Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Religious 'morality' and selfishness

I've been pondering over this one for quite some time now, but only recently have I manged to boil the concepts down into words that make sense. It comes, as these things so often do, from a discussion I had with a Christian in real life. I find that speaking my ideas out loud, and being forced to defend them, is the best way for me to clarify and structure them when they may have previously been unformed, nebulous things, floating around unpolished in my skull.

You've all seen the argument before, I'm sure; that atheists either cannot be moral without a belief in God, or that we're moral because, even though we're not aware of it, we follow God's absolute morality. Total nonsense, we're all aware, but why?

The fellow I spoke to was one of those people who ask why, if I don't believe in Hell, don't I go around murdering and stealing and doing whatever I please? At the beginning of our conversation he was adamant that if he didn't believe in Hell, he'd be out doing all these things, which is terrifying. I think they do this because their cognitive dissonance about God's morality forces them to choose SOME side when pressed, and they automatically come down on the side of God. Happily, by the end of the conversation I managed to show him why, no, he wouldn't do these things, and left happier for it.

And it got me thinking. How is that moral? They claim they have a handle on absolute morality, through God, but they'd be willing to commit horrible crimes without him, if there were no Hell? That's not morality. The best definition I've been able to come up with for morality is the choice not to do harm do someone, because of the harm it will cause. This is based on empathy, something that the majority of us have and use daily. We're able to empathize with the pain and suffering of others, and thus choose not to cause pain and suffering. But avoiding immoral acts because of the threat of punishment or the promise of reward is not a moral decision. It's a selfish one, because the decision being made is not about avoiding harm to others.

It's about avoiding harm to (or gleaning reward for) oneself.

If I really, really like stealing cars, but I keep myself from doing so because I know how negatively it will affect those I steal from, I have made a moral choice. I don't want to harm the owners of those cars. I don't want them to suffer.

But if I really like stealing cars, and I keep myself from doing so because I think I'll go to Hell, my decision is not based on avoiding causing suffering to others. It's about avoiding causing suffering to myself. I don't want myself to go to Hell.

Further pondering on this was spawned by a Cracked.com article I read last night. It's an older one, from 2007, and I actually quite agree with most of it. The one bit that stuck in my craw, though, was point number three, which you can find at the top of the second page. In it, the writer claims that we, even all unknowingly, behave as if there's a 'platonic model' of morality that we're following. That when we want justice, it's not because there's a 'wrong' molecule floating around, alerting us to the fact, but because we're comparing what's happened to the absolute moral model.

Which is a load of bunk. We're comparing events to the morality that our society has impressed upon us, and deciding if something was immoral or not based on that. And the morals of societies, I think, are unquestionably relative. Societies will often clash on moral questions, and will sometimes live in fear and disgust at each other for their moral practices. Which, then, is the one that conforms to this 'absolute'?

Why, the one I agree with, of course!

Nonsense. All morality is subjective. Yes, Bible-thumpers, even yours. The Bible condones slavery. Do you? No? Then you have made a subjective moral decision.

I would argue the exact opposite of this writer's point. We atheists do not, unknowingly, follow an absolute standard for morality. It's you believers who, unknowingly, make subjective moral decisions based on your ability to empathize. The basis for morality, even yours, is not based on God's word. This is obvious enough; I've already shown you one brief example of where you'll disagree with the Holy text, and there are hundreds more. You disagree with it because you're able to empathize with the theoretical victims of these Biblical crimes and punishments. You -know- somethings wrong there, because of the suffering of the people referred to, even if it's written in the Bible, even if you claim to agree with the Bible 100%.

You merely haven't sorted out your cognitive dissonance yet. I'd get started on that, if I were you. Atheism is quite freeing.


  1. One thing that needs explanation is how come each generation tends to be more ethical than its predecessors. (Which is crucial, because our means to destroy grows without bounds.) I think it is a consequence of greater knowledge of humans and their place in the world; we more and more train helpful impulses that are advanced evolutionary developments, such as our empathy, and increasingly suppress more primitive impulses that we inherit from animals.

  2. I believe it's a consequence, at least partly, of the increasing ease of access to information. The more points of view one is exposed to, the easier it is to empathize with those who hold those views, and therefore the harder it is to dehumanize them and cause them harm.

    And of course, the effect is cumulative: if a given generation is more ethical than the previous one, it gives the following generation even more of an ethical ground to stand on, allowing them to make further advances even more easily.

  3. Great post with some good points. I always go back to natura law and conscience . Of course I believe both are innate from God. But if correct then all of humanity has it. I would also add that there is a give difference between self interest and selfishness. For a back to Locke and license vs. liberty idea.

  4. There is, of course, a difference between self-interest and selfishness. But morality isn't based on self-interest, either; a choice based on self-interest can easily be immoral. We could debate whether such a choice would be wise or not - that'd be quite interesting, actually - but there's no question that it could be immoral.

    Saying that morality is innate from God is another matter. If you wish to argue that your god gave you the ability to make moral choices, and you make those choices because you see and empathize with harm done to others, then that would, indeed, be a moral choice, and this article doesn't apply to you.

    However, I would wonder why one feels the need to explain morality via God. We can understand how it came about through evolutionary means. There are animals that treat each other morally, and with our intelligence, it was only natural that a meme surrounding morality would form. How, then, does putting God into the mix tell us anything? It seems redundant to me.

    It's like saying that 'God uses evolution to achieve his ends'. I can't really understand why someone would make that argument except in order that he be able to retain his faith - evolution works quite well without a god, so throwing one in there seems redundant to me. The same applies to morality. God isn't needed to explain it, so why bring him into it?