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.