It’s no mystery how Nonbelievers stay moral without God

May 24, 2009

It’s really no mystery how nonreligious people are moral too. Sill, religious people just can’t help but make a big mystery out of this obvious fact. Even if the religious admit that atheists can know what morality is, they stay bewildered by atheists’ ability to willingly follow morality. We hear the faithful endlessly worry over moral atheists. "How do they obey morality, when they have no motivation to be so good?" Is it like watching a disaster movie for them? The faithful seem perched on the edges of their seats, anticipating a catastrophic climax when a billion people who don’t believe in any supernatural God suddenly erupt into anarchy and chaos. 

Sorry to disappoint all you religious people—there is no apocalypse coming. The world is getting along just fine with a sixth of the world’s population living without your God. No disaster is coming, and it’s no mystery why not. Unbelievers don’t need God to stay moral. It’s all about motivation.

Evidently the nonreligious are just as capable of behaving morally. Nonbelievers behave about as morally as anyone else. For example, the percentage of criminals who are atheists is just about the same as the percentage of atheists in the general population. Of course, the faithful are alarmed by nonbelievers rejecting their God and his/her/its commands. From the perspective of the faithful, the basic motivation to be moral comes from fearing/loving/appeasing their God—so nonbelievers appear to be morally unmotivated. The faithful may have convinced themselves they need God to be morally motivated, but this (sad) fact about them does not show that God must exist.

The religious argue that no unbeliever could be motivated to want to be moral. How could a God be required for motivation? Well, the argument goes something like this:

1. If God does not exist, then there is no guarantee that moral goodness will ultimately prevail.
2. If there is no guarantee that moral goodness will ultimately prevail, then there is no guarantee that moral conduct is meaningful.
3. If there is no guarantee that moral conduct is meaningful, then people cannot be reasonably motivated to behave morally.
4. People should be reasonably motivated to behave morally.
C. God exists.

The faithful worry that a moral action is meaningless unless its positive value is eternally guaranteed. This worry is analogous to the worry that the eventual destruction of something we create makes our creation ultimately meaningless and valueless. This is the existential worry of nihilism: everything might really be pointless. What will our lives and our deeds really mean, one million years from now, or when the universe ends?

Nonbelievers are not immune from this worry. Many naturalists, for example, do believe that human life and all human creations are ultimately meaningless and valueless when imaginatively viewed from any sufficiently remote perspective. A few philosophies and religions instruct us to adopt this nihilistic stance towards our lives, our deeds, and our creations: we should stoically view them as having little or no value, so that we are not attached to them and we suffer nothing when they are gone. Even if naturalism required nihilism however, nihilism does not make moral conduct unreasonable and need not deprive us of the motivation to be moral. First of all, nihilism cannot imply that a person would only do immoral things. The religious person worries, Without God, why should I bother being moral? Of course, if nihilism were correct and all of my deeds are ultimately meaningless, then my bad deeds are meaningless too – Why should I bother being immoral either? Nihilism cannot imply anything about what a person should or would do.

Regardless of nihilism, there are naturalistic explanations for the reasonableness of preferring moral conduct over immoral conduct. The nonbeliever can hold that (1) possessing moral knowledge alone provides a reasonable motivation to be moral; (2) moral conduct can be intrinsically satisfying for one’s self and hence is reasonable; (3) moral conduct towards another person is valuable to that person and hence reasonably creates value; (4) moral conduct can be a practical means of maintaining beneficial social relations and hence is reasonable; (5) moral conduct can be useful for survival and hence would be reasonable. Any one of these options suffices to supply a naturalistic account of reasonable moral motivations. The naturalist can assemble several of the more plausible options in order to organize a robust alternative to supernaturalism’s view of morality.

The nonbeliever can finally point out that moral motivation, moral courage, and moral character hardly depend on an assurance that “all will work out for the best in the end.” Why should religious faith in ultimate victory deliver moral superiority? After all, who deserves higher approval – the person who does the right thing when the best outcome is already guaranteed, or the person who does the right thing even when the outcome appears hopeless? Righteousness even in the face of despair marks the genuinely moral person. This motivated person is not unreasonable for such moral convictions.

Nonbelievers may not know how it all will turn out, but they can reasonably want morality to prevail right here and now. Helping the needy, defending human rights, preventing unnecessary cruelty, and promoting peace, for example, are always morally worthy, regardless of what may happen tomorrow.

Don’t worry, fathful—you can count on steady morality from nonbelievers. If you must worry over some looming moral apocalypse, you might look over at a neighboring religion. Who knows what their God will tell them to do next?!



#1 PaulJ on Sunday May 24, 2009 at 1:18pm

The believers’ puzzlement over how nonbelievers can be moral without God seems to stem from a misapprehension about ultimate moral authority. “If God isn’t your ultimate moral authority,” they ask, “who is?” Then, answering their own question, they will posit the nonbeliever him or herself as that authority, and condemn it.

But for nonbelievers there is no ultimate moral authority, because morals aren’t handed down from on high. The morals that apparently derive from scripture didn’t originate there, but evolved previously and were then adopted by the scribes. Unfortunately in that process it’s been distorted and corrupted - some of it beyond recognition - so it’s really no surprise that believers think their morals originated in scripture.

This puzzlement about where atheistic morality comes from mirrors my own puzzlement at why the question is even asked. The idea that believers are restrained from immorality solely by the celestial surveillance camera is as repugnant as the idea of God bestowing medical miracles based on the number of prayers said in favour of each potential recipient.

