Atheist Morality

I overheard a discussion the other day between tow people – both apparently religious, one more reasonable (as in, willing to reason instead of simply decide something and never be willing to change) than the other – and they were talking about morality. One was fairly certain that even without a belief in God, or god, or a higher power, atheists could be moral, though not in the same way that a religious person is. The other, however, was vehemently opposed to this, saying that without faith in a power like God, atheists had no moral compass, and that all atheists were just a step or two from being total psychopaths.

Now, being an atheist, this kind of bugged me, but it wasn’t my conversation (plus I was working), so I didn’t jump in. But, despite being an atheists, I was raised Catholic, and I know what religion is, and what religious faith feels like; I used to have it, after all. I just don’t have it anymore. I’m not anti-religious; I’m just areligious – that is, I have no desire to be a part of a religion. Not because I think they’re all bad, but for the same reason some people don’t join bowling leagues or go camping on weekends – it’s just not my thing anymore.

But I also think I have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong. Being raised Catholic, I am well aware of what Catholicism, and the larger extent Christianity, views as right and wrong. And, largely, this tends to map onto Western society pretty well. But, being a fantasy nerd, my ideas of morality have also been shaped by my favorite characters, fictional and historical. Some of them are harder – much harder – to live up to than others, but I like to think that I try, even if not all that actively.

I think my second entry to this blog – or maybe my third – was on the fictional codes of conduct I keep in my wallet. Those were just the easiest to codify in a wallet-portable form; there are many great, moral characters that I feel have been important to me. The easiest example would, of course, be the Jedi from the original Star Wars movies – well, mostly Luke and Yoda, because Obi-Wan’s ‘true from a certain point of view’ schtick was a littler weak, morally speaking. But after that, I think the big one from early one would be Sturm Brightblade, iconic paladin-type character from the original Dragonlance novels. They aren’t high literature, to be sure, but they were one of my earliest introductions to fantasy literature, and my worn and beaten copies of that trilogy still rest on my bookshelf, over twenty years later.

There are so many other character which fit the bill as moral characters whose devotion to doing the right thing, even when times are tough, makes them guides and shapers of my childhood morality. Captain America is one – a piece of Captain America art is one of the few pieces of artwork in my apartment; my collection of Cap graphic novels was one of the important things I brought to Texas from St. Louis. The character of Michael Carpenter from the Dresden Files book series is a great one, as well, even though he is explicitly a servant of God – he wields a sword with one of the three nails from the crucifixion worked into it.  There’s also Aragorn, the classic Tolkien character; while worn and hardened by life on the edge of civilization, he still has a strong moral core. Almost any member of the Fellowship of the Ring fits this bill, even Boromir – his momentary lapse in the face of possibly the second-greatest evil in existence never seemed to me a reflection of his character, just that people can fail.

I could go on and on – there are almost certainly more than I can think of in a reasonable period of time. But the point is, I’m an atheist with a finely-tuned sense of morality. Religious folk have no particular claim to that particular arena; without deeper insight into why God, or whatever divine being a person believes in, commanded people to by compassionate, merciful, and good, just doing so is meaningless. As Adam Lee notes in his article The Basis for an Atheist’s Morality, “In your column, you said that morality cannot be anchored without reference to a higher power: that if God had not commanded us to be good, we would have no reason to be good, and no justification for condemning those who were not. This claim betrays its own incoherence, for we can then ask, why does God command us to be moral? Does he have reasons for that edict? If so, then we too can make use of those reasons, for if they are good ones, they will stand on their own without reference to who is giving them. On the other hand, if God has no reasons for his commands, then religious morality is cut loose from any anchor. God commanded us to be merciful and kind, but that was just an arbitrary choice with no deeper significance. He could just as easily have commanded us to be vicious and cruel, and those traits would then be the definition of goodness which we were all bound to follow. Can any rational person accept such a nonsensical conclusion?”

