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Aug 24 2010

More risible moral arguments for God

One of my many godless Facebook friends (you mean you’re not one? — well, fine, be that way!) is a young Oregonian named Nathan who’s written some impressive essays that he’s posted to his Notes section, including a fine takedown of Zeitgeist. Sometimes, Christians in his own friends list try to challenge him on some of his Wall posts, and this happened most recently when Nathan posted a quote from Tracie to the effect that religious morality is little more than canine obedience. One Christian woman wrote the following, which I could not resist responding to.

It is important to remember that just as our perception of that which exists is limited, so is our idea of morality apart from its author.

Morality cannot exist merely because we perceive right and wrong in terms of human consequence….this type of moral structure is infinitely at odds with itself, ending in nothing but mere self-preservation. Societies that live at peace have not come up with a “morality that works” apart from the morality set forth in Scripture. You are assuming much when you suggest there might be any morality set forth by the secular world that has not been “borrowed” by the God of the universe. My premise, of course, is that God came first…we all came later.

So, then, we must also ask, is moral character conferred upon the author and creator of all things as you first implied, or does it exist because of that author? We are not the ones who attribute morality to God! We have, through the Scriptures, been given a glimpse of morality as it is merely a reflection of who God is. It comes from him. We do not define it or attribute it to Him. It is a reflection of the person of God, not an idea that floats around in our endlessly depraved minds.

That slurpy sound you hear is that of an atheist theatrically rolling his eyes. Seriously, every moral argument for God I’ve heard has been a total intellectual faceplant, but this one more than most. It really does read as if this woman is simply parroting claims she got from some apologetics source, without thinking them through for even a moment.

First off, in what way is a set of moral precepts based on an understanding of the consequences of actions any more “at odds with itself” than a set …of moral precepts simply handed down as rules from a divine authority figure who expects to be obeyed upon pain of eternal torture? The former has at least something to do with compassion, empathy, and kindness. The latter is little more than simple subservience based on fear.

Moral precepts rooted in human empathy and consequences, while no one would claim they are perfect, at least have a real-world referent. Human beings, being thinking creatures, can understand the difference between observed positive and negative consequences. Moreover, another point she ignores in her claim that secular morality leads only to “self-preservation” is the fact that we are a social species, and our instinct for self-preservation is still tied to species success. It is not the norm for human beings to exist in total isolation, and in order to coexist we develop behaviors that are beneficial to maintaining that coexistence. (And humans are far from the only species that do this. Basic moral behaviors have been observed in a number of primate species, as well as in such animals as dolphins and dogs.)

If anything, it is religious “morality” that stems from self-preservation, because a person who adopts moral behaviors simply in order to please a god whom he fears will punish him otherwise is not really a moral person, just a terrified, submissive and broken one. He has been given no reasons to be “good” other than to avoid negative consequences to himself. Beyond this he has been given no understanding of the positive benefits of his moral behavior. Religious morality, as has been said here many times, gives people bad reasons to be good. If you live a moral life simply to score yourself a ticket to heaven, you’re doing it wrong, and worst of all you haven’t been given the intellectual tools to understand why.

You’ll have noticed the woman responding to Nathan makes bold assertions that she glibly fails to back up in any way. At the same time, all she offers as support for her God’s alleged moral nature are tautologies (God is moral, morality is of God, is basically all she’s got), with a sprinkling of “and anyway, God’s just beyond our puny human perception.” These are not sound bases for an argument.

If her premise is that “that God came first…we all came later,” she must first support that premise with evidence before she begins to argue from it. She says that secularists are “assuming much when you suggest there might be any morality set forth by the secular world that has not been ‘borrowed’ by the God of the universe.” I would say that she’s assuming infinitely more when she claims that there is a “God of the universe” to begin with. Demonstrate through evidence that this is true first, then she can begin to argue that morals come from this God.

