Buckle up, guys. This is a long one.
In my time since choosing the label of atheist and rejecting the doctrines of my youth, I find myself drawn to studying atheism with all of the furor that I committed to my Christian upbringing so many years ago.
As I once dogeared my Bible, reading, highlighting, taking notes, I now do the same to texts that I encounter. I scour the web for articles. I watch YouTube videos. My husband laughs at me when I scribble on furiously, but I feel like after a lifetime of only hearing one side of this story, I need to take in the other side as quickly and completely as I can.
One concept consistently comes up: Can I, as an atheist, be considered a moral person?
To this, I'd like to say: Absolutely. Without a doubt.
First, let's discuss "objective morality".
Apparently, in some circles "objective morality" is something that can only come from God, and yet, we know that this is still influenced by humanity. For instance, there are Bible verses that would seem to indicate that God believes a woman ought to marry her rapist, and I think we can all agree that that is a big fat dose of NOPE.
Judges 21 would seem to indicate that God okayed wholesale slaughter and the taking of women as unwilling wives.
"So they sent twelve thousand warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children. "This is what you are to do," they said. "Completely destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin." Among the residents of Jabesh-gilead they found four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan." "The Israelite assembly sent a peace delegation to the little remnant of Benjamin who were living at the rock of Rimmon. Then the men of Benjamin returned to their homes, and the four hundred women of Jabesh-gilead who were spared were given to them as wives.
But there were not enough women for all of them. The people felt sorry for Benjamin because the LORD had left this gap in the tribes of Israel. So the Israelite leaders asked, "How can we find wives for the few who remain, since all the women of the tribe of Benjamin are dead? There must be heirs for the survivors so that an entire tribe of Israel will not be lost forever. But we cannot give them our own daughters in marriage because we have sworn with a solemn oath that anyone who does this will fall under God's curse."
"Then they thought of the annual festival of the LORD held in Shiloh, between Lebonah and Bethel, along the east side of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem. They told the men of Benjamin who still needed wives, "Go and hide in the vineyards. When the women of Shiloh come out for their dances, rush out from the vineyards, and each of you can take one of them home to be your wife! And when their fathers and brothers come to us in protest, we will tell them, 'Please be understanding. Let them have your daughters, for we didn't find enough wives for them when we destroyed Jabesh-gilead. And you are not guilty of breaking the vow since you did not give your daughters in marriage to them.'" So the men of Benjamin did as they were told. They kidnapped the women who took part in the celebration and carried them off to the land of their own inheritance. Then they rebuilt their towns and lived in them. So the assembly of Israel departed by tribes and families, and they returned to their own homes."
It would seem that Judges 11 okays keeping a vow to God that involved burning a young woman alive.
"At that time the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he went throughout the land of Gilead and Manasseh, including Mizpah in Gilead, and led an army against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. He said, "If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the LORD the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."
"So Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave him victory. He thoroughly defeated the Ammonites from Aroer to an area near Minnith – twenty towns – and as far away as Abel-keramim. Thus Israel subdued the Ammonites. When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter – his only child – ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. "My daughter!" he cried out. "My heart is breaking! What a tragedy that you came out to greet me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and cannot take it back." And she said, "Father, you have made a promise to the LORD. You must do to me what you have promised, for the LORD has given you a great victory over your enemies, the Ammonites. But first let me go up and roam in the hills and weep with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin."
"You may go," Jephthah said. And he let her go away for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never have children. When she returned home, her father kept his vow, and she died a virgin. So it has become a custom in Israel for young Israelite women to go away for four days each year to lament the fate of Jephthah's daughter."
He also commands the sacrifice of nonbelievers in Deuteronomy 13.
"Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods. In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully. If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock. Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it. Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God. That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt. Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction. Then the LORD will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you. He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors. "The LORD your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him."Judges 1 is one of many passages that condones slavery and murder.
The tribe of Benjamin, however, failed to drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem. So to this day the Jebusites live in Jerusalem among the people of Benjamin. The descendants of Joseph attacked the town of Bethel, and the LORD was with them. They sent spies to Bethel (formerly known as Luz), who confronted a man coming out of the city. They said to him, "Show us a way into the city, and we will have mercy on you." So he showed them a way in, and they killed everyone in the city except for this man and his family. Later the man moved to the land of the Hittites, where he built a city. He named the city Luz, and it is known by that name to this day. The tribe of Manasseh failed to drive out the people living in Beth-shan, Taanach, Dor, Ibleam, Megiddo, and their surrounding villages, because the Canaanites were determined to stay in that region.
