How you can be good without God
As you start raising questions and feeling doubts about your religious upbringing, you will inevitably begin to consider the issue of morals. Many Christian apologists will ask questions ranging from, “How can an atheist be good without a moral compass?” to the more disturbing “If you don’t believe in God or the Bible, what’s to stop you from going on a murderous rampage?” Essentially: how can one be good at all without God?
You see, Christians consult or reference the Bible as a sort of moral compass. Well, who are we kidding? No one uses a compass these days… so let’s use a more modern metaphor: for Christians, the Bible is like a moral GPS, which gives turn-by-turn instructions that one must follow to arrive at your destination of a good moral life.
As with a directional GPS, it does simplify things quite a bit. It tells you what to do; you follow. Don’t know how to get from point A to point B? Don’t worry. No need to know. The GPS will spell it out for you. Indeed, it is very helpful, but it comes at a price. Ever seen someone try to find their way around a city when they’ve relied exclusively on their GPS to get them around? They struggle. They haven’t developed a sense of direction in that city because they’ve completely depended on the thing to lead their way, so without it, they are lost. You can understand how they might not comprehend how one could get along fine without one.
And it’s true; a sense of morality is a lot like a sense of direction. It’s a skill. One you develop through years of experience and social interaction. Christians tend to say we are born wretched and are sinners from birth and in reality, it’s true that we are born with an undeveloped sense of morality. But, aided by a good upbringing, it is our job to develop that sense or skill, as we would with our sense of direction in a new city. People who follow their religious doctrine …well… religiously have little experience navigating around the nuanced map of morality independently, developing this skill, so they understandably have difficulty believing that there are those of us that are able.
As an example of an overdeveloped reliance on the moral GPS, I want to pose a question: Without referencing a holy book or God, what is morally wrong about being gay?
It’s no secret that many religious groups have a big problem with homosexuality, with many expressly judging homosexuals or pushing strongly to deny them equal status of marriage, but why? What is “wrong” about being gay? Once again, without referencing your moral GPS…
The result should immediately resemble a situation like this:
The moral GPS leads the devoutly religious right off the path of being a good moral person and straight into a lake. For people with a well-developed sense of morality that was cultivated independently from any scripture and for those young people that have yet to be made dependent on a moral GPS, it is understood that there is no sound reasoned argument to be made equating homosexuality with any moral “wrong”.
I don’t claim to speak for all atheists, but throughout my life experience navigating around the nuanced map of morality without following a moral GPS, I have come upon certain organizing principles that seem universal in establishing a moral “right” and are lacking when establishing a moral “wrong”. For me, something that is “right” morally or “good” promotes peace and justice among the population and usually has the characteristic of being unselfish. Conversely, a moral “wrong” denies a population peace and justice and is usually marked by selfishness. Notice that none of these criteria make being gay “wrong”.
But I know there are many people that will still believe that following a moral GPS is the way to go…to follow without question. But this mentality is dangerous for two reasons: One is shown above. To follow without question says very little about your own sense of morality, it merely establishes that you’re good at following orders. When the orders lead you the wrong way (such as into the lake of judging and discriminating against gays or the ditch of subjugating women), that’s where you’ll end up: way off the beaten path of good moral behavior. See studies such as the famous Milgram experiment for more on the dangers of this mentality. Examples like this also highlight the problem of divorcing yourself from any kind of personal responsibility for this behavior, as discussed in my first post.
The second danger emerges from how most people follow rules when they don’t have an established sense of internal morality. That is, they often do as much as they possibly can to bend the rule while still staying within the black-and-white written letter of the law, and consider themselves morally right while doing it. A lack of independent understanding of what makes an act truly morally “right” or “wrong”, coupled with an overdeveloped insistence on following rules can absolutely lead to people committing immoral or “wrong” acts simply because it was never explicitly stated in the rules as being forbidden… therefore it’s fair game, right?
There is so much to say on the topic of morality that I’m sure I’ll revisit it in the future, but hopefully I’ve established some doubt on the assertion that it is impossible to be morally good without believing in God or following a holy text as a kind of moral GPS. In fact, it is absolutely possible to be morally good without God. We should always keep in mind that being good at following orders is not the same as being a good person.