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.
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.
I'm about to graduate with a degree in zoology, so I feel that most life is sacred (I'm not a vegetarian). When you begin to understand all the processes that led to our existence, you feel just how lucky we are to exist at all and as such respect all others. When I was younger I was taught a simple Greek principle by my catholic mother "treat others as you would wish to be treated" and I have always tried to live by that. If I could point out, laws against murder and such existed before monotheistic religions because in such an anarchical environment, we wouldn't have been able to progress to the stage we are now. I would also ask how moral is it to only be good because you don't want to burn in hell? If that is the only thing stopping you from taking from another person, you are good only in action, not in thought.
'how do athiests treat morality and ethics without god"
A list of non-theistic/non-religious "commandments" (found in atheist literature):
1) Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
2) In all things, strive to do no harm
3) Treat all living things with love, honesty, faithfulness, and respect
4) Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted
5) Live life with joy and wonder
6) Always seek to learn new things
7) Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them
8) Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you
9) Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be blindly led by others
10) Question everything
1) Enjoy your own life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business
2) Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race, or (as far as possible) species
3) Do not indoctrinate your children; teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you and others
4) Value the future on a timescale longer than your own
And for some more detailed ideas related to these - http://www.americanhumanist.org/humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_III
"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"
Although Genesis might seem to imply this, this is not ancient Hebrew "philosophy." Once Abraham was "chosen," only the Hebrews were "special."
To me, there is nothing "inspiring" about Christianity. In my opinion, it is based on a flawed, immoral premise (ie human sacrifice) and offers me nothing new philosophically that cannot be found outside of Christianity. Personally, I am glad you have your "doubts" and wish you well on your non-theistic journey.
Thank you. Finally a list of commandments I can really believe in.
Everyone else has done a fantastic job summing up where atheists get their morality, so I won't bother reiterating that, only that I think the most profound point should be that we do have morality.
I have a similar background as yours. My family is very religious, with both grandfathers having been Southern Baptist preachers, mom always in the choir, almost never missing church on Sunday... I was submerged in the Christian culture, and completely devoted. I won't bother going into my life story, just know I was "on fire", and finding myself on this side of Christianity was a shock.
I had been told that humans were incapable of goodness without God; I was told we were depraved, sinful, selfish, base, prideful, foolish, rebellious, wicked... the list goes on. We were worthless and only given value because God chose to forgive us. The reality is, the Bible doesn't claim humans have dignity inherently. It's main premise is that we are evil, but God has mercy on us and gives us worth through his love.
First, I have to say... when I truly stopped believing there was a god, I went through a stage of confusion. I had to reinvent myself and decide what things I really thought were moral and immoral. I had to THINK about everything I'd taken for granted, realizing there wasn't much basis for some of the rules in the Bible. It was slightly distressing, but also very liberating. What was liberated in me, however, was not the sinful wretch I'd always been suppressing. That person doesn't exist inside me, turns out. I didn't suddenly want to run out into debauchery like I'd been told I would. I didn't have the urge to join an orgy, or murder someone, or steal, or lie, or become a drunk... I still wanted to be honest, kind, and considerate of others. I still wanted to have integrity. What's more, I realized I could defend people whom I might not have outright defended because the Bible condemned them. I could love freely! Suddenly, human rights were astonishingly more important to me, for so many reasons!
You talk about human dignity... what better way to offer dignity than to be able to acknowledge that a person is the way they are because they were born that way, and that it's okay. It's okay that someone is homosexual because human biology isn't black and white, and there are different mixtures of hormones, chemicals, and genetics at work in all of us. Who we are isn't cut and dry. We don't have to struggle against our biology because some archaic book tells us the way we are is WRONG. We can accept ourselves and others, and try to build them up. Certainly, it's worth it to improve our behavior and attitudes... but we're NOT broken! We're beautiful, and we are what we are with no one to apologize to.
Perfection is a myth and a trap. If the god of the Bible exists, he set us up for failure. He created us innocent, without knowledge of good and evil, and put a temptation right in front of us while we didn't have the capacity to resist. We had no experience to draw from. Then he blamed us and cursed our children. He was the one who failed to create a "perfect" being that wouldn't disobey him. How can that responsibility be on our shoulders? It's despicable. Dignity could not have come to us through a being like that.
As an atheist, I now realize my life is finite. I have ONE life to live, and that makes is precious and meaningful. I don't have to beat myself up for not being perfect. I can strive to better myself. I give myself worth. I assign meaning to my own life. No one, not even a god, has a right to demean me or insist I apologize for the breath I draw into my lungs. Humans are beautiful, fascinating, awful, talented, mean, complicated creatures... and so are all the other organisms on this planet. Learning about them is so, so much more fulfilling them than damning them.
Thank you. Your reply brought tears to my eyes...really. I'm probably in the stage of confusion that you describe as I am still working in a church, but really feel like a big ol' hypocrite for doing so.
You write: "Humans are beautiful, fascinating, awful, talented, mean, complicated creatures... and so are all the other organisms on this planet. Learning about them is so, so much more fulfilling them than damning them."
I've always felt this way, always, even preaching many sermons saying basically the same thing as above. But then having to follow it with communion, sacrificial language, human failure only redeemed by the death of the god-man. etc...
I just can't do it anymore. It's very distressing.
If I were to say this to my bishop I guarantee the response would be less kind and understanding than what I've found here.
A three yr old can feel empathy for a playmate, a puppy learns it has bitten to hard from the yelps of its litter mate. We learn basic right from wrong very early in life. However, we are taught what is exceptable and unexceptable. Some people are able to keep their empathy and bite inhabition. We think for our selves, we know who we are and how we what to live our lives, we don't all agree, we don't all live our lives in the same way, but we live our lives the best we can. Atheists work, raise families, and hope for a happy retirerment just like anyone else.
Your journey may well lead you toward the philosophy of humanism and the riches of seeing the dignity innate in your fellow man. Morality is not nor ever has been dependent on the influences of a supernatural being. We can all truly be good without god(s). Best wishes as you sort through your thoughts.
Firstly congratulations on what you've done, it isn't an easy thing to question everything you were thought to believe!!
To come to your question it's something I asked myself to and after some time thinking and a few conversations with my biology lecturers (I studied science in college) I came to the conclusion it comes from 2 different sources.
Firstly is humans are tribal creatures, and from this we inherited the ability to be emphatic, we know what hurts us and what hurts other people so tend to avoid doing this within out 'tribes' as its easier to survive and prosper that way. Some what like sexual attraction its hardwired into us but our experiences and how were are nurtured as we grow will have a great affect on the outcome.
Secondly what I believe add's to it is the fact that it can be beneficial in the long run. To put simply why would I hurt someone when, as far I know, he could be the person in a few years who saves my life, my child's life, etc. Its almost akin to being selfish, as the idea is that it will be beneficial to you eventually, but that's kind of irrelevant.
I also believe that atheist have a greater respect and appreciation for life and people than most theist. This is because we believe you have one life and one life only and that everyone deserves equal respect and treatment. Religions often use their doctrines as an excuse to be racist, sexists, etc, but no atheist has this excuse. There's a quote I like to use, "Good people will behave good, bad people will behave bad, but it takes religion to make good people bad".
Hope thats of some help to you!!
Everybody, thank you so much for your thoughful responses. You can't know how much it means to me.
Hi Kevin - another take on morals with Christopher Hitchens esq. The last line is a classic.
There is another great talk on Biblical morality by him:
The images in the videos are extremely fitting
Or Sam Harris on Christian morality:
And then there is Dawkin's awesome takedown of some Muslim preacher, where he explains how secularists get their morals from. He really says it all just two minutes: