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← Where do atheist morals come from?

Where do atheist morals come from? - Comments

SaganTheCat's Avatar Comment 1 by SaganTheCat

mirror neurons

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 16:25:23 UTC | #525783

chawinwords's Avatar Comment 2 by chawinwords

Personally, I think the source of what we call morals is the vast body of human experience trying to live with one another -- and hoping not to be eaten by rogue human lions in the process.

Learning is also an evolutionary process, and morals are part of that same evolutionary process, with a few steps backwards due to occasional battles with social conservativism (particular advantages found in the status quo).

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 16:35:05 UTC | #525791

crookedshoes's Avatar Comment 3 by crookedshoes

I think I derive my morals from the way I was parented. I also think that most atheists are superior, morally to most believers and I'll tell you why. The difference, to me, is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I act morally because from the inside I have a gauge of what is right or wrong. The believer acts morally out of fear of punishment or promise of reward. It is like "be nice to your brother...SANTA is watching". I also find myself trying to emulate people I admire.

Sadly enough many of these people are from the television. I always loved the show MASH and seem to act a lot like Hawkeye.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 16:55:00 UTC | #525800

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 4 by AtheistEgbert

As inane as these accusations seem, it does make me wonder where atheists are drawing their morals from.

I'm not sure if you're being sincere, but I'll try and explain it.

Where do you get your ability to perceive green? Clearly, unless you're colour blind, you'll realise that evolution or natural selection has given you the ability to perceive 'green'. But green does not exist as a property of objects but a property of your consciousness. Although it is subjective it relates to a real external reality, like all our experiences.

Rather like our brains are able to calculate 2+2=4, perceive green, so we can make judgements on what is right or what is wrong. Try taking away a toy from a toddler, and watch as in horror as the child feels a sense of injustice and throws a tantrum.

As we become educated and more socially experienced, our moral judgement becomes refined, rather like our tastes in art or food become refined.

But those indoctrinated or brought up under the influence of authority, are unable to fully judge situations with their own mind, and fall back on what they were told was right or wrong. This is the mythological narratives within the memory that dictates and censors behaviour.

Hence why there are often moral dilemmas and conflicts within people. Between their own moral judgement and what they 'ought' to do by society.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 17:20:42 UTC | #525818

jac12358's Avatar Comment 5 by jac12358

Morals are not true "things" but are simply ideas of what is right and wrong, and ultimately these vary by time and culture and are very biased and ultimately arbitrary.

So we cannot "get" them from anywhere, like asking where an atheist can get a good cup of coffee.

So the question is really where do we get the IDEA of morals. And the answer is: from the same societal pool as everyone else. Since there is no god to begin with, we are no different from religious people in this regard. Atheists differ in that among all the places normal healthy people develop their sense of morality, atheists do not include in that list of possible sources any books about imaginary deities.

And that is about it.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 17:32:10 UTC | #525823

venton's Avatar Comment 6 by venton

Empathy? I don't like one word posts, but can't really expand on that word, it says it all.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 17:41:08 UTC | #525828

Moosebite's Avatar Comment 7 by Moosebite

I'd agree with some of what people are saying so far.

I think generally my main source of morals is from role models. I see behaviour in life and on tv/movies etc and I admire it, and try to emulate it.

Sometimes I put effort into reasoning out my morals, by thinking up hypothetical situations and analysing what would be the best thing to do.

Seeing as (and I think someone touched on this) secular morality seems to be about doing what is best for society, I think the behaviour I look up to most is behaviour which benefits society the most. When I see a brave hero in a movie, something in my subconscious attracts me to that person, and I know that that persons behaviour makes them a valuable person to have a relationship with. Ultimately this is what inspires me to do the same. I want to be a valued member of my communities/society, so I emulate the behaviour of others that draws me to them. And I avoid behaviour that puts me off people. At worst I try to behave in a way towards people which doesn't exclude the possibility of us both being part of the same community - in other words, if I don't like a person, I will try to keep the peace to avoid forcing the community to choose between the two of us.

So for me it's about making people want to have a relationship with me. The best way I can think to do this, is to behave in the same ways that other people do, that make me want to have relationships with them. Otherwise, as I said, if there's no good example, I'll try to reason it out, mostly through discussion, sometimes through thought and writing.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 17:52:40 UTC | #525834

TheRationalizer's Avatar Comment 8 by TheRationalizer

Social norms gave me my morality, which is why morality is different depending on which society you are in. Importantly, society gave religion its morality too but because it was considered the morality of god it became static morality until such a time as god decides to pop back and update it.....which will be never.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 17:54:02 UTC | #525835

Moosebite's Avatar Comment 9 by Moosebite

Actually, don't most people get their morality from James Camerons 'Avatar'?

