Morality in a world without a God

Why does it seem so impossible to religious folk that we atheists should have no ground upon which to plant the flag of ethical behavior? (I prefer the word “ethical” to “moral” due to the baggage of the latter word.) I know Sam Harris has a recent book out on this subject. His book is about 200 pages or so, well written, I’m sure, since Harris is a lively writer. But really, Sam, why the waste of ink? It really is simple.

That there is no God is apparent to anyone who has lost a limb and prays fervently for God to make that limb regrow. It should also be apparent to anyone who looks up in the sky and realizes that it’s the Milky Way we’re looking at and not Heaven. We can forgive the ancients for thinking good was Up, bad, Down. They thought the gods carried the heavenly bodies across the sky, so it was natural they made the sky the permanent home of their collectively imagined God. This God would send you Down for eternity if you were bad, Up if you were good. Unfortunately, though, what was good for some was too good or not good enough for others, so these others thought those good people were actually bad people, and the bad people thought that they were in fact the good people because they had the right notion of God and the other guys didn’t. Except the other guys thought the same thing about these guys. So each side’s definition of morality was subject to an interpretation of a collective illusion.

Now, for the sake of argument, just suppose that we agree there is no God. How are we to have anything better than the aforementioned moral blender without the threat of eternal Downhood, of an afterlife spent entirely in a place that would make a maggot think twice?

It is precisely because no God exists that we must live for each other. If no God exists, nobody has a corner on correct thinking. We do, after all, have certain inalienable rights; things that are unquestionably part of a universal ethic. The reason for us to act kindly toward each other is entirely understandable and easy to justify: it is the best way to ensure our own happiness. 

Since the main reason religion exists is to create the conditions for human happiness among believers (in exchange for which humans do things like make sacrifices, go to church, avoid coffee, etc.) then if another route to human happiness exists, such as the logical and phenomenological examination of conditions that create that happiness, it seems reasonable to prefer to the latter to the former, if for no other reason than that sacrifices are messy affairs, church is a pain, and coffee tastes good.


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