- Do atheists have a moral ground for their perception of right and wrong?
- Is an atheist entitled to claim a sense of right and wrong?
- Can we really be good apart from a god?
Simplistically, according to a typical atheist, right and wrong is a matter of whether or not your behavior hurts people or fails to help them.
Wrong action vs. right action.
Once the basic idea is in place, the familiar rules of common sense morality seems obvious. Why should we not kill, murder, steal, rape. Why should be help the needy, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, demand justice for the unrepresented? Disrespect, limiting someone's autonomy, questions of self-defense, etc, are all shades of this question.
My answer, of course, is we do NOT require a god to know what is right and wrong. Certainly we can lay claim to knowing when an act is either not right or inherently wrong. And, of course, we can be and are good without a god. One reason it is true that we can be good without a god is because it is in an individual's own self interest to do right. To make decisions and to take action that is correct or good. When I make decisions of right and of wrong, I effect the community around me as a whole.
Each of us impacts the other. To be maximally successful we must cooperate with each other. This is a good enough reason to discourage most atheists from "antisocial" or "immoral" behavior, purely for the purposes of self-preservation. Further, we effect our own sense of the type of person we are as compared to the type of person we wish to be. Integrity requires ethics! But that's not even the crux of my reasoning!
Being an atheist does not suggest that a person upholds any particular ethical system. It merely reports that an individual has no belief in a deity of any kind. Each person, atheist or theist, ascribes to their own chosen, absorbed, inherited, or cobbled sense of correctness vs. incorrectness, good vs. evil.
In other words, being an atheist does not mean that one subscribes to a particular world view; each person creates their own sense of right and wrong. This makes many religion-followers very uncomfortable. Perhaps this has to do with having had little practice making ethical decisions on their own, using their own internal barometer.
I know of some wonderful people who are Christians who, in response to my questions, assert that they would, in fact, NOT make good decisions if the guidelines of their religions did not guide them. I am certain that they truly believe this. But I am equally as certain that the inherent goodness of these people would shine through. They would, simply, be good for goodness's sake.
Atheism is often wrongly identified with evil and moral anarchy. Certainly some atheists exist who are less than virtuous -- just as some religious people lack perfection. Lack of virtue is a human trait, not a trait based on one's belief system. From my extensive and recent research, using this argument, believers frequently tend to bring the Marquis de Sade and Nietzsche as failed examples of allowing one's internal sense of right and wrong to be one's guide.
Religions are the cradles of despotism.
Marquis de Sade
A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum
shows that faith does not prove anything.
It is not a surprise the Friedrich Nietzsche was unloved by the churchfolk as he was known for explaining Man's behavior as being of "free will" and autonomy rather than of controlled by an outside source such as the church or other political system. He also, astutely, I believe, argues that anyone who claims to offer a guide for morality is simply revealing themselves in their claims and assertions. One who professes "truth" is, in a sense, confessing their own witness for who they, themselves, are.
The church's historical fear of Free Will and "will to power" is certainly threatened by a rational being stating and choosing his or her certainty and "goodness" or "badness". We, as human beings, operate in the gray areas of life. An atheist would suggest that these gray areas are normal, unique, and, further, are for each individual to judge. In this example, using Nietzsche as an example of morality without god works.
Nietzsche went even further, though. His belief was that, as Men were to flourish and to grow intellectually, Men would become what they truly felt they should be. Man's sense of ethics would create the ability to understand and to absorb the values of others as well, learning from one another. There would be the ability to view and judge behavior based on each individual's life and circumstances. Relative Morality. No black and white. Shades of gray.
Nietzsche had the belief that a "higher man" or "superman" would eventually result from this theoretical ability to make the nobler choices independently. I don't know if his ideas would come to fruition in such a world, but human nature often surprises us with it's goodness. Think of that darling boy who gave up the baseball last week...
The fact of the matter, human are social beings. We live in societies and form relationships beginning at our very first day. We feel empathic as very young children. The need to feel connected and to please our elders and respected ones creates the perfect environment for a child to learn the specifics of a given family, group, society.
As a caveat, and in response to the criticisms I have read, I realize that this idea of learning right and wrong from our own culture and life would not work in the event of a mentally ill person. Neither does religion assist these people. I have seen, first hand, that neither religion nor reason helps in situations with people with this nature.
I would also suggest that morality, as a concept, isn't truly well-practiced in the church. I won't base this statement merely on the many, many, many deaths, murders, and tortured people the various religions have produced. I won't merely suggest that the blatant sexual abuse scandals and their in-house cover ups suggest a significant deficit of "morality".
Instead, I would offer for evidence the overall hatred policies of the differing religious sects with regards to racism, sexism, agism, genderism, sexual preference-ism, and a multitude of other ISMs that are all, by my ethical code WRONG.