The problem of morality

There’s a popular recurring question that often comes up in discussions with religious people who wish to challenge atheists: namely, why should be be moral if there is no god? If atheists don’t believe that there is a judge that overlooks the world, why bother doing good things? After all, there are no eternal consequences to our actions, what could possibly be the atheist’s motivation to either do good things or refrain from evil things?

My issue with this question is that on its own, it seems like an interesting line of discussion – what makes us be moral? If I abandon my beliefs, what would motivate me to continue to do good things? Is there another source of human morality? However, it is rarely asked in this spirit. Usually, it comes in a more snarky form – “if you don’t believe in God, why don’t you go rape and murder babies?”

The usual response is that if the only thing holding you back from raping and murdering babies is your belief in God, you should probably be under psychiatric evaluation. This response, while sufficiently dismissive of a stupid question, is not really an answer to what would be a reasonable criticism if not for the invocation of infant rape. If I, as an atheist, don’t believe that someone is keeping an omniscient record of all my misdeeds, what prevents me from engaging in minor (or major) transgressions when I am reasonably certain I can get away with it? Why, for example, would I turn in a wallet I find on the ground to the police instead of just stealing it? Why not lie to a woman at the bar in order to convince her to sleep with me? Why contribute to charity or volunteer in the community if there is no reward for my good deeds later?

Evolutionary biologists speak of genetic sources for altruism, pointing to analogues in the animal kingdom in which non-human animals show group cohesion and empathy. They lay out a reasonable pathway by which genes for altruism might prevail over genes for selfishness at the expense of others, through a process of natural selection. Philosophers point to Kant, Hume, Rawls, and other secular ethical writers as providing a basis upon which a general non-religious moral code can theoretically be built. Assuming that maximum human happiness is the point of any worthwhile moral code (and yes, this is an assumption, but what else would be better?), then a reasonable and increasingly evidence-based system can be derived from philosophy. Legal authorities point to the evolving code of law as a way of incentivizing good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour. Psychologists note that ethical instruction often leads to ethical behaviour below the level of conscious awareness –  we “naturally” act morally because we’ve been taught to do so.

Suffice it to say, there are a variety of ways to answer the question of why someone would be moral without belief in God. Any one of these on its own would be a sufficient rejoinder, and having them all operate in parallel is certainly reassuring to someone who is particularly interested in the question. However, the question embeds a certain assumption that often goes unquestioned – does belief in God make people behave better? After all, the implication of the poverty of morality in the godless is that there is in fact a moral code inherent in belief.

I’ve had religious instruction, which includes learning a list of things that are right and wrong. This should not be confused with legitimate ethical or moral instruction, which I didn’t receive until late high school. I was, for example, taught that extramarital sex is wrong, as are masturbation and homosexuality – pretty much anything that isn’t face-to-face sex with the lights off with my wife is morally wrong. I was taught that abortion is morally equivalent to murder. I was taught that faithfulness was a virtue. Now I was also taught a lot of things that I still agree with – murder is wrong; charity is good; forgiveness, justice and prudence are high ideals. However, with all of these things, I was told that the reason they were good is because they had been rubber-stamped by Yahweh. I should perhaps note that I was not taught that condoms or homosexuality were wrong in school – those things came from Rome but I felt perfectly justified in ignoring any Papal edicts that were bat-shit insane.

It would be, as I said, many years before I learned the processes by which I could evaluate why I believed in the things I did. I had of course by this time rejected the idea of Biblical truth – the story of Onan says it’s wrong to masturbate but it’s okay to fuck your niece as long as you think she’s a prostitute. It was abundantly clear to me that there may be some morality in the Bible, but it is definitely not the source of that morality. I would later learn that much of what we call “Christian Ethics” were actually written by Greek philosophers and later adopted by the church.

Of course all of this is somewhat inconsequential to the central question of whether belief in god is accompanied by better behaviour. Does the idea of an omniscient god really motivate people to refrain from evil actions? Does the promise of eternal reward really motivate people to do good deeds? The answer to the first question seems to be ‘no’, or at least ‘not necessarily’. Anecdotally, we know that religious people are responsible for some of the greatest atrocities throughout history (far from atheists, it is the priests who are the baby rapers). In fact, the more one adheres to religious doctrine, the crazier she/he becomes and the more likely she/he is to commit (what she/he thinks is justified) violent acts. Although there is a clear path from religious belief to violence, these are anecdotes only.

CLS reviewed a Pew Forum survey on religion and found that those United States that had the greatest level of religiosity had poorer performances in self-restraint and morality toward others than those state with lower levels of belief. There is most certainly a chicken/egg problem in this analysis, but it does sufficiently demonstrate that there is no reliable correlation between level of religious belief and morality, at least for the population at large. If people do in fact believe that there is a god watching them, it doesn’t seem to affect their behaviour in a meaningful way. I’m sure if this blog were more popular I’d have trolls inundating me with stories about how Jesus saved their crack-addict cousin’s life, or how Allah saved them from prison, or what-have-you. I am as uninterested in anecdotes that refute my point as I am in those that support my point.

How about the second question? Does religious belief make people more charitable in anticipation of a future reward? A study of European countries and their willingness to donate to poorer countries seems to suggest that those with more closely held religious beliefs do in fact donate more money than those who are less religious. The findings are incredibly nebulous and hard to interpret, but it seems from the general findings that while it varies from country to country, religious people are more charitable than the non-religious.

This is in no way disconcerting to me – as I suggested above there is a relationship between instruction and behaviour. If you are constantly entrained to give money to the poor, and your social environment is structured such that there is strong normative pressure to do so, it is unsurprising that you will comply. A study I’d like to see is to take people with similar levels of religiosity, show them identical videos of starving children, have one video narrated in a secular fashion and the other in a religious fashion and see if there is a difference in pledged funds.

