...so you'd better be good, for goodness sake...
Haven Gillespie, in the song Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
One difficulty atheists experience, if we "come out," is that our society (at least in the U.S. -- I can't speak to what happens in other countries) regards atheists as charter members of Team Evil. That is, because we are atheists, people expect us to do bad things. They believe we don't act in accordance with any moral code, because we have no motivation to do so, since we don't believe in God and thus have no expectation of being punished for anything we do.
If you Google "atheists immoral," you will find more articles than you can ever read about atheists being immoral, starting with (at least Google put this one first) an article in Pacific Standard, by Tom Jacobs, April 15, 2014 (online) noting that "Americans Intuitively Judge Atheists As Immoral."
Says Jacobs in the article: "After reading a description of someone committing an immoral act, participants in five experiments 'readily and intuitively assumed that the person was an atheist,' University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais reports in the online journal PLoS One. 'Even atheist participants judged immoral acts as more representative of atheists than of other groups.' "
(Ironically, Dr. Gervais, whose field of study is the supernatural, religion, and atheism, is not related to Ricky Gervais, one of the entertainment world's most outspoken atheists.)
"The findings," continues Jacobs, "suggest our instinctive belief that moral behavior is dependent upon God -- as ethical arbiter and/or assigner of divine punishment -- creates a belief system strong enough to override evidence to the contrary. It leads people many to look at non-believers and reflexively assume the worst."
A belief system strong enough to override evidence to the contrary. I love that phrasing. To me, that is the very definition of religion: Religion is a belief system strong enough to override mountains of evidence to the contrary.
It's hard to account for atheists themselves perceiving atheists as immoral, other than theorizing that they have been so fully immersed in the Christian culture surrounding them that they have absorbed the prevailing thought patterns.
Complicating the issue of morality, there are two different types of morality. Well, that's not exactly true: of the two types, people who subscribe to either one firmly believe the other doesn't exist. So everyone who discusses morality will tell you there is only one type. "Moral relativism" may be defined as the idea that the moral code that any society observes comes from the society itself, which builds a consensus over time that states how its members should behave, and that the code can be different in different places and in different times, as societies evolve. "Moral absolutism," or "moral objectivism," is the idea that there is only one universal morality, and that it is permanent, not subject to the whims of any society nor the passage of time. Some believers in moral absolutism say the source of this universal morality is that it is instinctive in humans, part of our genetic makeup, but those who claim that have a tough job making their argument, in the face of the wide variety of moral codes in different places and the fact that they do change over time. (But these people, like all people anywhere, believe what they want to believe, and generally ignore such contradictions.) More often, moral absolutists cite God as the source, and say that when a society changes what it regards as the moral code, it is defying God.
The ultra-conservative website "Conservapedia" says that a morality not based on God can't be a morality at all. According to its article "Atheism and Morality": "Not possessing a religious basis for morality, which can provide a legitimate basis for objective morality, atheists are fundamentally incapable of having a coherent system of morality." Conservapedia's position is that morality can only be an absolute, because it can only come from God. (This, from an organization whose founder and leader, Andrew Schlafly, says he believes that the Bible can be rewritten to conform to an earthly, human political philosophy, as we will see in the upcoming chapter on the Bible. It seems some absolutes are less absolute than others.)
On the question of whether morality is absolute, unchanging, and is given to us by God in the Bible, let's take a look at some of the laws therein.
Do you believe that the ownership and trading of slaves is immoral? Our present-day Western society believes almost universally that it is. Any Bible-based moral absolutist will be forced to tell you that it is not. It's not just that the Bible states no prohibition of slavery, anywhere in the Old or New Testament -- far to the contrary, the Bible actually goes so far as to prescribe how slavery should work. Consider, for example, Leviticus 25:44-46, in which the Lord is speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, giving Moses yet another installment in a lengthy list of rules and regulations: "Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly." This is just one of the many Biblical statements setting laws for slavery. Some Bible apologists have claimed that in those many statements, "servant" was mistranslated as "slave," and that the verses were simply talking about people who work for you, but that obviously can't be the case in these just-quoted verses: the entire content of the verses, speaking of buying people and considering them as your property, can't be talking about anything but slaves.
As I write this, in 2015, many U.S. states are passing, or considering, "Religious Freedom Restoration Acts," with the unstated but clear goal of allowing business owners to discriminate against gay people and claim their religion tells them to. I would love to see someone in a state with such a law declare himself to be a slave-owner and defy the state to prosecute him, basing his claim to immunity from prosecution on the Bible's sanctioning of slavery.
Is it moral or immoral for a woman to occupy a leadership position? In the U.S., many women have been governors of states, twenty of a hundred U.S. senators are women, and woman have headed federal executive departments including (several times) the Department of State, which oversees all matters of U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Outside the U.S., women have headed the governments of entire countries, as presidents, chancellors, or prime ministers, including Great Britain, Germany, India, Indonesia, Liberia, Australia, and (in the Western Hemisphere) Argentina, Brazil, and Canada -- those are just the ones I could recall without looking anything up. (Notice those examples are on all six of the world's inhabited continents.) But before you answer the question at the start of this paragraph, consider this verse from one of St. Paul's letters to Timothy, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 -- "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." Paul was not God himself, but his writings are in the Bible, and come with the usual presumption that God guided his hand, so that Paul wrote what God wanted him to write. (And Paul had more than the usual degree of connection with God -- Jesus, after his resurrection, spoke directly to Paul from a blinding light on the road to Damascus, converting him to Christianity on the spot.) So the absolute morality established by God in the Bible clearly holds that women can't be leaders -- or even teachers! Admittedly Paul may possibly have had a more specialized type of "teacher" in mind, one who gives religious instruction. But now several Christian denominations accept female priests, and Judaism allows for female rabbis these days.
