One of the most common reactions I hear from theists on atheism or even on freethought in general is a question on where the nonbelievers base their morality considering they do not hold themselves accountable to an absolute standard or have their actions confined by the threat of eternal fire. A number of articles had already been written about the morality of an atheist/freethinker – some mention for comparison the “morality” of the Abrahamic god who condoned or even commissioned slavery, rape, and genocide; others talk about respect, doing no harm, and the Golden Rule (which isn’t of Judeo-Christian origin, by the way) – and yet the question remains: What compels the nonbeliever to respect others and do no harm?
I have tried to answer that in The Morality of a Freethinker where I said:
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.
Admittedly, though, not all nonbelievers realize that; rationality is not really a requirement for atheism – all babies are born atheists – so some nonbelievers really do not have moral standards. And this reminds me of M. Scott Peck’s stages of spiritual growth. (While Dr. Peck talked about four stages, I will describe only the first three because I am rather skeptical about the fourth.)
Stage I: Chaotic, Antisocial. All children are born into this stage, but some reach adulthood without ever leaving it. These are the people who submit to nothing but their own free will and have no beliefs or principles, and their relationships with other people are often manipulative and self-serving.
Stage II: Formal, Institutional, Fundamental. Because of the chaotic life in Stage I, some people experience intense psychological pain or get into trouble and end up converting into Stage II by joining or being committed to an institution – military, school, an organization, jail, a church. Stage II people follow rules but do not care to think about the reasons behind them. They do not want to hear anyone question the beliefs they hold so dearly especially if it is a logical, valid question, because the institution with its dogma is the only thing preventing these people from falling back into the chaotic life in State I, and they especially do not want that. (Some criminals, when caught and imprisoned, quickly turn into model prisoners and given early paroles, only to commit another crime on the first day of their release. That’s because they rely solely on the institution – prison – and have no principles of their own.)
Stage III: Skeptic, Individual. When Stage II people marry and raise a family, their children often become Stage II at a very early age. But as they grow into their teens they become so used to order that they sometimes take for granted the rules and beliefs of their parents and even question the reasons behind these rules and challenge the bases of these beliefs. Here they start getting into Stage III, the truth seeker. (For the Stage II people, Stage III is the same as Stage I – nonbelievers – and so they would try to convert them with their doctrines, only to end up getting ridiculed.) But Stage I and Stage III are very much different even though they both do not submit to an institution or dogma. Because while Stage I people yield only to their own free will, people in Stage III submit to something higher: truth, justice, and welfare.
But then, why would a nonbeliever submit to such noble concepts? I posted this question in the forum and I got very interesting answers. Basically, a nonbeliever (both Stages I and III) cares only about survival, but an enlightened nonbeliever (Stage III), while driven by selfishness, has less shortsightedness, “choosing a strategic behavior that yields the highest utility for all (all being a more positive rebounding system that is more long term)“. And here the Golden Rule comes naturally and is followed subconsciously. A person may strive only for his wellbeing, but somehow he realizes that he cannot achieve that without treating others well or at least how he would have them treat him.
Going back to the stages of spiritual growth, Dr. Peck asserts that one cannot reach Stage III without passing through Stage II; a man cannot see the reasons behind the rules if he himself has not undergone being subjected to some rules. And here some might argue that religion is necessary for morality after all, even if only as a stepping stone to get from Stage I to Stage III. To this I would answer that the “rules” need not be what Religion dictates. It could come from the secular parents and teachers who, for example, teach children not to steal – not because they would go to hell but because it would not be beneficial to their long-term interests.
Still, some religious people and organizations would protest, “What about sexual morality, the ‘contraceptive culture’ that legalizes free sex and separates the unitive from the procreative purpose of sex according to God’s design?”
Well, this is all I can say to them: You really need to get laid.