When I de-converted from being a lifelong believer in god, the idea of being alone with my thoughts troubled me. I’d spent all my life believing that god could hear all my thoughts, and I could talk to him about anything. Losing my faith was like losing a friend, albeit a friend who never existed.
I thought a lot about morality. If no one could hear my thoughts or know my intentions, what did that mean? If there was no punishment for my actions save what the Law would execute on me, what was my guide to right or wrong?
Since then, I’ve discussed morality with other atheists, been questioned by agnostics, and been challenged by theists. But not long after I de-converted I realised something: people over-think the source of morality far too much! Even I was over-analysing it!
I’m not saying there are no ambiguous issues, and in fact, trying to paint every moral decision in terms of black and white is often impossible, and counter-productive. However, “wrong” is a word, and as a word it has a definition. “Immoral” is also a word, and as Richard Dawkins points out, words are our slaves not masters. Humans decide what words mean, so when we talk about ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘morality’, we are using words that mean something. These definitions are independent of our personal beliefs and biases, just as the word “wet” means what it means and doesn’t mean “dry” if I want it to.
It is therefore illogical when (some) religious people ask atheists what their source of morality is; a loaded question if ever there was one, that tacitly assumes that they already have a credible source: their religion.
This is silly for a few reasons, and although I don’t expect any theist to give up their beliefs, I’m sure they will come to agree with me on this:
For the purposes of morality, I’ll loosely define “wrong” as that which causes unnecessary harm or suffering to another being, including violating the rights of that being, or exploiting it. Whether that definition is too verbose or too simple, it will suffice for this discussion.
If that is what “wrong” means, then we can easily analyse any action on this basis and decide whether it is right or wrong. What things might fall under this “wrong” category? I would suggest for starters: rape, murder, theft, racism, unwarranted torture, and mistreatment of animals. Therefore, anyone committing those actions is in the wrong. I doubt anyone so far would disagree with me.
I believe that these things are wrong anywhere, at any time. As a thought experiment, imagine you’re on another planet with different laws and values. Is rape wrong here? Yes! An alien race might not have a word for “wrong” or even bother with morality, but that doesn’t make it subjective! No more than if the aliens didn’t have a word for “earth” or “sun” that would stop those things being something very real and objective. Morality is objective, and right and wrong are objective expressions, because they have real meanings in the world.
To say that wrong actions are right under certain conditions is to redefine the word, in which case you’re not talking about the word “wrong” anymore, you have invented another one. This means that, even in theory, there is a word to describe the kind of actions that the original word “wrong” was meant to imply. So, even if there wasn’t a word to describe actions, they would still be right or wrong. Again, morality is a real thing, and humans have full capacity to judge actions and decide what is ethical or not. Our guide must be what does and doesn’t cause unnecessary harm.
It is clear therefore that, to borrow from Ebonmuse: anything that increases net human happiness is good, and anything that decreases net human happiness is bad.
Now, whether god exists or not is irrelevant. This isn’t an argument for or against religion. But it is self-evident that personal faith or belief in god is not a source for morality. Rather, if god exists and is moral, god himself is bound by these objective principles. If god is not bound by them, then morality is subjective and is based on god’s whim, which means rape and murder would be “good” if god said so. The common theistic reply to this is that god would never allow rape and murder because he is necessarily good himself. But this is the same problem repackaged and moved back a level: it presupposes that god must be a certain way, or that his nature must be a certain way; but if his nature must be objectively good, then objective good exists all the same. And if god cannot go against his nature which means he cannot go against “good”, then we might just as well say that god cannot go against good, which means it exists objectively anyway.
Therefore, god and religion, whether true or not, cannot be a basis for morality. In fact, one might argue that being in the position of following the orders of another being without question could, even in theory, compromise your morality.
A final thought experiment for theists will establish the issue:
If god didn’t exist, and your religion was false, would you hurt people? Would you steal and lie and cheat? Would you rape, pillage, and kill? If not, why? And if not, then you admit that your morality isn’t really linked to your god or religion after all! In which case you’re in no better or worse position than any atheist.
Deep down, we all get our morality from the same place: our own sense of right and wrong. But because objective morality exists, most of the time everyone’s senses of right and wrong coincide. There are grey areas, but morality being a real thing itself regardless of belief, should be reassuring for all. It means that we have responsibility for our actions, and we are accountable to other beings. It also means that because we’re living feeling creatures and are surrounded by other such entities, we should feel encouraged to be nice to people and increase net happiness for all. I’m sure you agree that this is a good thing to do, whether you believe in god or not.