The Not So Logical Conclusion: On the Morality of Atheists and Believers


Theatheist“The logical conclusion of atheism is amorality/ nihilism/ meaninglessness.”

If you’ve been hanging around the atheism debates for long, you’ve almost certainly run into this argument. The more fleshed-out version goes like this: “If you make the assumptions I personally make about what atheism is and what it means, then the logical conclusion of atheism is amorality/ nihilism/ meaninglessness.”

Or, to perhaps be more harshly accurate: “For me personally, religious faith is at the core of my morality and joy and meaning of life. I can’t imagine losing my faith and becoming an atheist without losing morality and joy and meaning. Therefore, atheists can’t possibly have morality and joy and meaning — because I can’t personally imagine it for myself.”

Reality_bitesIt’s an annoying argument. Largely because it flatly ignores the actual reality on the ground: the fact that most atheists are moral people, aren’t nihilistic, and do find great meaning in their lives and the lives of others. It’s an argument that prioritizes the believer’s own beliefs and prejudices over the actual reality that’s sitting three feet in front of them staring them in the face.

It’s an annoying argument. But it’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about a parallel argument that I’ve seen some atheists make — an argument that I think is every bit as flawed, every bit as troubling, every bit as willing to ignore evidence in favor of one’s own prejudices.

It’s the argument that theistic morality is inferior to atheist morality.

Church_2The argument goes roughly like this: Theistic morality — and the idea that theism is necessary to morality, the idea that without a belief in God people will have no reason to be good — is a childish morality. It’s a morality that’s based on fear of punishment and the desire for reward… and therefore it’s an immature morality. The atheist morality is based on genuine feelings of compassion and empathy and fairness, a deep consciousness that other people have just as much right to live in this world as you yourself do… and therefore, it’s a more mature, more truly moral morality than the childish theistic morality that “good” is what you get rewarded for and “bad” is what you get punished for.

And there are two reasons I think this is a bad argument.

Mri_head_scanOne: There’s an increasing body of evidence supporting the theory that human morality is, to a great extent, genetically hard-wired. (No, this isn’t a tangent — stay with me.) There is, of course, tremendous variation in how that morality plays out in specific ethical systems, from person to person and from culture to culture. But there are certain core moral concepts that seem to exist cross-culturally, and which seem to be part of the human brain’s hard-wiring — a wiring that’s evolved over millions of years, just like the rest of our neurological hard-wiring has evolved. (And before you ask: Yes, there is so an evolutionary advantage to morality — or there is in a social species, anyway.)

Complete_neuron_diagram_numberedsvgThis science is in its early stages, and it may yet prove to be mistaken. But the signs are pointing very strongly in this direction. (There’s a good summary of the science in this New York Times article by Steven Pinker.) And if the current scientific thinking turns out to be correct, then morality is part of our human neurobiology, a psychological module built into our brains much like language and vision. Of course we vary considerably in how we act on these morals, and in the priority we give to certain morals over others when they conflict; but we vary considerably in what language we speak and how we speak it as well, and that doesn’t mean the basics of it aren’t hard-wired into our brains.

So here’s my point:

If this is true — if morality is largely hard-wired by our human genetics into our human brains — then that’s true for all of us, across the board.

Theists and atheists alike.

Moral_psychologyWe all have the same basis for morality. With the obvious exception of psychopaths and sociopaths and other people who clearly have faulty wiring, we all have the same basic notions of compassion and fair play, the same desire for a strong community and passion to see justice done, etc. And we have them for the same reasons — because they’re the morals that have evolved to make us a successful social and cooperative species.

Cerebral_lobesSo if we all have the same morals for the same reasons, it doesn’t make any sense to say that the atheist basis for morality is superior to the theistic basis. It’s not like atheists and believers are a different species, after all; and I haven’t seen any studies showing that the wiring of the atheist brain is radically different from the wiring of the theist brain.

In other words, atheist morality isn’t superior to theist morality — for the simple reason that it’s the same morality.