When the Israelites grew stronger, they forced the Canaanites to work as slaves, but they never did drive them out of the land. The tribe of Ephraim also failed to drive out the Canaanites living in Gezer, and so the Canaanites continued to live there among them. The tribe of Zebulun also failed to drive out the Canaanites living in Kitron and Nahalol, who continued to live among them. But they forced them to work as slaves. The tribe of Asher also failed to drive out the residents of Acco, Sidon, Ahlab, Aczib, Helbah, Aphik, and Rehob. In fact, because they did not drive them out, the Canaanites dominated the land where the people of Asher lived. The tribe of Naphtali also failed to drive out the residents of Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath. Instead, the Canaanites dominated the land where they lived. Nevertheless, the people of Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath were sometimes forced to work as slaves for the people of Naphtali. As for the tribe of Dan, the Amorites forced them into the hill country and would not let them come down into the plains. The Amorites were determined to stay in Mount Heres, Aijalon, and Shaalbim, but when the descendants of Joseph became stronger, they forced the Amorites to work as slaves.Slavery is also allowed in Leviticus.
However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.Sex slavery is clear here in Exodus.
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. And if the slave girl's owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter. If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife. If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any paymentYou are okay to strike your slave according to Exodus 21--just don't kill them.
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.The New Testament isn't much better. From Ephesians:
When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.And from I Timothy:
Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them.I think we can all agree that slavery, rape, and murder are wrong. We'd probably go so far as to say, if you invade another land and slaughter its people so that you may possess it, that's wrong too. And yet, here we have examples from the Bible were such actions are perfectly moral and unimpeachable.
So, to be entirely truthful, I have an issue with the idea that God is an arbiter of objective morality. In the Bible, he is portrayed, himself, as jealous and wrathful, often to the point of being petty. That's the farthest from objectivity that I believe one can get.
The idea that morality is based on actions that don't harm others is problematic.
Richard Deem of Evidence for God presented several ideas in a blog post a few years ago that he believed proved that Christians were more moral than Atheists. He presented his findings from the Barna Group, which is a respected consulting firm that deals with the intersection of faith and culture.
According to Deem, atheists are less moral because in the Barna study they admitted that they had committed the following acts during the previous week at a higher rate than believers:
- Viewing pornography
- Speaking profanity in public
- Having sex with non-spouse
- Being drunk
And yet, Deem never questions this data. Is it, perchance, that Christians were more likely to downplay their own shortcomings than atheists?
Barna conducted the survey by randomly calling people, and yet, we now have startling proof that people lie more profusely during telephone surveys, as evidenced in this poll about church attendance.
According to Deem:
The teachings of the Bible emphasize values such as honesty, love, forgiveness, sexual fidelity, patience, and generosity. In addition, all Christian denominations strongly discourage negative behaviors, such as fornication, profanity, gambling, gossiping, retaliation, drunkenness, and lying.Deem is not incorrect, but as we've already addressed, using the Bible as the ultimate authority on objective morality is not without its own host of issues.
The real problem that I see is that in the eight moral transgressions that Deem highlights, only one actually impacts other people materially--retaliation--and one may affect them emotionally--gossipping. He chooses to believe that morality is defined by some third party, and so these acts are immoral, regardless of whether they do harm or not.
Personally, most atheists I have run across define morality in terms of minimizing pain and harm. It's really quite an Eastern philosophy in that respect, and while no one I have run across has yet to go so far as sweeping the ground before them to make sure they don't step on bugs, the idea of "do no harm" is very prominent. It does not take a third party to tell you to be moral when you put, at the focus of your existence, the idea of living your life and allowing others to live theirs.
Deem also writes:
The data calls into question the atheists' claim that moral choices are deterministic and the people do not have the ability to exercise free will. If human behavior were merely a combination of genes and biochemistry, then beliefs would have no effect on moral choices.I also question this on the basis that I have literally never encountered an atheist that said anything remotely to the effect that free will doesn't exist. Of course people can make choices, and those choices can be moral or immoral. The question is whether they are actually moral, which I define as choices that do no harm, or perceived immoral, which I define as choice that do no harm and yet are still seen as immoral.
