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Can We Be Good without God? An Atheistic Perspective on Morality

Updated on November 14, 2015

Flying Spaghetti Monster

Often assumed to deride religious faith, the FSM is in fact a rhetorical device to demonstrate the reasoning behind an atheistic perspective.
Often assumed to deride religious faith, the FSM is in fact a rhetorical device to demonstrate the reasoning behind an atheistic perspective. | Source

Misconceptions about Atheism and Secular Humanism

Before we begin to explore the complexities of the moral implications of an atheistic worldview, it is important to first clear up common misunderstanding about atheism itself. There is a common myth that the sole raison d'être of atheists is to oppose religion. This is however based on a misunderstanding of atheists in accordance with their perceived role in society. The assumption is that an atheistic perspective on the world is predicated on an ostensibly anti-religious outlook. Consequently, atheists are perceived to be defined not only by their lack of religion, but also their perceived animosity toward religion. The reason why this myth endures is because it is certainly true that atheists are defined by not believing in a deity and there do exist atheists who actively oppose religion, but there is more to it than that. Atheists live in a world that is not governed by any spiritual force or any form of religious organization and corresponding service to a higher deity. As such, atheists use reason and ethical philosophy to find their own definition of a virtuous and meaningful life rather than adhering to the tenets of any particular religious organization or spiritual outlook. I will delve into this in more detail further down. Atheism in its purest form simply means non-theist. However, atheists throughout the 20th and into the 21st century have been systematically demonized by their religious contemporaries. The word "atheist" has become a pejorative in certain religious contexts because the word itself has evolved not only to encompass simple "non-thesim", but through certain religious propaganda to become a palpable threat to the integrity and mission of religious institutions. This is particularly apparent in the United States within the context of Christianity. One common misconception within an American context is that proponents of upholding the constitutional separation of church and state do so in adherence to some kind of atheist agenda dedicated to eliminating religion from public consciousness. However, this is a grave misconception indeed.

Evangelical Hypocrisy and the Separation of Church and State

I once heard an American evangelical pastor proclaim on a televised service that an attempt to keep religious teaching out of schools and to remove God from public life is destroying America. I was immediately stricken by the hypocrisy of this statement. It is a common misconception that the United States was built on a foundation of Christianity. The constitutional separation of church and state is not a modern invention of bitter atheists for the purpose of vexing the Christian majority, rather a proclamation of the founding fathers to ensure the American people would be free to worship as they wish. Separation of church and state is an aspect of both freedom of religious expression, as well as freedom from religion. Thus, it is separation of church from schools and public life which is an aspect of the freedom in America to worship as one pleases and to hold the faith of one's choosing. In spirit, separation of church and state was not devised to limit religion, but to allow for a multiplicity of religious views with equal legal standing in direct contrast to the historic religious oppression in Europe and modern such oppression in such Muslim nations as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, among others, where it is illegal to outwardly promote any religious faith other than Islam.

Freedom of and from religion is an ideal which stems from the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century. The same Enlightenment, by the way, which informed much of the American Constitution and was made possible by the preceding Reformation which challenged Catholicism's ultimate authority in Europe and led to the development of Protestantism, upon which all American Baptist denominations are based. It is common for American Baptists and Evangelicals to forget the history of their religious denominations, which were made possible by the historical challenging of ultimate religious authority. The majority of Christian denominations (excluding Catholicism, of course) in modern America originate from the historical challenge to the religious status quo and authority in public affairs in Europe prior to the Reformation. Thus, modern American Protestant opposition to the separation of church and state and the corresponding demonizing of ostensibly atheist proponents thereof is a shining example of gross hypocrisy and demonstrates a profound level of historical ignorance and nearsightedness. What the evangelical pastor I observed clearly failed to understand is that it is the very spirit separation of church and state which allows him to publicly preach his version of evangelical Christianity in the first place.

