Non-Theistic Morality

“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:

What Does Non-Theistic Morality Look Like?

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?


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4 Responses to Non-Theistic Morality

  1. 'Seph

    Thank God you posted this!

    I’ve had an idea for a blog but had forgotten it. (And I mean completely forgotten it! Worse than that, I remembered that I had forgotten it!) It has to do with Religions and Belief-Systems not being about morality. But anyway… that’s neither here nor there. Hopefully it’ll come to me over the holidays.


    ”Atheists cannot explain their own morality… they are far more moral than their worldview accounts for”

    I can’t agree with Bruxy here either. In fact, I honestly can’t even really follow him here. WTF‘s he talking about? Seriously. Since when is it of value, of necessity, of a known criteria that we can trace the source of our ‘goodness’? Really?!

    I’m surprised hearing this come from a Christian. In fact, very surprised.
    I know this is a tangent to your point, but I can’t quite let it go yet.
    Okay, Bruxy, how can Christians explain their own morality? Leaving The Fall well enough alone, to answer “God” isn’t answering this question btw. (Think it through a bit).

    Christians admit they cannot totally know God – or God’s goodness for that matter – so their definition of “Good” becomes synonymous with God’s nature; no questions asked. (Kinda cyclic logic there, isn’t it?)
    I could go on ’til the cows come home about this definition of “Good”. A Morally Good God demanding one of His supplicants (Abraham) prove their ‘goodness’ by murdering their own son (Issac). (Yes, I’m taking this biblical story literally).
    From an “atheist’s” worldview this request, this ‘test’, is anything but morally ‘good’.
    Yes, I know this particular example can be explained as a lesson or a metaphor (whether it is or isn’t can be debated), but there are numerous other examples of the Biblical God as a Moral Exemplar simply not working too well.
    In fact, this definition of what is Morally Good, based upon the Exemplar of the Biblical God is a position in which I would challenge Christians that they cannot explain their own morality.

    …but enough of that rant.

    Many organized religions attempt to make self-serving (or self-survival) synonymous with Evil. This is a completely different (even opposite) angle to the question you’re posing, but again, should be enough to question these definitions of exactly what is “Good” and what isn’t. Although people can easily and often be mistaken and misguided, I feel extremely few are actually “evil”.

    It’s interesting you come up with about what ‘wrong’ is. Basically, anything that causes – directly or indirectly, harm. I think for the most part I’d agree.

    Similar to how a politician necessarily fails by attempting to please all people all the time, I believe – to a certain degree – this too can apply to this sense of morality. Giving the poor money I don’t believe is necessarily an act of goodness. Just as giving a vagrant change is a morally good act. I don’t believe you are really helping them. (I had touched upon this in Harmonious-Dichotomies).
    I suppose I’m getting into the realm of defining exactly what causing harm and not causing harm really are.

    ”People are consumers before anything else”
    This is definitely harmful.
    In fact, the fall of Russian (c. 1991?) I have heard it said that the experiment of Communism had found its answer. (Implying that Communism cannot function practically. Also implying that Capitalism and/or Democracy ‘won’).

    Capitalism, basically, promotes the amassing of wealth. Which, in and of its own, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, when this goal is achieved (which it has been) the next question – what do we do with this amassed wealth? – needs to be asked. And it is critically important exactly who we ask this question to. When Capitalism itself is asked this question, its answer is Consumerism. This is bad. Very bad. But it doesn’t necessarily make Capitalism wrong. There are other answers to this ”what do we do with this amassed wealth?” question.

    Just as the experiment of Communism failed in 1991(?) so too did the experiment of Capitalism-Consumerism fail in 2008 beginning its collapse in the U.S.A.

    …so, what is a valid answer to the question of ‘what do we do with this amassed wealth?’


    ”Workers (especially the working poor) are treated like machines
    Money is used to define our worth and human beings”

    Sadly… too true.
    I think it takes a step beyond these two points.
    Far too many people I know value and self-define themselves by their jobs. …or worse, value and self-define others by their jobs.

    My friend Joey works for the Federal Government, my friend Bob works in Hi-Tech, I work in the Printing Industry, while my friend Jim works at McDonalds. Therefore Joey’s better than all of us, followed by Bob, and then myself. Jim isn’t even on the radar of value.
    How pathetic is that? Yet this really is the mindset so many people hold.

