In a recent article, “Exceptionally Articulate: Obama’s eloquence fails to quiet charges that he does not believe in God or America,” a key issue is the relevance of Obama’s faith to his being worthy of being president. The consensus seems to be that most voters would not be happy if he were not a man of faith. I assume that this is because voters think they can judge a lot about a person from his or her beliefs about god. A person of faith would more likely than not, the thinking goes, be more ethical. For many that presumably means, for example, being pro-life (though for others it might mean being pro-choice). Nevertheless, if you are religious, then you have a set of moral standards that you feel obligated to adhere to. Whereas, if you are an ungodly atheist, you have no moral code to guide your actions. So the thinking goes.
But really, is it more likely for the ungodly to have no moral code, conscious or unconscious, than it is for the ostensibly religious? There are at least two important issues lurking here. The first concerns from whence a person’s moral compass originates. The second concerns whether it is possible to have or justify having a moral compass without their existing some sort of god in whom to ground values—the god who sets the northern pole.
Starting with the second issue, if you study even a bit of philosophy, you quickly see that philosophers have long made sense of value independently of God’s fiat. One place to look would be Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s recent book Morality without God? I have not read the book, but I have listened to a podcast interview with him on Philosophy Bites. From that interview, the book would seem to be a good bet for those wanting to know more. The main point is that we can make sense of value independently of god stipulating what is good, bad, right, wrong (And if arguments against the divine command theory are sound, then we should do so). For example, the most basic form of utilitarianism identifies the good with pleasure, the bad with pain or the absence of pleasure, and right action as that action which maximizes the good, i.e., pleasure, for the greatest number. Utilitarianism may not be the correct account of value and right action, but it at least gives an easy to understand example of how you can get ethics without god.
Going back to the first issue, where do we learn to be moral? Where does a person’s moral compass come from? I take it that there is a relatively straightforward answer to this question: your moral compass comes from your parents and teachers, those who explicitly said, “Don’t lie,” and “Don’t’ be unfair; share with your sister,” and those who set either good or bad examples by their behavior. It’s certainly true that if you had a religious upbringing, then you probably also were taught something about being moral in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. And your parents and teachers likely were inculcated with morality in similar ways. This is no surprise, since religions do often center around morality (Though here is an interesting article that emphasizes other important roles for religion).
Nevertheless, while religion often plays a role in learning about ethics, many of the contexts in which we learn to be more or less ethical creatures do not explicitly appeal to religion or god. We learn that lying, stealing, and murder are wrong often enough without someone saying, “Because god says so,” or “Because you’ll go to hell if you do.” The point I want to emphasize is that while religion happens to often play an explicit role, it just as often doesn’t. And if god is not necessary for explaining value and we can (and often do) learn to be moral without appeal to religion, then there is no reason to think that atheists are likely to be any less moral than those who believe in god and go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue.
One possible objection to my argument concerns our motivation for acting ethically. The person of faith fears hellfire and acts accordingly; the ungodly atheist may think the right thing to do is to maximize pleasure for the greatest number, but really when it suits him/her, why not just maximize one’s own pleasure—nothing will happen if one fails intentionally or not to do the right thing. Plato considers this issue in his Republic. It is argued by Glaucon that we only act ethically if we think others are looking, this is the ring of Gyges example. And thus, without the fear of some sort of punishment, there is no real reason to act morally.
That is an important objection, one that is too complicated to adequately address here and now. So I will end with a pointed question: when people who are religious, god fearing folk act ethically, are they really only acting ethically because they fear hellfire and eternal separation from god? Or do they act ethically, not lying, stealing, or murdering their friends or even strangers, simply because they believe those things to be wrong?