If you are an atheist, where do you get your morals?
I’ve suffered this question more times than I care to remember. As recently as last Friday, a woman, who happened to be Muslim, insinuated that I had no moral constancy because I lacked what she called fit rah, a god-given sense of right and wrong, tempered by what she termed external revelation.
There are several inconquerable problems with the argument, but first, let’s re-state the claim. There are two versions – one I will call strong theistic morality, and the other will be weak theistic morality.
The weak argument concedes the point that morality is inherent in the human species. This morality had to have come from somewhere, so its mere existence is proof that God has given morality to humans. In addition to ignoring the existence of psychopaths, this argument is simply backwards logic. Even if you grant that there is a God that can infuse humans with a sense of morality, this does not show that humans get their morality from God, anymore than the fact that I am full proves I recently ate a sandwich (as opposed to a bowl of soup). Affirming the consequent tells you nothing. Unless such people can produce another Earth where there was absolutely no divine intervention to serve as a control, simply observing that humans are moral proves nothing.
The strong argument is more entertaining. This is generally the argument behind demands by theists that the atheist explain where she gets her morals, or that atheists cannot have morality. It consists of the assertion that without a old book to explain it, we have no way of deriving any moral system, and must apparently stand by why others murder, rape, etc. The conclusion is that – if you can believe it – it would somehow be immoral to stop other people from committing these acts in the absence of an objective morality!
Those who assert that they get their morals from their religion fail to consider that they had to have the ability to recognize that the Koran is moral (if it is indeed moral) first. Otherwise, they chose at random, and have no justification for saying their moral system is any better than any other revealed wisdom. If they can discriminate between right and wrong without the Koran, they clearly aren’t getting their morals from the Koran.
But we can tell that these folks aren’t getting their moral system from the bible or the koran because they would have had to actually read it. And if they had read it, they’d know that their own religion teaches that morality came from the god damn tree of knowledge of good and evil, which, I remind them, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat. They were tricked into obtaining a sense of morality by Satan – not given it by God. The only thing God ever gave anyone is a list of contradictory, incoherent rules. One would almost suspect that if there is a God, this is his way of taking away mankind’s ability to know right from wrong.
Steven Weinberg called religion an insult to human dignity. With or without it 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.