A religious devotee says: "If man cannot be held accountable for his actions by a higher power, then how can he have morals? Without a guideline from a supernatural power of what is right and wrong, what would prevent all of civilization from sinking into a sea of muck and sludge?"

Morals are indeed guidelines for making decisions. Presented with similar situations, a person's actions will be identical every time.

For example, say you're leaving a restaurant and you spot a ten dollar tip passing by a table.

The enticement of increased wealth without much effort sure is tempting. By simply extending your arm and inconspicuously grabbing the cash, you will be ten dollars richer. Since no one is looking, you won’t get into trouble. Plus, the waiter probably wasn't expecting such a large tip anyway. Where's the harm in that?

In this case, a Christian or a Jew would point to the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not steal." According to the Christian/Jewish point-of-view, this alone will restrain a religiously devout individual from snatching the money off the table. This follows the rules of deontological ethics: Something is either always right or always wrong. For example, stealing the money off the table would be morally wrong because stealing is always wrong.

However, what if the commandment said "Thou shalt steal?" Would stealing be an absolute right then? Is all that is required is a recommendation from a centuries-old text? How about the sixth commandment: "thou shalt not kill?" Does this rule apply with self-defense? Or war?

Here is the fundamental problem with static morals: the inability to judge every action we humans make with reason and free will. Shouldn't morals stand on their own merits? Humans are fantastic beings because of their ability to examine the consequences of their actions and make appropriate choices--as opposed to wild animals that act on instinct alone.

Therefore, morals do not come from religious tomes. Morals would exist nicely without them.

Stealing the cash off the table would degrade your self-worth. If you are unable to earn ten dollars on your own merit, then what good are you to yourself? You are then no better than an animal fighting for its survival in the wilderness. Taking the waiter's tip would thus prove your worthlessness.

Also, one can also reason that stealing is not good because if everyone committed robbery all the time, then what would be the reason of owning property or working?

Atheists have morals because humans learn moral lessons based on observation and an understanding of human nature. The scriptures of a religious tome are not necessary. An atheist reasons and considers the consequences of his actions for all his actions. Morality is one of the features of all of humanity, so therefore morals don't just exist in the religious realm. Atheists can realize the beauty of humanity, and learn not to battle with it.

What it all comes down in the end is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Words to live by.

The question of how an atheist can have morals is a classical example of circular reasoning.

The question has been seriously posed for many centuries, usually without the how, i.e. "Can an atheist have morals?" Indeed, that question often appears in various Theology 101 courses, where it is usually answered with a resounding no.

The problem that leads to circular reasoning is that the question is based on several assumptions, namely:

These assumptions will inevitably lead to one and only one conclusion: An atheist is not motivated by God's will, hence an atheist cannot be moral.

As such, the question is completely useless. It offers no insight into what motivates an atheist in behaving a certain way. It offers no possibility of real dialog between a theist and an atheist.

Curiously, it also implies another assumption, namely that everyone is either a theist or an atheist, while tertium non datur. It sort of reminds me of a scene from an old Russian movie where someone meets a Russian Orthodox priest and asks him incredulously, "You believe in God!?" The priest replies, "Everyone believes in God, some that he exists, others that he does not." Clearly, he has never heard of nontheists.

To begin with we are faced with the issue of term definition. How do we define morality in the first place?

Let us for the sake of argument define it thus:

Morality is a complete set of ethical rules which is both imposed on the individual by an outside influence and total in its approach - one either lives by all of it all the time or not at all.
This is the more religious definition of morality - religious laws allow for no argument or transgression, are inclusive of almost all parts of our daily lives, and are imposed upon us by a God or a religious establishment.

Although an argument can be made that the legal system of any given country answers these criteria, we will, again for the sake of argument, ignore this aspect of legislation (especially in view of the fact that so many of our basic laws draw their roots from earlier foundations of religious morality).

According to this definition it is clear that an atheist, or a nontheist, cannot have morals. However, a closer examination will point us to the concept of ethics. Now, while picking and choosing one's ethical principles from a set morality is, by definition, immoral, there's nothing to say that it is also somehow wrong.

A secular person can have a complete, coherent and workable set of ethics, some of which are borrowed from older moral codes and some of which are personal developments, to replace the old morality. Not only is this system not inferior to conformist religious morality, it is superior in that it allows for a greater measure of personal compatibility and intellectual development.

We can of course strive to teach other people our own ethics, and convince them that they are the best of any other system. However, unlike with morality, there is very little we can do to force our ethics on anyone else. So no, a secular person cannot have morals, but there's no reason to assume that they cannot have something even better. Lack of a religious regime does not equal personal ethical lawlessness.

I've heard it said that things like game theory threw theologists into a tizzy because it provided a way for there to be morals without God. I'm not sure if this argument works with TheLady's definition of morals, but it does for other ways of looking at them.

The morals-implies-God argument runs as follows: if there were no God, there would be no reason for anyone to do anything against his own immediate self-interest. As TheLady puts it, morals have to be imposed externally. God provides the ultimate authority figure who lays down the basic laws to force people to work together and think as a group rather than as individuals. Without such an external imposition of order, people's self-interest would tear any society apart. Therefore, no society could exist without some sort of divine influence to get it started: laws must come from God.