Same species; same evolution; same neurological wiring; same morality.

Of course, as I said, this science is still in its infancy, and it may eventually be shown to be wrong. So here’s my second argument against this idea:

It contradicts reality.

JusticeI know a fair number of theists and other religious/ spiritual believers. And they clearly have the same basis for their morality as I do for mine. The believers I know don’t do good because they’re afraid of Hell. Many of them don’t even believe in Hell. They do good for the exact same reasons I do: because they feel compassion and empathy for others, because they believe in justice and fairness, because they understand that other people are people just like they are, because they want to see the world be a better place for everybody.

Blake_ancient_of_days_2They may believe that these morals were planted in us by God, while I believe they were planted in us by the evolution of our genetic hard-wiring. But the basic morals, and the basic motivations for those morals, are essentially the same as mine.

And if I don’t like it when bigoted theists deny the reality of my morality, then it’s not right for me to turn around and be just as big a reality-denying bigot as they are.

God_monty_pythonNow. If you want to argue that the purported basis of theistic morality is more childish than atheist morality, then I won’t argue with you very strenuously. The punitive, afterlife- focused, hellfire- and- damnation variety of theistic morality, at any rate. I agree that, as explanations for morality go, that’s a pretty suck one.

GriftersBut if the current scientific thinking is correct, then the purported basis of theists’ morality isn’t the real basis. A theist may think that with no belief in God morality would waste away… but when you ask them whether they would steal or murder if it could be proven to them that God didn’t exist, in my experience most of them say No. The purported basis for much theistic morality may suck… but the real basis seems to be the same as mine, and the same as that of most of the atheists I know.

BiblefireI’ll acknowledge that this isn’t true across the board. There clearly are some theists whose morality really is based almost entirely on the fear of punishment and the desire for reward. On the other hand, there are also some atheists who really are moral nihilists, who really do argue that altruism is an illusion and we’re all really driven by pure self-interest, if only we’d be honest enough to admit it. (They have a decided tendency to hijack comment threads and drive the rest of us nuts.) And their existence doesn’t negate the fact that most atheists are genuinely moral and compassionate… any more than the existence of the “morality is all about punishment and reward” theists negates the fact that most theists are also genuinely moral and compassionate. There are childish dolts on both sides of the religion divide.

Holding_handsAnd for me to deny that most theists do good for the same basic reasons that I do — because they feel compassion and empathy for others, because they care about fair play and justice, etc. — would be every bit as obnoxious, every bit as bigoted, and every bit as unhinged from reality, as it is when certain theists insist that my atheism must mean that I’m amoral.

OtherI think there’s an unfortunate tendency in the religion debates — among both atheists and believers — to see the other side as almost a different species. I think there’s a tendency to see our opponents as The Enemy… and worse, as The Other. And as I’ve written before, the issue of religion and not-religion is already polarizing enough on its own, without us artificially divvying the world into Us and Them.

I don’t want to minimize our differences. I think they’re important, and I think they’re worth fighting over. But I think it’s possible for atheists to believe that atheism is correct and religion is mistaken — and to fight for that position passionately — without succumbing to the pitfall of thinking that this one correct hypothesis about the world somehow makes us morally superior.

Comments

  1. Andy says

    Hi Greta,
    Thank you for your great post.
    While I am inclined to agree with you that the BASIS for morality is the same for everybody, I contend that -in general- theists have a much more difficult time in being “good” and useful persons for the society as a whole.
    Atheists and agnostics have a natural tendency to respect life, particularly other people, regardless of their origins or beliefs.
    For religious people to do the same, they have first to ignore what they are told at their church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.
    Not all people are able to do this, so you end up with an intolerant person who thinks that she or he is being moral and doing it right.
    So, maybe we all are born with the same hardwired sense of morality in our minds, not everybody ends up being good people because of it.
    Kind regards,
    Andy

