Can You be Good With or Without God?

The one thing I realized when writing the 50 Reasons Why Religion Should Not be Considered The Source of All Morality articles, was how false the assertion that you need God to be a moral person really is. We can see throughout history that religion and religious belief has led to some atrocious acts, and you’d have to put some immense blinders on to even suggest that religion is needed for morality.
But then religious people often ask what basis do atheists have for morality? What stops the

m from running out and doing whatever the hell they want? Without a celestial dictator monitoring your every move and offering up the torment of hell, what could possibly take its place?

The answer to this was buried within the 50 Reasons articles. Theists (and sometimes atheists) want to believe that there is some sort of law of morality that is independent of humans. They want to believe that morality is black and white and that their God specifically outlines what is bad or good in terms of morals. This would make morality akin to the law of gravity, negating any need to think for ourselves because the truth is self-evident.
Unfortunately, the religious have shown us this isn’t the case.
For example, in the bible we have this verse:
Exodus 21:17 “And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death”.
Now, I doubt Christians are stoning their kids whenever they’re being cursed at. If that were the case, not many kids would still be alive. In other words, modern day Christians ignore this rule because it doesn’t fit their modern day moral structure. In fact, they ignore a great many of the rules found in the bible, because those rules don’t mesh with their modern day sensibilities.
Sometimes, Christians take a long time to change their moral stance on issues. For example, same-sex marriage is gradually being accepted by more and more Christians. They didn’t just leap to that conclusion, and some will argue that their choice is biblically based, but the truth is that they discussed it, and came to their own conclusion.
Christians no longer burn witches at the stake. For 500 years or so, they did and based their moral stance for burning witches on the bible. They eventually came to the consensus that burning people isn’t such a great idea. The same goes for slavery. During the abolition years, both sides of the slavery ‘debate’ used the bible to back their claim. Now a days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sensible Christian in North America who thinks slavery is a good idea.
The truth of the matter is that there are very few things we as a species agree on when it comes to morality. For example, as a global community, we generally think that murder and pedophilia are wrong. No matter where you go on the planet, those two things will be considered reprehensible.
This wouldn’t be the case if morality were a law like gravity is a law of physics. We’d be agreeing on almost every moral law, if that were the case.
The truth is often uncomfortable, but the truth is that Christians often come to their moral conclusions the same way atheists do – through debate and reasoning. We are a social species, which is why we have empathy. Empathy aids us with most of our moral dilemmas, because we just think about how such a thing would affect us.
For example, if you were wondering whether beating another human being is a good idea or not, you could use empathy to put yourself in the beaten person’s shoes. Would you like getting beaten to a pulp? Would allowing assault on a massive scale harm or benefit society?
The answer seems pretty straightforward – society would suffer, allowing mass assaults wouldn’t benefit society and most people don’t want to get beaten willy-nilly. Most people don’t have to give this sort of dilemma a second thought. I’m sure Christians don’t go to their bible when confronted with such a dilemma, wondering whether beating someone is biblically sound. Even if it were biblically sound, I doubt Christians would be beating people at the drop of a hat. Stoning people for certain offenses is biblically sound, but Christians don’t do it because it’s not morally sound and they’ve pretty much all agreed on that.
You can come up with other scenarios that would test a theist or an atheist’s morals, because the answer isn’t obvious.
For example, would you kill baby Hitler, knowing that you could be saving millions of lives in the future?
Some people would say yes they would, and others would say they wouldn’t because murder is wrong, no matter who does it. Both could probably justify their answer using the bible if they chose, but it really has nothing to do with a moral law, but the perception, feelings and socialization of the individual answering the question.
You could pose this question to a society, debate it and eventually come to a conclusion that is accepted by the majority. You could make it law (if it were accepted) that any baby who has the same genetic makeup of Hitler would immediately be put to death. Five hundred years down the road, this law might be taken for granted because it has become a societal norm. The rest of society believes it’s a moral thing to do.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t change, but it would be a hell of a lot harder to change it once it’s been accepted by society. Much like same-sex marriage has had to fight an uphill battle for so many years. If it were a moral law, like theists like to claim, it wouldn’t change. It would be a fact of life that killing a Hitler baby is the right or wrong thing to do.
The problem is that religions often block debate about moral issues. They block progress and shut down conversation, simply because they believe God said so, and the rest of society has been taught to respect religious thinking.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could hold conversations about moral dilemmas in the 21st century that didn’t require it first being filtered through ancient literature? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use facts and data to inform our choices, instead of relying on the moral codes and ethics of an ancient civilization, who thought stoning, slavery and the subjugation of females was an ethical thing to do? Wouldn’t it be great to hold debates about modern ethics and morals, without referring exclusively to texts written by people who thought mental illnesses were in fact demons?
Morality is not a law that God handed down to us. You simply need to look at the historical atrocities religions have either been directly or indirectly been responsible for to see that.
Religious morality is as flawed, ignorant and brutal as the humans who crafted them.
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6 Comments

  1. I like this post and the question it addresses, though I have a different take on religious or biblical morality.

    I think that believer's incessant need to resort to biblical morality provided by god is actually a rejection by those believers that humans can have a sense of morality. They seem to base their moral choices on the eternal rewards/punishments game, and not on the value of the act alone.

    Additionally, believers often show that lack of belief in human morality when they claim that atheists cannot be moral without god. What is an atheist except a person who rejects the existence of a god. Obviously, a person who rejects the existence of a god but still appears to behave morally must be deriving those moral decisions elsewhere.

    Rather than religion being a source for morality, I think religions are a rejection of the belief that human are moral beings.

  2. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

    I think our sense of morality comes from evolution. We can see this in other mammals. Many of them show us moral reactions to certain things. For example, elephants tend to bury their dead. Wolves protect their pack. Dogs yawn (shows empathy) when their owner yawns. Chimps share their food.

    I also think we're raised in a moral environment. The first lesson we learn as infants is that we must depend on others to survive. I think that's a powerful lesson that we never forget. It's ingrained in us, so to speak.

  3. I agree with that as well. I definitely think there are better explanations for the origins of our morality than religion. Actually, I think religion corrupts morality in more ways than it improves morality.

    I recently saw a blog somewhere that showed the somewhat famous video of one dog dragging another dog that had been hit by a car from the center of a highway during heavy traffic. The blog was a Jesus-loves us type thing. The post celebrated the mysterious ways that god works by, I assume, directing the one dog to save the other. My original thought, why did god let the one dog get hit in the first place. Some explanations are just so silly that it's hard to believe people take them seriously.

  4. Christians no longer burn witches at the stake.

    Which is a shame, really, as I could have happily pointed out the female traffic official who gave me a 250 rand fine for crossing a yellow feed-off zone at 6.30 on an almost traffic-less Sunday morning after overshooting my turnoff on the highway by twenty metres while taking my lad to cricket.
    Yet on the opposite side of the road a mini-bus taxi cam to a dead stop in a similar yellow box and offloaded four passengers – onto the highway!
    Yes, this is South Africa.
    Where are those damn witch hunters when you need ’em?

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