Some people argue that a person or society cannot be moral without a belief in God. For example, a few years ago a woman who co-owned a fruit shop that I shopped at one day began talking about religion (she was a Jehovah’s Witness) and when she found out that I did not believe in God she said: ‘You’re an atheist: you think it’s okay to murder people.’ My reply was that I don’t think that it’s okay to murder people, unlike the God of the Bible, who sent a flood that killed most of the world’s inhabitants.
I was brought up a Catholic and was taught that morals derive from God’s commands. I gave up belief in God at age 16 because I found the arguments for God’s existence presented in Year 11 school unconvincing. After I gave up belief in God I started reading books on humanism and thereby identified with humanism and got a lot of my ideas on morals from humanist thinkers.
Corliss Lamont, the philosopher who wrote the book, The Philosophy of Humanism, defined humanism as ‘a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion’. I will now present and comment on the arguments of some thinkers who argue that a person or society can be moral without a belief in God plus provide evidence that societies without a belief in God are happy societies.
First are the arguments of British psychologist Margaret Knight from her book, Morals Without Religion, which was originally a series of talks on the BBC in 1954. She said:
I argued at length that the social or altruistic impulses
are the real source of morality, and that an ethic based on
these impulses has more claim to our allegiance than an
ethic based on obedience to the commands of a God who
created tapeworms and cancer-cells. I proposed a
constructive alternative to Christianity – Scientific
Humanism the moral act, to the humanist, is the act
that is conducive to human well-being, not the act
ordained by God.
She goes on to say:
At different times very different views have been held
about the nature of humans. At one extreme was the
view held by the philosopher Hobbes that humans are
essentially selfish. On this view all behaviour is self-
interested – if we help our neighbour, it is just because
we think that it may induce her to help us later on. At the
other extreme is the view, of which Rousseau was the
chief exponent, that humans are naturally unselfish and
cooperative, and that if they behave otherwise it can only
be because their natural development has been interfered
with. ‘Humans,’ said Rousseau, ‘are naturally good.
Only by institutions are they made bad.’ Neither of these
extreme views is correct; the truth lies between them. It
is natural for us to be to a large extent self-centred and to
be hostile and aggressive towards people who obstruct us
in getting what we want; and it is also natural for us to
co-operate with other people, and to feel affection and
sympathy for others. In community life, and especially
in the sort of highly organised community life that we
lead today it is desirable that the social impulses shall be
well developed and the ego-impulses kept to some extent
under control. There is one principle which is common
to all moral codes, in all types of society, however
different they may be; and that is ‘We must not be
completely selfish; we must be prepared, at times and
within limits, to put our own interests second to those of
our own family, or our friends, or of the group or
community to which we belong.’ This does not mean
that we must always be making sacrifices; we have a
duty to ourselves as well as others. Why should I
consider others? These ultimate questions can be
desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy
student knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer
to this question is the humanist one – because we are
naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life
in any community, from the family outwards, is much
happier and fuller and richer if members are friendly and
cooperative than if they are hostile and resentful.
I understand Margaret Knight to be saying that we get a lot of our happiness from others. If we consider only our own happiness and not the happiness of others we will get hostility in return causing ourselves unhappiness. Even if we acted purely from self-interest we would consider the happiness of others. She pointed out that we don’t act purely from self-interest: it is natural to feel some affection for others; she does not mention that perhaps there is an exception in the case of psychopaths. If we were all psychopaths presumably society would not be able to function.
Second are the views of Paul Kurtz, an American philosopher, who helped set up the Council for Secular Humanism. These views were proposed in his book, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism. He said:
The question is constantly asked: What is the ethics of
humanism? Can a society or person be moral without
religion? Yes, indeed, affirm secular humanists. Morality
is deeply rooted in the ‘common moral decencies’ (those
that relate to moral behaviour in society) and the ‘ethical
excellences’ (as they apply to a person’s own life). The
common moral decencies are widely shared. They are
essential to the survival of any human community.
Meaningful coexistence cannot occur if they are consist-
ently flouted. Handed down through countless
generations, they are recognised throughout the world by
friends and relatives, colleagues and co-workers, the
native-born and immigrant, as basic rules of social inter-
course. They are the foundation of moral education and
are taught in the family and the schools. They express
the elementary virtues of courtesy, politeness and
empathy so essential for living together; indeed they are
the very basis of civilised life itself. The common moral
decencies are transcultural in their range and have their
roots in general human needs. They no doubt grow out of
the long evolutionary struggle for survival and may even
have some sociobiological basis, though they may be
lacking in some individuals or societies since their
emergence depends upon certain preconditions of moral
and social development.
