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You can't be moral without God! - Comments

Timmeh!'s Avatar Comment 1 by Timmeh!

Reposted from my blog:

The idea that morality is not possible without religion is so obviously untrue that it would be laughable if the consequences of the lie weren't so serious. If one actually looks at the evidence the implication is almost that reverse is true. Mark Twain once said "The so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive...but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anaesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition." And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the barbarity committed by the religious, not just in the name of their faith, but because of it. If you look at violent-crime rate figures worldwide and correlate them with religiosity it becomes clear that the non-believers are a much more peaceful bunch than the supernaturally credulous. The same is true if this correlation is made by US state, rather than nations. It seems clear that the more religious a group becomes, the greater it's propensity for bloodshed. The problem here is that the holy books of the three major abrahamic religions teach barbarity and inhuman acts on a grand scale. They are littered with the depiction and glorification of genocide, incest, slavery, rape and murder, not just witnessed by god or done in his name, but ordered and required by him. Against this background, people of reason have had to fight to gain laws that reflect morality that is obvious to them, but proscribed by biblical law, for the last few thousand years. As Bertrand Russell pointed out "the moral objection [to religion] is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow." The very fact that people today are more moral than the holy books describe and prescribe should be evidence enough that it is people themselves who determine morality and not their faith. The Bible is unequivocal in its support for slavery, even the supposedly gentle Jesus was OK with it as long as you didn't beat them so hard you knocked out their teeth and eyes or killed them on the spot (Luke 12:47). He also said that children should be put to death for swearing at their parents (Matthew 15:4-7) though, so why should we look to him for guidance? It should be clear that our modern sense of morals is neither derived from these writings nor should be. Even the most seemingly innocuous of Jesus' teachings are can be shown to be immoral if one actually takes the time to think about it. Take loving thy enemies and turning the other cheek. Love thy Enemies? Why? Why Should I love people who want to kill me, my family and friends? Standing by and doing nothing while the evil commit evil acts it is within your power to prevent is an evil act itself. There are Christians who say that we can safely disregard the Old Testament as having been written for a different age when times were hard and barbarity was the norm. Though this is questionable in itself, if it is true we are still left with the assumption that the teachings of Jesus in the new testament are the pinnacle of morality and still relevant today. It is apparent from the examples above alone that this is not the case, and they're not the only instances. Jesus, if indeed he existed, clearly had some very progressive thinking, for his time and place, but he has little to tell us today. Indeed he would have had little if anything to tell the Greek philosophers who predated him.

The facts are that Children demonstrate concern for the wellbeing of others long before they learn to read or are old enough to understand indoctrination from their parents. From this alone it should be clear that the roots of morality are innate. Many "lower" primates have complex systems of morality and justice: reward for good behaviour and punishment for bad, and I can't recall ever having seen a monkey reading the Torah.

Christopher Hitchens, on his US tour in support of his latest book "God is not Great : How religion poisons everything." challenges his audiences to come up with one single moral statement made by the faithful that could not easily have been spoken by the secular. Nobody has yet managed it, which surprises me as I can think of a few. How about "Abortion and contraception are the greatest threats to peace in the world today"? An idiotic statement made by Mother Theresa when accepting her ill-gotten Nobel peace prize. OK, maybe it could have been said by an atheist, but it would have to have been a really stupid one.

There are moral atheists, no question. Ask yourself this, who is the more moral, someone who does the right thing simply because they know it to be right, or someone who does it because they believe their god wants it and will punish them if they don't? Doing things out of fear of retribution or promise of payback isn't morality, it is cowardice and avarice.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 13:08:00 UTC | #77514

Tanglewood's Avatar Comment 2 by Tanglewood

I think that the common theistic proposition that God is responsible for our moral intuitions (or at least that his existence is a necessary anchorage point for them), is the most pernicious of all theistic arguments. This is rather ironic as it is perhaps the easiest argument to defeat. Below I present a mere handful of the many, many rebuttals to this argument. I hope someone finds at least one of them useful. Caps only used for emphasis.

1) The long winded and polite response:

The capacity for empathy and compassion is hard wired into our brains and is cultivated through the guidance of our parents and interactions with our peers. Were you aware of studies which show that chimps in captivity experience visible signs of distress when confronted with the mistreatment of other chimps with which they are familiar? This clearly demonstrates that even lower order primates are endowed with an innate capacity to empathise. They don't need the Bible to tell them that murder is wrong and neither do I.

