Morality Without God

Why and How To Choose/Invent A Moral Code

Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.02.10, Updated 2016.05.29

In light of the Argument From Morality and my rejection of it (because morals are subjective), we then encounter questions. Can atheists be moral? If so, then what code shall I live by? Also, why?

Can An Atheist Be Moral?

The question itself is absurd... Anyone can have a code of conduct, regardless of her beliefs.
First things first: the question itself is absurd.

Morality is a code of conduct, that’s it. Anyone can have a code of conduct, regardless of her beliefs. It might not be your code of conduct, and it might not be an ideal one, but it is one. The only possible way an atheist cannot have morality is to change the definition of morality. If you define morality as “a code of right and wrong invented by God”, then of course an atheist cannot have that — no one can, since there is not a god.

Theists got the idea from the Bible (Psalms 14:1):
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”
Psalms 53:1 says much the same thing, and in Romans 1:18-32, the apostle Paul equates “godlessness” with wickedness, saying the godless are “without excuse”, have become depraved fools, and “deserve death” for their behavior.

Just in case scriptures aren’t enough, I’ve heard theists quote the U.S. founding fathers on the subject. For example, George Washington said in his 1796 Farewell Address:
“And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
All of these statements, of course, rest on some big assumptions that are not born out by reality: (1) that there is a god, (2) that god invented morality, and (3) that only those who believe are capable of obeying this code.

I have discussed the first two elsewhere, and the third does not stand up to scrutiny either, at least in my observations. Even stipulating the current moral code generally accepted by modern Christians, non-believers are as likely as believers to follow it or fail it.

As it turns out, people who donít believe in gods are moral for the same reason as people who do believe in gods. Because it works.
As it turns out, people who donít believe in gods are moral for the same reason as people who do believe in gods. Because it works.

I discovered this mostly by observation; no one told it to me. Keeping in mind that most people I knew believed in a god without question, I observed that not all of them behaved morally — neither by my own standards nor by their own professed code — both of which we claimed to get from the Bible. When I eventually met people who did not believe in a god, the ratio seemed to be about the same — most behaved morally, and some did not.

Events in the news bore this out as well: The people who committed some of the worst terrorist attacks in modern times claimed to be either Christians or Muslims. The people filling our federal and state prisons are overwhelmingly religious people — most of them Catholic and Protestant. This should not be the case if belief helps you behave morally.

Recently (2014), I saw these statistics: atheists make up anywhere from 0.7% (.pdf) to 1.6% (.pdf) of the U.S. population. If atheists are “corrupt” and “their deeds are vile”, then I would expect our prison population to reflect a greater percentage of atheists than the general population of the nation. Instead, only about 0.07% of the federal prison population is made up of atheists — a much smaller percentage than in the non-imprisoned population. (Catholics and Protestants seem correctly represented, while Muslims are overrepresented in U.S. prisons.) Of course, this doesn’t take into account state prisons, nor does it take into account whether the crimes were “moral” in nature (though much of criminal law is derived from the populace’s moral code). Perhaps atheists are better at not getting caught?

Where Do Morals Originate?

Morals, as I have discussed elsewhere, arose from necessity and changed over time to fit the needs of the human species or of various civilizations. They worked. Imagine if someone in history came up with a moral code that didn’t work, practically speaking, and tried to impose it upon society. How long would that code have existed? Let’s say the code encouraged killing people for minor irritations, but forbade self-defense as immoral. Before long, the society would decimate itself. Or, more likely, people would quit following the code and would defend themselves anyway. They might defend others. In other words, they would migrate to a code that did work.

In the extremely hypothetical situation of someone trying to develop a moral code from scratch, with no previous experience of living in society, they could begin with one question about any action: “Does it cause harm?” In its most basic sense, immorality is defined by society as actions that cause harm, either directly or indirectly, to individuals or to society at large. See the following flowchart as an example.

Flowchart of morality

Levels Of Morality

The first paragraph of the previous section makes it obvious that there are multiple levels of morality. There is the imagined “universal”, or absolute, morality asserted by religion. There are national morality standards, codified into law. There are societal codes — which often don’t match up with the legal morality. And then there is individual morality.

A few tenets might seem universal, such as a prohibition on murder or theft. Careful examination will reveal disagreement on what constitutes either. For example, is it murder for a private citizen to kill a criminal in the act of committing a crime? Some would say yes, others no.

Each of us has our personal code, whether we realize it or not. Yet all of us live within societies and nations, and are therefore subject to those codes as well. If your personal code differs from the larger one, you must decide which to follow and to accept the consequences.

Writing My Own Code

A few years ago (2012) or so, I realized I was living by a code of sorts (everyone does), but that it wasn’t written down or specified anywhere. It certainly wasn’t the one I had grown up with. So I set out to write it down.

Before I wrote it, I decided on a set of parameters. I wanted my own code to be as simple as possible, yet cover every situation a person might encounter. I thought it should be something that anyone could adopt for their own betterment, and for the betterment of society and humanity in general. It was meant to be a personal morality code, not a standard for a legal framework.

“Be kind” are the two words I came up with to cover almost every moral rule people that most people follow. It covers murder, theft, property damage, assault, rape, arson, and quite a bit more. I added as an explanation that it covers anything for which the opposite is unkind.

My work resulted in six tenets — so far. It’s a work in progress.

This is the updated version of this page. To see the original version, click here. Below is a list of known edits to this page.

Edit, 2016.05.29: In the Originate section, added missing comma, changed title, added second paragraph, and added flowchart image. Reworded first sentence of the Levels section. Added link to this Edits section into the More menu.

Next: What About The Bible?

Or, use the More menu to navigate.

comments powered by Disqus