This is my first post and I want to say that I am new to even the idea of making a break from my religious upbringing and training.  Though I grew up in the south, I was always devoted to my religious participation in a very humanistic anti dogmatic sort of way.  Public expressions of faith nonsense always bothered me, and it made me worry that there was something wrong with me, so I tried to devote myself even more, eventually earning two graduate degrees in theology and a career working in church.

Slowly though I have been even drifting away from the concept of religious faith itself, until one day last week I heard some Texas school board bozo who was saying on television that his religious faith informed him about what should or should not be taught in Texas, and something just clicked.  "What the hell is this guy talking about?" I thought.  At other times in my life I would have just rolled my eyes and ignored him, but this time it really pissed me off.

So I come here with all sorts of questions, mostly along the 'how do athiests treat morality and ethics without god" sort of line.  In browsing here I've noticed that those questions get treated with everything from amusement to disgust, so please be kind. 

Throughout my life, the thing that inspired me most about christianity is something the christians inherited from the ancient hebrews, which is the idea that all humanity is created in the image of god (you can read it in Genesis), and so therefore all humanity is somehow sacred, everyone from Mitt Romney and Barak Obama, to the homeless guy who asked me for bus money the other day.  All sacred, and so all deserving of respect and basic dignity.  I'm wondering how does an atheist understand that there is basic dignity in all human life, and that all of us are afforded respect and just treatment simply by virtue of our common humanity.

Please understand I'm not joining this forum trying to play 'devil's advocate' or anything, or looking to dust something up on an athiest site.  I'm honestly seeking this understanding because of where my life and thought has taken me, and I'm looking for new answers outside of religion that make more rational sense.

Thank You.

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Welcome Kevin!

As usual, Nelson is in ahead of me with all kinds of good information. :) However, I do have some more to add.

What Nelson is referring to in his second point is more commonly called Euthyphro's Dilemma, shortly summed up as "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?"

I'd also recommend viewing Matt Dillahunty's talk on the superiority of secular ethics, available at the Atheist Experience's blog.

Enjoy learning about all of this, I know I did. :)

The reason the morality is question is sometimes greeted with annoyance is 1.) Some believers use it use some kind of attack on atheists and actually think it's a good argument 2.) It seems kind of absurd. 3.) It comes up so often that it's a bit of a cliche

Think about how you really make moral and ethical decisions. Do you really make them based on ancient texts? Isn't there a lot of ancient morality that you completely ignore? Do you really only behave well because you fear divine punishment or want a reward in the afterlife? Don't you already make them based on what you generally know is right and wrong? Have you never reasoned about more difficult moral questions and tried to find out what is best for all parties involved and society? If you learned tomorrow for a fact that your god didn't exist, would you treat people any differently? I'd say you already make those decisions the way atheists and/or humanists do. Most believers do. It's just clouded with religious dogma. Humans are social animals and thus have a basic behavioral code that facilitates living together. Over the ages that has been written down in various ways. Religious texts are one way, but not the only one.

In some ways humanists value mankind and life more than theists. We know that this life is all we have and that we have to fix our problems on our own. We can't wait for divine intervention. Christians think that we are born are sick, broken, wretched and without any hope of ever being good, except in the afterlife. That's downright anti-human. I don't see any dignity and self-respect whatsoever in the Fall of Man story that the entire Christian theology is based on.

On a more extended note, we also know that genetically we are related to all other life on the planet. And we know that for more complicated matter and life to exist, stars had to explode and spread their matter through the universe. I find that more awe inspiring than any religious mythology I ever read.

I live in a small Texas town and deliver Meals on Wheels to a dozen or so elderly folks, once or twice a week. Very often, I am the only contact these people have with others each day. I know them all by name, chat with them for a few minutes, and show a genuine interest in their lives and well-being. And I don't do it because its the Christian thing to do or to curry favor with some abstract god of justice. And the feeling I get is something only an atheist can understand.  Millions of people are good without god.