2) The Euthyphro Dilemma (Plato, summary quoted from Wikipedia)

"Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God? The first horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is moral is commanded by God because it is moral) implies that morality is independent of God and, indeed, that God is bound by morality just as his creatures are. God then becomes little more than a passer-on of moral knowledge.

The second horn of the dilemma (i.e. that which is moral is moral because it is commanded by God, known as divine command theory) runs into three main problems. First, it implies that what is good is arbitrary, based merely upon God's whim; if God had created the world to include the values that rape, murder, and torture were virtues, while mercy and charity were vices, then they would have been. Secondly, it implies that calling God good makes no sense (or, at best, that one is simply saying that God is consistent and not hypocritical). Thirdly, it involves a form of reasoning that G.E. Moore classified as a naturalistic fallacy; to explain the claim that murder is wrong (or the prescription that one should not commit murder), in terms of what God has or hasn't said is to argue from what Moore classified as a putative fact about the world to what Moore classified as a value (see is-ought problem)."

3) The argument that God is actually really nasty and, consequently, really shouldn't be in the business of telling anyone else how to behave (No idea who first originated this, but the Hitler bit is courtesy of poster Zakie Chan)

"Tell me, what do you think about Jesus' pioneering proclamation that sinners and unbelievers will spend eternity roasting in hell for finite crimes? Do you consider THAT moral? Do you think it right and fair that God punishes people for all eternity simply for choosing not to accept him as their salvation? Consider this: Adolf Hitler burned Anne Frank to death for being Jewish. We call Hitler evil. God is, if Jesus is to be believed, currently burning Anne Frank AS WE SPEAK, and will continue to do so until the end of time...for being Jewish. We call God loving. I put it to you that if God DOES exist, and if there IS a heaven and a hell, then God is not a benevolent saviour, he is a megalomaniacal psychopath whose insane 'morality' should be resisted at every turn."

4) The argument from omission:

"Well, I would say that secular morality is actually more advanced than Christian morality. I've read the Bible, and I don't recall God ever bothering to point out that child molestation was wrong. In fact, he actually recommends taking child sex slaves in Numbers."

5) The argument from incredulity (and the one we'd all secretly like to use):

"Say what? Are you telling me that you are so cosmically dense, that you couldn't figure out that murder and thievery weren't cool on your own? You needed the CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE to take time out of his busy schedule to point that out? Are you one of those people who needs to wear a crash helmet whenever he goes outside?"

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 13:23:00 UTC | #77524

Vinelectric's Avatar Comment 3 by Vinelectric

Secular humanism tanscends biblical/Koranic morality judged against the standard of morality of the books themselves.

Bible condones slavery and inferior rights to women, which contradicts "all men are equal". The Koran prescribes eternal punishment for those who choose non belirf which contradicts "God is the most merciful being/Humans are free to choose what to believe"...etc.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 13:30:00 UTC | #77530

Andy S's Avatar Comment 4 by Andy S

Forgive me if this is a little simplistic.

I would avoid using Hitchins' mount sinai example, humorous though it is, as it would be viewed as irrelevant by many Christians who (justifiably from a literal reading of the bible) believe that morality was instilled in us all by God from the beginning.

A couple of points...

Some morals seem almost universal; murder, rape, theft.
However these morals are often only applicable within a group, and form a bare minimum for survival in a highly competitive world.

A pride of lions, it seems, has every reason to be proud. Despite being deprived the gift of free will and innate morality they do an awfully good job of not eating each other, and even (if sometimes reluctantly) share food. Of course the analogy ends when one pride attacks another over territory, as you'd never catch a troop of humans performing such an abhorrent act.

Damage to the prefrontal cortex has been shown to alter moral decision making, suggesting a physical source of core morality.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 14:47:00 UTC | #77583

dloubet's Avatar Comment 5 by dloubet

The obvious response is to turn it back upon them.

I was on an atheist call-in cable access show, and a theist posed this very question. He asked why I wasn't out raping and killing if I didn't believe in a divine law-giver. I responded by asking him if that's what he would rather be doing if not for the strictures of his god.

Rather than surrender the point, he said yes.

