When people ask, “How can you have ethics without religion?” what they’re really asking is, “How can you have ethics without mythology?” Because religion is mythology.
So, how can you have ethics without mythology? Very easily. We’ve been doing it the entire history of our species, and everyone still does it today. Before Christianity was invented people didn’t spend their days wallowing in the mud having rampant cannibalistic orgies with their families. We were building cities, navigating the globe, curing diseases, and developing the sophisticated languages we would later write religious tomes with.
Humanity has been writing its own rules since day one. Look around you today. Your entire life is controlled by rules that nobody claims God was responsible for. There are rules for how to behave in a department store. There are rules in school, rules at work, Robert’s Rules of Order, rules for sports games, rules for war, rules for taxes, international law. Moses was an amateur. The IRS makes wrote 1000000000000000000000 commandments and counting, and those commandments have real, life and death consequences in this world.
Where do these rules come from? They came from the practical need to establish best practices to accomplish practical goals. 10,000 years ago we just needed to get firewood and food. So the practical needs of our lives were pretty simple. As society progressed life got more complicated, and we needed more practical rules to address the new practical problems standing between us and our personal goals.
We understand society’s rules and why they exist, and we still follow them even though we know we’d have to play Six-Degrees-to-God to give any deity credit for saying your car has to come to a full stop at a red light. We even have our own personal philosophies on which rules we have to acknowledge as valid and which ones are bullshit and we don’t have to follow. Every member of every religion uses their personal philosophical system to dismiss parts of the religion they profess to base their life on. Every Christian has their own personal ethics that guide which passages in the Bible they cherry pick and how they interpret scripture to conform to their existing biases.
The following experiment would prove my point: Take 100 people who claim to be religious. Have them carry a notebook with them everywhere they go for a week and have them write down every place they go and every person they talk to. Have them record a short explanation for why they decided to go and do each of the things they did that week. At the end of the week, you might have 2 or 3 actions among thousands that were directly motivated by Biblical doctrine. Yet you’ll notice they got through the week relatively okay and probably accomplished a lot of good things by following rules that were publicly and unapologetically invented by humans.
You’ll find these people even made up rules on their own, broke their own rules, broke other people’s rules and broke Christian rules without their week devolving into a cannibalistic orgy with their family. Why did they behave like such heretics, yet still manage to live a happy, kind, productive life? They used common sense to identify the most productive ways to maximize their goals according to their values.
We all do this every day, effortlessly. You put more thought into calculating your personal system of ethics than a supercomputer puts into calculating the world’s most complicated chess game. You might respond to this by pointing out that the world is in chaos and pain, but I believe that is due more to people holding onto irrational beliefs and customs than people using reason.
Bad rules stay on the books because ordinary people don’t believe they have the right to decide right from wrong for themselves, even though we’re all already doing it. When we take what we’re already doing to its inevitable conclusion, and all become unapologetic thinkers and problem solvers, then we’ll be able to agree on an upgraded social contract that effectively addresses society’s problems. But we can’t do that as long as we’re living in the past.