Quite often I find myself in conversations with folks who feel that I left my religion simply because I wasn’t asked the right questions. Two of the most common questions I (still) receive are “How do you cope with the difficulties of life without believing in God?” and “If you don’t believe in God, how do you determine what’s right and wrong?”
That first subject was most recently brought up at a vulnerable moment by someone who had no idea what my religious affiliations are. I’ll save my response to that for next time when I’m not so personally upset by it; but as for the latter, I can easily tackle that one.
The question usually goes something like this: If there is no God, where does your basis of morality come from?
To answer this question, I must go very far back in time – approximately 40,000 to 100,000 years ago or so. The following may be hard to accept for anyone who doesn’t understand or accept human evolution. But if you want to know where my basis for morality comes from, you’ll have to read on.
Learning to Care
When humans first started doing humanish things, like making tools and drawing cave paintings, we were not much different from the other animals living around us. Give or take a few thousand years, around this time we were learning to live together in tribes, trying to create meaning and reason out of what we were experiencing and observing. We know this because there is evidence that we were creating art and burying our dead in ceremonies. The pressure to survive was great, but our brains were developing the ability to think past our survival instincts. Like many other developed mammals, we were developing characteristics that we still see today in nature – one of which was altruism.
We were beginning to understand that if we care for our young, they will grow up to be useful to our group. We also were evolving toward a tendency to pair-bond. We were discovering that when you treat members of your tribe well, they won’t try to kill you. We were beginning to understand that in order to survive, we must work as a team, hunting and gathering for food, and protecting each other from other bands of humans. As survival became the tiniest bit more certain, the constant fight to stay alive occasionally gave way to moments of leisure. We were then able to wonder and contemplate and notice that we felt something which we would one day call “empathy.”
While altruism and even empathy can be seen in other animals (other primates especially), human development of these traits was exceptional. Through caring for our young, banding together within our tribes, and protecting our families against outside threats, we got better at developing our relationships, which in turn caused our brains to develop even further. We developed the ability to feel someone else’s pain – whether it be sympathy for the cry of our offspring or the satisfaction of bonding with another human in the sadness of a death within the tribe. And sure, we had no issue killing other people from other tribes who had no relevance to us, but within our own groups we were at least learning to do good to one another.
So where does the basis of our morality come from? It comes from the very empathy and altruism that brought our species alive and well into the present day. It has become ingrained in us; it is part of our fabric…maybe it’s even in our DNA.
Learning to Rule Ourselves
As our brains developed further and as we began forming larger societies, we began making rules. These rules kept us alive, kept us from killing each other. A side effect of this rule-making was an increased measure of safety and of leisure. Then with leisure came thinking and wondering. We began to wonder what we are. We began to wonder why we are here. Societies developed into cultures, and cultures developed religions.
Some societies looked at the sun—which gave both life-saving warmth and life-killing heat and caused food to grow or to die—and those people believed the sun was the reason we are here, so they worshiped it. Other societies found other natural phenomena to be the answer for why we are here. Then some societies began thinking even more “out of the box.” Perhaps there were invisible forces that put us here, we said to ourselves, and we should worship them. We called these “gods.”
We had already learned that rules keep us safe, so it easily followed that those rules were actually the rules of the gods. And if God’s rules keep us safe (eventually it became easier just to chose one), God must want us to be safe. We had learned that we keep our offspring and fellow tribesmen safe because we care about them – maybe even love them – so perhaps God keeps us safe with rules because he loves us, too. And so forth and so on. As we evaluated our own experiences, we personified the idea of a person-like God, projecting our own values onto an impersonal cosmos in order to make it something to which we could better relate.
At this point, we had a code of morality which consisted of basics like “don’t kill people” because killing people destroyed our chances of survival. As early as our written record can show, we had other laws like “don’t steal” because stealing seemed to have bad side effects for our society as well (that often went back to the whole trying-not-to-get-killed thing). But we did other things that later generations would find highly immoral:
We stoned people for doing things of which we did not approve. We cut off people’s hands for stealing (causing more harm than the stealing itself). We raped and pillaged other societies in order to take their land and belongings…because most of those rules only really mattered within the tribe, anyway. We were moral relativists from the start. We had no problem stealing from other tribes because their survival meant nothing to us.
So while we had a basic underlying basis of “morality,” the specifics of what we considered moral were very different from what we have today. The specifics would go on to change again and again and again from generation to generation (yes, even among those who swear that God’s standards are unchanging).
Changing the Rules
At first we were happy mutilating, punishing, and killing people who did not belong to us, but we continued to progress and rethink some of our previous behaviors. We made new laws about not raping and not pillaging. We began making peace treaties with other tribes, because doing so actually turned out to be advantageous for both parties. But if a tribe didn’t have anything of value to offer us, we still did horrible things to them.