  2. says

    Greta,
    I agree with you that maybe all of use have the same wiring. The big difference as I see it is that atheists will not have this wiring changed/corrupted by any kind of belief. Theists on the other hand will trust their holy scriptures and their authority figures and whatever they tell them. And usually, neither holy scriptures nor the priest and company provide good moral standards. You only have to look at the bible to see that.
    Only a few days ago I wrote a very similar post you might want to have a look at: Do We Need God to Dictate Our Morality (http://www.isaiadis.com/2008/02/29/do-we-need-god-to-dictate-our-morality/) (html tags not working?)
    Cheers

  3. says

    A good, solid post, but I offer a quibble or two.
    I think you blur the argument when you say ‘morality’ is hardwired. Morals are about choices. What may be hardwired might be behavioral tendencies that support survival of the species or local tribe/group – compassion and so forth. But any of these tendencies can be overriden by rational choice (or irrational choice, if you will).
    If we accept the moral hardwiring argument, don’t we also need to consider the god-concept hardwiring other researchers have indicated? I would think there might be interaction between the two, and that god-wiring can also be overcome.
    Central point – when you argue morals with theists and you are coming from the hardwire view, you and your opponent aren’t talking about the same thing.

  4. says

    To be honest, I think I’d only be likely to make the “that’s a shallow foundation for morality” argument in an attempt to get theists to admit that that’s not really what drives them. I guess I end up hoping that they’ll come to understand what it’s like to be a nonbeliever by considering that maybe their morality isn’t based on their belief at all.

  5. Samuel Skinner says

    The point of making the “that is a bad ground for morality” is that it gets the theist to relize they aren’t being consistant- they are using naturalistic morality. Obviously many theists do have this cognitive disodence fairly easily- if only because many US Christians haven’t read the bible.

  6. Kagehi says

    Ric, there is no “god-hardwiring”. There is wiring designed to project internal models on the real world, with often invalid conclusions. I.e., X happened, with no obvious external agency I can see, therefor that agency must either be a) internal, or b) invisible. If you go for a) you become like Wicca and others, who like to think that your personal will can have some vast effect on the real world, just by willing it strongly enough. Meditation actually enhances this belief, since that technique has the effect of shutting down certain parts of the brains wiring, which are responsible for clearly filtering between internal and external agencies. In other words, you start to think that “you” moved the curtain, not the wind, simply because you don’t feel any wind. The whole, “one with the universe”, thing is your bring temporarily losing its ability to distinguish between what *you* are actually doing and what *other things* are causing. Prayer, which is a form of meditation, when used in the sense some churches do, triggers a similar response, but either they are primed to sense invisible external agencies, so that is what they perceive, or some aspect of how they reach the state causes them to experience the “phantom person” effect that has also been duplicated by temporarily screwing up people’s wiring. Again, the filters stop working, and we start projecting an invisible, phantom, agency as the “source” of what is being witnessed.
    None of this is contradictory to normal wiring or thinking. We **need** the ability to identify agencies and determine that something **caused** something else. We have some hard wired, and other learned, filters that are responsible for clearly delineating what is caused by “us”, “others”, and, “things in the world that are neither”. The problem is, religion co-opts this system by training the filters to *see* a new category of “others” that includes angels, gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, or what ever, as a valid category for things that fall *between* the “others” and the “something else” categories. I.e., things that *seem to* have direction, possible purpose, intent, etc., but which also have no obvious “actor” who could have determined the direction, purpose or intent of what we are seeing.
    For those of us whose filters are better, and draw a far sharper line between “others” and “something else”, and people’s filters *do* vary, even in their hardwiring, (How could they not if they are evolved and thus prone to variation?), is much harder to confuse us. But, some people would have far harder time giving up the idea that some *thing* they can’t see did it, and its possible to *bend* those filters, via learning, to see agency where there isn’t any.
    The people looking for the “god gene” or projecting “belief in god” as an evolved trait are doing so with an unreasonable and unnecessary bias. The reality, which seems obvious to me at least, is that its a natural category error, which **must** arise out of any system which needs to make clear distinctions between if the rustle of brush or snapped twig you hear is caused by an unseen, but real, creature, or merely a result of the wind. Without the capacity to filter such things into, “I caused it”, “I see what caused it”, “I think something caused it that I need to worry about”, and, “it was natural, so not a problem”, we would be jumping at every tiny little noise, and unable to judge when real danger existed, instead of just the wind blowing through branches.
    That this filter may be partly broken in some people is a given. That those people would derive crazy ideas, is a given. That other people, wanting to have an explanation for why water is falling from the sky, or the ground shook, would look for the answers from such people, lacking better explanations, is also a given. That this means the trait “specifically” evolved to let people make up absurd BS about invisible creatures, who control all of the stuff we can’t directly observe the source of, is imho completely idiotic, given that there is no valid reason why it can’t derive naturally from the workings of a system that cannot make clear distinctions about cause and effect, in cases where the cause isn’t visible, and thus has to often make loose, and potentially completely absurd, predictions instead.
    I think that those that claim there is a specific processes in the brain that are designed to handle beliefs in supernatural agencies really have to **first** give evidence that those processes **are** derived to produce that result explicitly, and not as a result of other more reasonable requirements for handling abstraction and perception of cause and effect.