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 17:58:52 UTC | #525836

Et's Love Child's Avatar Comment 10 by Et's Love Child

Enough about me, Where do you get your morals?


Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:17:59 UTC | #525847

Moosebite's Avatar Comment 11 by Moosebite

@ comment #10 Nice one moderator... pretty quick on the draw.

that comment was popping up in a few places.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:26:36 UTC | #525851

road_runner321's Avatar Comment 12 by road_runner321

There are two sides to this question: where do we learn our morals?; and where do morals themselves come from?

The first is unique to each individual.

The second is more difficult to grasp. One may look to our closest relatives in the animal kingdom: chimpanzees. They have a rudimentary social system (though as we learn more about them it becomes less and less rudimentary) through which they interact; social instincts have been instilled in them through many generations. This adaptation has been selected by nature because animals with social instincts, who protect each other and help each other, are more likely to survive and have more offspring, thus passing on this trait. Other species include pack animals such as wolves, who use social instinct to hunt. In chimpanzees this instinct is much more refined than wolves, and in humans it is much more refined than chimpanzees. Our morals stem from a system of innate patterns of behavior which nature has selected which allowed us to survive. Over time, as we formed greater and larger communities these had to be refined to take into account the changing paradigm of the human race, but at the root of the more abstract moral teachings lie the rudimentary instinct of morality.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:28:36 UTC | #525852

strangebrew's Avatar Comment 13 by strangebrew


Empathy? I don't like one word posts, but can't really expand on that word, it says it all.


It is a great pity and will haunt humanity forever that the religious have no idea what empathy is and what it actually results in. It seems that empathy is not a required trait in the religious. probably why they never seen to employ it in their actions. After all they have a sky daddy to do all that empathizing for them...they do not need to get their priorities dirty.

And what not one xian will admit it is the blatant fact that Christian morality is only relevant to their own bigotries, intolerance, hatreds, ignorances and advantage. It is never about empathy.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:28:46 UTC | #525853

helena!'s Avatar Comment 14 by helena!

Thirded on empathy!

Well said strangebrew I agree with your comments.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:34:16 UTC | #525857

Stevehill's Avatar Comment 15 by Stevehill

Societies which learn to cooperate and share resources are successful in evolutionary terms. Therefore they evolve moral codes which help to ensure their success.

A good blind alley example being the Vatican ban on contraception, as if somehow we'd all die out otherwise!

A better example is that proscribing injustices (from murder to theft to anti-social behaviour) helps oil the wheels: we are more likely to trust each other, e.g. in business transactions, if we broadly feel we are unlikely to be knifed in the back. Which is why say prohibition of drugs cannot work: tens of thousands of dead Mexicans are testament to what happens when a (sub-)culture is forced to operate, probably unnecessarily, outside the rule of law.

Religion is a legacy from early attempts to codify (and at least in sharia terms, to police) moral codes and or basic healthcare. Pre-refrigeration, eating anything but the very freshest shellfish in a 40-degrees plus climate was probably a very good way to get very ill indeed.

Now, more often than not, religion simply gets in the way - because of its innate reactionary conservatism - of sane legislation. So we circumscribe stem cell research which might cure dementia; we argue about whether gays are suitable adoptive parents; we demand faith schools have the right to fire the best maths teacher for the job for not saying enough hail marys. This is not a moral code: this is perpetuating injustice long after the need has expired and been displaced by other, better considerations.

Good legal systems evolve. If they don't, they die.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:44:01 UTC | #525861

elmo14's Avatar Comment 16 by elmo14

Definitely empathy...

What bugs me most about this conversation is that the religious make the claim that you need god and the Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon etc. in order to form any moral basis whatsoever. Every time I hear this I laugh/die a little inside thinking of how the books they claim to be products of absolute morality are really the product of exactly the same thing that they condemn, only there books are not privy to 2000 years of moral philosophizing and the advent of modern scientific understanding...

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:48:41 UTC | #525865

DamianIcely's Avatar Comment 17 by DamianIcely

I do believe that there are some morals that are virtually hardwired.

I don't know of any cuture that approves of peadophilia or incest. I know lots of rulers throughout history have engaged in incest but I think this is peverse and follows from twisted beliefs, (I am and a god and can only marry other gods, or, we must keep our great bloodline clean from the filthy underlings).

