Can Atheists be moral?

One of the most common arguments used by religious apologists is that all morality comes from (their) god, and therefore someone cannot be moral unless they follow their god. This Argument Is incredibly flawed due to the cultural influences involved in moral decisions. The final nail in its coffin is that we see most ‘moral’ behaviours in other animals, our closest relatives showing the most.

Morality is a bit of a thorny topic, and It can be very difficult to quantify. The best model that sociologists and psychologists have come up with is the 5 pillar model. Especially morality is based around 5 central concerns.

  1. Harm, are you doing direct or indirect harm to another person or being. Protecting those who need it.
  2. Fairness, is everyone getting an equal chance and share in things. This includes justice
  3. Authority, are you obeying social, governmental, and religious authorities. Submitting to tradition.
  4. Ingroup, are you taking care of your immediate group of influence. Family, group, nation etc.
  5. Purity, are you following religious instruction. Opposing things that are ‘disgusting’.

This, admittedly, is a fairly western view of morality, an issue arises when you try to quantify all of the human morality in one system. This is very clearly because the culture in which you are raised has a significant impact on your sense of morality, just as it does all of your psyches. Even something such a political alignment is intertwined with how someone views morality. Liberals are far less concerned with Authority, Ingroup and Purity, but much more concerned with fairness and harm than conservatives. This is well known to psychologists and sociologists.


Political alignment and moral foundations            (source:

This information clearly shows that while there are commonalities between western moralities, there are many factors that influence morality. It cannot be said that being religious or not it defines someone as moral or not. Data clearly shows that while conservatives are more concerned with following tradition and authority figures, they are less concerned with the well being and fair treatment of others than those who identify as liberal.

The final blow to this argument comes from the natural world. Most people who use this argument have a very outdated view of the animal kingdom and of human nature. Their view of the animal kingdom usually lines up with the old Aggression Model and their view of humanity strongly aligns with the ‘Veneer Model’.

Let’s start with the Veneer Model. This model of humanity is commonly promoted by religious groups. It states that humans are inherently evil and immoral beings, with a thin veneer of religiousness or culture to keep the evil at bay, Sigmund Freud was also a proponent of this view. The issue is that this is just plain wrong, and to be honest, I would be extremely wary of any person who displayed this type of nature. Interestingly, It almost perfectly describes Psychopathic Personality Disorders. Human beings are in general, very caring and altruistic beings, it is simply in our nature as social animals.

This model is closely linked to the aggression model of animal behaviour, claiming that the only thing from keeping us from being savages like the animal kingdom is culture and religion. This not only misrepresents humanity, but also the animal kingdom. Any person who has spent significant time with mammals will tell you they do exhibit early forms of moral behaviour, even altruism. The greatest example of this is our closest relative, the Bonobo apes of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In his amazing book The Bonobo and the Atheist, which I recommend to anyone, Dr Frans De Waal discusses in detail how we observe many of the traits we consider uniquely human in Bonobos and Chimps. While he admits that Chimpanzees are a considerably aggressive animal, he does mention that they may just be an outlier as most primates are relatively peaceful. His discussion on Bonobo behaviour is incredibly enlightening. They demonstrate primitive forms of essentially all of the 5 pillars of morality, without religion.

Bonobo apes have been seen protecting others from harm and caring for other wounded Bonobos, even when not related. Most Mammals have shown a strong understanding of fairness and Chimpanzees have been seen punishing an individual in their group for violent behaviour towards others. Both Chimps and Bonobos have strong authoritarian structures in their social groups, often gained through politics rather than violence. Chimps have been seen aggressively caring for their ingroup, Bonobos have been seen going even further by sharing food with, and playing with, rival groups on territorial lines.

Purity is an interesting one, many animals show disgust and avoid many things that will cause them harm, Disgust being the main driving emotion behind this. Obviously, this disgust isn’t guided by religion, but rather by instinct and passed on knowledge.

This evidence, plus significantly more presented in Dr De Waals fantastic book, eliminate the need for religion to be the source of morality. The key way it does so is by demonstrating the morality is not a top-down system, but is built through bottom-up methods. That is, Morality isn’t something that is defined by a top level being and passed down, but rather a system built on primal and evolved tendencies and instincts coming together to shape behaviour.


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