Theists often assert that their moral system is superior generally on two fronts, which can be summed up into one sentence, “God tells us what to do and then holds us accountable to those standards.” This leads many theists to distrust atheists. I recall a recent article about poll results that many would not vote for an atheist for President essentially because: without the threat of hell, who knows what they would do?
There are many good arguments for why atheistic morality can be just as good as theistic morality, like some summarized here. But I will argue that theistic morality is actually inferior and it is actually theists who should not be trusted to make good moral choices.
We will deal with the first part of the theistic argument first, what about that list of moral behaviors that god calls us to?
The first problem with this is one that philosophers have wrestled with for millenia. Is an action moral simply because god commands it or because it is moral by some external yardsick. If it is the former, then morality is arbitrary, at the whim of god. If he says to sacrifice your first child or kill people who don’t believe, then those actions are by definition moral. If there is some external yardstick by which to determine morality, then there is little need for god, as we could figure out what is moral ourselves. There might be some middle ground where there is some kind of external yardstick which only god is smart enough to figure out, but that would require some kind of perfect communication from god to humans telling us what is right and wrong in every situation we face (which some might call our conscience, but I don’t believe that is the voice of god.) So, in theory, the idea that god tells us what is right and wrong is already off to a rocky start.
In practice, it gets even worse. Arbitrariness reigns supreme in theistic “morality.” Certainly, most theists agree on some large areas of morality: stealing is bad, murder is unacceptable. But why should women cover their hair, but not men? Shaving or not shaving is a moral choice? Saying certain words, even to yourself in the middle of the forest, is immoral because it displeases god?
And this arbitrariness is compounded by different religious groups having different rules. Which day is the sabbath? What counts as work that we should not be doing? Is is OK to drink alcohol ever? Who should decide which group has heard the authentic voice of god?
In theory and in practice, having some set of “standards” from god turns out to be very problematic, so let’s turn to accountability.
As mentioned at the top, theists fear what atheists will do if they are not afraid of being held accoutable in the afterlife. But we have seen that the belief in an afterlife changes people’s moral calculus in this life, in ways that have not been good for the world.
For example, if heretical beliefs can send people to eternal damnation, killing heretics here on earth actually makes moral sense. If a heretic like me is able to sway believers away from their faith, many people could be condemned to eternal torment, so ending my earthly life makes moral sense, in the same way that we are morally justified in killing someone intent on killing innocent others.
Theists are concerned that non-believers might go on a rampage and then commit suicide. But I am more concerned about people who feel that we don’t need to take action on social problems because the world is about the end anyway. Or even worse taking actions that they feel might actually bring about the end of the world. If Armegeddon brings god down to earth, let let the final battle begin!
Even beyond this distorted moral calculus, we have the problem of who is being held responsible for what actions?
We know here on Earth for to have accountability the person must have clear consequences as a result of clear standards. Theists do not provide this whatsoever.
For example, the Catholic Church™ has held (essentially) that they have no idea who is in hell. Here is what John Paul II had to say on this matter: “Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of which human beings are effectively involved in it.” Is Hitler in hell? We can’t be sure, because maybe he repented in the bunker. And if he is in hell, is it for murdering millions of people or not believing in Jesus? We have no clear guidance on this, with some theists leaning towards the latter!
The Catholic Church™ does keep a list of people it knows is in heaven, the saints. But again, this list provides little guidance. Junipero Serra is on the list, but Raoul Wallenberg is not. This might show a tendency to emphasize the hereafter to the here and now, or who knows why one and not the other. If it is the hereafter, then I have to fear that some theist will baptize me and smash my skull in, for my own good, of course.
All that being said, in practice most theists are decent people with a strong moral compass. The same is true for most non-believers I know as well.