A refute to morality from God

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Discussion by: scottcgold

Watching various debates between atheists and the religious I have noticed, as I am sure many others have, that the question of morality always wants to rear it’s head as an argument against atheism. While it seems obvious to any atheist that religion is not a requirement for morality I have yet to hear an atheist give a convincing answer to the theist about it’s origin, not that it is a requirement for our position as the burden of proof rests on the theist, however, if we wish to debate then it is our duty to make arguments not only convincing to ourselves but to those opposed to us as well. This is my humble attempt to refute the theistic claim.

I will not spend time discussing the argument that morality does or does not come from religion itself. While I do agree that it is extremely valid to point to the scriptures as immoral documents and therefore not an acceptable basis for morality especially when quoting the words or actions of the deity himself/herself, it is all to easy for any theist, William Craig for example, to throw off the religious texts and say that morality is not written in pages but in ourselves by God. This also allows him to sidestep any ridiculous notion that an atheist cannot be moral because they are not religious. Craig says that of course atheists can be moral because they bear the divine spark that God has given to all men/women.

Hitchens brilliantly devised a wager asking anyone to present him with a moral action that a theist could perform but that an atheist could not. He also inversely asked of an immoral action that could only be undertaken by a religious person. This, to great effect, fleshed out Weinberg’s claim that “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” However, this does not necessarily refute the theist claim that morality comes from God within us as it side steps the necessity of religious dogma.

Dawkins and others have argued the evolutionary reasons for morality which, not that they are invalid, seem to disappoint the theist because they automatically see it as a rebuff to their human dignity. They might say, “Morality is what separates us from the animals because it is a product of the soul or God within man.”

We will never get the theist, at least not yet, to admit that morality is a process of genetics and deterministic chemicals operating within the brain and making our choices for us; and while the atheist may be willing to accept morality as a process of evolution and determinism there is still something unsettling to a great many atheists about the notion of free will bing illusory.

Theists also say that science has nothing to offer to the humanities such as music, painting and other arts. I tend to agree with this and would also venture to throw morality into this pile as well. It is entirely possible that science may one day discover an absolute morality and describe it to us but this would be as difficult as

finding the singular equation that can illustrate the workings of the entire universe. Mathematics while the best suited of our many languages to describe the universe may turn out to be fatally imperfect in doing so or we may keep refining the language of mathematics ever closer to the limit of perfection. Suffice to say that theists, and I tend to agree, feel that science is a different human endeavor that only has secondary impacts on morality but no real incite as to its origins or intricate workings (at least, not yet).

At this time I would like to present a definition of humanities as ‘those branches of knowledge, such as philosophy, literature, and art, that are concerned with human thought and culture; the liberal arts.’ Also, I would like to now explain why, above, I have lumped morality in with the humanities. Morality like mathematics can have effects in the physical world. However, unlike mathematics which is the language of the physical world and therefore tethered inescapably to it. Morality is a humanity that operates below (or above) language. We can feel morality without describing it in words and we can endlessly hypothesize moral situations without throwing the physical world out the window. To illustrate, many people hypothesize the necessary moral action that needs to be taken to stop an abortion because of metaphysical and physical assumptions that can be examined independently. In deciding whether we are for or against an abortion at a given moment we can make arguments about a soul or argue, ‘does the baby feel pain?’ or both simultaneously. In contrast, we could hypothesize about what changes we would need to make to a constant if gravity operated in reverse or if light traveled half speed but none of the equations change if we decide chemical weapons are good or bad.

Morality is an aesthetic. Theists like Craig may want to believe in an absolute morality and this is fine so far as to say that we may one day discover an agreed upon absolute aesthetic in music and painting. However, even Craig admits that we have made “moral improvements’ although he involves himself in quite the mental contortion to explain why morality has always operated at the absolute while at the same time improving.

Theists believe that they are always operating at the moral absolute. This is necessary for their dogma. They therefore claim that God is necessary for morality. For the theist, to admit that morality is relative or evolving towards an absolute perfection while their God operates beyond the physical world and time is to admit that God is inconsistent and imperfect. The theists, like Craig, then mince words and say we have moral improvement but we would not know what absolute we are striving toward unless God was present in us and guiding us.

