Morality – What is it?

So lately I’ve been having some interesting discussions with a Muslim on the subject of morality. How is morality defined?

Morality is in a broad sense, that which governs what we consider to be right and wrong. Within this, there’s a wide scope, and the added complication that people draw their morality from different places. I have frequently read (as an example) that abortion should be considered immoral, for it is an act of murder, and I usually see this argument from religious sources. It’s never that simple though – what is the moral situation in cases of rape, or where the child will face a life of sickness and pain?

We are presented (by certain interpretations of Christianity and Islam) with some fairly black and white narratives on morality. Some acts are definitively ‘bad’ and some are considered so virtuous they are holy. However, some of the acts carried out by (or commanded by) God in the Bible are extremely violent. God is considered incapable of sin and is utterly pure – a yardstick of morality – yet acts like those found in  1 Samuel 15:2-3 test our sense of morality, don’t they? I quote:

‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys’

Is the wholesale slaughter of an entire people ever moral, least of all of children? I’ve seen the answer ‘God works in mysterious ways’.


That’s a copout, escapism argument. When pressed on the question of whether they would kill children at God’s command, most supporters of Biblical morality refuse to answer, with some even protesting that it’s a loaded question. The thing is – it is a loaded question. It’s a question designed to expose the disconnect between what we instinctively know to be wrong and what is being asked of us. The refusal to answer the question is a tacit admission that they wouldn’t want to follow such an order, because they know in their gut it’s not justified. Instead, they seek to handwave away the argument by saying God is held to a different standard of morality.

Surely we cannot therefore use God’s different standard as a yardstick for human morality?

The underpinning argument here is that according to some theists, atheists have nothing to base their morality upon. ‘Without God granting us a moral code, what rules would we live by?’ Yet as explained above, we know on an instinctive level that killing children and slaughtering people is wrong, yet apparently for God this is moral, as God is held to a different standard.

We also know that arbitrary discrimination is wrong, yet books such as the Bible and Quran have been interpreted as permitting the persecution and even killing of homosexuals. Is this moral? Can we ever assume it’s fair and reasonable to deny someone their rights, based on something they didn’t choose?

To an atheist, life is a remarkable series of events that led to our evolution. We are therefore unique and it is therefore vital that we take care of ourselves and the world we live in. To an atheist, we get one shot at life and with this knowledge, it’s important to treat life as precious and to treat every life as important. It stands to reason then, that from this starting point, ensuring rights for everyone, not just those who share a particular religious belief, is a natural progression of this idea.

This is not to say that everything to come from sources such as the Bible is wrong. ‘Thou shall not steal’, and many of the Commandments make good sense. Are they derived from a deity though, or in fact the product of our evolution as social animals?

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