Is God necessary for Morality? Can Atheists be Ethical?

For the believer, what is right and wrong is very simple: whatever God says is right is right, and whatever God says is wrong is wrong. And the scriptures or the prophets can tell you what God says. So, the believer does not steal simply because it is a sin; he does not lie because it is a sin; he does not work on the Sabbath because it is a sin; he does not eat pork because it is a sin, etc. There is no examining why some of these things are bad or wrong, they just are, because someone in authority says so. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in treating all wrongs as equal: it is a sin to drink a glass of wine; it is also a sin to kill someone. This results from the fact that such morality simply means: Obey. The believer has no need to ask for reasons; in fact, the believer is usually discouraged from asking such questions, because that would sound as though the believer is questioning divine authority.

Another problem with any morality based solely on a set of authoritative rules is that no such code of rules can be so complete that it covers every possible eventuality. Claims for the Ten Commandments, or even for the Bible as a whole, which offer them as a "complete guide" are obviously overblown. Simply consider that Christians cannot even agree among themselves on many moral questions, even though they appeal to the same Bible. And this is only natural. Look at any of the civil or penal codes in secular law, the purpose of which is to define precisely what is legal in the secular world and what is not (overlapping frequently with the subject matter of religious codes). These secular codes of "right and wrong" often fill several volumes, and are drafted by people trained to draft such legislation so that it covers all possible foreseeable contingencies, and in the most precise and unambiguous language possible (unlike most religious codes). And even so, disputes arise as to the application of such statutes to particular fact situations, or the interpretation of such carefully worded laws, so that a judge or jury must be called in to settle the dispute.

Bible apologists will of course argue that the Bible is intended only to teach correct "principles," and that by the influence of the Holy Spirit one can apply those general Bible principles to any real-life situation. But nowhere is one instructed as to how to do this reliably, and the result is worse than no moral guidance at all, since usually one can interpret an impulse or an urge to do what one wanted to do all along as a genuine inspiration from God. The result is ironically what many Christian moralists condemn in non-Christians: so-called "situational ethics."

It has become popular to use as a moral guide the question "What Would Jesus Do?", usually abbreviated in posters, lapel pins, rings, and costume jewelry as "WWJD?" The problem with this simplistic approach is that it assumes that one can know, or at least imagine correctly, what Jesus would do in any situation. That would, of course, depend entirely on our individual image of Jesus. For instance, I am sure that many Christians would enthusiastically answer "Yes!" to the question, "Would Jesus try to kill these evil abortionist doctors who are murdering helpless unborn fetuses?" and think that Jesus' cleansing of the temple was a good example. And is Jesus really a perfect moral guide - even assuming that we can know what he did and would do? Remember that Jesus had no qualms about breaking up families (Matt 10:35), preached that he had come to bring not peace, but the sword (Matt 10:34), showed ethnic prejudice (Matt 15:22-26, Mark 7:25-27).

Rather than WWJD?, one might do just as well to follow the advice which Jiminy Cricket sings in the animated film Pinocchio: "When you are discouraged, and you don't know right from wrong, give a little whistle, ... and always let your conscience be your guide!"

Generally, the Bible has many shortcomings as a moral guide. See a listing of objectional Bible morality at Bible Notes: Morality in the Bible.

Still another problem with religion-based morality is that (in Christianity and Mormonism, at least) one is expected to try to be perfect and never do anything sinful (or morally or ethically wrong). This goal is humanly impossible, but the religions do not admit its impossibility. Christianity solves the problem by convincing the Christian to accept his gross sinfulness, and then telling him that Jesus' atonement forgives him. Thus, the Christian doesn't really have to worry about sinning; he'll be saved anyway by the blood of Jesus. It's worse for Mormons: they have to worry every moment about whether their sins will consign them to a lower heavenly glory. The practical result is, all too often, that the Christian and the Mormon simply stop being concerned about trying to be "good" - the Christian because he's saved anyway, and the Mormon because he's damned anyway. In either case, there is the risk of psychological damage (depression) in addition to the lack of real moral guidance.