I like to think he didn't mean it, but that he had to say it so that he wouldn't lose the point.

But turning the question back on the theist is certainly the sound-bite response to that argument. If he says yes, then you can point him out as a monster, and if he says no, then you can point out that he's just sunk his own argument.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 16:07:00 UTC | #77649

LordSummerisle's Avatar Comment 6 by LordSummerisle

Going on murderous rampages on a daily basis is not very beneficial if we want to enjoy the benefits of living in societies and communities with other human beings. It's simple common sense to treat others as we would like ourseves to be treated. We don't need gods to tell us to behave ourselves anymore than we need them to tell us to eat food or breathe air.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 16:44:00 UTC | #77665

cutmyearoff's Avatar Comment 7 by cutmyearoff

One of my favorite question that really gives believers a pause . . .

If god spoke to you, whether through signs or a voice, as he spoke to Abraham and asked you to slit your childs throat, would you? (Remember we can't know the mind of god.)

I've actually had answers to this that were yes. Then I follow up with . . . Wouldn't you agree that it is wrong to kill children? Then why are you giving up the ability to think for yourself?

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 17:20:00 UTC | #77686

Atticus_of_Amber's Avatar Comment 8 by Atticus_of_Amber

One of the problems here is that the "how can we be good without god" argument is actually several different arguments misleadingly grouped under the same label.

First, the argument from scripture: How can we know what's good without a book of rules, like the Bible? This is the one that Dawkins is great at squashing with his "cherry picking" point. The Bible is full of horrible acts and examples and recommendations. It also contains some very kind and good acts and examples and rules. Yet most Christians don't follow the former any more but continue to follow the latter. How do they chose? What do they use to cherry pick? It's not something in the Bible,, it's something in the reader. And if our moral sense exists in us and allows us to pick the good bits of the Bible from the bad, what do we need the Bible for except as one among many collections of moral propositions on which to use our moral sense?

Secondly, there's the Platonic "by what standard" argument: Granted we have an innate moral sense, but how can we know what's right and wrong if there is no absolute standard of right in the universe? Doesn't our ability to recognise that some acts are good and others evil imply that there must somewhere exist a perfect thing of goodness to be the standard. Doesn't our moral sense itself act as evidence of the existence of God? Here the error is epistemological: of course we can judge degrees of something even though a perfect sample of that something does not really exist. Nowhere in reality is there such a thing a perfectly straight line. Yet we are easily able to judge and even rank the straightness of connections between two points in the real world with relative ease – this hand drawn line on this piece of paper is straighter than that one, this rooftop is straighter than that one, the path of this meteor is straighter than that one, etc.

Thirdly, and related to the second version, is the "origins of morality" argument: Granted we have a moral sense, but where did that come from? It can't have evolved, because it often gets us to do things that aren't selfish, even in the sense of enlightened selfishness. This argument misunderstands Dawkins' "selfish gene" point. We are genuinely altruistic because our genes are "selfish". A gene for genuinely altruistic behaviour will have a reproductive advantage if its carriers live in groups of largely related individuals. By risking its life for the group because of the genuine altruism given to it by the gene, one carrier of that gene will increase the reproductive chances of other carriers of the same gene. That is to say, evolution has given us a lust to be good much in the way it has given us a lust to have sex. Does this mean that altruism only makes sense if its for relatives? Only in the sense that sex doesn't "make sense" if its not done for procreation and love doesn't make sense if its not being used to solidify a pair-bond for twenty or so years to best ensure the survival of offspring. The evolutionary explanation for an urge is not the same as a justification for why we should, as rational creatures, promote or fight that urge.

Finally, there's the sanction argument: why be good if there's no comeuppance in the afterlife? The answer hear is really one that was provided by the ancients - virtue or self-respect. We judge the moral acts of others and think well or ill of them as a result. But we also do the same of ourselves. Self-hatred is actually one of the worst psychological tortures one can suffer. An important part of mental health is having a good reputation with oneself. With our reputations with others, we can gain a good one be either actually being good, or by tricking our audience into believing we are good. But with our reputations with ourselves, the latter course involves a level of self-deception that is itself mentally unhealthy. Good deeds really are, as it turns out, their own reward.

