Morality “in the absence of God”

August 12, 2015

“Some people go to church so that they can love God instead of their neighbor.”

I’ve seen the above quote floating around lately and to the best of my knowledge Michael Eric Dyson accredits it to his late mentor the Rev. Dr. James Washington.  Dyson employs the quote when discussing those who are sanctimonious or religious but who oppose policies and actions that would benefit their fellow humans. In relation to my recent article about character and what makes a “good” person I’ve been thinking about quotes like that and polls like those that show the large number of Americans who would refuse to vote for a presidential candidate who identifies as an atheist. Though that number has changed remarkably in the past 100 years, there are still at least 40 % of people who who exclude any candidate on that basis alone. The reason is simply because many still equate “morality” with theism and/or religiosity. But there are also those, like Rev. Washington and Dr. Dyson allude to, that use their religion in such a way that is sometimes the cause of immorality rather than morality. More extreme examples are certainly prevalent as well (Isis, Westboro Baptist).

So what I want to do here is take a few key theistic concepts that many people still believe are intrinsic to morality and being a good person. Let’s turn them on their heads and explore them in terms of good character. I am not saying this is the way it is in a preaching manner–I am saying, assume that a key western theistic concept is not as you may believe it to be long enough to see if morality is possible nonetheless–in the (even if just temporarily imagined) “absence of God”.

Many monotheist Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world appeal to God for forgiveness on a daily basis for wrongs against God and neighbor. Now, obviously many also try to make their sin right with their neighbor as well but what if there is no “third party” deity to forgive you when you commit a wrong act?

If you can’t seek forgiveness from a third party (God) then the only way to seek forgiveness is by direct appeal to the person you have wronged. Regarding personal failures–if it’s something you’ve done that is unethical or wrong–why is it wrong? If it is harmful to you or your world and you wish to correct it or atone for it the only way you can proceed in the absence of God is by making it right–quitting, stopping or otherwise correcting the failure and trying to live in the way you seek to. Forgiveness “in the absence of God” (whether real or imagined) could only be obtained by directly seeking it from the wronged party (if the sin was against neighbor) or by ceasing the action that is physically, emotionally or otherwise bothering you as an individual and moving on without it, i.e. “forgiving yourself”.


If there is no Deity listening to your prayers then the only way you can try to make something happen is by acting. So prayers that God will intercede in the world, your life or the “natural” order of things are fruitless–unless speaking, thinking or contemplating on those ills in the world or your life in prayer help to solve a problem by coalescing a thought and plan of action and/or by spurring you as an acting agent to do what you can to address that problem you are praying about. Many other styles of traditional prayer could in theory be quite applicable even in the “absence of God”–centering prayers, meditations that calm the mind and body, communal conversational prayers of gratitude, celebration or consoling prayers of lamentation. All such prayers could in theory work just as intended even in the real or imagined absence of God for some people, people for whom prayer is ingrained and inescapable or for people simply suited for prayer so to speak. Yet morality would certainly still be possible for one who simply does not pray–if one is not conditioned to or of the habit of praying or meditating and also does not believe in a higher power then the act of praying would seem completely foreign and would be doubtful of producing many positive results. But such a person can still gather with a community to voice gratitude and share in celebration, speak collectively to address an injustice, etc. Yet ultimately such a person would be left with the constant knowledge that action requires an actor and thus must incur that responsibility if they want to change anything.


If what we see is what we get and there is nothing after death, then we only have this life to enjoy and/or suffer through. That means “heaven” and “hell” are both in this present world if they exist at all. Can a person be moral if they believe death is the final stop? Certainly–and many Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have stressed that the most moral among them live as if this is so with no hope for reward or fear of punishment. If life is it then life matters all the more and we must make the most of each day. If life is it then those who suffer now will not be rewarded later–so we should be even more rushed to assuage their suffering right here right now. In fact, so many of the virtues and commandments people associate with theism function perfectly from a “no afterlife” belief system–service for the poor and sick, leaving the world better than you found it, raising children mindfully, etc. Plus enjoying life and being thankful for the good and beauty you are able to find right here right now not only function with this belief comfortably but some might argue easier.

So is morality possible in the (real or imagined) “absence of God” ? I cannot think of any way in which it isn’t possible. Certainly nihilism is a possible route an atheist can take but there are religious forms of nihilism as well–living with “one foot in the afterlife”, discounting the joys and sufferings of this world in patience for the next, accepting the tragedies around the world as “God’s will” and all sorts of extremist shades. As I wrote when introducing my “what is a ‘good’ person” piece that sort of kicked off this entire thread, no religion or political ideology corners the market on good or bad character and I believe that includes non-religion. There are “good” and “bad” atheists, constructive and destructive atheists. Religion and theism itself are conducive to both good and evil. So should America be willing to vote for an atheist? I don’t see why not as belief in God seems to have little bearing on good or bad behavior as an independent factor and belief (or disbelief) in God is not a factor in the American form of government.


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