How is an Atheist Moral?

Traditional religions claim that the only way to be moral is through belief in some supernatural agency; a god or gods, the cycle of reincarnation or something similar. People without a belief in supernatural agencies must create morals from somewhere else and they might choose some avenues to do this.

The most obvious source of moral value is the idea of the social contract. We act in a certain way to ensure that society does not break down and become lawless. To this end, we codify laws that set boundaries on behavior, and establish institutions to enforce and alter those laws. For the scientifically minded non believer, a source of moral values exists that does not need a supernatural agency at all.

Scientists generally accept the consensus that this universe originated from a singularity, which expanded rapidly and set in motion the forces that would result in stars and their star systems. Most scientists also accept that given the ingredients necessary for life, which is to say in our instance, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and an environment conducive to the evolution of life on this planet, self-replicating life eventually arose. While we may not know the precise mechanism, we do know that about 3.5 billion years ago, self-replicating molecules did exist, as witness the stromatolites of Western Australia.

Life at the level of the primitive single cell has only one reason for existence; to exist for long enough to create copies of itself. If it succeeds at that purpose, it has fulfilled the prerequisites for its own existence. This life can only remain dominant in its original form as long as it has the resources available to continue to replicate. Either there comes a time when it will face competition for resources, predators that will maintain or reduce its population, or it will run out of resources and go extinct.

Human life has evolved from very humble beginnings, as has all life extant on Earth today. In our case, we evolved complex structures to ensure the continuation of our species, as have most animals and plants. We have evolved to the point that we are conscious of our place in the universe and of a social structure that allows us to improve our condition.

Our moral structure extends from this evolutionary process and from our ability to comprehend our place in the universe and especially here on Earth. The reason for our existence has not changed in the 3.5 billion years since life first evolved. Each of us attempts to stay alive long enough to pass on our genes. We are not so much human as a cooperative collection of genes, the purpose of each of which is to ensure its own survival. This is to say that it will pass on its unique genetic structure to the next generation. There is little here that has not been covered comprehensively by evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins.

The question remains, why is this the foundation of a non-religious moral structure? The success of all species depends entirely on the evolutionary strategy that they adopt. Many species find that the most successful strategy is to cooperate to secure the greatest advantage from their environment. The success of this strategy is seen in herding animals like the antelope, elephant and the buffalo, social animals like baboons and communal animals like ants, termites and bees. The plant world has found similar success with trees, ferns and grasses.

Humans became a success because of their social and communal instincts. This enabled them to build cities, create advanced cultures and civilizations. Small, isolated cultures are seldom as successful in the long run at creating great art, music, philosophy, science and mathematics.

This brings us to the reasons we develop moral structures. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution amply show the success of cooperation. Game Theory demonstrates that individuals who “defect”, that is do not cooperate with the group, and try to take more resources for themselves are ultimately punished for their transgression. The alternative is to undermine the stability of society. This is the crux of human morality; we do not act in ways that would lead to our being ostracized from the group, or punished in some way.

There is a direct link between this fundamental understanding and liberal moral values. In order to have a stable society, we need to balance our personal need to live long enough to replicate our genes with the desire of each individual within the group to do the same. Thus, we can be both selfish and individualistic, and cooperative within society. Individuals or groups of individuals that do not recognize this fundamental reality, who try to marginalize other groups or take more than their fair share ultimately cause a breakdown in society. This leads to the great enormities of history, like slavery, the Holocaust, Apartheid, Jim Crowe and other excessive disparities in wealth and power.

True liberal democracy in which each individual is seen to have an equal stake in society is ultimately the most moral course of action. Liberal political and social philosophy recognizes this, where conservative philosophy is “defective”, which is to say, conservatives are more likely to defect, leading ultimately to societal breakdown.

Actions that lead to social, political or environmental destruction become immoral acts because they attack the rights of all life, human or otherwise. Societies in which small groups of people garner all the gifts and advantages of that society are ultimately immoral because they undermine the ability of each individual to live in comfort relative to society and to secure the ability to pass on their genes, or not, as the case may be. The gathering of possessions, whether material or intellectual to small groups also ultimately prejudices the wider society, as well as future generations, and diminishes their right to relative comfort.

The same may be said of the environment. The environment does not exist purely for the personal aggrandizement of small groups of people. Life in its entirety has a stake in the resources of the planet. That stake is threatened by large-scale environmental destruction, as are future generations, both human and non-human. An unwarranted belief in a higher power that will ultimately resolve these problems becomes a threat to the continued existence of all life.

People, especially conservative evangelicals and other religious orders often make the claim that morals come from a higher power. Clearly, that is unnecessary. Far too often, a higher power is used as justification for acts of barbarity or depravity and to advance a personal or social agenda. Religious belief is often the proximate cause of social breakdown rather than its savior.

An atheistic morality based in science and reason is fairer, leading to harmony, a respect for all life, and the preservation of our planet for future generations of life. I will continue to explore this ideology in future posts.

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