Atheism and Morality

As an atheist, I often get asked where my morality comes from. People tell me that the foundation of atheism doesn’t allow for an objective form of morality the way religion does (whether it’s mentioned in a holy book or written specifically as commandments). I agree; however, I see the lack of objective morality as a benefit of atheism. It allows us to acknowledge the world for what it is: something gray, not black and white. Dividing all actions into groups of only “right” or “wrong” is unnecessary and implausible given the complexity behind people’s actions. Bob might have certain morals, and Joe might have certain morals, but without a reference point, nothing makes one person’s morals more legitimate than another’s. However, this simply argues that there is no absolute form of morality. Therefore, you are free to have your own personal values. 

Let’s say we’re in medieval times, and a knight has taken an oath to protect his king and die for him if needed. Then, let’s say that this king, in time, becomes insane and develops a passion for burning people alive. When he finds out that his liege lords are on their way to rebel against him, the king orders his pyromancer to burn everyone outside of his castle. Alive. At this moment, in the royal court, the only people there are the king, his pyromancer (who the king tasks with burning everyone), and the knight.

Now, the knight here has a choice:

1. Protect his king, whom he has sworn to obey and support his entire life.

OR

2. Kill his king and the pyromancer, which would end up saving thousands of lives.

The objective form of morality would say that he should obey his king.

Because the knight swore an oath – THAT’S his objective reference point for morality.

However, someone who DOESN’T adhere to a rigid set of morals laid down by an oath, book, or religion would equally consider option two. This type of person’s thought process would go something like this: “What’s more important? Keeping my honor (or rather, society’s definition of honor) and following what is objectively determined to be right – but willingly allowing so many men, women, and children to die? Or breaking the sacred oath I have taken but saving thousands of lives instead?”

This scenario brings me back to my original point.

Atheism allows, and by extension encourages, inner conflicts and dilemmas. 

Why?

Because the recipe for what to do and what not to do isn’t laid out for us in a holy book or commandments or some other neat objective format.

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In my view, this sort of turmoil can be a tragic but beautiful part of humanity – the process of deciding what to do not because something else says it’s objectively “right”, but because it genuinely feels right to you deep down inside.

Take a second right now and think about those TV or book characters you hate to love. You know, those complex, unpredictable characters that sometimes make you feel guilty for even being fascinated by them (AKA: almost everyone on Game of Thrones, Chuck Bass, Gregory House, etc). Most likely, they’re 99% “evil”, according to society’s definition, but occasionally do decent things – truly making you question what is good and what is bad. Have you ever wondered why we are attracted to this type of character?

It is because their choices are based on their personal ethics, not objective morality, and we see this as a reflection of our own humanity.

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Confining yourself to a rigid set of ethics makes it harder to accept others. Is it still possible? Sure. But having the freedom to explore our own values makes it easier to be less judgmental of others. When we see someone and the things they are doing, we should be able to acknowledge that there are reasons behind their behavior. That does not mean we have to like them or their actions (would we really like all the morally ambiguous TV characters if they existed in real life?) – but at least we are openminded.

I know there are a lot of you reading this who are a little iffy on whether we should really just do what feels right to us – since people like serial killers feel plenty justified in doing what they do. Although those are very extreme cases and not the norm, it is still an important topic of discussion so on that note: if you are a Christian, for example, consider the following. If the Bible did not have the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment, would you be going around killing everyone?

Probably not.

When we are born, we are untouched by hatred. Things like racism, body-shaming, and religious fanaticism are taught, not inborn. The fear of God or hell isn’t what stops most sane people from becoming crazed mass murderers; it is a feeling we develop from the way we are raised. I’m no psychologist, but I’d think that killers, rapists etc. who live without remorse (as opposed to criminals who regret their actions…there is a difference) lack this intuition due to mental issues and/or their upbringing.

And for these people who don’t feel even the slightest tinge of guilt after hurting another: I do feel pity for them and think they need some extra help. If nations did a better job at identifying those who require psychiatric assistance, then crime rates would likely decrease. This strategy has been proposed by many in response to the startling statistics regarding American gun ownership and subsequent mass shootings. Since it is true that people kill people, not guns, we ought to be checking the psychological states of more people. Even the darkest criminals are humans, too, as much as some would like to think that they are monsters of a different species. It’s not a perfect or guaranteed solution, but it’s a start.

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(Yes, my fellow Game of Thrones lovers, the knight scenario I described was a very simplified version of the story of Jaime Lannister and King Aerys Targaryen II).

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