I often see Christian fundamentalists taking swipes at the notion that atheists and other non-believers can have moral values. In their view, God is ruler over the universe and therefore the only source of morality and objective truth. Since atheists don't subscribe to the God-centric model of the universe, the only values they can come up with are relative and subjective.
Having spent a great deal of my life as a fundamentalist Christian, I thoroughly understand their perspective. I recall the word "atheist" evoking images of a very nasty, evil person. When Madalyn Murray O'Hair was in the news regarding some legal challenge to public religious expression, I recall thinking that she must be a particularly twisted, evil person. How could she hate God so much?
Now that my beliefs have evolved, I'm no longer a "theist", so atheist would be technically correct in describing my beliefs. However, the popular usage of atheist also connotes a totally materialistic philosophy and even hostility toward anything supernatural, and that's not me. I see God as the single unitary consciousness that comprises all things, so perhaps pantheist is more accurate.
Believing as I do that spirituality is a natural part of existence, my source of morality is not in doubt. Even a materialistic atheist develops values, because everyone has an essential worldview that attempts to explain their reason for living. Most of us are quite capable of love for our fellow humans, with some exceptions: A narcissistic sociopath has moral values as well, though these values would be considered selfish and evil by others, but they are standards nonetheless.
Rather than defend how a non-theist develops values, I'd like to shift the argument back at Christians: My contention is that their own moral values are just as relative and subjective as that of non-believers. Absolute standards are pretty darn difficult to prove in any case, and many competing views on this exist within various religions.
What absolute standard are we talking about?
The Christian would state that God is the ultimate standard. And how do we know what this God's views are? They claim it's through the Bible, "God's Word". They believe that the Bible gives them a rock-solid, undisputed moral standard to live by.
So...exactly what are these moral standards, and where are they found?
The Ten Commandments are well known, so it's a good place to start. Let's examine what morals are taught here:
Sounds like this is about an insecure deity, afraid of the competition. What's the moral for us mortal humans? Since Judeo-Christianity is supposedly a monotheistic religion, what competition is God worried about?1 – You shall have no other gods before me.
Again, more insecurity coming through.What's up with that?2 - You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.
Could be some merit in this, as in keeping something in our lives sacred and protected from the constant barrage of cynicism and ridicule. But "God's name" depends on the theistic model you subscribe to.3 - You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
This one is all about control, How does being controlled by endless rules help us to be better humans ? This just helps keep us subjugated by the controllers.4 - Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
I guess you can't argue with that.5 - Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
Ah, herein lies one of the biggest incongruities in Christianity. Very short and unambiguous, yet the one commandment that is most often violated or ignored. The concept of not killing each other is a glorious idea, that if followed. would make the world a much nicer place. Here you have it, in black and white, and yet many if not most Christians support the death penalty, and sending troops into combat. They support the military raining death down from drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pacifists, practicing what Jesus taught, are generally ridiculed by these same Christians. Maybe they should just delete this inconvenient commandment?6 – You shall not kill.
On the face of it, this seems positive, but it's really about male control and ownership of women as property. Women caught in adultery were stoned to death, while men could make good by killing off the husband and adding the woman to his harem. (See the David and Bathsheba story).7 – You shall not commit adultery.
Thumbs up for this one, but don't forget the stealing done by the rich 1% from the working class. Why are they not caught an put in prison like a petty thief would be?8 – You shall not steal.
Another great idea. The fact that the 10 commandments used to be posted in courthouses everywhere, yet innocent people are still imprisoned or executed indicates that this one is widely disregarded. The modern version is "cover your tracks and tell the truth only when in danger of being caught lying".9 -You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
This one probably has merit, but notice how it's addressed to the male of the household, as if women don't even exist.10 – You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.
The score? Out of 10, maybe 6 1/2 have moral merit. So is this the gold standard that Christians have but atheists lack? Great stats for baseball batters, not so much for the supposed source of all moral code.
Let's reflect a bit more on this. The real problem with the 10 commandments is what's not listed.
Slavery, for example, was permitted and even encouraged elsewhere in the Old Testament.
And why did slavery end in this country? Was the abolitionist movement spearheaded by fundamentalist Christians? Hardly. Many of them defended it until the bitter end. Abolition was achieved due to the efforts of secular people of conscience, even atheists among them! And the fight against segregation and discrimination continued until modern times, opposed by...you guessed it!
So it stands to reason that if the Bible is the source of all wisdom and moral values, the fight for a more kind and just society should have been led by fundamentalist Christians. The reality is that they mostly have been the old guard responsible for resisting social progress, and still are. Assistance to the poor, gender equality, minimum wage, environmental protection are all still actively resisted by conservative Christians. In their defense, perhaps the Old Testament provides little encouragement for progressive social morality. But there is still the New Testament to consider...
The teachings of Jesus stand in marked contrast to much of the Old Testament. He pulled no punches when criticizing OT law and practice, which is probably what got him into so much trouble.
Stone the woman caught in adultery? Jesus said "he who has not sinned cast the first stone" (There were no takers that day).
Chase the Banksters out of the temple with a whip! Feed and clothe the poor! Helping someone in need is more important than Sabbath rules!
The gist of Jesus' teachings was love. "The sum of the law is love your neighbor"! How complicated is that? Even atheists are capable of love, and there is nothing in the Bible that teaches how to love better or more in any case. People live in harmony and love their neighbors and families in parts of the world that have never heard of the Bible. Societies influenced by religion tend to have more strife and bloodshed. In any case, there is no evidence that religion teaches us how to love more.
Conclusion: Christian claims that their morals are based on objective standards are false. The Bible does not speak with one mind and voice, so it's a subjective matter of which passages to adhere to and which to ignore. Christians that condemn the harsh Islamic punishment of women in the news should recall that their own Bible could be used to defend such practice. Do they think that stoning the pregnant woman in Pakistan was a moral action? Of course not, but they cannot cite the Bible as their moral guide on this matter.
For everyone, morality is a very subjective matter, taking into account culture and prevailing beliefs. In this regard, Christians and Atheists are pretty much alike.