For Goodness Sake
by Dan Barker
"How does an atheist account for the existence of objective moral values?" I often hear. "If you don't believe in God, then what is your basis for morality?"
We atheists find our basis for morality, of course, in nature. Where else would we look?
Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean they are "objective." They can't be. A value is not a "thing"--it is a function of a mind (which is itself a function). To be objective is to exist independently of a mind. So, an "objective value" is an oxymoron: the existence in the mind of something that is independent of the mind.
However, most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences are objective.
Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that "Morality" exists in the universe, a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word "morality" is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds. If no minds existed, no morality would exist.
Morality is simply the intention to act in ways that minimize harm. Since harm is natural, its avoidance is a material exercise. Organisms suffer as they bump into their environment, and as rational animals, we humans have some choice about how this happens. If we minimize harm and enhance the quality of life, we are moral. If we don't, we are immoral or amoral, depending on our intentions.
To be moral, atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no Cosmic Code Book directing our actions.
Of course, relative to humanity, certain general actions can be deemed almost uniformly right or wrong. Without the Ten Commandments, would it never have dawned on the human race that there is a problem with killing? The prohibitions against homicide and theft existed millennia before the Israelites claimed the copyright.
The way to be moral is to learn what causes harm and how to avoid it. This means investigating nature--especially human nature: who we are, what we need, where we live, how we function, and why we behave the way we do.
Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to whom we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering. By nature, those of us who are mentally healthy recoil from pain and wish to see it ended.
This is not the Golden Rule. Confucius, 500 years before Christianity, phrased the principle best when he said, "Don't do to others what you would not have them do to you." Although this is still not a fully adequate principle for ethics, it is much better than "Do unto others" because it identifies the avoidance of harm as the key to morality.
Of course, we often act in positive ways to stop the pain of others. This is compassion. Atheists can perhaps express compassion more easily than believers because we are not confused by fatalism ("Whatever happens is God's will"), pessimism ("We deserve to suffer"), salvation ("Death is not the end"), retribution ("Justice will prevail in the afterlife"), magic ("Pray for help"), holy war ("Kill for God"), forgiveness ("I won't be held responsible for my mistakes"), or glory ("Suffering with Christ is an honor"). Since this is the only life we atheists have, each decision is crucial and we are accountable for our actions right now.
Yet notice how leading theists deal with the real world: "Ye have the poor with you always," said the "loving" Jesus, who never lifted a finger to eradicate poverty, wasting precious ointment on his own luxury rather than selling it to feed the hungry (Matthew 26:6-11). "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ," Mother Teresa added. "I think the world is much helped by the suffering of the poor people." So much for theistic compassion!
Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an "instinct" because many appear not to have it--it seems optional. But it is fortunate that there are enough of us who love life enough to protect ourselves from those who don't. We have systems of law, enforcement, justice, and defense. We encourage kind, ethical actions through moral education and critical thinking.
But most believers, including Christians who are ordered to "bring into captivity every thought unto the obedience of Christ," have an underlying distrust of human reasoning. Yearning for absolutes, they perceive relativism--the recognition that actions must be judged in context--as something dangerous, when it is the only way we can be truly moral.
Theists are afraid people will think for themselves; atheists are afraid they won't.