If you’ve been hanging around the atheism debates for long, you’ve almost certainly run into this argument. The more fleshed-out version goes like this: “If you make the assumptions I personally make about what atheism is and what it means, then the logical conclusion of atheism is amorality/ nihilism/ meaninglessness.”
Or, to perhaps be more harshly accurate: “For me personally, religious faith is at the core of my morality and joy and meaning of life. I can’t imagine losing my faith and becoming an atheist without losing morality and joy and meaning. Therefore, atheists can’t possibly have morality and joy and meaning — because I can’t personally imagine it for myself.”
It’s an annoying argument. Largely because it flatly ignores the actual reality on the ground: the fact that most atheists are moral people, aren’t nihilistic, and do find great meaning in their lives and the lives of others. It’s an argument that prioritizes the believer’s own beliefs and prejudices over the actual reality that’s sitting three feet in front of them staring them in the face.
It’s an annoying argument. But it’s not what I want to talk about today.
I want to talk about a parallel argument that I’ve seen some atheists make — an argument that I think is every bit as flawed, every bit as troubling, every bit as willing to ignore evidence in favor of one’s own prejudices.
It’s the argument that theistic morality is inferior to atheist morality.
The argument goes roughly like this: Theistic morality — and the idea that theism is necessary to morality, the idea that without a belief in God people will have no reason to be good — is a childish morality. It’s a morality that’s based on fear of punishment and the desire for reward… and therefore it’s an immature morality. The atheist morality is based on genuine feelings of compassion and empathy and fairness, a deep consciousness that other people have just as much right to live in this world as you yourself do… and therefore, it’s a more mature, more truly moral morality than the childish theistic morality that “good” is what you get rewarded for and “bad” is what you get punished for.
And there are two reasons I think this is a bad argument.
One: There’s an increasing body of evidence supporting the theory that human morality is, to a great extent, genetically hard-wired. (No, this isn’t a tangent — stay with me.) There is, of course, tremendous variation in how that morality plays out in specific ethical systems, from person to person and from culture to culture. But there are certain core moral concepts that seem to exist cross-culturally, and which seem to be part of the human brain’s hard-wiring — a wiring that’s evolved over millions of years, just like the rest of our neurological hard-wiring has evolved. (And before you ask: Yes, there is so an evolutionary advantage to morality — or there is in a social species, anyway.)
This science is in its early stages, and it may yet prove to be mistaken. But the signs are pointing very strongly in this direction. (There’s a good summary of the science in this New York Times article by Steven Pinker.) And if the current scientific thinking turns out to be correct, then morality is part of our human neurobiology, a psychological module built into our brains much like language and vision. Of course we vary considerably in how we act on these morals, and in the priority we give to certain morals over others when they conflict; but we vary considerably in what language we speak and how we speak it as well, and that doesn’t mean the basics of it aren’t hard-wired into our brains.
So here’s my point:
If this is true — if morality is largely hard-wired by our human genetics into our human brains — then that’s true for all of us, across the board.
Theists and atheists alike.
We all have the same basis for morality. With the obvious exception of psychopaths and sociopaths and other people who clearly have faulty wiring, we all have the same basic notions of compassion and fair play, the same desire for a strong community and passion to see justice done, etc. And we have them for the same reasons — because they’re the morals that have evolved to make us a successful social and cooperative species.
So if we all have the same morals for the same reasons, it doesn’t make any sense to say that the atheist basis for morality is superior to the theistic basis. It’s not like atheists and believers are a different species, after all; and I haven’t seen any studies showing that the wiring of the atheist brain is radically different from the wiring of the theist brain.
In other words, atheist morality isn’t superior to theist morality — for the simple reason that it’s the same morality.
Same species; same evolution; same neurological wiring; same morality.
Of course, as I said, this science is still in its infancy, and it may eventually be shown to be wrong. So here’s my second argument against this idea:
It contradicts reality.
I know a fair number of theists and other religious/ spiritual believers. And they clearly have the same basis for their morality as I do for mine. The believers I know don’t do good because they’re afraid of Hell. Many of them don’t even believe in Hell. They do good for the exact same reasons I do: because they feel compassion and empathy for others, because they believe in justice and fairness, because they understand that other people are people just like they are, because they want to see the world be a better place for everybody.
They may believe that these morals were planted in us by God, while I believe they were planted in us by the evolution of our genetic hard-wiring. But the basic morals, and the basic motivations for those morals, are essentially the same as mine.
And if I don’t like it when bigoted theists deny the reality of my morality, then it’s not right for me to turn around and be just as big a reality-denying bigot as they are.
Now. If you want to argue that the purported basis of theistic morality is more childish than atheist morality, then I won’t argue with you very strenuously. The punitive, afterlife- focused, hellfire- and- damnation variety of theistic morality, at any rate. I agree that, as explanations for morality go, that’s a pretty suck one.
But if the current scientific thinking is correct, then the purported basis of theists’ morality isn’t the real basis. A theist may think that with no belief in God morality would waste away… but when you ask them whether they would steal or murder if it could be proven to them that God didn’t exist, in my experience most of them say No. The purported basis for much theistic morality may suck… but the real basis seems to be the same as mine, and the same as that of most of the atheists I know.
I’ll acknowledge that this isn’t true across the board. There clearly are some theists whose morality really is based almost entirely on the fear of punishment and the desire for reward. On the other hand, there are also some atheists who really are moral nihilists, who really do argue that altruism is an illusion and we’re all really driven by pure self-interest, if only we’d be honest enough to admit it. (They have a decided tendency to hijack comment threads and drive the rest of us nuts.) And their existence doesn’t negate the fact that most atheists are genuinely moral and compassionate… any more than the existence of the “morality is all about punishment and reward” theists negates the fact that most theists are also genuinely moral and compassionate. There are childish dolts on both sides of the religion divide.
And for me to deny that most theists do good for the same basic reasons that I do — because they feel compassion and empathy for others, because they care about fair play and justice, etc. — would be every bit as obnoxious, every bit as bigoted, and every bit as unhinged from reality, as it is when certain theists insist that my atheism must mean that I’m amoral.
I think there’s an unfortunate tendency in the religion debates — among both atheists and believers — to see the other side as almost a different species. I think there’s a tendency to see our opponents as The Enemy… and worse, as The Other. And as I’ve written before, the issue of religion and not-religion is already polarizing enough on its own, without us artificially divvying the world into Us and Them.
I don’t want to minimize our differences. I think they’re important, and I think they’re worth fighting over. But I think it’s possible for atheists to believe that atheism is correct and religion is mistaken — and to fight for that position passionately — without succumbing to the pitfall of thinking that this one correct hypothesis about the world somehow makes us morally superior.