Many people believe God, through their religion, is the ultimate source of morality. In my own journey, the less I believe in God the more I struggle with defining why what I know to be “good” is actually “good.” I am not alone in this struggle. Other writers have attempted to articulate the basis of morality without god. (A few examples here and especially here). Without God, what is the source of morality? The answer is both absurdly simple and complex.
However, before I can even attempt to answer that question, “morality” or “morals” should be defined. For the purpose of this text, morals are the guiding principles or rules referred to by a person to determine the right and wrong choices in situations. People claim to know right from wrong every day. The concept is reflected in our laws: the elements of the insanity defense used by most states (and the federal government) requires that the offender have been unable to appreciate the rightness or wrongness of the criminal behavior. Society agrees that there is a right and a wrong.
The next question I need to answer is why do humans need morality? As a practical matter, morality helps society function. People can rely on other people sharing the same or a similar morality and can predict behavior based upon those morals. For example, most people agree that stealing or murder are wrong. The debate is rarely whether or not those two activities should be allowed. Instead, the question is often whether or not a given activity is actually stealing or murder. Think of digital “piracy” or abortion. People disagree on these two activities much more so than whether or not it is wrong to shoot a gun randomly into a crowd or to break into someone’s house and take the property. Society has not agreed on the morality of these actions.
Since morality (some set of rules) is necessary and / or desirable how can we get it without God? In order to answer that question, there has to be a replacement of sorts for God. God served as a carrot and a stick for the world. Do good, be rewarded now or in the future. Act badly and punishment would follow. Usually the mark set by God was higher than that set by government: it is easier to be law-abiding than to be like Buddha or Christ. The value of God as the source (and enforcer) of morality came from the fear of punishment and the hope of reward. God could see what you were doing and there would be consequences. What can replace God as the basis of morality? I think the answer is simple: we can.
To replace the the fear and crushing sense of an omniscient observer that God supplied I suggest the insignificance of everything relative to the universe and time. Our life, the lives of everyone we know, the lives of everyone who has ever lived, the nation states that have risen only to fall, the whole planet, our solar system and our galaxy would not even show up as a pixel if the observable universe was depicted on a screen. We are, for now and the foreseeable future, utterly alone, separated from the nearest star by distances and times that we cannot cross. There is, as Carl Sagan noted, no outside source of salvation. We must preserve and save ourselves. We simply do not matter. Indeed, nothing we do, have done, or will ever do, matters to anyone but us. This applies on a personal level as well as to the human race. It is this reality - that we’re alone and completely responsible for our own survival; we are all we have - that replaces God.
Since we’re all we have, then it is up to us to decide what matters to us. In fact, that is what we have been doing for the entire history of our species. Our laws, our morals, our religions are all our creations. Systems we’ve created to help our survival. The values of these sources may, and does, change with time. This is why the values taught by the world’s religions shouldn’t be abandoned; if there is not a god, religion is the system that we created to help govern ourselves. There is much about religion that is objectionable. Those parts should be discarded.
How to determine what should be discarded rests on the “new” source of value: humanity. What has more value to us as a race than ourselves? Rules that encourage division and violence should be discarded. As we have established, no one is really more important than anyone else. Thus, we all have the same value. Our morality has to respect that truth.