The Psychology of Apologetics: Ethics and Morality
In this section I would like to examine one of the claims often made by conservative religionists, namely, that nonbelievers have no basis for morality or ethics.
This is a common apologetic maneuver. It is partly a scare tactic, to be sure, but partly, I think they say this because it really looks that way to them. From within a fundamentalist framework, based on what’s called “divine command” ethical theory, such claims can seem compelling, even natural. It seems natural and obvious that, if there is a Deity, then doing the will of the deity guarantees that one will do what is good. Without God, the universe would seem to devolve into an aimless, amoral chaos. Why do anything if there is no God? Why not cheat, lie, murder, and steal if there is no higher right and wrong and we’re all dead in the end, anyway? “If God is dead, all is permitted.”
How ultimately satisfying such a view is is another matter (e.g., Euthyphro problem), but perhaps us former believers can sympathetically recall its appeal. It does make things rather easy – your moral duty is handed to you. Nevertheless, on leaving the faith we often must work to extricate ourselves from the sometimes long shadow of this worldview. In this article, I would like to propose a naturalistic “basis” for these human needs and thus work to allay the fears of those in the midst of de-conversion. In so doing, I also hope to shed some light on what has gone wrong in the fundamentalist worldview in adopting such absolutist standards in the first place.
The (Real) Basis for Morality
I think it would be helpful to start by looking at how, empirically, people do in fact learn morality. Scientifically speaking, where do we get our ethics and why do we behave? This part is easy: morality is largely internalized from our relationship with our parents.
There is nothing mysterious about this. Humans, social primates that we are, have a protracted period of immaturity compared to other mammals. Our brains our wired to internalize the implicit social norms of the group, because cooperation of the group is evolutionarily advantageous – our survival has depended on it. Such internalization of pro-social behavior is based first (in the earliest years) on the intrinsic pleasure of pleasing one’s caregivers and the aversiveness of displeasing them. We can naturally and very keenly detect the emotional responses of those around us and, indeed, we thrive on such responses. So, at first, we behave to gain parental approval and stay connected with them.
Later, but still in early childhood, our brains develop what is (so far as we know) a uniquely human capacity: to take the perspective of another. Variously called mentalizing, theory of mind, or mindsight, this capacity is an outgrowth of that more primitive ability (just mentioned) to detect our parent’s emotional responses in the first place. Here, it is greatly elaborated and we begin to understand, on a gut level, that other people have minds like ours and thus feelings and experiences, like ours. This is empathy, the capacity to perceive, understand, and anticipate the internal state of another.
Empathy allows us to “hook up” our observations of other’s behavior with a “feel” for the mind (and set of motives) behind that behavior. We understand, purely on a naturalistic basis, purely out of the normal biological development of the social brain, how others probably like to be treated and why. And, because we are naturally social, we come to care. Other people become “real” to us, for the first time. This is nothing less than the neural and social basis for the Golden Rule.
Indeed, it is no wonder the “Golden Rule” has appeared in every major religion, and in philosophy (Kant’s “categorical imperative”): we are, literally, wired for it. Thus, empathy – putting ourselves mentally in other’s shoes – is the basis for human morality, it develops automatically out of our early relationships, and it is as natural as sunshine.
The (Real) Fear about Atheism
All this is important to understand for those de-converting. Why? Because fundamentalist Christianity goes to great lengths to convince you that your worst sense of self is your truest. As I argued in previous articles, that belief system teaches adherents that, at their deepest core, they care only about themselves, and that they think of nothing beyond the gratification of their own selfish wants and desires. Left to our own devices, we would all become animals, or something worse than animals. Such apologists argue that it is only religion, and the commands of God (and our conscience, given by God), that prevents such devolution of our selves and our society into barbarism.
So, what I am suggesting is that when apologists argue that “without God there is no basis for morality”, what they are really saying is: “Without God to tell you what is right, your intrinsic selfishness will have no check. You will have nothing to stop you from becoming a monster.” And this, I think, is what those in the midst of de-conversion are really afraid of.
But as I am arguing, this is almost certainly false. Very few people, believer or nonbeliever, need any god (or argument) to tell them that it is wrong to be cruel to their children or to harm our kinsmen. We know it in our gut. Our ethics are internalized and grow naturally out of our relationships, and our sense of common humanity, and need no supernatural world for support. Religion (all religion) simply provides secondary elaboration on internalized, biologically based human impulses (and then, often, takes credit for it all.)
I suggest that the first step here is to challenge this religious view by making the questions concrete. Ask such believers (or yourself, if this is your fear): if you were, hypothetically, to finally become convinced that there was no God, would you really just stop caring about your children, begin cheating in business, go out stealing and raping with impunity? Do you really only love your wives and husbands and parents and friends because you are told to? Don’t you really – if you’re honest – want to also? If there were no God, and you knew it, wouldn’t you pretty much behave the same way you do already?