  7. says

    I agree with many of the other commenters… the purpose of the argument is not to suggest that religious people are actually less moral. The way I’ve heard it done goes something like “huh, you think we need god for morality, eh? If I could disprove god right now, would you start killing people?” Now, I understand how that argument can sound insulting, and we can have the is-it-okay-to-insult-people-to-get-them-to-see-flaws-in -thier-thinking- argument all day, but the answer they’re SUPPOSED to give is “No, of course not.” And this is supposed to be, if not insulting, uncomfortable–forcing the believer to confront the reality that their morals come from something other than faith. From my perspective, knowing that I’m capable of being a good person without a celestial rulebook is a GOOD THING… but at least at first, theists can’t see it that way, and yes, they get upset. But I’m not actually trying to tell them that they AREN’T immoral… I’m trying to tell them that they ARE.

  8. says

    Gah, screwed up that last line. It should read..
    But I’m not actually trying to tell them that they AREN’T moral… I’m trying to tell them that they ARE.

  9. says

    I agree that theists are wrong if they say that atheists cannot be moral. However, I don’t know that most theists would say this. I think their position would be more along the lines of “Atheists have no reason to be moral.” This claim doesn’t need to contend with the fact that atheists are in actuality moral people. In other words, theists want to say that atheists are mistaken when they say morality is no dependent on god.
    This claim, of course, I find ridiculous. Divine Command Theory has many weaknesses (God not existing being just the first!)

  10. John B Hodges says

    (JBH) I will defend the argument.
    Human beings are unusual among mammals and even among primates in that we have an unusually long childhood. (Under hunter/gatherer conditions, childhood can last from a third to a half of the average lifespan.) Just as (for example) caterpillars must have evolved instincts and wired-in responses that will help them survive AS caterpillars, so humans must have evolved instincts etc that will help them survive AS children.
    One of these (that Richard Dawkins speaks of) is the inclination to believe whatever your parents tell you. This makes them vulnerable to “memes” that function as mind viruses. I would add, the inclination to seek the guidance and protection of a parent-figure.
    I hypothesize that religion is so widespread and persistent because it is a carryover into adulthood of these pre-pubescent modes of survival. Just as humans can get release of sexual tension with the aid of an imaginary sex partner, so we can get relief from fear and anxiety with the aid of an imaginary Cosmic Parent. The odd thing is that masturbation works even if you know your supranormal sex-partner is imaginary, while to “work”, religion seems to require that you really believe it.
    Religion is thus a pre-pubescent approach to truth (believe what your elders tell you), a pre-pubescent approach to morality (do what your elders tell you), a pre-pubescent attitude toward sex (YUCK, grudgingly admitting that it may be necessary if you are trying to have children.)
    So, You may be right that humans have evolved as social animals to have some basic moral “grammar” hard-wired (I’ve been reading MORAL MINDS, haven’t finished it yet). I’ve made the argument myself, that because we are social animals evolved by NatSelec the great majority of us would be expected to value the health of our families and the peace of our communities. By this “natural” standard, a “good” person would be a “desirable” neighbor, desirable from the point of view of people who seek to live in peace and raise families.
    But, it does not follow that religious morality is not different, nor that it is not childish. Both pre-pubescent moral attitudes and mature moral attitudes may be part of our genetic heritage; that does not necessarily make them the same.

