This is usually the first question asked when you come out as an atheist. If believing in God is what is stopping you from committing murder, stealing your neighbour’s ass, his wife, or the balance in your company’s bank account, then you have a pretty bad idea of what morality is.
Oxford Dictionary defines it as:
principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour;
a particular system of values and principles of conduct.
Morality (from the Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behavior") is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good or right and those that are bad or wrong. Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion, or culture, or it can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal.Morality may also be specifically synonymous with "goodness" or “rightness."
Christian Apologetics describe it as:
…the distinction between right and wrong. It is the determination of what should be done and what should not be done. Morals deal with behaviors as well as motives.
I think that most of us understand morality to be that which is right, and which serves to further positive outcomes for our society. This seems to be what the definitions imply:
- The distinction between right and wrong;
- A system of values;
- Intentions, decisions, and actions that are good and right.
- What should and what should not be done.
Where exactly do God and the laws of the Bible come into this? And how do people who belong to religions other than those of the Bible, or people who haven’t heard of Judeo-Christian religions know what is right and what is wrong?
Paul's Epistle to the Romans says:
Romans 2:12-16 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Thus even Paul, when writing to the Romans, acknowledges that people are able to be moral without “knowledge of the law.”
Conservapedia, a conservative religious website that mirrors Wikipedia claims that the “immorality of atheism” leads to hedonism:
If God does not exist, shouldn’t atheists just relax and seek a good time before they become plant food? Why should it matter if people believe in God? Nothing matters if atheism is true.
The website quotes Aldous Huxley, saying:
“I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning … the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.”1
Like Huxley, some people don’t like God because they don’t like moral constraints—you can make up your own rules, or have none at all, if God does not exist. They hate God and Christians because they are actually not confident that God does not exist and seeing Christians may remind them that they are ‘suppressing the truth’ (Romans 1:18).
There are issues with this statement. Firstly, atheism is neither “true” nor “false.” It isn’t a philosophy, or a belief system. It is a non-belief. Therefore the same rules of behaviour apply to atheists as they do to theists. The only difference being that people who do not believe in God or the afterlife, do not seek a reward. They obey the rules because it is the right thing to do.
Secondly, the claim that nothing matters. This is simply false. Everything matters, morality, or obeying the rules of society does matter as Richard Dawkins explains, in The God Delusion,
There are indeed many circumstances in which survival of the individual organism will favour the survival of the genes that ride inside it…There are circumstances…in which genes ensure their own selfish survival by influencing organisms to behave altruistically.
Thus, morality, or altruism, is necessary for the survival of the individual. To behave “immorally,” or against the moral code of our society, will not ensure the future of that society. You can’t be successful if you spend your life in prison.
Dawkins calls this “reciprocal altruism” saying that it is the “principle behind trade and barter.” Of course, it makes complete sense. If we deny other humans their share of our resources, and take all the resources for ourselves, not only do we lay ourselves open to negative outcomes from the deprived group, but we also reduce our chances of successfully passing on our genes if the rest of our society should disappear due to lack of resources. Thus reciprocity is a moral value, something we do, and something that is necessary for the survival of our species.
He summarises Darwinian behaviour as “good reasons” for “moral” behaviour: genetic kinship, reciprocity, anticipation of payback, and generosity as buying “advertising.” He claims our morality is hard-wired into us by evolution: “Darwinian,” demonstrating that our natural inclination is to behave morally, not because we fear punishment, or because the law expects moral behaviour, but because it is good for the perpetuation of our species.
In short, we are moral animals, and evolved to be that way, because it ensures the perpetuation of our species. We do not need ancient holy books to teach us morality. It evolved with us as we travelled along the road of evolution from ape to human.