God is generally accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be the ultimate source and judge of morality. Some people of faith often look upon we who do not hold their God close to our hearts as being somehow inherently immoral, since we reject that from which morality flows. Many more see our rejection itself as being immoral; we reject that which is intrinsically ‘Good’ therefore we reject ‘Goodness’. I find this particular conviction of the faithful to be morally abhorrent.
Morality is a system of rules for correct conduct. The followers of the Abrahamic divinity point to the Ten Commandments as their exemplar for morality, built upon by Jesus and Mohammed (depending on the faith). George Carlin dismissed with these fabled tablets in an excellent and concise fashion, but for the purposes of this article, in short, the first three are nonsense about fearing the deity, next we have respect for one’s elders, which has little to do with morality, and the rest boil down to fidelity, honesty and murder, which do. These do not require divine inspiration; any society will arrive at some form of this system almost naturally.
An orderly society can only be built if people respect each other’s right to have and maintain property, and the right to live. Without these Commandments are we to believe that everyone would go about their lives arbitrarily stealing and killing? This would be anarchy, and yet the great cities of Mesopotamia, the civilisations of the Yellow River Valley, the Nile, and the Aegean were able to survive and flourish without God telling them how to behave. They may also have invoked the wrath of their gods on those who were immoral and broke laws, but that does not mean that God or gods were the source of their morality. God is merely the guarantor of this particular social contract.
We do not need Commandments. If these were wiped from history the social contract would survive, morality would endure. We would know that it is wrong to murder or to steal, as we can imagine how it would to be to have these things done to us. Quite simply “Do unto to others…” In a civilised, secular world the enforcement of this does not require a deity, simply a justice system, or even a strong sense of societal norms. People often point to, for example, the brutality, use of slavery, and corruption of Roman Empire, the Crusades, or Medieval Europe as being times of great immorality. This is an anachronistic assumption. The brutality of these people was perfectly coherent within their moral structure, and often affirmed by their faith. The sacking of cities, the execution of prisoners or the killing of religious zealots is looked back on with disgust, but were generally socially acceptable at the time. These people were not more primitive than we; they lived in a harsh world and acted in accordance with their traditions, social norms, and often with their faith. They were a moral people, no more than people of today, they just had different morals.
Morality is then a set of rules, largely accepted by a particular society at a specific time, which can evolve as the society or culture develops. It does not require God, or faith. And even then, the morality they preach is a corrupt and repugnant version of morality. To be moral is, basically, to be able to distinguish from right and wrong. Catholicism teaches that in doing ‘Good’, in doing God’s work, the faithful will be rewarded in heaven. This work is taken generally to mean being a loyal subject of the illusory king, converting more souls to join his army of faithful, and expounding his peculiar brand of truth. This is seen to be a morally good life. It is a betrayal. A truly moral or virtuous act is only such if done without the prerequisite stipulation of reward. In effect, you do the Right Thing because it is the right thing to do, not for riches and glory, here or in the ‘afterlife’. The faithful expect, even demand as an article of faith, to be rewarded for their deeds. This might lead one to believe that it is the faithful, not we atheists, who would descend into anarchic and bloody kleptomania without the promise of heaven. To do Good Things, virtuous and moral acts, are rewards in themselves. As Kant said, “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” Converting people, and doing good things for them as a means to your own salvation is a very cynical morality. This is the condition for entrance to heaven: use your fellow man. The ultimate commandment of the Christian God is ‘Fear me, obey me, abuse your fellow man, and I will reward you’.
Atheism and secularism are then exceptionally more moral than any system of faith based on reward. They make no promises of ‘eternal reward’, or for the kind judgement of a fairy-tale king, but ask that we behave towards one another in a civilised fashion, with mutual respect and understanding, and without reference to capricious deities. They exist in the here and now, where actions have permanent and tangible consequences.
Children have to be taught what is right and wrong, and, depending on the time of year, an ultimate sanction, such as the dreaded Santa Claus, may be used to guarantee good behaviour. Fear is an excellent means of controlling the credulous. Adults (should) know what is right and wrong, yet the ultimate sanction still exists in popular culture. Bad people will go to Hell for eternal punishment, and the good will ascend into Heaven for eternal reward. Fear is an excellent means of controlling the credulous.
Grow up. Be moral for your own sake and that of your fellow human individuals, not for Santa Claus, the Bogeyman, or any other such fiction.
Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam