treated, since he or she may not like the same things you do. Other societies have used other versions of this idea, with things like “don’t do things to people you wouldn’t want done to you.”
Additionally, there is a question of how much control we should have over others. If what you do doesn’t hurt me or cause social harm, should I pass laws to stop you from doing it? This is at the heart of arguments about things like gay marriage.
If you don’t believe a god is telling you what to do, that means you become responsible for trying to figure out morality on your own and for coming up with the best ideas you can about how you ought to treat others.
In the end, people make the rules for human society. And we must all ask ourselves how much we want to be involved in that. If there is a vote for gay marriage in my area, will I vote for it, against it, or do nothing? That’s what I have to decide for myself. Do I want to help them? Impede them? Or do nothing and leave it to others to decide?
And then we have the question of societies and whether or not they should interfere with one another. This is also a personal question each of us is responsible for answering. If a neighboring culture is rounding up Jews into prison camps, and torturing and killing them—do we care? Do we intervene? There is a lot of debate and heated argument over things like this. For a long time, the U.S. hesitated to become involved in WWII. Should we have done something sooner? Should we have done nothing? That’s a question each person must answer for him/herself. Do you push your legislators to get involved? Do you tell them not to get involved? Do you do nothing and leave it to others to decide?
What are your values? What do you want from life and other people? What sort of world do you want to live in? What do you feel are your obligations toward others? What is your tolerance for personal suffering, or for the suffering of others?
These aren’t easy questions. But religion tries to pretend they are.
It is very easy to say “God’s will be done…” and leave it other people to do the work in this world.
I know you did not specifically ask about the following, but I want to offer it, just as something to consider. And I hope it’s OK.
Often when Christians ask something like you just did, they mean something like this: “I get my morality from god/the Bible; but without those, where would I get morality?” I know this is not what you said specifically; but it reminds me of this question in some ways. And there is an additional dilemma here that many religious people fail to consider. Long ago a man named Euthyphro had a thought that went like this:
“Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”
What he is asking, is whether there is such a thing as “morality,” or if morality only means “doing whatever god says.”
The problem comes in with verses in the Bible like these:
1 Samuel 15:2-3: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
Exodus 21: 20-21: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.
Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
So, in the Bible, we have Old Testament passages that state clearly that god told people to go and commit genocide against their neighbors—even killing infants and animals. Then, we have two passages from the Law of God, one that describes how it’s OK to have a slave and beat the slave near to death, and another that says we should execute gay men.
Obviously today, we would never consider these acts anything less than barbaric. If a country committed genocide, they would be globally condemned. If a country sanctioned slavery, we’d condemn that as well. And in Uganda, where they actually are passing laws to execute gays, there is an outcry against that law as an atrocity.
So, the question is, is there anything really wrong with killing gays, infants, and beating people near to death?
If morality is simply “whatever god says,” that means these things aren’t actually wrong. It means that sometimes it’s right to do these things. Any Christian who says “That was the old testament” is plainly saying “I agree that sometimes it’s right. When god said it back then, it was right. I agree it should have been done.”
Unless they’re willing to say it was wrong in the Old Testament—even if god said to do it—then they’re claiming some
times it’s OK to have slaves and beat them, kill gay people, and slaughter infants in droves.
Were these things ever OK to do to other human beings? If a person answers “yes,” then they have no moral compass. They are saying any action can be moral or immoral, all it takes is for god to say “do it” to make it “right.”
If they say that actions are not moral “just because god says to do them,” then the response is that these verses I just used demonstrate Yahweh tells people to do immoral things. A moral person would want to stop a person from beating another near to death as “property.” A moral person would want to stop a person from slaughtering babies out of pure vindictiveness. A moral person wouldn’t ever stand by and let someone kill someone else simply because they’re gay.
Usually the Christian response is that god knows better, and when god tells people to do horrible things, there is a greater good at work. We’re told we can’t recognize the larger plan, because we’re just humans, and not gods. But the problem there is: If you can’t tell a good action from an evil action, then how do you know it’s good if god says to go kill babies? It sounds evil—so what makes a person accept it’s good?
And it appears to come down to this:
If god says to do something awful, should you do it?
And here is my answer:
If I can’t understand how it’s good, and it seems evil, I can’t do it. Ultimately I am responsible for my actions. And if I don’t do this action, at least I can justify to you why I didn’t do it—why I judged it was evil. But if I blindly trust an authority, even when the action appears clearly to be evil, how do I know what I’ve done really wasn’t the evil it appeared to be? How can I justify my actions in that scenario? I can’t. I can only hope the atrocity I committed wasn’t really the atrocity it seemed.
And I couldn’t live with that level of irresponsibility. I need to know what I’m doing and why if someone wants me to do something I cannot justify as moral.
Again, I hope any of this is helpful.