One line of reasoning theists sometimes use to argue for God’s existence is to claim that he is the source of morality, and since people are moral, he must exist. To counter one could point to the existence of moral atheists — people that live with a sense of morality without needing a god to tell them how to live. In this article I want to explore how it is that moral atheists exist, and what exactly the difference is between a moral atheist and a moral theist.
Where our values come from
I want to start off analysing what’s familiar to me — the contemporary Western world. These countries have old traditions, behaviours and even laws that are formed by what they call the Judaeo-Christian paradigm. That is, loosely speaking, the moral norms people have derived from the Bible.
In Western history, wherever there was colonisation, some flavour of Christianity or Judaism followed. In the early days there was no separation between church and state — being a believer was a requirement for being a citizen, and so naturally the vast majority of the colonised and colonising populations adapted to the norms of the Bible.
Over the generations, church and state slowly started parting their ways, and so, many people became non-believers. And now here we are today — with a solid mix of theists and atheists across race, age, gender and culture. Yet, somehow we all live together without being at each other’s throats (mostly). How is that possible?
The reason I think it works is because whether or not you believe in God, you certainly live in a society that once strongly did. And so you are surrounded by these Judaeo-Christian norms. Most people (including atheists) never really think about where their moral norms come from —they simply follow suit in whatever culture or society they’re in. So while you may feel like you disagree with many people on many different topics, the reality is that those issues are less than 1% of all your beliefs. You actually agree on 99% of the issues, you just don’t know it.
Some common examples of near-universally accepted moral laws include retributive justice (eye for an eye), the responsibility to care for our young, treating strangers with respect, repaying favours and other moral debts, and a surprisingly strong inclination to save another person’s life when in immediate danger, even if we don’t know them. I discuss some of these fundamental assumptions about life we share in another article.
So this is what the term “moral atheist” really means — one who follows most Judaeo-Christian norms, but doesn’t identify as a Jew or a Christian. So in a way, it could be said that God, if he exists, is actually the source of morality, since pretty much everyone west of Greenwich mostly follows his thought.
And I would thusly question how important that qualification — if he exists — is. One would be inclined to say that it matters very little in the grand scheme of things. We all agree on the fundamentals, and that’s pretty remarkable by my account.
If not God, what are we disagreeing about?
The Bible has many tales in it, and just about all of them contain some moral. A purpose for the text, if you will. For example the David and Goliath story teaches about courage, the book of Ruth about loyalty, and the story of Uzziah about moderating pride. The lessons learnable from the stories can be said to be the meaning of the stories, and is often used as the basis for theistic ethics.
So a Christian will simply read the stories and take their moral content as a guide for living. We know that atheists do a very similar thing, albeit subconsciously. Atheists act largely according to these norms even if they haven’t even read a sentence from the Bible. The moral content from these stories transfer (or rather transferred) symbiotically through society. People that live in the same community end up having very similar views.
I’d wager that even though most atheists don’t know it, they do believe partly in the Bible. Not the literal writings, but the abstract ideas it presents —its system of morality. When questioned on it, they will of course deny that they hold anything a theist does to be true — and they would be right for the most important part (God’s existence), but would be wrong for the rest (their value system).
This may be painting atheists in a bad light — making them out to be ignorant fools following others but thinking they are free. I think it rational for one to read the Bible, understand it, believe in it, and subsequently intentionally convert to atheism while retaining most of what one has learned. There are justifiable ways of holding that the Bible’s moral content is worth more than its literal stories. And to explain it, I’ll ask a hand from my statistics textbook.
Statistics and theistic morality
Statistical inference is the process of analysing observations to infer information about the population from which the observations came. Because it’s usually impossible to measure every single thing in a population, statisticians take random samples and analyse them instead. For example, it’s impossible to have every person on the planet fill in a mood questionnaire, so the guys from the World Happiness Report pick a random sample of people to represent the world’s population. Similarly, it’s impossible to take measurements of every car a production plant will ever produce, so the quality assurance department merely take a subset and draw conclusions from there.
There’s a whole subsection of statistics dedicated to understanding how and why statistical inference works and best practices of performing analyses. The remarkable thing I want to bring to the fore here is that statistics operates in this weird space where the numbers you’re crunching aren’t actually 100% indicative of the true thing you’re measuring. So, 10 cars from the production line can give you strong confidence on what the next 10 cars will look like, but never 100% confidence. To do that you’ll need to inspect the production line itself, but that’s not what statistics is about. Remember, in stats you usually don’t have access to what they call the true population — only samples thereof.
I think statistical inference is a very good analogy to the way a person may understand the moral content of the Bible. The stories are samples of true events, and the morals of the stories are samples of the “true morality” of mankind — that which gave birth to the stories and their meanings. So where a theist would take these stories and their morals at face value, an atheist could take it a step further and hold a kind of abstractions of these stories’ morals, because such an abstraction represents the true population — morality.
I think this is what atheists do subconsciously anyway. Now they simply have a justification for it too. So, the difference between the beliefs of a theist and an atheist are not so much whether God exists, but rather how literally we are to interpret the Bible. For a theist it’s quite literally the stories (samples), and for an atheist it’s quite abstractly the morals (statistical inference).
Image credit: Renato Stockler