Secular Morality

I was out in Philly this weekend and, through the normal course of catch-up conversation, I was asked a question that is quickly rising to the top of my “inevitable” list: “As an atheist, what keeps you from doing just anything?”

Ah, yes. The moral question is a big one. It’s been addressed many times and by people way smarter than myself (e.g., Richard Carrier), so I’m going to focus on a simple, one-word answer: empathy.

The reason I choose to focus on this word is that it gets right at the heart of what most religious people mean when talking about the moral necessity of God. Typical atheist objections to religious moral arguments are along the lines of Richard Dawkins’ observation that being moral out of a fear of hell or punishment is a very sad reason indeed for being moral. This is true for people who actually do good things because they’re afraid of hell, but I think it’s an oversimplification of the religious arguments, which, at their core, claim that morality is an argument for God because no one but God could have given people a conscience and an innate sense of right and wrong. The religious argument is ultimately about what’s inside, not about any outside force, supernatural or natural. (This is in conflict with the Christian doctrine of “total depravity,” but that’s a discussion for another time.)

In fact, the moral argument for God has to be about the conscience and an innate sense of right and wrong. If it was about external moral laws imposed by religion (or law “from God”), it would fall into the category of all the other laws that humans have erected for survival and society. It would also immediately fail to explain why atheists and members of other religions can be good, moral people (hey, they don’t have your book of laws!). No, the moral argument for God rests on the idea that there is some built-in human morality that speaks to the existence of a higher being.

Before I go on to discuss these arguments, let’s examine a few quotes to make sure I’m not misrepresenting the religious position here. Timothy Keller quotes both C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga in his recent book, The Reason for God. These aren’t straw men; they’re at the forefront of modern and late 20th-century apologetics. Here’s Lewis:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”?…What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies….Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.

Basically, he’s saying that we couldn’t know what was “just” or “unjust” if God hadn’t given us a universal moral conscience. Here’s Plantinga:

Could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness [if there were no God and we just evolved]? I don’t see how. There can be such a thing only if there is a way that rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live….A [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort…and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (…and not just an illusion of some sort), then you have a powerful…argument [for the reality of God].

Essentially, the same thing. If we admit that there is a better way to live and a worse way to live, we automatically have “a powerful argument for God.” As I established earlier, this has to be some inner moral sense that humans live out and which presents the basic argument for a higher power.

What these apologists are missing is that better and worse are judgments that don’t demand divine origin. If I’m alive (Cogito ergo sum), evolutionary theory easily explains why I want to keep living. And when I empathize with others in my species and social group (which is not uncommon among advanced species, e.g., dolphins), I’m caring in a way that can be explained in moral terms. Being imaginative creatures with large brains means we can makes guesses about what other beings are feeling or thinking (which is helpful for survival); this imaginative process results in association and empathy, which of course plays a role in group selection. These traits of caring and empathy are present even in the very young.

Social morality is as simple as two people getting together and deciding that to help them survive and prosper, they don’t want their stuff stolen or their lives threatened. They agree on these basic rules, and require that anyone who wishes to enter their social group also adhere to these rules. Socialization and evolution take care of it from there. Societies that tolerate rape, murder, theft, etc., will die out quickly. This isn’t to say, of course, that whatever naturally happens represents what is “right” (far from it, in fact); it means that humans have the ability to empathize, to work together in cooperative society for evolutionary benefit and the welfare of all, and, ultimately, to develop intellectual abilities that allow us to make moral judgments about welfare and right/wrong that transcend the dog-eat-dog system of natural selection and value every human life for what it is: a precious, one-time shot at existing.

The “conscience” that develops under these circumstances is very similar to the religious “innate, God-given sense of right and wrong” as defined at the beginning of this article. The religious explanation for this conscience is possible; I’m not saying it’s definitely wrong. But there is absolutely no reason to think that it is correct when we don’t need it or have any evidence to support belief in the supernatural. I could propose right now that there are metaphysical, translucent purple whales that somehow manage to float around us in the physical realm and softly massage our hearts when we try to make judgments that don’t fit in with what they have defined (and given to us) as “morality.”

