Talking to Kids About Morality Without God

One thing you sometimes hear is that without God there could be no objective morality (the oughts), because if moral rules/principles don’t get their authority from God, where could their authority come from?

Of course, this way of thinking is wrong. Children from a very young age understand what being a “friend” means without God having anything to do with the knowledge. So, kids can extrapolate from this understanding of friendship principles like “you’re being a better friend if you play the game your friend wants to play than if you selfishly demand to play your favorite game” or “you are being a bad friend if you steal your friend’s toy car.”

Another important point here is that the key elements of morality such as altruism are present widely in the animal kingdom, and so aren’t simply implanted in humans as the unique and special pinnacle of God’s creation. One article on this topic makes such points as:

  • Since altruism, empathy, and gratitude all underpin moral behavior, finding them in our fellow mammals suggests that they run deep in our brain biology and did not come about because of moral reasoning or religion. In fact, probably the opposite is true—religion developed because of our innate capacities for caring.

  • [I]n our attempts to study our animal brethren and avoid anthropomorphizing them we sometimes miss their very real similarities to us. According to the scientists Morell interviews, birds are capable of complex communication, elephants have long memories and strong social networks, and dolphins will act altruistically. These scientists are convinced that many higher order cognitive abilities are not limited to humans, and that we only need look a bit further to discover them in animals.


ARTICLE: Finding Morality in Animals
Two new books explore research on animals to better understand the roots of human morality and challenge human specialness.