Humanism and Morals

A common question that many atheists are asked is “If you don’t believe in {insert deity here}, where do you get your morals?”. A common misconception is that without belief in a supernatural authority figure you will either not know right from wrong or will lack sufficient will to stick to your moral code.

If we make the assumption that there are no deities (I’m not asking you to agree with me on this, we’re just playing a game of “what if”) and that we do share a common ancestor with the other primates, let’s look at their social structure for clues on how they behave. Most of the primates that we are genetically closest to (chimps and bonobos) live in cooperative groups and work together to survive. They have a social structure and behaviors that are considered good for the group are rewarded and negative behaviors are punished. They also have  a hierarchy of where each animal stands in the social order.

If we can extrapolate from this that we, as early humans, had to work in a tribal organization to gather food and for mutual self protection, it stands to reason that we would value behaviors that benefit the group, sometimes to the detriment of the individual. Over thousands of years, those whose contributions benefitted the group were rewarded.

It is only since we developed language that we have been able to codify this behavior. It has taken many variations across the globe but the core is the same. Altruistic behavior is rewarded while selfish behavior is stigmatized.

The other part of this is sticking to your moral code without an authority figure to enforce it. Could I not fulfill whatever selfish desires I want without regard? Not really. Without the threat of eternal punishment I still must face the consequences of legal justice or social consequences. If I lie whenever it suits my needs, eventually everyone around me will stop trusting me and I will become socially isolated and outcast. If I take the possessions of others I stand ostracism and/or legal repercussions. More serious violations of the public trust carry heavier consequences up to the point of permanent removal of my freedom or death. If you don’t have an afterlife that you believe you will go to, the ending of your existence is the worst possible punishment.

While fear of punishment is one way for people to continue to adhere to the moral code, a better option are the rewards of cooperation and how being altruistic helps others and yourself at the same time.

There is an excellent video on YouTube that I think does a great job of displaying what Humanism looks like when applied to the real world. It was done by a Thai life insurance company and, in my opinion, it shows the purest essence of Humanism in action.

So, in summation: while I may not believe in an afterlife or need my moral code enforced by a supernatural being, I have many reasons to continue to do the right thing and stick to it in the face of adversity.

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