While I can’t say anyone has ever had the temerity to attempt to express this to my face (I’m not a little or meek-looking guy,) there is a very prominent tendency to automatically equate “atheist” with “immoral,” one of the little triumphs of religious influence – in fact, it may come second only to “faith is a virtue” in the realm of common beliefs that have no actual basis in reality. Atheism has nothing whatsoever to do with morals, as a moment’s thought will demonstrate – it also has nothing to do with political parties, child psychology, or the proper way to serve tea. Yet, we’re led to believe that morality can stem only from religion, and in most cases, one particular religion (which is, of course, the very same religion practiced by the person promoting this idea, imagine that coincidence.)
When one tries to find a useful definition for the term, the difficulties with the idea become clear – for something that dictates an ideal of society and permeates our conduct as humans, there is an inexcusable amount of vagueness in most sources, almost always dealing with “right and wrong.” This may be in no small part due to pressures from religions not to include any comments about common benefit, empathy, treating everyone as equals, or demonstrable advancement, all of which certainly have some say in my approach to morality while pulling the teeth of religious privilege. But overall, the lack of distinctive traits or measurements in the concept of moral allows people to insert their own ideas, or more often, buy into the definition promoted by religious leaders. Naturally, a supreme being would have final say on what’s moral, right?
But here’s the problem with that: The vast majority of religious morals are, as noted before, incredibly selfish, aimed only at individual behavior and not at, for instance, society itself. It’s true that any application of morality comes first and foremost through the individual, but if it applies only to the individual (“Don’t masturbate!”), then there is little application to society as a whole, and very little reason to elevate morality as a cornerstone. If I eat shellfish, or work on the sabbath, or covet my neighbor’s patio furniture, what hazard does this really communicate to anyone else? And why should anyone else concern themselves with my behavior? Obviously, what we think of as morals are intended to apply to everyone to provide community strength, promote justice, and maintain better relations – they involve codes of conduct between individuals, with the underlying implication that society is a greater concern than any one person.
This is why I find it amusing that atheism is considered so much lower on the moral ladder, if it appears at all, than virtually every religion in existence. The elimination of arbitrary rules provided by scripture for “personal salvation” means that morality actually deals with societal benefit, not getting muddied by individual piety or, worse but disturbingly prevalent, the selection of minute fractions of scripture to support a pre-existing bias. Without a supreme authority to claim as backing, atheists and humanists instead look to humans themselves when defining morality, seeking goals that actually support society as a whole instead of drawing circles around themselves to denote the heretics outside. Moral behavior becomes a practice of demonstrable and measurable benefit, and justice actually starts to have some relation to the statue of the blindfolded woman holding scales – it doesn’t matter what anyone calls themselves or what they wear around their neck, since it’s their actions that count.
Moreover, it helps lead away from the class consciousness that is also promoted by religion, as well as many other sources such as political affiliation, income level, or skin color. When any concept of morality revolves around an idea that a class of people has greater claim to the title, this actively works against both the idea and the benefit; just like “good” and “bad,” actions are moral, not people. Self-proclaimed authorities provide nothing of value to society, and are only examples of pompous attempts at manipulation.
In all fairness, there is nothing about atheism that promotes morality, either, nor any reason to believe the standpoint leads towards greater morality – it simply denotes no belief in deities. As much as this may be wielded by triumphant religious debaters, it doesn’t exactly have a lot of bearing on any argument, and anyone calling themselves an atheist tells us nothing about their approach to any other subject at all. However, once the conversation turns to morality, it becomes safe to say that atheists aren’t going to accept anyone’s choice of quote-mined scripture, and that morality is going to have a different definition than “faithful.” And humanism, which often correlates very closely with atheism, does have a specific approach to morality.
The other issue with religious morality is that it runs into serious problems when the debate turns to which religion; christians find that wielding their holy book doesn’t mean fuck-all to muslims doing the same, and the only thing they can resort to is exactly what any atheist or humanist does: either, “you have no proof of the accuracy of your book,” or, “morality should have more to it than arbitrary quoting from scripture.” Or, fairly frequently, the abject avoidance of any such debate in the first place. Atheism serves a nice purpose here in playing the evil enemy, allowing the religious to believe they’re all united rather than ridiculously at odds, with no arguments that cannot be turned against themselves.
On a related note, it’s not hard at all to find large numbers of people that seem to need distinct, firmly delineated definitions of any abstract subject, or they can’t seem to cope. When things such as abortion or human rights are discussed, they automatically seek any exception that can be found to any and every “rule” proposed, implying that without considering every possible exception, any such rule is worthless, or even that people won’t be able to handle any grey areas. But most people handle grey areas very well in the few circumstances when they have to, such as when it is appropriate to lie to someone (“I’m sure she didn’t suffer at all”), and the rare exception is no excuse to trash a distinctive benefit for 99% of situations. Simply defining morality as “providing the greatest benefit for society with the recognition of all humans as equal” covers most of the bases without issue; some qualifiers can be added of course, but that’s true of any definition, law, or guideline. Moreover, it automatically disqualifies any attempt to claim that legislation against same-sex marriage (and countless other examples) is morally backed. If no victim can be found, no detriment to society, who is the law supposed to be protecting?
While it might be nice to have all the important rules of life spelled out for us, since thinking is so hard (I know I expend as much as .003 calories per hour doing it,) finding our own way isn’t exactly something that we should feel threatened by. Most especially, if our thoughts on morality revolve around labels and titles, we’re not trying very hard. Which is rather disturbing for a species that considers itself so distinctive from all others.