Recent studies on primates have shown the existence of mirror neurones. When a monkey experiences pain from, say, being kicked in the testicles, several neurones can be observed to fire in his brain. But if the same monkey then observes *another* monkey being kicked in the testicles, a few (not all) of those same neurones fire in the *observing* monkey's brain. It seems these neurones evolved as the means by which primates learn skills from each other: observe the other doing the skill, feel which mirror neurones fire, then try to make the same mirror neurones fire by doing the action, repeat, refine, learn skill. But a side effect was the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others. This new capacity allowed altruism to develop, and that mutation propagated because of the reproduction-enhancing properties of altruism discussed above. However, in gene's-eye perspective, altruism is a two edged sword. It's great if your carriers sacrifice themselves for other carriers, but it sucks if your carriers start sacrificing themselves for non-carriers. The solution is "taming" of the empathy/altruism characteristic be the evolution of in-group vs out-group thinking. What evolved (one suspects both genetically and culturally) was a distinction between the in-group, where empathy was appropriate (and whose members were likely to carry many of the same genes); and out-groups, where empathy was blocked or even turned into its dark twin antipathy – the tendency of animals to feel the pain of others and *enjoy* it.

The story of moral progress is the story of the marriage between the brute facts of our evolved capacity for empathy and our evolved capacity for reason. As we apply our reason to our urge to be good to others, and as we become more interconnected with strangers, we see fewer and fewer reasons to put people into the "out group". Our psychological "in group" expands and expands until in some people it extends not just to the whole human race, but to sentient animals as well. Of course there are gradations: seeing my fiancée happy gives me more pleasure (and seeing her in pain causes me more suffering) than seeing, say, Richard Dawkins happy (or in pain). And Richard Dawkins' happiness matters more to me that that of George W Bush (though I'd still feel a little bit bad for him if he were in pain). But there are very few people in my "out-group" and I feel ashamed about the fact that I feel that way even for them.

Has Christianity had anything to do with this moral development? Yes. It's helped. Just as alchemy made some discoveries that were built on by chemistry and astrology made some discoveries (mostly in the field of cataloguing facts, but still useful discoveries) that have been built on by astronomy; Christianity made or widely propagated several moral innovations that modern secular humanist moral philosophy has built upon. But it's also contaminated the stream with some bad ideas. Just as there is no evidence that one can turn lead into gold and there is no evidence that the movements of the planet Venus affect my destiny; there is no evidence that there is an afterlife in which kindness to strangers is rewarded and worship of other gods is punished. But that doesn't change the fact that kindness to strangers is a good idea that was widely propagated by Christianity in the past (just as true knowledge of certain chemical reactions was propagated by alchemy in the past). The evil of worshipping other gods, like turning lead into gold, was not so much a good idea.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 17:36:00 UTC | #77690

Goldy's Avatar Comment 9 by Goldy

But that doesn't change the fact that kindness to strangers is a good idea that was widely propagated by Christianity in the past (just as true knowledge of certain chemical reactions was propagated by alchemy in the past). The evil of worshipping other gods, like turning lead into gold, was not so much a good idea.

Depends on what Christians and what gods. And focussing on just one faith is a bit...Euro-centric. What about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism etc? They also had to play a part in the development of morality. As, to me, all countries appear to show the same basic tenets of morality as our Euro-Christian view this suggests something older or deeper than mere religion. I would propose that religion is merely a ritualisation of morality that is already present in humans (and, indeed, other animals showing actions that we empathise with and view as "morality")

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 17:53:00 UTC | #77693

maton100's Avatar Comment 10 by maton100

Folks have been doing it for over 200,000 years.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 18:09:00 UTC | #77704

Tommykey's Avatar Comment 11 by Tommykey

Basically, it all boils down to this. We have to share this world with other people. That fact alone constrains our actions because our actions have consequences. Some theists claim that "without god, then we can all do whatever we want."

No, we can't! Yeah, we can try, but just see what happens to you if you start intruding on the boundaries of other people. They will resist, and depending on what you try to do, they will resist and retaliate violently.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 18:19:00 UTC | #77709

darlets's Avatar Comment 12 by darlets

Animals display morals.

Using the example shown in "March of the Penguins"

Penguins pair up to mate as it takes two penguins working together to raise their chick. As there is more female penguins than male penguins some of the females miss out.