She asserts that “societies that live at peace have not come up with a ‘morality that works’ apart from the morality set forth in Scripture,” without, of course, citing any source to support this claim. Indeed, I suspect that the bulk of the world’s cultural anthropologists would be laughing their heads off about now. The Code of Hammurabi predates most Biblical writings, and Confucius came up with something very like The Golden Rule more than 500 years before Jesus is said to have done so. While you might argue that many of the punishments laid out by Hammurabi would be barbaric by modern standards, so would the morals of the Old Testament. After all, this is a book in which Lot, said to be the most virtuous of men, offers his daughters to a gang of rapists simply so that they’ll leave his male house guests alone. Later these same daughters get him drunk and have incestuous sex with him, because God wants them to. (God doesn’t explicitly command it, but given that this is one pissed off motherfucking deity who’s just firebombed the living shit out of two whole cities for their sexual shenanigans, it’s hard to imagine that He just stepped out to grab a smoke and totally missed the act of drunken incest, let alone failed to notice the subsequent pregnancies that gave rise to two whole new lineages.)

Among the “moral” precepts God is proud to have handed down to me is that I must be put to death for eating shellfish, gathering sticks on a Sunday, or having sex with a woman during her period. On the other hand, if I rape a girl, all I have to do is buy her from her father for 50 shekels, and it’s all good. If these “morals” are a reflection of “the person of God,” then God is a person I don’t care to know. (Oh yes, this God also explicitly, unambiguously, and without any possibility of spinning it otherwise, endorses slavery.)

I think if this woman ever chooses to crack a history book that hasn’t been vetted and redacted by fundamentalists, she’ll learn a thing or two: that the time when such modern concepts as human rights, equality, free speech — ideas that emerged from the “endlessly depraved minds” of people — began to take root is known as the Enlightenment. And this period is notable for the decline of the authority of religion over all of the affairs of humanity.

Finally, I’m going to repeat a point I made in my last post on this topic: what use would God have for morality? This is an all-powerful being, who needs to answer to no one at all for his deeds. He can never face any form of punishment for even the greatest atrocity he could conceive. Furthermore, why would God care if we were moral? If all God wants is our unyielding worship and adulation, why would morality need to be part of that equation? We could all wipe ourselves out in the worst of all possible wars, and God could simply chuckle and, being all-powerful and stu
ff, just recreate the human race from scratch. So why would God have bothered to “author” something like morality in the first place, when its own consequences could never apply to him, and its application to our own lives could not possibly be relevant to him?

Morality is entirely comprehensible when considered as an emergent social phenomenon occurring within social frameworks. It is incomprehensible when thought of as originating from a supernatural being utterly immune to its consequences or even its practical application.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Muriel

    If everything God does and is must be, more or less by definition, moral and good and great, wouldn't that mean that we, as His creation, must be moral and good and great, too, as well as everything he created us to do? How can we be "endlessly depraved"?

  2. 2
    Martin

    Well, you know, there was Eve and the apple and all that shit. But then…hold on…God's omniscient, so he must have known Eve was going to succumb to the serpent's temptation ahead of time! But that would mean that the "author of morality" must be the "author of evil" as well!No, it couldn't be…oh…hang on, it is.So, why do I need to "get" my morality from this being again?

  3. 3
    Muriel

    That's what I'm saying: You don't. If you accept everything God does as inherently good, and accept God is omnipotent and omniscient, then you can do whatever you want because nothing could ever happen that's not good.Now, you might think that this does not fit with your perception of reality, but never mind. God would certainly have had an extremely moral reason to give you that perception. He has no choice, after all.

  4. 4
    Martin

    Muriel, it was a sarcastic question. ;-) Still, you're dead right. One of the big benefits of religious morality is that it allows believers to bypass personal responsibility. After all, how can anything you do be wrong if you're just doing God's will?

  5. 5
    Muriel

    Sarcasm is too complicated for me. We don't use that stuff in Germany.It just leaves me stumped how some believers can spend their whole life thinking about this triple-omni super-being and still completely fail to grasp the obvious implications of its triple-omni-ness, while deriding nonbelievers for their lack of imagination.

