Can an atheist lead a holy life?

(Godless) ethics in modern atheism


1. Introduction: Subject and structure of the thesis

2. What is ethics and why live ethically?

3. Ethics and Religion

4. Ethics and Atheism

5. Case studies
5.1 Of speciesism and vegetarianism
5.2 Of abortion and euthanasia

6. Conclusion

Reading list


1. Introduction: Subject and structure of the thesis

A widespread argument for believing in a god (and thus for maintaining religion) is, in abbreviated form, as follows: "If there is no god, why be good?"[1]. Notorious evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins comments:

"I suspect that quite a lot of religious people do think religion is what motivates them to be good [which] seems to me to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness "[2].

Religious utterances and pronouncements on moral life are still not uncommon in the 21st century; the head of the Catholic Church - the Pope - for example regularly receives a platform for his sometimes very dubious views, and this in the nation's respected daily newspapers. Remember, for example, the Pope's "remote message"[3] (on the condom ban) on his trip to Africa in March 2009.

In this work I would now like to explain some reasons why the opposite of the text excerpt quoted by Dawkins comes close to the truth: It is not godlessness, but often God (or religion) himself that (the) many of us benefit from it discourages leading an ethical life. First of all, it must be clarified what is meant by “ethics” or “an ethically correct life”. In my argumentation, I mainly use works and examples by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, in particular “Practical Ethics” from 1979 and “How Are We to Live?” Published in 1993.

For the sake of clarity - and for the sake of brevity - I will concentrate in the following on two subject areas dealt with in more detail by Singer: on the one hand, the Speciesm (and the consequences that follow) and, on the other hand, on the often very controversial cases of euthanasia and des Abortion.

Finally, I ask the question whether religion or a religiously motivated way of life is fundamentally useful when it comes to living as ethically correct as possible. Could be a more atheist Lifestyle be a sufficient alternative?

2. What is ethics and why live ethically?

The term ethics comes from the Greek and can fundamentally with Moral doctrine[4] to be translated. Or, formulated more complexly: “The philosophical sub-discipline that asks about right action and thus thinks about morality (values, norms, law) and their justification. Ethics is thus moral philosophy "[5].

According to Peter Singer, ethics is fundamentally "a product of social life that has the function of promoting values ​​that are common to all members of society"[6]. Singer quotes the American psychologist A.H. Maslow, in his view, “people [have] a need for self-actualization, which implies a development towards courage, kindness, knowledge, love, sincerity and selflessness. When we meet this need, we feel cheerful, happy, full of energy, at times euphoric and overall happy "[7]. However, Singer regards the data on which Maslow's research is based “at best stimulating [...]. Human nature is so diverse that it is doubtful whether a generalization regarding the type of character that leads to happiness can ever apply to all human beings ”[8].

Furthermore, "[contains] the concept of ethics the idea of ​​something greater than the individual"[9]. However, Singer does not have a god in mind here, because for him “ethics is not something that can only be understood in the context of religion […]. Some theists say ethics cannot do without religion because Well basically means nothing else than what God approves[10]. Singer rejects this and initially refers to Plato and Kant and then concludes: "It is sufficient that the everyday observation of our fellow human beings clearly shows that ethical behavior does not require belief in heaven and hell"[11]. He connects ethical action with, among other things Self-interestbut it is "[often] said that defending morality by appealing to self-interest betrays a misunderstanding of what ethics is all about"[12]. Singer makes it clear, however, that “the current orthodoxy about self-interest and ethics paints a picture of ethics as something external to us, even as hostile to our own interests [which] is to be found in traditional religious ideas that promise reward or threaten punishment for good and bad behavior ”[13].

Next it should be explained What Living ethically actually means: “The nature of ethics is often misunderstood. Ethics cannot be reduced to a simple set of rules, like "do not tell lies", "do not kill", or "do not have sexual relations except with someone to whom you are married". Rules are useful for educating children ”[14]. At this point Singer uses the analogy to a cooking recipe: “Just as no cookbook will ever cover all the circumstances in which you may need to produce a palatable meal, so life itself is too varied for any finite set of rules to be an absolute source of moral wisdom ”[15].

