Can One Be Moral and Not Believe In God?
Is it possible for an individual to live morally without believing in God? For someone who believes in God this may be a difficult question to answer. Whereas, someone who does not believe in God might immediately say that having morals has nothing to do with religion.
So, to answer this question, we will look at what it means to have morals, compare the views of an Atheist and a Catholic, and look how ethics plays a role in answering this question. In the end, we will see that it is not necessary to believe in a higher power to live morally.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a moral is defined as “concerning or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior” (2013). For many years it has been debated on what it means to have morals. Some believe that a higher power such as God set forth rules or guidelines as to how to live morally. Others believe that people do not need a higher power to determine how one should behave in life. Ultimately, the answer lies in each individual and their understanding, and each answer may vary.
However, there is a universal understanding of what is right and wrong. Everyone could agree that it is wrong to commit murder. We could all agree that we should treat others with the level of respect that we wish to receive. But where did the underlying rules of morals come from?
Whether a person is religious or not, each person could agree on the concept of the Golden Rule. According to Mosser (2010), “…the best-known version comes from the Christian Bible: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Sec. 2.1, Para. 19). Simply put, do not do something to someone else that you would you not want them doing to you.
If you do not want someone to cheat off your test, do not cheat off someone else’s test. If you do not want your significant other to cheat on you, you should not cheat on them. No matter what background people may have, we can all come up with the same conclusion that there are good and bad actions. But how does each person’s background effect their understanding of what is moral?
Someone with a religious background, such as a Catholic, will tell you that God laid out the rules of what it means to have morals. Cynthia Stewart (n.a.) states, “Catholics see the Ten Commandments found in the Hebrew scriptures as the basic groundwork for moral action, which together with the life of Jesus provide a deep and abiding understanding for how to act with love and justice in the world” (Para. 3). The Ten Commandments are typically thought of when determining what God considers to be sins.
Catholics believe that how an individual behaves here on Earth will determine what they are to expect in the afterlife. If you live a life filled with love of God and his children, you will obtain eternal happiness in heaven. However, if you live a life of evil actions and choices you will be punished by going to hell.
On the other hand there are the nonbelievers, such as Atheists, who do not believe in a God. According to Walters (2010), “…philosophical atheists put a high premium on reason, insisting that a rejection of God-belief must be based on the same judicious scrutiny of available evidence and arguments called for in examining any claim” (p. 12, Para. 3). Some people are just raised not to believe in this higher power, others may have had a bad religious experience which led them to this understanding.
For these individuals they look at the situation at hand and determine through logical thinking and reason what they must do in life. They do not look to a higher power to decipher what they should do, but look within themselves and what is expected of them from their community. For example, if an Atheist sees someone steal something from an individual and run down the road, they may run after the culprit because they have a sense of duty to do what is right.
Now that we have seen two different points of view, we must then consider how ethics can determine if someone can live a moral life with or without
the belief in God. Ethics is the way an individual justifies their decision on what is means to have morals.
Lawler (2013) states, “Contemporary ethics takes three normative approaches to determining the morality of an action: (1) the utilitarian approach, which gauges morality by utility; (2) the deontological approach, which emphasizes rules, obligations, and duties; and (3) the “new” virtue-ethical approach, which gives precedence not to the actions of the agents but to their personal characters formed in their respective moral communities and learned through the imitation of the respected role models in those communities” (p. 443, Para. 2).
Which view each individual will agree with will drastically vary. Each approach has integrity and will serve the same purpose in determining what is right from wrong. The difference is in the approach, whether by utility, rules, or an individual’s actions. However, even though these views may come up with the same conclusion, which is the best ethical system?
The ethical system that works best for me is the virtue-ethical approach of which focuses on the individual. Adults have an obligation to raise children to be responsible and respectable so that they can then teach the next generation and so on. However, as individuals we can only take responsibility for our own actions. According to McCloskey (2008) there are “seven virtues” of which can be rearranged and combined in order to determine if one is virtuous; courage, temperance, justice, prudence, faith, hope, and love (p.46, Para. 4).
After reviewing multiple ways that one can merge these virtues together, I have determined that one does not necessarily need every single one of these to be considered virtuous. For someone who believes in God, they may very well combine faith with courage, and take the belief that their courage comes from God. Someone who is a non-believer may unite courage with prudence. Each person would still be considered virtuous. Because either person’s views can be used is the ethical system it shows that this system can be used universally between religious and non-religious beliefs.
To understand all of what we have reviewed thus far, let us look at Heather the Catholic and Mary the Atheist. Both people drive down the same road every day to go to work. They both see a man on the side of the road with the sign pleading for money. Both stop and give the man some money to help him get through the day. Why do they do it? Heather was raised Catholic and was taught that when you see someone in need the right thing to do is to help. She believes that helping others will get her to heaven.
On the other hand, we have Mary who is an atheist. She stopped to give the stranger money because she likes the good feeling she gets when helping someone. She does not rely on the thought of a God looking down on her, judging her actions for what is to come in her afterlife. So, would it be correct in saying that both individuals can be viewed as having morals?
Some people who are strongly influenced by their religion may say that morality can only come from believing in a God. Without the moral rules set forth by God there is no reason to live in such a way.
They may argue that without God-driven morals, there is no reason to believe that stealing is wrong. If there is no punishment by a higher power, then there are no rules to follow. However, there belief or argument is that there is in fact punishment in the afterlife for actions taken in this life. That judgment is determined by God, so therefore God does exist and one should live a life according to the rules he gave us.