“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist?…Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”–Thomas Jefferson
One of my peeves is believers who argue their beliefs by asking nonsense questions that really don’t make sense, and for which there is no answer to convince them from their firmly entrenched beliefs. It’s like some kind of game they like to play I think. I don’t like this game. Ask me a real question but not these play questions. They irritate me, because then I feel sucked into the game by answering, or rude for not, and I know when I do answer they will simply write me off in their heads even though I know my answer is better than anything they think is true in their heads…For instance the questioning of my morality, “If you don’t believe in God, then where do you think morality comes from?” My first thought when hearing this questions is “This has got to be one of the stupidest questions.” At least for me, it really is dumb. Of course I don’t tell the person they are being a dumb ass, but I sure am thinking this is gonna be another one of those dumb interactions where they listen politely to my answer and then politely write me off. And yes, I have already written them off, that is why I don’t ask them why morality has to come from God. That would be a dumb ass thing to do, lol! The answer: Of course there is no cosmic code we live by, morality is in the mind, the same place as our reason. There is no police officer in the sky…
Anyway, I picked up Godless again today and opened it by chance to chapter twelve, “For Goodness Sake”. Once again Barker is inside my mind. I wish I was as articulate in expressing my thoughts as him, but then why not let his writing help me express myself? Some do it a hell of a lot better than others, so here’s a selection from the chapter that gets me down to a T. So theists, next time you ask me the dumb ass question about my morality, read this and then let’s move on to more jovial interactions like hanging out, knowing we have serious differences of thoughts.
“How does an atheist account for the existence of objective moral values?” is a question I often hear. “If you don’t believe in God, then what is your basis for morality?” To me the question is obvious: we atheists find our basis for morality in nature. Where else would we look?
Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean they are “objective.” They can’t be. A value is not a “thing”—it is a function of the mind (which is itself a function). To be objective is to exist independently of a mind. So, an “objective value” is an oxymoron; the existence in the mind of something that is independent of the mind.
Most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences can be objectively measured.
Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that morality exists in the universe—that it is a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word “morality” is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds. If no minds existed no morality would exist.
There is no big mystery to morality. Morality is simply acting with the intention to minimize harm. Since harm is natural its avoidance is a material exercise. Organisms suffer as they bump into their environment and each other, and as rational animals with some ability to anticipate the future, we humans have some choice about how this happens. If we try to minimize harm and enhance the quality of life, we are moral. If we don’t, we are immoral or amoral, depending on our intentions. Even if we make a mistake, we can still be called moral or ethical if it is truly our intention to minimize harm. And the way to avoid making a mistake is to try to be as informed as possible about the likely consequences of the actions being considered. To be moral atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no cosmic code book directing our actions.
Of course, relative to humanity, certain general actions can be deemed almost uniformly right or wrong. Without the Ten Commandments would it never have dawned on the human race that there is a problem with killing? Prohibitions against homicide and theft existed millennia before the Israelite story of Moses coming down from Sinai.
The way to be moral is to first learn what causes harm and how to avoid it. This means investigating nature—especially human nature, who we are, what we need, where we live, how we function, and why we behave the way we do.
Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to which we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering. By nature, those of us who are mentally healthy recoil from pain and wish to see it ended.
Of course, we often act in positive ways to stop the pain of others. This is compassion. Although I don’t think there is a “moral imperative” nor a “compassion imperative:–you can be considered moral if you are passively not causing unnecessary harm—I do think most human beings who are mentally healthy will empathize with the sufferings of others and will naturally want to reach out. Atheists can perhaps express compassion more easily than believers because we are not confused by:
- Fatalism: “Whatever happens is God’s will.”
- Pessimism: “We deserve to suffer.”
- Salvation: “Death is not the end.”
- Retribution: “Justice will prevail in the afterlife.”
- Magic: “Pray for help.”
- Holy war: “Kill for God.”
- Forgiveness: “I won’t be held responsible for my mistakes.”
- Glory: “Suffering with Christ is an honor.”
Since this is the only life we atheists have, each decision is crucial and we are accountable for our actions right now.
Yet notice how leading theists deal with the real world: “Ye have the poor with you always,” said the “loving” Jesus, who never lifted a finger to eradicate poverty, wasting precious ointment on his own luxury rather than selling it to feed the hungry (Matthew 26:6-11). “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ,” Mother Teresa added. “I think the world is much helped by the suffering of poor people.” So much for theistic compassion!
Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an “instinct” because many appear not to have it—it seems optional. Or perhaps he was right and the “compassion gene” (to oversimplify) varies across the population like any other human feature (height, intelligence, musical ability, etc.), and some of us have more of the instinct than others have. But it is fortunate that there are enough of us who love life to protect ourselves from those who don’t. We have systems of law, enforcement, justice and defense. We encourage kind, ethical actions through moral education and critical thinking. And though there is no cosmic moral imperative, all of us who value life and consider ourselves moral—atheists and believers alike—can choose to actively exhort others to join us in expressing our innate feelings of altruism and compassion.
Compassion is, after all, a characteristic of being human. When someone commits a horrible act, what do we say? “That was an inhuman thing to do!” We assume that the natural “human” attitude is nonviolent and peaceful. We are not corrupt, evil creatures. A few of us are off to the side of “saintliness” (to borrow a word), and a few of us are off to the other side, the side of mental disease, with sociopaths and criminals. On the bell curve of morality and compassion, however, most of us fall somewhere in the large middle area.
Many believers, including Christians who are ordered to “bring into captivity every thought unto the obedience of Christ,” have an underlying distrust of human reasoning. Yearning for absolutes, they perceive relativism—the recognition that actions must be judged in context—as something dangerous when it is the only way we can be truly moral.
Theists are afraid people will think for themselves; atheists are afraid they won’t.
It is interesting the irrationality of compassionate, kind people who yearn for world peace, who understand the value in humanity, yet internally still believe God is necessary for morality to prevail in the world…