Sure, that could be it. But why on earth would anyone think this? Just because someone has thought of an explanation doesn’t mean it is the least bit likely. (I could think of another ridiculous, possible, and unfalsifiable explanation right now.) We should be able to acknowledge that humans can make objective moral claims about what is “better” and “worse” and still not have to posit an explanation with no evidential support whatsoever. That’s what Occam’s Razor is all about. As long as I can empathize, I don’t need divine explanations for why we have a conscience, moral sense, or anything else like that.

Contrary to Lewis’ assertion, we can make “objective” moral claims because we realize that we’re alive and it’s better to be alive than to be dead. (Ironically, religious folks would have to say the opposite if they took their theology seriously.) It’s better to eat than to starve. It’s better not to get hurt and feel pain than it is to get hurt and feel pain. As long as there are better and worse choices in the world, right and wrong need no divine origin. Morality and moral sense develop over time (values certainly change from century to century), but the process is guided by the fact that we all exist. And in the struggle to assign divine labels to human emotions, let’s not ignore the fact that people naturally just give a damn about each other.

So what keeps me from doing “just anything?” Empathy. The fact that I care about people. The fact that I get pleasure from doing nice things. The fact that I know helping other people furthers our species and, to some small extent, increase the quality of life others (and myself) enjoy. And yes, sometimes the fact that I’ll get locked up if I violate society’s moral/legal code. Sure, I’ve done objectively bad things, and by many religious definitions, I’d be a really bad person; but this doesn’t change the fact that I have the ability to empathize and feel good when I make the right choices.

I recognize, of course, that a lot of people make the wrong choices, but the reasons for this are complex and include things like group pressure/atmosphere, personal needs/desires, and nurture/environment; my goal here is to talk about the “conscience”/empathy trait in humans. Religious pressure (or its equivalent in, e.g., a political leader cult) is, ironically, one of the most powerful ways to break down the natural conscience. “With or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion” (Steven Weinberg).

It’s also worth noting things that I can do without guilt. You see, there’s a big difference between “sin” as defined by religions and actions that are “wrong.” One of the reasons atheists are viewed as immoral by religious people is that we realize there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality, and we don’t make people in the GLBT community feel guilty about their private lives. There are bad/evil people in the world for sure, but I think the majority of cultural “sin” decried by religious organizations is simply the result of people who want to eat pork and masturbate. “Sinful” or “taboo” things are not always wrong, and this is a distinction that is purposefully blurred by the regulations of every major religion.

I’d like to close by saying a few words about the moral impotence of Christianity in particular (largely because it’s the religion I’m most familiar with). People who want to believe because they are in need of a cosmic sense of justice should find no solace in Christianity. Besides immediate entanglement in moral contradictions (such as the Euthyphro Dilemma), Christianity teaches that the worst murderer or thief in the world can go to heaven by believing the right thing at the last minute (just see Luke 23:32-33, 39-43), while still sending moral unbelievers (e.g., Gandhi, of course!) to hell. In other words, there’s no ultimate justice here. It’s an arbitrary “who does Jesus love” kind of deal that exalts “who you know” over “who you are.” And morally speaking, my conscience will never be satisfied with that.

post scriptum: read my comment below for the answer to a common question I’m getting about this entry…

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Secular Morality

  1. mikhailovich says:


    Thanks for your comment. The massive perspective shift you mentioned is something I have dealt with as well. My deconversion lasted a little over a year, and most of it wasn’t fun. It’s the process of realizing that all the things religion takes credit for (morals, purpose, life itself, even scientific advancements) can be appreciated more fully with a rational view of reality. Yet it’s a hard paradigm shift to make, especially for those who have been raised in religious environments.

  2. sirromdd says:

    I just read your article — and I really like it. I had been mulling over the idea that empathy was the key to morality, and you’ve made a good justification for that.

    I came from a fundamentalist background, and I remember being convinced that anyone who didn’t believe in God had no basis for his/her morality, and could not give an objective criticism of crimes like Hitler’s. It is funny how my perspective has changed and now I see no difficulty in nonbelievers having strong, objective moral beliefs. For me this transition was a long and painful one (with the fear of hell adding to the pain). I’m not sure what will enable others to make that transition, but perhaps articles like this will help ease it.

  3. mikhailovich says:

    I agree with your clarification that in Christianity, true remorse is required along with belief in order to be “saved.” I should have stated that more accurately in the article.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to assume that people can and will feel remorse for evil actions whether they are outside Christianity or within it.

