"Without God, everything is permissible."
It is unknown who originated the quote above, but it is pretty clear that it was not an atheist. Many religious people, from the most intolerant to some of the more tolerant ones, find it easier to relate to those of other religions than those who have no religion at all. Some of this may be because of encounters with the fervently anti-religious, but much of it is simply bigotry. Those who use the above quote are not simply stating that God is the basis of morality; they are implying that atheists cannot be trusted because of this. In the nineteenth century, much of the United States banned atheists from testifying in court or holding public office because of this view that atheists are untrustworthy. It was not until 1961 that the Supreme Court finally declared that it is unconstitutional to ban atheists from holding public office. Several states still have these laws on the books, and there are still some countries in which being an atheist is a capital offense.
The quote above may sound like simply a description of the way things are, much like saying,
"Without government, everything is legal." This quote is a truism. Governments make laws. Murder would be wrong whatever the government said, but it would not be illegal whatever the government said. The view that morality consists simply in laws made be God is known as divine command theory. On this theory, it is wrong to steal because God said so. If God had said that it is wrong to allow blind people to live, then it would be wrong.
Divine command theory is fatally flawed. First, since we have no way of knowing what God does or does not command, under divine command theory, we have no way of knowing how we ought to behave. This is no better than the view that everything is permissible. If God were clear and unequivocal, there would be only one religion that everyone would follow. The multiplicity of religions, along with the lack of tangible evidence, suggests either there is no God at all, He is not as powerful as commonly believed, or He has simply not seen fit to correct our errors. A God who cares deeply about human affairs, whether in a loving way or in the spiteful authoritarian way of the God of the Old Testament, would not hesitate to make Himself known. (I use the masculine here simply as a convention: I find no reason whatsoever to conclude that, if God even exists, He has a gender.)
Furthermore, divine command is totalitarian. If morality is a human construct, then we can reexamine it as circumstances change. Maybe laws designed for an agrarian society where the average life span was about 30 years make no sense today. However, if divine command theory is correct, and God is immutable (as most theists believe), then there can be no changed circumstances. The laws God laid down for people living in the desert thousands of years ago would be just as applicable today, regardless of what has happened since then.
There is no particular reason on divine command theory to think that God's commands ever served our purposes well. Maybe God truly loves us and created a system of morality well suited to our needs. Maybe God is a brutal dictator who created arbitrary rules just because. Maybe God doesn't care at all and simply left us to do whatever we saw fit. Unfortunately, the many flaws in our world do not bode well for first option. If God is omnipotent and morally perfect, why is there evil? If God is flawed, then why should we treat Him as an authority not to be questioned?
Another problem for divine command theory is the Euthyphro dilemma. In Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks a self-proclaimed expert on piety whether the pious is pious because the gods love it or whether the gods love it because it is pious. Some of the issues that arose, such as the disagreements among the Greek gods, are particular to that religion and would not apply to all versions of divine command theory, but the central dilemma is not specific to the ancient Greek religion. If the pious is pious because the gods love it, then piety is subject to the arbitrary whims of the gods, and without more, there is no reason to conclude that piety is anything we should value. If the gods love it because it is pious, then we have not yet answered what piety is. Substitute morality for piety, and the same dilemma applies to divine command theory. Either morality is arbitrary, or divine command theory fails to give us any insight into what morality is.
Perhaps God is simply particularly good at detecting what is good. That seems to be the most plausible reading of divine command theory, but it only really works with a few assumptions. If God is inaccessible to us, then His knowledge and wisdom will do us no good. If we can know God's will, how do we know it? By choosing the one true religion out of thousands of options? Perhaps there is one true religion but it is unknown to us. What are the criteria?
Historically, most people have simply followed the religion they were brought up with. This gives us no reason whatsoever to pick out one religion over another. Perhaps Christianity is the one true religion because Christians outnumber other faiths. Or perhaps the dominance of Christianity is a historical accident. For much of its history, Christianity was not the world's dominant religion. Even now fewer than 1/3 of the world's population are self-identified Christians, and many of these are only nominal Christians anyway. Islam may one day overtake Christianity is its number of adherents. Perhaps we will then realize that Islam is the true religion.
It is far more likely that no true religion exists. The evidence supporting the truth of any one religion is quite slim, and even the evidence that there is a God at all is far from conclusive. Most if not all of the world's religions make demonstrably false claims. The science of the Old Testament is laughable. It teaches that the earth is fixed in a firmament, that the earth was created before the sun, that the trillions of stars were created as an afterthought, that insects have four legs, and that Joshua made the sun and moon stand still in the sky for about a day (an extraordinary event that somehow escaped the notice of the other civilizations that existed at the time). Much of the morality of the Old Testament is so bad that it has essentially been universally rejected. The Old Testament teaches that God commanded the Israelites to kill everyone who previously lived on the land He gave them, that slavery is permissible, and that people who plant to different crops on the same land or wear clothing made of two different kinds of fabric should be put to death. Yet, people still cite the Old Testament as evidence that homosexuality is immoral.