During the film when the chicks hatch one of the chickless/mateless penguins try and steal a chick. The mothers gang up to stop this theft from happening.

Why are these Penguins performing this moral act of stopping the chicknapping of another penguins chick?
Did God build it into them?
If so why didn't God create an equal number of male and female penguins? It can't be to test them a penguins, according to the dogma, don't have souls so this isn't a test they have to pass to get into heaven.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 18:36:00 UTC | #77714

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 13 by Chrysippus_Maximus



Wed, 24 Oct 2007 19:19:00 UTC | #77726

Theocrapcy's Avatar Comment 14 by Theocrapcy

"Abortion and contraception are the greatest threats to peace in the world today"

How on Earth is that a moral statement? If you read between the lines, Mother Tereza rellay meant to say: "Rape is preferable to abortion, and AIDS is better than using a condom. A reasonable person, atheist or not, would not admit such a thing, as it has no morality.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 19:20:00 UTC | #77727

Quine's Avatar Comment 15 by Quine

If there's no Santa, why do I still get Christmas presents?

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 19:30:00 UTC | #77733

Chrysippus_Maximus's Avatar Comment 16 by Chrysippus_Maximus

Baeoz, either it works or nothing does, and if nothing does, then why is this thread here?

... The atheist's goal should not be to "convince" others at whatever cost, but to get things right...

And Plato's Euthyphro IS the answer to this question. 2500 years ago he solved the problem. If the theists don't understand it, there's not anything else which can be said.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 20:23:00 UTC | #77756

BAEOZ's Avatar Comment 17 by BAEOZ

Spinoza, we had a recent discussion about this at Russell Blackfords blog, Russell put it this way:

What a sophisticated theist could say that I would accept as coherent (though I see no reason to think it actually true) is this.

When we say "God is good" we don't mean "God follows his own rules", or anything of the sort; we mean "God is benevolent" or "God desires that human beings flourish", or something like that.

The "best" moral code is the one that will help us flourish. Because God is good in the sense I've described, God wants us to flourish and so wants us to act in certain ways.i.e. in accord with the best moral code.

God has revealed to us what ways we should act if we wish to flourish. Since He made us, He knows exactly what is required, so His advice (as it were) is authoritative.

When we act in accordance with the best moral code, as revealed to us by God, we are said to be acting in a morally good way. This kind of "moral goodness" is not the same thing as God's "goodness". God is not one of us and is not bound to act in the ways that we should act if we are to flourish (though we should be pleased that He is good in the sense in which He is good). He doesn't have to follow the moral code he has prescribed for us.

The best moral code - the one that we will flourish by following - can be discovered by reason. However, God has saved us the trouble by telling us.

Let the theists spell this out. It's a perfectly reputable theory, but in competition with naturalistic ones. What they can say is that they have a moral short-cut that non-believers don't have: they have the authoritative advice as to the best moral code. Of course, we can then contest whether the advice really seems all that convincing or whether some of it appears to be, at best, culture-bound and out-dated (and maybe worse than that).

Zeus I hope I can delete this post later :)

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 20:28:00 UTC | #77759

kurtdenke's Avatar Comment 18 by kurtdenke

I have for a long while felt that this is the answer to this sort of question:

Religion is, in general, distinct from and directly opposed to morality. Why? Because religion asserts that things are made "good" or "bad" not by their actual goodness or badness, but by authority: the authority of God, who decrees them to be good or bad. In this view of things, "morality" is just obedience to authority and has nothing to do with real morality, which is all about making judgments about the goodness or badness of things on their own merits.

If a thing is good because God says it is good, can God change his mind? In the old testament he says "thou shalt not kill," but we all know that when it came to the poor Midianites, he decreed that they should all die. So, indeed, he can change his mind (or at least provide for special cases), and a person who accepts biblical morality would say that it was a good and moral thing to murder as many Midianites as possible in obedience to that command. So, should Yahweh wake up on the wrong side of the Cosmic Bed tomorrow, it might turn out that torture is, at least for a while, the "moral" thing to do, and that's it; those are the rules; all that a moral person, by these lights, can do is get out there and do as much torturing as he can.

