Humanists often hear the charge that without belief in God there is no basis for morality and thus “anything goes.” Actually, most nonbelievers have strong foundations for living ethically.
As the great nineteenth-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll often explained, one basis for nontheistic morality is simply the idea of self-defense.
Because nontheists do not want to be murdered, robbed, raped, or otherwise injured, they support laws prohibiting those types of harmful acts.
By the same token, their desire to be treated fairly, honestly, and respectfully leads them to advocate laws and rules of conduct that promote fair, honest, and respectful treatment of people.
In this manner, the idea of self-defense produces a just system of laws and social standards.
Another basis for nontheistic morality is the principle of enlightened self-interest. Under this principle, it makes perfectly good sense for a person to treat others kindly and helpfully. The treatment will likely cause them to reciprocate with similar behavior, thereby increasing the person’s happiness.
Conversely, if a person treats people selfishly and abusively, he will likely be worse off in the long run. Sooner or later, the victims will realize the injustice being done to them. The usual response is to retaliate against, ostracize, or otherwise punish the wrongdoer.
And it is not just the victims who recognize the wrongdoer as a dangerous person who should be avoided. Those who witness or learn about the wrongdoing are likely to feel the same way.
For instance, some people have no qualms about telling friends or coworkers of how they cheated, lied to, or stole from others. When thoughtful persons hear this, they know that because the person was willing to mistreat others in the past, he will almost certainly mistreat them in the future if he perceives a similar benefit to be gained from it.
As a result, they view the person as a threat and danger. If they are smart, they will not trust or associate with him. At the very least, they will not do so in situations offering him a chance to defraud or otherwise harm them.
In an work environment, the person’s ability to obtain raises and promotions is thereby reduced. His continued employment may be jeopardized. And in his personal life, the ability to develop meaningful relationships is restricted.
Because of the possible undesirable consequences of mistreating others, it is not in a person’s long-term interest to do so.
Love for others
Besides avoiding the wrath of those who have been mistreated, nontheists behave morally for a more positive reason: their love for others such as family and friends.
For normal people, such love is a source of great pleasure and satisfaction. And hate produces the opposite feelings.
Love for others includes a desire to see that the objects of the love are happy. Fulfilling the desire often entails unselfishness and self-sacrifice. When done in a spirit of love, those efforts can be quite pleasurable to the one making them.
As Albert Einstein said: “From the standpoint of daily life . . . there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men – above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.”
Love for others likewise includes pain in seeing their unhappiness. Work and self-denial stem from a desire to avoid that pain.
Thus, caring and helpful behavior results from the pleasure of feeling love for others and the motivations naturally accompanying the feeling.
Emotional and physical benefits
Nontheists also have reasons for doing good to those they don’t know and probably never will know. Recent research indicates a person’s emotional and physical health can improve by performing good works.
As explained in Allan Luks’s book The Healing Power of Doing Good, science is revealing that helping others can produce many benefits for the helper. The benefits include, but are not limited to, experiencing a “helper’s high” involving an initial rush of good feelings followed by a longer-lasting period of emotional well-being.
Emotional benefits of being kind to others are similarly described in Dr. Richard Carlson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. “Perhaps the greatest reason to practice random kindness is that it brings great contentment into your life,” he says. “Each act of kindness rewards you with positive feelings and reminds you of the important aspects of life – service, kindness, and love.”
Abraham Lincoln succinctly expressed a similar view: “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
Dan Barker’s book Life Driven Purpose refers to the brain chemistry relating to the phenomenon: “We now know that acts of charity and compassion actually boost pleasure chemicals in the brain, similar to how we feel when eating chocolate, listening to music, making love, or laughing.”
These benefits make sense in terms of human evolutionary history. Early societies that were able to develop compassion, altruism, and cooperation would have had a competitive advantage over those that didn’t. As Charles Darwin said: “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected.”
Thomas Jefferson and nontheistic morality
Based on some of these reasons for behaving ethically, Thomas Jefferson assured his nephew Peter Carr that belief in God is not necessary for morality.
In a letter to the young man, Jefferson advised: “Fix Reason firmly in her seat . . . . Question with boldness even the existence of a God . . . . Do not be frightened from this enquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you.”
[For further information on this subject, please see the article titled “Religion, Nontheism and Unethical Behavior.”]