I have been conversing with three different bloggers on this very topic lately. One was arguing about Secularism, another was discussing the case of that bake shop that refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, and the third was discussing freewill and the lack of divine interaction in our lives. Those are all very different topics. But they all had one thing in common: they all made some comment on morality being dependent on religion, and, in particular, on Christianity.
But how much truth is in that claim? Do we need religion, or faith, or god, to be good? I would say no. I am an atheist. I have been for ten years now. I have donated teddy bears to women’s shelters, I have donated clothes, I have collected cans to donate to the food bank, I have volunteered my time. Would anybody out there say that I am a bad person? I would question the motives of any person who would. But this alone is not enough to prove that one does not need religion to be good.
So what would prove it? Morality is highly subjective. What one person claims to be moral another may say is immoral. Murder is often used to show that morality is objective, but there are different standers as to what constitutes murder in different places. In some cases, such as where the military is concerned, killing another human is seen as acceptable. So what a Christian may consider good, an atheist may not. Does this mean that we need god to be good? No. That Christian may say yes, but not everybody would agree. In fact, I believe that the majority would disagree.
So can I be good without god? I don’t think that there is a scientific way to prove this one way or the other, but philosophy will offer a method for me to research both. According to Consequentialism, the consequences of my actions determines whether they are morally permissible. When I donated teddy bears, I offered comfort to children who had no home. When I donated clothes, I prevented waste from being added to landfills and ensured that somebody would have good clothes to wear. When I collected cans, I helped ensure that someone would have a meal. When I volunteer, I make sure that some opportunity is available that would not otherwise be available. The consequences of these actions are all a net positive. This does not make me an overall good person: I could do more things that are morally impermissible. But it does suggest that I am capable of doing good things despite being an atheist.
I can also use deontology to determine if one can be good without god. According to deontology, one’s goodness is dependent on their adherence to rules. Do I fit this definition of good? I believe I do. I don’t break the law. In fact I lead a fairly quiet, boring life. I may jay walk on occasion, so I guess in that sense I am not good. But most of the time I fit perfectly well into the deontological definition of good. So in this sense it is also possible to be good without god.
The final philosophical moral theory that I will go into is Virtue Ethics. This theory focuses on one’s character to determine whether an action is right or wrong. According to this thought, my intentions and the benefit of my group and myself determine the rightness or wrongness of my actions. When I donated, I intended to reduce waste and offer something to somebody who needed it. Since my intentions were good, and there were positive benefits to my action, it was good. Once again, I can be good without being religious.
These different ethical systems appeal to different people, and they are the three main ethical theories, which is why I went into each of them. All three offer different methods of morality, and in all three it is possible to be good without being religious. It doesn’t matter that morality is subjective, and it doesn’t matter whether a god exists or not. As far as I’m concerned, the consequences of my actions are the main deciding factor.
Which of the three theories do you prefer?