As a new atheist, I'm interested to see what some non-believers use as their moral foundation.  Coming from a deeply Christian background, my moral fiber was knitted with no sex before marriage, refrain from using the 'Lord's' name in vain, not using foul language, etc.  But I find that I have a very different view on most of these, like sex before marriage; I think that so long as two people are of age to consent and are willing to accept the consequences that may surround sex then go ahead!


So, with that said, what supports your set of morals?  Is there a 'test,' so to speak, that you run through to define what is 'good' and 'moral?'


Please discuss...

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Merlin I think I base my morals more on the ideas of humanism. How do my actions affect those people around me who have the same basic feelings of love, hate, pain and joy that I do. All humans have this in common. Religion divides, whereas humanism bridges divides in my opinion. We do not need religion to teach us these things.  Also, empathy is a word I use on a daily basis. Can I put myself in the others shoes? What would it feel like if I experienced "it" that way? What if I was born in that culture? 


Having said all that, does this mean I am free of immoral thoughts or actions? Of course not. Not one person is infallible, but can we learn from our mistakes? We must. 


One of my favorite quotes is from Penn Jillette from Penn and Teller. When explaining his atheism he says:

"Believing there's no god means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good it makes me want to more thoughtful. I have to try treat people right the first time around."

Robert, I love the use of empathy.  Empathy is huge in my book.  The ability to consider people's feelings from their perspective is vital in considering one's actions.  Actually thinking about it, empathy is something that I fail at daily.  It will certainly make its way into my moral thought process though, as it will certainly assist in better moral judgment, and also doing what's right for the people involved.  I'm learning that it's not so different in most aspects from morality with a religious perspective.  I say most because of things such as getting tattoos is considered immoral by some religious standards.  But who does it harm?  No one!  As long as I'm not getting obscene tattoos slandering people's race or culture, etc.


I love the quote from Penn, to treat people right the first time around will prevent lots of trouble, and make one a stronger person all around.  Thanks for sharing!

For me personally there is no "test" other than my conscience. It it feels bad to me I don't do it. You have a moral compass within you, there's no need to look outside yourself or inside a book for morals. Your idea of what is right and wrong may be slightly different than mine, or the next person's. However, I believe there is a societally acceptable norm. In other words, the majority of people generally know it's bad to go around shooting people, physically harming someone else, or stealing. It's probably also generally acceptable and agreeable that telling someone what is wrong, is wrong. That would be injecting your own conscience on another. I wrote an article on my blog about this a while back titled "Morality is Relative" and I think it answers most questions about morality based on personal conscience, not what's written in a book. Hope this helps.

Thanks Eric.  I've always known the difference between right and wrong, because like you said, I have a moral compass built in.  Now at this point, I have a lot of thinking to do, and need to flush out the religious moral standards that were indoctrinated to me through Christianity.  While some of those morals are inherent without religion, some are skewed 'morals' that religion has in place to control followers as puppets.


I will read your article that you mentioned when I have a little more time to process.  Thank you for sharing.

The answers you get here will probably be based off of a pair of rules.

1) Fairness/equity.  Is it fair?  Just?  This is about reciprocity and honesty in your dealings with others.

2) Injury/harm.  Does it hurt someone?  Simply put, don't be a douche.


This is because, in general, atheism and education are correlated, and so are education and liberalism.  The liberal worldview is built far more on these two moral precepts than on the other three precepts that also exist (see the works of Dr. Jonathan Haidt for a much fuller discussion of these issues. ).  These are:


3) Respect for Elders/Respect for Authority

4) In-Group Loyalty

5) Sanctity/Purity


Okay, this is long and kind of rambling, so if you don't want to spend a lot of time reading, just stop here.  These are the five pillars of morality that humanity subscribes to and I believe they're based in our biology with some retooling by our history.


Just by comparing the Republican and Democratic parties (American bias ftw) you can see that liberals don't care much for loyalty or party lines.  By understanding that these three pillars of morality also exist and that they're taken very seriously by a large portion of society, it becomes possible to parse many seemingly nonsensical actions by believers.


Taking the lord's name in vain: Who could it possibly hurt?  It's not about injury, it's about maintaining the sanctity of religious iconography.

Gay marriage: It's unfair that they can't, and how can their marriage harm yours?  When a religious person rails on about the sanctity of marriage, a liberal just hears homophobia, but he really means it.  He honestly believes that marriage is a religious institution, that homosexuality is a sin, and allowing gays to marry will defile marriage and make it impure.  Plus, he's a homophobe.