I think that children can be taught right and wrong without any reference to religion, and with very little reference to authoritarian rules. But it must be a continual effort by parents, and must begin with the parents' being models (however imperfect) of ethical behavior. Life every day presents us with many situations that have an ethical component, and in our family we always made it a point to discuss them with the children. Whenever we would forbid the children from doing something, we always tried to make them understand why. Whether they agreed or not, of course, they had to comply. But it was never simply "because I say so!" That would have been fundamentally the religious approach, and that does not make children think about why some act is good or bad.

Truly moral behavior is reasoned behavior. Whatever the beneficent result of an act may be, the act itself cannot be considered truly moral if the motive or the intention is not fundamentally moral. If I give a beggar a dollar for the sole reason that God has promised to reward me personally a thousandfold for such acts, my gift to the beggar was not, in my view, a moral act, but a completely selfish one.

Encouraging children to ask why something is good or bad leads them to understand the Golden Rule (which appears in almost all religions and ethical codes) and to understand that one must think about the consequences of their acts. Teach them also to recognize (and avoid) what are nothing more than rationalizations for justifying unethical acts, both in others and in themselves.

All of us must also be willing to admit that to many difficult ethical questions there is no clear answer, and that it is wrong in those cases to insist that there is a clear answer.

And lastly, I think children (all of us, actually) need to be taught that we are responsible for our own morality. This means two things: 1) we are responsible; and 2) we are not responsible for someone else's morality. (An exception to the latter statement is probably that parents are responsible for developing their children's morality).

Because parents have to take an active interest in developing their children's sense of morality, it's important that parents get guidance from non-religion-based thinkers and writers on ethics and morality. There are many excellent books on ethics available. They don't try to tell you what is right; they only try to help you learn to decide rationally for yourself what is right.

In fact, it was my first readings in textbooks on ethics that contributed to my beginning doubts about religion. I had been raised with a religion-based code of morality, and until I was well into adulthood I assumed that it would serve all my moral and ethical needs. One only has to read a few chapters of a good introduction to ethics to realize that such religion-based systems do not even begin to help with ethical and moral answers, because they do not even recognize the complex moral problems.

In the wake of the 2000 school shooting, Newsweek Magazine, whose cover story in its March 13 issue was "Murder In The First Grade," did a feature story inside called "How Kids Learn Right From Wrong" (pp 33-34). It was an excellent survey of the latest research and findings from child psychologists and educators, and traced the development of the moral sense in the child, and what promotes it and what destroys it. It was fascinating. For example, they have determined that the very young child is by nature empathetic, and feels the emotions of another child who is hurt or sad. It seems to be instinctive. The child then develops under the influence of the kind of environment it has, whether filled with conflict or with love. It learns by imitating what it sees.

And there was not a single word about religion! (And this in a magazine which had about four cover stories in the same year on Jesus, Biblical Prophecy, the Pope's Holy Land visit, etc.!)

The Smithsonian Magazine cover story for its January 2013 issue is "Are Babies Born Good?" And again, no mention of religion or God.


Can Atheists be Ethical?  

Fun Debate (CARM = Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry)

CARM: Atheists' morals are not absolute.

JQ: This is true of everyone, even Christians. Case in point: most Christians would consider it wrong to murder children, but according to the Bible, God repeatedly committed this sin, murdering the first born of every Egyptian household, murdering all of the children alive during the Noah Flood, murdering 42 kids for making fun of a prophet. How many Christians would consider God a sinner?

CARM: They do not have a codified set of moral laws by which right and wrong are judged.

JQ: Neither do Christians. Christians will claim the Bible is their codified set of morals, yet they ignore the vast majority of rules laid out for them in the Bible. Most Christians would not stone the children to death for dishonoring their parents.

CARM: This can be a problem as the norms of society shift and the ethics shift with them. In one century abortion is wrong. In another, it is right. Well, is it or isn't it right? If there is a God, killing the unborn is wrong.

