Can Nonbelievers Be Moral?
This is a question we nonbelievers get a lot from Christians. Most Christians (notice I said most, not all) feel that we can’t have morals without a belief in a God. What does it mean to be moral? What is morality, and who’s to say what is morally right or wrong?
A lot of terms get tossed around in discussions about morality between believers and nonbelievers. I don’t completely understand some of these terms, so I looked them up on philosophybasics.com. Hopefully you and I will both learn something from this post.
Morals (or ethics): is concerned with questions of how people ought to act, and the search for a definition of right conduct (identified as the one causing the greatest good) and the good life (in the sense of a life worth living or a life that is satisfying or happy).
Moral Relativism: the position that moral propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.
Moral Absolute: is the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act. Thus, actions are inherently moral or immoral, regardless of the beliefs and goals of the individual, society or culture that engages in the actions. It holds that morals are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, the will of God or some other fundamental source.
Moral Universalism: The position that there is a universal ethic which applies to all people, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality or other distinguishing feature, and all the time.
I realize these aren’t the only terms used for morality, but they’re the ones I hear the most often. Looking at those definitions in comparison to what I believe about morals, I find myself leaning toward calling myself a moral relativist. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing doesn’t matter to me at the moment. What is important is my understanding that the way I perceive morality dictates the standards for how I live my life and how I treat others.
So, can nonbelievers have morals? Absolutely yes! As a nonbeliever, I do not anchor my morality to any specific deity or holy book. My morality comes from my community, my family and friends, my sense of empathy for my fellow human beings, and from consequentialism. (Consequentialism means that the consequences of your actions determine the true morality of those actions. So a morally right act (or inaction) is one that creates a good outcome or consequence.)
I resist hurting others because I know how it feels to be hurt by someone else. My morality stems from my desire to do the least amount of harm to other human beings. It goes much farther than living according to the Golden Rule presented in the Bible, which I find to be absolutely ridiculous. The concept of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) is absurd.
What if I am a masochist – a person who derives sexual gratification from their own pain or humiliation? Am I expected to cause pain to others simply because I enjoy experiencing pain? Isn’t that essentially what the Golden Rule is implying?
I would rather present something I call the Platinum Rule – treat others the way THEY wish to be treated. Living according to this simple rule significantly decreases physical, psychological, and verbal abuse; racism; and discrimination between races, genders and sexes. If we all lived according to this rule, we would not see the horrific legislation discriminating against the transgender community all over the country. We wouldn’t see racially motivated hate groups forming in many communities. Instead, we’d see a decrease in the nationwide murder and suicide rate.
But, again, that means tossing out the Biblical vision of pseudo morality and replacing it with real morals based on the principle of doing no harm.
So once again, can nonbelievers / Secular Humanists have morals? You’re damn right we can, and we manage it without a God.