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Atheism, Theism and Morality

Updated on February 12, 2017

it is justified to ask what is the role of religion in current people's lives and societies where modernism has produced so many reactions that go from atheism to the surge of new spiritualties, including the revival of the established major known religions. What is about religion that is still relevant today? Religion brings hope, security, meaning and fulfilment to many. What is the position of an atheist in those lines? Are they negative people and unruly? On the other hand, it is observed that living a religious life not always produce happiness, fulfilment or moral behaviour. The following paragraphs will introduce this discussion in simple terms.

Atheists by definition do not believe in God or gods that created and maintain the Universe. However, they are as diverse as theists, for example, Buddhists are atheistic religious people with moral codes and ethics that are functionally similar to those applied by theists. There are also atheists that are humanists and can follow other worldviews that guide them primary through life, such as existentialism or even trends such us materialism, individualism, fashion, pop culture etc. So, to begin with, not all atheists are the same in many aspects.

If a person chooses atheism after a distressful event, atheism could be related to negative emotions and pessimism. However, there could be more reasons, for example, atheism can be learned from parents or society, it can also be that the person relates to factual and scientific proofs more than to supernatural arguments to explain events. In these cases, the negative emotions and pessimism would be related to the fulfilment of their objectives in life, and also to their ability to adapt to challenging circumstances. Kruger et al (2008) indicates this with the following words: “Not all atheists are necessary happy and positive people, but they are not more prone to negativity than theists. An atheist can be as hopeful, friendly, well-adjusted and moral as any theist”.

Being moral or immoral is related to the moral system which makes reference to, for example, for modern and postmodern Western societies, the infanticide committed by the San people (San People is a native group of people from the Kalahari region in Africa) would be described as immoral, but it was not so for the San society. On the other hand, San people would regard as immoral the approach of disrespecting nature and its destruction such as the caused by the industrialization of the Western world.

As described by Fisser (1995) philosophers have attempted to address universal morality, and there are many different approaches: for instance, the infanticide committed by the San people could be supported by the “act-utilitarianism” theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham two centuries ago. The act-utilitarianism would say, if killing the twin new-born offers greater benefit than dis-benefit to the society, then it is ethic. Following the same example, the principle of no harm to others in the applied ethics normative would render infanticide as immoral.

However, Kruger et al (2008) state that atheists affirm that “defining what is moral or not is not difficult if one puts the welfare of others on a par with one’s own on the basis of the common humanity of all people”. To illustrate this statement, arguments such as these could be used: stealing from the poor would stagnate a society and would create the environment for criminality, that would potentially kill many, or careless sexual behaviour will lead to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases that would lead to illness or death to many. These kind of arguments would guide the morality of a society regardless the religiosity of people and serves as evidence that atheist non-religious people have the resources and the ability to be moral.

Finally, it is interesting to note how the moral codes of different religions are very similar and fit with the kind of arguments that protect the general well-being of humans that co-exist in a society. Ethics could be regarded as a common point that serves to address difficult topics that arise in pluralistic societies where atheist and theists live together.

Reference List

Fieser, J (1995). "Ethics”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002,, 16 March 2016.

Kruger J.S, Lubbe GJA, Steyn HC (2008). The human search for meaning, a multireligion introduction to the religions of humankind. Pretoria. Van Schaick Publishers.


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