An Atheist’s Morality

compassAfter becoming an atheist at the age of 16 I found myself in a moral abyss that took years for me to navigate my way out of.  As a Christian the scriptures had been my primary means of determining morality.  They were the only moral guidance I was ever explicitly given and consisted solely of “God’s word is good” and its variations.  But, I first began critically examining Christianity because of its immorality.  The implicit moral guidance I had received from American society was just as damaging as the religious beliefs I was taught and left me just as lost.  With minimal education in critical thinking I soon found myself a moral relativist.  My time in the military only hindered any progress I would have made and contributed to me spending years as a moral relativist with no guiding ethical principles.  It took years of formally studying philosophy in college to read Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy and finally find some secular moral guidance in his brilliant categorical imperative.

How I Became an Atheist

The first problem I had with Christianity’s morals was with regard to Hell.  Hell is a tool God uses as punishment.  But, how could Hell possibly be described as good?  No one deserves Hell, even for committing an atrocity, and how much less so the people who merely choose the wrong religion?  This made my young self feel as though I should protest by refusing my entry into Heaven in order to take a stand for those suffering in Hell.  But there is something very wrong if you are taking a moral stand against your God.

And that’s what led to me exploring theodicy, the problem of evil, on my own without any schooling in philosophy and without the limitless access to information I now enjoy via the internet.  I did not know that theodicy was an old and thoroughly debated philosophical topic, but from my own exploration I rejected the notion of a Christian God in light of my reasoning.  As a budding, young philosopher when I realized there was no God I asked the question, “What does this mean?”  There were many positives implications such as that I was no longer a sinner and my natural desires, such as for sex, were not wrong.  There is a great feeling of freedom, as though a boulder has been lifted from your shoulders, when you can let go of the guilt Christianity imposes on you.

But morally I ran into a dead end.  I left Christianity in part because of its immorality, but it had been my only explicit moral guide.  I decided that good and evil were abstractions that merely described if something was good or bad to you and I became a moral relativist believing that there was no universal moral truth.  While this stance is not too far detached from what I currently believe I then had no guiding ethical principles as well.  And Christianity’s and society’s horrid moral instruction had left me dangerously comfortable with committing atrocious acts against others.

Christianity’s Moral Relativism

Did God create moral rules as it saw fit or was God’s own actions restricted by a universal moral truth?  If God had to follow a moral truth then God is not all-powerful and is restricted by certain laws just as we are restricted by the laws of physics.  If God created moral rules then what real meaning can those rules have?  If whatever God says is good is then good that causes good and evil to have very little meaning.  God could have arbitrarily chosen anything to be good or evil that it desired.

The answer to this theological question is very clear in the Abrahamic Religions; God created morality and its word decides what is good and evil.  This leads to a dangerous moral relativism where any atrocious act can be good and any natural deed can be decreed as evil.  This is evident from their bibles when God commands its people to kill every man, woman, and child and because this is God’s word, it is good.  This moral relativism is what gives the religious so much leeway to hate and be violent when society seems to assume that these people would have the strongest moral standards.  And so after leaving the religion the guidelines you were taught were not actually “Thou shall not kill”, but “God’s word is good” which translates roughly to a more accurate “Thou shall only kill when I say”.

Society’s Moral Perversion

In practice, the priests of religions generally preach decent moral values such as consideration and temperance.  So, in practice, the worst of the religions’ moral shortcomings are not as obvious until you try to find the underlying principles.  However, the American society that I have lived in, as well as much of what is called western culture, is obviously perverse in its moral teachings.

Take for example the heavily censored movie industry where a secretive bureaucracy acts to “protect” us from obscenity.  Violence is glorified in movies of all ratings from G to R as bravery, the moral courage to fight for what is right, or good overcoming evil through violence, etc.  And not just any violence but the most obscene and twisted violent fetishes such as the torture scenes in Saw and Hostel are even given a place in our public theaters.  Empathy is generally cast aside, peoples are painted in generic good and evil, and we taught not to feel as the evil side is dehumanized and killed.  And the more violent ones, such as the two I specifically mentioned, allow the protagonist to be agonizingly tortured as well so we can find pleasure and entertainment in their suffering.  With an exception for self defense, killing is always wrong, and even when done in self defense it is a tragedy.  Everyone is a person and deserves empathy and violence of any kind is a failure to successfully navigate a situation.  Most will agree with me on these principles and yet our society glorifies violence in all of its forms and not just in movies, but throughout all of our culture.

