The Moral Atheist

Quite a number of religious people argue that an atheist cannot be moral, as morality springs from religion. This is a heavy claim, since immoral people are not a good thing to have in a civilized society. As an atheist I’m lead to defend the position that atheists, too, can be moral. In fact, I will go a bit beyond mere apology. I will claim atheists are actually in a better position to become moral in the real sense of the word than someone following a literal interpretation of biblical morality.

Morality disemboweled

If we think about morality, it is a tool. Its proper area of application is relations to other people in a society. Its aim is to make society an agreeable, safe and prosperous place to live in. Its essence is ease of choice in situations which pit one person’s interests against another’s. Morality is composed of willingness to compromise, knowledge of when and how this is best done, and a highly automated capability of making such decisions.

A theist will claim that moral choices can only be made if one believes in a higher being, and rules dictated by it. Such rules are thought of as being enforced in the afterlife, or via other supernatural means. It is thought that this is the only form of enforcement available. In essence the argument says that morality governs interpersonal affairs in which direct egoism would be counter‐productive to the ones involved as a whole, and in which there exist interpersonal externalities to one’s actions. It says that the problem can only be solved if the game theoretic payoff of such confrontations is modified by the presence of a supernatural, immutable payoff to choosing the communally beneficial alternative, or a similar punishment for choosing otherwise. In the absence of such conditioning, communally beneficial outcomes will not materialize, and society will disintegrate.

It is also claimed that morality is something more than the above description. It is thought that it has to do with deep, intuitive, inexplicable insights into how a good citizen will behave.

The problem

Both the above viewpoints are untenable. The first presumes that people with a free will will actually fear supernatural punishment more than natural ones. It claims that punishment in the sense offered by law cannot function in a manner the expectation of a supernatural one will.

Such a claim is clearly wrong—a person with a free will can choose not to believe in the reality of said punishment, as us atheists have, or can choose to discount the severity of the punishment, as the economic science testifies people routinely do with regard to other future payoffs. Something happening in the far future is almost always heavily depreciated with regard to what is achievable today, even in the case of highly religious people. Also, the usual methods of punishment used throughout the world to bring about legal deterrence are far more effective in this regard than supernatural punishment, thanks to their relative immediacy.

Also, if we wish strong deterrence, all the pain a person can actually experience can well be effected by means accessible to a mortal torturer. I do hope this sort of argument isn’t what religious people are after—we all know torture isn’t an endeavor one should easily undertake.

As for the second argument, inexplicable insights are worth very little. They cannot be used to convince people, or to enlighten the essence of what we call morality. They cannot be inculcated against an invidual’s wants, as we do have free will. The moral enlightenment theists habitually ascribe to belief are from an atheist’s viewpoint something which could very well be taught to someone without the concept of gods and goblins. All it takes is conditioning, something which is far better achieved via modern techniques of brainwashing and mind control than primitive religious fancy. If brainwashing is what we want to do, there are ways far better than what the typical cultist/Christian has to offer.

The real problem

From the above it should be clear that literal adherence to a particular moral doctrine can be forced on people by mortal means. It should also be painfully clear that this isn’t something one would want to accomplish, no matter the means or ends.

The concept of a literal reading of an axiomatic system of morality is what really bugs me in conventional views of the genesis of moral thought. I view morality as being about informed, societally beneficial, context dependent choices, not about simplistic principles. Abiding by a literal reading of a moral doctrine will amount to inflexible, uninformed choices, which will by and far not be beneficial. Neither to the individual, nor to the society. And if such interpretation is supported only by fear of damnation or pain, we will also witness extraneous emotional harm to the individual. Living in fear never produces well‐rounded, civilized, healthy individuals. Instead it gives rise to dogmatic, fearsome, stressed‐out, irrational misers.

The fact is, those who abide by a religious doctrine mostly tend to belong to the former group. They do not draw the core and essence of their morality from religion, but are informed by it. No sensible person would follow all of the teachings of the Old Testament, as they are easily seen to be harmful. Instead, a truly moral, religious person understands that Scripture isn’t all there is to it. He uses his own, God‐given ability to reason. He takes from religious morality what is good, applies it in an informed fashion, and ends up a conscious, moral actor.

This is what morality is about, not blind obedience to set rules. Morality is about willingness and capability for rational choice in a context where the payoff is societal instead of individual. Religion can have its place in inciting the necessary shift in an individual’s profit calculus, true. But it by no means is the only means of arriving at the conclusion. I would also contend that it is in fact an inferior means in that there is a risk of instead inciting adherence to a literal interpretation of what the religious doctrine in question says. That would seriously stifle one’s capability of actually making a reasoned choice in matters moral. That is a pretty big minus in the torrentous affair that we call coexistence with other people.

