You hear it all the time, as an atheist. "How can you be moral if you don't believe in anything?" Or some variation, perhaps citing Nietzsche in more sophisticated versions. It is an earnest enough question, given the life-long indoctrination that religions practice, and the dependence- intellectual, social, and moral- they foster.
In large part it is a tribal badge, this conviction that we are the good ones and the others are not good. Without even looking into the particulars of a community's moral code, one can assume that they view theirs as good, and those of outsiders as deficient if not evil. Even the mob has its code of honor. Religious community membership commonly functions as a social signal of trustworthiness, of goodness, good intentions, and proper upbringing. It was not long ago that everyone had to be a member of a local church, or the national church, or was shunned. The Muslim world exemplifies this tendency, currently.
In that it does not differ much from nationalism, or membership in any other club, masonic order, Elks lodge, etc. But religions claim much more. The typical religion not only forms a social club, but to validate its existence and inflate its importance, claims to know mysteries of which the lay bumpkin is ignorant- the nature of the cosmos, the ultimate reality, and the desires of god. It offers cosmic as well as personal transcendence, and offers an objective moral order. This is the rock on which believers lay their bigotry, that they have answers to moral questions which for the atheist have no answers, leading presumably to despair at best, murder at worst.
This moral order has been under continuous renovation from time immemorial, but that doesn't keep theologians from claiming that it is objective and absolute, thus giving them the power to conflate what supposedly is (what god wants) into what you should do. God said X, therefore you must do X. Only, so much scripture has piled up in the mean time, so full of conflicts and ambiguity that there is simply no way to a clear interpretation. On the one hand, this means that all fundamentalisms are doomed to be just as subjective and self-serving as the modernist / deviationist interpreters, and on the other hand, it means that the devout need the services of some interpreter, to render fatwas out of the thicket of their so-called objective text.
So it is not really objective after all, and one empathetic judge or practitioner can do more for her flock than gaggle of rule-divining theologians. But wait, isn't the mere proposition of an objective moral order worth something, and better than the utter nihilism of atheism? Isn't the dedication to seeking moral truths, however far we are from discerning or attaining them, one key point of religious engagement and a noble quest that separates us from the brutish, thoughtless, care-less atheists? And even if the moral order is ambiguous, isn't the promise of a deity who sees all and judges all a prod to good behavior?
Well, those are fascinating questions. If one doesn't really know what is good in a reliable, clear way, however, it hardly seems helpful to have an eye of Sauron watching our every move, or the promise of eternal suffering if we take a wrong step. Theologians themselves are all over the map on the reality of hell and the nature of posthumous justice. The Catholic church recently excused babies from their stay in purgatory, after centuries of selling indulgences and demanding pennance of endless varieties from its adherents to get their loved ones out of it. The fact of the matter is that we behave as if our conscience is our final judge, whatever our theological commitments. It is our conscience that is the field of moral battle, whether it is cultivated by a program of guilt and self-hatred, one of compassion and calm introspection, or one of empathy with other living beings of all kinds including humans.
More interesting is the question of the quest for moral laws. Our legal systems are always straining to make their apparatus and judgements seem as objective as possible. Guilty! Innocent! The lure of certainty seems to be a strong feature of human nature, and this illusion is surely of practical benefit to our systems of communal judgement. A cautionary example can be seen in the sorry state of our Supreme Court, which has, though its nakedly ideological bickering and party-line decisions, ceded any claim, even illusory, to objective, above-the-fray judgement.
So each religious tradition toils on, seeking that final, absolute moral object that will tell its children to go to bed on time and to turn off their cell phones. And the kicker is that they phrase this as finding out "what god wants", as if unloading all the ethical work to someone else elevates our moral nature. As you can probably tell, I regard this as quixotic at best, for our morals are very much ours, and are fundamentally subjective and biological. Had we no empathy for our fellow creatures, all would be lost, whatever the absolute moral code. Conversely, the person who cares for others and expands her sympathies to the largest possible extent has no need of theological commandments.
So seeking for objective morals is a fool's errand. But that doesn't mean that there is no room for serious moral inquiry, particularly that premised on things that are real, like the existence, needs, and desires of others and our many levels of individual and communal interest. It is complicated enough without invoking unseen phantasms.
Which brings us back to the atheist. Once one understands that there is no moral high ground for those who pound on bibles or cart about granite slabs inscribed with the ten commandments, and that communities will typically grant themselves moral superiority whatever the content of their codes and practices, (one is reminded of the extensive forgiveness the Catholic church lavished on its wayward priests), one is left on a much more even playing field.
Religious people are often perplexed by the apparent uprightness of atheists. They seem to be smart, well-behaved, oddly capable of putting up a good front and not getting into trouble. What could be going on? Statistics of course reinforce that impression. Atheists are indeed better-behaved than religious people, staying married longer, murdering less, having fewer abortions, committing less crime, etc. Truly, a conundrum.
