At one point, I had an idea to write a regularly-scheduled themed post. Say, once a week. I got as far as finishing one piece and jotting down ideas for several others. I was reminded of this when I typed the words “copy” and “paste” in the last post. . .if I wait until I have a series, or pressure myself to have a regular post output, none of these thoughts will ever see the light of day. So here’s the (ahem) first of what may or may not be a series, copy/pasted from my hidden MSWord files of doom. . .
Where Do Atheists Get Their Morality?
I honestly don’t think that most people automatically assume that a person who doesn’t worship regularly is a nihilist with no concept whatever of morality, but there are enough people on the web and in the media who do (and quite nastily, too) that it sometimes really ticks me off. I’ve been meaning to write about this many, many times, but never quite put the whole thing together. This is probably going to be the first blog post you see here that actually was composed in Word, sat around fermenting for a while, and got edits and rewrites before release. Imagine that. Forethought – from Mrs. Visceral herself.
Anyway, let me cogitate a bit. It’s such an emotional topic that it gets very jumbled. Let me start with the basic question itself.
Atheists get their morality from the exact same places as everyone else. Family. Friends. School. TV, books, radio, and movies – and the choices of and reactions to those by the people who influence our lives. By the time religion makes an actual impact on anyone, the foundation has already been laid, no matter what a fundamentalist theist would like us to believe.
Family first. From the moment we’re born, we’re watching the people around us, seeing what works to get our basic needs fulfilled, learning how important we are. Even before babies can discern features, they can recognize the people who hold them and talk to them and feed them. It takes most babies only a month to learn the power of a smile, which they learn in great part from the people who smile at them. The family teaches the child right away that if he’s hungry, needs a diaper, wants some attention, etc., he’ll need to cry a little, cry until he gets sick and screaming, maybe laugh and make silly noises. Some children won’t need to make any indications because their parents are attentive (sometimes overly so) and some will learn that it’s pointless because nothing will happen until the parent or caregiver is darned good and ready to feed or change or give attention. It seems simple, but it teaches us right from the beginning how much we’re cared for, and what we need to do to get what we want.
Once we’re starting to be able to influence the world around us through our mobility and language, the learning deepens. The older people around us – adults, siblings, more mobile or verbal children – begin teaching us every waking moment. We learn about objects. Some are “ours”, but we also are introduced to the idea of “sharing”. Some we are allowed to touch, some we are not. Things we can touch we might not be allowed to take apart or put in our mouths. We learn about people. We do something funny, and everyone laughs and pays attention to us, so we do it again and again, as long as it works. We hit, bite, or otherwise hurt someone, and we are taught in one way or another that it’s not acceptable. We’re also working on learning how other people interact with each other through observation. The beginnings of understanding that we and the others are similar are taking hold, and in play we will imitate the real-life patterns we see around us. We may see Dad hitting Mom or Brother or Sister, and hit them ourselves, only to be hit by that person and reprimanded that hitting is not good. We begin to realize that things
are a lot more complicated than we thought! The big people might reward us for doing something they want us to do, and punish us for doing things they don’t want us to do. The rewards and punishments might be the same all the time, they might be different, so we might learn that there’s only one outcome, or we might learn that some things we do are better or worse than other things. We might also learn that we can get what we want by doing something specific. One child might find that all she has to do is throw herself on the floor and scream to get attention, so she’ll skip all the weeping and whimpering she used to do to warm up to that point and go straight to the tantrum. Another might find that a consequence is enough punishment – breaking a toy means no more toy, taking too long at bedtime means no time for story. Yet another might find that the best course is to not get caught.
So before any moral lessons might be absorbed by religion, we’ve already learned how much or how little we’re valued, what actions are acceptable or not, and how to treat other people. We’ve learned about manipulating our behavior to attain the results we desire.
Now come Friends and School. They both come into the picture fairly early on, and unlike attendance at a religious institution, they’re common to almost every single child, and contain a much more insistent and frequent lesson. What I mean is that each religious institution teaches a different set of lessons, while schools will try to have a more common discipline and behavior standard. School begins before the age that children have begun to feel empathy, and at the beginning edge of their ability to understand abstract concepts. Sunday School dives right into ideas with stories that are supposed to be morality tales, but public school introduces standards of behavior by coming right out and telling students what they can do, what is expected of them, and how to treat others – the abstract concept of why comes later, and is easier to understand as it is applied to them personally rather than by example of a story that might or might not make sense. For the first time, we’re in the company of people we’ve never met, who aren’t family or family friends, who might be quite different from us, with whom we might or might not get along but have to treat respectfully anyway. Soon, these schoolmates will become friends, or not, and we will spend time with them outside of school as well as in it. We will be concerned with their opinions, their feelings toward us, our mutual enjoyment of each others’ company. Our opinions, interests, and behavior will be influenced by not only our contact with them, but our desire to please them and continue to be friends with them. Just as we learned at home and in the classroom, some behaviors are acceptable and some are not; and this classification may not be the same in each of these situations.