  11. John B Hodges says

    (JBH) Postscript- I want to address your second argument, that in real life the plain fact is that most rank-and-file believers get their moral judgements the same way that typical atheists do: by some combination of empathy, their natural sense of fairness, their “moral intuitions”, and their cultural background.
    I make a distinction between “revealed” religion and “do-it-yourself” (or “liberal”) religion. IMHO almost all of the harm that religion does comes from taking alleged “revelation” seriously. The more seriously you take it, the more harm it is likely to do. The “do-it-yourself” variety is what you make it; if you bring a benevolent heart TO it, you can make of religion a positive thing. Certainly it is true that many (in some denominations, most or all) rank-and-file believers don’t take a lot of scripture seriously; many don’t even KNOW what their Holy Book teaches, much less care, much less FOLLOW it. Some religions don’t HAVE any “revealed” texts, or (like the Quakers) hold that “revelation” is available to all of us equally, in our “inner voice” of conscience. Every believer makes their own version of their religion, to some degree, and brings some mix of attitudes to the making of it.
    So it may be true that most theists you know have mature moral attitudes, based on reason and compassion, just like good Secular Humanists. I would reply that this is true exactly to the degree that they ignore (or thoroughly reinterpret) their Sacred Texts.

  12. says

    Always keeping us on our toes, Greta. :)
    No doubt, there are many theists who rely on a humanistic morality of compassion, as you said. Their basis for morality probably is the same one we use, and our quarrel isn’t with them. The problem, as I see it, is that there are also many theists – mostly literalists, religious fundamentalists – who *do* use the childish, carrot-and-stick, obey-or-be-damned moral model.
    I would argue that their model *also* plays off and reinforces hardwired human instincts – it’s just that it speaks to a different set of instincts. There’s some very interesting research I’ve read about which proposes that there are five basic tendencies or intuitions that form the basis of humanity’s various moral theories: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. See:
    http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mf.html
    The humanist, compassionate morality that you mentioned relies primarily on the first two, while religious fundamentalist morality relies to a greater extent on the latter three. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the purported basis for fundamentalist morality isn’t the real basis, since the people who follow it clearly do genuinely believe the things they profess. I think it’d be more accurate to say that all moral theories appeal to some combination of these instincts.

  13. says

    I think some of the commenters on this post are making the same mistake that atheists gripe about when theists make it towards us. Specifically, I think some commenters are trying to make a logical deductive argument showing the superiority of atheist morality… while ignoring the human reality staring them in the face.
    The reality is that roughly 90% of people in the world are theists. And they are, by and large, moral people. They help out their friends and family; they volunteer and give to charity; they don’t steal or cheat; they don’t hurt other people unnecessarily; they keep their promises; etc., etc., etc.
    And of course, sometimes they don’t. And of course, it varies wildly from person to person. I’m not arguing that all theists are wonderful and deeply moral. I’m arguing that theism does not automatically make people morally childish… and atheism does not automatically make people morally mature. Boy, howdy, does it not.
    I agree with Ebon that there certainly are some theists with a childish, punishment- and- reward morality. But there are also plenty of atheists with childish morality. Like I said in my post, the “altruism is an illusion” crowd leaps to mind…. as do the Ayn Rand fanatics. And if I don’t want all atheists’ morality judged on the childish ones, I’m not going to judge all theists’ morality on the childish ones, either.

