Posts tagged ‘morality’
To my Christian readers:
By far, the most common argument I see made against atheists is that while they have moral standards, they do not have a defense of morality and therefore are “borrowing” from a Theistic (e.g. Christian) worldview every time they make a moral statement. This is presented as evidence that atheists have an internal contradiction in their worldview whereby they are not allowed to make any moral statements because they cannot account for the origin – or source – of morality.
Before I begin a discussion on what I hold morality to be, I want to carefully outline a series of important concepts that have lead me to my current position. Before that, I want to outline my interpretation of the Christian argument for absolute morality that for many is a compelling reason to believe in an Absolute Moral Law Giver. The latter is just to demonstrate that I do understand the Christian position and am not trying intentionally to set up a straw man argument.
The Christian perspective is generally a top-down approach to morality, wherein God is the source of all morals. While there are many nuanced perspectives on this, most Christians argue that morality extends from God’s nature. God is good, therefore He cannot do anything wrong or He defines what is right and wrong. Common moral laws (or concepts) found among men are evidence that we share a common nature and this common nature is what separates us from other animals and is evidence that we were made in the image of God. In this way, morality is absolute because it “comes from” an Absolute Moral Lawgiver – so to speak. Hence, all we have to do is “look around us” and see that men follow common morals and this is evidence of God and the fact that we are made in His image…
There are a few moral ideals that are common to all social groups, such as not stealing or committing senseless murder. These have lead to many people, both religious (theist and deist alike) and nonreligious, supposing the existence of moral absolutes.
These generalized moral ideals are picked up on keenly, but little attention is paid to the fact that other than these few things, all other moral ideas are blurred, subjective, and mutually exclusive. For example, some cultures seen cannibalism as a moral duty, and other see it as the worst imaginable crime.
The common morals (not stealing, not fruitlessly murdering) can be traced logically back to evolution via natural selection, and that is the reason that they are the only ones truly common to all social groups. They are the morals that help people live together as a group, which in turn helps them to survive as a species. It boils down to basic common sense: if you want to have a successful group, you can’t have people stealing from one another and you can’t have people killing at random.
All other morals enter the realm of subjectivity. Every culture agrees that a baseless random murder is wrong, but they disagree severely over definition of “baseless,” when it is okay to take a life and when it is not. Just a few hundred years ago it was socially acceptable for a brother to murder a man who had sex with his sister out of wedlock. Many countries today still practice honor killings where it is morally justifiable for a husband to kill is adulterating wife, or a father to kill his disobedient daughter. Among the Asmat in New Guinea, before they were influenced by Western society, it was not only considered correct, but a moral and religious obligation to kill and cannibalize your enemy…
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…
While I was still working as a pastor, I brought my doubts to my bishop and he started the process of finding me a spiritual mentor. The process of my leaving licenced ministry for an indefinite period of time went faster than the process of finding a spiritual mentor, and by the time I first met the pastor who would be my mentor, I was already unemployed. We agreed to meet anyway, and see how things worked out. I was very unsecure in my deconversion and was hoping there was something obvious I had overlooked.
One of the first things my mentor asked me to do was read a book called The Shack, written by William P. Young. The tagline on the front cover reads, “Where tragedy confronts eternity” and on the back cover is the claim that in Young’s story, he wrestles with the question, “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” Young wrestles with this question through the fictional character Mackenzie Allen Phillips (or Mack, for short), who suffers some horrible tragedies in his life, then one day receives an invitation in his mailbox which may or may not be from God.
Please be aware that this article contains SPOILERS and that if you want to be surprised by anything in the book, you should read the book before finishing this article. You may still find nothing in the book to be surprising, but at least that won’t be my fault…
Selflessness or altruism means putting the interests of others above yourself. Just as “selfishness” has negative connotations in society of self-interest at the expense of others, “altruism” is often thought of as kind or generous acts for others. This view is wrong. It is wrong because the originator of the term himself, Auguste Comte, meant it to mean precisely what it implies: acting for the sake of others with no thought to oneself.
It is this true original definition of altruism that I am using here, and I will use altruism and selflessness interchangeably.
Selflessness is irrational. It is irrational because it demands that the beneficiary of your actions be others. Does it suggest who these others should be? That is a decision an individual would make for himself based on his personal values. But, since altruism dictates that we should hold our interests or values in no regard when acting, altruism actually states that the personal value of the beneficiary be irrelevant to our action! By this “logic” not only would giving money to a drug-dealing rapist be just as moral as giving money to an orphanage, it would be more moral!
Why is that? It comes down to personal values. To suggest that some people are more worthy than others to benefit from acts of generosity implies that one has made a value judgment oneself in such matters based on a personal evaluation of worth…
When I was a Christian, I would oftentimes become frustrated while attempting to understand a moral sentiment put forth through biblical text. Why in the world would God make absolute morality so ambiguous? When Moses wrote, “thou shalt not kill,” did he mean “thou shalt not kill” or did he mean “thou shalt not kill without just cause?” What about abortion? War? Poverty? At times a golden nugget in Scipture would pop out that seemed to make things clear, but there was always a level of ambivalence that I felt was never fully appreciated by the mass of Christianity.
Upon looking to my struggles through developing a proper hermeneutic of Scripture to find a moral system fair to the text, and the supposed author of the text, I cannot help but laugh. Wading through the waters of religious dogma to discover an absolute morality seems so much easier than developing a moral system beyond a conception of a divine transcendent being which by necessity decrees certain actions “good” and certain actions “bad.” When I left Christianity–in fact, in my preparation to leave Christianity, even–I recognized that I would somehow need to construct (or not construct, perhaps) a new moral system.
So where to begin? Well first I had to assess if in fact there was morality. Without Christianity, is moral nihilism the path to go? Or perhaps there is morality, but it is subjective. Maybe there is still some sort of objective morality existing independent of humanity. What a mess!…
A common topic discussed on non-religious or post-religious sites is the subject of morality. Many religions, particularly those who consider Abraham the father of their faith – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – believe they have the corner on morality and that “God” though his “holy book” is the source of morality in the world.
We’ve had our share of discussion on this site including HeIsSailing’s The Bible does not contain a guideline of moral absolutes, AThinkingMan’s Challenging Religious Myths 1: No Morality without Religion, and Stellar1’s You do not need religion to be moral. Of course this is not an exhaustive list as this issue is a part of several other excellent blog entries.
For many, the 10 Commandments set the foundation on which morality is based. The 10 Commandments are found in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Depending on your religion or denomination, there are 12 commandments used to make up some version of the 10 Commandments. They are:
- I am the Lord your God
- You shall have no other gods before me
- You shall not make for yourself an idol
- You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain
- Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy…