Atheist Ethics (Part 9)
By Julian Baggini
It should now be obvious that the idea that the atheist must be an amoralist is groundless. The religious believer and the atheist share an important common ground. For both it cannot be that what is right and wrong, good or bad, is defined in terms of God or simply follows from divine command. For both, moral choices ultimately have to be made by individuals, and we cannot get others to make our moral choices for us. So whether we have religious faith or not, we
have to make up our own minds about what is right and wrong.
To provide a source for morality we need to do no more than sign up to the belief that certain things have a value and that the existence of this value provides us with reasons to behave in certain ways. This very broad commitment does not entail any specific philosophical or even religious position. It is arguably no more than the basic commitment of someone who has human feeling. Once we have undertaken this basic commitment we have several resources to help
us think about what the right thing to do is. We can think about what is required to help our own lives and the lives of others flourish. We can think about what the consequences of our actions are and avoid those that harm things we think are of value and try to do those things which benefit them. And we can recognize that to say something is good or bad in one circumstance is to say it is good or bad in any other relevantly similar circumstance, and so can strive to be consistent in our actions, or to put it another way, strive to avoid hypocrisy.
Of course, it can still be said that we can provide no logical proof that atheists ought to behave morally, but neither can we provide such a proof for theists. The mistake that is often made is to suppose that if one has religious belief, moral principles just come along with the package and there is no need to think about or justify them. Once we see through that myth, we can see why
being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist.
[I think that saying (or believing) that all morality originates in/with God is nonsensical. Beyond this the idea that morality originates in or is encapsulated in a single religious book is both absurd and nonsensical. It has even been said that those who do not subscribe to any of the countless religious beliefs we have created around us cannot by definition be moral creatures. This to me moves beyond the bizarre into the territory of the ridiculous.
I am not alone in thinking that personal morality is an amalgam of the culture we are each accidentally born into (and also of course when exactly we are born into that culture), our upbringing, our education, our peers and our life experiences – along with a possible sprinkling of genetics. This mixture of influences explains how ideas of morality change over time, from place to place and within an individual’s life time. These obvious facts are difficult to explain from a theistic point of view that baldly states that we all know the (same) difference between right and wrong because God (presumably the Christian God) encapsulated that knowledge within each of us.
Morality is clearly a predominantly cultural phenomenon passed down from generation to generation in the same fashion as all other culture – and modified in exactly the same way. In that sense morality is simple, the complexity arises when we try to explain how a particular moral view point arises and why it is taken up (or not) by members of any particular population group. But for that we have the moral philosophers.]