Where do atheists go for moral guidance?

Recently, primate biologist Frans de Waal, author of the excellent book The Age of Empathy, wrote a piece for the New York Times asking if morals are possible without religion.

Much of the piece echos the argument in his book that since the building blocks for morality–empathy and a sense of fairness–are present in primates and other mammals, they must have predated the origin of modern religion.

We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

However, de Waal goes on to argue, the instinct towards assisting others is not enough to be considered a moral being. True morality requires a logically coherent system of justification, monitoring and punishment, and this is where religion steps in. Asking questions about good and evil in the abstract is a solely human characteristic and finding the answers is not something that science alone can help us with, he says.

The problem with atheism, according to the author, is that it doesn’t offer a replacement for this system of moral guidance traditionally offered by religion. The removal of religion would not result in anarchy and total selfishness, as some have claimed, but the framework for deciding these abstract ethical questions would be gone.

…What would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good.

I find two assumptions in this argument to be problematic. The first is that religion actually provides worthwhile moral guidance. There are certainly examples of religious teachings that I consider to be ethical. The Sermon on the Mount is the first example that jumps to mind. But it is equally true that there are religious teachings that many people would find morally abhorrent. The Bible justifies slavery, the Koran makes allowances for spousal abuse, and the Bhagavad Gita lays out the reasons for the caste system.

And those are just the teachings encoded in religious texts. The name of religion is used every day by powerful men and women to encourage their followers in all manner of unethical behavior. From genocide to female genital mutilation to torture, religion pops up again and again as a justification for atrocities against human rights, so how can we claim that it has some sort of privileged place as the well-spring of morality?

Some will say that these cases are perversions of the true teachings or that you have to look at religious texts from a historical perspective, but if that is the case, than the true determination of the moral guidance on offer is made through human logic, not by divine gift.

The second problematic assumption from de Waal’s article is that atheists suggest turning to science for ethical instruction. The majority of the non-religious I know revere science and empirical knowledge, but it is not their moral compass. Science can provide the answers about why things are the way they are and it can inform decisions about how things should be, but it cannot make them for you.

For example, atheists are often split on the issues of whether abortion should be allowed, how late it should be allowed and under what circumstances. We can look to biology for answers about fetal development, we can look to sociology for statistics about maternal mortality and quality of life, and we can look to genetics for the likelihood of the baby being born with defects, but the final determination is made on a personal level, using the same gut instinct for fairness that de Waal finds in his primate subjects to balance the rights of the mother against the rights of the fetus.

It’s not that atheists have no framework for deciding moral questions, but that their framework is based on empathy, social mores, logic and humanist philosophy rather than a single book or the opinion of a religious leader. Frankly, I think an approach that requires this level of thought and introspection is more likely to reach an ethical conclusion that one where you simply follow instructions laid out thousands of years ago.

De Waal says it is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion because our culture is too completely steeped in it, and maybe that is true in terms of completely escaping the influence of religion, but I hope we will one day have a society where moral choices are informed by the best all religious philosophies have to offer without being restricted by the worst.


3 responses to “Where do atheists go for moral guidance?

  1. Pingback: Moral guidance | Billpearson

  2. I think that much of the time religious rules of moral behaviour are simply codifying the behaviours which are inherent because they are evolved. I doubt that religion ever stopped someone who was bent on murder, nor made a kind benefactor out of someone who wasn’t independently inclined towards benevolence. But religion is a nice ex post facto justification for whatever you were going to do anyway.

    • Exactly. Which is why it always confuses me when people conflate atheism with amorality at worst and hedonism at best. Just because I don’t believe in an old white guy with a beard looking down on me doesn’t mean I’ve lost the ability for empathy and sense of fairness I was raised with.

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