Jan 19 2006

Morality exists independently of, and prior to, religion

There were some very thoughtful and lively comments to yesterday’s post on the topic Should atheists come out of the closet?

It was suggested that one of the other reasons that atheists might feel uncomfortable about revealing their point of view is because of the common perception that morality is derived from religion and that to say one is an atheist is to run the risk of being thought to have no moral standards and be capable of any atrocity.

This view does persist in the face of evidence (and arguments) to the contrary. For example, Marc Hauser and Peter Singer in their paper Morality Without Religion reported on the results of survey of 1500 people, asking the following questions:

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally “obligatory,” “permissible,” or “forbidden.”

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ____________.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _________.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

Taken the quiz? Here are the results of the study:

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test [http://moral.wjh.edu]. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

Gregory S. Paul did a transnational study that argues that being religious actually leads to negative social consequences. In his study titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies published in the Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005), he finds:

Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel argues that the idea that morality is derived only from religion does not make logical sense. He says (p. 331):

Let us suppose…that moral values comes only from God’s authoritative word, that moral value is by definition that which God commands. If so, then if God commands us to love one another, then loving one another is morally good, by definition. However it is equally true on this view that if God were instead to command us to hate and enslave all those who are of a different race then, still by definition, the hate-filled slave – holder would be morally good and praiseworthy. Similarly, if God were to have created us such that our purpose was to kill each other for fun, then the peacemaker would be a demon and the serial murderer would be a moral saint, again by definition. Indeed, the creationist will likely say that such ideas move beyond irreverence and into blasphemy and that it is impossible to think that God would ever command such immoralities. However, notice that such a reply would contradict itself in the mouth of someone who says that morality is merely that which God commands…Plato’s point is that this view – that God’s authority as the origin of value – is fundamentally flawed. It is rather the second view that makes more sense, namely that God commands something because it is indeed good. That means, therefore, that goodness must have a basis that is independent of God. The lesson for us here is that…the existentialist fear is ill-founded – the possibility of value, purpose, and meaning are not lost even if God does not exist.

Of course, I do not expect these arguments to persuade anyone who is convinced that it is only belief in god that prevents people from torturing and killing people, without even pausing to reflect on the seeming contradiction that it is a supposedly religious President Bush who actually authorizes both these things.

POST SCRIPT: What Christians think about atheists

One intrepid atheist blogger (Lya Kahlo) spent two months at Christian websites and chat rooms engaging the natives in dialogue about what they thought about atheists, and compiled an interesting set of lists. Of course, Kahlo does not claim any scientific status for this highly idiosyncratic survey.

Kahlo reports on the 11 most common misconceptions about atheists:

1. Atheists hate god/are jealous of theists

2. Atheists are arrogant and don’t want anything “superior” to them

3. Atheists have never experience religion

4. Atheists have never read/don’t understand the bible

5. Atheists just don’t want to receive the truth

6. Atheists are bitter/angry

7. Atheists just don’t want to admit they sin

8. All atheists support abortion/evolution/liberal politics/communism/fascism/etc

9. Atheists are gay

10. Atheists want to destroy/limit religion

11. Atheists think they know everything

There are also lists of the five most common excuses for having no evidence of the existence of god, the 14 most commonly used fallacies, and others. Check out the site. There are some surprises. It’s fun.

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