If God's word makes things moral or immoral, God can change the rules whenever, and for whatever reason (or for no reason) he wants. This idea of morality is ungrounded, shifting, uncertain and contingent; today, stabbing puppies is bad--tomorrow, maybe it's good. And with no ethical foundation, and with no agreement among people as to just what God's word is and how it's to be applied, it is hopelessly subjective and shapeless.

Real morality has nothing to do with authority. It has everything to do with ethical judgment about behavior and the consequences of behavior; it has everything to do with accountability of people for their actions, and taking responsibility for one's choices. It sometimes forces one to take a stand against authority, even in the face of bad consequences for oneself. No amount of "thus sayeth the Lord" can make a bad act good, or a good act bad.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 21:10:00 UTC | #77768

Shuggy's Avatar Comment 19 by Shuggy

I have often tangled with a theist who kept saying "But if there is no God to give morality, then Naziism (selfishness, tyranny, etc) is OK." I could never get it into his head that by taking it for granted that I would agree it was not OK, without invoking God, he had already lost the argument.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 22:30:00 UTC | #77808

Sinful Messiah's Avatar Comment 20 by Sinful Messiah

I find the "hard-wired into our genome" retort to be unsatisfying and incomplete.

The theist can then press the argument by pointing out the innumerable instances of barbarism and violence throughout human history into the present day (not to mention in the animal kingdom as well).

The theist can also point out differences (ignoring universals) in systems of ethics in various cultures.

While I know there are rather simple rebuttals to all these arguments, why bother? As an atheist why not go straight for a sound system of ethics instead of appealing to nature?

I say the best rebuttal when a theist raises this canard is to briefly mention evolution/reciprocation/hard-wired and then immediately get right into the basic tenets of non-theistic ethics. Provide your audience or opponent with a more sound substitute for Christianity. This is something I think Christopher Hitchens could learn from Sam Harris.

While it's fun (and all too easy) to recognize the shortcomings and inadequacies of the abrahamic faiths in terms of morality, it's not enough to just knock them down and leave everyone hanging. Use the accumulation of a millennium's worth of philosophy and ethics to hold a strong position in the debate.

Wed, 24 Oct 2007 23:01:00 UTC | #77819

Timmeh!'s Avatar Comment 21 by Timmeh!

Theocrapcy wrote:

"Abortion and contraception are the greatest threats to peace in the world today"

How on Earth is that a moral statement? If you read between the lines, Mother Tereza rellay meant to say: "Rape is preferable to abortion, and AIDS is better than using a condom. A reasonable person, atheist or not, would not admit such a thing, as it has no morality.

I was interpreting the phrase "moral statement" as "statement about morality" rather than "a statement that is moral". The first is a definite thing, the second is a matter of debate. Many people agree with it; I, and I suspect most people on here, do not.

Oh, and I completely agree with you about what she meant. I forget where I read it (it may even have been on here), but someone wrote something like "in the eyes of the catholic church, rape is a lesser sin that condom use, because at least it can result in pregnancy."

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 00:08:00 UTC | #77840

dinamo02's Avatar Comment 22 by dinamo02

I think pointing out the studies often quoted by Michael Shermer showing no statistical difference between relgious and non-religious people when it comes to moral values is a good argument. Or stating that a country like Sweden where 20-30% of people say they believe in god is no less immoral than say USA where about 90% say they do believe in a god. It could even be argued that the Swedes are more moral than the rest of the western democracies due to the lowest crime rates, lowest levels of government corruption and one of the best social programs (education, healthcare, environmental protection etc...) in that part of the world.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 01:23:00 UTC | #77885

monkey74's Avatar Comment 23 by monkey74

I do not need to be scared of the angry daddy in the sky to be a good person. Very good and very harmful things are done by both theists and atheist. The difference is that while the theist will try to blame the devil or other nonsense for their actions, the atheist will face the facts. Also when a person of faith does good it may be because they are good or maybe just to earn sky-points. When an atheist performs a good deed, you can be sure that there are no supernatural reasons behind it. As for me, I try to be the best person I can be, be helpful towards others, and live with honesty. You basically do what want but then are faced with being responsible for your actions. I can be moral without the official endorsement of a god.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 02:24:00 UTC | #77913

BAEOZ's Avatar Comment 24 by BAEOZ


the atheist will face the facts.

Uhm no. A liar, whether theist or atheist will not face facts, he'll lie whatever. The difference is, he'll have done his evil deeds because he's evil, not because he's been given a ticket of leave by god (tm pending).