Tintoretto Allegory

Allegory with a portrait of a Venetian senator (Allegory of the morality of earthly things)
Allegory with a portrait of a Venetian senator (Allegory of the morality of earthly things) | Source

The Question of Morality

In debates about the separation of church and state between Christian opponents and ostensibly atheist proponents, the question of morality inevitably arises from one of the religious speakers. The question is often posed thus: "If you don't believe in God, where do you get your morals from? I get my morals from the Bible, but you don't get yours from anywhere." This is a valid question, and one to which there is a thorough and satisfying answer which fully legitimizes the potential to live morally as an atheist. What must first be understood is that the Bible is not always exemplary of profound moral integrity. Yet again, I take it upon myself to indicate the support for slavery which is spelled out in the biblical scripture. I do not bring this up to demonize Christianity or fixate on one of several dubious passages in the Bible. In fact, the Bible is certainly rich in constructive moral philosophy. However, it is clearly not the Bible alone which is responsible for humanity's moral compass when we consider its role in the uncomfortably recent history of slavery in the United States. Many slave owners used their interpretation of support for slavery as indicated in the Bible to justify slave ownership. My point is that morality is fluid and changes along with the shifting moral zeitgeist. The assumption at any given point in time is that the Bible stands as a flawless code of conduct for humanity when it is in fact a device which may or may not gel with standards of morality and require reinterpretation or rejection in order to fit into contemporary society. There are other examples, but slavery clearly demonstrates how the moral zeitgeist shifts independently of the Bible and that modern society has the capacity to makes necessary changes, such as the abolition of slavery, independent of the Bible.

Can We Be Good Without God?

In short, yes. To return to my earlier example, it was not the Bible which abolished slavery, but human reason and the shifting moral zeitgeist. Although the Bible offers extensive philosophical insight into morals and ethics, it is not the supreme source thereof. Secular philosophy and human reason can just as well function independently of religious scripture and make positive change in society and the world at large.

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    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 18 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

      You have made many good points here that I whole-heatedly agree with. Unfortunately, you have used advanced grammar and some big words. The Religious illiterate will not go to the trouble of looking up words like, "zeitgeist", or "constructive moral philosophy". They only seem to comprehend words at or below an 8th grade reading level.

      So, to clear it up - Listen up everyone! Morals are based on the laws of the land, not on ancient books.

      Hindus and other non-Christians tend to be very moral people, as do atheists. Read the following paragraph over and over until you "get it"!

      "The constitutional separation of church and state is not a modern invention of bitter atheists for the purpose of vexing the Christian majority, rather a proclamation of the founding fathers to ensure the American people would be free to worship as they wish. Separation of church and state is an aspect of both freedom of religious expression, as well as freedom from religion."

    • profile image

      Wild Bill 18 months ago

      Austinstar, you aren't helping the point of the article by throwing out insults in a general sweeping manner.

      "The Religious illiterate will not go to the trouble of looking up words like, "zeitgeist", or "constructive moral philosophy". They only seem to comprehend words at or below an 8th grade reading level."

      You also say that laws are not based on an ancient book and then reference a 350 year old piece of paper. What is the exact shelf-life of the Constitution? Will it cease to be relevant in 400, 500, or 1000 years. Please let the rest of us know so we can be prepared.

      You also reference Hindu's as being very moral, but isn't this the culture that encourages rape by viewing women as the submissive sex?

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 18 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Wild Bill - You have proved my points.

      1. I didn't reference the Constitution - the author of the hub did which is why I used quote marks.

      2. You obviously didn't look up any of the points made in the hub as you only tried to refute and argue with me, a commenter.

      3. Almost ALL religious cultures view women as "property" or "subservient". ALL religions have to put up with men raping women and kids. Christians and Muslims advocate rape just as much as Hindus. But for the most part, thanks to modern laws, religious morality isn't used to punish these idiots. Our society and its laws punish rapists and pedophiles.

    • profile image

      Wild Bill 18 months ago

      If your point was to show how little you know, then yes I did prove your point.

      You said: "1. I didn't reference the Constitution - the author of the hub did which is why I used quote marks."

      Ok, you referenced a quote that mentioned the Constitution. I mean, you did have a point there didn't you???

      You said: "3. Almost ALL religious cultures view women as "property" or "subservient". ALL religions have to put up with men raping women and kids. Christians and Muslims advocate rape just as much as Hindus. But for the most part, thanks to modern laws, religious morality isn't used to punish these idiots. Our society and its laws punish rapists and pedophiles."

