Monday, 30 March 2009

Morality without a compass

Posted at Secular Thought For the Day:

We’re often told that atheists have no reason to be good. We have no god-given absolute standard of morality and no fear of eternal punishment, so no reason to act morally. Others have dealt with the absurdity of this position: atheists seem to be as moral as anyone else; no particular brand of believer is a clear winner in the naughty-or-nice stakes; and prisons are lousy with the faithful.

I’m not very interested in these old arguments. My concern here is with the word ‘reason’. When people do good, I’m not sure they think of the reason for it. In religious terms, I doubt they decide to do something good in the hope of reward from god. In secular terms, I doubt they weigh the costs and benefits. We all just do what we feel is right.

We might all rationalise our acts after the fact in terms like this, but I doubt they are our motivations at the time.

I suspect we tend to act morally because we evolved that way. Indeed, what we call moral behaviour tends to be more or less universally agreed, regardless of creed or lack thereof.

The religious often claim that without the threat of divine punishment they’d commit terrible acts. I don’t believe that. Very few people would stop being essentially decent if their belief in god were to evaporate. I think they’d just need to find a new way to rationalise or explain why they do good things without what they previously considered a ‘reason’.

Preferably, they’d lose the idea that there needs to be a reason at all and just carry on trying to be nice to people.

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