The question finally arises Why we should actually live or act ethically. The answer to this seems elementary and “of existential importance. Whether one lives ethically or not […] is not just an intellectual problem, but a question of life and death. And because this is a question of practical life, a purely intellectual or theoretical answer is not enough "[16]. Peter Singer connects the question of morality with the even bigger and more meaningful question of the meaning (of life): “Life as a whole makes no sense. [...] Most of us would not be able to be happy if we deliberately set out to enjoy ourselves alone, without caring about anyone else or anything. The pleasures that we would get ourselves with it soon seemed empty and stale "[17]. This is followed in terms of content by the speaker:

“In order to justify an ethical life, we can at most say the following today (and that may not be a lot): It is worth raising children ethically because it gives them the best opportunity to lead a meaningful life. […] Ethics not only open up a more meaningful, but also a more dignified life. One of the most important tasks of an ethical education is teaching the ability to take one's life and oneself seriously "[18].

Here, too, a comparison is made with art and aesthetics, which often make life appear worthwhile and meaningful; in addition, an ethically living person is able to "develop autonomy, freedom and individuality"[19]. There are no restrictions on the status or age of an individual. On the contrary, because “the ethical way of life is open to everyone: Everyone can lead an ethical life - poor and rich, powerful and weak, gifted and less gifted, clever and less clever people. There is still a trace of ethical importance, of meaning, to be found under almost all living conditions "[20].

Singer now closes the question without, however, being able to find a (final) answer; in his opinion, “[we] will probably always need the sanctions of law and social pressure to provide additional reasons for serious violations of ethical standards. [On the other hand, those] who are thoughtful enough [to ask the question] are most likely to acknowledge the reasons that can be given for taking the ethical point of view ”[21].

3. Ethics and Religion

Under religion one understands in general the "human belief and the trust in a higher power [and also] on the one hand the bond to a higher being in the sense of belief, adoration, favoritism and on the other hand the obligation to this belief by observing rules"[22]. The central theme in this work is the ethical aspect, especially of religion; The crucial question here is first of all whether religion is elementary or even partially important in order to lead an ethically correct life in our modern world. To put it mildly, the speaker says:

“Whoever believed in God also believed in the meaning of his commandments; whoever built on a redeemer also accepted the path of salvation that he had shown. Even today such devout believers have no problem with justifying ethics, but this form of belief is becoming more and more incompatible with the secular tendencies of modern thought, especially with science. […] Most people no longer accept any religious justification for ethics, and it would be a futile undertaking to try to convert them first to belief in God and to religion in order to then win them over to the ethical life "[23].

The German philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon formulated it more clearly and sharply in the choice of words in the “Manifesto of Evolutionary Humanism” he wrote: “That we humans would be left without binding ethical guidelines if God did not exist is still a matter of fact today Theologians like to spread rumors "[24]. In order to show that faith per se has nothing to do with ethical action, Schmidt-Salomon falls back on a figure from Socrates' argument that “is essentially based on two simple questions: 1. Are God's commandments good because God has them? commanded? 2. If so, would it be morally justified to torture or murder children if God made such a commandment? "[25] This creates an ethical dilemma for “the believer [...] [...]; either he gives up the thesis that values ​​are based on God's commandments (which might contradict his faith), or he has to accept that God's commandments are still valid even if they obviously demand inhumanity "[26]. According to Singer, "the more important link between religion and ethics [...] traditionally consisted in the belief that religion provided us with a reason to do the right thing, namely the reward of eternal bliss for the virtuous and agony for all others"[27] - an attitude that has already been rejected by Immanuel Kant, a "devout Christian [who] disdained everything that smells selfish motives for the reward of the moral law"[28].

There are innumerable examples, in the Christian religion alone and written down in the Old and New Testaments, whose ethical or moral value (in our modern world) is at least in doubt; about

"Jesus’s celebrated teaching about turning the other cheek. Most of us think that turning the other cheek is a noble idea, even if too idealistic for his world. [...] To turn the other cheek is to teach would-be cheats that cheating pays. There is not much attraction in an ethic of turning the other cheek if the resulting hardship falls not only on those who allow themselves to be struck, but on everyone else a whole ”[29].

