As noted elsewhere,1 I’ve been an atheist most of my life. I’m not the foot-stamping, church-hating, more-rational-than-thou kind of atheist. Those people lack the basic obligation to show politeness in their dealings with fellow human beings of the religious persuasion. But, somewhat sadly, I find myself unable to consign my inner being to—or obtain personal consolation from—an all-knowing, all-powerful supreme being.
This causes consternation in some of the believers I know. For them, the root of all morality is obedience to God’s commands or, conversely, fear of divine and eternal judgment. They associate people who live without boundaries—engaging in sexual excess, drug and alcohol abuse, intentional cruelty, and criminal forms of negligence—with being in a godless state. The believe such bereft people are either ignorant of the will of their creator or heedless of the judgment that will be passed on them after death. The essence of their contention is that, once a human sheds belief in a god, then there are no rules or inhibitions and no reason for following any codes that might linger from a religious childhood.
According to this contention, an active and intelligent mind cannot find the way to a moral life on the basis of observation and reason alone.
First, let’s parse the definition of morality. Certainly, in any religious code there is a certain amount of rendering unto God the things that are God’s. These are the injunctions about falling into blasphemy and idolatry, keeping the sabbath, paying the tithe, praying in certain ways and in certain circumstances. Maintenance of religious views and practices as part of morality falls on an atheist’s deaf ears. The subject “does not compute,” as they say. However, a proper gentleman does not mock the gods of others and learns to remove his shoes, uncover and bow his head, maintain a dignified silence during services, and otherwise comply with local practice as a matter of courtesy to the believers.
But these religious matters are separate from the elements of morality that touch on interpersonal relations: dealing fairly with other humans, avoiding conflicts and violence, restraining appetites for sex and stimulation, living a clean and sober life. How we treat each other and ourselves is a matter of importance to everyone. Can a human being find a moral code, personal honor, boundaries and rules as to what one must do or not do—without being watched and judged by a divine intelligence?
I believe so. I believe our primate ancestry puts us in the class of social animals. Our physical development and our mental and emotional construction require us to deal with other humans—first with other family members, then with our age-related peer group, next with members of our local community, and ultimately with all humanity and the collective life on this planet. We are not isolated beings, like sharks cruising for their next meal. We live in and adapt to groups, like whales forming a pod.
But even in the family, the peer group, the community, and the world, we are still individuals. This is the human condition: conflict inevitably arises between one individual’s beliefs, values, needs, and desires and those of another individual or the norms of the group. Resolving these conflicts is the basis for morality.
The individual forms a personal code, which is a set of choices among all the various rules forced upon him or her by the various groups to which the individual chooses to belong. A person who wants to live a long and happy life will rationally adopt the personal code “I always stop at red lights and stop signs.” Anyone who blithely chooses to ignore this rule of the group known as vehicle drivers soon sees more than his share of blood and crumpled metal. It does not require an all-knowing supreme being or fear of eternal judgment to see the necessity for obeying the red-light rule.
Of course, being an individual with personal needs and beliefs, a free-thinking human being might comply with the red-light rule on his or her own terms. That’s the point of making the code your own. A driver in a hurry who pulls up to a four-way stop with clear visibility in all directions and nothing coming might consider it perfectly safe to obey the red-light rule with a rolling pause rather than coming to a complete standstill. The difference between this personal observance and the law as it is written will then become the subject of discussion with the traffic cop who’s waiting around the corner.
Traffic rules and possibility of impending death, if not police supervision, make for easy moral choices. But what about more complicated interactions?
No human interaction becomes more complicated than sex. Some men will go through life with the personal code of obtaining all the sexual gratification they can, regardless of the feelings of others. This attitude arises from the biological imperative for a man to spread his genes. But biology is not destiny, as they say. And a man who grabs for anything he can get will fail to find the emotional fulfillment of drawing close to a particular person whose happiness counts for as much or more than his own.
If we were born blind and unaware, like oysters, then this lack of attachment would not matter. Grab, get, and enjoy with gusto. But a rational person of average sensibility will quickly see and understand that a life of me-first sexual predation is lonelier and less meaningful than giving and receiving happiness together. A rational mind can interpret and respond to this reality without a divine injunction to care for one another.
Similarly, a person of average sensibility will see that a society resolving interpersonal conflicts through contracts and courts offers a better life in the long term than one sunk in anarchy and plunder. And a tradition of offering help to others eventually produces the help that an individual will one day need. The young in their initial rebellion against rules and traditions may prefer the anarchy in which a strong, daring soul will temporarily thrive. But sooner or later a person’s strength and luck run out, illness catches up, and the kindness of strangers means the difference between life and death. Such a social order can emerge without the commandments of religion.
The personal code will also undertake continuous review and revision of the rules. When I was a boy, I was taught that a gentleman should be mindful of the needs and capabilities of women, children, the aged, and the infirm. As a matter of courtesy, if not actual obligation, I should open doors and wait to let these others pass, assist them with chairs, and surrender my seat on the bus. These were small daily courtesies. Behind them was the greater social obligation to use my larger, stronger male body to protect them, surrender my seat on the lifeboat, and ultimately sacrifice myself for their benefit.2 A generation of feminism has taught me that holding the door for a woman is not always appreciated as a courtesy, and many in our society no longer obey this norm. Society will not fall because ladies—women—are are forced to adjust their own chairs and remain standing on the bus. (However, I still believe at heart that my ultimate sacrifice may be necessary at any time.)
From this, many people will say that morality is just the way we are taught. That is true: we first learn the basic rules from our parents and then from our peer group. On this basis, believers will say that, since this country is still sustained by Judeo-Christian principles, then modern morality ultimately derives from belief in God. But I note that my parents, while raised as Protestants,3 did not base their teachings on religion. Mother never said, “Don’t do that because God wouldn’t like it.” She said, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”
I believe it is possible for a person, or a society, to arrive at a workable interpersonal morality on the basis of observation and reflection. Anyone who attains the age of six or seven and moves beyond the family circle to contacts with peers at school and on the playground soon learns that you can work with other people or against them. Sometimes you must do one—“going with the flow,” and “going along to get along”—and sometimes you must do the other—“standing up for yourself,” and “standing up for what is right.” Spend enough time in the swirling conflict of needs and values and beliefs that is childhood, and a keen intelligence and self-awareness will discover the basis of what works and what doesn’t.
This is not to say that human nature left on its own is all sweet enlightenment. There will always be war, plunder, and stupid cruelty on both the personal and societal level. The 20th century certainly taught us that. But for every incident of murder and genocide, you can also find countering incidents of average people kneeling to help a fallen stranger and foundations established to cure diseases from which the founders did not personally suffer. In this, people are responding to other people as much or more than to the commandments of a distant god.
1. See One True Religion from April 15, 2011.
2. As Robert A. Heinlein wrote in Time Enough for Love, “All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly, which can—and must—be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function. As racial survival is the only universal morality, no other basic is possible. Attempts to formulate a ‘perfect society’ on any foundation other than ‘Women and children first!’ is not only witless, it is automatically genocidal. Nevertheless, starry-eyed idealists (all of them male) have tried endlessly—and no doubt will keep on trying.”
3. I’m the child of a mixed marriage. Father was raised a Presbyterian, Mother a Methodist. So they were largely silent on the matter of religion.