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 02:46:00 UTC | #77921

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 25 by Steve Zara

I find the "hard-wired into our genome" retort to be unsatisfying and incomplete.

The theist can then press the argument by pointing out the innumerable instances of barbarism and violence throughout human history into the present day (not to mention in the animal kingdom as well).

The theist can also point out differences (ignoring universals) in systems of ethics in various cultures.

While I know there are rather simple rebuttals to all these arguments, why bother? As an atheist why not go straight for a sound system of ethics instead of appealing to nature?

The problem is that we do appeal to nature in order to form a sound system of ethics. In the end it comes down to feelings and conscience, which largely come from evolution.

We should say that morality comes from both inheritance and negotiation.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 02:52:00 UTC | #77926

shaunfletcher's Avatar Comment 26 by shaunfletcher

We are often told that the western/Judeo-Christian (and in a modified form Islamic) model of morality is based on the founding principles of that great tri-part religion, enunciated in the Ten Commandments that sit at its heart. We hear often of these 'rules for life' being posted and placed in locations from law court to school walls. In the recent hot tempered debates on Atheism, Evolution, The place of religion in society and such, an almost constant argument from the deist side is that our morality comes from god and, sometimes by implication or sometimes by explicit statement, that the commandments give us the core of this morality. That those of us who reject theism are fooling ourselves and that our morality comes still from this foundation stone of the progressive and compassionate world. Those who want them on the walls of law courts tell us that even if we aren't religious, our laws are really based on these rules, so it's only logical they should be there!

But what are they? What is this great moral code we all live by? I have conducted for some years an ongoing straw poll of people to see how many people know them, with predictably low resulting scores. Active Christians might get six or seven, most others four or five. I invite the reader to have a stab at this themselves, to list out without any reference all ten of them. Perhaps you can, but I freely acknowledge I could only remember eight properly when I started to write this article. Most people seem to carry the innate expectation that they are mostly moral guidance, that they provide and cover most of the really basic wrongs that are universally acknowledged. Stick to these we assume, and we wont go far wrong. Even those disputing their influence or source often buy into this, by treating them as just logical moral rules, as what any society will come up with which embraces the morals inherent in decent people and in a functional society.

But this might be one of the greatest conjuring acts in history... a masterful piece of deception and sleight of mind. The commandments say little about really important moral issues, and a great deal that has nothing to do with morality at all, except in the most distorted sense imaginable. I would like to step through these ten great stone chiselled laws of life, and let us see what they have to offer us for guidance, what kind of list of useful commandments we can construct. For convenience I will use a core of the protestant commandments, but please note that these differ in detail for Judaism and other major Christian sects. The gist of the whole is consistent across all of these faiths however.

The first commandment:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Here we have a rule that's only purpose is to establish and protect the religion who imposed the rule. Clearly this is of no use in providing moral guidance, merely a self serving stricture. Hardly a good start to our list of moral commandments.

The second commandment:
Thou shalt not make for thyself an idol.
Well I suppose this might not be an awful idea, worshipping mere things is not a very good thing, but wait... isn't this a little too specific to be of much use to us? Lets not be too quick to interpret this as a modern idea about not becoming materialistic, as many are wont to do, it is in reality simply a prohibition on what were, at the time of writing, alternative religious practices. A restatement of rule one in fact. Oh dear.

The third commandment:
Thou shalt not make wrongful use of the name of thy God.
Why ever not? And what if that isn't my God at all? This one seems to be concerned primarily with protecting and reinforcing the sanctity or seriousness of the religion itself. A familiar tone is appearing, and this one must go the way of the former two.

The fourth commandment:
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Well it's nice to have a day off work for family time and such is it not? That seems to be the most popular modern reading of this rule, but something being nice, and traditional to boot, hardly makes it an overarching rule for life. Hardly any religious groups respect this one anyway, let alone the rest of us. Again it's about reserving things for the religion, making it special and making sure people don't forget about it. This isn't going to make a final list.

The fifth commandment:
Honour thy Mother and Father.
Well its nice to be respectful to your parents is it not? It is, but that is not what this commandment is really about at all, rather it is a reminder that authority on earth is god-given, and is to be respected and obeyed. It's possible in a moment to think of half a dozen reasons and occasions to neither respect nor obey both ones parents and authority figures, so this one, while of some use, is no underpinning rule of decent living. At least we are getting into morality as a subject, which gives us hope that we will soon get to the good stuff.

