Explaining Atheist Morality to a Christian Family

I recently "came out" as an Atheist to my Christian family. They responded well, though they asked a lot of questions about why I decided to leave the church and reject God. I explained my various grievances with the Church which they all agreed were valid points, yet hey were willing to overlook them, something I could not do.


Then my mother threw me a curveball. she said "If you have no God to hold youself accountable to, why bother being a good person, why not lie, steal and cheat?" I tried to explain how the right thing is still the right thing and how I didn't want to only to make the right choice because out of fear of punishment. I wanted to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do.


She then went on to ask me why it was the right thing to do, who said so? I responded with my conscience told me what was right. She asked me what told my conscience that right was right and wrong was wrong.


And this was where I said something along the lines of: "Uhh...buhhh...meh?"


So my question to you all is: Where do you base your morality from, and how do you defend that morality against people who believe that morality can only be based off of a God?

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You would be surprised how many such inconsequential articles I have read and how much research and thought I have put into it.


What the articles lists are not objective criteria for morality, but objective indicators by which the presence or absence of the assumed morality can be tested.


The article itself agrees "Of course, this instinct isn't equally present in everyone.  Nor is it going to be sufficient by itself to endow us all with the necessary morals to allow us to live together in harmony.", but goes on to claim "But, its presence and the parameters of it revealed by the research give us an objective starting point for defining, measuring, and then building a morality that is both rational and useful." The key is when something is not equally present in everyone what would be the basis for selecting some as the basis for what is "useful"? "Useful" to who and for what purpose?


It is not surprising that you can define and build an objective morality, most societies/religions have already done that. The question is of all the possible objective codes of morality why would you pick one and not another? What is the objective basis for such a decision?

The most obvious objective criterion is empathy and what it helps those who possess it do:  Avoid harm to others.  This is the so-called golden rule and is applicable even to those who do not naturally possess empathy because it reduces empathy to an easily applicable formula for guidance. 


The fact that there is no uniformity of consensus regarding morality does not mean there is no objective criterion.  I think you missed the point of the article.  The point is that if there were no objective considerations that grow out of our nature and circumstances, then there would be no moral sense that is uniformly discoverable throughout divergent human populations. This observations confirm the conclusions drawn from the proper application of empathy and logic with regard to what should be considered moral, broadly speaking. 


The trouble is that human morality has been used to manipulate people for so long, that we have a lot of really bad notions that are currently given wide credence in this area.  In other words, religion has screwed up the moral thinking of so many people that we are presented with versions of morality that are confused and often obviously false to those not drinking the Kool-aid.


In addition, human interactions are so complex and the values of individuals are sufficiently dissimilar that we, at best, will always have disagreements regarding moral judgments in some situations. 


With regard to religion's pernicious influence, try this post:



Empathy is not objective because it is not shared by everyone similarly and it is not outside of the subject.


There are several simple rules that everyone can understand and follow (say "do whatever you want, can and get away without harm to yourself", which would be understood by all). So why the golden rule and not a different one?

If you are expecting consensus of opinion or detailed instructions as part of your definition of "objective", then you will be disappointed, naturally.  Those things are not required for something to be called objectively true.  Evolution is objectively true, yet there is hardly consensus even on that point and the details are still being worked out.  Likewise with morality.


It was your implicit assumption that for something to be objectively true, there had to be consensus and detail that caused me to think you were religious because this is the religious view of their alleged morality.  They think they have absolutely objective morality because they think their morality comes from the absolute source.


The golden rule allows us to function as a society.  If we could not do that, we could not survive.  Even lower order animals exhibit aspects of this sort of behavior and for the same reason.  As the post linked above said, it is the avoidance of harm that is the unifying theme in morality.  In order to avoid harm to ourselves and those we naturally care about, we must be able to function peacefully as a society.  This peaceful functioning can only occur if individuals curb their selfishness, at least occasionally.

OK, now we are getting somewhere!

Of course universal agreement is unnecessary for a person to treat something as objective. A blind person cannot experience colour, but that doesn't make those with eye sight into thinking that that experience is not objective. So yes, when you do see colour and the next one fails to, it could very well be that the next guy is colour blind or simply blind rather than you are imagining colour. However, you must believe it exists independent of you in order for you to make that claim. Few claim beauty, for example, to be objective even if triggered by an object external to the person experiencing the sensation of beauty. Objective things of this nature are discovered for they have an existence independent of the subjects involved.

There is another sense in which the word objective is used, that while it is not something that exists independent of the subjects involved, the interpretation by different but sane, rational and logical subjects can be expected to be the same. For example, all states try to make their laws objective. Objective things of this nature are invented.