    The troubling part of the equation for me is the essential “belief” part. In Christianity, you’re not saved just by feeling sorry for all the bad stuff you’ve done, or even by punishment and retribution (unless, you know, you believe in purgatory). In Christianity, you’re saved because you had the chance to read the Bible AND you were able to pay the deep intellectual price of credulity.

    Good people will go to hell forever. Bad people who believe in Jesus (and, yes, feel remorse) will go to heaven. This is the basic injustice I was referring to in the paragraph you quoted: “It’s an arbitrary ‘who does Jesus love’ kind of deal that exalts ‘who you know’ over ‘who you are.'”

  4. Bill Hall says:

    You stated:
    “Christianity teaches that the worst murderer or thief in the world can go to heaven by believing the right thing at the last minute (just see Luke 23:32-33, 39-43), while still sending moral unbelievers (e.g., Gandhi, of course!) to hell. In other words, there’s no ultimate justice here. It’s an arbitrary “who does Jesus love” kind of deal that exalts “who you know” over “who you are.” And morally speaking, my conscience will never be satisfied with that.”

    That’s not exactly correct. More than belief is required. God’s forgiveness is required, and that implies sincere remorse.

    God can forgive almost anything if there is real remorse, and the person at the end of their life passes God’s judgement.

    You are second guessing God’s judgement about what is right in your argument to reject God, by applying the idea of revenge, or retribution, as justice.

    The Christian idea of forgiveness is not part of human nature, it requires rising above it.

    If you reject that, you do reject Christianity.

    By the way, the root of morality has to be empathy. The basis of morality is considering others in society, and society as a whole, and that consideration is rooted in empathy. However, I do agree that empathy should not be the only consideration.

  5. wytworm says:

    I haven’t read the entire thread yet, but I am wondering if anyone has read the book:

    The Moral Sense

    I think it does a credible job at walking through the development of morals in children in particular…

  6. mikhailovich says:

    Good points. That’s why I’m drawing a distinction between the experience of empathy, which gives humans the ability to know right from wrong, and the philosophic process of establishing a viable moral code for society that can withstand periods of time where people are “uncomfortable” and willing to turn to immoral actions to survive.

  7. Brandon says:

    Was there a point in history when no one had a problem with slavery? I don’t think so. Other species can empathize, so I think it’s fair to say modern man has always had the ability to empathize.

    If you can empathize, you know slavery is wrong. It doesn’t mean that you won’t still practice slavery because it makes your life easier. When life became more comfortable through innovation man abandoned slavery and indulged his sense of empathy.

    Empathy gives you the ability to discern right from wrong. But you can’t be empathetic when you’re uncomfortable and struggling for survival.

    Universal moral absolutes are only for comfortable men. In life or death situations, men will kill, manipulate and enslave to ensure survival.

  8. mikhailovich says:

    I basically agree with you, Brandon, but I think we’re using empathy in different ways.

    There’s a difference between social mores and a complex, secular moral framework. We can look back at slavery, for example, and say without qualification that it was immoral–even though it was largely within the bounds of what most western civilizations viewed as acceptable until a couple hundred years ago. Moral values change over time, but they could very well have been incorrect or immoral in the past by standards that are not just more modern, but actually better in an objective sense. And morality continues to develop…

    I don’t believe we can ever attain a purely objective morality, but I think we can get close, based on simple principles like life and equality. It’s a matter of picking better actions over worse ones. Empathy is, of course, required for realizing that other people hurt in the same way I hurt and want to survive in the same way I want to survive, but the decision making process that fuels moral development is better served by honoring ideals (like equality) and working from there.

    By saying this, I am not downplaying the importance of empathy as foundational in moral development itself (that’s really what this article was about); I’m saying that we have more tangible tools to work with when developing a complex moral system for government and society.

  9. Brandon says:

    Anonymous & Mikhailovich,

    I would disagree that empathy is not a foundation for establishing morality.

    An individual’s sense of empathy is subject to their on perceptions; therefore their personal sense of right and wrong can be incorrect. So one individual’s empathy can’t be a basis for a moral code.

    Societies are made up of people who share similar traits: ethnicity, culture, economic strata, religion, etc. So to me it seems there’s no reason why a shared or similar sense of empathy can’t be considered the foundation for a society’s moral code.

