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12 April 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:32am

Morals without God?

How you can decide what is right and wrong without god

By Ciaran Hanway

Where do you get your sense of right and wrong?

Do you think things are right and wrong because you’ve decided so or because you’ve been told so?

Do you do the right thing because you feel better for it or because you’re frightened of what might happen if you don’t?

Of course there’s no simple answer to these questions: they’re false dilemmas. Try this one:

Do you think that the only way to have morals is with a belief in a god?

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Like many ordinary people, I’ve spent my life trying to decide where I get my sense of right and wrong.

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Some people wonder whether, because I don’t believe in their god(s), this makes me an immoral person. I feel this misses the point. Many people are religious and also criminal, for example. Having said that, there are two subtexts that, when addressed, blow any objections to atheism on the basis of morality out of the water:

1] The only source of morality is God. Without God, you’re cut off from the source of morality and you’re immoral.

What, out of interest, if anything, can we learn from the religious majority in this country?

Christians cite the Ten Commandments as one of their totemic sources of morality (the other is the Golden Rule in Luke 6:31, but this isn’t unique to Christianity).

Exodus 20 tells how Moses received the first set of Commandments. This set was later smashed to pieces when Moses saw the Israelites dancing in front of the Golden Calf. So Moses had to go back up Mount Sinai and get the set of Commandments that are described in Exodus 34. These are totally different and very outmoded. Take a look for yourself, and you’ll recognise the first set much more readily than the second.

So there’s an immediate contradiction. God claims that the words are the same (Exodus 34:1), but they clearly aren’t. Add to the the enormous list of biblical atrocities (rape, murder, genocide, capital punishment, racism, cannibalism, misogyny) and you don’t need to go much further.

I don’t want to be too Christian-centric, and I don’t need to be: the Euthyphro Dilemma illustrates it well:

Either what is good is defined by the fact that it is God’s will.

Anything, no matter how repugnant it might seem, must be considered good if it is god’s will.


God recognises what is good and then wills what is good.

There is a standard of goodness that is independent of god. God is not the source of morality or of ethics.

Believing in any god therefore offers no answers as to whether or not I can be moral. In fact, it just adds unnecessary complexity.

2] Without the “Celestial Policeman” to reward you with Heaven or consign you to Hell, you have no motivation to be moral. Therefore, if you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe in being good.

This doesn’t need much explanation. Who is more moral: a man who saves someone from a burning building because he feels it is the right thing to do and is motivated by compassion or a man who saves someone from a burning building because he fears punishment in an afterlife? Arguing that this misses the point ignores the fact that there are plenty of atheists out there who make a positive impact on the world around them. for example, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have between them donated $67 Billion to charity.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Mill’s Utilitarianism both provide moral frameworks independent of religious beliefs. It isn’t even as if we needed Christianity to tide us over until Kant and Mill came along. Even the Ancient Greeks’ Virtue Based ethical system predates Christianity by several hundred years, and unlike the Ten Commandments, we actually have the stones that held the Babylonians’ divinely-inspired laws.

You don’t need a belief in a god to be moral. If you believe in a god, then you need to pick-and-mix your morality from scripture to come closer to humanity. People we judge as fundamentalists on the fringe now, through our modern value-systems, were mainstream years ago when the blashpemy laws were taken seriously, women couldn’t vote and abortion and homosexuality were crimes.

Moreover, I contend that motivation to be good that isn’t driven by fear of sanctions is morally superior to a motivation that is driven by fear.

So I’m accountable to myself and the people around me. Thomas Paine once wrote, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion”. There’s always more I could be doing for the world and my fellow human beings, but I’m trying my best.