Why do atheists have morals?

(76 Posts)
anotherviper Fri 04-Apr-14 20:13:23

I know this could come across as goady, but I don't mean it that way, it's a genuine question meant respectfully, and I'm sure there are people out there who have thought about this already who can help my random ponderings.

It vaguely occurred to me the other day with the faith schools threads, and again more recently from a book I've been reading. Obviously atheists do have morals, (which is what several posters were at pains to point out on the threads), but my question is why? Where do they come from?

What I mean is, if there's actually a being who created humans and who said, for example, 'you should treat other people as you'd like to be treated' that is then a good reason for people to do so and to believe that everyone should. But if there is no such being, how can one human being claim that another should behave a certain way? Surely it's just a matter of opinion, and one person's opinion is as valid as another's?

Another example, I'm fairly sure most people on here would agree that women should be treated equally to men and that it's wrong to pay women less for the same job, or to not bother educating them as they'll just have babies etc. But lots of people historically and throughout the world wouldn't agree with that view, and what makes one view more correct than the other if there's no absolute?

I've just deleted the rest of what I was going to post as I was waffling on - but it was along the lines of how can we say that there are such things as human rights, why should everyone agree on them?

I think that as humans we're blessed with the power of logical thinking and empathy. Therefore, our instinct tells us that inflicting pain/misfortune on others isn't the best thing to do as we can imagine the pain it would cause if it happens to us. Sorry, that's a simplistic and ill-thought-out way of putting it but I'm tired! grin
I'm an atheist, BTW and often spend time considering morality and religion.

Finickynotfussy Fri 04-Apr-14 20:17:49

Probably because we're the same species as people with religious faith hmm

onetiredmummy Fri 04-Apr-14 20:18:19

Personally my morals are derived from the law, cultural norms, upbringing and an intrinsic sense of right or wrong.

FunkyBoldRibena Fri 04-Apr-14 20:25:08

The question should be: why do people who are religious NOT have morals without the religion.

You do not need to be religious to have morals for goodness sakes. Do you really need someone telling you to be nice to others or you will go to hell? Shouldn't you just want to be nice because it's a good way of living?

WitchOfEndor Fri 04-Apr-14 20:25:30

I don't want to generalize in my answer because atheists are people who don't believe in God, that's all they really have in common, so I'm sure there are some very moral and some absolutely horrible atheists out there! But my understanding of it (as an atheist) is that just because a message comes from a particular religion doesn't mean that atheists can't recognize that it's a valuable piece of advice e.g do unto others, thou shalt not steal. And as the main religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam share some of the prophets these messages have been part of the culture of many people for a long time.

What atheism gives you is the freedom to pick and choose which advice to follow, as they aren't bound by any one interpretation. And it also frees you from feeling that you have to support things you may not agree with because your faith supports them e.g. gay marriage, contraception, fgm, circumcision. And atheists aren't behaving in a certain way because they are scared they will be punished in the afterlife either.

tinkerbellvspredator Fri 04-Apr-14 20:27:11

The reason humans have been so successful as a species is because we have evolved a high level of intelligence and cooperative societies. We couldn't have cooperation without empathy, and 'morals'. I think morals do change they are based on cultural norms and thus your equality example comes into play. This makes much more sense to me than that we all have morals because "a big boy told me to do it".

tinkerbellvspredator Fri 04-Apr-14 20:27:34

The reason humans have been so successful as a species is because we have evolved a high level of intelligence and cooperative societies. We couldn't have cooperation without empathy, and 'morals'. I think morals do change they are based on cultural norms and thus your equality example comes into play. This makes much more sense to me than that we all have morals because "a big boy told me to do it".

tinkerbellvspredator Fri 04-Apr-14 20:27:44

The reason humans have been so successful as a species is because we have evolved a high level of intelligence and cooperative societies. We couldn't have cooperation without empathy, and 'morals'. I think morals do change they are based on cultural norms and thus your equality example comes into play. This makes much more sense to me than that we all have morals because "a big boy told me to do it".

MolotovCocktail Fri 04-Apr-14 20:28:03

I don't need an outdated book, evidencing long-gone societal codes and conventions to instruct me what is right and what is wrong.

I inherently know. I don't need the promise of an afterlife to direct me into being 'good'. I believe humankind has evolved this way because kindness and cooperation is the best way forward.

Fwiw, I'm not an atheist but I am in no way connected to any major religion (I consider myself to be a pantheist).

callamia Fri 04-Apr-14 20:32:20

Why does a small child look to comfort someone who is upset? Why do we take notice of each others' emotions long before we have any idea about organised religion?

