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Morality: no gods required - Comments

TheLordHumungus's Avatar Comment 1 by TheLordHumungus

Don't say "society's norms" are responsible for our morality because the religious will just say, "Religion is society's norm though, AHAh! Now I don't have to listen to anything else you say since I have this one argument to anchor myself to!"

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 20:09:00 UTC | #410453

mrjohnno's Avatar Comment 2 by mrjohnno

Paula is on fire. Might put her sig on ebay

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 20:17:00 UTC | #410454

j.mills's Avatar Comment 3 by j.mills

Again with the excellent writing. Couldn't you write something rubbish, just for variety, Paula? :)

Yes, I too noticed when I read the bible (six months I won't get back) that the OT is all for punishment and reward in this life, whilst the NT quietly nudges it forward into the next, where its glaring absence will be less noticeable...

As to sources of morality, I read in Ridley (I think) that parental influence is weaker than that of one's peers; and perhaps I flatter humans in thinking that introspection is also a source of morality - that some of it is our own choice. When Rosa Parkes sat in the white section of the bus, she wasn't acting in the interests of social harmony, but I'd call her action moral. My point being only, that nature and prevailing norms aren't the end of the matter: else morality would be static.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 20:22:00 UTC | #410457

Mitch Kahle's Avatar Comment 4 by Mitch Kahle

Excellent piece in a widely read and respected publication.

Hopefully this article will be reprinted by newspapers across America.

Everyone should send a copy with link to their local editor.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 20:22:00 UTC | #410458

Border Collie's Avatar Comment 5 by Border Collie

Since when are they good with God?

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 20:43:00 UTC | #410463

the great teapot's Avatar Comment 6 by the great teapot

Would you rather live in a world with no churches or a world with no police stations and law courts?

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 20:48:00 UTC | #410464

j.mills's Avatar Comment 7 by j.mills

Ha! If we were really moral creatures, there'd be no need for any of those!

I suppose we're "a bit" moral. That 4 out of 5 rule-of-thumb sets my ESS antennae a-wigglin'.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 20:56:00 UTC | #410467

Mr DArcy's Avatar Comment 8 by Mr DArcy

Assuming that morality does come from religion, what we have is but a mixed bag of chop suey. From Christianity I learn that it's okay to kill witches, but that there again that I shouldn't kill. That there is only ONE God, but that I mustn't worship any other gods. That I shouldn't eat shellfish or pork, but that it's okay to sacrifice the odd child or two. That I musn't covet my neighbour's ass (or wife), but that it's okay (imperative even) to slaughter neigbhouring tribes and kill all but the women of child bearing age, who will then belong to you.

I could go on, but the point is made! Confusion is all you get from religion. In all aspects: factually wrong about the universe, conflicting messages about behaviour, misleading belief in the supernatural, false promises of a better "life" elsewhere. Nope, not for me!

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:17:00 UTC | #410469

Thanny's Avatar Comment 9 by Thanny

A quibble: Judaism is nowhere near 4000 years old. More like 2500, if you want something recognizably Jewish. The belief system that became Judaism was still polytheistic before that.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:20:00 UTC | #410470

the great teapot's Avatar Comment 10 by the great teapot

So there are 12 million psychopaths living in the UK and that's just the ones with no empathy to humans, never mind the ones who pull wings off flies and eat the livers of force fed geese because they know there is no pay back.
I am staying home tomorrow.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:27:00 UTC | #410471

bendigeidfran's Avatar Comment 11 by bendigeidfran

She's very good. Without gods.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:35:00 UTC | #410475

BigJohn's Avatar Comment 12 by BigJohn

Nice blog, Paula! The usual logical, cogent, and fluent discussion I have come to expect from you. Your brain matches your beauty. What a superb combination! WOW!!

Has anyone gone to look at the Newsweek Washington Post comments? It is obvious that no one is watching that comment thread. What a bunch of crap there is on there.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:37:00 UTC | #410476

Paula Kirby's Avatar Comment 13 by Paula Kirby

the great teapot: So there are 12 million psychopaths living in the UK
No! I don't think everyone who will break the rules if they think they can get away with it is necessarily a psychopath, do you? There are all sorts of shades of grey when it comes to criminality. I saw recently - and I'm sorry, I can't remember where, so I can't cite the reference - that on average about 1% of any population will have psychopathic tendencies. And even then, they don't all end up committing axe-murders. I reckon you're probably safe to go to work as usual!