I try to do good, or at least not do evil, in my everyday life. I love my family and my friends, and I would do almost anything for them. I believe in helping people rather than hurting them – though occasionally (and profanely) I get rather violent-sounding when stuck in Houston traffic. That’s part of why I started this blog; not just to try and work things out in my head in a more open forum, but also to try and share any helpful parts of treatment I picked up with people who don’t have the luxury of going to someplace like Menninger. And I do all this not because I was commanded to by God, but because I want to. Because it feels right. I mean, hell, I feel guilty when I play a bad guy in video games. Zapping people with Force Lightning when I try to play a Sith in a Star Wars video game? Not fun, more like almost painful for me. 

So, is this morality? According to Merriam-Webster Online, morality is defined as ‘beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior; the degree to which something is right and good : the moral goodness or badness of something’. I think I have a pretty healthy regard for what is right and wrong. So apparently, even though I don’t have religious faith (at least, at the moment; I’m open to change), I can be a moral person. 

No offense is meant to any readers who are religious, by the way; just because I’m not religious doesn’t mean I have a problem with those who are. I simply take issue with the idea that, because I lack faith in a higher power, I have nothing to keep me on the straight and narrow. If you have comments on this, and are willing to be reasonable with them, I am willing to listen. I haven’t deleted a comment yet, and I don’t intend to start now.

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5 comments on “Atheist Morality

  1. By the nature and definition of atheism, if atheists possess morality it’s because they borrowed it from someplace.

    Without God, there is only Mother Nature. Mother Nature has no morality. Mother Nature’s only imperative is survival of the fittest.

    There is no objective right or wrong for the atheist, only an opinion of what is right or wrong.

    And since there are over 6 billion personal opinions on planet Earth, one atheist’s opinion on morals is as worthless as any other.

    • Well, according to, again, Merriam-Webster, atheism is defined as ‘a disbelief in the existence of deity; the doctrine that there is no deity’ (and yes, I am omitting the portion of the definition noted as archaic which defines atheism as ungodliness or wickedness). There’s nothing inherent about atheism that points to a lack of morality, just a lack of belief in a deity. Is there a question here? Is my sense of morality really in doubt because I don’t believe in a god?

  2. Melissa says:

    I’ve seen great moral fiber in those who don’t believe in God. Some of the most socially conscious people I know are atheists.

    And, as a pastor, I’ve seen a lot of followers of God (and Jesus) who are, as the religious person put it in your opening paragraph, one step away from being psychopaths.

    I think we ALL are one or two steps away from being lost, from straying from the straight and narrow. And as a person who DOES believe in God, I DO believe that it is God and only God who keeps us from straying. It’s just that some acknowledge that guidance as God, some don’t…and some (believers and non-believers) refuse or are unable to accept the guidance at all.

    But when did people of faith (especially Christians) get the idea that we have a monopoly on God’s involvement and action in the world? The idea that God CAN’T or WON’T act in the lives of some because they don’t adhere to a human construct strikes me as limiting to the God they (and I) believe in.

    It’s my belief, and it is so because I’ve seen it, that God graces us all with guidance for good out of love for us, whether we recognize it as God or not.

    I don’t know if in your time of being religious, Knight, or in your longer time of being a lover of fantasy, if you’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia. Yeah, we all did The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe…but have you read The Last Battle? Basically Lewis’s take on the coming of God’s Kingdom (not the end of the world, btw). The last few chapters blew my mind because I realized that Lewis is not what American popular Christianity would make him out to be. He’s a closet Universalist in his own way. I think those last few chapters would fit this discussion on morality and where it comes from quite nicely.

  3. Laurel says:

    Morality and religion really have nothing to do with each other and obviously atheists can be moral, just like Christians can me amoral. The 2 have no relationship at the end of the day. The thing is the reason why most Christians are moral ( at least if you read what the bible ) tells them is not at all the reason atheists are likely moral. I just sort of imagine atheists are moral because they simply think it’s the right thing to do according to the rules of the world we live in. Christians don’t care about what the rules of the world are because they are irrelevant to their ultimate behavioral goals.

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