      Ok, so you didn't really disagree with me about Hindus. I guess what you are saying is that as long as other religions rape, then it just kind of negates itself out, so we can ignore it. Great logic on your part!

      Austin said: "2. You obviously didn't look up any of the points made in the hub as you only tried to refute and argue with me, a commenter."

      I did look up the points and read the Hub. I just didn't have a problem with what he said. He made some valid points (though I didn't agree with them all) and he did it without being a complete ass, unlike you. I understand that people don't agree with everyone. I understand that there are people out there who do not like religion, but there is a way to go about it. Everyone had opinions and judgments, but it doesn't mean they have to go and spout them off at any given chance, unless you have turrets syndrome.

      For example, I have my kids in private school. On occasion I have someone that sends there kids to public school that ask me why I feel the need to pay for school when a free one is offered. I could go into detail and say that private schools are better, therefore it is my duty as a parent to send them to it because if I didn't it would make me a bad parent. Or I could say the least insulting answer, which is "Because I feel it is best for my kids." With that answer, they can take it however they wish. Both answers are the same, but the second one is how polite people talk in public.

    • Spongy0llama profile image
      Author

      Jake Brannen 18 months ago from Canada

      Discussion is open to all possible directions. However, I just want to clarify that my point here is not to directly criticize religion, but to point out that scripture is not, in every respect, a supreme source of morality. Human reason and non-religious influence on the moral zeitgeist are also a significant part of moral society. My prime example, slavery, is exemplary of this. Although, as I mentioned, the Bible is rich in moral philosophy, it can not claim a monopoly on morality and secular morality is also legitimate, as demonstrated throughout history and in contemporary society.

      We can be good with God, we can be good without God. We can be bad with God, we can be bad without God. I choose here simply to elucidate my secular humanist perspective and clear up some misconceptions about atheists.

    • profile image

      Wild Bill 18 months ago

      Spongy,

      I completely agree with you that people don't need God to be moral. I have plenty of friends and family members that are not believers and they are good as gold, so I can appreciate and applaud your point of view.

      I don't agree with those who make a broad generalizing sweeping judgments about people who happen to have a certain label. Usually those labels are just a small part of the bigger picture that makes us all who we are. In the end, we are all human and right is right and wrong is wrong. Sometimes we just come to those conclusions in different ways.

      Great Hub!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 18 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Thank you Spongyollama! I wish people would read this hub and pay attention to the message. I will share it to social media if it helps.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 18 months ago from Australia

      Jake/Austin

      I was disappointed to see such a typically repetitive atheist focus on the same very narrow definition of religion as some kind of vague Christian fundamentalist group from the backwoods. There is no reference to the incredible importance of religion to Indigenous people's around the world whose cultural identity is tied up with their religion. No reference to peaceful Buddhists or tolerant Hindus etc.

      Also, trying to equate freedom of religion to freedom FROM religion is shady and misleading. The concept of freedom of religion cannot be conveniently misconstrued to freedom from religion as it contradicts the freedom of religion itself by encouraging persecution. In both cases one either quietly decides to practice a religion or quietly decides not to practice a religion. They do not go out of there way to eradicate religion from every facet of modern society as the current atheist trend clearly has.

      Lastly, there is a lot of evidence to show that New Atheism has completely failed to deliver on sound ethics. Almost as soon as the New Atheist trend started we saw its leaders such as Dawkins and Singer immediately proposing legalising infanticide, legalising beastiality and legalising euthanasia, eugenic style ideas etc. This is the standard road with all modern attempts at making atheism the norm and why such attempts have failed so quickly and resulted in a eugenic philosophy. The speed of the decay in ethics that accompanies atheism is quite alarming. The individual atheists themselves frequently don't seem to see it coming. Hence my first criticism with this Hub for using the same old stereotype of fundamentalist Christianity with no regard to other religions.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 18 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Oz, you are so confused about atheism. There is no getting through to you either. It's just too sad.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 18 months ago from Australia

      Unfortunately you haven't made any rebuttals to any of my valid points therefore you are admitting defeat. Don't feel bad just recognise the areas where you might lack knowledge and try try again ☺

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 18 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Wow, Oz - Your mental gymnastics amaze me. But then you do need those brain freezes of yours just to get through the day I would imagine.

