All morality begins and ends with sympathy.
We have evolved the ability to empathize, to share the motivations and feelings of those around us. From this, we have gained the ability to sympathize with the plight of others, to understand what may be causing them distress or pain, and to wish, for their sake, that their suffering would stop. Armed with this sympathy, we act in a moral way to prevent the distress and suffering of others. Our opinions on what constitutes a moral course of action may differ, but the underlying sympathy is the same.
With sympathy for others and recognition of the similarities between people, we each build an internal code of the morality of our actions. We seek to protect innocent children, for we were once children ourselves and needed protection. We seek a society that does not foster immoral actions, in order to protect the members of society like ourselves. We feel and internalize various plights and pains of others in this process, and develop a true morality. American revolutionary and President Thomas Jefferson put it well when he wrote in an 1814 letter, “Nature [has] implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses.”
In our daily lives, we occasionally encounter challenges to this morality, where we are faced with actions that may cause some distress to others, and we must decide whether our own actions are moral or not. Our code of morality may allow for small transgressions or small injuries to others, but not large ones. We might perhaps take an inexpensive item like a pen from our workplace, but we do not take an expensive one. We might ignore a man caught in a downpour, but we do not ignore a drowning man. We might argue politics with people on the street, but we do not assault them. We recognize the harm to others in theft, in neglecting someone who is drowning, in committing assault.
Theistic religions, on the other hand, offer a false morality based upon threats and rewards, usually combined with a scripted set of moral and immoral actions. Adherents who fail to follow the scripted moral actions are threatened with divine punishment, while adherents who follow them closely are promised supernatural rewards of bliss or pleasure from god. However, these religions often do include references to the true morality of sympathy. In the Christian bible, Matthew 7:12 (KJV) states, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” This is known as the Golden Rule, and the common form of this is often quoted, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is the true embodiment of sympathy.
Although much of the rest of the scripted morality is false, the morality put into practice by most theists and by most people throughout the world is true, and is based on sympathy. Most theists adjust the scripted requirements as needed to follow their own understanding of what is moral and what is not. Although the bible allows for slavery but bans the wearing of clothing consisting of mixed fibers woven together (Leviticus 19:19, KJV), most people today recognize that slavery is bad and mixed-fiber clothing is harmless. The scripture has been adjusted to meet more reasonable moral standards. The Indian independence and peace activist Mahatma Gandhi (a Hindu) himself explicitly admitted that his morality was not based on that of scripture when he stated, “My belief in the Hindu scriptures does not require me to accept every word and every verse as divinely inspired, I decline to be bound by any interpretation, however learned it may be, if it is repugnant to reason or moral sense.” In all religions, scripture is usually subordinate to the natural “moral sense” of sympathy.
Many of the political arguments we have today are a matter of choice of interpretation of the more moral action between the two. Is it more moral to allow a drug user to go free and possibly clean up his life, or to jail him and help prevent the flow of drugs into society? Is it more moral to spare the life of a murderer, or to execute him to ensure he never kills again and deter other would-be killers, so sparing the lives of their future victims? Is it more moral to go to war to bring down a brutal dictator and protect the people he has oppressed and killed, or to avoid the war and protect the people that would be the casualties of war? There is no absolute answer to any of these questions; the answers are a matter of personal preferences of which choice is more moral, in the eyes of the beholder.
However, the fact that we can see both sides of the above issues shows that there is a consistent moral underpinning to us all. Our common moral goals in all of the above examples are to minimize injustice and suffering and death, and to foster a positive society. We would not support the jailing or execution of an innocent person. We would not support war against a peaceful country that treats its citizens fairly and has not attacked or threatened us. There are obviously absolute bounds to morality.
What is the nature of good and evil? Does evil exist? In the traditional supernatural sense of demons and devils, no. However, people can commit evil actions, actions which people agree are immoral in such an extreme way as to be evil. The actions of Hitler or of Pol Pot are of course evil, to the point where the person himself can only be considered evil and completely immoral. Any good acts by that person must necessarily be cast in the light of their evil actions.