Moral thinking grows from our experiences with the world - our brains tend to be sensitive to faces and emotions. Morals can change over time and through different societies; humans can rationalise decisions like capital punishment, perhaps using the bible as a basis. We should critically evaluate morals, and realise that sometimes the prevailing attitude is wrong.

MiniTheMinx Fri 04-Apr-14 20:36:04

It is very difficult if not impossible to establish moral facts using philosophical argument. Some people assert that there are no moral facts. If you want to read philosophy and in particular about ethics Kant is a good place to start.

StampyIsMyBoyfriend Fri 04-Apr-14 20:37:32

Empathy. Conscience. Decency as prescribed by society. The knowledge that I won't be forgiven by some higher being, but simply have to live with doing a shitty thing until I die and become worm food

AWimbaWay Fri 04-Apr-14 20:38:26

https://humanism.org.uk/thatshumanism/

Although I would call myself an atheist rather than a humanist, the "What makes something right or wrong?" clip in the above link sums things up quite nicely for me.

Can't promise I've read the whole OP very carefully ....

But just responding to the ridiculous header .....

Why do believers have no bloody imagination ? (apart from when it comes to sky fairies obviously - OK apologies for that bit)

Do as you would be done by? Is it really so hard? confused

MrsCaptainReynolds Fri 04-Apr-14 20:39:27

I tend to think having principles beyond the "rules" of a chosen (or more commonly, indoctrinated) religion is rather more meaningful.

The humanist society has lots of say about this. If you are genuinely interested:
https://humanism.org.uk/

LumpySpacePrincessOhMyGlob Fri 04-Apr-14 20:39:32

Look at nature, monkeys don't have a god but they all seem to rub along together quite nicely. It's in everyone's best interests to be a good person.

I think an atheist is more likely to be a moral person too. They don't have a big invisible friend telling them that being gay is wrong or being a woman makes you inferior.

I think more immoral acts are carried out in the name of religion than by your average Jo Athiest.

tinkerbellvspredator Fri 04-Apr-14 20:42:07

The reason humans have been so successful as a species is because we have evolved a high level of intelligence and cooperative societies. We couldn't have cooperation without empathy, and 'morals'. I think morals do change they are based on cultural norms and thus your equality example comes into play. This makes much more sense to me than that we all have morals because "a big boy told me to do it".

WeAreDetective Fri 04-Apr-14 20:42:27

If God is a construct of humans then the moral code religion has is also a construct of humans.

So a religious faith is irrelevant. Humans are, by nature, moral.

tinkerbellvspredator Fri 04-Apr-14 20:43:06

Oops!

fisherpricephone Fri 04-Apr-14 20:46:23

Co-operative societies do better than non-co-operative societies. So we have evolved to co-operate. Morals are just very basic rules about how to co-operate, all religions share similar rules (don't kill, don't steal etc). The Law is much more detailed about how to behave, and you'd not be surprised that someone followed the law.

Atheists would say the rules religious people follow are laid down by a man-made God, so are just human rules, but very old ones that show their age. It's religion that inspires homophobia and pro-lifers after all. Both very 'moral' but with some hateful extremes.

anotherviper Fri 04-Apr-14 20:47:38

Arghh, that was a lot more replies than I was expecting! I was worried some people would read it that way...

juggling but that's exactly what I mean - yes, it's obvious - but why should that be the case? The animal kingdom can be quite ruthless, but we would expect better from humans - why?

mini yes the book I was reading quote Kant I think - that was the perspective I was coming from, which I tried to get across in the op but possibly not very well.

callamia yes that's possibly a better (less goady) way of wording the question and I wish I had now - why do children respond innately and want to comfort people etc? How much is learn and how much innate? Why is any innate?

molotov why do you inherently know, and why (do you?) do you expect others to agree?

StampyIsMyBoyfriend Fri 04-Apr-14 20:48:43

I was goaded by two old ladies once, at a humanist 'do'

They wondered how on earth I could live a 'good' life, without believing in God... in some ways, I think being a non believer makes people who live within a moral code 'even gooder' as we answer to our peers, and the entire human race... Not someone in heaven who doesn't exist

Selks Fri 04-Apr-14 20:50:51

What an odd question, OP. Why not ask 'why do humans have morals?', unless you believe that the only way non-athiests 'get' their morals is through religion, which if so is a strange belief to have frankly.

Because we're slightly, but only slightly, more intelligent than some other animals. Therefore we have a slightly increased capacity for empathy with others.

Considering our capacity for empathy with those close to us we don't do very well (as a species/world society) at applying it to our relationships with others a little further away, or slightly more different in some way to us sad

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now