A little later Singer says:

“The moral rules still being taught in most societies are often not the ones that we most need to teach our children today. [...] The traditional Christian emphasis on the denial of harmless bodily pleasures, especially sexual pleasures, bears a heavy responsibility for increasing that tension until, in many people, it reaches breaking point, with the outcome either an abandonment of ethics, or a sense of guilt and defilement "[30].

This “refusal of harmless physical pleasures” has far-reaching consequences: Currently, the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church should be named, to which the German bishop Walter Mixa, among others, fell victim[31]. It should now be clarified whether there is a connection between the dogmatic refusal of the church to recognize sexual desire as something natural, for example in celibacy (the celibacy chosen for religious reasons[32] - and thus the renunciation of a sexually active life, since this is only legitimate within marriage) appears - as well as the repeated occurrence of serious cases of abuse at Christian institutions[33].

In the Bible - under Exodus 20: 1-21 - there are the so-called ten commandments (or also Decalogue) who like to be the "Basis of Christian Ethics"[34] be understood.

Among other things, they proclaim the following: “You shall have no other gods besides me” and “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God: I pursue the debt of the fathers to the sons of those who are enemies of me the third and fourth generation ”. If you applied this formulation to today's, modern Conditions, this would probably not be compatible with contemporary ethics, not even in the proverbial: the fault Transferring a person to their offspring does not seem particularly fair.

Furthermore, in addition to "You should not steal" and "You should not murder", it also says: "You should not commit adultery". Nowadays the latter is no longer considered by everyone holy covenant of lifebut rather as one of many traditions. Breaking it does not seem to be on the same level as murder in the ranking, but - on the contrary - rather as something completely normal: according to statistics, in Germany there are 4.6 marriages (per 1,000 inhabitants) 2.3 divorces (per 1,000 inhabitants)[35]. Although this does not yet justify it ethically, there are at least enough biological-psychological explanations for this phenomenon[36].

Finally, the 10th commandment reads: "You shall not desire your neighbor's wife, his slave, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." Apparently the patriarchal aspect stands out, a fundamental problem of the Bible (and thus of the Christian, but also that of the other - widespread religions), in other words: this commandment is sexist - and also specific[37] - this is not surprising if one considers the age of the New Testament. The question to be answered is whether the ten commandments play a role in modern ethics, and if so, which ones. Is Exodus 20 really ethically helpful, but at least makes sense? What would be the consequences of negating the answer to this?

The following case studies on speciesism / vegetarianism or termination of pregnancy / euthanasia should build on this and explain which views arise from the (Christian) religion and whether these are ethically justifiable and / or relevant.

4. Ethics and Atheism

The atheism, the "denial of God, a divine world order or the valid concept of God"[38], can be divided into one theoretical, practical and combative Atheism; the former “considers God to be unthinkable with reference to the absolute validity of science and human freedom, [the] practical atheism assumes that God has nothing to do with human-worldly things or is not necessary for leading a successful life is [and the latter] attacks all forms of religion and fights them as a harmful aberration "[39].

At this point I would like to address the objection of many religious people that Hitler and Stalin, both allegedly atheists, caused the ultimate suffering of the last century. Dawkins dedicates a few pages to this discussion in “The God Delusion” and sums it up in the following section: “Even if we accept that Hitler and Stalin shared atheism in common, they both also had mustaches, as does Saddam Hussein. So what? The interesting question is not whether evil (or good) individual human beings were religious or were atheists. [...] What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does ”[40]. It also says:

“I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism. Why should it? A war might be motivated by economic greed, by political ambition, by ethnic or racial prejudice, by deep grievance or revenge, or by patriotic belief in the destiny of a nation. Even more plausible as a motive for war is an unshakable faith that one’s own religion is the only true one, reinforced by a holy book ... "[41]