The common moral decencies are:
- Personal Integrity: telling the truth, being sincere, keeping promises, being honest;
- Trustworthiness: loyal, dependable, reliable, responsible;
- Benevolence: goodwill, lack of malice; in sexual relations, mutual consent; beneficent, sympathetic and compassionate;
- Fairness: accountability, gratitude, justice, tolerance of others, cooperation, negotiate differences peacefully, without hatred or violence.
The ethical excellences are:
- Autonomy (self-reliance);
- Self-respect, which is vital to psychological balance. Self-hatred can destroy the personality. We need to develop some appreciation for who we are as individuals and a realistic sense of our own identities, for a lack of self-esteem can make one feel truly worthless, which is neither healthy for the individual nor helpful to society at large;
- High motivation;
- A positive attitude;
- Joyful living;
- Good health;
- Happiness (or well-being or exuberance).
Kurtz sees morality as necessary for the effective functioning of societies. Kurtz sees morality as based not only on how we relate to others but also how we relate to ourselves. He sees morality as partly based on self-interest and partly on inbuilt altruism.
The third thinker whose views I will discuss is philosopher and mathematician and outspoken critic of religion, Bertrand Russell, as outlined in his essay The Faith of a Humanist. He says:
Every kind of hostile action or feeling provokes a
reaction by which it is increased and so generates a
progeny of violence and injustice, which has a terrible
vitality. This can only be met by cultivating in ourselves
and attempting to generate in the young feelings of
friendliness rather hostility, of well-wishing rather than
malevolence, and of cooperation rather than competition.
If I am asked ‘Why do you believe this?’ I should not
appeal to any supernatural authority, but only to the
general wish for happiness. A world full of hate is a
world full of sorrow. Each party, where there is mutual
hatred, hopes that only the other party will suffer, but
this is seldom the case. And even the most successful
oppressors are filled with fear – slave-owners have been
obsessed with dread of a servile insurrection. From the
point of view of worldly wisdom, hostile feelings and
limitation of sympathy are folly. Their fruits are war,
death, oppression and torture, not only for their original
victims but also for their perpetrators or their
descendants. Whereas if we could all learn to love our
neighbours the world would quickly become a paradise
for us all no supernatural reasons are needed to make
people kind and to prove that only through kindness can
the human race achieve happiness.
Russell is agreeing with Knight that a society based on co-operation is needed for general happiness.
Fourth, I will discuss the arguments of Albert Ellis and Irving Becker, both psychologists, as presented in their book A Guide to Personal Happiness. Albert Ellis, an atheist, regularly wrote a column entitled ‘The Happy Humanist’ in the US magazine The Humanist. They say:
Morality, when it is sensible (which it often isn’t!),
consists of two basic rules: (1) To thine own self be true,
or Be kind to yourself, (2) Do not commit any deed that
needlessly and deliberately harms others – because you,
in being true to yourself, normally live in a social group
or community that may not continue to exist, or to exist
in the manner in which you would prefer, if you do harm
to others. Social interest, in other words, fuses with
self-interest. Because humans are gregarious or social
animals, you tend to find happiness when you are
relating, both generally and intimately, to others; and
although you have the ability to be happy when you are
completely alone, you would rarely choose to be for any
considerable length of time. You naturally enjoy talking
to, being with, encountering, concerning yourself about,
affecting, and having love-sex relations with other
humans. Why? Largely because that is your nature: your
innate tendency to commune and share.
Once you decide to cater to your gregarious desires
you subscribe to a social contract which we call morality
or responsibility to others. For group life entails some
restrictions and rules of conduct. As a hermit you can
fearlessly make all the noise you want or defecate
wherever you wish. But not as a member of a family, a
clan or community! Nor, when you decide to live with
others, are you perfectly free to grab all the food you
want, appropriate all the available land, steal anything in
sight, or physically harm or kill your intimates and
associates – at least not for very long.
The authors point out that self-interest and social interest are not necessarily in conflict. They do also point out that always putting one’s own interests second to those of others is not conducive to one’s happiness and is therefore not sensible morality.
Fifth, I will briefly discuss a comment by atheist psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in his book Motivation and Personality. He says, ‘if the release of anxiety causes the patient to become more affectionate and less hostile, does this not indicate that affection is basic to human nature, while hostility is not.’ Maslow seems to me to be saying that when we are at our happiest we are at our friendliest.
Sixth, I shall discuss some comments by Jacob Bronowski, mathematician and biologist, in his book The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. In speaking of science he says:
The scientific enterprise takes its strength from the fact
that everybody can believe what everybody else does.
You are only allowed to employ perfectly honest means.
This puts you in a position of special trust. And this is
a deeply ethical principle other values derive from
truth. There are the personal values – respect, sensitivity,
tolerance – without which science could not be carried
on. They are the values of the scientist working by
himself or herself. And then there are the communal
values, the ‘ought’ values – honesty, integrity, dignity,
authenticity – which bind the scientific community
I see Bronowski as saying that in order to find out the truth about the world we are bound by certain moral values.