We even wrote these standards into laws. For instance, if a tribe did not believe in the same god as you, it was okay to kill every man, woman, and child in that tribe and take all of their things (See: the Old Testament). We considered ourselves living morally because, for that time, that’s what was considered acceptable.
Now let’s fast forward out of the ancient era and into the 1700-1800s. It’s easier to think of morality in real terms when we bring it into our own recent history. During this time period, humans with paler skin believed it was perfectly fine to steal humans with darker skin from their land and force them to work for no gain of their own. We beat them, raped them, mutilated them, starved them, and traded them, working them literally to death while feeling no remorse for it. It wasn’t “immoral” to us at that point.
Nor did our religions stop us. In fact, our religions saw no problem with ownership of other human beings, as long as there were one or two caveats, which were conveniently ignored. We thought ourselves quite moral and God-fearing even as we tore the flesh off other human beings.
Thankfully we continued to progress (slowly) and eventually slavery was considered immoral. We stopped owning people – at least in a literal, lawful sense. But we still refused to give those Africans we had stolen from their homes in the first place an equal place in our society. It wasn’t advantageous for those in power do so. African lives were still threatened every single day, but we weren’t really concerned with that because we felt we had done the moral thing by abolishing slavery. We considered ourselves very moral people at that time.
Now fast forward again to the present day. What was considered moral only a few decades ago is now considered barbaric and completely unacceptable for an enlightened society. Only a few decades ago, white people were still lynching black people. A few decades ago, (presumably) heterosexual people chemically castrated homosexual people.
Today those practices are utterly deplorable, and yet many still think that interracial marriages or same-sex marriages are immoral and have no place in a proper, “moral” society like ours. Give us only a few more decades, though, and maybe it will seem as deplorable to us then to prevent people from marrying for either of these reasons as our old Jim Crow laws appear to us now. The recent revival of white nationalism and alt-right activism leaves me somewhat pessimistic about that, however.
The bottom line is this: Morality simply is not consistent. Morality is relative. It just is. There are moral laws that we have been abiding by for as long as we have human record – do not kill, do not steal, do not lie – because they have helped ensure our survival and a peaceful and just society. But the nuances are forever changing.
The Rules Serve Us (Not Vice Versa)
Whether you believe the world is billions of years old or only thousands, there is still more than enough evidence in human history to prove that moral laws are constantly changing. Even evangelical Christians today will admit that many of the biblical laws are obsolete (Mixed fabrics, anyone? Tattoos? Marrying outside your tribe? Cropped hair for women?).
The Ten Commandments themselves are largely made not of actual moral laws but religious ones: do not serve false gods, do not put other gods before God, keep the Sabbath, etc. These are not universal moral codes like “do not murder” and “do not steal.” They do not constitute what is universally agreed upon as morality.
And the Ten Commandments are not, as many evangelicals assume, the basis of our legal system despite how many stone structures idolizing them keep popping up on state capitol grounds. The First Commandment (have no other gods) and the First Amendment (no god gets special treatment) are diametrically opposed to each other, and women are no longer considered the personal property of men. Our rules are there for our benefit; it’s not the other way around.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” —Jesus
Let us also not forget that all ancient societies had moral codes; Judaism was not unique in that. The Assyrians, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Egyptians, all had laws dictating what was moral and good. Even societies that did not worship gods had moral codes.
To sum up, God is not the reason we have morals. If anything, morals are the reason we have God.
The morals of human beings come to us from tens of thousands of years of experience, empathy-building, and rule-abiding. Why do I not go around doing terrible things if I have no god to stop me? Because I have empathy and an understanding of cause-and-effect. I do not want to hurt other people. I do not want to hurt myself. And furthermore, as a 21st century human living in the developed world, I am so safe and so unconcerned with my personal survival, relatively speaking, that I get to spend copious amounts of time contemplating and wondering and imagining what a world without rules and empathy would look like, and I do not want any part of a world like that.
I do not need a god-figure to scare me out of doing evil. Thanks to the billions of humans before me, I have come to realize that doing good is far better for me, for my loved ones, and for my society than doing harm. The specifics of my morals, however, will often change – and I certainly hope they do, for the better.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
Lori Arnold is a writer, overachiever, and Oxford Comma enthusiast living in Arkansas with her three children and vindictive cat. She writes about the struggles she once faced as an evangelical Christian and those she faces now as an openly atheist, divorced young professional living in the Bible Belt. You can visit her blog here and order her memoir, The Last Petal Falling, here.