Are you of a mind to defend Paul by pointing out he was "merely reflecting the standards of his time"? Yes, thank you. That is my point exactly. Societal standards change. But if we are to be moral absolutists, then the Bible is clear here: we're going to have to change back. Out with the noisy female leaders.
Do you believe that if a woman (unmarried, not engaged) is raped, then the rapist and victim should be required to marry? (What a happy day for the bride.) I have a feeling that if that question were asked in a public opinion poll in a Western country, it would come as close to 0% as any question on any poll ever does. So read Deuteronomy 22:28-29 -- "If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver [Note: I am not sure what the exchange rate today would be on that]. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives."
I could go on, but I think that's enough. If you want to see an amusing, satirical, but very thought-provoking piece on the subject, look here: "Why Can't I Own A Canadian?"
Obviously there are problems with using the Bible as a guide to absolute morality, in that any community following it would have to reverse many rules that our Judeo-Christian society, as a whole, observes almost universally.
Of course, as an atheist, I don't attach any significance to any of the content of the Bible. Does that mean, as most people seem to think, that I have no motivation to observe a moral code at all?
That contention is so wrong-headed that it leaves me speechless. (So I will have to sit here typing instead.)
I try to behave in a good way. I can't say that I am always successful, but no one else can truthfully say that about themselves either. (Indeed, Christians believe that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" -- Romans 3:23.)
Why do I try to do the right thing? One reason is that doing so gives me a nicer environment to live in, and I would have to be a complete idiot not to recognize that. When you smile at someone, they smile back. When you help someone, they smile in gratitude, and might in return do something nice for you. When you hit someone, they hit you back and inflict pain on you. When you observe the standards of behavior in your society, you are accepted and welcome. When you break laws, you live in fear of being caught and punished. Living in fear is unpleasant.
None of the above observations are always true, but that's not important. I expect them to be true, and that is a motivation for behaving in a way that will, in general, make my own life more pleasant and livable. It has nothing to do with God.
A second reason has to do with empathy, the ability to imagine, sometimes in a vivid way, the physical and emotional sensations of another person. Some people have a lot of empathy, some very little. I have a sufficient amount that it causes me to want to make things better for others. To say that empathy is completely unrelated, in any way, to any religious precepts is, to me, an understatement, considering the number of political figures, claiming to be Christians, whose stated positions on a number of issues having to do with those less fortunate than themselves give no evidence whatsoever of empathy -- and these politicians maintain those empathy-free positions because they sense that a majority of voters in their states or districts, also mostly Christians, feel the same way. It is true that some Christians have empathy in an amazing degree, and act on it. They impress me. But it is part of who they are as people. It's not caused by their religion, or all Christians would be like that. Empathy is, in fact, far more compatible with humanism, "an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters." (Type Humanism into Google.) Very religious people see humanists as the enemy. Yet having a humanist outlook, joined with an empathic sense of the need of others, is an undeniable motivation for observing a moral code, entirely independently of any belief in the existence of God.
I have a moral code, and it was established by my society. Yes, that is moral relativism. There isn't any other kind. My motivations for following it are a combination of self-interest (making my own environment better for me) and empathy (making it better for other people).
And I am puzzled about something, relative to Christianity. In the U.S., the overwhelming majority of citizens label themselves as Christians, and they are the ones, for the most part, who say they believe atheists have no reason to behave according to a moral code, because atheists don't think God will punish them for anything.
Yet it is a clear point of Christian doctrine, the most central point of all, that no human on Earth is capable of behaving sufficiently blamelessly so as to earn entry into Heaven -- that no one, no matter how good they try to be, may be saved for eternal life except by accepting Jesus Christ as their own personal Savior.
So I am wondering: What, exactly, is a Christian's motivation to behave according to a moral code, if trying to be good has no effect on their salvation since they can never be good enough, and it all hinges instead on their faith in Jesus? If behaving badly, as the New Testament says everyone does without exception, won't earn them eternal punishment from God, as long as they have that faith? Any Christian who says "If I don't follow God's absolute moral code, God will punish me when He judges me" is ignoring one of the most basic precepts of Christianity. (Nevertheless, nearly all of them say exactly that. So overpowering is the human craving for justice [see chapter 3] that Christians usually ignore the teachings of their faith and believe, instead, what they would rather believe: that everyone's behavior in life, including their own, is the determining factor in ending up in Heaven or hell.)
If you are a Christian, let me know on that: tell me, in terms of the Christian faith, what your motivation is for moral behavior. If it's because you're convinced that your behavior is what determines your afterlife, then you're not a Christian.
And if you are a religious non-Christian: smile at someone today. And ask yourself if you did it ONLY because you thought God would send you to Hell if you weren't nice. Or does your motivation actually share common ground with mine?