"Where DO you get your morals from?" believers often question atheists. The question can be reversed. And anyway, we've got a better answer.

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If you, like me, are atheist, then you have no doubt had this question leveled at you as well. It’s ubiquitous in such circles, but it has no merit, really.

Rather similar is the idea that if “God is dead” then we will just go about murdering babies.

Let sociologist and colleague here at OnlySky Phil Zuckerman share his tuppence:

Whether at a dinner party or class reunion, a PTA meeting or a pig pickin’, whenever God-fearing people find out we don’t believe in the Lord, don’t believe in an afterlife, don’t attend church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, don’t follow a guru, don’t obsess over ancient scriptures, and don’t care much for preachers or pontiffs, they immediately inquire about the possible source of our morality—which they find hard to fathom.

And the question “Where do you get your morals?” is usually asked with the embedded implication that morality obviousy comes from God and religion, so if you don’t have either, then you must have no source for morality.

Phil Zuckerman (2019), What It Means To Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, Berkeley: Counterpoint, p. 125

This inference that atheists can’t have morals, or the grounds for them, is utter nonsense, of course. We construct our morality—invent it—and so we certainly don’t discover it under a rock, or buy it from a supermarket, or have it clearly and unequivocally thrust upon us by a skydaddy.

The theist really needs to imagine if they hadn’t read the Bible, or whatever holy text they hold dear. Would they really have developed into a moral monster?

This leads us to look at different definitions of morality. Without wanting to get into the long grass of meta-ethics (what “right” and “ought”) mean, let us focus on descriptive ethics and normative ethics.

Descriptive ethics looks at what people actually believe. Here, we can look at whether theists and nontheists are significantly different in their applied morality.

It turns out that they aren’t. In fact, this is such an interesting non-difference that philosopher Paul Draper has turned it into the Meager Moral Fruits argument. As Emerson Green (whom I have interviewed) states of it:

A true religion would surely improve the moral lives of its adherents in a way that a false religion could not. We shouldn’t expect false religions to make people better to the same degree that a true religion would. If Christianity is the one true religion, its members should be relatively morally superior to those in other religions as well as non-believers. I don’t see why this should be a controversial point to make.

All parties involved—atheists, agnostics, Christians, those in other religions—are roughly equally virtuous. In Draper’s experience (and in mine), there is no clear difference between Christians and atheists such that one group is obviously morally superior to the other. If Christians are worse than non-believers, that only strengthens the case. However, it’s not necessary to defend that claim for the argument to work.

Draper is not claiming that Christians are morally inferior to atheists, to be clear. There’s lots of evil inside Christendom as well as outside. He’s pointing out that, in his experience, all parties involved are roughly equally virtuous. The ethical conduct of Christians is not significantly better than that of non-believers. As William Lane Craig admits, “[I]t would seem arrogant and ignorant to claim that those who do not share a belief in God do not often live good moral lives—indeed, embarrassingly, lives that sometimes put our own to shame.”

Why is church history so appalling, right up into the present? Why are there evils, great and small, committed by believers with such frequency? I know we’re all fallen and that we’re all sinners, according to Christianity. But for one, the claim is not that theists should be perfect. Second, how many times have you heard Christians claim that Jesus is a significant well of moral strength? That they’ve been transformed by God? That they were profoundly changed after their conversion? I’m not doubting their sincerity, but if their relationship with God or their religious commitments bore significant moral fruits, it would not be true that the ethical conduct of Christians and non-believers is roughly the same. And yet, this seems to be the case. Again, a true religion should produce notably different effects than false religions, let alone non-belief.

Thus, descriptively speaking, theists can’t really whinge in their inferential question “Where do atheists’ morals come from?” as if we are morally inferior to them.

Of course, it is worth looking at morality in our closest relatives: bonobos and chimpanzees. In these species (bonobos in particular), we see all the rudiments of prosocial behavior, all the underpinnings of morality.

So the question is perhaps one about moral grounding, and even epistemology (how do we know what we know?), covered somewhat by normative morality. What we should do, morally speaking (rather than that which we actually do as per descriptive ethics).

But when we consider moral grounding, and then look at primatology, as hinted above (see, for example, the excellent work of primatologist Frans de Waal), we can see that morality is grounded (at least in some significant way) in nature, and in social cohesion. Indeed, de Waal observes:

Empathy, sympathy, reciprocity, fairness, and other basic tendencies were built into humanity’s moral order based on our primate psychology. We did not develop this order from scratch, but had a huge helping hand—not God’s, but Mother Nature’s.

Frans de Waal (2013), The Bonobo and the Atheist, New York: W.W. Norton, p. 167

The theist will want this to be a discussion about ontological grounding—some kind of philosophical, abstract grounding of morality, of moral behavior.

But why would it need to have this particular grounding? Why is this better?

Furthermore, even if morality was grounded in God, for example, all the usual criticisms apply (criticisms that are applied to Divine Command Theory). The problem with the theist’s account is that it strips moral reasoning away from morality because morality must be underwritten by God, and not anything else:

  1. Does good make God good, or is good good because it is in God’s nature? If the latter, as theists think, this makes it arbitrary and devoid of moral reasoning.
  2. Lovingness, kindness, mercy etc. are only good because God has them rather than being grounded in (secular) moral reasoning.
  3. We are only good and acting morally because it reflects God, rather than for any other reason.
  4. This then strips us of everyday moral intuition and reaosning (we did X because of Y), which is not how we operate.
  5. Which God? Which commands? How do we know? And if we are lucky enough to ge thte God right, how do we know we have got the moral commands of God’s moral nature correctly interpreted? Do we have to, lo and behold, use moral reasoning?
  6. Why should we follow such commands? Only to get into heaven and avoid hell?
  7. What happens when the holy books show or command or countenance things that are morally abhorrent?
  8. Or don’t give guidance on things?
  9. How would we know God wouldn’t command rape because, to know that, we would need to know that rape was bad outside of God’s moral nature?

The list is longer, but you get the point. Trying to ground morality in God is a really problematic affair both from a moral and an epistemological standpoint.

I think it is more pertinent to ask that theist this question:

“Where do you get your morals from? … Really? Are you serious? From a 2000-year-old book from the Middle East? Wow. What, you just picked up the book, read it, and kapow you had morality? Oh, also from your God-feeling in your heart? You know, like that moral intuition of mine you frowned at?”

Phil Zuckerman, in his aforementioned book (it’s a must-read), lays out four different loci for our ethics (adapted from p. 126):

  1. Our long history as social primates, evolving within a group context of necessary cooperation.
  2. Our earliest experiences as infants and toddlers being cared for by a mother, father, or other immediate caregivers.
  3. Unavoidable socialization as growing children and teenagers enmeshed within a culture.
  4. Ongoing personal experience, increased knowledge, and reasoned, thoughtful reflection.

And that’s all you really need to say to “Where do your morals come from?”

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...