  14. says

    There is actually one comment I want to reply to in a bit more detail:
    “I agree with you that maybe all of use have the same wiring. The big difference as I see it is that atheists will not have this wiring changed/corrupted by any kind of belief.”
    With all due respect: Piffle. Of course atheists do this.
    Atheists are perfectly capable of being deluded by a belief system — patriotism, political ideology, etc. — into going against our moral instincts. And we’re perfectly capable of coming up with rationalizations and justifications for why our immoral actions weren’t really immoral.
    We don’t do this for supernatural beliefs, and we don’t use supernatural justifications, and I think there are some major advantages to that. But supernatural beliefs aren’t the only ones that can make people lose their moral compass… and supernatural believers are most definitely not the only people who do.

  15. says

    Good post. The only thing that’s missing to counter the “atheists are more moral than theists” argument, which I agree is silly, is the fact that atheists DO fear punishment and want rewards!
    A lot of primate morality is based on peer pressure. Individuals who defect are punished socially, for instance by being ostracised, whereas individuals who cooperate are rewarded. That is not to say that all of our decisions are made coldly calculating what sort of reward/punishment we might get, but it definitely plays into it. I’d go so far as to say that guilt is the in-built punishment we have as a deterrent so that we will avoid behaviours that will get us punished by other people, since that’s bad for our genes! If that makes sense.

  16. says

    I think you’re wrong on two counts.
    First, you dismiss the importance of historical and evolved social and cultural construction in translating our neurological hard-wiring into actual ethical systems. The mapping is not at all straightforward, and one specific biological history does not entail one specific set of ethical beliefs. It is simply wrong to say that “Same species; same evolution; same neurological wiring; same morality.”
    Second, many supposedly humanistic theists — who “want to see the world be a better place for everybody” — often fall short of humanism in some form or another: abortion, birth control, gay rights, stem cell research, or other issues.
    Third, even “fully” humanistic theists still project their morality onto God so they can fulfill what they see as the virtue of obedience, but under humanism obedience is at best a necessary evil, not a virtue.
    I think it’s fair to acknowledge that most theists are not hellfire-and-brimstone bible-thumping bastards. But you go too far in the other direction to actually equate theistic and humanistic ethics.

  17. says

    Greta,
    You commented: “Atheists are perfectly capable of being deluded by a belief system — patriotism, political ideology, etc. — into going against our moral instincts. And we’re perfectly capable of coming up with rationalizations and justifications for why our immoral actions weren’t really immoral.”
    You are correct.
    Do most atheists accept that morals come from nature?
    Does this belief make it easier for atheists to not get caught up in the “other” rationalizations for morality that you mentioned?
    Or are we affected by those other rationalizations just as much as a theist?

  18. says

    I just want to add this, saying you are an atheist doesn’t necessarily mean you believe your morals come from nature. You might have another belief system in place for your morals, as your comment points out.
    If you say you are an Atheist and you believe that your morals come from nature, aren’t you at the same time declaring that your morals don’t come from those “other” belief systems you mentioned?
    So I guess my point is, just saying you are an atheist doesn’t tell anyone where you think morals comes from, other than you don’t think they come from God.

  19. hey zeus says

    A problem here lies with the definition of morals/morality being used, whatever that definition might be.
    Morals are an end result of the applied ethics. Unfortunately, many, if not all, theists cannot recognize the morality of atheists because their ethical guidelines are laid down by God. Without the belief, or acceptance, of God as the great arbiter in the sky, atheists cannot be moral regardless of their actions.
    This is another reason why religious “morality” is frightening. There is no good reason as to why members of the Abrahamic religions aren’t waging widescale war against each other(disregarding the Middle East for the moment). Their god and prophets hath told them to kill or convert unbelievers. That should be their “moral” action. But, it is the more secular take on ethics and morality which has moved that belief to the extremes of the Abrahamic sects.