The sixth commandment:
Thou shalt not murder.
Well there isn't really much to say about this other than to accept it whole-heartedly. Of course every religious sect and every society has gone on to construct variously sensible or self serving lists of killings that do or do not constitute murder, but the base sentiment is inarguable. We have a First Commandment at last! It's slightly worrying that in the original it doesn't appear till the sixth of ten but let us continue.

The seventh commandment:
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Now I think I am going to be generous about this one. We would hardly want a list of one commandment after all, that would be making a mockery of the whole thing. In many formal interpretations this is a prohibition on any lustful behaviour or thinking of any kind, except for the procreative necessity between people married in the eyes of God. This interpretation is not going to be in our list, for reasons countless and, I imagine, obvious. The complete denial of desire and of the human sexual urge is the very opposite of helpful. In the narrowest interpretation possible we can read this as referring only to unfaithful sexual relations by a person in a voluntary permanent relationship, and then only when deceit and breach of promise is involved. This view I think can be used, as there are few ways to see such behaviour as a good thing. I let this through with reservations, but I was harsh on the Mother and Father so I think some license here can be allowed.

The eighth commandment:
Thou shalt not steal.
In the standard modern interpretation this is a solid entrant in our list, covering a multitude of, as it were, sins. A prohibition on taking things unlawfully seems inarguable, the only debate to be had might be on the meaning and scope of the word 'unlawfully', but I think we can safely leave that aside and accept this as our third commandment.

The ninth commandment:
Thou shalt not bear false witness.
There seems little problem with inclusion of this as our fourth commandment, as it not only forbids untruthfulness but even refines this with its reference to bearing witness, effectively giving us a rule against causing harm through untruthfulness. We are on something of a run here and almost at the finishing post.

The tenth commandment:
Thou shalt not covet.
Oh dear. We are back in the old familiar territory of both mistaken meaning and of a blurring of the distinction between what's nice and comfortable and what is really necessary and important. On the second point, and with a modern liberal mindset, this rule tells us not to be jealous, not to wish things were ours. Not be be materialistic in a sense. That's nice, but no more than nice. But again that isn't what this rule is about at all. We let it slide into our life at our peril, because its underlying and deeply pernicious message is one of submission. It is telling us to be content with our given place in the world, to accept that the rich man is rich because god made him so; the powerful are so because that is the place given to them in the world. So back to the fields and keep quiet. Seeking to better oneself is a sin. It is not, and this is not a rule for anyone's life.

The eleven... oh wait. That is it. That is the moral framework given to us by the underlying basis of the dominant cultures of the world. All of it, worthy of posting as a list to remind us of what really matters in the world. The big ones.

1. Thou shalt not murder.
2. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
3. Thou shalt not steal.
4. Thou shalt not bear false witness.

All of these moral codes (and many others) can be seen to have simple benefits genetically. Even ignoring the vast bulk of work done since, The Selfish Gene itself effectively provides structures whereby all of these could directly arise from genetic evolution. No god is needed here, sorry people.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 04:55:00 UTC | #77972

jimbob's Avatar Comment 27 by jimbob

keep it simple:

Religion is not the source of morality --- in contrast, it is an obstacle to humanistic morality.

Examples are easy (consequences of sexual repression, oppression of women, gays, etc.).

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 06:27:00 UTC | #78014

Shrunk's Avatar Comment 28 by Shrunk

I think this is just another "God in the gaps" argument. Neuroscience, psychology, ethology, evolutionary biology, philosophy and other disciplines all have partial explanations regardings the origins of moral sense. To postulate God as its cause is to simply abrogate the responsibility for finding the real answer.

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 07:47:00 UTC | #78053

irate_atheist's Avatar Comment 29 by irate_atheist

Stock answer -

"Define moral."

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 07:50:00 UTC | #78055

Davin06's Avatar Comment 30 by Davin06

God does not enforce moral behavior, society does as shown by the different standards found throughout the world, perhaps the question should be can we be moral without a 2000 year old doctrine?

Thu, 25 Oct 2007 08:08:00 UTC | #78059