    Unlike ethnicity and religion, the characteristics of empathy aren’t apparent. It’s only through monitoring others actions and re-actions that you can understand society’s shared sense of empathy.

    You’re always going to have outliers like sociopaths and psychopaths, but on the whole in any society most people will share a sense of empathy. This sense of empathy will always be changing because of shared experiences, knowledge gains, and just progress in general.

    If you’re looking for a code of rules to live by, “collective empathy” isn’t the answer you’re looking for. But honestly neither is the Bible or the Quran because those are subject to individual interpretations as well, and no one reads the bible and does exactly what it says.

    People used to use the Bible to justify stoning people, now they don’t. The Bible didn’t change but the people sense of right and wrong did.

    This isn’t an original idea, people have been talking about the idea of a Zeitguist (spirit of the age) since the 1700s and probably earlier. I’ve even heard Christians describe this idea as “The living word” to justify new interpretations of the same Bible passages.

    If you’re wondering how to act in any given situation your more likely to make a socially expectable decision if you ask one of your peers for advice, rather than looking to religious dogma.

  10. mikhailovich says:

    Let me jump in here briefly and say that empathy is not a “foundation for establishing morality”–it’s simply a trait that humans possess. The “foundation” of any solid, secular morality is that there are better actions and worse actions. As I said before, no god is required to say that living is better than dying, etc.

    Actually thinking logically about the best way to develop a robust moral system seems far superior to me than accepting with robotic faith the often immoral dictates of a bronze-age book, which is what I assume you meant when referring to a more slid foundation.

  11. anonymous says:

    You’re right, of course, that we grow and develop, and the quality of empathy is one that (hopefully) is nurtured and is part of that growth. I still think it is a shakey foundation for establishing morality, however, because it can be so elusive and unreliable, as history bears witness. We’re not talking about the odd psychopath or sociopath, but about the ability of such people to harness tremendous support of hundreds of others in carrying out their destructive purposes…and then, there are also the “not so blatant” ways that all of us hurt those around us. Empathy is a wonderful human quality, and is, indeed, present to some degree in all of us…but it cannot be relied upon as the only standard/basis to determine human behavior – it is just too elusive of a foundation.

  12. Brandon says:

    Hey anonymous,

    I got the impression that you work with or have worked with children. That’s a very noble profession and I think it’s great whenever people devote their time to raising children. But, I think your understanding of how a child’s brain develops is a little misinformed.

    You can’t compare how a child views the world and its sense-of-self the same way you do an adult, because children’s brains are not fully developed.

    It’s physiologically impossible for a two-year-old to empathize because their brain hasn’t gone through the process of myelination (which is necessary for higher brain functions). Empathy isn’t fully developed until a child is 8 or 10 years old, and even then life experiences like physical or mental abuse can seriously impact a child’s ability to empathize.

    It’s not reasonable to make claims about the true nature of humans based on how children view the world because they just aren’t completely developed people.

    You also brought up the point about people who just don’t (or can’t) empathize. This is a great point, one that I’ve made a million times when discussing where morality comes from. No matter what group you look at you will always have sadistic psychopaths and sociopaths that just refuse to go along with human decency.

    Just today I read a blurb about a priest accused of dealing drugs. I thought to myself; why is this even news? People sell drugs all the time. It’s because we look at members of clergy to be our moral compass and to give us advice. But in reality the clergy and people of faith are just as likely to be negative members of society as anyone else.

    If you want to say that morality is given by god; I think you have to admit that he shows no favoritism to any one religion, country or group.

    Is god justly enforcing crimes against morality? There’s no evidence for it here on Earth; maybe we’ll find out when we’re dead.

  13. mikhailovich says:

    Thanks for your comment and questions. I’ll answer your points in turn:

    1. You are right in saying that the world isn’t just filled with love and perfect empathy, but that wasn’t really my point. I was trying to explore why empathy exists at all, and what its implications are. (The existence of human empathy and conscience is often used as an argument for God, which is why I’m surprised if you’re denying it!) I do think every mentally sound person has the ability to empathize, which is why those who don’t empathize with others and don’t feel bad when they hurt someone are often diagnosed as sociopaths. I also linked to an article about moral empathy in young children, which you can read here.

