I had an interesting altercation this last weekend with a kind couple that took issue with an atheists groups presence in a public space. These people seemed like good, upstanding people, they just had a certain problem with us being there. One of the issues that really hit a nerve for me was this idea of morality being somehow weaker by being defined inside of a persons own head. This is something that is of course, a common theme in the criticisms of non-theism by the religious community, “if you do not have morality grounded in [X] then from whence do you get it? You just make it up as you go!” I found myself just struck by how this gentleman was so convinced that he had seen the fatal flaw in atheism in that we have a weak foundation for our morality since we just “make it up in our head” as he said.
However, where DO we get our morality from? After all, he has a moral code already prepacked and ready to go, free refills as need. If we do not subscribe to his set of morality, how exactly do we decide what is wrong or right? What standard do we apply to our actions if we are not to just run amok raping, killing, and stealing? Well I’ll tell you where I get mine.
The way I see it, all humans want happiness, or a positive human condition as I like to describe it. People generally like to be sheltered, fed, warm, have companions, have choices, and generally be happy. Now, of course happiness is a definite subjective term, but we can all agree on at least a base line level of things that people like-even serial killers don’t want to go hungry. Now we must examine certain actions or ideas and see how these things effect this base line of the human condition. Take one of the examples the gentleman brought up, “why shouldn’t I just beat the crap out of someone? I’d feel happy, and they’d feel unhappy. But my happiness is greater than the unhappiness this person experiences.” There is the obvious problem of someone aggression against someone, I mean, who WANTS to be beat up? But that is beside the point, we have to look at our human condition and see how things wash out. Regardless of how happy it makes him to harm another person, he is intentionally causing a decrease in the human condition of another purpose for no reason other than anger or lack of self control. That in and of itself is a bad thing, is it not? He wouldn’t want to be beat up, he wouldn’t want his friends to be beat up, and most other people wouldn’t want to beat him up all things being equal, so he shouldn’t beat people up, right?
The point of all of this conjecture regarding the human condition is that creating a moral code based upon the reasoning out of actions and the consequences there of is a far more useful tool than relying on some kind of prepacked bronze age religious code. Choosing to do what you consider Right over Wrong is far more important than choosing Wrong because you were told it was Right.
A great living example would be why doesn’t the atheist do what is immoral out of a matter of course? How can an atheist, that does not have a “solid” foundation for morality live a moral life in a modern society without referencing a theist moral structure? How does that happen? Furthermore, how can a theist make known immoral decisions while indeed having that same solid moral foundation? This seems to be a contradiction in the idea that morality stemming from rational thought is inferior to the morality handed down from some external force?
So next time you are confronted with a moral choice or see an immoral one being made by a theist, you should ask why they stole, or fought, or why they did not. I highly doubt any theist will say “I did not steal that car because Jesus said not to, otherwise I would have.” or “I chose to return those car keys, not because I’d like mine returned to me, but because in the bible there is a specific tract about car keys”. No, they, and everyone else, makes decisions based on the morality of the society around them and apply their own rationale.
The key is getting it all to be done rationally, consistent, and logically without the cloud of authoritarianism mucking up the process.