Dr. Haidt's work has established that these five pillars of morality are universal (and that there are cultural variations on the themes), and that the liberal and conservative worldviews are delineated by whether one accepts the first two as much more important (liberal) or all five equally (conservative), or the last three as more important (arch-conservative, the "it's better to cut out the tongues of a thousand men than allow one to blaspheme" worldview).  The relationship is surprisingly and starkly linear.


I believe that human morality is based on our simian biology and uniquely human heritage. 


If you look at our fellow apes, they all live in familial tribes, with a high premium on cooperation for mutual benefit (whence we get the necessity for fairness, avoiding harm, and group loyalty).


Consider the prisoner's dilemma (   On the face of it, it seems to be a mathematical argument that people should be dicks.  People are manifestly not dicks in their regular dealings with one another.  Whence the paradox?  Because the simplest form asks you to play the game only once.  Play the game over and over and the premium switches from dickery to cooperation.  The possibility of history and repercussion encourages cooperative play so as to maximize benefit to all parties.


This is most fully spelled out when you consider a competition in which participants submit computer programs into iterated gameplay.  The programs ranged from simple to very complex, but the one that ended up routinely winning was a simple tit for tat strategy.  Start out assuming the best, then do to your opponent what he did to you.  In short, cooperate until betrayed.


Later players manipulated the system.  Because teams were allowed to submit multiple programs, they set up a situation whereby multiple programs would deliberately lose to a designated winner program, thus ensuring their own victory.  Again, mutual cooperation to achieve a set goal.


This suggests that life is a game, and evolution a mathematician.


Now let me toss out an example of nonstandard players; that is to say, psychopaths (an outdated term, I know, but antisocial personality disorder doesn't roll off the keyboard, and it doesn't immediately suggest a term for those afflicted, whereas "psychopathy" --> "psychopath").  Psychopaths lack empathy or morality, but mask it with an appearance of normality.  It's relatively rare (between one and four percent of the population), but arises consistently in the population.  Why?


Because if cooperation is the norm, then the rare individual who doesn't cooperate can gain significant advantage.  However, if lack of cooperation becomes too common, then the uncooperative individual's advantage disappears.  Again, game theory as applied to real life. 


The overall point of this discussion is this: natural selection and random mutation developed a simian biology and associated moral behavior system.  Cooperation and loyalty for mutual benefit (with the occasional aberrant psychopath).  This explains, quite readily, the universal human codes of 1) fairness, 2) no injury, and 4) in-group loyalty.  The other two can also be explained.


Respect for authority: This began as respect for your elders.  Human beings, far more than any other animal, rely upon the transmission of knowledge from elder to younger for the survival of the species.  This ability to transmit knowledge is literally the only advantage we have over other species.  We are comparatively blind, deaf, and noseless.  Even our cooperative nature is not unique to us.  But by understanding and learning about our environments (also not unique) and transmitting that knowledge at a young age we gain advantage.  Thus we are credulous to a fault in childhood, and carry into adulthood a respect for those who come before and have knowledge we lack.  This respect is then transferred to authority figures.


But why authority figures?  In the earliest stages of population growth/societal development, humans lived in small tribes of a few dozen people that were/are egalitarian in nature.  Everyone knows everyone else and therefor conflict avoidance is built in.  To put it another way, a fight starts, their family stops them from killing each other.  Once the population rises beyond a few hundred, the problem is that now there are strangers and a reason has to be found to stop them killing one another (seriously.  The injury/harm dynamic only applies to friends and family.).  Also, once the population density gets past a certain level, people need to specialize in certain roles to keep everyone fed, and a system needs to be put into place to make sure everyone gets what they need.  The system that evolves is that of a big man (proto-chief) who takes what he wants and then redistributes it.  As the population continues to grow, the big man becomes a hereditary chief, then king, then etc. with a growing bureaucracy to help manage the theft/redistribution.


Thus respect for authority is respect for your elders, but retooled to serve a new function.  In evolutionary terms, this is equivalent to an old biological system being repurposed (such as waste disposal protein that rotates a chemical through the wall of a cell being repurposed as the rotary motor of a flagellum).  That works just fine in explaining the development of government and respect for authority.  But what about sanctity/purity?  The protection of religious/secular iconography?


