The term “godless” is one that has been supercharged with connotations of immorality and depravity. “The fool hath said in his heart ‘there is no god.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works; there is none that doeth good”, or so the quote goes from Psalm 14:1. Scriptures such as these are thrown in our faces when we dare to assume the identity of “atheist.” Here’s another for good measure (I’ve kind of modernized the KJV translation here):
“For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.
Because what may be known of God is apparent to them, because God has shown it to them.
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that were made, which demonstrate his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
Because that, when they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were they thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” -Romans 1:18-21
In summary, this passage is giving an argument that is commonly given by many Christian apologists today. It states that the complexity of creation makes the existence and power of God “apparent” and that people who do not “glorify” or express gratitude to God are “vain”, “foolish”, and their hearts have been “darkened.” I won’t quote it here, but the writer of Romans also goes on in the passage to state that people who worship deities outside the Judeo-Christian tradition will be given over to homosexuality, in effect stating that God will turn unbelievers over to even greater sin and delusion (more on that later).
Christians do indeed believe that a complex “creation” has to imply a complex “creator”. It is unfathomable to them to think that the complicated world came about spontaneously or “by accident.” They consider things like human intelligence, morality, and physical intricacy to be proof that it is all by design. They take on a very anthropocentric approach to the world, very much convinced that as in the Genesis account, animals, nature, and the very planet itself were created primarily for the consumption and enjoyment of human beings.
If we look outside the Genesis account, however, to the theory of evolution, then we see that this theory stands in direct opposition to that assumption. The world, it states, was not made primarily for humans; there is no anthropocentric agenda in the laws of nature. All forms of life evolved on their own- although they are also interdependent- but human beings, because of the way we adapted to our environment, managed to come out on top. The YouTuber Mr Atheist makes this argument more eloquently than I do in this video. Also, I recommend the book Undeniable by Bill Nye, because it really breaks down evolution for someone who was either raised without a knowledge of it- like I was- or finds it hard to grasp the concepts.
“So maybe God didn’t directly create us”, Christian apologists might admit, “But surely someone must have imbued us with our sense of right and wrong.” If you believe that morality comes from a Higher Power, specifically the Judeo-Christian god, you may also accept that the foundations of that morality, the Ten Commandments, were literally dictated to Moses on Mt. Sinai, or at the very least that those principles were divinely inspired. What happens, though, if you go over to Old Babylon, a “heathen” nation, and look at the Laws of Hammurabi? They are estimated to have preceded the Ten Commandments by over three hundred years, but similarities can be drawn between the two texts. There are also similarities between the Laws of Hammurabi and the expanded Jewish law.
Maybe upon seeing this, you could try to argue that the Judeo-Christian god inspired both sets of laws, but if you say this, it does not match with the account the Bible gives of non-believers as “foolish” and “corrupt”. If non-believers can adhere to Judeo-Christian morality without a realization of YHWH as God, then a belief in YHWH is not necessary for morality. This negates, rather than supports the argument.
Furthermore, we can see that what has been regarded as “moral” has changed over the years. Most Christians today don’t support slavery, killing rebellious children, stoning adulterers, or advocate amputation as a form of punishment. Does this mean that the “laws of God” as described in the Mosaic books were not perfect? The writer of Hebrews attempts to answer this by stating that the old ceremonial Jewish sacrifices had been replaced by the sacrifice of Jesus, but that doesn’t explain the abandonment of much of the legal code. It seems to me that the goalposts have been shifted farther and farther over the years, with many Christians remaining stubborn on a few choice issues like the death penalty, homosexuality, and corporal punishment for children.
Speaking of homosexuality, I told you that I would get back to it. Regarding worshippers of other deities, the writer of Romans wrote that God “gave them up unto vile affections.” In case there was any confusion over what that meant, it continues this way:
“…even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust toward one another; men with men, working that that which is unseemly…and even as they did not like to retain God in their minds, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient.” -Romans 1:25-28
So, the question now is, why would a moral god give people over to immorality? Even if they disregarded him initially, are they now worthy of being given no way back to God? In Romans chapter 9, the writer expounds on this further by drawing an example from the way that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in the Old Testament account. The writer pantomimes the question by stating, “How does he then find fault, for who has resisted his will?” and answers it by saying, “Who are you to reply against God?” (Romans 9:19-20) This makes the claim of God’s morality unfalsifiable, because if God is all-powerful and you are a mere human, then you have no right to question anything.
My position is that morality is a human construct, and that it has changed and evolved over the years as humanity has progressed. Slavery continues to be a huge issue today, but it is still regarded as unlawful in most countries. Unfortunately, people are still being stoned for apostasy, adultery, or being gay, but the Western world- which is thought to have been established on Judeo-Christian principles- has largely abandoned these practices. Why? Did God change? I thought he said, “I change not” (Malachi 3:6)? If God is the same no matter what, then maybe we are in error.
Honestly, I find it much easier to just believe that the capricious god of the Bible doesn’t exist, than to try to go through the mental gymnastics required to explain his confusing, contradictory actions. The Old Testament account has human frailty and fallacy written all over it. Disproving the god of the Bible doesn’t necessarily disprove all gods, but when I read stories of other deities they seem just as unproven and fantastical. If I easily discount Greek mythology, then why should I cling to ideas of a god parting a Red Sea, raining down manna, or literally writing his commandments on tablets of stone? Why should I cling to vestiges of ancient morality, even as so much of it is disregarded by the very people who tout it the most? Why should I attempt to follow a god who seems to either draw or repel followers to himself on a whim?
When Christians mock atheists and ramble about “Biblical morality”, they do so without a concrete definition of Biblical morality to turn to. They stand on a “moral high ground” that is based on an extremely unstable foundation. When they behave as though the existence of the Judeo-Christian god should be “clearly seen” from the examination of the natural world, they are ignoring the wealth of creation stories that preceded those found in the Bible. There is nothing on the surface that makes the Bible appear any more factual than any of these earlier accounts. They often also misrepresent the theory of evolution in their arguments. Finally, when they quote verses like Romans 1:20, they only serve to further alienate non-believers, because of the smarmy assertion that everyone who disbelieves is immoral.
I could certainly expand about what constitutes morality in a “godless” society, but mostly I feel that we are already there. If no god(s) exist in the first place, then the question of morality has been a human one all along. If fearing the wrath of god(s) was enough to “keep people in line”, then we should have seen a much more equitable world when religion was reigning supreme, but we did not. We have, and have had, wars, violence, and injustice throughout the ages, but if we look at the modern age, the world is less violent now than at other times in history. If people being more devout were responsible for this change, we wouldn’t be seeing it. Also, it is a few years old now, but Christopher Hitchens wrote a wonderful book called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything which explains how religions have historically incited wars and impeded social and scientific progress throughout the world. He does so without coming across as crass or reductionist, and he doesn’t imply that atheists haven’t also caused their fair share of conflict. It is a historical book that is well-researched and insightful.
It is short-sighted to assume that just because someone is an atheist, they lack a moral compass or are ignoring evidence of a higher power that should be obvious. Most of us were raised in religion and did not take the decision to abandon it lightly. To me, the teachings found in the Bible often go up against what most of us in the Western world- Christian and otherwise- think of as moral. In my opinion, “God’s commandments” are often immoral, not because God is imperfect or immoral, but because human beings are imperfect, and our understanding of justice and equality has evolved as we have. As we’ve become more secular, we haven’t found the disintegration of society as many Christian apologists predicted, but instead we have found strength of character and a renewed kinship with our fellow human beings.