Atheism and Morality
So I was asked by a Muslim where I get my morals from:
Atheism does not discuss morality. It is simply the rejection of God. So where do you get your morals from?
Where do our morals come from?
We can see traces of morality in animals. Rats will refuse food if they know it will cause a shock to fellow rats. Male chimps have been observed giving their food to an older female even when there is no personal benefit to them. In “The Selfish Gene” Richard Dawkins explains how altruism can arise naturally. Helping others ends up helping you. I cannot do justice to this topic here so I would recommend reading “The Selfish Gene” for a more thorough explanation of how this comes about in nature. Evolution also explains why we find incest disgusting. Because incest is harmful to reproduction, it weeded out ancestors who did it. There are certain biases that come with our evolutionary history though. For example, we are more likely to feel sympathy and help individuals over larger groups. Studies have shown that we are more likely to give money to a charity that shows us an individual rather than a large group suffering.
We need not limit ourselves to our evolutionary morals though. We can and should do better.
Where should our morals come from?
They come from understanding the effects of your actions on others. At the bottom all that matters is consciousness. In a world of rocks and trees, there would be no morality. Human thriving is the basis of a solid morality. If your actions lead to the further thriving of humans, then this would be moral. If your actions lead to harmful consequences, then this would be immoral. It’s not always clear what the consequences of our actions are, but we can do our best and refine our ethics as time goes by.
Are secular morals objective?
Secular morals are based subjectively on the thriving and well being of conscious creatures. Once we have this subjective basis, we can make objective decisions based on this. So, my morals are objective based on a subjective base of human thriving. If you do not agree to this definition, then we cannot discuss any further. If morality to you is whatever God says, then God can make terrible things moral. Does this make sense? For example, if God ruled that suicide bombing was something we had to do, would you do it because God said so? This conclusion allows good people to do terrible things.
If I save your son when he’s drowning, and you share your excess food with me rather than letting it spoil, we all benefit. Building society this way leads to positive sum gains. A zero-sum gain is when the sum of the total is equal to the parts. With a society based on human thriving, we would all benefit more than if we selfishly hoarded and let each other’s children starve. The world will be a better place if we all live this way.
Is something good because God said it, or because it’s good by definition? Can rape be okay if God says it’s okay? No, of course not. Rape, killing, theft etc. are wrong because they are wrong, not because God said so. God cannot make these things okay no matter what. This is called the Euthyphro dilemma. It highlights the flawed idea of using God as a definition of what is good.
Are these values “stolen” from religions?
If we look at religions, we find they have a mixture of good and bad values. Love your neighbour, don’t steal, don’t kill others, and so on. But it also contains harmful teachings.
The Quran says having sex with your slave is okay:
And [also prohibited to you are all] married women except those your right hands possess. [This is] the decree of Allah upon you. (Quran 4:24)
Beating your wife is okay under certain conditions:
Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance — [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (Quran 4:34)
Your daughter gets half the inheritance of your son:
Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females. (Quran 4:11)
This may have made sense in a different world but no longer.
Men can divorce with a single word uttered over several months, but women have to request a judge to nullify their marriage. (Quran 2:230 and others)
There are more peculiar and weird rules that religion brings such as:
“And if he has divorced her [for the third time], then she is not lawful to him afterward until [after] she marries a husband other than him.” (Quran 2:230)
In Sunni Islam there are even more strange rules such as men cannot wear gold, men can marry their adopted sons ex-wives, can marry their cousins, but cannot marry their foster-siblings (someone who breastfed from the same mother). What reason could there be for these arbitrary rulings? What’s wrong with men wearing gold? Practising Muslims also suffer not being able to buy a home because of rules against interest. In a bank mortgage, the bank can offer a low interest rate to the home buyer, and the home buyer can buy an asset that appreciates over time. Again, what harm is there in a person buying a house for his family and leaving it for his children, rather than renting from another mortgage holder? See “Why banning interest is bad for Muslims” for more on this topic. There may have been a good reason to forbid these things, or maybe there was no good reason. It’s debatable. But what we know for sure now is that they are out of place and harmful.
In the Bible we find horrible things that God commanded:
“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. (Bible, Numbers 31:15–18)
God allowed the Midianites to slaughter the Amalekites and keep their virgin women alive for the men. Does that sound like something God would allow? Why would it be allowed back then but not now? Did God change his mind?
In the Islamic context, Muhammad allowed his companions to do muta (Temporary marriage), where you pay money to have sex with a woman for a time–similar to prostitution. Allah supposedly sanctioned this. Why would he allow it and then forbid it? Does this make any sense? Or was Muhammad using Allah as his excuse to allow his men to use women? By tying morality back to what Muhammad did, ISIS uses the Quran to justify slavery, and even modern scholars like Mutfi Taqi Usmani agree that you cannot make slavery forbidden since Allah allowed it. All you can do is put Islamic conditions on it such as “slaves must be captured in wars.” Christians used to justify slavery using the Bible for many years and used to say “How can we condemn something that God himself allowed?”
Religion isn’t needed for morality
Take the best values you find and build a system without the harmful ideas that religion packs along for the ride.
Humanity has progressed morally throughout the ages. We have progressed as humans to no longer accept violence against women. For the equality and rights for all no matter what their race religion or sex. The universal declaration of human rights authored after World War 2 is an example of this.
The United Nations Charter “reaffirmed faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person,” and committed all member states to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
The lyrics for the popular Beatles song “Run For Your Life” illustrate how violence against women was acceptable:
Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or I won’t know where I am
Movies like Matilda also illustrate this where it was acceptable for teachers and even parents to beat children. We have learned. We have moved on.
Marital rape was acceptable in every culture until quite recently. A wife was a husband’s property to do with as he pleased. Rape was considered a crime of ownership. If you raped a woman, you have harmed a man’s property and that’s why you were punished.
“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:28–29)
That a husband could rape his wife was an oxymoron. That was not a crime. To be a husband was to have full control over your wife’s sexuality. To say a husband raped his wife was as illogical as saying a man stole his own wallet. Even in Orthodox Sunni Islam, a woman may not deny her husband sex. It is a sin. In many countries until the 50s marital rape wasn’t a crime. In Germany rape laws were mended in 1997 to create a legal category of marital rape.
Religious morals are stuck in time
Religious morals can never adapt or change or learn from research and evidence. Decades of research have shown us that beating children does not lead to positive results. It does not effectively change behaviour.
And this is why religious morality is inferior. It’s written in stone and cannot change, even when evidence shows us otherwise. My video “Punishment for adultery in Islam” gives another example of this. Killing people for adultery is a terrible idea. Many couples end up with far better marriages after resolving the root issues for the infidelity. Instead of killing the cheater, the problem needs to be addressed. Either they can make up, or they can break up, but there’s no reason for murder.
In conclusion, Secular humanism is the best system for humans to live by. We can adapt and improve and refine our ethics as time passes. Secular humanism is flexible and leads to human thriving and happiness.
Liked this article? Disagree? Leave a clap or a comment. Thank you!
Also see my video “Responding To The Moral Argument by Dr. William Lane Craig.”
Follow up material:
- Watch “A Selfish Argument for Making the World a Better Place — Egoistic Altruism”
- Read more at A Case For Secular Morality — Objective Morality Without God
- Also see How Morality Has the Objectivity that Matters — Without God
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