The earliest proto-chiefs, the Big Man model works just fine on its own.  The population is still small enough that even though no one knows everyone, they can all know the Big Man.  He can travel among them and exert his authority and his presence.  However, as the population grows, this model stops working because the work of the chief becomes too large and he becomes a more distant figure, with his nascent bureaucracy stepping in to become a local presence.  Thus the chief (becoming a hereditary title, as biology steps in and he wants what's best for his children. ie. that they also are chiefs) has to develop trappings of office, usually in the form of conspicuous consumption.  These are highly visible and very expensive symbols of authority.  Hawaiian kings wore capes made of parrot feathers, Roman/Greek royalty wore clothes dyed purple, which required the gathering and crushing of thousands of sea snails for a yard of cloth.


This is why conservatives are very respectful of the flag and hate the idea of burning it.  It is a visible symbol of our nation, and desecrating it is as bad as desecrating the nation itself.  This premium on the sancity/purity of iconography, symbolism, and ideology is a repurposing of in-group loyalty.  And as for religion?  It's part and parcel of the trappings of authority and a way to maintain in-group loyalty among strangers.


Recall that the separation of church and state is a very recent development.  Before that, the king was god's vicar on earth, if not a god himself.  The development of religion allowed societies to grow beyond the size of a city and provided highly visible identifiers as a way of showing who was part of an in-group.  Thus we have crucifixes, yarmelkes and prayer shawls, hijab and taqiyah, visible identifiers of a person you're not allowed to kill.


And make no mistake, the prohibition against killing is only viable against members of your group.  Kill all the heathens and infidels you want.  In fact, if you throw a rock into a crowd of infidels and kill one of the faithful, you're absolved of murder because your intent was to kill an infidel (For true, this is a long-standing and traditional interpretation of the commandment, "thou shalt not murder").  However, you may have to pay a fine if the infidel was a slave owned by one of the faithful; you damaged his property.


So there you go.  Our simian heritage gives us injury avoidance, fairness, and loyalty.  Our human heritage gives us respect for elders.  Our societal development repurposed respect for elders as respect for authority, and also repurposed in-group loyalty as religious sanctity (reinforced by respect for elders/authority on top of that, as we tend to remain in the religion we were raised in.  As the Jesuit said, "Give me a boy before the age of seven and I will give you the man.").

Wonderfully well thought reply.
Thank you!  I've been rolling this one around for a while; first time I've ever set it down in one place, though.
I read somewhere that moral behavior is in our DNA.

Surgoshan, you have a wonderful ability to articulate clearly what you mean.  I have read this once through and need to process and perhaps read it again in order to properly get as much information as I can out of it.  What sticks out initially though is the respect for elders/authority.  I absolutely respect elders and authority, but that respect should be reciprocated.  In other words, I will respect those that are elder to me, but if they disrespect me in some way they lose my respect.  It's not obligatory.


I will respond with more detail soon.  Thanks for sharing.  Very well thought out and informative.

I usually just go on instinct, and it has worked out pretty well so far.

However, I am also involved with the international humanitarian organization Rotary International.  Rotary has it's own moral code, and most Rotarians live by the Four Way Test:

Of the things we think, say, or do..

Is it the truth?

Is it fair to all concerned?

Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

Will it be beneficial to all concerned?


On some levels, I disagree with the "thinking" bit.  You should be able to think whatever you want- it's your mind.

   (môrl, mr-)
1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character: moral scrutiny; a moral quandary.
2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior: a moral lesson.
3. Conforming to standards of what is right or just in behavior; virtuous: a moral life.
4. Arising from conscience or the sense of right and wrong: a moral obligation.
5. Having psychological rather than physical or tangible effects: a moral victory; moral support.
6. Based on strong likelihood or firm conviction, rather than on the actual evidence: a moral certainty.
1. The lesson or principle contained in or taught by a fable, a story, or an event.
2. A concisely expressed precept or general truth; a maxim.
3. morals Rules or habits of conduct, especially of sexual conduct, with reference to standards of right and wrong.
Nowhere do I see any influence by religion in morals, I am having this same debate elsewhere with an xian, and in his book, ONLY the religious have morals. There may be a set of rules set out by the different religions, and those are contained in the noun definition 1, taught by a fable, a story or an event.
Morals are the glue that allows us to live in large groups, I think it evolved with us.
When it comes to the 2 most popular religions, I would not be proud of what they call their god given morals. Stoneing people for holding hands, the pope and his anti condom crap just ensures more kids/more poverty etc etc
Ah, precisely!  I've had discussions with friends that are xtians, and some of them insist that ONLY religious people have morals.  As if an atheist or agnostic, or any part of the non-believers group can be of moral character.  It's not about religion at all.  Thanks for sharing.


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