NOTE: Before you start reading this, please be aware that this was my first blog post as an Atheist and I had only JUST begun to delve into the world on the internet. The most common question I ran into was the one of Atheist morality. I also had not yet heard about The Selfish Gene or knew anything about what it contained. I've watched probably hundreds of hours of natural history programs, mostly presented or produced by Sir David Attenborough. Dr. Alice Roberts quickly became a favorite as well. These conclusions I came to were just my thoughts on the subject I felt I had enough knowledge to draw conclusions about.
This is a question that seems to be on the forefront of everyone's mind. If atheists don't believe in any god, where do they get their rules for morality? Just recently I read a post from a family member who stated, in effect, that people who don't believe feel that way because the want to live a lawless, immoral existence. I think that statement just reflects how little people understand human nature.
I'd like to pose a question to those who feel that atheists have no sense of morality. Let's say that there was absolute proof that there was no god in any form. Would believers then go out and murder, rape, and steal? This brand of thinking, in my opinion, implies that the only reason NOT to do these things is because god says it's bad and you will go to hell if you do it and don't repent. This is the same kind of question used on the slippery-slope idea that legalizing drugs will somehow make everyone want to use them. It's an illogical idea that needs to be put in the "old thinking" bin. I think there's a deeper and much more reasonable source of human morality.
I used to believe that humans were inherently selfish at heart and, most times, do for themselves regardless of the needs of others. I've recently come to the conclusion that the exact opposite is true and that's where we get our feelings of right and wrong. The answer to where atheists get their morals is easy; empathy.
What is your first reaction when you witness someone getting hurt? You likely whince and make a face. That's instant empathy. We know what it's like to get hurt and we know how that makes us feel. We know how it feels when someone close to us dies and we usually feel at least some form of that pain when someone we know loses someone close to them. We've seen what happens to children who are abused or neglected. We know how it feels to have something taken from us without permission and never returned. It's our personal experience and our ability to not only feel emotions, but to also apply those feelings to the other people in our lives and, in effect, feel what they feel. That why lots of us cry when you hear a story about a parent losing a child, for example. It's not our child and we don't know the person, yet we can't help but feel sadened by the misfortunes of others. (We're talking average people here, of course.)
It's nothing more than millenia of experience and the development of empathy that allows us to act in a moral way. It's my personal opinion that morality has very little to do with religion. I think that the idea of morality existed long before there was ever any thought of a higher being who is in control. In the earliest days of the history of humans, there were many dangers our earliest ancestors faced. Humans lived in groups together and interacted with each other daily, just like we do today. They witnessed the joy and despair of the others of the group and, I suspect, joined in the rejoicing or mourning of the people experiencing it firsthand.
Where did our empathy come from? The main purpose in the life cycle of all living things is to pass on their genes to the next generation for the survival of the species. For those species who care for their young past birth, it is inherent that they react to the needs of their young. For humans, hearing an infant cry will make a parent spring into action to try to fix whatever problem the child may have. It would, in my opinion, naturally follow with the increasing complexity of our brains, that we would extend that empathy for our children to others around us.
I read a Christians point of view on the subject (I'd really rather not share it because of my personal feelings about his reasoning, but I'm trying to be fair here) and he proposed that our opportunistic and survivalistic (don't think that's a word, but I'm making it one) nature would override our empathy when it comes to morality. He posed a scenario in which, essentially, anarchy was the rule of law. He stated that a lack of belief in a god (specifically the christian god) would make people rely their survival instincts even if it means that another person could be harmed or killed.
On the surface, it can seem a complex question, and certainly people who pose it see it that way, but it's really very simple and it doesn't take any mention of religion to explain it in my opinion. It's in our genes to be moral and act in a way that promotes and guarantees the survival of our species. If not for that, we'd have died out long ago.
Noodles be with you! R'Amen!