If You’re an Atheist, Where Do You Get Your Morals From?

ethicsI often get asked where I get my morals from, just because I don’t believe in a certain god or gods. I always find the question strange, since I tend to think we all (for the most part) ‘get’ our morals from the same place, using much the same method.

Culture For The Win?

In some respects, I think we get some of our morals and biases from our respective cultures. It’s why different cultures vary in what they find ‘moral’ behavior.

For example, I find cutting off a thief’s hand or executing people as part of our criminal justice system unethical, yet I can cross the border into the U.S and find the death penalty or I can hop on a plane and visit a country that thinks chopping off a thief’s hand is perfectly acceptable behavior. In some cultures, human sacrifices were given to the gods, and it was considered a great honor to give your life in such a way.

Ironically, in a way, religion is a culture being passed on through a book. I think if you’re trying to get your morals from an ancient religion and the culture that spawned it, you’re still deriving your ethics from an ancient civilization.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is whether this is the best method?

Personally, I don’t think so.


Most of us have empathy and can mentally put ourselves in another person’s shoes. This is basically where the ‘golden rule’ (which predates Christianity and other mainstream religions) comes from.

For example, I can imagine what it would be like to have a possession stolen. I then realize I wouldn’t like that feeling and so decide not to inflict that feeling on another human being by stealing their things.

Of course, the golden rule isn’t perfect. There are things I might consider to be okay, that someone else wouldn’t like. If I’m into pain for pleasure, for example, not everyone is going to share my enthusiasm.

Moral reasoning

Coupled with the above two is moral reasoning.

Basically, it boils down to this:

Moral reasoning can be defined as being the process in which an individual tries to determine the difference between what is right and what is wrong in a personal situation by using logic. This is an important and often daily process that people use in an attempt to do the right thing. Every day for instance, people are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to lie in a given situation. People make this decision by reasoning the morality of the action and weighing that against its consequences.

It’s not a perfect process and it evolves along with our culture, but I think it’s far superior to an ethical system that doesn’t (or isn’t supposed to) change, such as religion.

We (most of us) can weigh the consequences vs. benefits of our actions and figure out if it’s worth it. We can use our reasoning and logic instead of rigid dogmatic beliefs.

In fact, most religious people use these methods. Even religion is forced to evolve or die according to our cultures and the moral reasoning of the time. As more information becomes available, we are forced as a society to reevaluate our actions.

If something isn’t eternal, what point is there?

I don’t understand why something must be permanent in order to have meaning.

If I do a good deed, it matters now. Our happiness matters now. It doesn’t have to matter 3 billion years from now to have meaning now.

Whether there is a heaven or a hell, it isn’t required for us to give meaning to our lives and it certainly isn’t needed for constructing an ethical framework of behavior. Even many religious people will acknowledge that atheists are perfectly capable of acting ethically, yet they don’t believe in god(s).

But…without god telling us rape and murder are bad, what makes it so?

We do. Human beings can figure it out using our own reasoning and empathy.

What’s more scary is the thought that for some, ancient literature is the only thing keeping them from thinking murder and rape are great ideas.

If you can’t think of any other reason that rape and murder is wrong, you might want to seek help.

So if you’re an atheist, where do you derive your morals or ethics from? And if you’re religious, what do you think about morals and ethics in general?

As always, thanks for reading!



  1. My morals have been instilled by my parents and also what is inside me, that tells me right from wrong. I’m empathetic, sympathetic and as an adult realise what should and shouldn’t be done. I rely on no higher being for me to have these traits or values. Interesting read GC.

  2. As an Atheist, I’ve just had to embrace a largely immoral existance. For instance, after burning my neighbours residence down to destroy evidence after raping and murdering his wife yesterday, I was forced to consider which black market I should use to sell off a BMW I stole the day before, since I didn’t actually need it for a hasty getaway.
    I must admit, it has proven difficult avoiding paying taxes over the years, but thankfully life as a drug baron allows me an untraceable cash flow that assists me in flying under the radar of the tax department. Large amounts of cash and illegal goods have provided an enticing tool for bribing officials, hiring hookers and generally suppressing others. My recent dabbling in military hardware trading has given me new vigour to engage mercenaries and wage war as I follow my dreams to be a feared tyrant and eventually rule the world.

  3. I think it’s ridiculous that so many people think that to have morals, you must be religious. I know many religious people who have practically no morals, and I know atheists who have a high moral code. It’s the way you’re wired–most people have a conscience, and we treat others the way we want to be treated. Only psychopaths have no conscience, and many of them are very religious–or use religion to fool people into thinking they’re “good” when they’re really not.

  4. And then there is the whole topic of “objective” morality versus “subjective” or “relative” morality. I can’t begin to tell you how many such discussions I’ve had trying to explain that morals are not God-given.

  5. Reblogged this on Fluff and Bunkum and commented:
    Most people who know me personally don’t know I’m an atheist (unless they find and read my blog). As a result, I don’t usually get asked this question. I do find, however, that whenever I practice altruism, people automatically assume I must be Christian, and I admit that I find it irksome. This post by Godless Cranium is a nice summation of how it is possible to be “good without God”.

  6. I got all my morals from the Bible.
    After reading it cover to cover I decided …FTS, and proceed to live a life that was , in the main,the total opposite of what the bible stated is crucial to enter heaven. Thus I have not eaten an Osprey in …. well, forever .

  7. Theists tend to forget that their bible instructs them to do some pretty immoral things. Obviously the culture and geographical location has a lot to do with that, which is why we don’t get our morals from religion. Morality is put into religion by people. We haven’t always known exactly right from wrong, there are shades of gray. We are still determining every day of something is moral or not. If the only thing holding a theist back from murdering people is their imaginary friends, then we’re all doomed when they find out they don’t exist!

  8. Morals and Godliness are two different mindsets. While redeemed people are moral (most times), one can be a devout atheist, and behave better than many screwed-up saints. But morals by themselves can change on a dime – all it takes is a loss on ones stock portfolio / a significant setback in ones health. When bad stuff happens, both the regenerate and unregenerate can and have become less nice. But circumstances are tougher on the regenerate person – because he or she knows there’s no excuse for complaining. The unregenerate person, however, is at liberty to blame Obama (or whomever / whatever else) for the difficulty. The regenerate person must jettison pride (that’s mega hard). The unregenerate can, and is encouraged to hold onto his or her pride – and dern the torpedoes!

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