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 2017.10.07

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 no god.

Christians got the idea from the Bible:
“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 14:1

Psalms 53:1 is almost identical, 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. (This is the same passage where Christians get the incorrect ideas that [1] atheists actually do believe in God, [2] atheists “hate God”, and [3] “look around” is somehow proof of God’s existence.)

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 a moral 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 and 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 (more on this below), 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

Kinds Of Morality

The first paragraph of the previous section makes it obvious that there are multiple kinds of morality. There is the imagined “universal” or absolute morality asserted by religion. There are national and state 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 ban on murder or theft. Careful examination reveals 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. Is it murder when a duly sworn police officer shoots and kills a suspect who is running away? Many in the U.S. say it’s not, while many others are certain that it is. Some would say theft is always immoral; others say it’s acceptable to steal in order to feed your family. Still others believe it is acceptable to steal if you’re already very rich and it’s unlikely you will be imprisoned (source).

Each of us has our personal code whether we realize it or not. Yet we all live within societies and nations and are therefore subject to those codes as well. If one’s personal code differs from the larger societal or governmental code, one must decide which to follow. If I choose my own code, I accept that I might suffer consequences. For example, in some cultures, it is acceptable for men (adults males) to marry girls (non-adult females). When someone with that brand of morality moves to a country where such an action is illegal, he must choose between his own code and the law that now governs him. As another example: a county clerk in Kentucky (Kim Davis) believed it would be immoral to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, though the law required someone in her position to issue marriage licenses to any qualified applicants, regardless of sex. She chose her own code over the legal one, and was jailed as a result.

Writing My Own Code

Several years ago, I realized I was living by a code of sorts, one that wasn’t written down. 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.

Originally, I listed six tenets. I later culled it down to three. It’s a work in progress.

How Does One Determine What Is Moral?

I was taught very young that morality can only be what is described in the Bible. X is moral, regardless of consequences, and Y is immoral, regardless of consequences. Many Christians still believe this today (yet, oddly, many of them still haven’t read the Bible, and cannot accurately describe what it says).

To me, this is a problem, for several reasons:

1. It accepts a rule at face value and then attempts to find a justification for that rule. It is more reasonable to first have a cause and then write the rule.

a. Christian method: “People who work on the Sabbath should be stoned to death. A practical reason for this rule might be...”

b. Reasonable method: “Drunk drivers have caused deaths of innocent, sober drivers. Therefore, we should outlaw drunk driving.”

2. It doesn’t allow rules to change over time, given new circumstances. Four thousand years ago, it might have been reasonable to make a rule barring diseased persons from town; it protected everyone else. Today, we can cure those diseases, so the rule no longer makes sense; applying it would just be cruel.

3. It attributes the rule to a being that isn’t known to exist. Imagine if a congressperson introduced a new law, and claimed it came from a character in a Batman comic book.

4. Perhaps the biggest issue I have with the practice of attributing moral rules to a perfect god is that it hijacks what morality is all about, to the point that many religious people don’t even understand what morality means. Ask religious people, especially Christians, what morality means, and many of them will regurgitate biblical references like “The Ten Commandments” or “The Golden Rule”; they can’t explain why those rules are good or how they help society.

I will stipulate that most of us get our current moral codes from (1) our upbringing, (2) our friends, (3) society at large, and (4) our own experiences with other people’s behavior.

Imagine developing a moral code without those underlying factors. Where would you begin?

I think one first must state a goal or purpose of the moral code, and an explanation of the goal. In other words, answer the questions: “What practical purpose will this code serve?” and “Why is this goal desirable?” A Christian who was raised as I was would answer these two questions thusly: “It will please God” and “Because God said so.” A reasonable person must put more thought into it than that.

If the goal is the survival and/or happiness of the human race, then why is that goal desirable? Is it pure selfishness? (“I am human and want to be happy.”) I don’t think so. I think it is self-evident that the point of the moral code has to be the survival and/or happiness of the human race; otherwise what is the point of making a code? A code for any other reason is self-destructive — if it served to make survival and/or happiness more difficult, it would also serve to destroy the code itself, since it was humans that came up with it.