I would like to think no-one here would be unkind to someone genuinely questioning their faith and wanting to have a belief system which is intellectually honest. It is more the people who imply that we have no morals who get sniped back at.

I also experienced that 'click' moment and after that I questioned everything - my brain would not just accept christian teaching and when I searched for reasons to believe, there were none. Whether or not you are going to be a Christian, agnostic or atheist will not be a choice as I am sure you are aware. I think many Christians are drawn to the message of love and brotherhood, only to be disturbed by the dogma, intolerance and violence in the bible and church.

Are you familiar with secular Humanism? This focuses on human rights and humanitarian aid and generally regards human life as precious and to be protected. I belong to the British Humanist Association and there is an American one. Have a look?

I can give you my own thoughts of morality and ethics which are shared my many atheists.

Firstly, I am not coming from the perspective that a belief in god does relate to todays morality - the bible advocates slavery, rape, killing those of different beliefs and disobedient children and those who work on the sabbath and gays and all sorts of other horrors but no Christians or Jews believe this is morally acceptable. The reason they have a different morality is because they have moved with society and we are getting more humane and empathetic. We are social mammals with prefrontal cortexes which allow us to empathise with others, feel compassion and remorse if we are the cause of pain. You may be interested in The Evolutionary Origins of Morality by leonard Katz or this article about how some other apes are also becoming more like this.

We recognise humans as all deserving of respect and basic dignity now in a way we did not in the past when we had slavery and oppression of the working classes and women. This is a social shift. Remember that this happened less often when more people believed in a god. This all comes down to empathy - we used to believe that we were entitled to whatever position we were in and might was right but this has changed so much so recently. It began in a larger social way in the 18th Century with Tom Paine and The Rights of Man then Mary Wollstonecraft and The Rights of Woman. The nineteenth century saw much more in the way of social reform, care for the underprivileged and we have gone from there. I find it very interesting that the view of God changed at this time. Before this he was a stern dictator but in the 19th century he became seen as a loving father. This is why present christians do not recognise the god they read about in the bible.Before that it was accepted that he had the right to kill, torture and afflict in an arbitrary way because we were under the feudal system - we thought this way. Now we do not. Humanism really began in the Renaissance. The common humanist look at life and our responsibilities to each other came from drawing away from Christianity.

Humans are incredible and only more so when you consider that we are apes. The way our brains have evolved to be able to invent so many things, create art, develop medicines and understand our world is truly awe-inspiring. We are special to each other and we are the only ones who understand dignity (OK you could make an argument for cats!) I find the concept that we are special because we are made in the image of a god less affecting than that we evolved and grew and developed socially to be what we are. I feel very moved by this sometimes. It blows my mind to think that just as most other animals cannot understand or perceive a fraction of the things we can, what is there that we cannot perceive right now. Science shows us so many new and amazing things each year that we really cannot even guess where we might be in 50 years time.

I leave you with the last few lines of Tim Minchin's poem 'Storm' which I believe sums it up beautifully.

Isn’t this enough?

Just this world?

Just this beautiful, complex, wonderfully unfathomable, natural world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention that we have to diminish it with the invention of cheap, man-made myths and monsters?
If you’re so into your Shakespeare, lend me your ear:
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw perfume on the violet… is just fucking silly”
Or something like that.
Or what about Satchmo?!
“I see trees of Green,
Red roses too,”
And fine, if you wish to glorify Krishna and Vishnu in a post-colonial, condescending bottled-up and labeled kind of way then whatever, that’s ok.
But here’s what gives me a hard-on:
I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon.
I have one life, and it is short and unimportant…
But thanks to recent scientific advances I get to live twice as long as my great great great great uncleses and auntses.
Twice as long to live this life of mine
Twice as long to love this wife of mine
Twice as many years of friends and wine

Hi Kevin,

I believe that a naturalist understanding of morality asserts that we have evolved empathy as an impetus to cooperation. Combined with personal experience, empathy leads most of us to a "Golden Rule" sense of morality. From experience, I know what hurts me. With empathy, I know the same things likely hurt you too. These 2 factors is all that's needed to decide most moral matters. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . because we need each other to survive and prosper." This rule of thumb isn't sufficient for every moral decision but it is fundamental to most. We are complex social animals. Without this impulse for cooperation to counter our impulse for violence, we would probably squander all that brain power that gives us our survival advantage.

