Reading Time: 3 minutes Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen - Flickr -
Reading Time: 3 minutes

I recently received the following in an Email from my friend fellowfeather. I thought the readership here on ATP would find it interesting and provocative. I asked his permission to post it, which he granted.

Note: I took the code itself and about sixty percent of what is here from a long essay, How Morality Has the Objectivity that Matters – Without God, by Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay, published by Free Inquiry, August/September 2014. The rest is mine.

It is not true — as political commentator Michael Gerson put it, and countless others believe — that “Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.” The Christian code is grounded on commands from God: thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, etc. Love even thy enemies, and forgive those who abuse you, etc.

It is permissive of slavery and silent on other issues worthy of specific instruction, such as, “Don’t fight over whether the wine becomes my literal blood.” – and others so cryptic in many respects as to be vague and useless.

A Better Code

This code is grounded on the human instinct for fairness and empathy, disciplined by reason:

 Do all you can in life to create stability, provide security, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation among all people. Do not do anything inimical to the positive advice.

This code is elastic in that it will fit countless specific real-world realities, requiring only judgment — just as the Christian code requires judgment about killing.

When we obey norms like “don’t kill” and “don’t steal,” we help ensure the security and stability of society. Moral norms also promote collaboration by encouraging certain actions and by providing the framework for the critical practice of the “promise”—that is, a commitment that allows others to rely on me.

Consider a simple example, one that could reflect circumstances in the Neolithic Era as much as today. I need a tool that you have to complete a project, so I ask you to lend it to me. You hesitate to lend me the tool, but you also believe you are obliged to help me if such help doesn’t significantly harm you. Moreover, I promise to return the tool. You lend me the tool; I keep my promise to return the tool. This exchange fosters trust between us. Both of us will be more inclined to cooperate with each other in the future. Our cooperation will likely improve our respective living conditions.

Multiply this example millions of times, and you get a sense of the numerous transactions among people that allow a peaceful, stable, prospering society to emerge.

Moral norms serve certain functions, and these functions are related to human interests. We can describe morality and its purposes without bringing a God into the picture; moreover, we can see that morality is a practical enterprise, not a means for describing the world.

For humans to live together in peace and prosper, we need to follow norms such as do not kill, do not steal, do not inflict pain gratuitously, tell the truth, keep your commitments, reciprocate acts of kindness, and so forth. The number of core norms is small, but they govern most of the transactions we have with other humans. This is why we see these norms in all functioning human societies, past and present. Any community in which these norms were lacking could not survive for long. This shared core of moral norms represents the common heritage of our human nature as civilized by millennia of experience in human society.

Christian moral code is no way more objective than this Atheist code. Both require judgment about real-world questions such as whether there are circumstances when it is not immoral to kill.

Consider how God vindicates his commands: Ultimately, when all other remedies have failed, by consigning him/her to suffer in Hell forever. No greater example of pure hate can be imagined. This is exactly the way Hitler and Stalin vindicated their commands, though their victims were mercifully freed of suffering upon death.

Even under the Christian code one is free to damn God from Hell forever; very likely since under this code, there can be no repentance once there. If this happens God’s law has in no way been vindicated, it has been successfully defied – and maybe forever!

The Christian code renders any obedience to it as morally suspect since one can never know whether his/her obedience was caused by the desire for eternal life, or forced by the threat of eternal suffering!

How does the atheist vindicate this moral code? In no way, beyond the adverse consequences which might flow to those who violate it in this short and only life.

All that is needed to be persuaded of this atheist code is to see the reasons it is good. This acceptance is made easier by our human instinct for empathy. With empathy, adherence becomes much easier and becomes a virtue which is its own reward, far nobler that self-seeking.

You may choose to ignore this atheist code, and if you do, be assured you will not suffer forever.


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Bert Bigelow is a trained engineer who pursued a career in software design. Now retired, he enjoys writing short essays on many subjects but mainly focuses on politics and religion and the intersection...