    I know this is such a clique, but it really comes down to what you want put on your gravestone.
    “Seph had a good job and was a really good worker”
    ”Seph put more hours in the company than anyone else” (Yeah! He wins!)
    ”Seph made a shitload of money, had a giant house, a cool car, and died with a pension”



    How about,
    ”Seph took days off work to play with his kids”?
    Or better yet, what about,
    ”Seph was known to make great use of the word “No” at work when it came to overtime”

    …or how about absolutely no reference to work or career at all.
    How ’bout,
    ”Seph was a good father and a loving husband”?

    I think I would add to your definition of ‘good’ – above and beyond not causing harm – the ability to gift one’s time. (And I don’t mean volunteer work!) I honestly don’t think there’s anything more valuable.

    I think if one spends all of their time working and earning money, and then spend all of their time shopping and being a consumer – but yet not causing anyone harm – I would still question whether one’s a “Good” person or not.

    …No. They’re not.


    ”I also believe in being and doing good for goodness sake! That is, I (try to) lead an ethical life not by any sort of eternal or extrinsic reward but because it’s the right thing to do”

    I think this is the one argument many organized religions struggle with.
    Personally, I believe if we attempt to be good and do good for the reason of some sort of brownie points for a Deitfied Spiritual Superman in the sky, then we are really only falling victim to being Self-serving and Self-surviving – Little different from those nasty moral less atheists!! 😉

    I very much like Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn undead hero. Without going into too much detail, basically Spawn was a human (and mortal) assassin who was extremely good at his job (Maybe a little too good). Eventually he was betrayed, double-crossed, and himself killed. For being such a good and nasty piece or work, he was condemned to Hell. (Read in, all salvation lost!).

    He returned as a HellSpawn – a champion of Hell, endowed with incredible powers.
    …yet, somehow, for some reasons Spawn still ‘fought the good fight’. Why?
    There was nothing – literallynothing – for him to gain or attain.
    I absolutely LOVE this character and this example. (One in which I’ve put to numerous church groups and meetings, etc. over the years). He did it for a simple reason. Because deep down inside he was innately good, and for goodness sake.


    The implication is that its opposite might be – or even should be – questioned. Doing good for reward?
    No. I don’t buy into the Stick-and-Carrot theology. It has its place, but that place is infantile and juvenile. We’re all adults here.

    Is it coincidental that this post and this comment happens on Christmas Eve?
    …so be good for goodness sake!”

    … I wonder…?

    Merry Christmas to you all!!

    • Tammy

      good thoughts, both of you.
      there is so much more to life than earning and spending.

    • This is the best comment I’ve ever received on my blog. Thank you, ‘Seph.

      Yes, I did post it just before Christmas on purpose. The carrot and stick theology has always stuck in my craw and it seems to be more prevalent around the big holidays.

      “I think I would add to your definition of ‘good’ – above and beyond not causing harm – the ability to gift one’s time. (And I don’t mean volunteer work!) I honestly don’t think there’s anything more valuable. ”

      I really like this, too. I wasn’t thinking about the broader implications of living a “good” life originally but there is more to it than the absence of harm.

      You don’t seem like the type of person who is unusually devoted to what you do for a living. I’m not either.

      • 'Seph

        “You don’t seem like the type of person who is unusually devoted to what you do for a living. I’m not either”.

        I’m sure you’ve heard this question asked many times before.
        “Do you work to live, or live to work?”

        The vaste majority of people ‘know’ what the correct or expected answer is. (Work to live, not the other). But I think the opposite is true with this same vaste majority. I believe to so many people they live to work. After all, they define their own social status on it. Whether that social status is directly linked to their career itself or a byproduct of their career – earnings, money, material possessions, etc., it all boils down to social status, doesn’t it? Why else do most people choose to have luxury cars they don’t practically need, or super-sized houses? I just love seeing people drive massive SUV’s but pussyfoot it over tiny speedbumps and potholes!

        Me, I work to live. If I didn’t have to (work that is) I wouldn’t. Plain and simple.
        You don’t know how many time I seriously contiplate quitting my job and saying home. Being a house-dad possibly or my wife’s business partner (…not sure how well that one would work out though…living and working together 24/7? We might kill each other!). Why don’t I do these things? I don’t believe I could earn a living doing so (yet).

        No, I’m not overly attached or devoted to what I do for a living. (Not to be confused with being un-dedicated or un-devoted or poor at my job. I’m extremely good at my job, but it isn’t because of any sort of social status or self-identifying issues; it is because of a good sense of work-ethic. I don’t “produce good work” because of any sort of carrot-and-stick-philosophy, but because it is the right thing to do. And again we return full circle to the sense of morality of an internally responsible accountibility to right and wrong; to be good for goodness sake.

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