At any rate, there are a variety of reasons why an atheist would choose to be moral, not the least of which is the fact that moral actions often benefit the giver as well as the receiver, whether that is in the form of feeling good about yourself, or in the form of making a contribution to society. There is no reason why an atheist would be less moral than a religious person, and despite all their vitriolic assertions to the contrary, it is easier to justify abhorrent cruelty from a religious standpoint than it is from an atheist one. The so-called “problem” of morality is only a problem if you assume that YahwAlladdha is the author of all goodness in the universe, completely contrary to any evidence that can be found either in scripture (aside from all of the passages just asserting it – look at His actions) or in observations of the world. Human beings have to struggle every day to be good, and leaning on the broken crutch of religion doesn’t seem to help any.

TL/DR: Believers accuse atheists of having no basis for morality. This accusation is unfounded – biology, philosophy, law and psychology all provide explanations why people would be good without belief. There does not seem to be a strong relationship between religiosity and morality, except insofar that being instructed to do something that your peers are all doing might motivate you to perform some specific behaviours.

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  1. grassrute says

    I agree…with very little of this article, but I only want to touch on a few things. (I would tear the whole thing apart, but I have things to do)
    What I do agree with:
    “ethical instruction often leads to ethical behaviour”
    “At any rate, there are a variety of reasons why an atheist would choose to be moral”
    These statements are not only logical, but biblical. Who doesn’t want to live in a peaceful society where happiness can be enjoyed? The only way for this to be achieved is in a just and “moral” society. This requires ethical behaviour towards one another lest there be chaos. But what defines moral? What defines ethical? You mention extramarital sex and abortion as wrong by ‘religious’ standards but not by your moral compass. You are brushing off the most unethical behaviour as acceptable according to the non-religious standard. Science and nature don’t conflict with the bible which can be seen in the consequences of unethical behaviour:
    Extramarital sex = STD or unwanted pregnancy
    Pregnancy = abortion or single motherhood
    Single motherhood = poverty
    This is a simplistic illustration that could be far more detailed. It also does have its exceptions.
    Contrast it with:
    Abstinence – no STD or unwanted pregnancy
    Marriage & sex – pregnancy, no STD
    Children – Family and all its benefits
    This is another simplistic illustration with exceptions.

    Crommunist “the story of Onan says it’s wrong to masturbate but it’s okay to **** your niece as long as you think she’s a prostitute.” Bible doesn’t say that it’s okay, but then I think we’ve had this discussion before.

    Crommunist “it is the priests who are the baby rapers” No doubt, the sad reality when a church denies nature and scripture. The idea that priests can’t marry is bone headed stupidity and unscriptural. These men need wives and the fallout of the Catholic Churches policy on this is proof.

    Nuff said

  2. says

    This guy totally just handed you your ass, Crommy.

    I mean, *clearly*, Extramarital sex leads to poverty (or death, don’t forget the STD), and there is no way to easily or painlessly avoid any of those things. It’s simply not a Slippery Slope Fallacy ( because Grassrute is super-smart. Also, because Grassrute said that it’s true, it’s true.

    I think that it’s obvious that Grassrute has had a thorough education in Ethics, and has studied Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Mill, Kant, Hume, Rawls, Ross, Confucius, and all the other important ethical thinkers from both before and after the multitude of authors wrote the bible.

    It’s just obvious: Grassrute is right, and Crommy is wrong. “Thinking” doesn’t need to enter into it. At all.

  3. says

    New policy – anyone calling me ‘Crommy’ will have their comments disemvoweled. First off, you don’t call a communist a “Commy”, it’s spelled “Commie”. Everyone knows this. Second, it annoys me.

    But yes, the exceptions to the rule invalidate it somewhat. Not only that, but it relies on a selective interpretation of the bible, completely ignoring the parts about polygamy, rape, incest, spousal abuse, and all that good stuff.

    But what defines moral? What defines ethical?

    You would do well to avail yourself of some of the extra-biblical moral traditions of the world. There are societies and thinkers that didn’t need any scripture whatsoever to define morality. These systems don’t require belief in a non-observable deity to work, which makes them much better than “Christian” ethics (most of which is stolen from these thinkers).

    I am unconvinced that the reason for pederasty in the RCC is because priests aren’t allowed to marry. Why would they not just use prostitutes, or go for women of appropriate age? They could surely (and have) manipulate adults into silence. Not only that, but as an unmarried guy, I’ve never been on a cold streak that had little boys looking good to me.

    Also, I’m going to let you walk back the “Science and Nature don’t conflict with the Bible” statement, because that is frankly absurd. I’m not sure what you meant, but I know you didn’t mean that.

  4. says

    I should also, I suppose, address the premarital sex thing. First off, the Bible doesn’t say anything about sex outside of marriage – that all comes from extra-biblical interpretation.

    Second, even if it was in the Bible, the justification has nothing to do with STIs, single motherhood, poverty, or any of the things you listed. Moral “teaching” from the Bible just says “don’t do this, because God will smack you.” That’s not the same as actual moral instruction, which is closer to what you tried to do from a consequentialist perspective. That allows us to have a discussion. Saying “God said so” is a conversation killer, especially when talking to an atheist.

    The second part is that the religious code you suggest is wildly impractical to actually implement. Places where abstinence is the only thing taught have HIGHER rates of STIs and teen pregnancies. By your own argument, abstinence is worse than the alternative. If one is going to look at consequences as the method for judging the rightness or wrongness of an action (and I think they should), then surely the Biblical teaching fails to be useful as a basis upon which to build a society. Religiosity is inversely correlated with “moral” behaviour at a population level.

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