Is there such a thing as “sin”? Traditionally, we think of sins as transgressions against god. But an Atheist can understand them term, for certain acts are surely “sinful,” although the transgression is not against god, it is against another. Sometimes sins are classified as being in thought rather than in deed. For the Atheist, the sins in deed are the ones that matter the most. Sins in thought may be thought of as transgressions against one’s self, but as long as there is no action taken, no harm has been committed to others. Catholics further divide sins into “mortal” sins, which cannot be rectified, and “venial” sins, which can. Mortal sins require knowledge of the sin, free will in commission of the sin, and the sin itself must be a grave matter, not merely a minor transgression. Atheists will recognize mortal sins as being those which are outside the absolute bounds of morality. Unlike theists, we recognize no supernatural punishment for commission of a mortal sin. Instead, an Atheist who does so will suffer the pains of their own conscience and guilt, as a result of their underlying sympathy for their victim. Again, sympathy is the basis for all morality.
Does good exist? Again, there are no angels or gods. But people can choose good actions over evil ones. A good action is defined by a person’s set of morals, which depend on sympathy. But just as there are absolutes in the moral basis upon which we all build our particular moral codes, there are actions that would qualify as good by all moral standards. Helping the injured after a natural disaster is certainly good in the eyes of all societies, as is protecting a child or offering shelter to a guest. Judaism calls such acts “mitzvahs,” and Atheists certainly understand such acts. But instead of earning a supernatural reward for such mitzvahs, the Atheist will benefit from their sympathy for those they assisted. Plus, Atheists recognize that there is no afterlife, and see mitzvahs as a way to personally leave a lasting positive impression on the world, and to help shape society in a way that such good deeds are commonplace.
So are all sets of morals that give rise to personal judgements of good and evil equally valid? Should each person’s actions be only judged by that of their small peer group? The answer is no. As we have matured as a thinking and moral species, our global set of morals has also matured. We have cast out actions from our history that are now deemed objectionable. Genocide and slavery, even of those who fight against you, has been recognized as immoral under all circumstances, even though our history is rife with instances of genocidal actions by groups that have since changed to be moral. Denial of the basic rights of innocent people is considered immoral, such as the rights of free speech, freedom of movement (with an allowance for order and security), freedom of action (as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others), and a vote for your leaders. One of the strongest embodiments of such principles was in the American Declaration of Independence, which stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Although the “Creator” of man is merely the complex process of evolution, the statement that all innocent people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness rings true.
Since morality must be based upon sympathy, does that mean that all we learned from the Bible or the Quran is wrong? Of course not. Although much of what was written in those books were based upon the sensibilities of people who lived thousands of years ago, some of what was written was grounded in the concept of basic human interaction and sympathy, and still applies today. Here are a few of the good teachings from the Bible and the Quran:
Do not kill or steal:“Thou shalt not kill.” Exodus 20:13, KJV (King James Version of the Bible)
“Thou shalt not steal.” Exodus 20:15, KJV
Be kind to strangers:“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 22:21, KJV
“And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.” Leviticus, 19:33, KJV
Do not commit perjury:“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Exodus 20:16, KJV
Deal fairly with one another:“And if thou sell aught unto thy neighbor, or buyest aught of thy neighbor’s hand, ye shall not oppress one another.” Leviticus 25:14, KJV
“Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.” Leviticus 19:13, KJV
Care for orphans and treat them fairly:“And test the orphans until they attain puberty; then if you find in them maturity of intellect, make over to them their property, and do not consume it extravagantly and hastily, lest they attain to full age; and whoever is rich, let him abstain altogether, and whoever is poor, let him eat reasonably; then when you make over to them their property, call witnesses in their presence; …” Chapter 4 (An-Nisa), verse 7 (Shakir version of Quran)
Surely such teachings still apply today. Whether you follow such teachings out of reverence for scripture or out of common sense and sympathy for a fellow human being, you are still committing good acts. These passages fall within the bounds of morality. That was much of the intent of the authors of the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, and other such religious tomes: to explicitly codify which actions are moral, and which actions are not. And these books did serve a great purpose, to help teach children the difference between good and evil, and to give the adult a written, standard document to fall back upon when confronted with a morally gray area.