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 18:50:27 UTC | #525866

Hammert1me's Avatar Comment 18 by Hammert1me

I say that in the absence of any evidence that everything will turn out OK in the end, stranded on a hostile planet with a plethora of other lifeforms who seem determined to end our existance, it pays to stick together to survive. Safety in numbers. Trade of ideas and resources. Better chance of innovation and curiosity, so better tech. More kids.

People who didn't stick together, forming alliances (and morals/laws) were wiped out, outcompeted or assimilated by those who did, and thier genes/memes arn't around anymore.

Ask the Neanderthals. Or the Nazis.

Ask not 'Why doesn't X ever happen?'. It probably did once, and will again.

Instead ask 'Why was/is X less efficient?'

In this case, why is being a primitive solitary murderous cannibal rapist inefficient?

Because you'll loose a fight to the first person to have an ally.

Thst's very probably the real reason anyway. I could say something about empathy, human dignity or sentience. I'd just be replacing one complex system with another. J.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 19:04:47 UTC | #525874

Stonyground's Avatar Comment 19 by Stonyground

One of the problems we have is the religious notion that we are, by default, evil. The religious view is that we really, really want to do very bad things and are only restrained by the thought that God will punish us if we do. This is simply false.

It is in my nature to be as kind and helpful to people around me as I can, I get pleasure from being generous and kind. It is a simple fact that nearly everyone, religious or not, is like this. Obviously there are exceptions, really vile people who behave otherwise, but they are exceptions. For the theist claim that atheists are immoral to stand up, they would have to demonstrate that the really vile people are mostly atheists, this is a bit difficult because mostly they are not.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 19:46:42 UTC | #525889

Cosmicshore's Avatar Comment 20 by Cosmicshore

Sam Harris discussed this issue at (TED) it's up on YouTube somewhere.

It's called Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 19:54:23 UTC | #525894

aliensmack's Avatar Comment 21 by aliensmack

The morals we all have come naturally from our evolutionary history . We are hunter gatherers and cooperation helps us to survive . Personally I grew up in an atheist house with atheist parents.

Do unto others is a good start . Empathy for others is important. Do you faint when you see blood ? This is an empathic response . When I see violence inflicted on others I can feel their pain to some degree ..this a good place to start when thinking about what's right and wrong .

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 20:46:42 UTC | #525917

MattHunX's Avatar Comment 22 by MattHunX

As the OP, I was brought up in a non-religious environment. As it has been discerned so far, we gain our morals largely from our parents and peers, and by experiencing the world around us. Part of morality can be said to be innate in us, as an evolutionary trait that allowed us to progress this far. The rise of human civilization, groups, settlements, cities, empires, trade...etc. is evidence that we didn't need any sort of religious texts to tell how to live our lives. Of course, there were countless battles, but it cannot be claimed in any way, that with religion they were gone, for there were more bloodshed for religious reasons alone, than for any other.

When confronted with such inane questions from theists, one should simply ask:

How do they think we've made it as far as hunting and gathering in groups and living in small settlements, when there were no laws written in stone let alone books?

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 21:02:43 UTC | #525929

jonathan CPC's Avatar Comment 23 by jonathan CPC

Morals are partly inborn and partly learned.

Evolution has equipped us with an adaptable innate moral response to help survival - if we grow up in harsh conditions it is necessary to be more self protective, if in a stable society it is better to be co-operative and empathic. A sociopathic (amoral) personality is usually the result of neglect or abuse at a very early stage - triggering nature's "harsh" response.

Learning by example and interaction helps to establish moral behaviour and develop tolerance and resilience. Religions in their original forms generally backed this up (Jesus said "Love your neighbour as yourself" - you can't get much more empathic than that) but organizations of all sorts - religious, political, commercial, media - try to substitute their own agendas and all have to be recognized as moral dangers and resisted.

The philosophical-religious notion that God gave us our moral code which can be accessed by introspection (prayer) is mainly a counter to the mistaken view that morals have a logical basis - logic can be (and has been) used to justify the most immoral acts.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 21:08:42 UTC | #525931

AtheistArchaeologist's Avatar Comment 24 by AtheistArchaeologist

When I see someone/something suffering my immediate reaction is: That is bad and makes me feel sad/distressed, I must comfort the sufferer. If I see someone/something causing suffering to someone/something I react with: That is wrong, and if possible try to stop the act in some way, and then go on comfort the 'victim'.

