Atheist Morality

5 April, 2008

To too many theists (be they Christian, Moslem or Jewish), the title to this post ranks right up there with military intelligence, jumbo shrimp, and government organization (full disclosure:  I was MI in the Army, I love jumbo shrimp, and I work for a government organization) — an oxymoron.  I have, for most of my life, heard some form of “You can’t be moral without God(s),” or have read similar comments on atheist blogs.  I disagree, and I don’t even feel I should be respectful about it. 

When I was young I lived at Death Valley and Grand Canyon.  These were small, isolated communities made up of people from around the country.  I’m sure that there were many theists (at the canyon, there were lots of Mormons), but, at my age, I was blissfully unaware of most of it.  Not all, but most.

One of my best friends was (presumably still is) Mormon.  One of his frequent jokes was that, after I died, he’s make sure to make me a Mormon post mortem.  What the hell, it made us both laugh.  When I had dinner at his house (not often), I always found the prayer interesting.  His father focused on the Mormon Church being the key to living a good life.  Caffeine, alcohol and drugs were all immoral.

Yet my first cigarrette was supplied by my Mormon friend.  He and another friend also tried to introduce me to grass (I wasn’t interested and they had no problem with that).  We also used to break into the liquor cabinet at my other friends house.  I had tried beer and scotch at home through my parents, but these two were trying to get drunk.

Now, I disagree with morality and abstention being synonymous, but it was my Mormon friend who was most eager to be ‘immoral’ through the use of these forbidden substances.  He claimed (or his church claimed) that these things were immoral, but he reveled in them.  I remember watching him get drunk, but, because it wasn’t forbidden, it never turned me on.

When we moved to the Cumberland Valley of Maryland (a northern suburb of the Bible Belt), I ran into the “No Morality Without God” again and again.  There was a Social Studies teacher who, at least once a week, found a way to inject into her history class some form of that statement.  Then her last name changed because of a divorce.  I learned later on that she had been cheating on her husband with the her sister’s husband.  Then, the next year, she got married again.  This time, though, to a man in his mid-20s (she was in her mid-40s).  That marriage lasted about six months.  Luckily, I moved up into high school and lost track of her soap opera.

As I  became more comfortable with being a ‘tradition Christian’ who was unsure about the existence of any god, I became more aware of those who insist that belief in a supreme being  is all that ensures morality.  I have seen Christians drink themselves into losing house, husband, son, and job.  I have seen Christian girls intentionally get pregnant to ‘trap’ a man into marriage.  I have seen  beleivers abuse themselves, each other, their children, you name it.

I do not pretend I am perfect.  However, my wife and I pay our way, pay our taxes, help our neighbors (when we can), welcome new neighbors (even when they are ‘different’).  Out closest brushes with the law have been some speeding tickets (when I was younger), and being the victims of a drunk driver hit and run.  We don’t get drunk at the local bar.  We work hard, and try to be good people.

Why do we do this?  From a theistic point of view, our life would seem odd.  After all, without that little book, there is nothing to stop us from robbing, lying, killing, engaging in sexual perversions, eating meat during lent, you name it.  Christians also insist that they are not perfect, just forgiven.  That, I think, is the key.

If a Christian sins, if a Christian commits an immoral act (say, smoking meth with a male prostitute or buggering an altar boy), they can be forgiven.  A Catholic, through confession and pennance; a Protestant through a personal intercession ‘saving’ them. For a Christian, death is a goal to be achieved and, as long as the heavenly judge has forgiven you, it doesn’t matter how bad a person you have been in your life on earth.  My wife’s mother calls them ‘Life Cheaters’ — people who do not think the rules apply to them.

For an atheist (and yes, I’m gonna generalize here), this is the one life we have.  There is no afterlife.  There is no punishment or reward outside of this life.  To me, this means that, when I die, my atoms will continue (possibly in other living thing) but my consciousness will not.  When I die, the only thing which will live after me is the memories others have of me (good or bad), and the works I have created on earth (good or bad).  If I lie, cheat, steal, step on others to advance myself, the world will remember me as an asshole.  If, however, I live a life based upon the Golden Rule (treat others the way I would like to be treated), there will be positive memories of me.

