Question from Adam:
Without God, is there right and wrong?
Answer by SmartLX:
Even with a hypothetical god around, would there be there right and wrong?
If God decides what is right and wrong, they are His opinions only, and subject to change. And change they apparently have, because there are all sorts of holy rules in the old Mosaic Law that had been superceded or forgotten as early as the first century AD (or CE). Shellfish, mixed fabrics, working on Sundays, that sort of thing. Therefore God’s sense of right and wrong is arbitrary, and useless to us except in the sense of trying to keep up with the whims of a tyrant to save our necks. That’s if we think He’s there at all.
Without a God imbuing the entire universe with an ethereal sense of right and wrong, there is only what we humans decide, as no other animal has ever set down a code of ethics or morality. (Some groups of apes and monkeys have developed simple moral systems, but purely in practical terms rather than the abstract.) The consensual ethics agreed upon by large groups of people are far less arbitrary than the will of an all-powerful, invincible being, because the way we want to be treated – and therefore the way we treat people – has a comprehensible effect on our wellbeing. For example, a general aversion to killing (except in some extraordinary cases) potentially prolongs everyone’s lives.
So we say that certain things are right and others are wrong, and if these judgements eventually show themselves to be flawed we change them. Regulated slavery was right and good for a very long time, but now we find it reprehensible. We’re entitled to admit mistakes and change our positions when new information comes to light, because we’re only human and we’re doing the best we can. A god has no such excuse; if He ever had to correct himself, He’s not much of a god.
Question from Sam:
Where do humans get their moral standards and conscience from?
Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is, from each other, from their own instincts and from a long line of social ancestors.
My earlier piece on right and wrong answers your question in much greater detail. There’s also a short piece on the foundations of morality.
The question, and where you’re asking it, implies that God’s instructions via some sacred text would be the usual answer. Well, every sacred text has a lot of instructions even most religious people don’t use anymore, like killing people for eating shellfish or working on the wrong day. Those who use these texts as a moral guide are choosing which parts to use – but that means they’re judging the text based on some independent moral standard. Therefore, even believers are getting at least some of their ethics from the simple experience of being a human among humans.
Question from Sophia:
I don’t know how many atheists have been Christians before, but I have questions as a Christian. The idea that a God is there for forgiveness, mercy, and justice is very comforting to me. There are certain things humans are unable to do. For instance, law enforcement may fail, but our free will brings it’s own consequences and has its own justice. Let me make it clear now that I don’t believe in hell. Humans make their own hell. We live in one already, full of war and hate, but our responsibilities include keeping the beautiful things alive.
Moving on… I have specific questions. Feel free to answer any or all of these questions.
1. When someone fails you, like a parent, spouse, or even yourself, what gives you comfort?
2. I’m sure most atheists think that “doing the right thing” is important, but why are some things right and others wrong if these precedents aren’t set by a higher authority, but by our own twisted judgment?
3. If you were once part of a different religion and then turned to atheism, why? Please go further than saying that “Christians still do bad things, what’s the point.” (I get that too often. If that’s your viewpoint, that’s fine, just explain further.)
Answer by SmartLX:
At least half of all atheists in the Western world were once members of a religion, and many still are in an official sense even though their faith is gone. I was raised as a Catholic myself.
Law enforcement may well fail to punish the guilty for their crimes. Human nature endows us with empathy and therefore usually a measure of guilt for our malicious actions, regardless of whether we’re caught, but it’s still a fact that some crimes and awful deeds go completely unpunished. It does not follow that there must be an afterlife and an ultimate judge in order to catch those who escape justice. Justice is an ideal we strive for, not a necessary physical component of the universe. If there’s no judgement after death, it’s up to us humans to give as many people their just deserts while they’re alive, because no one else will, and that’s that. A thing is not made true simply because it would be better if it were true, or bad or unthinkable if it were false. (Few things described as “unthinkable” really are unthinkable; most of them are just unpleasant.)
To your specific questions, then.
1. Sometimes the same person who’s “failed me” or caused me trouble or harm is the one who gives me comfort afterwards; that’s what it means to apologise, and to atone. Aside from that, I’m not a complete misanthrope, because the entire human race never lets me down all at once. There’s always some good in someone somewhere.
2. Our collective sense of right and wrong has changed over time. Slavery has been declared more and more unambiguously wrong, for instance, while different forms of personal freedom have gradually achieved the status of universal human rights. That alone is a very good indicator that right and wrong are not determined by some ultimate authority and then irreversibly fixed. That said, our judgement as a society has had a very long time to un-twist itself, as we constantly strive for ethical and legal standards with the greatest benefit. What we call “right” and “wrong” is relatively stable these days and helps us get along pretty well, though they’re still making changes to laws and so on. If we don’t assume our morality is absolute, we can always improve it.
3. I didn’t declare myself an atheist because I thought Christians were bad. I realised that I didn’t believe in any gods anymore, let alone the Christian one. It was that simple. (Incidentally, while bad Christians don’t indicate the lack of a god, neither do good Christians indicate the presence of one.)
“If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent God for forcing you into this behaviour.”
Question from Darron:
If there is no God, and there is no judgment. Why would anyone want to follow any kind of moral code of conduct.
I know if we didn’t of course, everything would fall apart. But most of us barley live to see 90. If your not born well off, why bother with hard work to get to the top. Why not lie, cheat, steal, kill, or sleep your way to the top.
Because lying, cheating and stealing doesn’t usually work in the long term, and because most people don’t actually like to do these things.
God’s isn’t the only judgement you need to worry about. If there isn’t a God or an afterlife, you have just this one short life available to you, and getting a reputation as a crook (let alone being convicted as one) can ruin that life and snuff out your potential. That’s a considerable risk you’re taking if you abandon ethics altogether.
You have an unspoken contract with those around you. Keep to the morals of your society as laid out and agreed upon, and others are expected to respect your moral fibre and be nice to you. People can’t see into your very being and determine what kind of man you are; your words and your actions are all they have to go on. If you genuinely behave like a “good person”, it makes no practical difference whether you really are one or not. And the world likes “good people”.
Another reason you want to follow a code of conduct is that you actually want to help people and make them happy. If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent that God pushes you into this behaviour by way of a carrot and a stick. But you don’t, do you? It’s gratifying to treat people right, isn’t it?
This is something moral absolutists don’t often consider: human nature, however it may have formed, actually tends toward what we think of as moral behaviour a great deal of the time without any coercion whatsoever. So the religious are happy that God commands them to behave the way they prefer to behave anyway.
“The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.”
Question from Louis:
Does an atheist believe in the concept of sin? Do they believe they can be punished for sin?
The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.
The competing idea that our bad deeds follow us around ethereally in life and cause misfortune requires the existence of either an interventionist god or an unknown and purposeful energy, which ancient Indian religions named karma, and atheists generally don’t believe in that either.
This doesn’t mean that atheists think bad deeds go entirely unpunished. That’s what the law is for, to begin with. Besides judicial punishment for illegal deeds, other selfish and destructive acts turn other people against us, and provoke revenge and grudges. They also make us feel guilty and want to atone.
That’s why we don’t need a god to enforce our morals. We have other people, and we have ourselves.