  6. 6
    Guillaume

    The moral argument for God is lame to begin with, it is even lamer when you think the Bible is the perfect moral guidebook. Some Christians I knew at least said that it was an imperfect book written by men and was in no way a perfect embodiment of God's perfect moral standards… but then why would you need a God and how would you define what is moral if even his official biography doesn't get it right?Anyway, as I said it before when I commented on various posts, usually the main problem with the moral argument for God is that theists confuse morality with worship.

  7. 7
    Ithonicfury

    To be fair, you can't just buy off any woman you rape. It depends on if she is claimed by another man, and how loud she screams, also location location location. See, there's rules to it, which makes it moral and good, praise the lord.

  8. 8
    Jeremiah

    Societies that live at peace have not come up with a "morality that works" apart from the morality set forth in ScriptureThis is simply stupid and wrong. Most modern nations have outlawed slavery, which is most certainly not a morality set forth in scripture. The bible or 10 commandments don't speak out against rape yet I am sure she would find rape immoral. There is a certain high level of ignorance necessary to make the moral argument.And no sarcasm in Germany? :( That's a sad state of affairs, but then again Germany did give us Nietzsche…

  9. 9
    Ing

    "Societies that live at peace have not come up with a "morality that works" apart from the morality set forth in Scripture"This brings up something I said over at PZ's blog. "There has NEVER been a peaceful Christian nation. Not one, everyone marched to war under God's banner in some fashion."

  10. 10
    ernobius

    I just stand in silent admiration, not understanding how you guys aren't sick and tired with the so called "arguments" of Christians… But then I remember that it is our responsibility to try to free minds from this curse. Even if it's very hard and sometimes boring.He-he, Muriel didn't need to adapt to a fundamentalist environment, so his sarcasm became vestigial :)But at second thought, lots of Christian materials (books, pamphlets etc) are translated from German in this region. They call th3emslves something like GBV-Dillenburg.

  11. 11
    tracieh

    1. If we can't comprehend god and god's morality (except in pieces), then we're following moral commands that we don't understand. And we are, then, the trained dog with no moral judgment, only obedience.2. If we can realize god is moral, that can only be by our own personal moral evaluation, in which case, if we can evaluate his commands as moral, we are actually relying on our own morality.3. "Endlessly depraved." What a hateful view of oneself and of all humanity?When I saw that the relay of my FB status had been countered on Nathan's page, my first instinct was to reply to it. But I actually hold back sometimes to allow the person who repeated what I'd said to defend why he or she thought it was quote-worthy. In this case, before you posted your response, I was ecstatic to see Nathan's own reply, which was also quite good. As I would have, he immediately cited Euthyphro.I found it funny that the woman saying she isn't just a trained dog following orders she can't understand would then defend her position by saying, "It is important to remember that just as our perception of that which exists is limited, so is our idea of morality apart from its author."What does that even mean if not "I don't totally understand it, but since god said it, I accept it as moral"?

  12. 12
    vallwarrior

    I agree with you Martin. Personal responsibility has no meaning if you can just beg forgivness afterward. Not only is it god's will, but Jesus died for your sins as well. If you believe this life is all we have, there is even more reason to act responsibly now. There is no imaginary father figure to make it better later. Nothing in history makes me believe christians are moral. They destroyed or burned everything that was viewed as non-christian. How is that moral? The burning of the library of Alexandria alone is one of the greatest crimes ever commited. Throw in witch burning and the inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) and you see a pattern of immoral behavior that spans centuries. Hell, even Jesus' birthday was stolen. I could go on, but you see the point. As a rule of thumb, take anything a religibot says as exactly opposite of what is true and you will be O.K. Pretty much everything I've heard is 180 degrees out of phase from reality.

  13. 13
    George From NY

    Can we count theism itself as one of the products of "endlessly depraved" human minds?I do.

  14. 14
    Ing

    I don't get it…skeptics I see are often commenting on how it's usually not one unskeptical belief…they clump. Anti-Vax clumps with Homeopathy and conspiracy theory, creationism with UN fright and conspiracy theory. Glen Beck with every stupid belief under the sun. bullshit clumps together. promote t eism as skeptical and you're going to get conspiracy theorists who are skeptical and all.