Evolution is objective and has been discovered, not invented. Which category of objective do you put morality in, the discovered category or the invented category? From the later part of the above post it appears you put it in the latter category, the invented one because there is a justification for why it is needed, something that discovered reality doesn't need. Black holes don't exist to serve some purpose, they just exist.

If, on the other hand, your claim of morality being objective is merely an observation about the existence of actions that can be construed as moral, then so is immorality. So what makes the "objectivity" of morality special?

If you mean invented, but objective, morality, anyone can invent an objective system of morality, on what grounds would you choose one or the other?

You say golden rule is important to function as a society and that is essential for survival. Considering that humans did not always exist as large societies and societies did not always follow the golden rule, not sure how that gets linked to survival. You say that in order to avoid harm to ourselves and those that we naturally care about, we need a peaceful society. Peaceful societies can exist without golden rule and violence can exist even when people follow golden rule. Some follow golden rule doesn't mean others will. Others may risk harm to themselves and those that they care about in order to gain the immediate advantages of lying and cheating or stealing from others and those that follow the golden rule will be worse off. But one thing is for sure, pretending to believe in morality is extremely useful. It lulls the suckers into believing the pretender is no threat until of course it is too late. A clever pretender can even make it look like the fault of the one cheated. In fact, it has become such an art form, that the majority of the most successful people, those who ensure no harm comes to them or those that they care about, are exactly those who lie and cheat. Assuming that they too dislike being lied to and cheated, it appears golden rule is for suckers.

When I say that morality is objective what I mean is that there is objective evidence of it that can be observed and that these observations can be replicated by other researchers.  It cannot be entirely external of us, even the researchers observing it, because it is ourselves that we are observing. 

Likewise, trying to distinguish between invented or discovered natural morality is problematic because morality is a bit of both.  The beginnings of what we would call morality probably arose long before mankind.  Such beginnings would be simple things like mothers taking care of their offspring and not harming the offspring of other members of their group--sometimes even guarding the offspring of others when the mother isn't around. 

In fact, these kinds of behaviors can be observed in lower order animals.  Those animals don't "think" about reciprocity and payoff from such behavior because they don't really "think" at all, at least not in those terms.  They "feel" for each other.

We, as higher order animals, retain these rudiments of morals and the social structures that gave rise to them.  We have made the social structures larger and more complicated, but the considerations that gave rise to the beginnings of morality haven't changed.  Only the details of their application have changed.  That, and the fact that some people have discovered they can manipulate others via use of this very same moral sense.

In fact, in a perverse way, the success of religion actually proves that such innate morality exists.  Religion exists in part to allow the unscrupulous to manipulate others using these feelings.  It exists in part also to allow people to behave immorally and yet still feel good about themselves.  This would not be necessary if morality were something invented out of whole cloth rather than something that has only limited mutability.

As I already mentioned, if morality as you mentioned is objective, so is immorality, religion or no religion. It too can be observed.


What exactly is that supposed to prove?

Ganapati P, I fervently hope that you will take the time to carefully read Mo Trauen's response to your post. It 'says it all', calmly & objectively about the position of Atheists in the matter of morality. I am 85 years old & lost my religion after reading the bible in it's disgusting entirety as a young man. I am firmly convinced that Mark Twain was correct in stating that the bible - properly read, is the best cure for Christianity. The tragedy is that only a VERY small percentage of Christians have done this. I don't expect to live to see the day when organised religions will be looked upon as the quaint beliefs of a more primitive people. But as an inveterate optimist, I think that day will come - eventually.

I did read the post and even the article linked to in it. It says nothing other than that there are certain universal indicators to which many can be expected to react in a predictable manner and religions used these basic behaviour patterns to build their morality on and that the same can be used to build a non-religious morality. Sure. No problem.


But my question still remains. What would be the basis for a non-religious morality?


I am not a Christian nor an advocate for Christianity or any other religion. I have never been part of any formal religion and didn't have to reject any faith simply because I have never been part of any.


I know the topic was specifically about how to explain atheist morality to a Christian Family, but I was assuming the answer should be applicable to any including someone not belonging to any faith.

Survival - of the individual and / or the tribe.

Many openly immoral individuals survive and even more glaringly the most immoral societies, societies that specialise in murdering and plundering other societies while prohibiting the same behaviour within their bounds, have prospered.


Is that your concept of morality? That don't lie to, cheat, steal from or murder one of your own tribe, but let us band together and lie to, cheat, steal from and murder other tribes because that is good for the survival of the tribe?

Technically in those areas it would be morally correct. Morals change from place to place.  Though it is a bit extreme.


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