I’m sure that there are many law-abiding and moral theists out there.  Unfortunately, I don’t meet many of them.  In fact, I would say that the more religious the person I know, the less likely they are to meet any definition of moral.  I guess it all comes down to “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven;”  atheists need to get it right this time.



  1. I hope you don’t find the of the following post offensive, but it was mainly to provoke a readership. I have tried to explore the ideas of an atheist moral system in this post, http://truthisasnare.wordpress.com/2007/12/23/atheism-or-morality-whatll-it-be/ which you might find interesting.

    I would also like to say that I really like your wife’s term of “Life Cheaters.” I’m going to have to use that one! I think the thing that most so-called “Christians” don’t understand is Aristotle’s saying,
    “You are what you repeatedly do.”
    And if they repeatedly do immoral things, it starts to become part of their soul and their character. And if they think that God can just ‘forgive’ them, they have a very childish understanding of Forgiveness indeed!

  2. Zachary: Is there some reason that Christians think the world began with Jesus? Or that the teaching of Jesus were known throughout the world? They had a code of ethics that rivaled the Ten Commandments in the Middle East, called Hammurabi’s Code. The far east had the teachings of Confuscious. India had the teachings of the Buddha. Even classical Greeks, who were unaware of Judaism(and Christianity wasn’t even around) had the teachings of Epicurus and Democritus. If you feel, as a Christian, that if there wasn’t a god you would start raping and killing, then please, don’t stop believing.
    The problem that I have with “Christian morality” is that people have used it to endorse bad things. It has been used to endorse slavery, the oppression of women and minorities, and, even today, its being used to oppress and demonise homosexuals. The secular belief of humanity is that we should treat everyone equally, how we would want to be treated, and to live in peace. Unlike our president, we can’t console ourselves by thinking the young people we send to war are going to heaven. We know that their lives are just wasted based on bronze age fairy tales.
    To be brutally honest, I don’t believe Christians can even compare to a secular morality. They’re too busy fighting wars, killing gays, and trying to shove their religion down everyone else’s throats. The oxymoron for me is the concept of Christian morality. True morality is not the fear of punishment and retribution by an all knowing god, its being moral because you know its the right thing to do.
    By the way, I do not accept the response “well, they’re just not true Christians”. These people could probably out scripture you, and its sheer arrogance to think you’re the “right” Christian and everyone else is reading the bible wrong.

  3. If you feel, as a Christian, that if there wasn’t a god you would start raping and killing, then please, don’t stop believing.

    If you’re going to be forgiven for everything you do, no matter how bad (rape and killing being right up there in the big bads), then you have no functioning morality. It no longer matters how you live, what you do, who you rape, who you kill. Christians get a free pass to immorality. It can be said that their lives have no moral underpinnings.

    Of course I’m sure they’re clever enough to quote some piece of scripture that ‘proves’ that’s not true. But it’s fruit of the poisoned tree. Supernatural forgiveness negates earthly morality. You can’t have your poison fruit and eat it too.

  4. Interesting post, Billy.

    It’s a shame you’ve not come across some truly compassionate Christians. They exist. I am friends with many, despite my own skeptical attitude toward all things religious.

    When the end is nothing more than getting out of here and living with God, then unfortunately many issues go the way of the back burner. Why care if it’ll all work out in the end? Sad, really.

    Nice food for thought, Billy. Always a pleasure . . .

  5. You didn’t try to explore shit there Zachary. What you showed was a pathetically veiled pontification. The only examples of “exploration” I see are quote mining Sartre (who, it’s clear, you clearly don’t understand) and finding an atheist blog to post a link to your drivel. Nice hunting, pal. You know what would have been good to explore for that post of yours Zach (aside from a proper understanding of Sartre, atheism, secular humanism, and perhaps Existentialism)? Euthyphro.

    I see no point in posting a reply there though. Your readers are clearly drinking the same kool-aid, probably from the same dirty cup, and I certainly don’t want to give you any appearance of legitimacy by appearing there.

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  7. This is just what I have been searching for all the time. Don’t stop updating this web site.

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