JQ: Since, according to the Bible, God has no problem killing children, it does not follow that he would have a problem with abortion, and there are many pro-choice Christians. As far as the norms of society shifting causing a shift in ethics, does anyone remember the witch trials in Salem? Since, according to the Bible, witches should be killed, is CARM going to attempt to make it legal to kill witches? Will the members of CARM pick up the torch and stand up for their absolute, unchanging values?

CARM: If there is no God, then who cares? If it serves the best interest of society and the individual, then kill.

JQ: You mean like war? Surely members of CARM are not implying that Christians never kill.

CARM: This can be likened to something I call, "experimental ethics." In other words, whatever works best is right. Society experiments with ethical behavior to determine which set of rules works best.

JQ: "Evolutionary ethics" is perhaps a better name, and it is how most ethical systems come about.

CARM: There are potential dangers in this kind of ethical system. If a totalitarian political system is instituted and a mandate is issued to kill all dissenters, or Christians, or mentally ill, what is to prevent the atheist from joining forces with the majority system and support the killings?

JQ: This is a straw-man argument, and not a very good one. If atheists were inclined to join with the majority if it served our interests, then we would be confessing Christians. If I'm not mistaken, six million Jews were killed while their fellow human beings (almost all of which were Christian) watched. This issue has little to do with being a theist or a non-theist. Most people, theists and non-theists, go with the majority and are conformist.

CARM: If it serves his self-interests, why not?

JQ: Empathy, compassion.

CARM: But, to be fair, just because someone has an absolute ethical system based upon the Bible is no guarantee that he will not also join forces for the killings.

JQ: Are we not forgetting that the Bible condones genocide on multiple occasions? And let us not forget the Inquisition, the burning of witches, the crusades. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

CARM: But the issue is the base and ramifications of that base. Beliefs affect behavior. That is why belief systems are so important and absolutes are so necessary. A boat adrift without an anchor soon crashes into the rocks.

JQ: Let me see - 150 years ago, Christians owned slaves. 400 years ago, Christian burned heretics. Even today, some Christians bash homosexuals and relegate women to a lower state. And yet some don't. If Christian values are so absolute, how come there is such a variation of values amongst differant Christian groups?

CARM: The Bible teaches love, patience, and seeking the welfare of others even when it might harm the Christian; in this the ten commandments are a summary.

JQ: CARM has a different Bible than I have, or CARM has simply cut out most of it and thrown it away.

CARM: In contrast, the atheists' presuppositions must be evolutionary. Since evolution teaches that life is the product of purely natural and utilitarian properties of our world, survival of the fittest, natural selection, and equating humans to animals as a species are the ontological basis for our existence and living. With this the value of man is lowered.

JQ: This does not follow, and in fact, the opposite is true. It is true that humans are no longer the center of the Universe, but this conclusion is based on practical reasons, i.e. it is demonstrable that we are not the center of the universe. What we have learned in our increasing understanding of how we got here is that all life (including ours) exists in a state of balance and is very interrelated. Instead of demeaning life, this fact exalts life and helps us to understand how precious and how delicate it is. To the atheist, if we were to mess up the planet, we would have to fix it. There would be no one to save us.

CARM: In contrast, it is a very high calling to treat people properly who also are made in the image of God.

JQ: This statement has no meaning, and Christians themselves cannot even decide on what it means. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Ask a million Christians, get a million answers.

CARM: Basically, I do not see how the atheist could claim any moral absolutes at all.

JQ: The real question is "Why do Christians claim moral absolutes when it is painfully clear that they have no idea just what those moral absolutes are?"

CARM: To an atheist, ethics must be variable and evolving. This could be good or bad.

JQ: If they are bad, then they will be selected out of civilization. I.e. destroying the Earth is bad, preserving it good. Of course, we try to reason these ethics out, since it is sometimes difficult to undo a system if one travels down the wrong path (i.e. fix the Earth after ruining it).

CARM: But, given human nature being what it is, I'll opt for the moral absolutes -- based on God's word.

JQ: You mean based on the 0.01% of it you actually practice.

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