The same place Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others do.  Wise men of the ages, a community of discourse, and the heart.

The rise of religious fundamentalism around the world, but especially in the Islamic world and the United States, has curiously also corresponded to a sharp rise in Atheism.  Dubbed the “New Atheism”, it is no longer a quiet belief held to oneself, but a world view that is being defended and even advocated by such high profile prophets as Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton, Christopher Hitchens and Ricky Gervais.

The two extremes obviously have found their way to some increasingly prevalent conflicts.  As a raving skeptic who delights in poking holes in extremists views held by both religionists and atheists, I witness many of these debates.  While they do go on and on with esoterica of Counter Apologetics, New Earth Creationism and other philosophical tangents, probably the highest megaton zinger that the God-fearing wheel out is the challenge, “If you don’t believe in God, where do you get your morality from?”  My response is, “The same place you do.”

  • The Wise – Except for the few who claim to have “spoken directly to God himself” most people get their morality from other men and women.  Often and hopefully, wise and caring men and women.  Priests, clergy, rabbis, imams, prophets, philosophers, poets, visionaries.  Their words and wisdom are not the exclusive property of their disciples, but are shared and disseminated for the whole world to benefit from. Curiously, in my experience, atheists have often read more of the Bible and other holy books than many practicing parishioners (and yes, I have read all 1,931 pages myself) which led to many insights (eg. Job) and even more disillusionments (eg. Paul).
  • The Community – Much as the simple-minded would like us to believe otherwise, ‘morality’ is not just a few never-changing commandments that apply with equal ease in all instances.  Even at its most fundamental level, the realm of moral reasoning is rife with dilemmas where even the most sacrosanct principles conflict. And the march of time brings new perspectives to these principles (eg. slavery condoned in the Bible and Quran is no longer acceptable in modern society). Especially advances in scientific understanding and technological capability create conundrums not even conceived at the time of the scriptures (eg. genetic manipulation to save lives). Hence, morality has to be constantly interpreted and applied by courts, sinods (eg. Vatican II), and ecumenical councils. Not to mention churches, congregations, Bible study groups, and assemblies where people come together to explore and share perspectives on living a good life.
  • The Heart – I think you would struggle to find a truly religious man who would condemn a person who felt love in their heart and manifested that love in all their behavior.  Even if that person had not heard nor avowed any scriptural edicts. It would also be hard to argue that ‘God’ didn’t smile on such a person. A belief in God might inspire such a power of love in some people’s hearts, but such belief is not required in order to feel that love.

These are all the same places that the most devout get their morality from. The religious might argue that these sources of morality are just the vehicles for a morality which ultimately originates in God. But, the “ultimate source” of morality is not the question here (and certainly one open to much epistemological debate anyway). The question is ‘where do you get it from’. And none of these places require a belief in God in order to draw wisdom and inspiration for a moral life.

 

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