Ethics, Morality and Religion (or Not)
There has been a lot of talk in the Blogosphere lately about whether morality is necessarily based on the existence of a God and whether atheists can have a moral code without it. I'm going to jump on the bandwagon here (as much as I make attempts not to) and write a post of my own on the topic. Because I haven't managed to actually read all the posts out there about the topic, I'm not going to argue with anyone or rebut anyone else's point. I'm just going to try to figure out my own.
My undergrad program required each student to take an ethics class. I learned a TON in my ethics class; the phrase categorical imperative still haunts me and the thought of Hobbes' philosophy of humans being in a natural state of war still fills me with dread and sadness. Even more, the memory of being one of only two people in my class arguing that people want to do good to others, unselfishly, still manages to deflate my idealistic bubble just a bit.
The instructor of my class happened to be the best professor I have ever had, and I had taken a class with him previously and gotten to be friendly with him outside of class. Unbeknownst to the rest of the class, my professor was an atheist. He was also one of the most moral people I have known, and while we certainly differed on our views of the origin of the world, we agreed on a lot.
Being an ethical atheist can't be easy. And while he strived to do the right thing, he messed up sometimes, even making big mistakes that he really regretted. But you know what? We all make mistakes; I honestly don't believe it has anything to do with our belief or disbelief in God.
What I think was different about this professor was that he really thought about what was right or wrong; he didn't defer to a Higher Authority, or someone interpreting the words of a Higher Authority. He looked inside himself and asked whether his actions were going to hurt another person; he took full responsibility for his decisions, good or bad.
And that's a big part of what bothers me about religious people claiming that there are no morals or ethics without religion. The people saying it, often haven't really thought about their morals and ethics - they have learned what their Holy Book and Higher Authority say they should do and they accept it. And many times they use these Holy Books and Higher Authority to justify what, if you take the categorical imperative, or often just your common sense, says is wrong. From killing and stealing, to evading taxes and the laws of the country you live in, various very "religious" people use what they claim to be God's laws to justify and rationalize behavior that, if others did unto to them (aka the Golden Rule), they would be very upset about.
Do atheists need a God to justify their actions - to lie, cheat, steal? No. And in some ways, I think it's a nobler take on things, because they have no creed or Authority to blame their actions upon - they have only to take the blame themselves. They can say they don't think their negative actions are wrong, and pay the consequences just as we all do, but they don't fall back on anyone else.
I'm not saying that I think all religious people are bad, nor do I think they are all immoral. But I honestly don't think that religion is necessarily a moral motivator. I think people have within themselves to do right or wrong. What religion does, sometimes, is give a framework for fear of punishment for doing the acts that the specific religion one follows is deemed wrong. And that's not all bad; it probably does keep a lot of people from doing a lot of bad things. But I also think we've seen what happens, over and over throughout history, when religion goes wrong, and people kill and harm in the name of God.
So, I think we should all think more before claiming that atheists are immoral and can't possibly be ethical. I learned more about ethics from an atheist than almost anyone else I've known. It takes thought and care to be moral, and if a person desires to do so within the framework of a religion, then all the more power to him. But if not within that framework, then from within yourself.