Morality, value, and purpose without God
By James Clark Ross
My first doubts of God’s existence emerged from the assertion that He (or She or They) existed in the first place. The notion of a Christian god was routinely proselytised to us at primary school, whose approach to religious education was hardly passive. God, they claimed, brings meaning to our lives through the teachings of Jesus Christ, the saviour of humanity: a story that resonates with potentially over two billion people. Years later, having been too stubborn and inquisitive to be indoctrinated by such efforts, I seek to live a fulfilling life complete with morality, value, and purpose in His absence. Only now, however, do I ask: how can one achieve this?
In my opinion, atheism suffers from an unfavourable image in the eyes of society. Too often during debates have I heard labels such as ‘rampant’ or ‘militant’ carelessly be flung about to describe atheists—a label arguably facilitated by the media attention of prominent outspoken atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, and Sam Harris and perpetuated by hordes of keyboard warriors. Admissions of my own beliefs—or lack thereof—are therefore conveyed gingerly since I fear that I may somehow contribute to a negative stereotype: angry, obsessed, scathing, self-righteous.
But perhaps the zeal displayed by these forthright atheists is a reflection of a growing eagerness to explore the benefits of a god-free lifestyle against a backdrop of underrepresentation.
Around 50 % of the UK’s population don’t affiliate themselves with a religion (British Social Attitudes 28, 2010; the Guardian, 2016)—the most popular affiliation of any group—and this number is expected to grow. Yet our previous prime minister declared the UK a ‘Christian country’ in the face of plurality on numerous occasions and under his guidance he enabled schools not to give parity to non-religious views in religious studies; and under the current prime minister, a vicar’s daughter, admission caps in religious schools are to be abolished and more religious free schools have been approved, further promoting ways to divide us. Additionally, our unelected head of state is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England (CoE); CoE bishops hold an automatic right to sit in the House of Lords (the UK is the only Western democracy to legislate this); and since the re-creation of the Secretary of State for Education post in 2010 all three holders have been Christian: Michael Gove (CoE), Nicky Morgan (‘Christianity’), and now Justine Greening (Anglicanism if her Wikipedia page is anything to go by).
Despite this there is growth in non-belief, which may be attributed to a number of factors. For instance, greater access to education, growth of resources such as the internet, and increased diversity have all opened our minds to more possibilities, whilst scientific discoveries continue to challenge religious claims. Furthemore, religion can inspire unethical acts—Jihad, terrorism born from the rise of the self-styled Islamic State, and other dangerous manifestations of fundamentalism—causing us to feel detached from faith. There is also disillusionment with religious establishments: the Catholic Church may have come a long way since endorsing the Spanish Inquisitions and the Galileo affair, for example, but topical issues such as the sexual abuse of children under its own roof and its systematic cover-up have damaged its integrity. Ultimately, more and morre people may find the stories written in scripture too unbelievable and may even suppose that the correlation between religiousness and morality can be somewhat dubious.
But, given the popularity of religion worldwide, there must be a strong appeal of the religious way of life and clearly there are many good and happy religious people. However, there’s an alternative for those who seek a fulfilling, more-accountable life away from the shackles of God’s will.
‘Humanism is an approach to life based on humanity and reason—humanists recognise that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone and that the aims of morality should be human welfare, happiness, and fulfilment. Our decisions are based on the available evidence and our assessment of the outcomes of our actions, not on any dogma or sacred text.’ – British Humanist Association (2011)
Humanism is a philosophy I wholeheartedly support. Its definition and application may be fluid but the guiding principles remain the same: seek to improve human wellbeing through reason; consider individuality and social cooperation equal; be uncertain, apply scrutiny, support intellect, rely on evidence. There’s no god who obliges you to wear certain clothes or suppress your sexuality. In contrast, every stance is centred on our collective wellbeing, which is difficult to criticise. (My only qualm is that equal consideration of other species isn’t accounted for.) Conceivably, many of us are humanists without recognising it.
Although, like atheism, humanism doesn’t necessitate a god, rejects a religious framework, and accepts that we only have one chance at life, not all humanists are atheists (and vice versa). However, an atheist who reasons that we are responsible for our own actions and their consequences and who cares about the welfare of other humans is a humanist.
To demonstrate its application, think of a topical human issue: assisted suicide, genetic engineering, prisoners’ rights, cloning, or the hypothetical choice of giving birth to a severely disabled child.
Consider the genetic engineering example, where embryos are experimentally modified and disposed to understand the development of a severe and fatal condition. There’s a plethora of philosophical and scientific questions to ponder; humanism can guide us. Does an embryo have rights? What’s its capacity to suffer? How much pain can it tolerate? Who stands to benefit in the short- and the long-term? How can this be quantified? At what cost? Who is at risk? How will we gather evidence? And so on.
A religious person can consider all of these questions too but he or she is limited by the values system he or she follows: there is a framework that is typically objective, precise, and rigid and which can be intolerant. Sacred text, which is static with time, and dogma limit the effectiveness of an individual to freely reason their way to a position that is centred on aiming improving the quality of fellow humans’ lives.
A personal perspective
From an early age my inherent scepticism and curiosity was apparent from my incessant questioning of everything, according to my mother. My primary school was always going to struggle to convert me. Its attempts to do so fostered within me a sense of resentment. But experience and growth has provided me with a more-positive, humanistic outlook, which I attribute to education and the cognitive enlightenment it stimulated, maturity, and experiencing new places and cultures. I recognise the benefits of a religious life—the communities of music and sport are my churches—but I also see many difficulties that are incompatible with my own worldview. Maybe this is also true for you.
The whole process of developing these views has been emancipating: it has cleared and opened my mind and facilitated further developments in my own life. I feel responsible and accountable. Veganism has been liberating, for instance, and by further accepting how my actions may impact future humans I feel more protective over the environment. Moreover, I can’t stand by injustice and I feel more confident of my convictions since they are founded on reason, evidence, and experience.
The foundations of my moral framework are compassion, equality, and social cooperation. I feel satisfied when I benefit others, which further encourages me to be kind, understanding, and charitable—terms often associated with religious values.
In my life I’m also able to define value: if an action benefits society—people—I deem it to exhibit value. I work in the NHS, for example, to innovate our public health service and I judge the quality of my work on how well it serves patient outcomes. But ‘value’ is a dynamic term and your own attributes and passions may render your interpretation different. Equally, value could mean educating or protecting people or making them laugh or feel inspired.
By aiming to be moral and possess value I have a purpose. Aside from my convictions and my work, humanism has helped shape my political views. More profoundly, I can sense awe and wonder without a god. I became a physicist to help me understand the universe—the birth of stars, space and time, the fate of the universe—and ponder life’s biggest question. This fills me with a deeper sense of purpose.
Humanism doesn’t dictate how you should live your life. It can, however, guide you with reason toward moral behaviour and a life defined by value and invigorated by purpose. If you’re prepared to embrace it, it’s simple: be rational and care for the welfare of others and you may just find happiness and fulfilment in return.