  20. says

    You alreaady know: people pretend. Jesus-huggers aren’t stuck at the level of moral maturity of the average todddler. They just tell all their church lady friends they are, and their church lady friends tell them how wonderful it is that they aren’t those awful atheists. Though, I’ve seen a few examples of Jesus-huggers who are less noral than your average 3-year-old.
    But mostly, people grow up. After a few years on this planet they learn to tell right from wrong. It’s called moral maturity. Everybody does it. Thumpers just pretend they haven’t grown up.

  21. says

    “First, you dismiss the importance of historical and evolved social and cultural construction in translating our neurological hard-wiring into actual ethical systems.”
    No, I don’t. I even said as much, when I said this:
    “There is, of course, tremendous variation in how that morality plays out in specific ethical systems, from person to person and from culture to culture.”
    I understand that social and personal influences strongly affect how moral instincts play out in the real world. And of course, religion (or the lack thereof) is part of that cultural influence. I’m just not convinced that atheist versus theist has all that much to do with the core underlying morals… and it often doesn’t have that much to do with the specific ethical codes, either.
    Which brings me to:
    “Second, many supposedly humanistic theists — who ‘want to see the world be a better place for everybody’ — often fall short of humanism in some form or another: abortion, birth control, gay rights, stem cell research, or other issues.”
    First, I have a problem with the idea that “they don’t agree with me on certain specific moral questions” is the same thing as “they’re less moral than I am.”
    But more importantly: It’s not like all atheists agree with you on these positions, either. There are anti-abortion atheists, and homophobic atheists — I’ve seen them in the atheosphere.
    In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with *any* particular moral question for which all atheists would line up on one side of it, and all theists would line up on the other.
    “Third, even “fully” humanistic theists still project their morality onto God so they can fulfill what they see as the virtue of obedience…”
    I don’t think this is true. Or at least, it’s not always true. The humanist theists I know don’t put much stock in obedience. They think their moral instincts were put in them by God… but they also think God wants them to think for themselves and make their own moral decisions.
    And my main point, once again: Atheists and theists alike can be (using the five moral compasses Ebon mentioned above) caring and/or selfish; fair and/or unjust; loyal and/or disloyal; respectful and/or disrespectful of authority; and attentive to and/or disregarding of purity.
    I agree that, on average, most atheists probably lean away from the “authority/ purity” sides of these moral spectrums (spectra?) and towards the “caring/ fair” ends. But that’s not universally true — far from it — and there are plenty of theists who lean that way as well. I don’t think there’s anything inherent to atheism that makes our morality superior… and insisting that it is ignores the human reality of the lives of 90% of the people in the world.

  22. Nattie says

    I agree with some of the above commenters…
    When an atheist says that it’s a childish morality to behave only because God will punish you otherwise, they are saying it to prove the point that God is not the source of morality; the atheist does not actually think the religious person’s morals come from God, and thus they do not actually think the religious person practices a childish morality. They’re saying exactly what you’re saying, that essentially the same morality exists regardless of belief in God. It’s a way of pointing out that the theist and atheist are the same, not different, by positing how ridiculous it would be if it were true that they were different.
    To put it another way, the conversation goes like this:
    The theist, on the assumption that morality comes only from God, and thus atheist morality — if it exists — is different, demands, “How do you have morality if you don’t believe in God?”
    The atheist, on the assumption that their moralities are essentially the same because they come from a shared place that has nothing to do with God, replies, “Are you meaning to tell me that you only behave because God would punish you? That would be childish.”
    Granted, there could be people who say this in the silly way where they actually mean it, and I’ve just never encountered them. I’ve only ever heard atheists complain about how religion makes people believe some immoral, intolerant things *when they wouldn’t otherwise,* because their innate morality would not be warped.

