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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5 comments

  1. Since you don’t have a “like” button, I’m going to start commenting with the word “like” when I enjoy your posts.

    LIKE! 😉 😛

  2. Christians, the religious I commonly experience, harbor many misconceptions about atheists. They don’t understand us at all. They say that we believe in nothing, we think life has no meaning, we have no morals, we live in despair, we all hate them. They come at me with these misconceptions, rather than actually asking me who I am as an atheist. It’s a prejudice. I can assume some things about someone who is a Catholic or Mormon, but religion is not just what is published in their holy books, it is how the literature is interpreted and practiced. Within the same religion there are denominations and within those congregations and within those families and finally individuals. There are differences between all of those and it is worth asking each person what their religion really is to them. As a loner atheist, I do not conform to any set of ideas like a religious congregation does. It may be that I differ from other atheists much more than any two members of the same religion.

    Unfortunately, science will always be a threat to religion and this is what every religious person knows and feels. They react as to a threat.

    Any close study of the Bible shows how much of a product of the people and times it is, every translation over the centuries, every version. The various scrolls were written within patriarchal domineering societies and it shows. Honor thy father and thy mother – so that you will do what you’re told “because I’m your parent.” God is the father and can do whatever he wants, even if it is encouraging genocide and the murdering of male homosexuals by stoning. He must be obeyed and feared, but he also is loving. Sounds like every dysfunctional father wielding control and power to me. Perpetuating patriarchal societies is dangerous to the world.

    People who believe they can divine what the Almighty wants by consulting their own brains use this inner experience to justify what they want. A previous Mormon president meditated and decided to ban polygamy, because the U.S. wasn’t ready for it yet, and by doing so they would submit to the demands of the nation and finally become the state of Utah. Misplaced justification is dangerous.

    Religious books do contain some truths made of ponderings, but they are low on my list when I am consulting literature in forming opinions or understanding the universe. Science is a more reliable source of truth, based on proven methods. Relying on information that is not credible is dangerous.

    Religions are systems of order that resist change. Rules are easier to follow when they are simple and static. But life is hardly ever simple. As you note, many situations and truths are very complex and require much study before taking the best action. Sometimes it can take centuries of studying before we have the best answer, such as understanding infection and hygiene, the genetic and environmental factors of homosexuality, or all the ways that human beings abuse each other (yes, husbands can rape their wives…).

    At some point, a religious person has to choose between the religion and science. It may take a while before the dilemma arises, but it will always happen. Not updating when warranted is dangerous. Oversimplifying is dangerous. Some holy texts and some science can be reconciled using the vagueness or metaphorical nature of some of the former, but some cannot. I do not think religion should be banned, but I think it should always be challenged. Every statement, every practice, like anything else.

    1. Thank you so much for your comprehensive comment! My response to it won’t be lengthy by virtue of both my agreement with you – and because it’s getting late here and I can’t find the words that would do a reply justice! Once again, thank you!

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