Can human beings behave ethically in the absence of a belief in God?
First of all, we have to distinguish between individuals and societies. The short answer is individuals can, societies cannot.
I'll leave societies to another article. In this I want to concentrate on individuals.
Although it's possible for many non-believers (but not for all, that's why societies cannot function without a religious foundation) to have an ethical system that guides their conduct, it's undeniable that this desirable state of affairs is more difficult to maintain for them than for those who truly believe in the Christian God.
Let's give an example. Arthur is an atheist who thinks that people should be nice to each other and behave decently and honestly simply because it creates a better environment for everybody and, purely using his reason, he arrived at the conclusion that all benefit from social interactions conducted according to the principle of looking at things from the others' perspectives, putting yourselves in their shoes (well expressed in the Golden Rule "Do unto others as you would have them do to you").
We all know that not everyone behaves this way. One day Arthur hires a building firm, Smith, to do extensive external repair works to his house, which cost him a lot of money but could not be avoided or postponed. He treats the company well, doesn't complain about the job done unless necessary, pays all his invoices immediately, doesn't protest too much about the price asked. He is assertive when it comes to protecting his rights and is not a pushover, but other than that he doesn't make things difficult for the firm.
Arthur then finds out that Smith has carried out similar works for one of his own neighbours, Bob, a very grumpy and unlikeable chap. Bob has acted in exactly the opposite manner. He and his wife made life hell for the builders during their work, finding faults with everything and anything they did. In addition, they didn't pay some of the invoices and, two months after the job was finished, are still refusing to pay in full, giving several pretexts.
But what shocks Arthur most is Smith's response. The company people, although privately despising Bob and callig him names, treat him with respect and go out of their way to accommodate him. They even offer him delayed payment options and discounts they never even mentioned to Arthur.
Now, Arthur is only human after all. Rational, striving to be a moral person, but with emotions of anger, envy, self-doubt and resentment always boiling under the surface and close to pouring out at the first provocation.
This particular provocation is not small either. Now we have Arthur battling within himself, against himself.
The first thing he thinks is that behaving nicely doesn't pay, whereas being a bully does. So, the rational basis for his choice of decent conduct seems shaky now.
What in this case has been the outcome of a moral choice of action, if you have to calculate it in terms of self-interest, although a rational, enlightened self-interest, enlarged to comprehend the interest of the whole society to which you belong?
There are times when pure rationality, if you are atheist, doesn't lead you to an ethical choice. Benefit scroungers who live off the others make a perfectly rational choice. So do criminals who know they won't be caught.
And in many other cases, like the one of my example of Arthur, even ordinary, decent people who sincerely desire that an ethical path is the same as a path of justice, that doing the right thing results in a reward and not a punishment, have to give up in desperation, abandoning the hope that we can square this circle in this life.
But if they could believe that justice always triumphs - if not in this, then in the next world - because there is a giver of justice who also gave life to everything that exists, this belief could act as a great help at times when being ethical may not seem so rational after all.
Our life is made up of so many banal examples as that of Arthur's predicament. It's perhaps not too much to bear for our shoulders, or maybe it is. Either way, it's overwhelmingly obvious that a belief in a just God like the Christian God greatly helps people maintain an ethical outlook and behaviour in even the most difficult circumstances.
If you don't believe, you may think that whatever is good and expedient for you is OK, as long as nobody can see you. If you believe, you know that there is someone who always sees you.
But that is not to be taken in the sense of a CCTV camera. Because, if that someone is merciful, understands and forgives, you don't feel under an external control: you just feel less alone in your constant struggles.
Photo courtesy of the website Human Health and Animal Ethics