One Weak Atheist's Source of Morals

By Jim Coufal

The Humanist Symposium, Inaugural Edition (29 April 2007)

Theists frequently challenge atheists (and agnostics) by asking what is their source of morals. They apparently believe that without a law/morals giver (God) there can be no morals, and further seem to indicate that in asking this question they have somehow trumped atheists/agnostics. What follows is one weak atheist's thoughts on the source of his morals.

My main source of morals is my neighbor; that is, my relationship with my neighbors. There is nothing more logical to me than the Golden Rule and its variants. Christians might respond that my source is thus Jesus, who I hold in high esteem and honor, but Golden Rule formulations exist in many cultures and religions, including some long before the time of Jesus.

My neighbor starts with my family — my wife, children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces. Whether this has a biological basis, such as the desire to perpetuate my "bloodline" (genetic line), is open to discussion. I prefer to see it as coming from love. From the inner circle of family, my concern for neighbors ripples out from close friends in ever widening circles to encompass all humans (more on non-humans later). It would be false to say I am equally concerned for all humans, but I do have concern for all humanity.

The premise here is compassion, fairness and reciprocity. If I want my grandchildren to be treated with fairness, justice and compassion it seems fair and right that I treat the grandchildren of others the same way. I have no need nor see any reason to believe in a moral giver (God) to treat my neighbors with respect and dignity, because I see them as fellow human travelers making a journey through life just as I am. Like the philosopher Holmes Rolston, I believe life is the second rarest thing in the universe, the first being intelligence, and these characteristics deserve dignity and respect. It may be that even rarer than intelligence itself is the wise use of intelligence.

The second source of my morals may well be evolution. Some scientists believe that there is a gene or genes for altruism, and research indicates that cooperative strategies and compassion are effective survival and reproductive habits equal to conflict and power. Some go further and suggest that there is a gene or genes that provide tendencies towards religious beliefs. This, I think, might be a tendency towards community, which religion provides. But without the use of critical intelligence, communities can be shaped to the ways of their "leaders."

I suggest that religion is one thing and spirituality is another, the latter of which can exist, whatever the source, without the former. As noted above, one of the advantages of religion is that it most commonly, in its organized, denominational forms, involves a community of true believers. One is not likely to find a hospital or school of St. B. Russell. But the violence of God thread and the exclusivity of truth dogma of such communities can and historically has led them to barbaric, destructive, inhumane behavior, whereas atheism and polytheism stress tolerance. I strive for a spirituality that does not need God or religion as its base.

Evolution provides another source of morals when I realize that I and everyone and everything I see is the result of an awe inspiring 13 billion year adventure. In this sense, non-human others (trees, animals, birds, fish, geological formations, ancient civilizations and their artifacts, etc.) become moral objects even if they cannot be moral subjects. They become less "other" and more "we," especially as our very survival is intertwined.

In my opinion, my source of morals is stronger than those found in a Holy Book, given by a God, who after creating me in "his" image (or have I created him in my image? And why not "her"?) tells me to discount the intelligence I have been "given" and do anything that he says to do so that I can finally worship him in heaven. And, or course, if I don't I will be eternally tortured in hell. Also, what is right and wrong to do depends upon which God I choose. My sources of morals don't depend on either a carrot or a stick, a heaven or a hell.

April 28, 2007, 11:00 am • Permalink

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