CAN ATHEISTS BE MORAL?
‘Moral’ means conforming to standards of what is right or just in behaviour. Nowadays ‘god’ is usually taken to mean the monotheistic Creator Deity given the personage of Yahweh, Jesus or Allah. 

Believers assert that all morality comes from god and that ‘atheists’ are immoral due to not recognising the existence of god. They also claim that morality is absolutely black or white and they reinforce this attitude with the concepts of ‘evil’, ‘sin’, hell and ‘the devil’. There are a number of problems with this position. 

Firstly, there are many different faith schools of ‘god-given’ morals that disagree with each other about what is right and just, and about what sanctions are appropriate for delinquents. Some of the rules are ludicrous, like being forbidden to eat shellfish or wear poly-cotton shirts. Secondly, some communities are polytheistic and yet they do have moral codes, so which god is the giver? Thirdly, all human societies, including those that have no god (like the Piraha tribe of the Amazon rainforest), agree certain moral universals, such as murder is wrong. These are pointers to the notion that morals are a combination of adaptations and social constructs. 

Another clue comes from the fact that faiths based on the monotheistic god are just a few centuries old. Are we supposed to believe that for the previous hundreds of millennia of existence, the species Homo sapiens had no morals? Additionally, history shows us that morals are not absolute but have been changing over time. It was once acceptable to burn witches, imprison or execute scientists and, in some locations, you can still be stoned to death for homosexuality or infidelity, but in the latter case, only if you are a woman! So, morals are geographical, temporal and gender biased. What more evidence do you want of their human fabrication?

Furthermore, the same religions that claim god is the fount of morality, not only punish transgressors for unjust behaviour but also for antireligious behaviour. Why would the Almighty need to defend his power with rules to deter apostasy, blasphemy and heresy? This leads us to the Euthyphro dilemma: 

"Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”  (Wikipedia) 

If god is merely acting as an agent policing some universal morality, then he is not the source of morality himself. On the other hand, if whatever god supports is automatically moral then Hitler might be in Heaven now because his troops had Gott Mit Uns on their belt buckles! Indeed, all of the arguments for the existence of a moral god can equally be applied to an Evil God! Few want that…

And, surely, following a moral doctrine under threat of eternal torture in ‘Hell’ is not exercising morality; it’s succumbing to intimidation by the watchful eye of the ‘Holy Closed Circuit Television’! Similarly, being ‘good’ in order to ‘go to heaven’ is not moral; it’s accepting a bribe! 

Nietzsche called the establishment of moral systems based on a dichotomy of good and evil a ‘calamitous error’, and wished to initiate a re-evaluation of the values of the Judeo-Christian world. He indicates his desire to bring about a new, more naturalistic source of value in the vital impulses of life itself. (from Ecce Homo via Wikipedia)

The truth is, Nietzsche’s desire is turning out to be right: morals have evolved and atheists have access to them the same as anyone else. There is increasing evidence, from several different strands of investigation, showing that morality comes from nature. Here are four examples: 

· Infant studies: Religious morality can only be imparted by means of language and yet our pre-lingual infants exhibit an understanding of pro-social behaviours such as compassion, co-operation, fairness and reciprocity. 

· Anthropology: All human communities, irrespective of their local religion exhibit the ‘moral universals’ of prohibiting murder and theft. 

· Animal Behavior Studies: Many non-human social animals possess an early morality to varying degrees. Monkeys, apes, elephants, dogs and dolphins display some understanding of reciprocity, fairness, nurturing and compassion. 

· Criminology: There is a negative link between religiosity and crime. More religion correlates with more crime, i.e. lower morality! 

Question: Why have morals evolved? 

Answer: Because maintaining a peaceful, relatively grievance-free community facilitates breeding and nurturing and, in evolutionary terms, that is success.

Theists sometimes point to Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung as examples of typically immoral ‘atheists’ but Hitler and the other dictators were not motivated to please no god. They were simply driven by megalomania, conviction in an ideology or a lust for power. Not believing in a god is no incentive to invade a country!

Suggesting that a hypothetical being can bestow morals on us and that without belief in him we would all be rampaging rapists, arsonists, thieves and murderers is simply insulting! 

Elliot GEORGE