If divine command will not work, what are the alternatives? This is not simply a question for atheists. Most people reject at least some of the teachings of their own professed religion. Some reject only the most blatant errors, while others are freethinkers who have a belief system largely independent of their faith. First, it should be stated that there is no atheist doctrine. Atheism is the lack of belief in God. Even positive atheism, the specific disbelief in God, is not a belief system. Almost nothing can be inferred from the fact that I do not believe in unicorns. While belief in God is more central to most people's belief systems than other non-universal beliefs, the absence of belief in God does not actually determine that much. To be sure, atheists have certain shared interests, such as opposing theocracy, and this often results in shared nontrivial beliefs. However, no one would suggest that a group that has shared interests could therefore be classified as having a unified belief system.
Nonbelievers have adopted a wide range of approaches to morality. Ludwig Wittgenstein said that although he found morality appealing, he did not believe that there was any deeper truth behind it. Friedrich Nietzsche embraced a system that was both nihilistic and highly authoritarian, placing great emphasis on the highest achievers. He said that Napoleon was worth the collapse of a civilization. John Rawls imagined a hypothetical social contract created under a veil of ignorance where people did not know their race, sex, religion, the values they would have, where or when they would be born or into what economic circumstances or what abilities or disabilities they would have. Peter Singer argues for a utilitarian system that maximizes preference satisfaction and treats as equally as possible all living things.
The great divergence of these systems suggests that there is no simple answer to what atheistic morality looks like. I do not find any of the above approaches particularly appealing, although I am more sympathetic to Rawls, while I find Nietzsche's approach horrifying. Like, I suspect, most atheists, my primarily if not only concern is how others behave. To the extent that belief systems affect behavior, they matter a great deal, but beyond that I don't care. I care deeply that the Catholic Church teaches that birth control is wrong, but I do not care that they teach that through a priest's blessings, unleavened bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Some nonbelievers, like Bill Maher, focus a great deal on showing how silly certain religious beliefs are. I am concerned about how religious beliefs affect the world. If you would prevent the teaching of evolution because it offends your religion, that harms everyone. If you faint and talk in gibberish in church, I don't care. We all do some things that make little sense to others.
So, what is morality? I have probably spent more time studying the subject than nearly everyone who is reading this. I have taken graduate seminars on ethical theory. If there is one answer, it has not yet been discovered, and likely never will be. However, the answer must go beyond simply a list of commands. There must be some unifying theme of what morality is.
Virtue ethicists like Aristotle focus on character traits like courage and self-restraint. (Charity was notably absent from Aristotle's highly elitist list of virtues, though most religions regard it as a virtue, as do I.) Deontologists focus on rules. Divine command theory is essentially deontological, but so are some secular approaches like Rawls's hypothetical social contract. Consequentialists (of whom the most common variety are utilitarians) believe that the consequences of our actions are what matter most. Peter Singer is one of the best known, and most controversial, living consequentialists.
None of these approaches really works in pure form. Virtues can easily turn to vices when aimed at the wrong end or developed in the wrong way. For instance, courage is ordinarily considered a virtue, but a courageous villain may do more harm than a cowardly one. Rigid deontology fails to adequately balance interests. For instance, Immanuel Kant, a philosopher who embraced an essentially pure deontological approach he called the categorical imperative, once said that it is wrong to tell a lie even to prevent a murder. Pure consequentialism is incoherent. Some utilitarians have discussed the idea of a utilitarian calculus, in which pleasure and pain are added up and compared in a mathematical fashion, but one who attempts a utilitarian calculus in real life would starve while trying to determine the morally optimal diet. The utilitarian John Stuart Mill wrote that we must live by rules of thumb, though unlike Kant, his rules of thumb were not inviolate principles that must be followed "though the heavens fall" (I believe this is an exact quote from Kant).
At a more basic level, one might ask where these principles come from. For Rawls, morality is simply what we would agree to under certain highly idealized situations. The veil of ignorance has been subject to significant criticism. Some argue that we cannot detach ourselves enough to figure out what might happen beyond a veil of ignorance, and thus that it is a futile exercise. Others argue that the veil of ignorance was simply a construct aimed at validating liberal democracy. Finally, some argue that Rawls smuggles in illicit assumptions to get the results he wants. For instance, Rawls seems to assume that those operating behind the veil will be quite risk averse, and thus embrace what he calls the maximin principle (society should be structured to maximize the well being of those who are worst off). The maximin principle raises other issues as well, such as determining who is really worst off, and how to prevent the principle from yielding such absurdities as that society ought to be structured so as to maximize the well being of criminals.
