June 24, 2009

"If You Don't Believe in an Afterlife, Why Be Moral?"

Questions about morality always seem to be among the most common sort of questions atheists receive from Christians. There are many variations, but the common element is the notion that some sort of gods (and often the Christian god in particular) are required for moral behavior. It is almost as if these Christians cannot comprehend how someone could be moral without gods.

As many times as the claim that gods are necessary for morality has been debunked, it continues to surface. The version I most often hear asks what incentive one who rejects any sort of afterlife could possibly have for moral behavior in this life. "If you don't believe in an afterlife, why would you be moral at all?" No matter how many times I hear it, this still strikes me as an odd question.

Here is an example from a comment on another post made by Vance:
Dear sirs you have a lot of knowledge my question is if we die and there is nothing after death why not just be the evilest you can be.To me it does not make sense to help my so-called fellow man and have a temporary life and love people if in the end it means nothing. I want it all and all the evil I could do and try to get away with it without the authorities catching me. What do I care about anything or anyone if in the end it does not matter what I do in this temporary life if in the end I am nothingness it does not make sense to be good and it makes a lot more sense to be evil, no consequences when death comes. Isnt that the bottom line in atheism nothing really matters we die and that is it. What are your comments and thank you.
The crux of the question is quite clear: If I do not believe in an afterlife where I will be rewarded or punished for my behavior, why should I behave myself in this life?

Empathy for Others

The first thing I would say to Vance and others asking this question is that human empathy and perspective-taking (i.e., the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another and relate to them on an emotional level) are not dependent on any sort of supernatural entities or planes of existence. Independent of earthly consequences (e.g., incarceration), we tend to engage in moral behavior because we are able to empathize with others.

When I have to take a toy away from a small child because the pieces are small enough that I have to worry about choking, I can recognize that the child does not want to surrender the toy. Even though I know I am doing the right thing (i.e., removing a potential choking hazard), I recognize the child's unhappiness and may try to do something to relieve it (e.g., offering a safe toy as an alternative).

When a Christian tells me that I am going to spend eternity burning in the Christian hell, I refrain from knocking his teeth out as much as I might want to do so. Why? Because I remember being like him. I know what it is like to hold that worldview and to be convinced that I am somehow helping others by threatening them with hell. As much as I may now dislike this Christian and what he represents, I am still able to empathize with him.

The "Golden Rule"

Another powerful reason for moral behavior the notion that I should treat others the way I would like to be treated. Many Christians mistakenly believe that this "rule" came from their bible. It did not. It predated their bible by a large margin.

The idea here is simple but powerful. I do my best to treat others the way I would like to be treated, and this has nothing whatsoever to do with rewards or punishments. It is simply the right thing to do. How do I know? Because it makes good intuitive sense and helps maintain a desirable social structure.

Moral Development

The statement that one would commit all sorts of atrocities if one stopped believing in heaven and hell reflects a primitive but not unusual stage of moral development. In fact, it represents the very first stage of moral development in Kohlberg's six-stage model.

Most of us, including most Christians, continue to develop and pass through at least some of the other stages. Although this is a gross oversimplification, one could say that someone who grows into adulthood while remaining in this initial stage is a sociopath.

So another response to the initial question is that most adults progress to higher levels of morality that do not rest on mere rewards and punishments. Most adults, Christians included, are not moral because of what they believe about any sort of afterlife.

When Vance asks, "What do I care about anything or anyone if in the end it does not matter what I do in this temporary life if in the end I am nothingness it does not make sense to be good and it makes a lot more sense to be evil, no consequences when death comes," it appears that he is firmly fixed in the first stage of what Kohlberg refers to as preconventional morality.

A Question for the Christians

For all those Christians questioning why anyone would be good without the promise of heaven, I offer the following from Michael Shermer:
What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge…If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. QED. [Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 154-155].
For more on the subject of atheist morality, I encourage you to read the following:
Photo credit: jurvetson