Thursday, June 5, 2014

On Morality

As an atheist, I have often been told that I am incapable of being a truly “moral” person and that if I raise my son as an atheist he will grow up without morals as well. The argument is usually that “morality” (in the sense of knowing right from wrong, good from bad) comes directly from God and is defined by his nature. Therefore, the argument goes, if one does not believe in God there is no place to look for a source of absolute morality.

I reject this argument for two main reasons:

  1. The argument presupposes that there is, in fact, such as thing as “absolute morality.” At best, I think you can say that humans are naturally social and empathetic creatures and that certain behaviors help the survival of the species as a whole. But what the specifics are can and do change from one society to another and one era to another within the same society, and I think you would be hard pressed to find many moral principles that are shared across all cultures or even all religions. Even within a single religion, moral principles regularly change over time. For example, in the days of the Old Testament it was apparently perfectly moral to own slaves and commit wholesale genocide (as long as God commanded it, of course). Conversely, it was immoral to eat shrimp or wear fabric made of two different types of thread. If you ask a Christian why such things are not followed today, you will usually get a response along the lines of how those commandments were given to meet the needs of the society that existed at the time and don’t apply to our society today. Which is, of course, the very definition of moral relativity.

    I think the closest one could get to any sort of “absolute” moral principle (despite the fact that it was violated repeatedly in the Old Testament on the direct order of God) would be the principle that we should treat each other the way we ourselves want to be treated (the so-called “Golden Rule”). Christians seem to think that Christ came up with this, but the principle existed for thousands of years prior to Christ’s supposed birth in a variety of other cultures. And, as I mentioned, the Old Testament is replete with examples of God commanding his people to commit all sorts of atrocities in his name in direct contradiction to this principle.

  2. Our only knowledge of God’s commandments and essential nature comes from the scriptures, and those scriptures portray him in large part to be capricious, jealous and vindictive (especially in the Old Testament where people get smitten left and right for all sorts of trivial crimes). It’s all well and good to use logical arguments to hypothesize as to what God’s essential nature “must” be, but if you look at what is supposed to be an accurate record of what God actually said and did, we see a being at odds with his supposed goodness.

    I would argue, in fact, that nobody actually gets their moral guidelines directly (or exclusively) from the Bible. Instead, they use their own innate sense of morality to decide which parts of the Bible they want to follow. Perhaps you really like the bits about loving thy neighbor, honoring thy father and mother and taking care of the poor and afflicted? Are you not quite as excited about the bits commanding you to stone homosexuals to death or permitting you to beat your slave as long as he doesn’t die? Morality isn’t doing what God tells you to do – it’s deciding which parts of “God’s words” are actually worth following in the first place.

    Now, I have been told that this “innate moral sense” of which I speak is actually some sort of "Light of Christ" which comes directly from God. If that were the case, however, then it doesn’t explain the inconsistency of having God tell us one thing in the supposedly inerrant scriptures and then giving us the ability to determine which parts are false...

As an aside, I’ve frequently been struck by the observation that theists tend to have a much lower opinion of humanity than atheists. Most atheists I have talked with seem to accept that morality, while not absolute, has it's origins in the social and evolutionary development of our species. It evolved as a survival trait and is simply part of what makes us human. We treat each other the way we would like to be treated because, on the whole, it makes living together easier. Most theists I have talked with, on the other hand, seem to think that man is basically a depraved animal driven by the basest of motives, perfectly willing to lie, cheat, kill, rape, steal, etc., at all times, held in check solely by enforced obedience to a set of divinely revealed rules and regulations. OK, so they never actually say it quite like that, but the implication always seems to be there.

I just have always found it ironic that Christians (in particular) rail against evolution because it somehow debases humanity and makes us appear no better than any other animal, and yet they are the ones who think we would all run around acting like "animals" if it weren't for their archaic moral codes.

1 comment:

  1. It truly drives me nuts the way most people illogically assign all goodness as coming from the Bible and church-going. As if only people who believe in a traditional god and go to church could possibly value truth, peace, respect - let alone be honest, kind, and caring. It's such a laughable logic error that I can't understand why everyone doesn't see it for what it is. Is it really so very difficult to perceive that even without believing in their God, I can see quite plainly that creating a better world to live in means living so that trust, self-esteem, and humanity can thrive, and therefor values that are hijacked as Christian-only are necessary? That this is how we need to live to create a nice place to be with strong relationships around us? I'm glad you mentioned your blog - so nice to find someone else who gets it. ;D