    Empathy for family, social group, and people in general (in that order) is addressed by group selection, and the selfish (and sometimes cruel) trend that runs through all people is also explained by evolution by natural selection. These traits (empathy and selfishness) are not mutually exclusive. Are you suggesting that people are either 100 percent selfish or 100 percent empathetic? Probably not. The fact that both co-exist is the result of different forces in natural selection, and I was specifically focusing on the presence of empathy in this article.

    2. I pretty much stand by what I wrote about the development of social morality. It’s as simple as two people getting together and deciding that they don’t want their stuff stolen or their lives threatened. If anyone wants to come into that community, the new person will have to abide by those rules set up for the benefit of the group or face consequences imposed by the group. That’s what prisons are for, etc. I’m sorry if this was unclear.

    I am absolutely saying that humans administer justice according to their current moral standards. Who else does? or could? The moral sense that leads to the development of such social mores is what drives them to be enforced. You’re setting up a false dilemma by saying that enforcing moral rules undercuts moral empathy. There are better and worse ways to punish people, and that’s why we have generally put a stop to stoning, hanging, and other cruel or unusual punishments. Empathy therefore does play a role in the necessary enforcement of established social mores.

    Where do human rights come from? They come from us. We decide on them, on the basis that we’re all alive and want to stay that way as long as possible. Nothing more is needed.

  14. anonymous says:

    This is mikhailovich, but I’m posting below a more critical comment that someone sent me via email, and I’ll respond to it soon. Don’t feel like you need to email me privately if you have a critique of what I’ve written! I welcome all feedback in the comments section here…

    two thoughts…first, what about all the people who don’t exhibit this “empathy” – and there are plenty of them. In fact, the world is so filled with people doing terrible things to people that empathy seems to be much too rare to base morality upon. And if you ever work with kids, you’ll realize just how difficult it is to get them to think about how another person is feeling and to empathize – believe me, it doesn’t come naturally. The natural response of kids (and human beings in general) is to look out for themselves, and to focus on their own feelings/wants/needs in any given situation. And what happens when adults just don’t feel that empathy you’re talking about, or worse, even delight in knowingly causing harm and pain to others? Is there any standard of “wrong” that can be called upon when empathy is absent? There are plenty of times when you, or me, or anyone else has not shown the empathy we “should have” shown to those around us – I would hate for that fluctuating and unreliable standard to be all that there was to morality. If your empathy falters at any given point, does that mean that the actions that ensue are therefore “right” because “empathy” didn’t prompt you otherwise?

    second, you mentioned a group getting together and deciding upon “rules” that would govern their interaction as a society, and anyone who wants to be a part of that society is required to adhere to these rules. How is that “required” to be enforced? What will be done to those who do not adhere? If those who created the social group have the right to enforce them (and even punish or expel those who do not conform), then you are acknowledging the principle that the creator(s) of a group have the right to determine the “rules” of conduct and administer “justice” when those rules are not followed….what does that “justice” look like? Which is more important, your “empathy” for the individual who does not adhere to your rules, or the enforcing of your rules? If empathy, then you, in effect, don’t really have rules after all that are worth anything, and so anything goes, including rape, murder, etc. which you mentioned. If enforcing your rules is more important, then you are walking out the principle of rightful administration of justice according to those who created, or started, the group in the first place. They have the right, and the authority and the power to enforce “justice”… which is the principle you are denying that God should have…

  15. Laura says:

    This was a really excellent post. I always felt like I had a really good sense of right and wrong and when I was CHristian I used to attribute this to Jebus. But after abandoning religion, I now take all the credit. I think I might almost empathize with people TOO much, seeing that a cry at television commercials.

  16. mikhailovich says:

    You’re in a pitiful minority, Brandon. How can you reject “outright” a theory that is so self-evident that it needs no real evidence to be believed by everyone?

  17. Brandon says:

    I’m surprised to hear that Bill buys into the metaphysical purple whales theory of morality… Personally, I reject it outright. How can whales massage your heart? They don’t even have hands.

  18. mikhailovich says:

    Thanks Bill! I wanted to say more about the development of morality (i.e., human rights come from us, and morals evolve over time), but the article was already getting too long. Maybe some other time…

  19. BillK says:

    Absolutely terrific. You have cogently and eloquently stated exactly what I have long felt but never actually verbalized. And in the process, pointed out things that I didn’t realize that I felt. Kudos.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s