How Can You Be Moral If You Don't Believe in God?

It can be easy.

Posted Aug 23, 2019

According to international surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, most people around the world think that morality depends upon belief in God. It doesn’t. In fact, any morality that depends upon belief in God is inherently unsound.

Allow me to explain.

First, there is simply no evidence that an all-powerful, all-knowing, supernatural, magical being that dwells outside of time and space and yet somehow created time and space and controls everything and yet can’t stop earthquakes or malaria from killing people or can stop them but chooses not to for reasons that make no moral sense – exists. Zero. All attempts to prove the existence of such an unfathomable, incomprehensible deity are merely fallacious appeals to ignorance.

Second, even if an abundance of physical evidence was amassed that proved, beyond a shadow of an empirical doubt that a magical, immaterial, universe-creating deity does in fact exist – no one can agree on what this God wills, wants, or commands. For us mere mortals, interpreting this God’s moral code is nearly impossible, with conflicting versions constantly abounding.

Such has been the story of religious morality from its inception: this sect interpreting God’s will one way, this sect interpreting it another, and yet another sect with another interpretation. And such is still the reality today among the world’s people who are absolutely convinced that God is real: None of them can agree on even the most basic moral questions of daily life.

Third, even if the existence of God was absolutely proven, and even if the problem of differing interpretations could be readily resolved – that is, even if we could all suddenly agree on what God wills, wants, or commands because we all started receiving the exact same text messages from God every single morning, with crystal clear wording, telling is all what He requires of us – such a situation would actually destroy morality because it would render it merely a matter of blind, iron-clad obedience.

We would suddenly be in the position of simply following the orders of our All-Powerful Master. We would be reduced to amoral robots, merely doing what we are told. And once you add threats of hell or promises of heaven into the picture, things only get worse: Now we are being childishly obedient out of fear or a desire to be rewarded. Being obedient in such a way is not being moral. In fact, it constitutes an abdication of moral responsibility, a negligent stymieing and snuffing out of ethical deliberation, a cowardly flight from figuring out for ourselves what we ought to do. It amounts to moral outsourcing, par excellence.

So where does our morality come from then, if not faith in God?

First, our morality comes from millions of years of evolutionary development as social primates, during which we lived in small groups, and survival depended upon helping out, being mindful of others, honest, trustworthy, altruistic, and cooperative. This long evolutionary history of social existence endowed us with brains that have a heightened capacity for empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

While there is a range among us -- to be sure -- most of us are readily able to understand and even feel the suffering of others. We know what it is like to be cold, hungry, or scared: not pleasant. And we are capable of responding to suffering accordingly.

Second, our moral inclinations are grounded in our earliest experiences of being cared for as infants.

Third, our morality develops in accordance with the people who raised us as we grew up – parents, extended family, teachers, neighbors, etc.

Fourth, or morality is heavily shaped by our surrounding culture and society.

And finally, our morality is honed and nurtured through ongoing personal experience, reflection, and reason.

      To be moral is fairly clear cut. It entails not causing unnecessary pain, harm, or suffering to humans and other animals; easing or relieving the pain or suffering of humans and other animals; offering various forms of help and assistance to those who need or seek it; comforting and tending to those who are vulnerable or weak; striving to make those around us feel supported and safe; working to increase health, happiness, and well-being in our families, communities, and society at large; working to increase fairness and justice, locally and globally; being empathetic and compassionate; being honest, conscientious, and caring; being altruistic; treating people the way in which we ourselves would want to be treated.

None of these require a supernatural deity. None require faith in God.

Rather, they are grounded in our evolved social nature, they grow out of our interactions with others, they dwell in our consciences, in our guts, in our minds, in our hearts, and in our shared attempts – floundering though they be -- to make the world a better place.

For further explanation and elaboration upon the evolutionary, psychological, philosophical, sociological, historical, political, and personal aspects of our moral lives, please see my new book What It Means to be Moral.