Atheists can be moral

Now, atheists have to learn to make their own decisions from the start as there are no guidelines apart from one’s own reason. We can draw from the old wisdom the many religions of the world embody, of course, but that isn’t the end of it. We won’t have the fear of damnation hanging over our heads, true, but we also don’t have the promise of an eternal life to make us feel too complacent about the way we act. To us, the choice is personal; beyond that, there’s precious little. So the choice defines us. As such, our standing in life, everything we have, is predicated on what we get, how we feel and how other people perceive of us.

We all know that antisocial behavior is bad. Not only for the individual, but for the surrounding community. Atheists more than anybody understand that moral behavior, with the huge benefits it brings to social interaction, is the bulwark of well‐being. After all, to us, that well‐being is pretty much all there is. We thus trust immoral individuals even less than the average theist. I mean, if we were to tolerate immorality, there’d be nothing to counterbalance the damage. We’d just die, slide into nothingness, wouldn’t get to enjoy any compensation. This is why we tend to be both moral and hold others upto reasonable moral standards. We have a choice in the matter, true, but there’s no real choice to it. We have to be moral, whether we like it or not.

At the same time we very well know that morality is what keeps the society together. It’s what other people, be they theist or atheist, expect of us. Thus, we do understand what morality is about, and have a strong incentive to abide by it. Regardless of what faith other people profess. We don’t have Scripture to tell us what moral means, precisely, but we try very hard to find out, for our own benefit. Not because we are altruists, but because morality is necessary, expected and good. To us, and to those around us. Again, our own selves and those around us is all we have.

Now, theists can claim no such standing. If they tolerate immorality, they can expect to be infinitely rewarded for their righteousness. If they’re moral, they can expect huge rewards, true, but that’s then… All that atheists have is now. That is more, I would argue. What theists have is a ready‐made system of moral values, perhaps coming from thousands of years ago. What we have is a general altruistic guideline which has to be applied in the best way we know how to. In an age which witnesses rapid development and change in societal conditions I think reasoned morality easily outperforms adherence to the letter of millennia old parchment. The spirit is still there, of course, and to be learned from—I too think religions have a lot to tell us, even in the absence of the supposed carrot&stick they also provide—but the letter, that might well be outdated. An atheist will do better because his morality isn’t a matter of letter. It is a matter of personal conviction to do good, for one’s own good.

Or do you suppose transfusions as a life‐preserving technology should be shunned? Non‐virginal newly‐weds to be stoned to death for their previous transgression? Pigs not be eaten? Scripture often misleads one.

There’s a serious historical background to outdated dictates, of course. In their time they were vital. But today, even a seriously religious person will acknowledge that not all of those dictates should be followed. New moral guidelines will also surface from time to time, thanks to changing conditions. Atheists, we use reason and the scientific method to weight the good against the evil. We adapt based on what we know of what goes around and comes around. We try to do good even when the Good Bible doesn’t tell us precisely how to accomplish that. I would contend that places us at a moral advantage; a high ground, if the reader so wills. Not because we’re more capable or inherently more moral. No. Instead it’s because we acknowledge that we have both the means and real, tangible, ever‐present reasons to build and refine our moral convictions. Because of what we think, and because of what other people do, atheist or theist.

Additionally, we have nothing to resort to if our approach fails, so the claim is credible. If we’re wrong about the existence of God, there’s only the slight chance that our moral convictions might redeem us. We better take the possibility seriously. Also, if there’s no afterlife, we hang by what we do. In either case, straying from moral conduct will hit us, fully. We cannot be immoral without paying a cost. No such credibility can be derived from theist viewpoints. Credibility, then, is a big part of how morality does well by us. There’s no point to being moral if other people do not believe your are. Atheists have both a highly personal reason to be moral, and external reasons they can be trusted to be moral. Theists have neither.

The approach based on individual reason is well accessible to theists, as I said, and most really resort to it. A majority of people know that Scripture isn’t all there is to morality, and so apply what they have. This is in fact the precise reason why most people can be considered moral in today’s world. But the fact is, the credibility and the cooperative benefits it gives rise to are never there as long as one professes a faith in the supernatural. There’s no real reason to believe that a theist would actually want to follow the moral guidelines his reason assures are workable, and so benefits attainable thru presuming another person moral aren’t available unless the other person is an atheist.

Thus I ask, why not go all the way? Why not give up one’s beliefs and become truly, credibly, moral? For me that has worked out very well. For many others it has, too. Morality is, and should be about one’s own, reasoned decisions, and shouldn’t be externalized to a religion, a cult, a leader or a prophet. Not to mention a benevolent, inexistent spirit. If one is to become moral in the genuine sense of the word, one should first become nothing less than a sworn atheist.