Good morals and objective morality are bullshit.
Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry writes:
First I need to clarify that atheists can be morally good. They can even be people of integrity. But that isn't the issue. Having good morals doesn’t mean you have objective morals. One atheist’s good morals might only be coincidentally consistent with true objective morality where another atheist’s isn’t.We've already discussed objective morality. Slick's claim that morals are relative is true. What Slick fails to mention is that those morals are relative among Christians also.
Take homosexuality. We are at the crux of a battle for marriage equality that centers entirely around what role a secular state plays in moral issues. On the one hand, we have many Christian groups that decry homosexuality as a sin, objectively immoral no matter what. On another, we have secularists that say morality has no place in our laws. And on yet another, we have Christians that agree either that homosexuality is not a sin or that the law should not legislate morality. So even on this issue, which most in the first category consider cut and dry, there's a wide range of attitudes among Christians. Currently in North Carolina, there's a lawsuit sponsored by the United Church of Christ challenging the state's same-sex marriage ban on the grounds that it interferes with the church's religious freedom. Because they do not believe homosexuality is wrong, they believe they should be able to marry their parishioners who are in same sex-unions.
There's also this idea, that I addressed in an earlier post, that Bible-only morality itself leaves a wide range of options open. The piece focused on the idea that 80% of evangelical young people are having premarital sex, something that has been a sexual taboo for millennia. In fact, you'll notice that having sex with a non-spouse made it onto Deem's list above, but we'll forgive him for that oversight--he wrote that post presumably in 2008, before this research was available. The churches I grew up in decried premarital sex. It was likened to fire--if you have fire in places it does not belong, it's a bad thing. If you have it where it does belong, it is a good thing. So on this issue, too, the range of attitudes among Christians regarding what is moral and immoral is staggering.
Divorce is supposed to be frowned upon, and yet we've seen just recently that many Christians divorce more often than those the express nonbelief.
Moral relativism, then, isn't just a liberal or atheistic principle. It's a human one.
I don't understand the tendency to try to differentiate between being "good" and being "good enough for God". If a person is good, then why are you questioning their ability to be good? The scriptures themselves indicate that you can only know the true character of a person by the fruit that they bear. If the fruit is good, then why continue to question the tree?
The idea that atheists can't be moral is downright insulting.
Slick finishes his piece with this comment:
So, after an economic meltdown when an armed stranger is approaching you on a dark road and you are taking food home to your hungry family, who would you rather the stranger be: a Christian who believes stealing is wrong and that God is watching or the atheist who sees a need and points his gun at you as he adapts his ethics to suit the moment?I'm going to start by countering it with a question: If someone's a true follower of Christ, wouldn't they offer a hungry person, following an economic meltdown, some food they were blessed enough to avoid? If the concept is "to whom much is given, much is expected", what would be expected of them in this scenario?
Slick argues that relative values can "become self-contradictory", and yet in his closing argument, creates a contradiction.
The idea that atheists are out to hurt you or kill you or whatever simply because their morals don't align with yours is insulting. Throughout human history, with and without the Abrahamic god, there has been a general consensus that we don't kill without reason. In fact, we jump through hoops to justify war and sacrifice because the "do not kill" is so deeply rooted.
If atheistic morals are so relative, one would expect that the prison populations would bear that out, and yet the data that we do have (while plagued with issues) would seem to indicate the contrary.
And so yes, I still consider myself entirely capable of being a moral person.
As an atheist, I look at that question that I posed in the introduction different. Instead of "Can I be considered a moral person?", I see, "What does morality look like for me now?"
In some ways, I consider myself more capable of being moral than ever before. Doing good for the sake of doing good is better for me, personally, than being good because someone is always watching.
Every action that I take, I choose for myself. I determine what sort of person I will be, not because I am fearful of an afterlife, but because I am treasuring every moment of this life. I look forward to chance to bring joy to others because I know that such chances are limited.
One day I will die. There will be nothing afterwards, but I will go knowing that have lived every day of this life knowing that I tried to make it the best possible.