I have been asked the following question on a couple of occasions by friends and acquaintances who tend to be less interested in philosophy and ethical ideas than I am. (I don’t necessarily consider less interest than I have in such issues to be a vice. It depends on the context of your own life.) When I discuss my atheism with them, they will ask something along the lines of: “What will keep people moral without religion?” It is difficult to answer this question with a 2-minute response, which is normally about all the time I can hope to get from them on the subject. The difficulty of a short response comes from the fact that the question presupposes some more fundamental questions. One of the more important fundamental questions presupposed by this question is: “What is morality and why do we need it?”
Before I begin, I should preface this explanation with the following: I don’t think that the moral system I am describing here is something I came up with first-hand. Most of my thinking in this area has been highly influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. I discovered her writings at about age 15, and I have been studying them ever since. Reading her works has convinced me that she was far more intelligent than I am, and I’m a pretty smart guy, so that’s saying a lot. If you like what you read here, then I recommend that you pick up some of her non-fiction works like “The Virtue of Selfishness” and read it. However, you also shouldn’t assume that what I am writing here is consistent with what was expressed in Ayn Rand’s writings. Describing her philosophical system is not my purpose here. My purpose is to explain what I believe to be true. As a result, I have tried to stay away from using a lot of terminology that may only be familiar to someone who studies Rand’s ideas. I have endeavored to “put things in my own words”, or to express them in a way that a broad cross-section of society will hopefully understand.
The question “What will keep people moral without religion?” can mean different things, depending on what is meant by “morality”. The questioner could really mean: “What will keep people obeying god’s word so that they can get into Heaven?” If this is really what the person is asking, then the answer is: “Since god and heaven don’t exist, there is no reason for people to act like they do.”, and that would be the end of the discussion. It should also be noted that many atrocities have been committed by people who hold getting into heaven as a goal, so I doubt that this is a good motive for morality, as that is commonly understood in America. Islamic terrorists, various cults in Western nations, and various Christian sects in pre-modern times, have all shown what destruction religion can unleash. (Modern American mainstream religions are so infused with secularism, that the damage they can do is more limited.)
The questioner could have a more secular goal in mind with the question, which is something like: “What will keep people from behaving in a way that is destructive of the social order?” If this is what is really being asked, then the questioner is basically asking: “Without religion (or at least the illusion of religion) what will keep people from robbing, murdering, raping, and enslaving other human beings?” This is a better question to ask because the questioner does seem to have some secular purpose in mind, and it should therefore not be dismissed as quickly as the more mystical variant of the question discussed above. To answer this version of the question, several facts must be understood. The questioner could believe that society is important for at least two reasons: First, he could believe that “society” is a sort of entity, that is more important than any of the individuals that make it up. Second, he could believe that it is easier for him, as an individual, to live in a social setting than to live alone. This first view of society, and the individual’s relationship to it, is commonly known as collectivism. This view mistakenly holds that society is somehow “more than the sum of its parts”. In reality, society is nothing more than a number of individual human beings. This collectivist view of society also holds that the purpose of the individual is to benefit society, rather than social relations benefiting each individual living in society. Collectivism is incompatible with the needs of anyone who wants to live, which means it is incompatible with human life. History has shown this to be true, since not only were collectivist states like the Soviet Union oppressive, they were also poor compared to nations that allowed individuals to pursue their own self-interest to a greater degree. For this reason, if this is what the questioner means when he asks the question “What will keep people moral without religion?”, then I would note that I reject this brand of “morality”. (Any further discussion of what is wrong with collectivism is beyond the scope of what I am writing about here, so I refer you to numerous writings by Ayn Rand on the subject. Her novel “We the Living”, which is set in Soviet Russia, and shows how those who want to live are destroyed under collectivism, is a good place to start.)
A person who is not, implicitly or explicitly, a collectivist probably means something like this by the question: “Without religion what will keep people from behaving in a way that would destroy society, which is only important because every individual person is actually better off living in (a certain type) of society, rather than living alone?” However, to answer this question, it must first be recognized that there are several implicit assumptions expressed in the question. First, the questioner assumes that his life is important; second, the questioner assumes that social existence, in other words, the individual living in a society, is preferable to living alone; and, third, that people need to act in certain ways, and refrain from acting in other ways, to ensure that their self-interest is maximized. Examining these assumptions will help to answer the question.
Addressing the last of these assumptions first, a person must engage in certain behavior if he wants to maximize his chance of living. Long-range planning tends to maximize one’s chances of survival. Deferring some consumption now for the sake of greater rewards later is an important concept that all adults must learn, in order to live successfully. For instance: If you plant some of the seeds you have, rather than eating all of them now, then they will likely grow into more plants later, and you will have even more seeds to consume in the future. If you study hard in school now, then you will have a better job later. A person must also engage in certain behavior for another, somewhat related, reason, which is that the universe acts in accordance with natural law. In other words, things in reality have a certain nature, or identity, and they act in accordance with that nature, which is the law of causality. Examples of natural law abound: If you heat a piece of wood to a certain temperature, under certain other conditions, it will catch on fire. If you eat certain types of plants they will nourish you. Water extinguishes fire under certain conditions. Plants need light to survive. If human beings want to survive, then they must take certain actions.
