“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
— Steven Weinberg
Last week I blogged about a sermon series about the problem of pain and how Bruxy Cavey approaches this question. During his second podcast Bruxy briefly mentioned his beliefs about the origin of human morality. In short, he believes that it comes from God and that there cannot be a just system of morality without God behind it. He says:
Atheists cannot explain their own morality.
While he absolutely agrees that atheists can be just as moral or good as Christians he doesn’t think that this sense of right and wrong can come from a non-theistic worldview:
they [atheists] are far more moral than their worldview accounts for
because he believes that there must be a higher power that arbitrates between various human groups for the greatest good. While I respect Bruxy Cavey immensely as a speaker and as a fellow human being I vehemently disagree with this premise.
For one, religion doesn’t make people more moral or good. The rules – whatever they may be – are broken just as often by the people who believe in them as they are by those who don’t follow that particular religion (or none at all.)
Sometimes, in fact, the act of following the rules actually seems to make good people into much less admirable versions of themselves. I’ve known more than one individual who was a wonderful friend and human being in every way other than his or her religious beliefs. When the topic of God came up it was like a switch had been flipped in that individual’s brain and they lost much of the good that I saw in them the rest of the time. Rather than seeing the rest of us as friends or fellow human beings we became unrepentant sinners, unbelievers, potential converts or, worse, social projects.
Bruxy and I also have a fundamental disagreement about where our desire to do and be good comes from.
I believe it comes from our generations upon generations of experiences as an extremely social species. With the exception of the rare hermit or mystic we do not do well in a life of solitude. We need one another and so we have learned ways of getting along in difficult situations and of strengthening our bonds with one another.
In short, I believe we (tend to) share similar beliefs about what is fundamentally a good or bad thing to do to someone else because cooperation and altruism are some of our oldest social tools. We could not have survived and become what we are today without them.
In a roundabout way this leads me to today’s question:
That is, how do people who don’t believe in God decide what is right and wrong? How do we determine what it means to live a good life?
I believe much of it boils down to harm. Do my actions hurt me or someone else, intentionally or unintentionally? If they do I probably shouldn’t be doing them in most situations.
This is a deceptively simple “rule.” Many aspects of modern business and product marketing would not pass it because of all of the suffering that is caused when:
- People are consumers before anything else
- Workers (especially the working poor) are treated like machines
- Money is used to define our worth as human beings
My ethical beliefs and morals don’t come with a long list of rules. Almost everything that I puzzle over can be reduced to the question of harm.
I also believe in being and doing good for goodness’ sake! That is, I (try to) lead an ethical life not for any sort of eternal or extrinsic reward but because it’s the right thing to do. Of course I hope that other people will treat me with kindness and respect in return but no one is keeping score here. I’d continue to be as loving, forgiving and kind as possible even if one or several or many people around me were none of these things. (If it continued, though, I’d find a new social group. 😉 )
What criteria do you use to decide what the most ethical or moral choices are for your life? Why are you good?