The Two-Part Belief Set
Religious fundamentalists sometimes claim atheists have no sense of morality. According to some of these slanders, atheists’ disbelief in god is motivated by a desire to do immoral things. Others view atheists as morally bankrupt or empty – flawed in the sense of missing a certain goodness possessed by members of organized religious groups.
This accusation mistakes atheism for some sort of moral code. It contrasts the lack of moral content in the simple statement “there is no god” with the vast body of theological writings and behavioral codes of religion. It often includes the claim that atheism is itself a religion. The logical conclusion is that atheists’ minds are absolutely empty except for the slogan “there is no god,” which has purged all of the atheist’s other possible knowledge or values about ethics.
Atheism Is; Morality Ought
Actually, theists and atheists agree: the statement “there is no god” provides little in the way of ethical guidance.
We suppose one might use it to argue a point with moral or practical importance, such as “we should not sacrifice people to the volcano.” However, even in this case, it is only a proposition working in tandem with other propositions, such as “Because the volcano god does not exist, it cannot send rain in exchange for sacrifices.”
The proposition that there is no god only applies to moral questions when paired with moral claims, such as “human life is valuable.”
Atheism is certainly not a book of rules, nor does it imply a way of resolving moral questions (although it follows from atheism that religious methods of resolving moral questions are based on a false assumption). Atheism is by definition no more than lack of a belief in supernatural deities.
Moral claims are not only off-topic to the question of the existence of a god, they are fallacious arguments if derived solely from claimed facts. David Hume demonstrated the problem with proving moral sentiments by aggregating facts when he described the “is-ought problem” 278 years ago.
Deriving moral claims from the statement “there is a god” suffers from the same problem, but believers can create endless amendments to their god, such as “and he wants us to…”. They define morality as the will of their god, as amended. Atheists, in contrast, end their story about god when they reach the part about non-existence. This does not mean atheists have nothing to say about morality.
“But Where Do You Get Your Morality?”
Many religions teach that humans are innately amoral until they are taught to be moral by participating in organized religion. By reading scriptures and participating in rituals, the theory goes, we mitigate our innate tendency to sin. In a nutshell, religion makes people morally better – according to religion.
This popular belief about the origins of morality may seem harmless, but what does it imply about those of use who don’t believe, or who don’t participate in the religious activities? It implies we lack moral educations, or that we reject the moral education we once received.
The One-Part Belief Set
For the religious fundamentalist, and many other religiously-minded people, morality and their religion are the same thing. Things are “right” to the extent they conform with god’s will. Things are “wrong” to the extent they conflict with god’s will. Without a god to will, there could be no morality. Therefore, atheists who are unaware of god must also be unaware of morality.
Let’s call this a one-part belief set. The religious person’s beliefs about a god and this god’s properties are interwoven with their moral beliefs. The god defines moral truths by fiat, and the moral truths demonstrate the existence of the god (see circular reasoning).
People tend to limit themselves to like-minded associates, so it is understandable that many with one-part belief sets have never encountered another way of thinking. To them, atheism is a competing religious attitude, with the important distinction of not making any moral claims.
This thought must seem threatening indeed! However, it is based on an unawareness of how most atheists organize their attitudes about god and morality.
The Two-Part Belief Set
Having moved on from the question of god’s existence, atheists find independent rationales and methods to arrive at moral conclusions. Instead of depending on an author or preacher to inform them of god’s moral edicts, atheists find a universe of material to work with in their contemplations of ethics.
Several moral philosophies support their conclusions without any appeals to a god’s authority.
Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative offers a secular method of evaluating ethical decisions: we should pursue those actions that we wish were the universal rule. Social contract theory describes how humans agree to treat each other well in exchange for the benefits of civilization. Utilitarianism offers another secular option, by defining morality in terms of the set of options that create the most benefit for the most people. Perhaps the most popular ethical philosophical approach among atheists is humanism, a stance that emphasizes the importance of human well-being, freedom, and progress.
Each of these approaches has generated entire libraries of works to explore. But secular ethics need not be complicated. The golden rule, a simple yet effective tool for moral reasoning, originated in ancient Egypt centuries before the rise of Christianity.
None of these approaches to morality requires the existence of a god, nor do they require one to be an atheist. Their rationales are self-supporting. So yes, there are moral systems independent of organized religion. For atheists, morality isn’t about the purported rewards obtained from a god. It is more closely tied to our understanding of humanity, our identities, and our aspirations to be part of a better world.
For fundamentalists, morality and god are the same topic, while for atheists they are separate topics. Religious people and atheists could better understand each other by understanding how each other think differently about right and wrong. Virtually no one is actually amoral, but a consensus definition of good remains elusive.