This is where I come to the point of this essay. When a theist asks how can we have an absolute morality without God we must say that it serves a purpose. Morality serves the desire of a species living together in close proximity. We do not need a perfect version of morality to meet the societal want. Any version of it is better than no version at all. When human beings built the first bridges they did not have an image of the Golden Gate Bridge to work toward, just as the Wright brothers

first airplane was not a failure to build the Concord. Morality exists because there is a desire for it to exist. It increases the quality of life. We see this throughout human history. As morality reaches higher and higher standards and these standards become accepted we in turn make higher demands of our moral code. We then begin to see that morality is a process of positive feedback. Just as building the first bridge meant not having to walk as far and freed time for us to pursue desires instead of needs, developing moral codes allowed us to have less fear of others within society which allows us more time to think about what we want instead of guarding against every stranger we encounter. We also can now see that as communication, travel and other technologies are at the beginnings of creating a global society, morality is once again evolving, as we demand more from it. Now that we have closer contacts with other countries, nationalism has become xenophobia and righteous persecution towards LGBT has become homophobia. Keep in mind that religious texts have remained the same for these changes and many more.

Morality, like any other humanity pleased an aesthetic and evolved, as we demanded more from it. As Mozart was not content to forever bang on drums as cavemen did but instead endeavored to create something ever more complex, beautiful and pleasing so does humanity endlessly strive to throw off Bronze Age morality and create a world more beautiful and pleasing for ALL its inhabitants. 

53 COMMENTS

  1. My take is once you believe there is no absolute morality (like i do) you face a problem. I think WLC rightly says that you lose objectivity. Morals are a set of code/principles which are deemed “good”/”right”. At this point i ask the question “good for what?” or “right for what?”.

    The current objective of humanist values/morals is rather vague, a general one might be to increase the well-being of humankind or perhaps animal kind. And the moral codes are centered around that objective which aims to reduce suffering and increase quality of life such as freedom of speech, anti child abuse etc etc.

    Of course this objective is relative (non absolute), because without god (or other superstitions) there is no absolute purpose in life. Who decides what is the “right” objective? And with that objective in mind, we use reason to craft the moral code to achieve that objective. e.g. to maximise human well being, an example moral code can be “murder is wrong” or “unnecessary murder is wrong” (and we use reason to decide which is better)

    This is how i think our morals should originate from but i cannot answer how our objective comes about. Because without absolute purpose, there is no reason to say we should: colonize the stars or in contrast – destroy all life. We may feel it right that we should colonise the stars but i think that feeling is instinctive as we are driven by survival. There is no real reason why we should do so. If we colonize the stars we would be akin to bacteria multiplying in a petri dish with no purpose.

    Personally i have no problem living without absolute purpose (might even be a good thing). Perhaps this is a problem faced by theists that cannot let go of god because they cannot live without an absolute purpose. I am also open to a possibility that one day there might be a discovery of absolute morality, but a discovery of absolute purpose would precede that.

    P.S i would love to one day colonise the stars

  2. I agree with the sentiments here. Indeed, perhaps because (for me) the superiority of science over faith in terms of understanding and relating to the material world is overwhelmingly obvious, the debate has shifted towards understanding and application of human values, ie morality: and like others, I think that scientific scepticism and questioning is ethically valid.

    Science (materialist philosophy) rejects the ancient and Medieval claim that morals exist in some kind of absolute (Platonic) realm of ideas, asserting that absolute morals do not objectively ‘exist’ anymore than do Plato’s ‘absolute tables’. Again, arguing backwards from desired conclusions for ‘must’ be the real state affairs is invalid. For we may want to have the feeling of comfort we think derives from an unquestioned set of rules, or the idea we have a higher purpose: but wanting those assurances does not mean that they are true. Faith asserts that the truth of an idea is proven by how strongly you believe it: this ‘proof’ is not available to atheists. But such teleological and tendentious arguments underlie the theist position that, since we ‘need’ moral guidance, God is needed as its source: that without God we have no morality and that ethical guidance must be imported from a supposed higher realm.

    Yet as well as asserting that believing morals are God-given is incorrect, since there is no God, I’d go further to say that the idea of ‘God-given morals’ is actually amoral. That is, the idea that humans cannot find their own values and must rely on some superior being is a way, almost paradoxically, of claiming that one has no personal morals and no personal discernment of better or worse actions. This implies that really one is not personally responsible: medieval Crusaders massacring the citizens of Jerusalem, or latter day Jihadists blowing up planes were doing ‘God’s will’. This is the old ‘justification’ of participating in ideologically driven abuse – ‘I was only obeying orders’. Underlying this is not morality, but craving and fear with regard to heavenly reward or avoidance of hellfire – and which distant but compelling considerations might account for the indifference of more militant theists to the immediate consequences upon others of their pursuit of personal salvation.

