Where Do Atheists Get Their Morality?

There have been lots of answers to this question by lots of people. This is a amateur and non-academic stab at the issue.

Those who argue against secular morality almost inevitable talk about the necessity of ‘absolute morality.’ But what does that mean? As far as I can tell, absolute morality means holding up some outside moral authority over even your own conscience. This is demonstrated in the way that most of the major religions hold up obedience as one of the highest virtues. Probably most the the time your conscience will agree with the authority. But what if the authority in question demands something that disagrees with your conscience? Does obeying your conscience ever mean disobeying the absolute authority?

  • As an example from the Bible, consider the Abraham and Isaac story. Was it moral for Abraham to kill his son? By what moral standard? I agree with Julia Sweeney on this one–if you perceive that a God is telling you to kill your child is not the proper answer ‘No I will NOT even if it means I’m going to hell!’?
  • What about conscientious objectors to war? In the context of morality do you think it makes sense to hold the authority of your own conscience over that of your countries leaders? If you want to answer this from a Christian point of view, please reread Romans 13 first.
  • The ‘conscience’ objection for pharmacists re:birth control? What other medications might a pharmacist object to for conscience reasons? And what kind of moral standard is being upheld by withholding women’s access to birth control?

My conclusion is that if you hold up the dictates of your own conscience over that of an outside moral authority, then you can’t believe that morality is absolute. Why is it not considered morally acceptable for a soldier to torture prisoners or commit other war crimes and then claim ‘I was only following orders?’ Absolute morality and personal responsibility do not fit together.

My personal view is that morality does not come from ‘on high,’ from some absolute source whether it’s God or something else like the rulers of your country. It is an inevitable product of a society where people must live together and interact with each other. Good moral acts are those that take into consideration the well-being and happiness of yourself and of those around you. I’m not a professional philosopher, but I’ve found that in my daily life this has been a good rule of thumb. Since there is no static list of rules that takes into account each and every situation and moral choice in life, morality is situational. Each and every moral decision is unique.

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2 thoughts on “Where Do Atheists Get Their Morality?

  1. I read an interesting study once where the authors stripped a Bible story of the names of the characters and God, and asked a group of kids whether or not it was moral. The kids on the group where the name was stripped said “no” and the group of kids that got the entire story intact said yes. I can’t remember which story it was. I *think* it was the Abraham story, which is why I thought of it, but it may have been something about King David.

  2. In my book at http://www.suprarational.org I wrote a chapter about morality and conscience, called “Duel of the Dual.” Here is an excerpt:

    “Conscience” is a misused and misunderstood word. “Have you no conscience?,” ask people of a person who does something which seems to them to be so obviously wrong. Each person has a dual conscience and, occasionally, these two sides do engage in a duel.

    The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned…” Individual moral development is based on both.

    Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

    Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

    Sri Aurobindo said “…true original Conscience in us [is] deeper than constructed and conventional conscience of the moralist, for it is this which points always towards Truth and Right and Beauty, towards Love and Harmony and all that is a divine possibility in us.” Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not.

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