The fact that human beings must take certain actions, if they want to live, leads to another fundamental observation about why human beings must engage in certain behavior. The facts demonstrating this include: People, like all living organisms, must eat in order to live. People must protect themselves from the elements, by obtaining clothing and shelter. And, people are not automatically born knowing how to maintain their lives. Furthermore, the human mind has a certain nature (a certain identity). Specifically, a person can only gain knowledge by following a specific process of observing the world around him, and reasoning from those observations. This is what is meant here when man is described as “the rational animal”. Additionally, human beings must engage in a process of thought to gain knowledge about the world around them, because they do not automatically know what is in their best interest. If you observe a child, you will see him make choices that a rational adult would not make. For instance, he will eat too much candy and get a stomach ache because he doesn’t know any better. (You can also observe some adults make bad choices, either through ignorance or due to willful irrationality.) This is because human beings must gain knowledge through a process of thought and understanding, and this includes knowledge of what is in their best interests. It must also be clearly understood that the process of thinking is not automatic, and requires effort. This means that if a person is to survive, he must develop a habit of thinking, and applying that reasoning to the task of survival.
Another implicit assumption in the question about morality and religion is the assumption that the questioner’s life is important to him. If the questioner is saying that morality is necessary to maintain a social order that is beneficial to him, then he is implicitly saying that he wants to live, and that living in society will maximize his survival. The choice to live is a basic choice, which logically presupposes all other moral choices. If one chooses to live, then one must make choices in accordance with the standard of “man’s life”. Since human beings have a certain, specific nature, they must act in accordance with that nature, which is the nature of a living man. All of the actions of a human being desiring to live should be in accordance with the standard of “man’s life”. Living by the standard of “man’s life” means living by the standard of human nature, in other words, by the standard of man, the rational being. It should also be noted that the emotional result of living in accordance with the standard of “man’s life” is normally going to be happiness. (Although it may be possible to fail to achieve this state due to factors beyond one’s control. For instance, being placed in a concentration camp or having a terminal illness may make happiness impossible, despite one’s best efforts, but these unusual circumstances are fairly rare. Living in accordance with the standard of “man’s life” is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of achieving happiness.) The capacity for happiness is another aspect of human nature.
A final implicit assumption in the question about morality and religion is the assumption that living in society is preferable to living alone. This observation is true. A person who wants to live and achieve happiness can normally do so more successfully living and dealing with other human beings than he can on his own, like Robinson Crusoe. It would be impossible for any individual to produce all of the material products and goods that he enjoys today on his own. Imagine trying to manufacture completely from scratch one’s own computer, TV, food, house, car, and clothing. All of these things are available without needing to know how to create them oneself because of a concept from economics known as “the division of labor”. Basically, this is the idea that by specialization and trade, human beings can produce more than if they had to produce all of the products necessary for survival on their own. Implicit in the idea of trade is the concept of private property rights: that a person is entitled to keep and benefit from the material goods he produces. Also implicit in the concept of trade is the concept of justice: that each person should only receive a benefit, in this case, material goods, because he has earned it. The concepts of private property rights and justice are principles that one must obey in order to live successfully with others in society. In addition to the material benefit one receives from living in society, it should also be noted that there is a certain “emotional” or “spiritual” satisfaction (in a non-mystical sense) from doing so. The concepts involved here are somewhat more complicated than the more obvious material benefits of living in society, but they do exist. These benefits include friendship and romantic love. These relationships also demand that you treat people in a certain way. If you constantly lie to and betray a person, then they will not remain your friend for long, because there is no benefit in it for them. If you constantly fail to live up to promises of fidelity to a lover, then they will soon seek love elsewhere. Such relationships demand that you be honest and that you keep your promises. Furthermore, the need for such relationships demands that you judge others, and determine if they are worthy of your esteem and love.
Implicit in the idea that social existence is preferable to living alone is also the condition that one will be able to create and benefit by the things one creates. For instance, if a farmer is to benefit from living in society, then he must be free to produce crops, and to exchange those crops with others for the things he needs to live. If this social condition is not met, then living alone is actually preferable. For instance, living alone on a desert island is preferable to being in a totalitarian dictatorship or concentration camp, where you are not free to produce the material goods necessary for living, and to form relationships with people of your choice. Only if the society one lives in recognizes and respects the sanctity of the individual to produce the things necessary for his existence and to engage in the sorts of relationships that benefit him emotionally, will it be a society worth living in.
Now that the implicit assumptions contained in the question “What will keep people moral without religion?” have been examined, the answer becomes simple: Morality, by which I mean the principles and standards necessary for living, is necessary precisely because I want to live and pursue my own happiness. If anything else is meant by “morality”, then I reject it as either a mystical fantasy or as a collectivist nightmare, not worthy of my time.
There are many other issues that are closely related to the proper moral system I have set forth here that should be explored in greater detail. For instance, a discussion of government, and its essential role in a proper society, needs to be discussed. I think that government is essential for at least two reasons. First, human beings are not omniscient, they can be mistaken. Second, all people must choose to act right, and they are therefore capable of making the wrong choices. This means that a person can mistakenly believe that another person has committed a wrong, and a process is therefore needed to determine when a particular individual accused of committing a wrong against another has in fact done so. (This “process” owed to all people accused of a crime is commonly referred to as “due process”.) It would also be useful to flesh out the content of morality in the following sense: What are some of the specific “principles and standards” by which one must act in order to live? I have already discussed one, which is the most important: the habit of thinking, and applying that reasoning to the task of survival, which can be described as “rationality”. But simply saying: “If you want to live, then be rational.” is probably not sufficient guidance without looking into what that means in various common situations. But, in order to avoid turning this into a book, I will leave all of that for another time.