    • Spongy0llama profile image
      Author

      Jake Brannen 18 months ago from Canada

      Oztinato,

      I don't think you fully understand the spirit of my article. I am not blindly criticizing religion. I focus on Christianity because my argument is predicated on the notion that although the Bible (the Bible specifically) is rich in moral philosophy, Christian scripture alone is not the only path to morality.

      Also, you seem to misunderstand my use of "freedom from religion". By that I mean non-religious people and people of a religion other than Christianity should not be faced with Christian imagery and sentiment in the public sphere.

      The United States' constitutional separation of church and state is not a device used by atheists to suppress Christianity. It is a guarantee that all religions, including a variety of Christian denominations, receive equal and unbiased treatment in the eyes of the government and in public society.

    • profile image

      Wild Bill 18 months ago

      Oz,

      Separation of Church and State is in the best interest of everyone, including the religious...especially for the religious. For one, it guarantees the government cannot establish a state religion. For instance, let's say Obama decided to make Islam the state religion. That would not be good for anyone, even Muslims. Just look at what is going on in the Middle East. Trust me, we would like the government to stay out of our homes and churches as much as possible.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 18 months ago from Australia

      Sponge

      unless you and others stop steteotyping religion your point becomes lost. For example, should you ban indigenous art from the public sphere? No. It's in galleries all over the western world. Should you stop da vinci and michelangelo prints from being sold in shops? No. It is accepted religious imagery. So why focus on what you stereotype as Christian? It makes no logical sense.

      Freedom from religious persecution means freedom to practice one's religion freely. Freedom from religion opens the door to persecution. To complain about a bible being in a court room or a public xmas display of the manger is religious persecution. To ban indigenous art from public sale is religious persecution. I've heard various "reasons" why Christianity is singled out but none make any sense

      ."

    • Spongy0llama profile image
      Author

      Jake Brannen 18 months ago from Canada

      Oz,

      I should clarify what I mean by religious imagery in the public sphere. There is a difference between Christian-themed prints of renaissance art in shops and a nativity display at a school or government office. There is nothing wrong with a nativity display on church or private property of any kind, or for a shop to sell crosses or religious symbols of any kind. It isn't the mere public presence of religious imagery that is a problem, rather any indication that one religion in particular is given precedence, such as swearing a Christian oath during court proceedings. Not every American is Christian, so it is inappropriate for every American to concede to religious practice in the public sphere.

      I am focusing on Christianity because it is the majority religion in America and too many American Christians assume a certain entitlement to have Christianity integral to the public sphere. Separation of Church and State is predicated on the freedom to worship as one pleases and not to feel pressure from the public sphere to follow a specific religion. Enforcing Separation of Church and State is not an attempt to persecute Christians, rather to ensure that all faiths and spiritualities have equal footing in the eyes of the government and the public sphere.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 18 months ago from Australia

      Firstly I thank you for your tone.

      Of course I can never agree about discussing religion solely on the basis of one stereotype of Christianity.

      In my view as inter faith there is only beauty in holding a bible in court and there is no intrinsic difference between holding a bible or bhagavad gita. There is already an option to either make an oath or to swear on the bible. I think its a good test of character as well to swear on a bible. Our laws and ethics evolved out of the bible, albeit slowly and painfully.

      I am focusing on your argument about freedom "from" religion which does open a door to subtle and grosser forms of religious persecution. For example, removing a morning school prayer, or removing an Easter image from a text book. It is not offensive to see christian or other religious images in schools as it will teach tolerance.

      I am not getting from your hub the same message as your comments.

    • Spongy0llama profile image
      Author

      Jake Brannen 18 months ago from Canada

      I will agree to disagree on this issue. I can't be persuaded away from my opinions on separation of church and state and you won't change your mind about the integration of Christian religion in public affairs.

      There's no need to go on with tedious arguments between the two of us that don't quite hit the mark either way.

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