Kant attempted to deduce his ethical system logically through a series of formulations of the categorical imperative, which were supposed to all be equivalent to each other. One formulation is that one must act so that one could simultaneously will one's course of action to be a universal law. His clearest example involves borrowing money on a false promise to return it. One could not will this to be a universal law because if everyone lied, and everyone knew this, no one would believe the lie and it would be self-defeating. Since it is a contradiction to will this to be a universal law, Kant argues that we have a perfect duty not to lie, which is to say that we must never lie under any circumstances. By this last step, he converts a principle that essentially everyone agrees with (that we should be honest) to a rigid law that makes little sense. Another formulation of the categorical imperative is that we should always treat humanity as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. As morality for Kant was self-regarding as well as other regarding, this also meant not treating oneself as merely a means to an end, whatever that means. Unfortunately, much of what Kant wrote seems to reflect more prejudice than reason. For instance, he wrote that women are less rational than men. This completely unfounded assumption is unfortunately one that men commonly embraced until relatively recently (and some still believe this). Anyone who seriously believes that men are more rational than women might reflect on why men are more likely to abuse drugs, drive drunk, act out in rage, and engage in a wide range of reckless behavior.
For utilitarians, it is simply self-evident that pleasure is good, suffering is bad, and that we therefore ought to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering. If this were really self-evident, everyone would be a utilitarian. There are many critiques of utilitarianism, though most are likely aimed at a naive view of utilitarianism that fails to take into account the long-term consequences of acting in a certain way. For instance, there is a common example involving a hospital that kills a healthy man and saves five people by transplanting his organs. Utilitarianism supposedly condones this as maximizing overall happiness by keeping more people alive. However, no one would go to a hospital that engages in such behavior. Real utilitarians think in the long term, recognizing that we all act on habit. The utilitarian would thus encourage us to develop the sort of habits, and live by the sort of rules, that promote overall happiness, rather than attempt the utilitarian calculus whenever confronted with a moral dilemma.
Aristotle argued that, as we are creatures of habit, we must develop the right habits. He did not believe that one could construct a theory of how to behave. Rather, one who develops the right habits would simply do the right things automatically. The most virtuous, for Aristotle, were those who not only did the right things but also enjoyed doing so. (In contrast, Kant argued that we show our true moral worth when we act solely out of a sense of duty.) Like Kant, Aristotle was a blatant sexist. He argued that there was one set of virtues for men and a different set for women, and that women ought to obey men. His virtues were also quite elitist and biased toward the rich. He never mentioned charity or tolerance as virtues, and he regarded meekness as a vice. He said that the most virtuous life was one of contemplation, which was naturally open only to the select few who did not have to work, and he regarded those of modest intelligence as natural slaves, who were better off as slaves than they would be if freed.
Most moral systems that have ever been conceived are very flawed. Often, morality is simply a construct of those who are in a position to force their ways on others. The morality of the slave owner or the person who claims divine favor deserves no respect. Aristotle's militaristic morality for the rich is one that the vast majority of people have no reason to follow. Unfortunately, this sort of morality is precisely what has prevailed in most of the societies that ever existed. Religion is not the answer; in fact, in every one of these aristocratic societies, the state was served by a religion that justified its existence. Throughout history, many kings have claimed that their power was divine in origin and the only God or the gods could judge them. The Hindu caste system gave poverty and segregation the stamp of divine approval. Not once does the Old or New Testament condemn slavery, but the God of the Old Testament calls for the execution of those who worship other gods, and Jesus tells us that we face eternal torment if we do not follow him. In light of this, when Christians ask how morality without God is possible, I am tempted to ask how morality with God is possible.
My own answer is that morality is the set of rules that hold society together. Unlike the relativists, who say that there is no absolute morality and what one society says is no better than what another society says; I hold that some systems work better than others. Relativism just does not work, and even self-proclaimed relativists do not embrace the true implications of relativism. To a true relativist, the values of Nazi society are just as good as those of any other society. This would mean standing aside and letting the most powerful society take over the world. Relativists would tolerate this no more than any other sane people would. Relativism emerged as a sociological approach: the sociologist tries to understand other societies without judging them. Relativism is not as has never been a moral system. In practice, moral relativists are really multiculturalists. They are better than the chauvinists of a particular culture, but they often end up enabling destructive cultures by saying that one is no better than another.
Morality exists for humanity. The morality of the slave owner or the war profiteer is no morality at all. What actually works is a difficult empirical question that cannot be resolved here, but understanding the question is the first and most important step in finding the answer.