It's a fallacy (with obvious religious motivations) that we could not be moral without God. Our morality is part of the human condition and existed long before Moses. In fact, as I've mentioned elsewhere on the site, we ALL use our personal morality to overrule Biblical morality. And by ALL, I really do mean ALL: believers and nonbelievers alike. This fact is amply demonstrated by our universal rejection of slavery and the subjugation of women (well, maybe not the Muslims so much). God/Jesus condoned the subjugation of our fellow humans in both the Old and New Testaments. But we ALL overrule God's morality with our own and reject such subjugation. Not only is God NOT the source of morality but he stands corrected by us all. WE decided what is moral. WE decide what is religiously worthy. NOT God.

You need to ask yourself: "If we overrule God, why do we need him at all?"

As has already been explored on this site, the subjugation of our fellow humans is a failing of Biblical morality that can't be reasonably addressed by apologetics. This is critical for all believers to understand. THEY CAN'T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Either God is perfect or he's not. Either the Bible is divinely inspired or it's not. Either God is the source of morality or he isn't. I'm sure you're intelligent enough to recognize that if God's morality grows outdated, it was never perfect and timeless to begin with. The alternative is to claim that God is right and that the subjugation of our fellow humans is NOT at all immoral: that it is in fact, desirable. But we ALL know that's an untenable position. We all know that is WRONG. This is why the issue is out of reach of apologetics.

The personal, revealed, God of the Abrahamic religions is irrefutably false. This doesn't close the door on God entirely, however. There's still supernatural hope for deists and pantheists.

Empathy is a human trait that spawns a number of other human traits just as naturally as it spawns morality. Empathy also spawns human dignity and worth, cooperation and compassion. We can live moral lives without God but not without empathy.

*Gives Atheist Exile standing ovation. Throws flowers.*

Clearly presented and a delight to read....

Welcome to TA Kevin :)

Steve said the same thing that I was just about to mention. I find that the easiest way to help you see the way that we see it is to ask yourself the question, "If I was to all of a sudden become a non-religious person, would my moral beliefs change? Does it make it acceptable for me to go around killing people?" You can substitute any amoral behaviour into that and see if you may feel any different about any behaviour if this one small detail in your life were to change.

Look at our youth, for instance. Mommy doesn't say, "Don't smack people, God says it's bad", she says, "Don't smack people, how would you feel if they smacked you?" This is unless, of course, God is a major factor in a family's life to the extent that God dictates everything that should or should not be done.. or else.

We learn our morals from our culture and our ability to think about how our actions may react with those we deal with, it does not come from theology. If I were to discuss the idea of our evolutionary tendencies towards social interactions I would say that our evolved tendency is to try and remain within our social group. In the 'cave-man' days our groups were small and if we were to do anything to risk being kicked out of our village we could risk difficult living and even death as we would most likely not have the resources needed to ensure our survival. Making others unhappy risks your removal from your group. This is a supremely simple way of describing this side of our evolutionary tendencies, it is much more complicated than that.

I also agree on the fact that non-theists tend to value life more than theists as this is the only life we have, and the only life that others all around us have. I also feel like atheists do not often feel above all other life on this planet as theology teaches us. Our life is on the same level as our dogs, the only difference is that our brain has evolved to the extent to which we are self conscious.

Your Christianity taught you that, 'humanity is created in the image of god... and so therefore all humanity is somehow sacred......How do athiests treat morality and ethics without god"

I think the only thing you can be sure of on this forum is that their ethics will not be based on a holy book. You will find a wide variety of opinions expressed.

@Helen says, "We recognise humans as all deserving of respect and basic dignity now in a way we did not in the past when we had slavery and oppression of the working classes and women."