    So I think that, far from atheists feeling they need to be defensive about moral values, it is the theists who have problems on what is often assumed to be ‘their’ territory. This is not just the familiar scientific challenge as to how personal conviction (without material basis) can be valid when it comes to assessing situations realistically and deciding our best actions. We should go further, to contest claims that submissive reliance on another (supposed) being to tell you right from wrong is defensible for responsible adults: or that it is virtuous to be driven by desires for long term reward or safety (virtue in the sense of noble motivation: one can still act well under duress). Submission to a higher Power is, I’m suggesting, a moral abdication and can lead to a mental passivity open to manipulation – which in the case of militant ideologies (religious or not) has spawned devastating inhumanities.

  3. I agree that we have not yet come up with a satisfactory answer to the origins of morality and this allows The God Of The Gaps to sneak into many people’s minds. William Lame Cranium score lots of points with the religious minded when he claims that only his god can ultimately say what is right and wrong. Where he stumbles is in his attempts to justify the bible’s diary of his god’s immoral actions with the idea that such actions can’t be immoral if god performs them, and who are we to judge… etc. etc.

    It should be clear to the rational mind that the human moral code has evolved over the centuries and is now at odds with many of the morals of the bronze age.

    Moral behaviour can be seen in other animals but it is rudimentary compared to that of humans and some people see this gap as being too great to be bridged by evolution. But I think it is linked to the rapid evolving of intelligence in our ancestors. This too is vastly superior to that of even the closest relatives of our species. We have the ability to consider (and plan) our actions rather than act instinctively.

    I don’t see our understanding of morals as any different to our understanding of logic, mathematics, art or geometry and these too are often claimed to be divine in origin. We see beauty in nature and nature seems to use the aesthetic of beauty in many rudimentary ways – such as flowers attracting insects and in animals attracting a mate, e.g. courtship displays, decorating a nest, etc. But only humans have the ability to study art and geometry.

  4. The simple fact that ancient Greek philosophers were discussing and studying questions of morality and developing the discipline of ethics long before the advent of Christianity should make it clear that morality has nothing to do with religion. For those ancient philosophers, who generally observed the religious conventions of their times, the gods were more like forces of nature than personal beings of a higher order. They were therefore not relevant to a human being’s efforts to study what was good and bad, right and wrong in human life.

    There have been many purely philosophical (nonreligious) approaches to ethics over the centuries, beginning in the Western tradition with Socrates as represented by Plato. Most of Plato’s Socratic dialogues concern moral questions, so that is a good place to start investigating moral questions by the use of rational argument. Aristotle was the first philosopher to put forth a systematic discipline of ethics. He wrote the Eudemian Ethics earlier in his career, when he was still fairly close to Plato’s philosophy and the ethics discussed in the Socratic dialogues, but his mature ethical thought is presented in his Nicomachean Ethics. A reading of these will offer further examples of moral questions being dealt with solely by means of reason. Various schools of thought in antiquity, in particular the Epicureans and the Stoics, produced coherent teachings on moral matters. The Christians detested Epicurus and saw to it that his writings did not survive in any published form, so we know only fragments of his actual writings. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are the most famous representatives of Stoic thinking, and, since the Christians rather liked them, their works have been preserved.

    In the modern era there is a vast array of philosophical work done on morality, but I will mention only the greatest of them, written by Immanuel Kant in a worthy attempt to provide an all-embracing ethical system. These are Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and Critique of Practical Reason, in which Kant strove to set out the foundations of morality for any rational being. Once again the reader will find that divinity has nothing to do with it.

    When Christians bring up morality as though it were something dependent on religious belief, they are in fact displaying their ignorance of moral philosophy and its long history. Rather than argue with them about the need for religion or God as a basis for morals, one should simply deny the assumption that they have thus smuggled into the discussion. Religion is not about morals but about pleasing the gods, and these have yet to be shown to exist, if they are not merely natural forces which the sciences are enabling us better to understand. To be moral, one need only be rational.

  5. The mention of the theist’s inability to comprehend a morality that is not absolute I think is more telling of the core of the problem.

    Morality is everything to do with the decisions societies make regarding and ethical position (murder, theft, lying, etc) for the benefit of the society as a whole. Obviously different cultures have arrived at different conclusions on many levels, everything on the attitudes towards sex to the positions on when it is OK to murder someone. So if the theist position were true and god spoke to everyone in their very essence, is he giving every society a different message?

    I’ve said it many times. morality is a process we are still attempting to right. There are cultures that are still marrying children, stoning women, enslaving people, murdering for apostasy and numerous other things we should have left behind centuries ago. And they could have if not for the religion of the cultures having more sway than reasoning.

