Morality is often equated with an absolute standard – religion and/or God – so atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists are sometimes viewed as people who lack moral standards. And why not? In a nation where a lot of people actually believe that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments – “Thou shall not kill…steal” – how indeed can someone who doesn’t believe in God be expected to tell right from wrong – or choose right over wrong? Someone who doesn’t believe in an absolute justice that metes out eternal punishment might be able to do evil things because they believe they can get away without any consequences.
But there are consequences, although they are not very obvious and immediate and one has to look far enough to understand. Even if a person thinks only of himself and what could be ultimately good for his own welfare, as long as he is rational enough he will apply the Golden Rule – which happens to be a very selfish rule by the way – and choose to do what is desirable rather than detestable according to one’s own standards.
For example, if a nonbeliever decides not to steal even when there is very little possibility of getting caught, it’s because he had somehow figured out a long time ago that stealing is such a lousy thing to do, and it’s not because of what he was taught in Sunday school or religion class. Stealing is wrong because it causes loss of property to others, and even if such loss doesn’t happen back to the thief or his loved ones, the highly evolved person will see that it will still bring more harm than good. He may not get caught now, but a lifelong habit of stealing will surely put him at risk of being distrusted by the people around.
But more importantly, he cannot bear to insult himself and his own self-esteem with the idea that he has to resort to stealing for his survival and prosperity. Freethinkers are often proud people; when one chooses for himself what he considers right and wrong instead of having some authority dictate it to him, he takes responsibility for his actions even in the absence of laws.
I believe that morality should be based on how certain actions benefit or harm individuals and society and not on the ‘revealed’ commandments of a deity whose existence still remains to be proved and whose ‘revelations’ are all hearsay. This comment on another article says it best:
The atheist’s morality of “do no harm” is actually much more complex than the theist’s “10 commandments” when actually put into practice. By no means, however, does this make the atheist’s morality inferior. Our morality is more nuanced, which many theists interpret as lacking principles, because they are unable to understand what isn’t spelled out exactly for them in a simple list.
The rational person knows that it is advantageous to himself to do things that benefit instead of harm others because while the temptation of undue personal gain at the expense of others may at first look attractive, in the long run he will have to pay the price. And if such inequity happens in a community often enough it will trigger even more injustice as people become desensitized to supposedly repugnant behavior.
Life is not a zero-sum game where each person’s gain necessitates an equal amount of loss to another; in nature and in society teamwork and cooperation have proven that it is actually possible for everyone to win, and that every now and then small civilized gestures go a long way and eventually trickle down to the pool of moral standards, gradually raising its level. And it only takes rationality – not religion – to realize that.