Throughout the history of humanity, a society's moral codes were inexplicably tied to the local religion. Things have not changed in 2007. Many Christians believe that a belief in God is necessary for a person to live morally; atheists disagree. The atheist's argument revolves around the idea that natural law and civic virtue is available to people due to their ability to reason. The system of morality is established by natural law and civic virtue. Therefore, morality is a by-product of people's ability to reason.
A few terms must be defined before the discussion can begin. These definitions are taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Natural law "constitutes the basic principles of practical rationality for human beings, and has this status by nature which is universally binding and universally knowable." Civic virtue is "a willingness to do one's part in supporting the public good." Reason can be defined as "the general human capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do." Morality "is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal." Christians are men and women believing in the Judeo-Christian God, the deity of Jesus Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, and the existence of an afterlife. And atheists are men and women who believe that it is impossible to prove the existence of a divine being or an afterlife.
Many Christians believe that morality comes from God; an example of this is the Ten Commandments. For many believers, a life of sin and depravity is the only option for those who do not accept God. This is illogical, not only because it presents an either-or situation, but because it brings up questions of the source of goodness. Frank Zindler, a professor of biology and the editor of American Atheist Press, writes:
Plato showed long ago…that we cannot depend upon the moral fiats of a deity.
Plato asked if the commandments of a god were 'good' simply because a god had
commanded them or because the god recognized what was good and commanded the action accordingly. If something is good simply because a god has commanded it, anything could be considered good…On the other hand, if a god's commandments are based on a knowledge of the inherent goodness of an act, we are faced with the realization that there is a standard of goodness independent of god and we must admit that he cannot be the source of morality.
There is a standard of goodness independent of God and it is called natural law. This is the system that is at work in the natural world. From the beginning, survival of the species was, and still is, the overwhelming purpose of an organism. Certain behaviors benefit the group, while others hurt it. Generosity, loyalty, defending the group, etc, are behaviors that benefit the group. On the other hand, murder, stealing, selfishness, lying, etc, are behaviors that can damage the group's ability to survive. Throughout the evolution of humans, this behavior was analyzed as right or wrong based on the consequences of the action. Over time, this analysis would form the moral code that underlies ancient and current societies. In other words, "they are generalizations from experience…A moral law makes explicit in theory what is implicit in fact. The fact creates the rule; it is not the rule that creates the fact."
Even C.S. Lewis, one of Christian's favorite apologists, saw the foundation of morality as reason—"the fundamental maxims of civic morality are accessible to all human beings by virtue of their God-given reason. This natural moral code cannot be escaped, he said; it is the source from which all moral judgments spring." This reason is the key to morality, not religious dogma. It is the mind of humans that separates them from the animal world; reason is the best weapon with which to face everyday events. Too often, Christianity demands that reason and a questioning mind be shut down to give way for blind faith.
For two centuries, we have looked to the Christian God to provide us with morality and have not been satisfied. The issues that we face today are human problems and it is within our humanity that the answers will be found. This is the time for a return to reason, for a new focus on natural law as it applies to humanity, for civic virtue to once again gain prominence in our national discussion.
Civic Virtue. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/republicanism/, July 25, 2007.
Cohen, Chapman. "Morality Without God." American Atheists, Inc., http://www.atheists.org/Atheism/cohen.html
Morality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition
Natural Law. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/natural-law-ethics/, July 25, 2007.
Practical Reason. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/practical-reason/, July 25, 2007.
West, John G., Jr. "Politics from the shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on earthly government." Policy Review (Spring 1994 n680: 68(3).
Zindler, Frank R. The Probing Mind, February 1985. http://www.atheists.org/ethics.html