I believe that these reactions are the norm and result from empathy; as previously mentioned, and that this comes from the evolution of higher brain function. We have the ability to comprehend what it would be like to be in the situation of the sufferer, and this gives us similar emotional responses to being in that situation ourselves.

I do however think that people can be indoctrinated to ignore these in built reactions; replaced with a learned set of new morals (e.g. religion), and that you can also become desensitised to certain suffering.

You even see early signs of empathy in other animals; like when dogs lick the wounds of other injured dogs. My dog even comforted my cat when it was hit by a car (He’s a collie which is quite an intelligent breed as far as dogs go). But that could of course simply be a ‘misfiring’ of the behaviour that causes packs to work together.

I think the more abstract values of morality derive from the same areas that we get art and the feelings like 'awe' from. These are yet to be explained but are still very real.

Obviously there are some who have a sort of ‘fetish’ for other’s suffering, but I understand they are usually described mentally ill in some way, or have lived in environments that would have corrupted their natural judgement over time (e.g. abused in childhood).

I certainly get my morals mostly from empathy and philosphy.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 22:42:03 UTC | #525961

DamianIcely's Avatar Comment 25 by DamianIcely

Let's not forget the other side of any evolved morality. As MattHunX says there were countless battles... We instinctively form groups for survival and we assign different moral standards to these groups. Its not all right to steal or rape within OUR group but feel free to go mad on the others. WE'RE civilised THEY'RE not so by conquering them we're really doing them a favour.

Naturally in our global society many of us have managed to grow beyond this. In addition whom we consider to be in "our" group is much broader. Unfortunately visible labels such as race and culture still cause inter group tension. This is what is so unhelpful about religion. Its just another label and whilst not necessarily the root of many conflicts its certainly used as the excuse.

Unsegregated education is vital to countering this mentality. It's much harder to label the guy sharing a desk with you for several years as outside your group even if he does come from a different race religion or culture.

Of course they'll always be the cool kids and the lame ones.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 22:43:52 UTC | #525962

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 26 by Neodarwinian

Rather strange question on this of all sites. There is much work being done on the evolutionary underpinnings of human morality ( and all animal morality ) Though Mark Hauser is in a bit of hot water right now, I still think his book, " Moral Minds " would give you a overview of the work being done on this problem.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 22:50:26 UTC | #525964

raytoman's Avatar Comment 27 by raytoman

In my case, role models and common sense.

If killing and stealing are ok, someone might kill or steal from me.

I like most people and want most people to like me. Mutually agreed and adhered to 'rules' enable this.

My parents were "good" people.

Mon, 27 Sep 2010 23:12:45 UTC | #525973

Charisma's Avatar Comment 28 by Charisma

I don't think it's just empathy. Certainly sympathy plays a role too.

Tue, 28 Sep 2010 00:09:05 UTC | #525984

guyver_dio's Avatar Comment 29 by guyver_dio

Morals to an atheists come about almost in the same way many religious people will take morals from their scripture, they pick and choose and use their own reasoning. There's plenty of morals you could take from religious scripture that's quite extreme, and apart from those who take their scripture literally and word for word, many choose what works for them. It comes down to us thinking for ourselves and discussing our reasoning with one another. I'll leave you with a quote I once heard from Mr Dawkins:

"It's almost like intelligent design in that we can design our own societies"

As for me I can't pinpoint a specific source but I definitely think it's the environment you live in and the people you are surrounded by and I'd probably also include the ability to think rationality comes about in that way too. If I had been raised in a Muslim country I'd say it would be likely that I would have a totally different way of thinking.

Tue, 28 Sep 2010 00:22:16 UTC | #525985

Buzz Moonman's Avatar Comment 30 by Buzz Moonman

The objective foundation for morality is Peace.

Peace is not only the objective, it is objective. It is a political act between humans. It is not a divine gift. Peace exists regardless of the existence or not of any gods. It cannot be given as a gift, at has to be achieved by human co-operation.

When humans behave in ways that create the conditions for peace, they are being moral. The conditions necessary for peace, (and I mean un-coerced peacefull co-existence, not Pax Romana or Pax Britanica) are using the golden rule, mutual aid and loving your neighbour.

It's not rocket science. Why would you prefer not to live in a world of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Peace is the objective foundation of morality. From it flows the three basic modes of behaviour that result in morality.

Morality is not a result of a religious discourse. Religion is the result of a moral discourse. You cannot have religion without first having morality as you can't have religion without having a stable social group and to have a stable social group, you need to have morality.

Tue, 28 Sep 2010 01:05:18 UTC | #525996