Friday, April 24, 2015

Top Ten Misconceptions about Atheists - Part Four

Misconception Number Four -- Atheists Cannot Act Morally

OK, I discussed morality in some depth earlier in this post, but it bears repeating here the common misconception that a belief in God is required for somebody to act in a moral way and that, therefore, atheists cannot be moral.

Rather than rehash the entire discussion here, let me just make a few bullet points that explain why this misconception is, well, a misconception:
  • There are entire societies that lack a belief in God, such as communist China, that are full of people being nice to one another and treating each other in a way that is, by all accounts, very moral.

  • Morality existed long before the Bible was written.  Even if you accept the Bible as a literally and exclusively true account of human history, does anybody really think that people thought it was perfectly OK to murder, steal, lie, etc., before Moses was given the Ten Commandments?  Did people really need to be told, "God says that murder is wrong" before they were able to figure that out on their own?  Seriously?

  • If "absolute morality" comes from God and is the only way to avoid any sort of "relative morality" (i.e., where different cultures think different things are moral and immoral), then why are there so many religions who interpret the same moral laws in different ways?  Why do some Christians believe homosexuality is a sin, while others think it's perfectly fine?  Why do some Christians feel that divorce is a sin, while others think it is perfectly fine?  Having a source of "absolute morality" doesn't seem to mean all that much as long as nobody can actually agree what that source actually says.

  • On a related note, if God is supposed to provide "absolute morality" that is required for us to behave in a moral way, why have those moral precepts changed over time?  Why did it used to be a sin to eat pork and eat shellfish and wear fabric made of two kinds of cloths, but now it's not a sin?  Why it used to not be a sin to own slaves, but now it is a sin?  The standard answer seems to be that Old Testament laws (some of them, at least) were given to a particular people living in particular circumstances and no longer apply to our circumstances today.  Except, isn't that the very definition of "relative morality"?  And isn't it awfully convenient that the laws that "no longer apply" today just happen to be the ones that we don't actually want to follow today?

  • Most importantly, who decided that any sort of "absolute morality" is even needed in the first place in order to be moral?  Morality is just a word, a human construct, that defines how people think we should act toward one another.  It varies from time to time, from place to place and from group to group.  At it's most basic, morality is simply a feeling that we should treat other people the way we want to be treated.  Or, more simply, don't be a dick toward others.  It's rooted in our evolution as intelligent, empathetic creatures and likely evolved as a way to help humans live together in a society instead of having to go it all on our own.  As a result, concepts of morality can and do evolve over time as societies evolve and there's no need to point to any sort of "absolute" morality in order to whether an act is moral or not within a particular society.   We may think France is "immoral" because they let women walk around topless at beaches.  Arab countries feel the United States is "immoral" because we let women walk around with their hair and faces exposed.  And each culture is convinced that their beliefs are guided by "absolute" moral principles handed down from on high.

  • In short, you don't need to believe in God to think you should treat other people with respect, and a belief in God certainly doesn't lead all believers to treat others with respect.  In fact, you could argue that humans are inherently moral creatures and it takes a belief in God (or religion, if you prefer) to convince people to treat other people as "lesser beings" for not sharing those beliefs.
All right, my "few" bullet points ended up being more than just a few.  Just think of this post as strengthening my previous post on the subject rather than rehashing it.

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