SparkNotes Blog

Auntie SparkNotes: Why Do Atheists Have Morals?

Hey Auntie,
You don’t actually have to reply to this on the blog (in fact I’d prefer you didn’t), but basically, I’m a conservative Christian living in the Southern U.S., and I’ve been questioning my belief in Christianity for a really long time. I mean, I make it a point to question any strong beliefs that affect me this much regularly, but I’ve had some questions lately.

Mostly, I’m wondering: how does morality fit into an atheistic worldview? Like, I know they generally believe in good and evil and right and wrong and stuff, but why? Or not why, exactly, because it’s pretty observable, and I don’t think just culturally, but like, do they think it’s just an evolutionary survival thing to keep us from killing each other, or do they think it’s just “there” without any kind of basis, or what? Because in my head, I associate morals with being in line with Christ’s heart, and every time I ponder the possibility that atheists are right, I get tripped up on that.

I don’t know, I don’t want to be just believing something stupid because of where I was raised, or just plain ignorance, but stuff like this confuses me. Thanks.

So let me get this straight: you’d like me to tackle this epic question completely by myself, and deny our fabulous Sparkler community the opportunity to read, consider, and spend their weekend debating this post into the wee hours of the morning?


Now let’s get cracking.

And how does morality fit into an atheistic worldview? Good question! But first, instead of “morality”—which is a super-loaded word that gets tossed around way too much, and on subjects ranging from sex before marriage to Sunday night television programming to whether it’s okay to wear socks with sandals—I’d like to frame this discussion in slightly different terms, as a matter of… do-the-right-thing-itude.

And in service of that idea, instead of thinking of do-the-right thing-itude as following Christ’s heart, I’d like you to try a little switcheroo on your viewpoint: imagine that actually, Christ’s heart follows do-the-right-thing-itude.

Because at its base, doing the right thing is a concept that’s much older, much bigger, and much more geographically and culturally and historically universal than any one religion. And while you can find it everywhere, from the ten commandments to the Hippocratic oath, it can be summed up roughly as follows: Be kind to others, and don’t hurt people.

Obviously, Jesus had this down like a boss. But so did Aristotle, Buddha, the Prophet Muhammad, Lao Tzu, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maurice Sendak, and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Christ didn’t invent behaving like a decent human being; he just tapped into the concept in a very compelling way. Which is a good thing! Because there are a lot of people in the world, a full two-thirds of whom aren’t Christian, and we’d all be pretty screwed if they didn’t all more or less agree on some universal guidelines for Not Being a Douchebag.

Which is to say, faithful or not, we all have a pretty instinctive grasp of what it means to be a good person. And the possible explanations for why we have that—from religious teaching to the silent guidance of a higher power to an evolutionary imperative (in that our species is more likely to survive if we treat each other kindly)—are much less important than the fact that we do. And even if you’d never heard of Jesus, you’d still have the human capacity for empathy, compassion, connection, and all the other things that make us more inclined to help than hurt each other.

So, does that mean it’s stupid or ignorant to do the right thing as part of following a particular religion’s teachings? Not in the least—and that’s the gorgeous kicker to the whole thing. Everyone has someone, or something, that they look to for guidance when they feel lost; some people read the Bible, some people meditate, some call their mothers, and some go to the gym and pound on a punching bag until they achieve some clarity. And just as they do their thing, you’ll do yours—whether your thing is continuing to call yourself a Christian or not. And while you and me and everyone else in the world will come from different backgrounds and subscribe to different schools of thought, every one of us has something in common:

A commitment to do the right thing… itude.

Want to weigh in on this big, complex question? Have it, superstars! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at