Morality & Politics

Atheist Morality: Can You Be Moral Without God?

"A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death."- Albert Einstein, in an article which appeared in New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930.

"Morality as we know it cannot be maintained without Judeo-Christian religion."- Daniel P. Moloney, Associate Editor of First Things, the Journal of Religion and Public Life, quoted from "Scary Quotations" at According to this definition of morality, Gandhi was evil and his Christian oppressors were good. Moreover, according to Christian salvation doctrine, Hitler must have gone to Heaven after his death because he sincerely believed in Jesus, while his millions of non-Christian victims went to Hell!

Fundamentalists are fond of saying that humanist morality isn't "universal". They argue that we humans cannot distinguish right from wrong without divine guidance, so humanist ethics are essentially a rudderless ship, with each person defining his own version of morality to suit his convenience. The problems with this argument (apart from its bigoted attitude) are easy to see, because they fail to ask the obvious question: to paraphrase Socrates, is something righteous because the gods deem it so, or do the gods deem it so because it is righteous? Fundamentalists argue the former, while humanists (not to mention most polytheistic religions) argue the latter: that morality transcends even the gods. If you are fundamentalist and you lean toward the former, then answer this: since your religion is not universal, then how can a system of morality which requires your religion be universal?

"There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the Constitution. It is a lie of the Left and we are not going to take it anymore."- Pat Robertson, in an address to his American Center for Law and Justice, November, 1993. Notice how he doesn't seem to realize that freedom of religion is in the constitution even if the exact phrase "separation of church and state" is not, and that the word "God" doesn't appear either.

A dissenting opinion from one who might have somewhat more insight than Pat Robertson into the spirit behind the US Constitution: "State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society."- Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists, 1808.

The world has many religions. If there is no morality without God, then should we believe that morality doesn't exist in any part of the world until it converts to Judaism or one of its offshoots? The ancient Chinese religious triumvirate of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism wasn't based on Christianity. The Greeks had democracy, civilization, philosophy, and science long before Jesus was born. The Egyptians built a thriving civilization more than four thousand years ago. The Romans built an Empire without any help from Jesus or his God. Tribes and civilizations flourished throughout Africa, Australia, South America, North America, and islands all over the Pacific Ocean. All these places had different religions, different customs, different languages ... but they still shared certain moral concepts. Murder was considered immoral. Theft was considered immoral in all societies too large to function as tribal collectives. It was considered noble to help another, and contemptible to hurt others for the sake of personal gain. Honesty was praised. Deception and betrayal were vilified. Governments and gods didn't always obey these laws, but philosophers in all these places somehow found a way to come to similar conclusions. The question that fundamentalists ignore is: if morality flows from God and God alone, then how did this happen? Given the enormous differences in religious beliefs between all these cultures, how did people independently arrive at similar conclusions all over the world, with regard to murder, betrayal, theft, and altruism? Could there (gasp!) be a moral standard out there which doesn't require God?

"Our culture is superior. Our culture is superior because our religion is Christianity and that is the truth that makes men free."- Pat Buchanan, speaking before the Christian Coalition in 1993 (if Christianity makes a culture superior, then he is essentially arguing that the Europeans were right when they declared their culture to be superior to that of the Africans and American natives that they mercilessly butchered when they invaded those continents)

When Pat Buchanan describes "our culture", we must presume he's talking about the radical fundamentalists trying to tear the United States away from its founders' sentiments, which were more like this: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."- Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

Thousands of years ago, the Chinese philosopher Confucius laid down his laws of morality. Love others. Honour your parents. Don't do to others what you would not want done to you. Rulers should be benevolent, leading by example instead of force. Temper your self-interest with concern for your neighbour. Does any of this sound familiar? Confucius himself was not a particularly religious man (he believed in an impersonal "Heaven" but showed little regard for the gods themselves), and he certainly didn't worship the Christian god (never mind Jesus himself, who wouldn't be born for another five hundred years), yet he somehow came up with many of the same moral concepts that fundamentalists regard as the exclusive property of their religion. He also got a few things right which Jesus missed, such as his assertion that moral authority is a two-way street; the people must obey their leaders, but their leaders must behave in such a manner as to be worthy of obedience, or they lose their moral mandate and their claim to power. Even the gods were not immune to such judgements, and could actually be demoted if they were felt to be morally inadequate. Contrast this with the Judeo-Christian ethos, in which moral authority flows down, not up, ie- God can judge us, but we can't judge God.

"The existence of the devil isn't an opinion, something to take or leave as you wish ... [Satan] deceives men, making them believe that you find happiness in money, in power, in carnal desire. He fools men by persuading them that they do not need God and that they are self-sufficient."- Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, quoted in AANEWS for September 20, 2000 (in other words, he thinks that anyone who isn't Christian must be under the influence of Satan)

Is there a such thing as universal morality, that sufficiently philosophical humans will independently arrive at without any need for belief in the Christian God? The evidence seems to suggest that despite some minor variation and the shrill, bigoted objections of fundamentalists, there most certainly is. There are certain truths which really do appear to be "self-evident", and which philosophers have discussed for thousands of years in various places all over the world, reaching similar conclusions with or without Christianity. So is "universal morality" dependent upon faith in the Christian god? Are we morally rudderless without Christianity? Certainly not!

Continue to 4. The Humanist Moral Code

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