When I started this blog, I knew I would eventually get from “why did I have doubts?” to the “so, what now?” side of things. I am looking forward to this because (like the definition of atheist) this is a topic that a lot of Christian apologists get completely wrong. (To be fair, a lot of atheists get it wrong too.)
If you can get far enough into a discussion with a theist of any religion, one of the objections that almost always comes up is something like “if you don’t believe in (my) god, then how do you know right from wrong” or, worse, “if you don’t believe in (my) god, then there is no such thing as right and wrong.”
Many atheists at this point roll their eyes, scoff, and say something like “that’s ridiculous, of course there’s right and wrong, we’re a social species and we wouldn’t have evolved to be having this discussion if we didn’t think murder was wrong.”
My point here is that both sides tend to dramatically oversimplify things because it seems so obvious and intuitive to each that the other cannot possibly justify an evident fact.
Theists tend to hold a wide variety of beliefs on the issue of morality but the most common arguments tend to boil down to a requirement for an absolute, objective morality. In other words, “without an objective standard of morality, you cannot possibly determine whether something is right or wrong.” Sometimes this will be simplified even further to something like, “without God there is no such as thing as right and wrong.”
Many atheists are (too) quick to respond that “there’s no such thing as objective morality,” which makes most theists think that every atheist is just a moral relativist (often Christian slang for hedonist). I would encourage anyone to read John Stuart Mills’ Utilitarianism. It is more or less the seminal text on how morality can work without any need for a set of outside, absolute, commands. The argument, put very simply, is this:
Things are good (moral) if they increase the happiness of humans as a whole. Things are evil (immoral) if they decrease the happiness of humans as a whole.
Before any theists try to pick this apart, let me add some clarification. Happiness hear is something Mills’ spends a large portion of the first few chapters defining. Essentially it is not momentary pleasure or simple contentment. It really means the quality of life is better for as many individuals as possible without violating someone else’s entitlement to that same quality of life. This is obviously a complex topic and if you want to dive into specific scenarios, objections, counter-arguments and so on–please read the book (it’s both relatively short and freely available from the link above).
Really, Matt Dillahunty does an even better job of explaining this for a lay audience. If we want to have an “objective morality” then we need to set some objective ways of measuring whether a given action is right or wrong. These can be any arbitrary criteria but if we start with the question, “does this enhance human well-being or detract from it?” then we can measure against that objectively to determine how moral or immoral any action might be.
For example, murder obviously detracts from the well-being of the individual being murdered. That doesn’t mean that all killing is wrong. A self-defense killing may increase the well-being of more humans than it detracts from in ending that one individual’s life. That’s a pretty obvious case, but the same principles can be used on much more complex issues.
In one extreme example, take the issue of someone who is molested while unconscious. Most of us would have an immediate revulsion at that idea but can this system of utilitarianism still be used to determine that it was wrong if the individual in question is not even aware of the act and no one else witnessed it? Of course it can. If we live in a world where such an act is seen as permissible, then we may all worry what might happen to us whenever we are unconscious. Human well-being is diminished then, compared to a world where such acts are not permissible. Therefore, in order to maximize human well-being, this must be seen as an immoral act.
The critical point here is that nothing in this framework for determining right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral requires anything supernatural at all and can get us not only answers that seem intuitive or obvious, but also to much more difficult questions that a simple set of commandments cannot address.
The last thought on this topic is really to think about what an absolute lawgiver really means. Is it right to do something because of a fear of punishment or hope of reward? Is it really good to do things just because you are told to? If so, then it is theists who lack any system of morality to determine whether anything not explicitly covered by their scriptures is right or wrong (what is God’s stance on cloning, artificial intelligence, or even cell phone use for that matter?). If it is not, then an absolute lawgiver doesn’t provide a basis for morality at all.