The Reverend Rick Warren, in his mega best-seller The Purpose Driven Life, writes regarding nonbelievers: “If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately. You could forget about being good and ethical, and you wouldn’t have to worry about any consequences of your actions. You could indulge yourself in total self-centeredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions.” This idea is not new. Fydor Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian author, is supposed to have claimed: “If there is no God, then all things are permitted”.
I wonder if people really believe this? Obviously I don’t, since I didn’t throw my morals to the wind when I stopped believing in God. So it left me wondering; if Rick Warren stopped believing in God, would he really start “living it up immediately” or “forget about being good and ethical” to family, friends, strangers, people in need, or even his pet dog? If the answer is that he would turn to deception, robbery, rape, debauchery, or murder - instead of continuing to be a good person - then this is a moral indictment on his own character. What sort of person turns to debauchery and vice if their only restraint (belief in God, love of God, fear of consequence, or hope for reward) is removed?
Actually, I don’t think Rick Warren would do what he suggests atheists should do. I don’t think any previously good believer (turned nonbeliever) would either. There are plenty of other reasons to be good: love, respect, reciprocity, altruism, integrity, and empathy - to name a few reasons. All these qualities are possessed by the religious and nonreligious alike. In fact, the Golden Rule, or some version of it, is common to all cultures and predates Christianity and monotheistic religion. Reciprocal and altruistic behaviors are even found in the non-human animal and insect world. There are so many examples of nonreligious individuals, societies, and cultures acting good (thereby disproving Rick Warren’s silly idea that we wouldn’t) that I don’t need to list them to emphasize my point that nonbelievers can be good. However, I want to go even further and claim that God isn’t even the source of morality.
In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks: “Are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right?”
If you answer Socrates’ question by saying that something is good because God says it’s good, then prior to God saying killing is wrong, it wasn’t wrong. Therefore, what is good is arbitrary and whatever God commands is therefore good by His decree only. If God makes things right or wrong, then killing, rape, and stealing would be good if God says they are good. But there seems to be something wrong with this notion of morality since killing, rape, and theft would be wrong whether God says so or not.
In practice, most of us don’t subscribe to this idea of morality. If God gives a commandment that goes against our inner moral sense, then people usually ignore it, or it quickly becomes outdated and socially unacceptable. We pick and choose upon the basis of what seems moral to us already. For example, even though the Bible (and presumably God) said we should put to death Sabbath-day breakers (Exod. 35:2), adulterers (Lev. 20:10), witches (Exod. 22:18), blasphemers (Levit 24:14), homosexuals (Lev. 20:13), and atheists (2 Chron. 15:12-13) - we don’t do that anymore. Nor do we condone slavery as the Bible does (Deut. 21:10-14, Titus 2:9-10). We also ignore commandments to not eat pigs (Lev. 11:7-8), shrimp and lobster (Lev 11:10), or wear a jacket made from a linen/wool blend (Deut. 22:11). These are all very out-of-date moral rules - some of which you’d be put in jail for today - that we ignore or override because they conflict with our own sense of what’s right and wrong.
However, the alternative to Socrates question is that God commands what is already morally good. But if morally good acts are willed by God because they are already morally good, then they must be morally good prior to (and therefore independent of) God willing them. And if morality is independent from God, then we can be good without being told how to be.
The view that morality comes from God sometimes prevents people from allowing this basic goodness to nonbelievers. Even though religion teaches morality (which is a good thing that religions do) there is no evidence that this makes someone more ethical, just as there is no evidence that lack of religious belief makes someone less ethical. Granted, religious people are good; but don’t confuse correlation with causation, since nonbelievers are good too. In fact, I can’t think of any ethical action performed by a believer that could not have been performed by a nonbeliever. Can you?