It’s an unfortunately common thought that in order for one to be a moral, ethical person, one must also be a religious person. More precisely, it’s believed that one becomes moral only from being religious. Thus, a man without religion is an immoral man. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that this is a widely held sentiment in America; the attitude is surely not hard to miss in the Republican debates, and even a recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia confirms that, among “religious” groups, atheists are the “least trusted” in society: the allegation of atheist immorality is not a direct one, but most often the cause of mistrust in someone is the belief that they are not a good person.
Does this idea have any plausibility? I don’t think so — it’s obvious that religious life and moral life are separate because we could always ask of any religious precept or practice or ritual, “Is this right to believe? Is this right to do?” Religious values, in other words, must always answer to moral values, not the other way around. As the author Christopher Hitchens put it, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” This is why, when we think about God’s commanding Abraham to knife his own son to death, we cringe: God does a wretched thing in ordering Isaac’s sacrifice at the hands of his own father, and Abraham would be wretched to obey. We all sense that the right thing to do would be to say unto God, “No, fuck you.” Why? — Because religion must answer to morality, to ethics, to “human decency.”
What does it mean to be a good human being? What does it mean to have lived a good human life? For as long as we have lived we have thought (and killed) over answers to these questions. Jesus’s answer — compared to the hundreds of thinkers before him and to the hundreds after — is hardly notable.
Fundamentally, morality is about all of us together creating the best human civilization possible. But religion insists that our morals be justified to us forever with sham mysticism, blind supernaturalism and faulty dogmatism. This is nonsensical, backwards and dangerous. Two things must happen: religion must admit its ethical irrelevance, and we must demand that morality be rationally understood. And one more thing: always think for yourself. It’s immoral not to.
Brian Gallagher is a fourth-year philosophy major.
It is crucial to recognize that every atheist would respond differently to, “From where do you derive your moral code?” because there is no real connection between one’s rejection of the claims of religions and one’s morality. An atheist could easily believe that our morality comes from the Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran, as some atheist cultural relativists do. The only connection between atheism and morality is a minor exclusion; atheism does logically disallow certain beliefs as to the origins of morality, specifically those that base their understanding of right and wrong on the opinions of deities themselves. Plato asked, in Euthyphro, whether an action was good because the gods commanded it, or whether the gods commanded it because it was good. And on that point, for an atheist there can be only one answer: it would be logically incoherent to believe both that actions are good because gods command them and that those gods do not exist to give the command.
I’ve thought a lot about how to be a good person, and it was my atheism that began that process. At a certain point in my life, I fell into the common trap of thinking that atheism logically lead (morally) nowhere. But while an atheist could decide that free will does not exist and thus acceptance of the inevitable is appropriate (fatalism) or that judgments of value are groundless and absolute knowledge cannot be held (nihilism), there is nothing about rejecting the claims of theists that must lead to a lack of a moral code.
Personally, my belief is that morality is a result of our evolutionary origins (nature) combined with the norms of the world we inhabit (nurture). I try to derive my morality from my reasoning and my sense of justice, by which I am able to assess a situation and decide whether an important right is being infringed on by the actions of someone capable of understanding the situation and making a choice. Those rights claims are connected to the necessary rules by which one must abide to achieve the goals of society, which ought to be based on what humans want and need (not very far from “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).
Pretty radical, I know.
Connor Oakes is a fourth-year political science major.