One of the incorrect characterizations about atheists is that they have no morals. This can easily be disproven by actually speaking to one and asking him if he does. He will quickly list a bunch of things he considers moral or the opposite and if you push him on it, he will often be quite passionate about those things and his willingness to stick by them in times of difficulty.
Why is it then that religion has always seemed to be a more verifiable source of morality than atheism? I would submit that it is because of the difference between subjective and objective value systems.
Put simply, atheists have subjective value systems. Lacking a universal standard, values they consider right and wrong are based on personal decision making. For example, murder is wrong because of the subjective view that harming another person without his consent is immoral. Same goes for theft, rape, etc. The underlying principle represents the moral position of the atheist and he darshens from that position to make decisions on whether certain actions are proper or not.
This happens on the positive side as well. Homosexual marriage, for example, is fine because it represents the opposite of the principle in the previous paragraph - it does not result in harm to another person without his consent so it's okay.
There are two problems with this moral system. First because it's subjective it is essentially random. A person who is worried about being killed will decide that murder is wrong. Instead of presenting it in that fashion, it is discussed as a value as above. However, once that some person reaches a position of power where being killed is unlikely to happen to him, his views on this might change. Murder might become okay, for example in the case of political opponents. After all, the real underlying reason no longer exists so as a result the moral reason also fades.
The second problem is that of moral relativity. If one subscribes to a subjective moral system, one cannot judge another's without being accused of something akin to valuistic imperialism. How dare I say my moral system is superior to a different one when it was also arrived at using the same basic standards of mine? Perhaps I hold with value "A" and the other person denigrates it. Since value A is moral only from my point of view, how can I criticize the other person for not agreeing with me?
It's like an atheist who says "Well I personally don't believe in God but you can if you want." Really? Think about it for a second. God isn't a colour or a type of music where multiple people have different perceptions and appreciations of the same thing. He is an objective reality. He either exists (go with this one, it's the right answer) or He doesn't. What you personally believe is irrelevant. It's like saying "Well I personally believe that there's a traffic light at the upcoming intersection." To reduce His existence to one of personal belief shows tremendous insecurity in the strength of the subjective value system.
Too many times in the history of the 20th century, humanity demonstrated the fallacy of subjective morality. Under the greatest atheistic movements ever, Nazism and Communism, morality was completely redefined. A Jew under the Nazis, y"sh, or a bourgeous under the Communists, y"sh, were devalued to the point that imprisonment and death for such people simply because of who they were and not due to any actions they may have committed was seen as moral in those systems. Yes, from the position of the secular Western moral system this was considered villiany but really, who's to say which is better?
As a professor of mine once told me when I was criticizing an aspect of culture in south Asia many years ago because it went against North American values, "there's a couple billion of them and a couple hundred million of you. Why do you think you're right?"
Abortion is another pertinent example. In Western secular morality, the woman commands complete control over her body including any fetuses that find themselves within it. Without anyone's permission, including that of the fetus (never mind the actual father who provided half the genetic material), she can choose to end her pregnancy at almost any time. Western morality has decided that the fetus is not a life, based not on any deep understanding of what life is or when it begins but on the selfish value of convenience. Thus the murder of the fetus isn't murder because Western morals say it isn't really alive.
Religion, on the other hand, provides its followers with a far different understanding of morality. As opposed to the self-generated morality of the atheist, the religious believer accepts an external code of morality as revealed by the originator of that religion. In Judaism, this is the true God and His Torah, both oral and written, which provide us with directions on how to live a life in consonance with His desires.
The main feature of this moral system is its externality. As a result of that, it demands obedience of its followers whether or not those followers are comfortable with its demands. I could really want that Big Mac but I can't have it. I could really want to watch that TV movie on Saturday afternoon. I can't watch it. I could really want to throw rocks at the cars that go by my place on Friday night and then set garbage cans alight. Sorry, not allowed.
As a result, there is in religion a definite set of "rights" and "wrongs" which are universal. Murder is wrong and it is irrelevant if I am at risk of being killed. It never changes. Theft is wrong even if the victim is filthy rich and will never realize it happened. Speaking loshon horo is wrong even if the victim never finds out about it.
Yes, horrible crimes have been committed in the name of religion but - as this is the important part - these were all examples of evil people twisting their religion in the name of their own personal agendae. Nazism and Communism were, at least in their own opinions, the ultimate expression of the atheist moral society. In other words, people who commit evil in the name of a religion are generally betraying that religion's principles. People who commit evil in the name of atheism are simply living up to that system's highest potential.
Thus atheists do have a moral system. It's just not based on anything more solid than quicksand.
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