But other passages in the Bible and Quran give commandments that are either contradictory to other passages in the same book, pointless (the Bible is clear that mixing wool and linen is forbidden!), and in some cases, in direct opposition to the ultimate arbiter of morality, our sympathy for others. If such scripted morality is used as the only basis for beliefs, you can see how some might end up committing acts that are immoral, but that follow the letter of their chosen scripture. A written law can have loopholes, but human sympathy is much harder to circumvent.
We have in our midst people who have perverted their own moral system to one that the rest of us recognize as immoral, based upon the written laws of their religion, and their faith in one god or another. In the conflict between Israel and Palestine, we have seen actions such as those of Israeli settler Baruch Goldberg, who fired an automatic weapon at the backs of unarmed Palestinian civilians in a mosque killing dozens, or that of the Palestinian sniper who shot and killed Shalhevet Pas, an infant in her mother’s arms. Both committed heinous acts against the innocent because they thought their religion made what they did morally acceptable. They were blinded to true morality by their faith and their scripture. Although they might have thought their acts were acceptable, the world acknowledges them as actions of evil. Even their own people, locked in a battle where morals are constantly pushed to the boundaries, have categorically condemned such horrific acts.
Throughout history, many other innocents have died at the hand of those claiming to be doing good in the name of religion. During the Spanish Inquisition, thousands upon thousands of innocents died and many more were horribly tortured in the name of Christianity. Hysteria over supposed anti-Christian witches was responsible for many more deaths in Europe and America. And even in modern times, people are tortured and killed in the name of religion. In 1998, Iran executed a member of the Baha’i faith for heresy, one of hundreds to die and many more tortured for heresy against Islam in the decades since the revolution in Iran in 1979. Even in 2005, three Christian men were convicted in London, England for torturing an eight-year-old girl they believed was a witch. Clearly, evil acts are committed by people following the false morality of scripted religious teachings, usually ones which call non-believers “evil” or destined for their supposed hell. Such acts continue to this day.
The definition of actions that are good and/or evil has a range of interpretation, but there are definite bounds to that interpretation that society has agreed upon. If you follow supposedly infallible religious teachings, you might commit an evil, immoral act in the name of religion, in the expectation of a supernatural reward. To quote Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg: “… With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” However, with the understanding of the true nature of the world and morality that Atheism brings, a higher set of morals is achieved. People can rightly evaluate whether their actions are good or evil, using their own internal scale, instead of the ancient writings of the uninformed.
Note that this is not a claim that all Atheists are moral people. Atheists are people, just as are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of all other religions. Within any population there are good people and bad people, and the bad often use their belief system to oppress others. Stalin, an avowed Atheist, killed millions. He was clearly immoral and evil, without the regard for his fellow man that a Good and Moral Atheist has. He used Atheism as a tool, much as other evil people throughout history have used religion. Hitler and Torquemada professed Christianity, but their actions in no way followed the teachings of Jesus. They used religion as a way to control others and as a justification for their horrendous acts.
The Good and Moral Atheist will base his or her morality upon sympathy for other people and for other living beings. While that morality will have a subjective element due to individual perceptions of what is harmful or helpful, and what priorities are placed on different actions, it will nevertheless be bounded by what we now consider absolutes. We must do what is in our power to protect innocents, especially children. We must help those who are in need. We must strive for a fair and just society, where basic freedoms are protected. We must seek a betterment of mankind, and a nullification of the agents of injustice, prejudice, oppression, intolerance, and evil in the world. We must continue scientific efforts to understand the nature of the world and of ourselves, for such knowledge is the only truth.
We must recognize that sympathy for our fellow man is the noblest of the emotions.