The relevant question here is whether atheistic to live too more ethical to live means. Singer notes that "because the Christian view had so long dominated all Western thought, the dawning of a secular age in which many do not believe in God, or in a life after death, has come as a shock. If God goes, what goes with him? "[42] Or - in other words - according to the words of the “existentialist philosophers of the mid-twentieth century like Jean-Paul Sartre, the rejection of God meant that we are alone in the world. We must choose, but our choices are arbitrary. There are no rules, no right or wrong. All that remains, for Sartre, is to choose "authentically" and avoid a life of "bad faith". But if all choice is arbitrary, how can one choose one alternative over another? ”[43] But is our choice really that arbitrary? Aren't there rules and a “right or wrong”? What about Immanuel Kant? categorical imperative "That tells us to act only in accordance with principles that we would be ready and willing to enact into universal laws [?] Thus he was saying that we must do our duty for duty’s sake"[44]. The so-called should also be mentioned at this point Golden Rule. Already in Greece in the 6th century BC u. Z. it says: "What you blame the next, do not do yourself"[45]. Variations of this "generalizable basic formula of moral behavior"[46] can be found in the Old and New Testaments, in the Indian epic Mahâbhârata, (allegedly also) among the Teutons.

Also, what about the teaching tradition of Buddhism, generally known as a philosophy of life rather than a religion? According to Singer, "the source of goodness [in Buddhist ethics] must be sought within one's own nature, not as something imposed from outside. Even among the ancient Greeks, the idea that what we ought to do could be contrary to Alles our desires would have caused bewilderment ”[47].

Assuming that an atheistic view of life does not automatically guarantee a more ethical way of life - does it still help to avoid possible ethical misconceptions and views of religion (s)? This is to be explained in more detail using two concrete, practical case studies.


[1] Dawkins, Richard: The God Delusion, 259

[2] Ibid.


[4] According to Langenscheidt's foreign words book

[5] Kunz: “Lexicon. Ethics, Religion ”, p. 49

[6] Ibid., P. 409

[7] Ibid., P. 414

[8] Ibid., P. 415

[9] Singer: "Practical Ethics", p. 26

[10] Ibid., P. 18

[11] Ibid., P. 19

[12] Ibid., P. 408

[13] Singer: "How Are We to Live?", P. 18

[14] Ibid., P. 171

[15] Ibid.

[16] Speaker: “How can one live morally?”, P. 334f.

[17] Singer: "Practical Ethics", p. 418f.

[18] Speaker: “How can one live morally?”, P. 339ff.

[19] Ibid., P. 343

[20] Speaker: “How can one live morally?”, P. 341

[21] Singer: "Practical Ethics", p. 423

[22] Kunz (Ed.): “Lexicon. Ethics, Religion ”, p. 158

[23] Speaker: “How can one live morally?”, P. 336

[24] Schmidt-Salomon: "Manifesto of Evolutionary Humanism", p. 65

[25] Schmidt-Salomon: "Manifesto of Evolutionary Humanism", p. 65

[26] Ibid., P. 65

[27] Singer: “Practical Ethics”, p. 18

[28] Ibid.

[29] Singer: "How Are We to Live?", P. 139f.

[30] Ibid., P. 172


[32] Kunz (Ed.): “Lexicon. Ethics, Religion ", p. 195


[34] Background-661112.html


[36] Fend: "Developmental Psychology of Adolescence", p. 112f.

[37] "Speciesism - the word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term - is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interest of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species", Singer: "Animal Liberation", p. 6

[38] Kunz (Ed.): “Lexicon. Ethics, Religion ”, p. 16

[39] Ibid.

[40] Dawkins, "The God Delusion," p. 309

[41] Ibid., P. 316

[42] Singer: "How Are We to Live?", P. 187

[43] Singer: "How Are We to Live?", P. 187f.

[44] Ibid., P. 182

[45] Zhu: “A Comparison Between Confucian and Christian Ethics”, p. 136

[46] Ibid.

[47] Singer: "How Are We to Live?", P. 183

End of the reading sample from 21 pages