In other words, just as with species, moral codes go through an evolution by natural selection. The codes that promote the best behavior — the behavior that best enables survival and happiness — will survive along with the populations that practice them. The codes that promote lesser behavior will be less likely to survive because the populations that practice them are less likely to be happy and/or survive. Just as with biological evolution, though, propagation is more important than satisfaction when it comes to these codes. A code that doesn’t necessarily support happiness, but does support propagation — say through encouraging more offspring and then teaching the code to offspring — might survive a long time, despite otherwise being undesirable. Whereas a code that supports happiness but not propagation would work only for a time but then disappear.

There are, then, four types of moral codes, as they relate to survival and happiness:

  1. Promotes survival, promotes happiness.
  2. Promotes survival, but not happiness.
  3. Promotes happiness, but not survival.
  4. Promotes neither happiness nor survival.

It stands to reason that the fourth type of code would disappear quickly. No one likes it, and groups that practice it won’t last long. Folks might like the third type, because it makes them happy, but they also will not survive as well as the first two types. This leaves only two possible types of moral codes, which describe almost all those existing today. (And if either of the other two types arise again, they will die out again.) Of the two remaining types, both promote survival of the humans and societies that practice them. But only one promotes happiness as well. Therefore it is more desirable (if it was not, it wouldn’t be promoting happiness — this is tautological).

Even someone never raised with a moral code and never imparted one via religion, a state, or peers, could make the same deductions I’ve made here. With the goal of the code spelled out (promoting survival and happiness of humans), we can now begin constructing a moral code from scratch. The rules practically write themselves.

Do Consequences Or Intentions Matter More?

We have all heard the phrase “it’s the thought that counts”. It typically refers to an imperfect or insignificant act which was motivated by good intentions. For example, if you receive a useless or unwanted gift, but know that the giver meant well, you can still appreciate the gesture. Sometimes we use it sarcastically when a well-intentioned act goes horribly wrong.

It brings up a question long debated by moral philosophers (and incredibly oversimplified here): Which matters more, the consequences of the deed itself or the intentions? I know people who stand on both sides of this question. One side says that regardless of intent, only the consequences of the actions can be measured and therefore determine whether an act was moral. The other side says a well-intended act is moral, even if unforeseen circumstances force undesired consequences.

I think both matter, but for different reasons. Further, I think each act must be evaluated separately.

Some examples:

1. If, during a time of financial need, I receive $1,000 each from two people, both gifts help me equally. Measurably, the consequences of the acts were equally moral. However, if I learn that one giver is barely making ends meet while the other giver is a multi-billionaire, I will almost certainly appreciate the first gift more. This is because I know he sacrificed greatly to come up with the gift, while the second giver sacrificed nothing.

2. If, after learning a good friend is stuck in a low-wage job, I use my influence to find a better job for him, he will of course appreciate it. But what if the following week the new employer decides to downsize, and my friend is laid off? He now has no job, and is thus worse off than when I found him. Had I never acted, he would still have the first job.

3. Two armed men approach me and demand money. When I hesitate, one of them decides to shoot me, but accidentally shoots his companion. Because the noise draws attention, both flee the scene.

The first example shows that intention, while it might not affect the outcome, is important to both the moral agent and the person affected by the agent’s actions. If the second giver had had the same good intentions as the first, he would have given far more than a thousand dollars. The second example shows how circumstances beyond our control can completely negate the good intentions of an act. My friend might still appreciate how I tried to help, but he might also wish I had never become involved. And regardless of his thoughts on the matter, he is still measurably worse off due to something neither of us could plan for. In the third example, a bad intention resulted in a good consequence — at least to me. As a potential victim, I don’t much care about the man’s intent to harm me; I care only that he missed.

Good intentions are important, because without them many deeds would never be done. And even if an unforeseen circumstance negates a particular deed’s consequences, the practice of committing moral acts due to good intentions ensures that future moral acts will continue. But obviously consequences are important as well; otherwise there would be no point to attempting morality at all.

But the consequences of the deed, more than the intentions behind the deed, are more likely to have long-lasting effects. In the case of the gunshot example above, it is the fact I escaped unscathed that is most important to me. For the hypothetical man who was shot, that is the most important to him — it matters not that his partner in crime didn’t intend to shoot him. In the example of the lost job, it is the lack of income and other benefits that hurts my friend the most, not whether I meant well. In the example of the two financial gifts, what matters to me most is that I was assisted in a time of need, regardless of whether I appreciate one gift more than the other.