#2 PauC (Guest) on Monday May 25, 2009 at 4:38am

I certainly can not understand why being created by a non human being, should give more meaning to my life than otherwise. Even, if some remnant of my being, were to become encompased, upheld, supported, etc, by this eternal creator, I still would not see any sense in it all. Well, yes, I can see how my fear of death, my survival instincts, could be assuaged, although I must yet find a sane believer who is not afraid of death.
My morals are derived from hardwired neuronal cicuits that produce my feelings or my
emotions. They give me empathy, they make me afraid of certain things, from birth I recognize facial expressions, some that I like and some that I
dislike. These hereditary neuronal circuits, are some of the things that made our existence posible, making us take care of our invalid offsprings. It should be obvious that from all these things a morality, a rational morality based on our nature, can be construed independently of the geographical area in which you were brought up, geographical area which determines to a large extent, the religion adopted.

#3 V (Guest) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 at 3:29pm

Great article!

And great comments too, kudos to PaulJ and PauC.


#4 AdamJTP (Guest) on Wednesday May 27, 2009 at 7:28pm

OK can’t help but feel that the best evidence for the statement “you can be good without God” comes from the Bible itself.

If we did accept the statement that morality comes from God as communicated (by God) in the Bible then our societies would commit attricities on a daily basis: stoning rebelious children (solely on the opinion of their parents), slavery, genocide - these would be our guidelines.

But our societies doesn’t follow this barbaric code of morality. So where did our refined sense of morality come from if not the Bible?

I think that it is fairly clear to most people that our more sophisicated sense of morality came from society itself expressed as law.

It is from the collected personal morality of societies and our innate sense of justice that we arrive at morality.

It is DESPITE the Bible that we determine that it is wrong to own slaves (stone people based on sexual preference, hold children guilty for sins of their parents etc) not BECAUSE of it.

Christians ask how we can be good without God? They should be thankful that we BETTER without the God of the Bible.

(Excuse the quality of this comment. I’d like to be more coherent but this website isn’t optimized for iPhone and it’s like reading through a letterbox)

#5 PauC (Guest) on Thursday May 28, 2009 at 3:36am

The human race is much larger than the bible. Most humans have never heard or they have they give a dm
n about the bible. Yet, they all have moral codes.

#6 Steven (Guest) on Thursday May 28, 2009 at 5:47am

Perhaps all that non belief can be attributed to iniquity?
Consider the fact that all Humans have a Conscience.
And that is a terrible thing to waste.
However, it is interesting that anyone would want to raise the level of non belief to that of a belief. That is to make it a religion.  And to say that Morality is simply whatever an individual feels is best for them is simply playing to one’s own ego. For the falsehood of depravity will always cause the question to be raised on whether you can trust your feelings.  You see, once you have establish doubt as a factor the Conscience can and will respond.  Addtionally, there are many people in this world who do not have a well formed Conscience.  I am sorry to say that there are people who exert a great deal of power over our lives who are Morally Corrupt.  And in the case of Non Believers there tends to be a greater risk involved of causing others to be harmed. So you see, it is quite natural to hold Non Belief as a Religion or a set of Morays.  It is quite natuaral without God to consider oneself to be the judge of one’s own Morality or lack thereof.  And once you make the decision to be your own God, the calamity ensues.  I think that you will find throughout history the evidence of many leaders who have been fooled by their own images of grandeur and self aggrandizement. So I might add that it may be considered more desireable to be Virtuous in the eyes of God.  Maybe that way the scandalous nature of your human frailty may not adversely affect your opinion of yourself and others.
May I kindly suggest reading up on Dietrich von Hildebrand.

#7 PauC (Guest) on Thursday May 28, 2009 at 10:49am

What I find throughout history are believers such as
Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury who burns a church full of
christian “believers” because inside there are some Cathars, “god will choose his own”, the given excuse.
I don’t care much about reading Hildebrand. He is a Theologian and as such he defends his raison d’etre.

#8 Dana on Thursday May 28, 2009 at 3:01pm

I see religion as often serving the purpose of providing structure for the way that one should behave, including a moral code.  Non-theists, however, have a variety of ways to develop their own moral code.  They may feel they can rely on what they learned as a child or teenager, or they may realize they need to figure out their own way of making ethical decisions in a way that makes sense to them.

As a nontheist, I myself definitely went through a lot of questioning in this area.  In theory alone, I could have chosen to be completely hedonistic and selfish.  However, I feel empathy for other people, so I anticipate the consequences of my actions on other people and enjoy having a positive effect on them.  I try not to let other people’s reactions dictate the course of my life, however; I try to live by principles that make sense to me while recognizing I might not please some of the individuals around me all the time.

I believe that at some point, each non-theist does need to examine the underlying moral code that he or she lives by to make sure that it’s fully congruent with the non-theist’s feelings and experiences. 
“The unexamined life is not worth living” is a famous quote that speaks to this very issue; if you haven’t examined your life, if you haven’t made sure that you’re acting in a way that makes sense to you, then you’re probably not able to act with integrity.  You’ll be at war with yourself.

What can be done, though, with people who are incapable of feeling empathy, who can’t themselves foresee the consequences of their actions, and who can’t delay gratification?  What’s the answer for bullies and narcissistic or sociopathic people, all of whom will choose to exploit other people for their own ends?  Whether or not they’re religious or atheist, it cannot be assumed that all people will develop a socially acceptable moral code on their own.  (Note that even a serial killer can have some kind of a moral code, but it won’t be socially acceptable.)

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