February 3, 2009
It’s a cliché that atheists can’t be moral people. I’ve always known this to be false, but only recently have I begun to wonder whether it’s logically possible for religious people to be moral.
The reasoning hinges on the fact that religions threaten post-mortem consequences for our moral actions. Some people act morally mostly because of this, and some act morally only partially because of this, but the threat must play a part in the moral decision, even if only a small part.
I don’t think an individual can truthfully determine the influence of the threat in their decision-making process. They may think that they are “acting like Jesus,” but behind this is the threat that not acting like Jesus means not really believing in him, risking eternal damnation.
A moral decision made under threat is like a confession made under torture. Can we trust such a confession? What if it’s only under partial torture? 10% torture? I feel compelled to reject a confession made under any amount of torture. I’m tempted to similarly reject a moral act made under any amount of threat.
An atheist has no such threat. When an atheist makes a moral decision, the decision is pure. Since a moral act is, by definition, against self-interest, the sacrifice of an atheist’s moral act is done entirely because it is the right thing to do.
In my experience, atheists act as morally as believers. This means that they are more internally moral, on average, since their decisions are pure but the believers’ decisions are partially made under duress.
Note that this has nothing to do with the source of the moral code. Atheists and believers have equal access to various moral codes. The trick is to follow the codes.