For example, lets take the child who learned to not get caught to avoid punishment at home. He might try to get away with the same thing at school, and have a teacher who’s just overwhelmed or inattentive enough that he can often enough or under the right circumstances. This child is learning to refine his technique of getting what he wants while appearing to behave the way he’s expected to. Another child, whose teacher creates a situation that makes this more difficult or impossible, might become resentful and overcompensate, or he might see the light and behave better for this teacher if the rewards appeal to him more than the hidden rewards he’s had to get for himself so far. A parent might be an ally in one goal or another. Arguing with the teacher and supporting the child vociferously might give the child additional satisfaction of having gotten away with it. Paying no attention reinforces the idea that it doesn’t matter, so it must be OK. Positive reinforcement at home for positive behavior at school might cause the child to abandon the sneaky behavior, if it’s the craving for attention is what had been driving it. Mix in the influence of friends to this, and the possibilities expand even further. Another child might also enjoy doing bad things and getting away with it, and the two of them will engage in this behavior together. A different friend might get angry with the child for this, whether because he opposes it or because it affects him directly, and the child may decide the friend is not important enough to change, or that the friend is valuable enough to do so. The child has learned a lesson regardless of whether he’s listened to stories or parables, and regardless of promises of eternal reward or threats of eternal damnation. No matter what religion he may be exposed to, its abstract, intangible reasons for behavior have far less impact on him than the daily personal experience of cause and effect.
Now, I don’t want to vilify the media or place too much importance on its influence, but it does come into play also, and not just the obvious way you might think. Its impact on our morality lies far more on how we’re taught to perceive it than in the medium itself. Again, from infancy, we’re watching how the people around us react. A child who is frequently held and read to or cuddled and sung to will associate reading and music with positive feelings. A child who is left alone in front of the TV will have a completely different feeling. The choices of what the child is exposed to are also important. After all, it’s the big people who pick out the books, music, TV shows, and movies. As adults, we may be able to expose ourselves to all kinds of negative ideas and images and not have them influence our behavior, but the young minds are observing and absorbing. The child who repeats words or movements from a music video that demeans women or glorifies violence won’t learn whether those things are OK or not until an adult reacts. If Mom gives him a punishment for grabbing his little friend’s behind and grinding their hips together, he’s learned that the things in the video are not necessarily things he should be emulating. If, on the other hand, he repeats the lyrics about shooting or beating or stealing, including profanity or not, and the adults laugh – maybe even tell him to show it to other people, he’s learning that it’s OK. If the adults choose to read to the child, and pick books that teach, whether it’s practical or moral lessons, the child learns that this knowledge garners a positive response from the parents. If the adults watch a movie with the child and are able to say, with knowledge, that this part is a good lesson, or this part is bad, allowing or prohibiting future viewings, it teaches the child critical thinking that’s essential to both learning and morality. When an adult exposes a child to any medium, it’s a learning opportunity. If it’s provided without comment or it’s imitated and receives a positive reaction, the child is learning that what he has seen or heard is right and acceptable. If it’s provided and shared and talked about (even at 6 months, a child can understand far more language than you’d think) then it’s a valuable lesson on both right and wrong.
The daily experience of living our lives and interacting with others forms our morality from the moment of birth. The foundations are laid and built upon by the results of our decisions, the consequences to our actions, the choices we make about what matters more to us. Are we willing to risk punishment to attain something we want? Do the needs and feelings of others mean enough to us to forgo our own wants? Is something that will take more time but last longer worth more than quick, fleeting gratification? Is an action or behavior that’s unacceptable to the larger society OK because our smaller social circle deems it so? No matter what your religion teaches you, regardless of whether or not you believe or practice a religion, your morals come from being human and experiencing life as part of a number of different societies. The atheist gets his or her morality from the same places as everyone else, Agnostic, Christian, Hindu, Wiccan, Jewish, whatever you subscribe to. We are fine-tuning it every day we’re alive, with every experience we have, with every human being with whom we interact. Every person alive begins learning morality and continues to refine his or her sense of morality merely from living, and being alive is common to all of us no matter what or how we might believe.
So before you ask the question, or accuse an atheist of having no morals, consider where your own came from right from the beginning of your life. Can you say that your family, friends, school, interests and activities, and all the significant, formative moments in your life had no hand in shaping you at all? Can you dismiss all the human love you’ve received, all the rejection, all the interactions with others that you still remember clearly even though years and years have passed, as central to the way you think and act? Unless you can completely forget your entire life before you embraced your religion, and prove that you have had no defining, memorable experiences outside of your religious life, then you’ll need to stop yourself before you ask it.
The atheist got his morals from the very places that you did.