For the longterm goals of the entire moral code (which we earlier established as the survival and improved happiness of humanity), what matters most are the consequences of acts. Did you actually save someone, cure someone, educate someone, prevent a disaster? Intentions, when known, sometimes contribute to the happiness and therefore have an indirect effect on survival, but not in the same way.

But for each moral agent — in her own mind, for her own well-being — the intentions can matter more. She can’t control the consequences beyond the act that she deemed to be helpful at the time. If I direct an acquaintance to a favorite shortcut, and they are killed in a traffic accident while taking my suggested route, it should not prevent me from offering a shortcut idea to other friends in the future, because the intention of the act — and the expected consequence — is to help someone.


World-renowned philosophers have written stacks of fascinating books on morality; I don’t presume to have scratched the surface with this short essay. To examine all the facets of morality, moral acts, moral agents, kindness and cruelty, causes and effects, and so on would require time and education that I don’t possess. But none of that was my intent. My intent here was only to refute the absurd claim that atheists can’t be moral and the related claim that morality comes only from God.

There is a related but different claim that atheists were immoral first, and then tried to excuse their immorality by pretending to not believing in God.
“The bottom line is that these skeptical scholars didn’t reach their conclusions by following the evidence where it led. They didn’t ‘discover’ that the world was meaningless and then proceed to live accordingly. They lived sinful lives (usually involving some type of sexual deviancy) and then produced theories that justified their actions... When we compare this passage [Eph. 4:17-19] with Romans 1, it seems that immorality and bad ideas work together in a vicious cycle that spirals downward. Sin leads to false philosophies which then lead to more sin.”

Source, emphasis mine

This of course is equally absurd. I can’t stop believing in something just because I want to behave a certain way. That’s not how belief works. Regardless, it ignores the very moral behavior of many atheists and the very immoral behavior of many theists, which occur at significant rates.

Along these same lines, many have said — unknowingly quoting or paraphrasing Dostoevsky’ “The Brothers Karamazov”: “If there is no God, then you can do whatever you want.”. The original is in Russian; there are various translations, including “Without God... everything is permissable”, “Without God... all things are lawful” and “If there’s no God... men will be allowed to do whatever they want”.

The theory is that, without the threat of divine retribution for sin or the offer of reward for righteousness, people won’t be moral. They’ll suddenly start killing, raping, robbing and generally wallowing in sin. Maybe not suddenly, but eventually. There has to be a God, this theory says, for humanity to stay moral.

Given that most people I know are self-described Christians, I’ve most often heard this from Christians. Including biblical literalists. They might be thinking of the children of Israel, who, when Moses didn’t return immediately from the mountain (Exodus 32), melted down all their gold jewelry to make a golden calf, then engaged in “revelry”, “great sin”, and “running wild”. It must be remembered, of course, that those were not atheists, but believers.

There are a couple of good rebuttals to the theory. One is: “So you only behave because you’re afraid of Hell?” It might be true for some believers. It is a horrible morality that can only be enacted by threats of punishment. It gives pause. I wonder how many “good Christians” would be running wild, raping and killing everything in sight, if they weren’t afraid of Hell. I personally rape and murder all I want, which is to say I do not rape and murder at all, because I don’t want to.

An equally effective rebuttal is that there is zero evidence of any god, and yet morality still exists.

There is likely no way to disabuse religious apologists of their mistaken notions, but just in case, allow me to pose this question:

Who is more moral, the woman who helps someone because of empathy, or the woman who helps someone because she is afraid of Hell? Which one do you want to be your friend? Which one do you think your God appreciates more?

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.

Edit, 2017.10.07: Switched to new .css document (invisible to most readers), updated html to match new .css document. Moved “On This Page” to top of More menu. Added link to my Why There Is Almost Certainly No God page. Corrected internal link to this Edits section. Added subhead for Edits section. Changed “theists” to “Christians” in third paragraph. Moved biblical citation into first blockquote. Added tooltip text to Psalm 53:1 and Romans 1 citations. Reworded paragraphs throughout. Changed name of “Levels” section to “Kinds Of Morality”. Added section on determining what is moral (here). Added section on Intentions (here). Added a conclusion.

Next: What About The Bible?

Or, use the More menu to navigate.

comments powered by Disqus