The “Internal Selection Bias”
Many believers will have a hard time accepting this. Often, a believer’s religiously-based interpretation of his “self” is so dominant that it becomes very difficult for him to objectively look inward and ask himself whether – empirically – he really wants to behave that badly in the first place. His religion has spent years indoctrinating him to believe in his own depravity. He has never really thought to question it. And if he needs any proof, he can point to the endless parade of “selfish” feelings we all do naturally have. (And, of course, he can also look at the world and find no shortage of cruelty and evil behavior there, also).
It is, of course, undeniable that all of us, at times, want (or do) what we know is wrong. But it is equally true that we often want (or do) what we know is right. It feels good to give to our kids or provide comfort for a grieving friend. It feels good to do something that makes your parents or friends happy. We want to keep our pets happy and healthy. It feels good to relieve the suffering of others.
And this is the key point: many believers will overemphasize the former and explain away the latter –all one’s ‘bad’ impulses are one’s own, anything ‘good’ found within oneself is chalked up to God-given conscience. They apply a kind of internal selection bias to the interpretation of their own thoughts and feelings, as it systematically explains away any good impulses and demands ownership of the bad ones. The central “axiom” of the fundamentalist sense of self is: I am bad. Therefore, anything bad I find in me is mine. Anything I find in me that is not bad, must not be mine. It must come from God.
This suggests the next step, the system that must be challenged – and this is what may be helpful for those struggling with de-conversion to think about: Look within yourself. Do you not find it as natural as breathing to love and be good to your children, to care for you family and friends? Why do you explain that away? Why do you take as “basic” somehow all the selfish moments, all the “uglier” thoughts and feelings that you have? Isn’t this division of credit and blame rather arbitrary? Why not call the “good” ones basic and the “bad” ones the aberration? Better yet, why not just call them both a natural part of you?
To truly accept that thoughts and feelings are just that – thoughts and feelings, neither good nor bad in themselves, and not a commentary on the soul of the person – will, I gently offer, be one of the most liberating insights a former fundamentalist can have.
The Is/Ought Question and Why It’s Important – But Not That Important
Some readers will object that in discussing a naturalistic basis for ethics, I have not addressed the is/ought problem. From the empirical fact that we are a mixed bag of selfishness and altruism, it does not follow that I have established an actual basis for ethics. Maybe we are naturally inclined to love our children. So what? Why should we say it’s right or good to do so? Don’t we need some external standard to know what good is at all?
This criticism is valid to a point, but misses what I’m trying to say. There are, of course, many attempts in philosophy to provide a rock-solid “Ultimate Ground” of ethics, such as Kant’s view mentioned above. Such attempts are interesting and valuable and worth consideration. But I resist that conversation here because I think the emotional need for such a ground is part of the problem in the first place, at least for many struggling with de-conversion from fundamentalism. Even if I could successfully develop such a system, would I not mere be replacing one external absolutism for another? Would I not still be playing to that fear: that we need an external absolute to keep the inner beast in check?
So, with what I have suggested, the is/ought question does not go away. I freely admit I have not solved that here. But what I propose is something else, something I think more freeing: that a life spent in human struggle with human moral and ethical decisions is not such a bad thing. It is not so scary or dangerous as we have been led to believe by conservative religion. Indeed, to struggle with ethical questions, to think critically, to continually question oneself, to learn from the views of others, and to heed the call of one’s natural empathy, is not only healthy, is not only honest, it is part of what it means to be human. And it’s what it means to grow.
So I want us to be less afraid of that struggle, less overwhelmed by the prospect of not having a sure rock to stand on, of having no certain answers to give. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to be uncertain. Our souls, our behavior, and our society will not unravel. Our ethics will be “naturalistically felt”, not supernaturally proven, and that – I think we will find – will be quite enough to guide us through a (sufficiently) noble and righteous life. Our natural social “instincts” about basic ethics are quite enough for most people to get by in life and make ethical decisions every day without being professional ethicians… or fundamentalist Christians.
In Jewish legend, a man approached Rabbi Hillel and said, “Tell me the Torah [the Jewish law, the basis for Jewish ethics] while standing on one foot.” The rabbi replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Now go and study the commentary.”
Empathy – not doing to others what we ourselves find hateful – grows out of our most basic human relationships. The rest of ethics is commentary. And by all means, study the commentary. But you’ve got your whole life to do it. In the meantime, our own common, shared humanity is all the basis we ever will need to be “good” – whatever we decide we mean by that.
So, when a conservative religious believer says to you that you have no certain basis for ethics, the best response is: why in the world do you need one?