On the other extreme human sexuality is relentlessly demonized.  We have laws against indecency which specifically label parts of our body as indecent, as though we are not all of the same species or perhaps those parts of our body are used exclusively for a horrible act such as murder.  Using movies as an example again, the industry censors human affection and sexuality as much as possible.  In G and PG movies you are much more likely to see violence than you are affection or any reference at all to sexuality.  And of course sex itself is effectively banned by the censors.  Yes, we have an NC-17 rating but the vast majority of public theaters will not play an NC-17 movie; and so that rating removes the movie from our mainstream culture.  Almost every person will have sex in their lives, and human affection as well as sex is necessary for our mental health and relationships as a social species.  Not to mention, of course, that sex is vital for the continuation of our species, it always has been, and that we are all the product of sex.  And yet the most natural, healthy, and necessary act is censored as though it is a moral abomination.  And these are just two examples of a great number of perversions of morality perpetrated by society.  The most vile, horrible acts such as murder and torture are glorified while some of the most natural and good acts are demonized.

Being raised in this culture left me no better off than my previous religious guidance had at finding a secular morality that made any sense.  With my violent upbringing I had no reservations about joining the military, whose isolated and even more violent culture, only further delayed me from making any moral sense of my life.

Kant’s Secular Morality

After the military I spent some time in college studying two of my passions, computer science and philosophy.  After developing a strong understanding of philosophical principles and different theories I got the chance to study Kant’s moral philosophy.  Immanuel Kant was a Christian and I found his religious apologetics disappointing; though this is no surprise for an atheist.  However, his moral philosophy is entirely secular and stands entirely on its own apart from any religion.

Kant does not prescribe a universal moral law that we must follow.  Kant instead declares that we should act in a way that we could will our maxim (guiding principle for the action) be a universal law (because if morals are to have any meaning they must be derived from reason, and hold universally true).  This is the first form of his categorical imperative and is an excellent moral guide.  A principle (which Kant calls maxims) could fail the test if it could not be a universal law.  This works for peoples who believe there is a universal moral truth and wish to understand what that truth is, in which case it acts as a discovery tool; as well as for people who believe there are no universal moral truths but that morals are human inventions necessary for society and wish to act in a moral way.

For example, if you desire to make a promise that you intend not to keep you may very easily be able to will the lie, but you cannot will that the principle of “You should make a promise you do not intend to keep if it is beneficial to you” be a universal law.  If this law was universal and therefore followed by all then a promise would have no meaning because they would be made as often with intent to be kept as with a deceitful intent to be broken.  And so, willing this law would destroy the concept of a promise, which would destroy the principle you were trying to create in the first place.

There are other forms of the categorical imperative, but since they are derived from the first, that is the only one I treat as a moral guide.  However, the second form is still a vitally important principle and so I’ll include it here.  “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” (Kant)  As you can see the principle of treating people always as ends and not means can be arrived at using the categorical imperative.  Another principle that I live by and which can be validated by the categorical imperative is the non-aggression principle, which is a moral stance against aggression, with aggression being defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or their property.  Unlike nonviolent principles such as pacifism, the non-aggression principle allows self-defense.

And that is where my moral journey as an atheist has finally led me.  No, I do not believe in a universal moral truth, because I do not believe in a being creating that truth.  Creatures generally act in their best interest, not out of moral obligation.  I believe this life is all we have and while the particles that make up our atoms will not perish our consciousness certainly will, and so life is precious.  We are social creatures and depend on each other as much as this planet for survival.  And so I utilize Kant’s categorical imperative as a guide to discover principles that will help me live life to the fullest and help others do the same.

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7 Responses to An Atheist’s Morality

  1. Good post, thanks for sharing.

    Here’s my musing on morality, or rather a comment on the ‘can you be good without God’ sentiment.

  2. euryon says:

    A very similar story to my own, funnily enough. I grew up Christian, till my teen years, studied philosophy, work in computing (sort of), and am a strong atheist and secularist. Very interesting account of how you found morality. I wish more people would realize it’s better to do good things without the sky-father watching over your shoulder.

    • nrkatalyst says:

      Cool, I love meeting people with the curiousity and courage to really challenge their own beliefs and change if they find them wanting. I think having so many people who came from different backgrounds and challenged their own beliefs is what makes the atheist community so special.

  3. Ivy Willow says:

    This was an excellent post! I really like the explanation about the non-aggression principle. Perhaps I follow that a little more. I say I am a pacifist, but I find violence via defense acceptable, if not still a little upsetting. Thank you for linking me to this post. ^.^

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