Christians may pretend to think that we atheists are all "this" close to committing rape and murder, but the fact is we don't commit rape and murder, any more than they do.
When people ask "why should atheists be moral?", that is a misleading question. They should really ask, why ARE atheists moral? [Why do they hardly commit rape and murder at all ...?]
Good question. Why.
Why do you, personally, always try and do the right thing? Why do you, personally, sometimes do the wrong thing? Do you go against your own moral code?
Christians seem to spend a lot of time agonising over moral issues. I think that is great. We do the same thing here on Think Atheist. Both Christians and atheists explicitly feature the study of morality as part of their belief systems. I think it's fair to say that the two groups are roughly equal in moral standards and behaviour.
I'm not looking for theories about society or stuff Richard Dawkins says or anything like that. I just want to hear about your personal experiences of yourself. I'm hoping some patterns might emerge. After all, we're all human beings, and there's only a limited number of reasons why we do things.
The reasons I try and do the right thing are probably that: I want a clean conscience and an orderly life. I don't want to s*** in my own bed. I think I derive confidence from feeling I'm doing the right thing morally. I feel empathy for other people and don't want to hurt them unnecessarily. If I love someone, I'll move heaven and Earth for them. If I have a strong belief that something is right, I will aim to uphold that belief.
I would go against some of my normal moral beliefs if I thought it was justified and wouldn't cause too much trouble. There would have to be a very good reason - beyond just getting my end away, for example.
Well since I have no god to give me salvation or devil to give me an excuse. I must be careful how i live and treat people. Can you imagine if I was "immoral" and had to face the truth and responsibility of my behavior, I'd have to admit I was either crazy or a truly bad person or both.
I try to follow the all-encompassing maxim:
"Don't be an asshole"
I try to be moral because I like it to the alternative. I kind of like being the "good guy".
Thank you everyone for your thoughtful answers. This stuff is like gold dust. Keep it coming, I need as much as I can get.
Yes it is an atrocious question to ask - however, it comes with the territory of being an atheist. Even the best-meaning lay-people don't know what binds an atheist to being "good" - and the problem is, there's not much we can say in return at the moment. Let's try and change that, with some systematic research.
I'm finding that many of the answers you're giving are backed up by scientific research I'm reading about - eg. "Wild Justice - The Moral Lives of Animals" by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce. Most of them I've heard before, which is perfect.
I agree that "good" and "bad" - while necessary - are the last judgements to be made, rather than the first. I prefer "look at the results, and then make up your mind".
There are two reasons why I strive to do the 'right thing'.
The first is that I was taught to behave this way, being told to think about how others felt about my actions and how I would feel if others behaved towards me as I behaved towards them. Whenever I interact with others I just automatically think about whether or not the treatment I give them is 'fair' and how I would feel if the situation were reversed.
The second is that I like an 'orderly world'. If I go out killing and blowing things up then I will live in a world of death and destruction - and that is not appealing to me. I think of it as instant karma - people who like to fight live violent lives and killers live with a uniquely poignant understanding of how their own lives could be taken (along with increased risk of their lives being taken during the commission of one of their violent crimes). I have no interest in living that sort of life.
That's about it.
It's fairly simple: If I do bad things to other people why shouldn't they be entitled to do them to me? It's a kind of corollary to the "Golden Rule," which long predates Christianity. Also, I don't want to go to jail.
I base my moral decisions mostly around empathy, I try to help others as much as I can, I try to forgive, I consider myself only a citizen of humanity. I look at every person as a victim to one degree or another, and I try as hard as I can not to victimize others and to empathize with how they feel and understand why. I also think a lot of social morality is just repression and trash. I revel in the primitive pleasures like sex and nature, and intoxication. After all we are animals, and I feel like the goal of religion and fake morality is to rob us of this.
I, like almost everyone I suspect, learned most of my basic morals from my parents. Since then others have affected me. I noted that many Xians are hypocritical so I stopped calling myself Xian. Things progressed from there.
I have realized that "morals" are undependable - based on religious belief they vary with each person. The 9/11 hijackers were moral - according to their own beliefs. And that is the problem.
MikeyMike1 said something similar to my perception of things: we already use "ethics" when discussing "medical ethics" for example to mean a code of behavior based on logic and reason. I suggest we push that change in meaning faster. Make it clear that atheists have ethics not morals and that morals are something bad. Like pointing out the fact about the 9/11 hijackers. Or priests molesting children. These might be excused via some religion's morality but they are unethical (because they hurt others).
I endeavor to be ethical because I find existing morals (religious codes of behavior) repugnant. I do my best not to lie or hurt others. I know it is good to help others. Do I want to do unethical things? Yes but I will not even begin to discuss what. Do I do those things? No for the simple reason that they are wrong.
The meanings are already changing. Languages tend to do this. I am suggesting speading up that change by re-framing the issue. Admit to being immoral but ethical then point out the differences: morals are based on belief and people who are moral are not to be trusted by decent ethical people (who base their behavior on a logical and reasonable code of behavior).
Currently the religious people (and athiests via a lack of response) have the corner on morality which supposedly means good behavior. So the theists excuse their bad behavior while making atheists look worse.
So athiests avoid using the word 'moral' for themselves but would apply it to theists while making it clear being moral is unethical/undesirable/wrong.
Ward - are you saying that morals are beliefs, whereas ethics are behaviour?
Also - the moral beliefs that you seem to profess, are all very general and simple. I personally agree with this policy. To me, this is the is/ought problem. We can specify in advance what we believe, because beliefs are general. We can't specify in advance what we will do, because real-world situations are too messy and variable to be able to generalise about.
What if we can find moral beliefs which are based on logic and reason?
Then they are ethical positions based on logic and reason, not moral 'beliefs.' 'Belief' by definition implies lack of evidence. Once there is evidence, belief becomes irrelevant.
I can 'believe' it is wrong to steal because I have been told it is wrong without having any understanding of why, or how it hurts others, or what the real consequences are. Once I do understand why, and I see what the real consequences are, I no longer have to 'believe' it is wrong, I know it is wrong. A moral belief based on uncertainty (or authority) has been replaced by an ethical position based on logic and reason.
Incidentally, it is also via logic and reason that we can know ethically that sometimes, a 'moral wrong' is ethically right. Stealing food if it is the only possible way to feed yourself or others - it is still morally wrong, but not ethically. Ethics require independent, critical thinking; morals, as beliefs independent of evidence, do not.