Every now and then, I come across someone wondering in honest confusion, “How can a person have any morals without believing in God?” I’ve asked several of them to expand on why they think without God a person would conclude that murder’s an okay thing to do, and it seems to boil down to a couple of ideas, depending which flavor of religion they’ve gotten. First, that morals are rules God made up so where else would we get them; and second, that without fear of God’s vengeance, why would one do the right thing?
Here’s the answer: morality is practical. Even in religions, the vast majority of rules and regulations are amazingly pragmatic in societies where people feel “If you can do A to me, then I can do A back to you or someone you love.” And that’s pretty much every human society ever, because that seems to be how we’re designed to think.
- If I murder your brother, you’ll feel entitled to murder me or someone I love. Oops – now killing him doesn’t sound so good.
- If I steal from you, you’ll steal from me.
- If it’s okay for me to lie to you, you’re entitled to lie to me, and how will I ever know what to believe?
- If I bring dishonor to my family, they won’t be able to provide so well for me, so it’s in my own best interest not to bring shame on them.
- In ancient times, homosexuality must have seemed deeply impractical, as there weren’t so many of us and a tribe’s strength was based largely on numbers.
- Several non-kosher animals (pigs, shellfish, etc.) are animals from which humans frequently get food poisoning unless you really clean and cook them well. Interestingly, as our understanding of how to clean and cook food well enough to prevent poisoning has improved, the number of people who follow the kosher dietary laws has decreased.
- In times when there was no protection against pregnancy or STDs (I’m assuming STDs have always been around?), picking one mate and sticking to them was a sensible idea compared to sleeping around willy nilly. In fact, sleeping around in a completely thoughtless way is still impractical for the same reasons: it’s only different if you make responsible choices about how you do it.
And so on. You can believe murder’s wrong because you were taught so, or because you’ve considered the long-range consequences – the escalation in violence could even lead to a war – and realized it’s just not worth it. Granted, every old religion contains some rules that sound pretty esoteric now – even to followers. But there are some pretty weird laws on the government books, too, and yet we manage somehow.
Interestingly, I think practicality is why no old religion I know of really had a problem with men raping women and children. Because women and children were property rather than people, they gained no entitlement to revenge upon being wronged. Therefore, whatever was done to them remained invisible and unimportant. Oh, if you raped another man’s property (woman or child) and thereby reduced its trade value, that man was entitled to compensation in the form of money or replacement humans or camels or whatnot. And sadly, long before women and children began to be thought of as human in their own right, we had switched over to law and order. Now revenge is illegal, and we have to rely on the state for justice. The state realizes how wrong murder is because the consequences – up to and including full-scale war – have been seen over and over. But the state doesn’t get what’s so bad about rape because the consequences have always fallen on the victims and never the perpetrators.
It is for this reason I actually think morals arrived at from practical considerations tend to be better than morals inherited from a religion. The pragmatic moralist realizes, say, that overpopulation is a bad ideas, even if God never mentioned it (the very idea was inconceivable in ancient times). The pragmatic moralist doesn’t shrug and assume God would’ve left instructions for dealing with overpopulation if we were supposed to do anything about it. She looks forward and sees when our numbers will become unsustainable. She looks for solutions instead of assuming God will take care of it. She recognizes that religious anti-birth control morals came into being in a time when there weren’t that many of us, and in no way does that apply to today, so birth control must be considered as a moral solution to us destroying ourselves through overpopulation.
And if you believe He gave us our brains, you should consider that maybe thinking is exactly what He wanted us to do with them.