Believers Think We Need Religion to Behave Like Good, Moral People -- Here's Why They're Wrong
The most common stereotype about atheists, the most common reason why religious people fear and distrust us, is the belief that people who don't believe in God have no reason to behave morally. In the view of the planet's major religions, the way we know what's right and what's wrong is that God tells us so, and the reason we follow the rules is because we fear divine retribution if we break them. This worldview is simple and emotionally satisfying and to those who believe it, it's a natural implication that a person who no longer believes in God has no reason not to indulge their every selfish desire.
Now, I've never claimed to speak for every atheist. Because nonbelievers are a diverse and quarrelsome lot, there may in fact be a few who think this way. But if there are, they're staying well hidden. The vast majority of atheists, like the majority of human beings in general, are perfectly good and decent people. This should be no surprise, as the evidence shows that human beings all tend to have similar moral intuitions, regardless of whether we profess a religion. But that doesn't address how an atheist justifies acting morally. When we're wrestling with an ethical dilemma, how do we make up our minds? What can nonbelievers appeal to as a reason for their action?
Again, atheists are a diverse bunch. There are some who would argue that morality is just an opinion, a mere matter of taste, like preferring vanilla ice cream to chocolate. But I reject this view, just as I reject the view that morality can only come from obeying what people believe to be God's will. I believe that morality is real, that it's objective, and that it's a thoroughly natural phenomenon that's perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical, or supernatural.
To see how this can be, consider the question from another angle: What's the point of morality? What quality are we trying to bring more of into the world?
The problem with most common answers to this question is that they're arbitrary. If your answer is something like freedom or justice or familial duty or piety, you can always ask why we should care about that quality and not a different one. Why should we care about freedom more than stability? Why should we care about free speech more than harmony? There obviously can't be an infinite regress of justifications, but we should keep asking the question as long as it can be meaningfully answered. And if you do keep asking, there's only one answer you'll find at the bottom.
The only quality that's immune to this question is happiness. You can ask someone, "Why do you want (good friends/a loving family/a fulfilling job/etc.)?" and the answer is, "Because it will make me happy," but it's meaningless to ask, "Why do you want to be happy?" Happiness is its own justification, the only quality in human experience that we value purely for its own sake. Even theists who say that morality is based on following God's commands, whether they realize it or not, are really basing their morality on happiness. After all, if you should do what God says because you'll go to heaven if you do and to hell if you don't, what is this if not a claim about which actions will or won't lead to happiness?
This is my answer to moral anti-realists who say that facts are out there in the world, waiting to be discovered, but morality isn't. They rightly point out that there's no elementary particle of good or evil, that it would be bizarre to have a moral commandment -- an "ought" -- just hovering there, hanging over us with no prior explanation for its existence. This is a spooky, mystical, weird notion, and they're right to reject it. But as I've said, this only applies to arbitrary qualities chosen as the basis of morality with no real justification. Happiness is not an arbitrary choice; by definition, it's what we all wish for. This, then, is where that "ought" comes from. It comes from us: from our essential nature as human beings and from the fact that we all have this basic desire in common.