/ ask / Where do atheists get their morality?

Dr. Darrel Ray is an atheist, humanist, and psychologist. He is the author of The God Virus, and specializes in issues relating to religious deconversion. [ more ]
If you have an issue relating to religion but no one to talk to, ask Dr. Ray. He doesn’t promise that he has all the answers, but hopefully he will be able to provide insight and experience that will be beneficial for both you and for the many other young people in similar situations.
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Dear Darrel,

On the kids half of this website, Darwin the dog tells us to “Be nice to people, just because it’s the right thing to do!” but I was raised to believe that morality was given to us by God. Where do atheists get their morality if not from God’s teachings?

From Dr. Ray

First, let’s take a hard look at “God’s teachings.” Most Christians are quite unaware of their gods’ teachings. They simply take what the preacher says on Sunday morning as the truth and word of their god. If these teachings were simple and clear, then there would not be 38,000 different denominations and branches of Christianity all saying different things.

For example, I am riding on a train as I write this. I am sitting within a few feet of several Amish families. They are dressed like they walked out of an 1880’s movie. They are pacifistic and hardworking people who deeply believe that their god has instructed them that modern conveniences are the temptations of Satan. Owning a computer is a sin for them. Owning a car, shaving their beards, or having electricity in their home is a sin. Dating anyone outside of the community is a sin. Chances are, even if you were the best Christian you could be, you would still be a very immoral person according to their god.

A close reading of the Old Testament is filled with horrendous lessons on how to treat people. A god that kills almost everyone on Earth in a flood: that’s pretty crazy. A god that commands Joshua to murder all the women and children except for the young girls, who can be taken as sex slaves: That’s horrible. A god that condemns anyone who eats shellfish: what is that all about? And of course. The 10 commandments tell you that working on Saturday or saying god’s name without a good reason makes you a bad person in the eyes of god. God eventually goes into great detail about how to deal with cattle thieves, isolating women on their period, and which fabrics to wear at the same time; but nowhere in those ten commandments, or in the six hundred and three that come after it, does it say “Don’t abuse children,” or “Don’t enslave people,” or “Don’t rape.”

There’s a simple explanation for this, which is that the Bible was written by human beings at a time when stealing a person’s livestock was a crime punishable by death, but raping a young girl was easily remedied by following it up with a marriage proposal. If the girl married someone other than her rapist however, and was found to not be a virgin, she would be executed. There is nothing remotely moral about any of this. The Abrahamic tribes who wrote the Old Testament simply came up with a set of laws that favored those already in power, and then claimed those laws were dictated by god and that questioning them was punishable by death.

In the New Testament, you can pick and choose to find verses that sound nice, but who gets to decide which verses teach the moral lessons? When Paul says that a master should treat his slave well, why didn’t he just condemn slavery? Surely the “golden rule” would require that. When Paul says, “A woman should be quiet in church and not speak. She should learn from her husband.” is that a good moral model? When Jesus says, “If you don’t love me more than your own family, you don’t deserve heaven.” Is that the kind of god you want?

Morality is present in all societies in some form. There were moral people and moral codes long before the Hebrews came along and much earlier than Jesus. If morality comes from the teachings of god, who taught the ancient Chinese their morals? Who taught the Iroquois Indians, before Columbus? Muslims claim that their morality comes directly from god as written in the Koran. Mormons teach that their morality comes from god as written in the book of Mormon. The Hopi have a well-developed moral and ethical code, but it is not what you or I would recognize. While all of these groups claim that some god gave them their morality, the fact is that no society can live long without rules for successful interaction. No gods gave them these moral rules; tradition and the need to live peacefully within a larger group, brought these about.

You live in a society that has well developed rules and laws that came from centuries of secular law and government. You would be hard pressed to find much in our current laws that was directly related to The Decalogue or the 613 commandments found in the Old Testament. Those were laws and rules as foreign to us today as the Hopi moral code is to the U.S. legal code. They are hardly related.

Little if any of your day-to-day behavior is governed by anything you can find in a holy book. Be kind to each other, is a pretty universal value. Most cultures have some version of that. It existed long before holy books were written. It did not come from any god.

If we received our morality from god or religion, then we would expect to see higher morality among the most religious and godly societies. A simple look at today’s societies shows that is not the case. For example, the US is the most religious western nation, yet we have the highest murder rate, highest rate of imprisonment, highest rape rates along with among the highest poverty rates, teen pregnancies and much more. Compare our religious society to France, Germany, Sweden, Japan or any number of other developed countries, and you see that high rates of atheism or non-religiosity are associated with low rates of all these “moral” problems.

Western morality began with the enlightenment about 500 years ago. The enlightenment was the first time that Europeans started separating religion from morality. Through the last few centuries, Western Civilization has developed a code of morality that is not dependent on any religion, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the United Nations Charter, to the International Court of Justice, The Geneva Convention on War, and much more. These institutions and laws make no reference to gods or religion and are often agreed to by countries whose citizens have radically different religions.

Here is something to consider. No major religion on earth condemned slavery until the enlightenment came along to condemn it. All the major religions claim that women are inferior to men. None thought that women had a role to play in political life and rarely in religious life. Most churches still believe that only men may lead. Many major religions espoused “Peace on Earth” but were quick to start huge devastating Crusades against one another. Christians who espoused Christian morality in the 1500’s spent decades killing one another across Europe in the 30 years war. Millions died in the name of a god. Not much morality there.

Where do we get our morality? From the constant development of our culture. From the evolution of laws and guidelines that help us create a peaceful and prosperous society. We are who create our morality and we pass it down to our children and grandchildren. That is why Muslim people can live prosperously in the US along side Baptists, Mormons, Hindus and Atheists. We have a morality that supersedes all religions and is beholden to none.

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