Moral Dilemmas of an Atheist

Posted: June 7, 2015 in atheism, Duck Dynasty, morality, Phil Robertson, religion
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The idea that atheists are incapable of being moral is a very common misconception. Many, many articles, books, and even scientific papers have been written on this topic, and it all stems from the inability of the religious to comprehend from where an atheist can derive their views on morality.

You see, to the faithful, all that is good comes from God. People are inherently sinful, and God has to provide laws, commandments, and rules for us to follow to keep us on the “straight and narrow” and prevent us succumbing to the “natural man”. We even have numerous examples of famous Christians who’ve challenged atheist morality with their own misguided musings, such as this theoretical scenario proposed by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if [there] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain’t right.

The problem with this presumptuous scenario is the assumption that a lack of belief in God also equates to a lack of belief in right and wrong, or rather, a lack of morality. When you believe that morality MUST come from God, of course removing God from the equation would dissolve into chaos. But it’s a rather scary thought that some believers even entertain such notions, presumably only holding back out of devotion to their faith and fear of divine punishment. As is made apparent in the oft repeated question, from multiple believers, when given an opportunity to question an atheist:

If there is no God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want?

Penn Jillette’s response to this question is wonderful and often quoted:

I do rape all I want, and the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

Atheists are just as capable of being moral as are believers, because morality does NOT come from a God. It comes from within. Certainly, with atheism, there cannot be any “objective” morality, because morality cannot be derived from any singular outside source. But there’s nothing wrong with morality being subjective either, because the morality of the majority will be supported by social norms and expectations. Morality has evolved with us. It is advantageous for species living in social structures and communities to exhibit moral behavior, because being able to feel empathy and extend sympathy to others allows individuals to maintain the protections and benefits of social acceptance.

While I can study the benefits of morality, statistically, and it’s development through evolutionary history, exhibited even in other species, and while I can statistically measure the majority standing for what is considered morally right or wrong in any given scenario, it still ultimately boils down to how I personally feel inside. When I was a religious follower, I believed that those internal feelings came from the spirit. Now I recognize them as my own, but they are no different.

I still consider rape wrong. I still follow the golden rule. I still consider blackmailing wrong. Stealing wrong. Cheating wrong. etc. And more than anything else, both then and now, I’ve strongly adhered to honesty and integrity. I’ve held truth above all things, and because of that, I’ve been on an educational journey that has transformed my life and which I know will continue to enrich, enhance, and inspire.

When it comes to facing a moral dilemma though, things are rather different. As a believer, when I felt my conscience tugged, I would turn to scripture, to doctrine, to the religious teachings of my upbringing. When I first read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I knew upon reading these words of Polonius that I had found a new life motto:

This above all, to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou can’st not then be false to any man.

And as a Mormon, being true to myself meant being true to my upbringing, true to scripture, true to the standards as set by my prophets, etc. I was devout and strong in my belief, and I did my best to adhere to all Mormon teachings. But when it was the teachings of the church that seemed to conflict with my conscience, I found myself faced with intense moral dilemmas. I had to listen to my inner self and find a way to balance what I *felt* to be right and wrong with what I was being taught. And my efforts to maintain this balance led to an increased devotion to studying the “faith” in full.

I wanted to know and understand everything. I wanted to dig as deep as I could and rely on my personal spiritual revelations to guide my study. Because I wanted to uncover truth, my journey eventually led me away from the Mormon church. I was able to let go of moral views that had been trained into me based on nothing more than religious teachings and indoctrination, but my conscience remained. Most moral dilemmas became much easier to handle, because there was no longer any conflict between self and religion. I could finally, really, TRULY, be true to myself.

Moral decisions are far simpler, but it can still sometimes get complicated, because there are still competing factors. As per the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, my morality is driven very heavily by empathy. My ability to connect with and relate to others. To understand their personal pains and sufferings. To engage in sympathetic musings or putting myself “in their shoes” to try and understand another point of view. Empathy is what makes it very easy to state that rape is WRONG. Murder is WRONG. Cheating is WRONG. etc.

Then there is integrity, driven by the words of Polonius, and a desire to be true to myself. I have a strong, deeply rooted need to be honest in all things. To present myself as… myself. No lies. No deceptions. No masks. And though it doesn’t happen often, there are situations where empathy and integrity clash. And such is the root of an atheist’s moral dilemmas.

The empathy I feel for my mother, for example, clashes with my desire to maintain integrity about my atheism and my gender orientation. In this instance, empathy trumps integrity (for now), as I put on a mask in interactions with my family and hide the changes that have brought me so much peace. The conflict between empathy and integrity clashes when I’m around my family, and I feel morally ill. Eventually, I’ll need to resolve that conflict, and I hope I can do so in a way that does not leave me ill in the opposite direction, for letting integrity trump empathy. I hope to be able to strike a balance and find a sense of peace as it relates to my family.


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