Thursday, October 15, 2015

Atheist Morality

One of the charges atheists sometimes get is that without the theist framework, there is no morality... (but) if God is the determinant of right and wrong, then that moral framework seems hardly inseparable from subjectivity. For could not God decide tomorrow that murder is acceptable?

This is quote from an essay by Brett Milam, and it's why I have such a hard time with people that say, "If you don't believe in God, then you don't have a moral compass. Anything goes!"

Christianity, Islam, and other religions, as they are practised by millions right now, today, justify rape, the subjugation of women, the oppression of non-believers or different believers, the denial of full rights and services to certain groups, and slavery. I am an atheist, and I am opposed to all of those practices - yet Christians and Muslims will say that I'm the one that lacks a moral compass because I'm an atheist?

I believe that morality is rooted in humanity, in our humanness - not in religion. Religion is a reflection of that morality, filtered through a belief in a super powerful all-knowing magical invisible being who is in control of the universe. Morality actually comes from our human capacity for empathy and from reality. I have no desire to kill a person, but if someone did have that desire, they have a choice before them, if they think about the act: kill that person, cause suffering to the remaining family, and, perhaps, go into incarceration for the act if it is deemed by society to be unlawful, OR, don't kill. It's not only the legal consequences that keep people from killing another human; it's also the moral and ethical consequences. People who have a desire to kill and then do it believe they are justified in doing so, for whatever reason, often despite what the law or their religious leaders say.

All of the religions that adhere to the Old Testament - Jews, Christians and Muslims - have no religious prohibitions against incest. The Old Testament does not prohibit incest; Lot had sex with his daughters, and had children by them, and neither he nor they are ever condemned for such. Based on their religion's teachings, based on what they believe God has said and done, incest should not be immoral for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet, it is - at least for most believers. Why? Mechanisms to avoid incest are widespread both in nature and across human societies - as Psychology Today points out, "the incest taboo is about as close to a universal law as human moral rules get." Humans must have seen rather early on that having sex close with relatives creates an astonishingly high chance that offspring will be born with a serious birth defect. In addition, certain sexless relationships have proven fundamental to our positive development in life, as humans; a trusting, supportive relationship with a mother, a father, a sibling, a step-father, a step-mother, a grandparent, etc. would be absolutely destroyed by sex. Even certain friendships and professional relationships can be destroyed by sexual relations, which is why most people aren't out trying to have sex with everyone in their lives, and many professional settings prohibit teachers, executives, coaches and others from having sex with subordinates. In short, societies' abhorrence to incest comes not from religion, but from our humanity and reality.

So morality for atheists is so much more than "whatever feels right." Our morality is often rooted in a sense of compassion that most humans are born with (the exception being sociopaths). So many of my atheists friends study philosophy, formally and informally - and through such, have developed strong critical thinking skills, and have a strong sense of social responsibility, and a strong concern for global and humanitarian issues - qualities that I just don't find among people who approach work and life from a particular religion. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher, novelist and author of Plato at the Googleplex, recently told The Atlantic that studying philosophy helps make a student "a citizen in this world." She also says "It makes life so much more interesting. It’s us at our most human. And it helps us increase our humanity. No matter what you do, that’s an asset."

Morals are fluid, to a degree - what you believed as a child, or even in your 20s, may not be what you believe now. Maybe you thought divorce was unethical and should be prohibited by law when you were younger, following the teachings of Jesus, but now, years later, you yourself are divorced - still reading the Bible, still a Christian, but you have committed a sin in the eyes of Jesus. You altered your moral compass, however, based on reality, and probably based on what was best for you and your family. I sometimes change my mind about the ethics of something for similar reasons - or because of reading about different perspectives.

When I was trying to be a Christian, I was bothered by how all emphasis was on accepting Jesus as God in order to be saved in the afterlife, but there was little said about this life, the here and now, and the importance of compassion, of empathy and of love. I was told again and again how this life on Earth just didn't matter at all - I should be concerned with the afterlife. Sad about people going hungry? Don't worry - Jesus said the poor would always be with us, it's in his hands, just focus on Jesus as your savior so you can make it to Heaven some day.

When I stopped trying to be a Christian, I felt so much more free - to pursue friendships, to act on my sense of social responsibility, to fight against injustice, to explore different ideas, to offer help to others, even to love. I like the Biblical stories of the Good Samaritan (my favorite Bible story, in fact), and the Sermon on the Mount. I like the story of the "Companions in the Cave" in the Quran - also known as the Sleepers of Ephesus, who hid inside a cave to escape a persecution, and took in a dog with them - it seems to me the point is not only their faithfulness, but also that we should treat dogs kindly, as members of our family. I like that one of the Pillars of Islam is Zakāt, the believe that it is the personal responsibility of each Muslim to ease the economic hardship of others and to strive towards eliminating inequality. I love that the Jewish term mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness, not just a duty to a god. But I don't believe these ideas come from the magical invisible friend - the one that also says you can kill and rape others. These particular ideas I've named from these three religions make sense. Kindness makes sense. The benefits of kindness, in the long run, are worth the work of being kind. Kindess is universally good - without God.