Communication is at the center of what makes us human. It is how we relate to each other. Communication requires common concepts and a grasp of facts. Most of what we say is true; it could not be otherwise. If we just said things without regard to their truth, we would never learn how to communicate. We know what words mean because people generally use them accurately. If people used words to mean whatever we felt like, we would never be able to communicate. Similarly, our language must be rooted in what we know. We can only speak of God or the gods by reference to terms that relate to our experience. If our whole language were devoted to speech about gods, angels, demons and fairies, it would be incomprehensible, for we could not indicate what we are talking about. Not only must we be honest; we must seek the truth. Christianity teaches that it is a virtue to believe in God without any evidence (this is called faith). This must be cast aside, just as surely as Aristotle's claims about natural slaves must be cast aside.
It does not follow that we should embrace Kant's command to never lie under any circumstances, but we should not lie often and for little reason. We often come up with rationalizations for dishonesty. For instance, we tell a self-serving lie while claiming that we are merely being polite by withholding some bitter truth. The circumstances under which it is best to keep someone permanently in the dark are exceedingly rare.
We do not respect each other by imposing our judgments on others. Paternalism is authoritarianism. We cannot force others to be rational, and we should not try. Rationality is good and we should promote it, but we should not devalue those who are less rational. One is not less human for having a mental illness. It is not something a person chose or should be blamed for. Willful irrationality is less excusable. Clinging to one's religion in the face of all evidence is not a virtue. That being said, many people regard their religion as a key part of who they are, and it does little good to make fun of the sillier elements of religion. In no case should we ban religious practices, unless the practices are a threat to society. People must have the freedom to choose. Likewise, those who would retaliate against defectors must be stopped.
Just as there is diversity between religions, there is diversity within religions. No major religion is monolithic. Often, the different approaches probably simply reflect people's innate tendencies. Those who are tolerant will interpret their religion as tolerant. Those who are intolerant will interpret their religion as intolerant. Atheists who decry all religion as intolerant are undermining themselves. Often, religion acts as an amplifier. The well intentioned who are religious use religion to overcome their fears and more boldly promote what is good. Those who are wicked justify their wickedness through religion and thus squelch any moral concerns that might otherwise slow them down.
Morality must value human diversity. We should not attempt to impose our customs and values on others, except to the extent necessary to preserve human society. We do not disrespect other societies by giving people the opportunity to exit them; a society that does not tolerate such exit is to that extent not worthy of our respect, though we should not seek to destroy any society, or to attack it except to the extent necessary to protect others from tyranny. In a free world, the worst systems will collapse under their own weight. A society whose continued existence depends on preventing exit is not one worth preserving.
Morality without God is not only possible; it is the only kind really worth having. This does not mean we should eliminate religion, but it does mean that we should reject moral systems that cannot exist without it. Ask whether your moral system could be justified to someone who does not share your view of the supernatural. If the answer is no, then your morality is faulty. Consider, for instance, asceticism. Asceticism is the view that we must renounce worldly pleasures. It is inseparable from religion. Most religions teach that the world is base and corrupt, and that we should seek value elsewhere. The ascetic rejects pleasures like sex and good food in pursuit of something higher, but if there is no divine, then this is as pointless as praying to a being that does not exist. Furthermore, the sacrifices people make for the ascetic lifestyle are often great, and in many cases, they are not content merely to renounce worldly pleasures; they demand that others do so as well. There are people who sincerely believe that sex should be between a man and woman who are married for the purpose of having children, that sex must be done in private and never discussed with anyone, and that any sexual act that deviates from this in any way is an intolerable offense against God. This view has done great harm. The opposition to birth control and abortion that it entails has led women to have children they cannot feed, at great risk to their own health. It has also led to the vilification and persecution of those who are attracted to members of the same sex. While individual ascetics may be benign, asceticism is one of the most destructive moral systems ever invented. Yet, people continue to view asceticism as something noble and even divine. The Catholic Church has canonized people who followed extreme ascetic lifestyles and still expects nuns to take a vow of poverty, by which they render themselves dependent on the church for life.
Morality must be for humanity, and it must make sense. The Old Testament teaches that it is an abomination to eat shellfish, that people who wear clothing made of two different kinds of cloth or work on the Sabbath should be put to death, and that God turned a woman into a pillar of salt because she did not obey his order not to look back as he burned her city, killing all of its inhabitants except her family. No reason is ever given for any of this. It is simply the revealed truth, and anyone who questions a word of it must be put to death. We are repeatedly reminded that God is good, as we are told about his reign of terror. According to the Old Testament, "fools say in their heart, there is no God." The real fool is the one who blindly accepts all of this. Atheists do not blindly accept anything, and it precisely for this reason that we are hated. Even Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most vocal atheists, has said that he is not completely certain that God does not exist. Many religious people, on the other hand, freely admit that there is absolutely no possible evidence that would convince them of the falsity of their religion. That is precisely what is wrong with religion.