Movie Friday: Not-so-good books

One of my favourite commenters showed up again this week to rehash an old battle – where do atheists get their morality from? The general argument is that while theists can point to a source of absolute morality, those that don’t believe in a god/gods must exist in a morass where all acts are permitted. Of course I’ve skewered this argument as fallacy before – atheist morality comes from a variety of overlapping sources. The important take-home message of that post was that saying something is ethical because a big book says so is not sufficient moral instruction because it doesn’t tell you what to do when it comes to stuff not in the book, but there’s an important piece that I missed: the book itself is ethically incoherent.

Qualiasoup helps me illustrate this point:

I find it unbelievably wearisome to hear people try and wave away the atrocities of their religious traditions by saying “we can’t understand YahwAlladdha’s plan” or “YahwAlladdha isn’t bound by human morality”. All you’ve done when you say that is announce that you have no idea what you’re talking about, and that I can start ignoring you. If you wish to claim perfect morality for your deity, and then say that humans are incapable of understanding that deity, then you’ve just admitted that you don’t have any idea what ‘moral’ means and that it’s fundamentally unknowable.

We can make intelligent statements about morality and justice without resorting to religious sources. We can clearly identify suffering and work to minimize it. We can see inequities and work to balance them. We can stop abuses of power at the expense of the powerless. None of these things require us to have any supernatural beliefs whatsoever.

But even beyond that, the source from which the religious claim to assert their morals is more of a confused quagmire of permissibility than anything they could claim of atheists. The book itself is nonsensical and self-contradictory, often permitting things that even those that profess to believe in it would shrink away from. If those believers wish to claim only the things that work in a secular moral sense (as I do on occasion, but of course without the appeal to authority) then they are free to do so; what they are not free to do, however, is to claim that they follow the book absolutely.

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  1. Riptide says

    I always had a problem with people who defined ‘good’ as ‘whatever God says or does,’ (not only) because invariably what they do is take their own preconceptions of morality and overwrite their deity with them. It’s a kind of cowardice and ignorance–and really, when are the two divorced?–that the unthinking rely upon to avoid having to actually analyze their beliefs.

    The whole story of religion fails in nearly every detail. With a moment’s thought, it’s obvious that we developed our ethics in spite of, not because of, our faith. What morality religion can claim is a paltry plagiarism of the ethics hammered out by secular reason, without exception. Where religions are moral, they are insufficiently moral, attaching conditions onto their charity and threats onto their pronouncements. Where they are immoral, they are bottomlessly so. It is only through plugging one’s ears that one can even pretend otherwise.

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