One of the enduring myths about religion and atheism is the idea that morality is permanently grounded in the former, that a life without a weekly prayer session is one with a morass of anything from moral relativism to unending evil. The idea, that is to say, that you cannot spell ‘good’ without ‘God.’
Before we address this issue, lets examine the notion of ‘good with god’ or what I see as the basis for religious ethics. Most religious ethics are based on the idea of there being some sort of heavenly tribunal watching for infractions of God’s laws, with those who stray being subjected to some sort of fitting punishment. To what degree the punishment takes depends on the interpretation. Some limit themselves to a vague idea of perpetual torture after death, while others have faith in immediate divine intervention.
Obviously, atheists do not subscribe to this belief. And yet, many atheists manage to be good people.
Not only do these ethics depend on the existence of a divine judgment, this notion approaches ethics in a top down manner. This type of religious morality asks that people do good not because it’s kind of a nice thing to do, but because, if you don’t, a gigantic omnipotent hand in the sky is going to lay a divine smackdown on you. The divine power’s opinion seems to matter more than yours.
Yet, despite millennia of religious commandments demanding that we stop it, humanity continues to cheat, steal, murder, covet their neighbours’ spouses, lie, commit adultery et cetera. While it’s certainly a possibility that these people are all being immersed in lakes of boiling oil after their death, there is no immediate, visible reaction to immorality. The cosmic police seem, for all intents and purposes, to be asleep on the job.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of motivation, then, to act like a good person. But we continue to live in a society with a lot of good people in it, regardless of their religious orientation, even though there are not lightning strikes on petty thieves. I would argue that ‘religious ethics’ is far less important as a system of how to be a good person than it is as a system of why you should be one, and that this system is more based on retribution than it is on inherent goodness. An atheist does away with that idea of retribution. Since there’s no hell to burn in after committing some great sin, it’s a lot more reasonable to just not commit that sin because, well, it’s kinda nice. Atheist moralists concern themselves with their actions; religious moralists concern themselves with God’s reaction. One has an eye on the here and now; one has an eye on the hereafter. After all, why should we be told to do good?
One Less God is a twice-monthly column on atheist communities and philosophy. Harmon Moon is a U2 History student and VP External of the McGill Freethought Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.