Seventh, I discuss some of the ideas in the book Individual Morality by humanist psychologist James Hemming. He was a member of a group working on moral principles that can be accepted equally by Christians and Humanists. He says:
The modern choice must be for a democratic society,
since only such a society can harmonise individual
fulfilment with social order. The road to personal
fulfilment is not via egocentricity but through the
establishment of reciprocal, sensitive, creative
relationships in friendship, love, work, play,
Like other authors Hemming sees morals as necessary for happiness.
Eighth, I discuss some of the ideas in the book The Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values, by atheist, neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris. Harris is CEO of Project Reason, a foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. In his book Harris says that moral questions can be decided using science. He says:
I believe that we will increasingly understand good and
evil, right and wrong, in scientific terms, because moral
concerns translate into facts about how our thoughts and
behaviours affect the well-being of conscious creatures
like ourselves. Taking others’ interests into account,
making impartial decisions (and knowing that others will
make them), rendering help to the needy – these are
experiences that contribute to our social well-being. It
seems perfectly reasonable for each of us to submit to a
system of justice in which our immediate selfish interests
will often be superseded by considerations of fairness. It
is only reasonable, however, that everyone will tend to
be better off under such a system. As, it seems, they will.
Harris seems to me to be saying that for our own psychological well-being we need moral rules. He quotes a survey that says that ‘fifty-seven percent of Americans think that one must believe in God to have good values and be moral.’ He then goes on to say:
on almost every measure of societal health the least
religious countries are better off than the most religious.
Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the
Netherlands – which are the most atheistic societies on
earth – consistently rate better than religious nations on
measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime,
literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality,
economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care,
investments in education, rates of university enrolment,
internet access, environmental protection, lack of
corruption, political stability and charity to poorer
nations, etc. as societies become more prosperous,
stable and democratic they tend to become more secular.
Ninth, and finally, I discuss the book Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman, a U.S. sociology professor. Zuckerman lived in Scandinavia for fourteen months, interviewing nearly 150 Danes and Swedes. He says, ‘one study reports that only 51 percent of Danes and 26 percent of Swedes claim to believe in a God. Another study found lower rates: only 24% of Danes and 16% of Swedes.’ He goes on to say:
I argue that society without God is not only possible but
can be quite civil and pleasant. This admittedly
polemical aspect of my book is aimed primarily at
countering the claims of certain outspoken Christians
who regularly argue that a society without God would be
hell on earth; rampant with immorality, full of evil, and
teeming with depravity. Well, it isn’t. Denmark and
Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral and
prosperous societies. In fact, a good case could be made
that they are among the ‘best’ countries in the world, at
least according to standard sociological measures. In an
age of growing religious fundamentalism and strengthening
ties between religion and politics – in the U.S. as
well as in many other countries – this is important
information. It is quite crucial for people to know that it
is actually quite possible for a society to lose its religious
beliefs and still be well-functioning, successful, and fully
capable of constructing and obeying sound laws and
following rational systems of morality and ethics.
Worship of God can wane, prayer can be given up, and
the Bible can go unstudied, yet people can still treat one
another decently, schools and hospitals can still run
smoothly, crime can remain minimal, babies and old
people can receive all the care and attention they need,
economies can flourish, pollution can be kept at a
minimum, speeding tickets can be paid, and children can
be loved in warm, secure homes – all without God being
a central component of everyday life.
As Harris and Zuckerman point out, the evidence shows that where many people are non-theists are happy, flourishing societies.
In conclusion, I have looked at a number of what I consider are convincing arguments that persons and societies can be good (i.e. empathetic) without a belief in God.
Bronowski, J. The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, Vail-Ballou Press, Birmingham, USA. 1978.
Ellis, A. and Becker, I. A Guide to Personal Happiness. Hal Leighton Printing Company, North Hollywood, USA. 1982.
Harris, S. Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values. Bantam Press, London, UK. 2010.
Hemming, J. Individual Morality. Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, UK. 1969.
Knight, M. Morals Without Religion. Dobson Books, London, UK. 1960.
Kurtz, P. Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism. Prometheus Books, Amherst, USA. 1988
Lamont, C. The Philosophy of Humanism. Humanist Press, Amherst, USA. 1997.
Maslow, A. Motivation and Personality. Harper and Row, New York, USA. 1987.
Russell, B. ‘The Faith of a Humanist’, in: Humanist Anthology, Knight, M., Herrick, J. (eds). Rationalist Press Association, London. 2005.
Zuckerman, P. Society Without God. New York University Press, New York, USA. 2008.
Note – Joe, a HSV member of many years, gave the above in a talk to the Melbourne Atheist Society, July 2013.