Atheist vs Theist Morality: Is there a Clear Winner?

When I identify myself as an atheist, one of the first objections/questions raised is something to the effect “Well, where do you get your morals from then?”  Which is a very good question and deserves some thought.

First, let me say that I reject the argument that if people have a sense of right and wrong (or good and bad, your choice) that this is some kind of proof of god.  The human moral sense can be explained in purely secular terms.

First we start with mirror neurons which gives a sense of empathy.  Empathic behaviors have been observed in elephants, dolphins, primates and other animals.  You add to empathy a social structure that you don’t want to violate because you cannot live very long outside of that social structure.  Finally, add in our ability to reason.  Thomas Flynn talks about the importance of being able to consider the hypothetical in moral reasoning (“What would you think of that if you were gay?”).   Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger describe here well the advance or moral reasoning.  So, I don’t think we need any supernatural explanation of our moral sense.

As a final piece of evidence I would also point out that we seem prone to built in fears (phobias), feelings of disgust for certain things (feces and blood) and tastes (preferring sweets and fats, for example) which seem to have an evolutionary explanation and no one claims god gave us these things.

So, overall where does an atheist like me get our morals from?  Are they just made up?  No, they come from the kinds of sources you would imagine: my parents, social institutions such as schools, Boy Scouts and yes, even the Catholic Church which was certainly a part of my early  life.  I have added to that my own reasoning and reading of many other sources.

And where does a theist get their moral values?  Since I was a theist at one time I think I safely say: from parents, social institutions, especially the church and outside reading, including the bible.  The only theists who claim to have heard directly from god and told what to do strike me as extraordinarily scary, and we will get to them someday.

So, we come by our morals in a pretty similar fashion and I will say that in everyday practice theistic morals and atheist morals end up being pretty similar.  “But can’t you just decide to do what ever you want to do?”  the theist asks.  And the answer is, of course, “Yes.”  Well, if you believe in freewill that is.

But, let’s be honest, theists also “just decide” what is right and then claim that the decision really came from god or their religion.  But the fact of the matter is that they are making the decisions and they are fully human decisions, in essence no different from an atheist’s decisions.

For example, if you were raised in a certain religious tradition, you chose those moral choices by staying in that religion.  Or you find new ones in a new religion.  Or maybe you follow some of the tenants of your religion and ignore others (like the many birth control using Catholics)  You are picking and choosing using human reasoning as surely as any atheist.

For example, theists like to cite the ten commandments as an example of the kind of moral certainty we atheists lack.  Fair enough, let’s look and see.

So, to stay a little less controversial, shall we look at a simple commandment:  “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.”  Not a bad idea, let’s not work ourselves to death, we need a day off.  Universities pick up this idea in the form of sabbaticals.  But how do we implement this?

Of course, Orthodox Jews spend they day sitting in the dark eating leftovers, because lighting fires (or ovens or lightbulbs) are considered to be work which they feel is forbidden.

For many years in our society, it was felt that we should encode this commandment in civil law and mandate that stores be closed.  And then it was decided that only “immoral” stores such as liquor stores should be closed.

Today, most Christians seem to feel that an hour of church, followed by some time at a breakfast buffet, followed by 6 hours of football is the proper way to “keep the sabbath holy.”  How did they decide which is morally correct and pleasing to god?  Unless they have a direct line to the almighty, they do it the old fashioned way, they decide something and then convince themselves they are right, from their own logic.

I could go through many more examples, but I am not at all convinced by the theist argument that there are some kind of moral absolutes that are handed down by god.  If there was such a thing all theists would have the same behaviors and philosophies.  We all make our own moral decisions using what we think we know of the world and our background knowledge.  I don’t see too much difference in decisions between those that include supernatural factors and those who do not.

In the same way I am not at all convinced of the “eternal justice” argument that theists sometimes use.   The idea that the threat of hell (or the love of god) keeps my behavior “within bounds.”

In the current presidential campaign, Christian Ted Cruz famously said that he would make the sand in Syria glow if he had the opportunity.  Christian Donald Trump said that not only would he kill terrorists, that he would also kill their wives and families.  Now, I have no idea if either of them would carry out those ideas if given the opportunity.  Both of them, I assume, feel that they have justified their actions and “thou shalt not kill” does not apply in this particular case.  They decided on their own, using their background knowledge that it seems the greater moral good involves killing innocent people.  Christian Obama has used similar logic to justify drone strikes.  If any of them considered the possibility of hell in their decision making they apparently already feel god is on their side and it is not a problem.

So in and of itself, religion does not give us moral absolutes, does not remove human decision logic from making moral choices and even the eternal carrot and stick doesn’t seem to have much influence.

I just don’t see that in and of itself either believing in god or not helps anyone to make better moral decisions.


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