The central question of my essay is whether or not a system of morality can exist apart from religion; therefore, the definition of morality is pivotal to both sides of this argument. I am defining morality as a system of rules governing outward behavior; a line separating right and wrong; a set of guidelines benefiting not only the individual, but society as a whole. The Judeo-Christian faith believes that this system may only come from God, while atheists believe that morality is a natural system established by reason and logic.
From the beginning, it must be understood that I am considering only the Judeo-Christian faith in opposition to atheism for this essay. Time limits and other obligations keep me from attempting to take on all the religions of the world, past and present. Sam Harris, an atheist author, is fond of pointing out that "we are all atheists in regard to Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom now nobody worships." But for now, I will remain in the present and discuss modern Christianity and atheism.
Christians believe that God created the world and everything in it. They believe that He gave them the Holy Bible and that He is directly involved in their lives. For many Christians, religion is such a crucial aspect of their lives that they cannot comprehend a worldview without a belief in God. Their initial reaction is one of shock and horror. The Apostle Paul wrote that if the resurrection is a false hope than, "let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die." It is thought and preached that without religion as a compass, atheists surely must lead lives of depravity and meaninglessness. Jacques Abbadie, a French theologist from the 17th century, says:
An atheist cannot be virtuous: to him virtue is only a chimera; probity no more than a vain scruple; honesty nothing but foolishness;--he knows no other law than his interest: where this sentiment prevails, conscience is only a prejudice; natural law only an illusion; right no more than an illusion; right no more than an error; benevolence no longer has any foundation; the bonds of society are loosened; the ties of fidelity are removed; friend is ready to betray friend; the citizen to deliver up his country; the son to assassinate his father, in order to enjoy his inheritance, whenever they shall find occasion, and that authority or silence shall shield them from the arm of the secular power, which alone is to be feared. The most inviolable rights, and most sacred laws, must no longer be considered, except as dreams and visions.
Christians believe that God is the creator of all things; He is in all things and nothing can be separated from Him. Stephan Evans, based on the writings of Kierkegaard, said, "I shall treat the claim that God provides the foundation for morality as equivalent to the claim that it is because of God that there are such things as moral obligations, or that it is because of God that there are particular moral obligations." Because they believe this to be true, it naturally follows that the system of morality has its origin in and cannot be separated from Him.
Atheists recognize a type of morality in the natural world of animals. They also see evidence that morality exists in humanity as a result of evolution and the survival of our species. It must also be remembered that many civilizations existed with laws and rules of morality before Moses met God on Mt. Sinai and received the Ten Commandments.
Frank Zindler, biologist and editor of The American Atheist magazine, is of the opinion that "the behavior of atheists is subject to the same rules of sociology, psychology, and neurophysiology that govern the behavior of all members of our species, religionists included." Zindler also references the African apes and baboons that are genetically similar to humans and finds several interesting relations. These apes live in social groups similar to humans; they care for their children and live according to rules. If the group is attacked, the older male apes even show altruistic behavior by "linger(ing) at the rear of the escaping troop and engage(ing) the leopard in what often amounts to a suicidal fight. As the old male delays the leopard's pursuit by sacrificing his very life, the females and young escape and live to fulfill their several destinies."
If morality is not supernatural, it is natural. It is a man-made system to govern behavior so that the community can prosper and grow. Morality is based on the experiences of trial and error that took place during evolution. Many atheists believe that morality was clearly in place before anyone created a religion to regulate life. And it is because mankind lives in societies that morality necessarily evolved. From an evolutionary standpoint, the success of a species depended on their ability to pass on their genes. Morality is the system of rules that made this a possibility.
Those who believe that the Ten Commandments were the beginning of moral codes need look to India, Persia, and Egypt as societies that had systems of laws that predate Christianity. These laws dealt with murder, adultery, cheating, lying, property rights, and more. In An Infidel Manifesto, Gary Lenaire quotes the 19th century lawyer and orator Robert Ingersoll:
Such laws are as old as human society; as old as the love of life; as old as industry; as the idea of prosperity; as old as human love. All of the Ten Commandments that are good were old; all that were new are foolish. If Jehovah had been civilized he would have left out the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, and in its place would have said: 'Thou shalt not enslave thy fellowmen.' He would have omitted the one about swearing, and said: 'The man shall have but one wife, and the woman but one husband.' He would have left out the one about graven images, and in its stead would have said: 'Thou shalt not wage wars of extermination, and thou shalt not unsheathe the sword except in self-defense.'
In this essay, I have looked at the definition of morality as a system of rules governing outward behavior; a line separating right and wrong; a set of guidelines benefiting not only the individual, but society as a whole. I have looked at the Christians belief that morality can only come from God and the atheists belief that morality comes from a variety of experiences that occurred in our distant past. In keeping morality grounded in religion, humankind is cheated from the rich and amazing social history that is theirs.
Burke, Thomas. The Christian Vision: Man and Morality. Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 1986.
Evans, Stephan. Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self. Texas: Baylor University Press, 2006.
Lenaire, Gary. An Infidel Manifesto: Why Sincere Believers Lose Faith. Maryland: Publish America, 2006.
Meacham, Jon. "God Debate: Sam Harris vs. Rick Warren." Newsweek. 9 April, 2007
The Holy Bible. New King James Version. Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
Zindler, Frank R. "Ethics Without God." The Probing Mind. February 2005. American Atheists. http://www.atheists.org/Atheism/ethics.html.