@Atheist Exile says she has a, "Golden Rule" sense of morality. From experience, I know what hurts me. With empathy, I know the same things likely hurt you too.."

Many will agree with this but some, like me, see the 'specialness' of humans as little more than an overhang from Christian theology. I'm thinking of people like AC Grayling (President of @Helen Pluckrose' Humanist Society) & Richard Dawkins. As I reject the idea that we were created in the image of God, and believe evolution is true, I accept we are all animals with differing abilities.

To be ethical, we must respect the interests of other human beings because we know that they can feel pain and suffer. And we must respect the interests of other animals for precisely the same reason. To discriminate on the grounds of intelligence, race, colour, sex, sexuality or any other quirk of the human condition is just arbitrary. So too discrimination on the grounds of species.

I will not treat your question with "amusement or disgust" because it is a REAL question. You must understand that many who ask the "morality without god" things do so in a very accusatory voice. They are not actually interested in the answer. They ask questions that accuse us of having no reason to "murder, pillage, and rape" without a god... and when we've tried to answer them... they scoff and scorn us. 

Since your question is real... I will answer it.

First... your situation is more common than you think! The religious right is killing Christianity because it is driving many people away from the faith. Polls have demonstrated a striking phenomenon of young christians (especially) fleeing the organized church in droves in disgust because of the obvious fact that so many of those who claim to be most touched by God show a complete disregard for Jesus' teachings of love and tolerance... to the point of being blasphemy in its own right.

As for your question on atheist morality... well... atheists are all different. The only thing all atheists share in common is a disbelief in god. So, therefore there is no official "morality code" used by all atheists.

However! There is a particular philosophy that many atheists share that deals directly with morality from a godless viewpoint and that which I think you would very much enjoy.

You accidently mentioned it in saying that your faith was "humanistic."

Many atheists are Secular Humanists.

Secular Humanism is a philosophy of ethics that is best explained by The Council for Secular Humanism itself.

Council for Secular Humanism Website

This is a basic explanation:

and this is the Council for Secular Humanism's statement of principles:

The Affirmations of Humanism:
A Statement of Principles

  • We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.
  • We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.
  • We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.
  • We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.
  • We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.
  • We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.
  • We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.
  • We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.
  • We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
  • We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.
  • We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.
  • We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.
  • We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.
  • We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.
  • We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.
  • We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.
  • We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.
  • We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.
  • We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.
  • We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.
  • We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

Secular Humanists do not believe in God... therefore we are NOT created in the image of god. However, we take a view that all humans are "created" equal and deserve to live a life with equal rights and as little suffering as possible. Kindness and compassion are key. While we are not created in God's image, life (human and non-human) are indeed "sacred" - if you want to call it that. All people deserve their basic rights to life liberty and pursuit of happiness and those who would seek to deny this to any person are immoral and our enemies. Respect for life is not the same as "Right to Life." Respect for life means giving the highest value to the QUALITY of life which people and animals live. It is not the length of a life that it sacred... it is the quality of it. It  is far better to live only a few days with love, happiness, and hope than to live a thousand years alone in misery, despair, and with unnecessary suffering. That does not mean that preserving life is not important... it means that people should be treated well while they are here. A Secular Humanist devotes his/ her life to improving the lives of others in the time we have. No child should be born into this world to live a miserable life - hungry, despairing, and unloved. No woman should have to be denied the right to ownership of her own body. No man or woman should have to be forced into a strait jacket of narrow gender roles when they do not want to be. A person should be able to pursue their hopes and dreams, to love and truly live... rather than just exist. Love between two men is as sacred as love between a man and a woman. Each person has a different definition of happiness and they should be able to pursue it... as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

  Hope this helps. :)

Skycomet.  Thanks for your fantastic reply. 

Thanks to everybody else too. I'm overwhelmed to have my questions taken so seriously, something that I had been lasking in Church.

This is wonderful, really...


I just wanted to touch on your statement about there being dignity in all human life.  I, for one, do not believe that there is dignity in all human life - but I do believe that there SHOULD be dignity in every human life.  That's all, carry on.


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