This is an important article to read. It's about moral and ethics for the non-religious.

We can be good and treat others well without a belief in god.

 
The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics
Without God, how can you be moral?
by Fred Edwords

There is a tendency on the part of many theists to assume that the burden of proof is on the nontheist when it comes to the issue of morality. Thus, the individual who operates without a theological base is asked to justify his so doing — the assumption of the theist being that no morality is possible in the absence of some form of "higher" law.

In our culture, people are so accustomed to the idea of every law having a lawmaker, every rule having an enforcer, every institution having someone in authority, and so forth, that the thought of something being otherwise has the ring of chaos to it. As a result, when one lives one's life without reference to some ultimate authority in regard to morals, one's values and aspirations are thought to be arbitrary. Furthermore, it is often argued that, if everyone tried to live in such a fashion, no agreement on morals would be possible and there would be no way to adjudicate disputes between people, no defense of a particular moral stand being possible in the absence of some absolute point of reference.

But all of this is based on certain unchallenged assumptions of the theistic moralist — assumptions that are frequently the product of faulty analogies. It will be my purpose here to take a fresh look at these assumptions. I will try to show the actual source from which values are originally derived, provide a solid foundation for a human-based (humanistic) moral system, and then place the burden on the theist to justify any proposed departure.
Laws And Lawmakers

Unthinkingly, people often assume that the universe is run in a fashion similar to human societies. They recognize that humans are able to create order by creating laws and by establishing means of enforcement. So, when they see order in the universe, they imagine that this order had a similar humanlike source. This anthropomorphic viewpoint is a product of the natural pride that human beings take in their ability to put meaning into their world. It is, ironically, a subtle recognition of the fact that human beings are the actual source of values and, hence, any "higher" set of values that might be placed above ordinary human aims must emanate from a source similar to, but greater than, ordinary human beings. In short, superhuman values must be provided by a superhuman — there being simply no other way the deed can be done.

But, while such an anthropomorphic viewpoint is an outgrowth of human self-esteem, it is also evidence of a certain lack of imagination. Why is it that the only source for higher morals must be a superhuman being? Why not something totally unfamiliar and incomprehensibly superior?

Some theologians do try to claim that their god is indeed incomprehensible. However, even then, they fail to escape human analogies and use such terms as "law giver," "judge," and the like. Clearly, the picture that emerges from religious and even some secular moral philosophy is that, just as conventional laws require lawmakers, morals require an ultimate source of morality.

A related, unchallenged assumption is that moral values, in order to be binding, must come from a source outside of human beings. Again the analogy of law, judges, and police crops up. In daily life, we obey laws seemingly created by others, judged by others, and enforced by others. Why should moral rules be any different?
Faulty Assumptions

When a lawmaker is said to be needed for every law, the result is an endless series, since someone must be the lawmaker of the lawmaker's laws. Because such a series is uncomfortable to moral philosophers and theologians, at some point they declare that "the buck stops here." They argue for an ultimate lawmaker, one who has no one who makes laws for him. And how is that done? The point is made that the buck has to stop somewhere, and a supernatural god is thought to be as good a stopping place as any.

But still the question can be asked: "From where does God get his (or her) moral values?" If God gets them from a still higher source, the buck hasn't stopped, and we are back to our endless series. If they originate with God, then God's morals are made up and hence arbitrary. If analogy is to be used to establish God as a source of morals because all morals need an intelligent moral source, then, unfortunately for the theist, the same analogy must be used to show that, if God makes morals up "out of the blue," God is being just as arbitrary as are human beings who do the same thing. As a result, we gain no advantage and hence are no more compelled philosophically to obey God's arbitrary morals than we are to obey the morals established by our best friend or even our worst enemy. Arbitrary is arbitrary, and the arbitrariness is in no way removed by making the arbitrary moralizer supernatural, all-powerful, incomprehensible, mysterious, or anything else usually attributed to God. So, in this case, if God exists, God's values are just God's opinions and need not necessarily concern us.

While this first assumption — the need for a lawmaker — fails to solve the problem which it was intended to solve, the second assumption — that the source of moral values must lie outside of human beings — actually stands in the way of finding the answer. The second assumption is based upon the superficial awareness that laws seem to be imposed upon us from without. And from this it follows that there needs to be an external imposer of morality. But what is so often forgotten is that those human laws that appear externally imposed are actually, at least in the Western world, the product of a democratic process. They are the laws of the governed. And, if it is possible for people to develop laws and impose those laws upon themselves, then it is possible to do the same with morality. As in law, so in morals; the governed are capable of rule.

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Replies to This Discussion

With god, how can you be moral?

Yes I see what you are saying. They are hypocritical.

Theists would argue that god the lawgiver has essential insights to which no human lawgiver is privy.  God's laws would indeed be arbitrary in the sense of not being dependent on some external reference, but because they are "optimal" laws, no such external reference is necessary.  Their very arbitrariness makes them special.  God's values are indeed just his/her/its opinions, but because those opinions are derived from perfect knowledge, those opinions are unassailable.  God is defined as precisely that point where the proverbial buck stops, with no further proof.

The problem with this approach is the same problem as with belief in god itself: on what basis of evidence ought we to believe in god?  If the evidence for god is insufficient to merit belief in god, then the same holds for god's laws.  And there is another huge problem: a person might believe in god - even in a perfect, omniscient etc. god - but on what basis do we ascertain that this or that law is from god, and which is mere fabrication?  We have no litmus test.  So instead we have priests and other such officials telling us what to do.  Even if there is a divine law, real people in real life end up only following human law.

Thank you Michael for your thoughtful reply.

There is a book I heard about today while listening to "The Thinking Atheist" podcast. It's by Frans de Waal: Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. I'm definitely going to have to check it out.

Thanks Paula! I'll look into getting that book.

De Waal is great. I'll put this on my list.

I'm very interested Sunflower- Thanks I appreciate it!

I'm with you. It's exhilarating to live in a time and place where humans have really taken ownership of our laws and moralities. Sort of. 

When Christians tell me my morality is groundless without God, I have a new rejoinder. Recently I started saying that I have faith in justice. I don't support justice out of some mathematical formula or rational equation. I don't question the evidence that it's good to support justice, just like a lot of Christians don't question the evidence for their faith. Faith in justice even does the job that faith in religion is supposed to do: connect you to a cause greater than oneself, to connect one to others of like mind, and to give your life deeper meaning. (Sorry, no afterlife with this faith.) Then if Christians say, "Your morality has no basis if you're an atheist," I'll say that it doesn't need a basis, I take it on faith. Is that crazy?

But morality does have an atheist basis. 

Evolution works by favoring the survival of genes - not the survival of individuals. 

That's a reason why altruism and morality can evolve.  They favor group survival when the group has individuals that tend to share genes.  This would have been true in the small hunter-gatherer groups that people lived in during most of human evolution. 

Also, cooperation often favors individual survival.  People needed to cooperate to survive (and still do).  Those you help, help you back. 

Our morality and caring isn't necessarily dependent on someone sharing genes with us.  So they still apply in our societies today.  Richard Dawkins wrote a book The Selfish Gene about this.

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