  23. says

    “For me personally, religious faith is at the core of my morality and joy and meaning of life. I can’t imagine losing my faith and becoming an atheist without losing morality and joy and meaning…”
    Do you ever get the impression that many believers/religious people are unimaginative people with no self-control? They can’t envision any sort of life but their own, and are incapable of acting ethically without the Big Sky Cop watching over their every move.
    And they claim *we’re* immoral?

  24. says

    The issue I, personally, have with theistic morality isn’t so much that its purported basis is childish, or that its purported basis is divergent from its actual basis. What bothers me is that religious systems of judging right from wrong very often lead to the creation of scarce resources: there’s only one holy book; there’s only one Jerusalem. What’s more, the value of these scarce resources can’t be tested through any empirical means. I can’t help but find violence committed for the sake of the unverifiable more troublesome than contests for resources whose value we can investigate.
    Hector Avalos lays out the argument in **Fighting Words** (2005) at much greater depth than I can here, so I’ll stop now.

  25. says

    Actually, genetics isn’t really enough to explain morality. (Though it is a good start.) If it were the whole explanation, the reason why women aren’t treated as property today (like they were in the past) would be due to a genetic mutation and not, as is much more likely, due to the various cultural shifts which led to modern feminism.
    The issue with the ‘basis of theistic morality’ is that pretty much all major religions have a patriarchal streak and the morals they tend to want to enforce tend to be found in deeply patriarchal texts. Religious morality therefore keeps us tied to outdated prejudices and cultural taboos, while atheism leaves us free to consider morality critically.
    There’s a lot to be said for Nietzsche’s “On The Genealogy Of Morality”. He notes that morality hasn’t historically been about rehabilitation. It’s been about revenge. It’s been about cruelty and blood. When someone punished someone else, they were not asserting their goodwill towards society; rather they were asserting their power. These power struggles have generally left women in the dirt for most of history, but in more recent decades women have been able to get a stronger voice and to assert themselves as people who need to be recognised.
    Atheists are a fairly new arrival on the cultural scene. If there have been atheists in the distant past they haven’t generally been heard. For a long time atheism was illegal and even when it started becoming relatively widespread, no one would admit to it for a long time. But I’d agree with you that atheists aren’t bringing a new morality to the table. (You’ll have heard that getting a consensus from atheists is like herding cats.) Nevertheless, atheism does liberate us from old moral prejudices. And let’s not forget that there are some religious followers out there for whom ‘God says so’ is the end of the debate.

  26. says

    Nattie: If people are using “religious morality is less mature than atheist morality” simply as a rhetorical device, then I don’t have a huge problem with it. I’m not sure I agree with how effective a device it is… but it’s not the issue.
    I’m talking about atheists who make the argument seriously and sincerely. Which people do. People have been making it *in this comment thread.* And that’s what I have a problem with.
    Fatpie42:
    “Actually, genetics isn’t really enough to explain morality.”
    I’m sorry if this sounds cranky… but I never said it was. I’ve now said several times that I don’t think it is. Please re-read my post and my comments for more details.
    And I agree that the major religions have had some seriously flawed morality, including being patriarchal. But that’s missing the point. (It also begs the question of whether patriarchy was caused by religion, or merely supported by it. My vote is for the latter.)
    My point is that believing in God doesn’t *inherently* make your morality immature or otherwise inferior. There are, for instance, egalitarian religions that resist patriarchy (the Quakers and the Bahai leap to mind).
    They’re the exception, granted. But they’re a significant enough exception to support my point… which is that there isn’t anything inherent to theism that makes our morality inferior. And insisting that it is ignores the human reality of the lives of 90% of the people in the world.

  27. aratina says

    Good point, and one I think Christopher Hitchens makes using his “age of human civilization” reasoning: given the evidence that humans have been around for about 100,000 years or more, are we supposed to believe that for about 95,000 years humans thought it was ok to kill, rape, cannibalize, and steal and then one day about 5,000 years ago that all changed when it was revealed to be wrong by a god?

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