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?!