It almost seems as though attentiveness to reality, not only in the form of science, evolution, and similar nerd-ish fixations which lead many atheists to their philosophy, but in the forms of civic affairs, politics, history, and psychology- attentiveness in short, to other people- might form a sounder moral education than indoctrination in some crazy story about master beings, resurrections, perfect scriptures, and eternal life. The humanist viewpoint (which is the general atheist position) may not have the plotline and passion of dramatic religions, but that may be a point in its favor. While religions often foster the best in humanity, they frequently seem to go astray, whether due to inattention in the face of the distracting, even overwhelming, story they carry, or directly from some part or interpretation of that story that gives official license to violate the most basic elements of human morality. The Israel-Palestine conundrum comes to mind.
When pressed, a religious person may offer that, sure, given the culture we have inherited, most atheists still manage to do alright, but this comes from the solid grounding that Christianity has given the West (insert culture and religion of choice here). At some point, if religion continues to decline and our cultures lose this moral anchor, there is no telling what might happen. Even those idyllic quasi-socialist countries of Scandinavia that are the most secular in the world still have state churches and their rich moral patrimony.
This gets the correlation all wrong, however. It is the most religious countries that are the most backward, and the least that are socially more just, with lower crime, incarceration, etc. If religion were having all these salutary effects, why aren't the most religious countries the happiest, and the least most ridden with crime and immorality? But we see the exact opposite. It is almost as though religion is a counter-reality coping mechanism that is most attractive in countries mired in poverty and corruption, if not causing poverty and corruption. And that it seems to be unnecessary in effectively atheist countries like Luxembourg, Norway, and Denmark, either personally to help people survive adverse conditions, or communally to foster good behavior.
Additionally, one should realize that in the West, Christianity had over a millenium of free reign during the Dark and Medieval Ages. Much good was done, but I think on balance, the moral tenor of the West has increased considerably since that time, in the wake of the Enlightenment. It was the Enlightnment that generated secular concepts like fundamental human equality, human rights, democratic government, rationalism in public policy as well as scientific investigation, and much more. As ideals, they owe quite a bit to the preceeding religious conceptions, but were remade on a secular basis that made them far more effective, as it was the church itself that was a significant source of oppression, corruption, and obscurantism. We have gone to far greater moral heights in the modern age than were ever achieved previously, even while we grapple with enormous problems of scientific & political success. There were several horrible atheist movements and governments in the 20th century, which must be noted, but which have thankfully each been substantially reformed if not eliminated. Each could be seen as a religious movement of an idealistic, fanatical sort, at least in sociological, if not theological, terms.
Lastly, what of personal spirituality? Even if religions make people no more moral, empirically, than other philosophies, and even if they are factually false, and even if theology is a parody of scholarship, isn't the personal resonance with our surroundings, deep questioning, and quest for some kind of transcendence a significant feature of humanity, and of human morality?
I would actually agree with that, with some caveats, since the atheist is, in reality, just as spiritual as the religious person. The problem is whether one indulges this innate impulse with inferred pseudoscience and systems of social control based on hosts of invisible beings. The wonders of nature remain wonderous whether one chalks them up to deities or not. Religion is an *example of humans yearning for understanding and meaning, but is far from the apotheosis or sole source of meaning, let alone legibility for understanding the world. It is healthy for people to share their spiritual questions, insights, and commitments with each other, which is why not just religions, but academies, libraries and universities were invented. Here is where love- for spirituality is really the love of life and the world around us- is exercised as the freedom to be interested in and draw meaning from ... other people, phenomena of nature, arts and self-expression, and the best thinking that humanity has to offer.
This is transcendence with discipline, making of ourselves better beings, morally as well as intellectually. The idea of getting on the good side of an invisible being, or counting on another life better than this one, if such theories are not well-founded, seems a little cheap in comparison to humble dedication to slow betterment in & of this life.
- Annals of religious BS. Being personally related to god prevents drug abuse: "We have multiple ways of knowing: we have intuition, we have rigorous logic, we have investigation. We need to use them all. They’re all important, valid forms of perception."
- Annals of really serious religious BS.
- Some people call it mystery, others call it BS.
- Annals of denial: rise of the "nones" = culling of those "pretend Christians".
- Atheism is on the rise in the Middle East.
- Keeping tabs on Syria. And Iraq.
- On being wrong, and being really, really wrong.
- Virtually any existing condition is "Pareto optimal".
- Climate action is needed immediately.
- Happiness is an institutional, social issue.
- Banks are too big, and we can make them smaller.
- What is the problem with Keynes? Just imagine if government worked consistently against economic feudalism instead of for it.
- Were the founding fathers Keynesians?
- Finally, a church I can relate to.