Atheists are often accused by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims of taking away the ability of people to consider anything morally right or wrong. These believers think that without belief in their God, everyone will act far worse.
They argue that people can only say that something is right or wrong if they believe in the God of Abraham, and that we follow the code of what this deity told us was moral and immoral. They claim that without following the laws of God, moral values are chosen subjectively by humans and that what is right or wrong depends entirely on each individual’s opinion. Thus they say that following the laws of God gives us objective morality and results in peace and happiness, while atheism gives us moral relativism and results in chaos and evil.
Their comment usually appears something like this:
“If there is no god then only humans choose morals. That means there would be no objective right and wrong because it would only depend on each individual’s opinion. That’s moral relativism!”
So let’s address the issues with this argument one by one.
The purpose of morality
The first issue that needs to be cleared up is what morality even is, since the whole issue hinges upon it.
Morality is the term for our attempt to maximize happiness and minimize suffering. That is why we are so concerned about it. It is the attempt to reduce people’s behaviors that cause suffering by classifying different behaviors as desirable or undesirable.
“Good” and “bad” are subjective notions defined by us according to what is desirable or undesirable; what yields happiness or causes suffering. So to a certain extent relativism is the actual nature of all morality.
Morality based on God is neither objective nor good
Morality is not absolute or objective if it is subjective to God’s will. That is still relatavism. In such a case, morality is subjective to that being’s opinion at any given time. Objective morality would be morality that is universal and above God. This means the existence of God is irrelevant to whether objective morals can exist or not.
If you argue that only God’s will is what decides what is right or wrong, then you are detaching the very meaning of morality from human suffering. What is good today can be evil tomorrow, and no actions have any inherent reason for being considered good or bad.
Do you think that it is possible for murder and rape to just be turned into good things simply by a single command? If you believe that morals only come from God then yes, you believe that.
Look at how God’s devoted followers acted in the Bible. Actions and what harm they would cause were meaningless. All that mattered was whether God said to do it or not – including the slaughter of infants, to the keeping of slaves, to Abraham being hailed as a role model for being willing to murder his own child for no reason other than a demand from authority.
That is the height of barbarism and immorality.
Good morality comes from community and human nature
Now, how do we define right and wrong if there is no god?
People try to build our ideas of morality on fairness and how we want to be treated, because that’s the surest way for a community to succeed and eliminate suffering – including for ourselves. This leads to morals that are more “objective” than a single being deciding what is moral or not, because people usually have similar feelings about how they want to be treated. So they seek fairness and improved conditions for more people when more people have a say in determining ethical standards.
And what about our feelings themselves? From where do they arise? As social creatures, these feelings are the result of evolution by natural selection. It has produced our natural inclination to solve problems, to care for and protect ourselves and our communities, and to alleviate hunger and pain.
So what is most important to remember is that atheists must judge morality by human standards, not “God’s mysterious ways”. Secular morality must be based on what makes humanity happier – not on what makes God happier or what an individual believer just feels that God wants.
This means that only secular morals can even be called moral or relevant to humanity.