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:45:00 UTC | #410479

Szymanowski's Avatar Comment 14 by Szymanowski

Consider also the Milgram experiment (showing the proportion of people who will do something really quite immoral if they feel authority demands it - possibly about 2/3).

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:58:00 UTC | #410485

kev_s's Avatar Comment 15 by kev_s

Wow Paula ... you certainly attracted some low-life in the comments under your article in the Washington Post! Nice fish though.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 22:01:00 UTC | #410486

Serdan's Avatar Comment 16 by Serdan


perhaps I flatter humans in thinking that introspection is also a source of morality - that some of it is our own choice.

I would suggest that we are meme machines and that our "choices" are products of the interaction of memes. Introspection allows greater interaction between memes that your mind already contains and may even give rise to new memes. The vast majority of your ideas are actually products of a collective meme pool. In this view introspection is a way of facilitating the mutation of memes obtained from the meme pool. Interaction with other meme machines after introspection has occurred then sends any new mutations back into the meme pool.

I better stop now before I start rambling.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 22:02:00 UTC | #410487

kaiserkriss's Avatar Comment 17 by kaiserkriss

Great article Paula; I now have something to reference when I try to justify being a "moral" person and an atheist at the same time, something many of my "believing" associates have a problem with.

Keep up the good work. I hope you have a long contract with the Washington Post. jcw

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 22:05:00 UTC | #410488

Sonic's Avatar Comment 18 by Sonic

Wow -- Paula, the last paragraph of your piece is comprised of thoughts I think to myself but I don’t dare express because I lack the finesse to steer their raw power. I'll read this article again to learn how these thoughts can be brought to bear with such subtlety.

Also, thank you for representing freethought in such a positive light.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 22:52:00 UTC | #410492

healthphysicist's Avatar Comment 19 by healthphysicist

I tried to learn more about the 4:1 ratio, by clicking on the link in the article. But the video it links to doesn't discuss it.

Is there another link?

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 23:06:00 UTC | #410498

Ned Flanders's Avatar Comment 20 by Ned Flanders

"And yet it is an important question for secularists to answer"

Hi Paula, I agree if you mean that in the philosophical sense - I do not accept that because the religious make a claim such as "you can't be good without God" that the secularist is therefore automatically obliged to answer. It is giving their view too much credibility in the first place.

Replace "God" with "fairies" and suddenly the demand for a secular viewpoint evaporates.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 23:12:00 UTC | #410499

Paula Kirby's Avatar Comment 21 by Paula Kirby

Ned Flanders: Hi Paula, I agree if you mean that in the philosophical sense - I do not accept that because the religious make a claim such as "you can't be good without God" that the secularist is therefore automatically obliged to answer. It is giving their view too much credibility in the first place.
I certainly don't mean it's an important question because it has any merit; it is important purely and simply because it carries weight in the public's mind.

I have written before about my astonishment at people I know who call themselves Christian, not because they actually believe (they don't believe any more than I do), but because 'we try to lead good lives'.

So long as people associate religion with trying to lead a good life (and the reality is that they do; even many non-believers do), there will be support for religion playing a role in public life and influencing government policy. In the UK I would say it's not the believers who keep religion in its position of influence - there aren't enough of them to do it on their own; it's the many many 'believers in belief' who know they don't need religion to be moral in their own lives, but who fear that others do. These are the people we need to get through to.

Sun, 01 Nov 2009 23:47:00 UTC | #410505

Sonic's Avatar Comment 22 by Sonic

Ned, your position may be superior in some realm of academic debate, but in a realm of national or international politics, it’s fiddling while Rome burns. For example, here in the USA, there is a religious test for public office (despite the Constitution) that a Presidential candidate must be Christian -- or conceivably Jewish like Vice President Joe Biden -- but definitely not Muslim -- and definitely NOT an atheist, rationalist, or freethinker. I mention Presidential politics not as an end in itself, but as a symptom of the trouble in public discourse. The requisite attention wasted on religiosity is at best a distraction from real issues, and at worst, a prevention of discussion of issues of real consequence.

