Morality: “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya (from ‘The Princess Bride’)
The idea that the only objective viewpoint available on the issue of “morality” must come from some “divine” source would be laughable if it didn’t influence people’s opinions about atheists. The majority of people around the world who are religious tend to lack trust in atheists and think we have a totally subjective moral set that’s led us ALL to Nihilism or Egoism. They believe that we ALL take the view of; “If it’s good to you then it’s fine with me”, and all the while the vast majority of atheists have embraced the ideology of Humanism and are some of the most objectively “ethical” and “moral” people one could ever meet.
Definitions do not Change Based on Personal Interpretations.
One of the biggest issues here is the idea of “objectivity” versus “subjectivity”, and if I’m going to address the issue at all, then we must be clear on the definitions of the terms so we’re all on the same page.
Objectivity comes from the root word objective, which when used as an adjective, as it is here, means “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased” (source: Merriam Webster Dictionary). In simpler terms, it means to examine something not based on how it affects you, but rather how it affects others. Having this perspective relies on two things: empathy, and rational thought. This means that in order to truly be “objective,” any “moral” idea must be about what is best for ALL individuals and it must make rational sense. If either of those are missing, then the bias behind the idea will most likely be very obvious, and this is where ideas that are misogynistic, racist or homophobic arise and are labeled as “moral”, when in fact they are the farthest thing from “moral” or “objective”.
The theist makes some very bad assumptions to get to this point of parading misogyny and other bigoted ideas as being “moral.” First, of course, is the assumption a “god” exists at all, because without that assumption they can’t even get started. Secondly, they assume this god is benevolent and infallible, so any “law” he gives man is “moral,” even if it is bigoted or detrimental to individuals. This is more than just a bit subjective in saying “anything God says goes.” Lastly, they mistakenly assume that God is the one who informed the men who wrote the doctrines as to what is “right or wrong”, or “moral.” The reality is that when we look at these doctrines, what we are seeing is the personal bias of men from a bygone era that wanted to make it a crime against God to disobey them, and so scare as many as they could into being their own personal sheep.
Is There such a thing as Objective “Morality” at All?
This is the real question that I believe we are all struggling with these days. Most of us look at atrocities in other nations and around the world in general and our hearts ache for those affected…but can we judge? Do we have the right to judge? Can we offer a truly objective perspective from which any judgment can be arrived? All I can offer to answer that is MY perspective, and although I don’t speak for all atheists, I think my argument here is sound;
I believe we can judge and I believe there is a “Moral High Ground.” I think that anyone who is willing to apply empathy and reason to the issue will come to a truly objective “moral” stance on all the biggest issues such as murder, rape and theft. All anyone has to do is ask some simple questions:
- Do I want this to happen to me? (this is a purely subjective idea, BUT it invokes empathy in us).
- Does ANYONE want this to happen to them? (this is where empathy is necessary, because we know WE don’t want it to happen to us, and we can also say with a fair degree of certainty that no one else does either).
- Does this action violate another person, either mentally or physically, or impede their continued existence? (this is the point of true objectivity, when we have no focus on ourselves but are instead evaluating a situation outside of our own personal feelings. It isn’t about us…it’s about the next individual).
This is how I personally come to an objective “moral” stance on any issue. This is why I say, “Murder is wrong, no matter what cultural norms dictate. It is wrong to rob someone of their life.” This is not only how I arrive at MY “moral” dictum, but also how MOST humanists arrive at a similar conclusion. The fact that some cultures have not arrived at the same conclusion does not impede my conclusion being objectively “right” and for me to examine what takes place in those cultures and say that they are objectively “wrong”. But, I stress that I am not the voice of all atheism or humanism, and that this is simply the method I use.
We all Judge…The Question is Can You Stand by that Judgement Under Scrutiny?
We all do it, folks. We all look at the next man or woman and their deeds and even if we don’t speak a word of what we think…we’ve all made a judgment on those deeds. The question is whether or not that judgment is objective and whether it will stand up to scrutiny. If that judgement is based on our personal bias it will never stand up to scrutiny.
Let me offer an example:
Many Islamic cultures embrace the idea of “honor killing,” where if a member of a family (usually a female) does something, which “shames” the family (really just the men…sorry but it’s a VERY misogynistic religion and culture), that person is killed. Now, any Muslim on the planet is welcome to argue their side on the issue all they want, but OBJECTIVELY—that act is “morally” wrong, and honestly it’s barbaric and disgusting as well. There isn’t an objective justification for murder. PERIOD. There simply can’t be. Discipline and punishment for actual crimes is one thing, but those acts should be justifiable against the offense. Being put to death for appearing in public with a man that isn’t a direct relative IS NOT justifiable. It’s murder any way you slice it.
There are of course people who disagree with me, and for the foreseeable future, there will be for a long time. But there is a beautiful thing happening all over this planet, which is that more and more people DO agree with me and many other humanists like myself. They’ve begun to agree with us because we keep presenting the most valid and rational case possible and they see the need for our preconceptions about “morality” to evolve. They see the failure of all these subjective and biased “moral” propositions, many of which are born from religion.
“So Mr. Atheist…You Think You’ve Got it All Figured out then, Huh?”
I really DON’T have it all figured out. I’m just one person and what we’re looking at is bigger than any one person. But I think I’m on the right track, and I think the more people who get on the same page and offer some more constructive thought, we can really get somewhere. I truly hope that “somewhere” we get to is a place where all people can enjoy freedom and happiness. And I want people to know that most of us atheists are great people… just like most people in general. We DO have “morality,” and we want it to be as objective as possible. And I want everyone to know that they CAN trust us and that we are trustworthy. I’m not going to rape or murder anyone just because I don’t have a book to tell me not to. I’m not going to do those things, because I don’t want to hurt ANYONE, not ever…and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure I don’t hurt anyone.
Despite any differences, theological or otherwise, I love my fellow human beings…
Even if I don’t “like” you.