It’s the billion-dollar question – where do atheists get their morality from? They don’t have a book to draw it from, so it must all be subjective and full of personal interpretation. I’ll fill you in on the objective view of morality, which should be enlightening – even most atheists have a hazy answer to this one.
It’s very hard to come up with a definition of this from the dictionary. Most definitions read “a code of conduct between what is right and wrong” without any further defining of right and wrong. Wikipedia breaks it down even further, but still after reading everything they have to say on the subject, you will probably not walk away with a definition of human morality.
Sam Harris, writer of The End of Faith, provides the following definition: Morality is about human and animal well-being, a conduct that alleviates the suffering of others and/or provides happiness for others. This is why we don’t have a moral obligation towards rocks, he argues, because they can’t suffer or feel happiness. I feel this best sums it up, as it appears that we all judge actions by this same rationale – that is, until it conflicts with religion.
Many religions base morality on the writings of their holy scriptures. Although this is the accepted definition throughout much of the world, it isn’t an objective definition, as each religion bases it upon a different book (and the books don’t agree on this). Even religions can’t agree within themselves on statements of morality. Many American Muslims are against the actions of the 9-11 hijackers and believe their motives to be immoral, while many Muslims overseas find their actions to be of the highest caliber of morality.
From the view of Richard Dawkins, we tend to find cultural harmony on many points of morality, and this is known as Zeitgeist (or “spirit of the times”). Zeitgeist changes over time, and not everyone agrees with it, but it tends to shift towards the first definition I gave for morality – towards happiness for the greatest number of people.
The best example of objective morality is the question of slavery. The entire civilized world finds this to be wrong. It was commonplace for wealthy people to own slaves for thousands of years, and then we all gave it up for the most part (yes, sadly there are still millions of slaves in Southeast Asia). It’s a given that my readers find slavery to be immoral, and would not own slaves if given the opportunity because it’s so unethical. We can see the shift in Zeitgeist, as there weren’t even abolitionists objecting the practice of slavery until the century that it became illegal. In the modern day, no one fights for the rights of the wealthy to own slaves.
It’s easy to see how slavery causes pain, misery, and suffering. So why wasn’t anyone fighting to end this evil? Because discussions about objective morality are relatively new – we based morality on our holy books, and the bible clearly doesn’t forbid it (nor does the Qur’an).
So why don’t we still have slaves, as the bible’s view on this hasn’t changed even slightly? Why aren’t Christians fighting for the ultra-conservative view on this issue? Because they also get their morality from the cultural Zeitgeist. This is why they don’t believe in killing non-believers, murdering disobedient children, and putting to death anyone who works on the Sabbath. Of course, you may be right to state that these are in the old testament. So what? Jesus endorsed Old Testament law. So did the apostle Paul.
So why do Christians ignore laws now found silly (shellfish and pigs forbidden to eat) or outright barbaric (killing homosexuals)? Because they also follow the Zeitgeist, which is leading us towards real morality – an allowance for activities that bring us happiness, such as eating what we like, and away from hurting or murdering people for various sins.
It seems we all have an intrinsic view of right and wrong that most of us agree upon, even when we can’t directly define it. For instance, take this hypothetical situation: You are standing before 2 rooms. The room on your left contains 5 people, and the room on your right contains 1 person. A deadly gas is going to seep into the room on the left, killing all 5 people. There is a switch in front of you, and with a flick of the switch you can divert the gas to the room on the right, killing 1 person instead. Should you flip the switch?
A second situation: You are a hospital administrator. You have 5 patients that are all going to die soon because they have various unhealthy organs. You also have a man in the waiting room that has 5 healthy, compatible organs inside him. Should you kill the man and harvest his organs?
The answers are almost universal. Most people answer ‘yes’ to the first situation and ‘no’ to the second situation, even though they are almost identical (the lives of 5 people versus 1). Where do these value judgments come from? Science will answer these questions, I imagine, given enough time. We’re still in the infancy of neuroscience. Our religions cannot. I challenge anyone to find answers to these questions of morality in the bible or any holy book.