Can Atheists Be Moral?

by Dave Schuler on March 14, 2014

I do not think that a belief in God is necessary for a person to be moral. However, if this survey from Pew Research is to be believed, that puts me and many people in the richest countries in the world in a distinct minority from a global standpoint:

Many people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, according to surveys in 40 countries by the Pew Research Center. However, this view is more common in poorer countries than in wealthier ones.

In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, clear majorities say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East. At least three-quarters in all six countries surveyed in Africa say that faith in God is essential to morality. In the Middle East, roughly seven-in-ten or more agree in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Lebanon. Across the two regions, only in Israel does a majority think it is not necessary to believe in God to be an upright person.

Many people in Asia and Latin America also link faith and morality. For example, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Malaysians almost unanimously think that belief in God is central to having good values. People in El Salvador, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela overwhelmingly agree. However, most Chinese take the opposite position – that it is not necessary to be a believer to be a moral person. And in Latin America, the Chileans and Argentines are divided.

The linked source has lot of interesting charts and graphs.

While I don’t think it’s necessary, I think that whether you believe in God or not it’s very difficult to be a moral person with the level of moral education that most Americans possess. Most of our moral educations are what we learned at our mothers’ knees. If that.

I don’t believe that moral conduct is natural to human beings (the Roman Catholic belief is that it’s natural but our present condition is unnatural) and it requires some work to gain an understanding of right conduct, work that most of us are unwilling to do.

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds March 15, 2014 at 8:56 pm

Cstanly:

Hah! I’m only 16 years in, but yep.

Zachriel March 16, 2014 at 8:35 am

TastyBits: If I am not mistaken, baby hamsters emit a smell to keep the mother from eating them, and I am guessing there are similar mechanisms in all species.

E.g. big eyes in mammalian babies, including humans.

TastyBits: Love is a luxury of wealthy societies.

Love is everywhere.

TastyBits: While our pets may have an affinity for us, they have no emotion of love.

That’s simply not the case. For instance, non-human mammals bond, nurture, and mourn.

TastyBits: What humans perceive as love is the animal’s brain being flooded with endorphins.

What humans perceive as love is the human’s brain being flooded with endorphins. However, that emotion is specific to the object of affection, which is what we mean by love.

michael reynolds: The notion that Christianity has managed to maintain a single, consistent moral system is a bit risible.

Well, the burning people of alive to save their souls was a rather peculiar practice.

michael reynolds: There’s never a simple fix for anything having to do with humans. Whatever system you, me, or Jesus comes up with, clever little monkeys will find a way to manipulate it or evade it.

No discrete system of codes can represent the complex continuum of possible behaviors. (countably infinite << continuum). That's why Jesus tried to resolve the commandments to two basic principles.

TastyBits March 16, 2014 at 10:57 am

@michael reynolds

You claimed that creating a moral system was simple. You then created a moral system in one sentence. Your moral system was so poorly designed that every mass murder would be morally good under it.

Having failed completely at the task of creating a moral system, you now are blaming the Christians, and you are claiming that I still have no idea of what I am talking about.

I never accused you or any atheist of having no moral system. I accuse you of having a moral system with no basis. I was never afforded this luxury, and my debating opponents were not simple Christians. The people challenging me had knowledge of the subjects we were discussing.

They understood was that moral systems based upon god(s) or superstitions would collapse when the faith in those god(s) or superstitions was removed. The “Thou shall not kill” has no meaning without a God proclaiming it. Hence, an atheist has no reason to not kill.

I and the few other atheist were not killing people, and we did have a moral system. For an upper level or graduate level liberal arts major, this does not cut it as an answer.

Western morals are built upon Christian morals with a Jewish foundation and a touch of other moral systems from the cultures associated with the West.

The task for the atheist is to rebuild a moral system without this theistic foundation. This task has nothing to do with the success or failure of the Christian moral system. This task is not a discussion of the possible foundations of a moral system. These are all diversions from this task.

If I were to suddenly become an atheist again, I would offer the same argument, and I would once again be arguing with a liberal. Thirty years ago, I did not agree with most liberal arts thinking, but they knew how to construct a devastating argument. They probably finally became atheist, and it would be interesting to hear their arguments today.

TastyBits March 16, 2014 at 11:19 am

@Zachriel(s)

If you think animals love each other or animals and people love each other, I am happy for you. Siegfried and Roy found out that tigers are wild animals, but you cannot convince some people that animals are animals.

Humans are vain animals, and in an attempt to cover their animal roots, humans try to make their animal roots more human. Once more humans realize there is a common link with plants, I predict humans will try to humanize plants.

We have seen hours of Steve Irwin playing with all sorts of animals, but we have never seen the footage of the gentle stingray killing his ass. Nobody wants to see animals acting like animals.

Zachriel March 17, 2014 at 8:36 am

TastyBits: If you think animals love each other or animals and people love each other, I am happy for you.

Tigers are wild carnivores, solitary in nature, with limited social behaviors.

You kill a penguin to feed your friend. The penguin might doubt your sentiment.
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140311-paul-nicklen-leopard-seal-photographer-viral/

TastyBits: Humans are vain animals, and in an attempt to cover their animal roots, humans try to make their animal roots more human.

Are you saying people don’t love one another? Of course they do. It’s one of their most endearing characteristics.

TastyBits March 17, 2014 at 11:20 am

@Zachriel

First, you would need to define the concept love. The definition would need to be more than just animal social behavior. Otherwise, you have just renamed animal social behavior.

Love is one of the more complex emotions, and I find it highly unlikely that animals cannot write poetry but can love. As far as I am concerned, I encourage people to bond with wild animals. It tends to thin out the human herd.

The problem with many animal documentaries is that the humans must get the animals accustomed to humans, and this taints the animal behavior. Furthermore, these are like reality shows. They are chopped and reordered to tell a story, and the narrator ensures the viewer gets the correct tale. This is all about money.

Humans are vain, and they dislike remembering they are animals. Love as with all other civilized behavior is nothing but a thin veneer over our animal behavior.

Zachriel March 17, 2014 at 4:00 pm

TastyBits: you would need to define the concept love.

We already did; bond, nurture, and mourn; with the behavior specific to the object of affection. Animals certainly do love, including humans for one another.

TastyBits March 17, 2014 at 5:29 pm

@Zachriel

In defining a concept, you need to be far more rigorous, and the less concrete concepts require more rigor. You now have three additional concepts – bond, nurture, and mourn – that need to be defined. Each one of these concepts deserves severals volumes of discussion.

Concepts are building blocks, and they must be fundamentally well defined to be useful. At one time this was understood in the liberal arts, but I guess it has become old fashioned. This is just a general observation and lament.

Zachriel March 18, 2014 at 3:35 pm

TastyBits: In defining a concept, you need to be far more rigorous, and the less concrete concepts require more rigor.

We presumed some acquaintance on your part with the human species.

TastyBits: You now have three additional concepts – bond, nurture, and mourn – that need to be defined.

You might start with the usual definitions. These are behaviors, so they shouldn’t require “severals volumes” to comprehend.

People will sacrifice their well-being for others, such as by sharing what they have when they have little, or by risking much to save their loved ones.

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