But studies of game theory and such things as the Prisoner's Dilemma give an alternative (just as evolution provided an alternative to creation). It turns out that, yes, a society in which people are completely self-motivated will tear itself apart, but if some people, perhaps by chance or in moments of weakness, decide to forgo their own interests in preference to the common good, the society as a whole is stronger than it would otherwise be. In Prisoner's Dilemma terms, a society of co-operators will as a whole be stronger than one of defectors. And so such societies will survive, while self-motivated groups will not be able to compete. And societies that enforce co-operation will similarly last, and so on.

I suppose you don't really need studies of game theory to see this; the concept is pretty obvious. But the point is that morals could then evolve, without necessitating a divine source.

Me, a practicing Nice Jewish Boy writing such an atheistic post? What's the world coming to?

Atheism is a tough issue to deal with, if you're a religious person. A religious person could very well say, "How can you not believe in God, when there is so much wonder and beauty in the world?"

Morality is more imposed upon us by environmental mores, rather than simple religious means. It is a given that what is taught today, was taught before, and stems from some sort of information or teachings that came before.

This is not to say that Godlessness is one step away from Hedonism - it merely means, to say that an atheist has no morality is an exercise in futility. Such an argument could go on forever, and a person could wind up chasing their own head around their religious philosophy class.

The question is asked thus: "How can an atheist have morals?"

The problem could be that in our Hedonistic, Godless twenty-first century, ethics and morals have gotten confused. Or, we could simply not being playing enough Tetris.

A semantic clarification, which might make this discussion easier to have:

Guidelines for making decisions about the advisability of an action are called ethics.
The valuations that allow one to develop ethical standards are morals.
For what it's worth, the dictionary (and not just Webster 1913 backs this up.

A person with morals has abstract ideas about what is good and bad, such as "I shouldn't increase entropy" or "I should experience pleasure." A person with ethics understands how these rules apply to lived experience, e.g., "I shouldn't blow up buildings" or "I should frequent raves."

In this system, even a pure hedonist has morals, and if she lives up to her standards, he is ethical as well. Of course, most people who ask if someone is moral are asking if she is moral by their standards.


At this point I depart from my neutral linguistic explanation to enter my own suggestion: atheists can be moral because Judeo-christian morality is, when generalized, successful morality. It can be viewed as a matter of game theory or memetics: some patterns of behavior allow a society to survive and prosper; others cause them to fall apart. Properties like mutual trust, collective security, kindness to one's neighbor, and respect for others' property will allow people to work together and succeed. Thus, society is perfectly capable of arriving at what most of us consider moral behavior.

Note that this is not necessarily an atheist viewpoint! God often promises his people prosperity and success, and in later writings he says that he loves them as well. What better way to express love and help the people he chose (or later, those who chose him) then by explicitly giving them the rules that they'd otherwise have to piece together through trial and error?

Note: The logical and metaphorical structure of this writing is taken from "The Human Basis of Laws and Ethics: Without God, How Can You be Moral?" By Frederick Edwords. The words, however, are my own.

The argument for the humanistic construction of morals must begin with nothing. In nothing, there is nothing to bitch about (and of course no one to do the bitching) so there are no morals.

Now, let us add some beings to the mix. These beings are not human. They have no needs and no desires. They simply exist, and just keep on existing, observing the world around them and not interacting with it. They have no needs or desires, and therefore no conflicts. Without conflicts, there is no need for morals, and therefore there are no morals, given the lack of any drive to create them.

Now let us add a Human to the mix. For the sake of simplicity, let us call this human Adam. Adam has arrived in the world with a full set of wants, needs, and desires. He can experience both pain and pleasure, and usually strives to avoid the former and seek out the latter. Adam is now faced with decisions. He begins to question everything around him, asking "is this for me, or against me?" Only here do morals begin to emerge, for Adam must decide, in order to survive, that things which are apparently for him should be sought after, while things that are against him must be avoided.

This, however, does not complete the evolution of morals, for Adam is a sole being representing the whole of the human race when, in fact, humanity is made up of many beings. So let us introduce another human to the scene.

Enter Eve. Eve has most of the same needs as Adam, and many of the same wants and desires. However, there are instances in which their desires come into conflict with eachother. So Adam and Eve must invent a system by which the greatest possible good can be achieved.

As it turns out, Adam and Eve kinda like eachother. They start to feel that their needs (and ever their wants and desires) can be much better served if they each work towards the good of the two of them together, rather than competing for what they want as individuals. So a system of morality comes to life as the rules for interactions between individuals, established by the individuals they efect.

But what about God???? Let us see what happens when we add God to the mix.

One day, Adam and Eve happen to stumble upon a situation in which their wants have come into such a conflict that there is simply no resolution in sight. Finally, a lightbulb appears over Adam's head, and he exclaims, "but aren't we forgetting about God?"

"What in the world are you talking about?" Replies Eve, quite perplexed.

"Oh...You know God. He's the one that put us here. The one that lays down what's right and what's wrong!"

To which Eve replies, "Oh. Well, I'm not sure how we got here, but I am pretty certain that all these ideas we have taken to living by about the right way to treat eachother came from us."

"But that's where you're wrong, Eve. God made up all those ideas, but he calls them 'rules.' We have to live by these rules, because God made them. And guess how God feels about this particular argument that we're having today?"

"How's that, Adam?"

"He Agrees with ME!"


So, clearly, morality can exist perfecly well on its own. God just complicates matters.

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