The hopeless dreams of anarchists aside, it seems a given that societies need rules. To live communally, and to mutually benefit from that proximity, we have to know what is and is not permissible. It’s not an easy decision, that’s why society sustains, in grand style, an entire section of its population that it otherwise despises — lawyers!
Some of the rules we call law. Others are encoded at a deeper level. These we call morals. A common accusation levelled at atheists by the religious is that atheism offers no basis for morality. Clearly, this is nonsense. Atheism is a broad term that embraces many philosophies, providing a rich foundation on which to build a good, worthwhile and moral life.
At the same time, it would be worth asking where religions obtain their oft-claimed moral superiority. Did they invent the concept of being ‘good’, or did they simply usurp concepts already in common currency?
There must have been rules in operation among the members of social groups long before there were written languages to record them. As we’ve said, groups cannot function without them. But whenever a new religion appears — Judaism, for example, or Christianity — what we hear is how everyone who does not conform to that religion is somehow evil and condemned to be ostracised, at best, or even to suffer for all eternity.
Each religion claims its superiority based on its written rules and the proclamations or sayings of its prophets. None of these religions makes any effort to prove that these ideas were in any way original. That has to be taken for granted, part of blind faith, because otherwise the faithful would have to acknowledge that others — the heathens and infidels — might actually be, in some way, right.
So let’s have a quick look at the most famous set of rules — the Ten Commandments. How many times are we told that these form a solid foundation for morality and even law? Remember the battle to have them displayed in a US courthouse? Are they really that good?
Let’s leave aside the fact that these 10 rules were not intended for everyone, but only the Jews. If we want to employ them in some general fashion, it’s actually just six commandments. The reason is that four of them are specific to protecting and honouring god and the faith. As a foundation for society and its laws, they have no relevance at all.
The six remaining commandments tell us not to kill, steal, commit adultery, make false accusations or desire what other people have, and to honour our parents.
Pretty basic, aren’t they? I mean, did we really need burning bushes, scary voices and all that drama on a mountainside to come up with this lot? I can’t help feeling that most civilisations would have had those six rules on their statute books for centuries, even millennia, before Moses came by.
In fact, to create a functioning society you’re going to need a lot more than that (cue the lawyers). In his book, God: a Guide for the Perplexed, theologian Keith Ward claims that these six rules “are fairly good ground rules for any healthy society”, but even he goes on to admit that:
…if you take them literally they are rather minimal. You can keep all of them simply by sitting still and minding your own business. More to the point, you can keep all of them in a society which is hugely unequal, which has slavery, violence and harshly punitive laws.
Ward expands on this to point out that the morality of a religion is based not just on easily quoted lists of rules, like the Ten Commandments, but on the totality of the teaching and guidance provided by, say, the Torah or the New Testament.
Alas, that makes a religion’s position on any given subject vulnerable to interpretation — just look at the varieties of opinion within the Christian church on homosexuality, abortion, birth control et al. Even more recent faiths, such as Islam, contain wildly opposing views based on different interpretations of the scriptures.
So any given belief — Roman Catholicism, say — constructs its rules (and therefore its decisions on who and what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’) based on interpretations of the texts it considers worthy and the ideas it considers authoritative and trustworthy.
Atheists do exactly the same. Only we benefit from a much wider choice of sources. We don’t have to stick to a narrow selection of texts. Nor are we dictated to by popes or rabbis and their own, perhaps rather blinkered, reading of the texts. We can pick the good bits from Judaism and Christianity (and ignore the bad bits, like instructions to murder adulterers). We can also adopt the best of Buddhism and the massive array of secular philosophies. We suffer none of the limitations believers face when it comes to being moral people. We are truly free to be good.