I think every non-religious blogger has posted something like this at least once. My turn I guess.
It’s amazing how much a seemingly simple question will result in considerable thinking and reflection. Finally I have a place to put these thoughts and elicit a few comments.
Dear readers, I have been asked this several times and every time found it to be so silly as be unworthy of consideration. The question is, “How can an atheist be good?” Variations include, “How can humans, if we are animals, be moral?”, “If evolution is true, then murder and violence should be common place in our society and unpunishable, after all they are just acting in their nature.”, and related variations.
The question really is, “Without God, how can there be good in the world?”
The question has a very simple answer, “God doesn’t define goodness. Humans do.” We are good because we are social creatures and the pack/tribe/society is more important than the individual.
Consider traffic regulation. The majority of people stops at all the stop signs, red lights and obeys speed limits (mostly) and don’t drive too dangerously. Is it fear of police and a traffic fine that keeps them in check? Of course not. This is easy to show. If it was fear of police, then after one ticket you should be driving perfect all the time… yet most people have multiple tickets.
Is it fear of eternal punishment by God for disobeying the rules of man? I seriously doubt it. If God somehow actually care about our planet, then cars would be gone. More deaths are attributed to cars in the US than handguns.
No, what I think it is that most people understand that they are piloting a multi-ton vehicle at relatively high speeds in an environment with many other similar people. In other words, they are being rational. They drive on the correct side of the road because they know what will probably happen if they are on the wrong side of the road (including death). They obey street signs because disobeying them could result in injury of themselves and others.
Now, you may see this as fear of consequences. That may be the case, but to fear the consequences, you must be able to understand the future and predict the consequences. You must be able to think rationally. Let’s compare, I can go to work in a safe manner, provide for my family, come home and play with my children and have sex with my wife or I can drive like a complete idiot for a few minutes and probably go to jail or be killed. Hmmm… let me think for second…
Our society has determined what is good and moral and safe. We encourage everyone to act in a similar manner and we have consequences for those that do not act in this manner. If someone tries to harm my family, I will put a bullet in their brain. This action will have consequences for me. I rationally judge that the consequences are worth saving the lives of my family. That’s my choice.
What we think is ‘moral’, ‘good’; ‘right’ is determined by our culture, by our society. It is almost trivial to show that what we consider to be correct is not what the Bible considered to be correct. Slavery is considered wrong, in the Bible it is encouraged and there are instructions for how slaves should behave. Murder is now considered wrong by almost every culture and society on the planet (curiously, the most religious are most likely to advocate murder), the Bible says genocide is OK (as long as it’s not the chosen people of God). Women’s suffrage, that’s a good thing. In the Bible, women cannot own property or even be seen without their man. If they are widows, well they are SOL.
Finally, I saw this on one of the forums and I can’t find it now (if anyone knows who started this, let me know so I can thank them).
Consider the following situation. God comes down from on high and says, “You, being the people of God, should eat babies.”
There are three possible responses.
1) “God would never say to do that.” God is all powerful and omnipotent. He can do whatever he wants. He makes the rules and breaks them (as shown in the Bible) whenever he wants. If God would never say something like that, it means that morality is external to God and He must obey those rules of morality. That neatly defeats the presupposition of the anti-atheist groups.
2) “I wouldn’t do it.” Well, in this case the true-believer has stated that there is such a condition that they would disobey the will of God. In which case, they do take their personal morality to be higher than that of God. Again, this shows that our modern society and culture is either more moral than God or that morality is external God.
3) “Pass the ketchup” This is the scary case. This is the True Believer. If God said it, it’s OK. Be prepared for this person to ignore the rules and morals of society. This is the person that will commit genocide and enslave virgins and kills those not like him and smile while doing it. Because God said it’s OK.
In any of those cases, God is either irrelevant or the cause of creating a monster.
Morality comes from society. Five hundred years ago, a few thousand miles South of where I live there was a great culture. Yet, that culture emphasized human sacrifice. For them it was moral, indeed, it was a blessing to be called to die for the people (to promote the rain, or good crops, or something). In that culture, human sacrifice was moral. In ours, it is not.
Morality doesn’t come from God. It comes from us.
Is it an evolutionary trait? I think that a likely hypothesis. We evolved from tribal animals. We are genetically predisposed to create a stable society. Unfortunately, you through human’s ability to manipulate and look-out-for-number-one and you get… well… you get religion… and politics.