If we want to fix these problems in public discourse and politics, then as Paula wrote, the question of whether people can be good without God is “an important question for secularists to answer”. If you see “God” and “fairies” as equivalent, then I’m happy to agree with you personally, but all those “fairy”-worshipers each get a vote, and that causes real problems.

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 00:19:00 UTC | #410515

chewedbarber's Avatar Comment 23 by chewedbarber

Excellent, but I fear we're doomed.

From another response to the same question,

Some of the most ethical people I know are atheists and agnostics. One can certainly be moral without believing in God, but this is because men can surely breath without being aware of the existence of oxygen. God is the cause of moral goodness, but nobody has to recognize the cause in order to get the benefit.

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 00:32:00 UTC | #410520

Art Vandelay's Avatar Comment 24 by Art Vandelay

Yes, fabulous article, moving into the realm of game theory. I think I've read something of Richard's on the same subject.
If my memory serves, it is also the case that, as people developed the art of detecting lies (and cheating the 'system' invariably involves deception), from another's facial micro-movements/body language, so the deceiver's armoury evolved to separate the conscious mind from the Machiavellian subconscious- it helps if you believe your own lies. Suddenly Ray Comfort springs to mind.
Anyway, what better way of justifying bad behaviour than invoking a deity? Far from bestowing morality, religion could have been invented to buffer the mind against reason and give the individual a pseudo-external excuse for selfish, deviant behaviour: God's will be done.

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 00:44:00 UTC | #410523

kaiserkriss's Avatar Comment 25 by kaiserkriss


From a quick google on religious "test for public office", there were countless entries indicating that as you pointed out the issue is unconstitutional and has been declared unconstitutional several times over by the Supreme Court and State Courts.

If this is still an issue, it goes against the principle of freedom of religion, or in our case non religion, in other words we have a choice, that is not foisted upon us by Big Brother.

Surely, individuals trying to test for religion should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law until the practise stops and is shown to be futile.. jcw

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 00:46:00 UTC | #410524

j.mills's Avatar Comment 26 by j.mills

Serdan (#16), you are an illusion-popping meanie. I pride myself on being more than a mere croupier, shuffling memes in and out. Harrumph! However, Dennett and neurology are persistently nibbling away at such comfortable intuitions. I'm sure it won't be long before Dan convinces me there's nobody at home in my head at all! *Sigh*

Paula, no doubt this 4 out of 5 thing is a rough-and-ready, not a universally applicable ungolden rule. But might we usefully also de-simplify it by transferring it to behaviour rather than individuals? That is to say, 4 out of 5 times, human beings (taken all together) will take the ethical option, even though individual human beings needn't be all bad or all good and might vary in their decision ratios? Does research support that, or are there truly lots of goodies and baddies, 'fixed' in their behaviours?

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 00:59:00 UTC | #410526

j.mills's Avatar Comment 27 by j.mills

kaiserkriss, it's down to individual US voters to decide what to take into account when choosing a president. And Studies Have Shown that most of 'em won't vote for an atheist. Whaddaya gonna do? Examine their votes, interrogate their motives and haul 'em all up before the Supreme Court?

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 01:01:00 UTC | #410527

Quine's Avatar Comment 28 by Quine

Comment #428828 by j.mills:

Whaddaya gonna do?
Educate them to the fact that they have already been voting for Atheists quite often, but did not know it.

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 01:16:00 UTC | #410528

kaiserkriss's Avatar Comment 29 by kaiserkriss


Point taken; I was thinking more along the lines of people having to take oaths declaring allegiance to a deity. Sooner or later the "political correct" or "Constitutional stand" will become the norm and people will look down on religites much as smokers are despised today..
It's a matter of education and pounding in the obvious until " resistance becomes futile"..jcw

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 01:21:00 UTC | #410529

Sonic's Avatar Comment 30 by Sonic

kaiserkriss, I’m sorry, where I wrote “there is a religious test for public office” I meant “effectively”. Of course there is no law establishing a religious test for public office, because any such law would be struck down as unconstitutional. The problem is the majority of voters require or respond to some display of religiosity, and the voters require that religiosity to be Christian. And that can’t be prosecuted. This is why I care about the zeitgeist, and I like the bus ads, etc.

Mon, 02 Nov 2009 01:22:00 UTC | #410531