  15. 15
    Doc

    Vallwarrior says"Nothing in history makes me believe christians are moral. They destroyed or burned everything that was viewed as non-christian. How is that moral? The burning of the library of Alexandria alone is one of the greatest crimes ever commited. Throw in witch burning and the inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) and you see a pattern of immoral behavior that spans centuries. "The library burned in 48 BCE. Hard to blame the xians for that one.-x

  16. 16
    Doc

    Though the rebuilt library was subsequently destroyed after being plundered, its a common misunderstanding to blame the christians,who probably would have loved to burn it, given the chance.

  17. 17
    Ing

    Doc appears to be fairly right according to Wiki (take that as you will). But we still got them on ordering Hypatia's death for the crime of thinking while under the influence of ovaries.

  18. 18
    vallwarrior

    O.K. so that was a bad example but my point still stands. Thanks for the correction Doc. I think Tracie made several good points. One that was alluded to was the picking and choosing of which bits to use. We use our own set of morals to decide which bits are good and which ones to skip over. I'm sure Lot's daughters get skipped over more often than not. If we were just trained animals with morals imposed on us we couldn't do that.

  19. 19
    vallwarrior

    @ Doc, I'm sure I remeber that the library was burned more than once. The first time was by the Romans, then several more times, at the hands of christians and then the arabs. Knowledge is dangerous to religion. That's why our Texas school board works so hard to keep our kids as ignorant as they themselves are.

  20. 20
    Seifer Ganon

    Well said Martin!This lady starts out with Divine Command Theory. God is the "author" of morality, morality was "set forth in the scriptures", etc., etc. I find it funny that theists still use this argument since not only does this line of reasoning not jive with reality at all, as you showed Martin, but guys like Plato showed how logically unsound it is up to 2,500 years ago!What I find even funnier is that she then tries to plug the hole she made by introducing Divine Command Theory and tries to argue Divine Simplicity at the same time. There are reasons these two arguments aren't used together, since they reduce moral statements to useless tautologies and contradictions. For instance, since God is the author of morality, then "God's Commands are good." But according to her "God is Good," so we start getting useless stuff like "God is God's Commands" or if morality is merely a reflection of God, then "God is the author of morality" turns into "God is the author of the reflection of God's character." Clearly a bunch of nonsense that gets us no closer to how we ought to act. Usually glaring contradictions and nonsense in the structure of someone's moral paradigm would bother someone, but it seems that she's the exception to this.

  21. 21
    gsw

    Setting fire to women with own minds HURTS THEMHURTING PEOPLE is BADWhere is the difficulty?

  22. 22
    Vincent

    I can agree with you on some of the 9-11 claims and conspiracies regarding Zeitgeist parts 2, 3 & addendum but, I cannot agree with hardly anything you've said about ZG part 1. I've done my own research long before the Zeitgeist movie was ever heard of and your claims are wrong – embarrassingly wrong and you're embarrassing all atheists by repeating the nonsense I've seen in your youtube video #634. The comments there by 'Hercules2345' proved that.I notice that most here at the atheist experience consistently commit the fallacy of 'guilt by association' by conflating part 1/Acharya S with everything else. Acharya S had nothing to do with parts 2 or 3. She has consistently substantiated part 1 when it has come from her own work and I've yet to see anyone here go to her website or videos or forum or read any of her books or even make any attempt to contact her at all. So, the anti-Acharya S position here is about as intellectually dishonest as it gets. As an atheist, I find your website & videos regarding ZG1 & Acharya S a monumental disappointment that isn't any better than fundy Xians. Take that as constructive criticism. If you have any interest in being honest invite her on your show via the phone or something but, it would be wise if you knew her work first or you will look like a dumb-ass. Or do a show on her mythicist position. Read Acharya's Frequently Asked Questions at her Freethought Nation forum. Read this FAQ & you'll see why atheists should not be SMEARING her: "Do atheists disagree with Acharya's basic premise?"Search for the "Zeitgeist Part 1 & the Supportive Evidence" thread and the post "The New ZEITGEIST Part 1 Sourcebook (2010)"Ciao

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