Thursday, December 6, 2012

Can Atheists Be Moral?

Can atheists be moral? The simple answer is, yes. But the next question is, why? All of us are products of our upbringing. Also, there seems to be a deeply ingrained tendency in human beings to believe in morality. Even if we reject traditional morality, we erect a new morality in its place. Some may accept the the killing of the unborn, but they protest the destruction of endangered species. But what do we base any morality on? This is not just a problem for atheists, but also for agnostics and those who hold to a vague, impersonal God who is not concerned about morality. I remember back when I was an agnostic thinking I should do things for the good of posterity. Then I asked the question why I should care about the good of posterity. The concern for the good of posterity is a moral principle, and without morality I had nothing to base it on.

Some would try to base morality on evolution, claiming that evolution can promote cooperation as well as competition. But this reduces morality to enlightened self-interest. However, is this morality? Let's face it, bank robbers and crooked politicians can cooperate together to accomplish their purposes. But morality is based on the idea that there are certain things I should do because they are right, even if they are not to my personal advantage. If we reject such an idea, let us simply be honest and say we reject morality and have done with it. If I am only moral as long as it is to my advantage to be moral, my morality is useless. But can real morality be justified from a purely naturalistic point of view? 

I do think this morality without basis does make it more likely that certain individuals will reject morals entirely. However, I frankly do not think most of us will give up on moral thinking; it is too much a part of us. But I do think that morality without basis leads to moral creep. We can base our morals on whatever people happen to think or whatever is portrayed sympathetically in the media. And a good writer can make almost anything look reasonable. Therefore, we drift in our convictions, depending on what is currently acceptable or the last thing we viewed or read.

But the bottom line is, if I cannot shake this morality thing, where did it come from? Now this is not an unequivocal argument for the existence of God. One can always claim that morality is some kind of a mental fallacy, and people should live only for self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. But we have to ask why this fallacy is so persistent and why we have such a hard time shaking it. And if we are going to keep living by it, we need a logical basis for our behavior. 

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