    It is true that it is easy to see the multiple holes in theist reasoning regarding morality by simply looking at what their books say on the subject, and how they themselves behave. But worse, having to adhere to a moral system that is inherently unchangeable because it is considered divine exponentially increases the divide between reasoning to discern what is right and blindly following the dictates of a priest or cleric to satisfy a doctrine.

    So until the ability to reason is more valued than the ability to be servile to the divine, I suspect this will always be an issue between the religious and the non religious.

  6. (My goodness, was I reading a college paper? I can address the first 2/3 of your paper, but I choose not.)

    I feel that there have been plenty of good responses to “morality must come from God” argument. Many responses may have lacked poetry… Yet there will always be those that cling to their beliefs. To argue the origins of morality is to contemplate the origins of the feeling of love within the human species prior to passionately kissing a loved one. The conversation exists because one group insists on holding back progress by asserting that their view is the one true way. It does nothing to further progress human relations.

    Morality exists because there is a desire for it to exist. It increases the quality of life. We see this throughout human history. As morality reaches higher and higher standards and these standards become accepted we in turn make higher demands of our moral code.

    Yes, each generation learns a little more and we build off that knowledge. Something is to be said for an entire generation dying off. Worn out old ideas leave the human conversation and a new generation emerges usually with certain “improved views.” This is an imperfect process requiring the willingness to admit our wrongs and set about undoing and fixing our mistakes. Frequently a new generation embraces a negative idea, but science and studies have frequently shown the error of their ways. Consider a teacher forcing a dyslexic child to read in front of a class while the other students laughed. Consider corporal punishment. When groups of people are willing to stand up to abuse, injustice, and unfair treatment armed with their wounds (and maybe the credibility of well thought out studies), change happens.

  7. The refute that morality came from somebody’s god is all too easy. Prove that said god exists first. Then we’ll talk. Until then, it’s an exercise in futility. Even if we didn’t know where it came from (although there’s plenty of evidence, even in the animal kingdom, that morality is a product of life in society), it still doesn’t prove that a god exists. It becomes a circular argument, a begging of the question: for the WLCs of the world, the fact that we have morality proves that god exist, and we received morality from god (the christian one at that). They still haven’t proved that god (any) exists. To infer therefore that morality is something that god gave us, makes no more sense than to say that Frank down the road or the Easter Bunny gave it to us.

  8. The problem comes with the assumption that there is, in fact, some sort of “absolute morality” in the first place. At best, I think you can say that humans are naturally social and empathetic creatures and that certain behaviors help the survival of the species as a whole. But what the specifics are can and do change from one society to another and one era to another within the same society.

    In general, however, atheists who debate theists don’t want to actually admit that there is no such thing as “absolute morality” and therefore have to scramble around looking for ways to explain how it’s possible to have absolute morality without an outside judge as to what is moral or not. Rather than taking this approach, I think it’s better to point out that even theists don’t really have any claim to absolute morality. The “morality” espoused in the Old Testament (which includes stoning people for trivial offenses, condoning genocide and slavery, etc.) is certainly not what most theists would consider “moral” today, which means its not absolute. Those who point to the New Testament like to focus exclusively on the “love they neighbor as thyself” bit but seem to conveniently forget about all the other stuff like treating women as second-class citizens and the acceptance of slavery.

    And so it goes. Those who have defended slavery, miscegenation laws, denying women the right to vote, anti-gay legislation, cutting government programs to aid the poor, etc., have usually used the Bible to support their views. But few Christians use the Bible to defend slavery or miscegenation laws today. And few would call letting women vote “immoral” today. Plenty still call homosexual acts “immoral”, but even that is changing. All of which is to say that there is no such thing as “absolute morality” in any reasonable sense and we should be willing to acknowledge that rather than trying to prove how such a thing could exist without God.

  9. Morality is not objective like the laws of gravity, but it is objective like good health. Having good health is complex. You have to eat right, exercise, get vaccinated, take care of your hygiene, not over do the exercising, etc… Morality is the same. It is real, it is based on real world things, but it is complex.

    The level of morality and virtue you strive for will be quite different depending on your circumstances. Living in a modern, peaceful, democracy I have the resources to strive for a high level of morality. I don’t have to commit violence to be safe, I generally don’t worry about violence being done to me. I pay taxes that help with education, health care, and other services. I give to charity.

    Someone living in Somalia who manges to get through their day without having to assault anyone is being pretty good.

    My basic principles for morality are: do not directly harm any other people. Help those close to you. Help those in your community. Help strangers. Cultivate virtue in yourself.

    Why do we have morality? We are social animals. Without morality we cannot have sophisticated societies. Morality allows us to specialize, cooperate, and build a better live for our selves.

  10. Theists also say that science has nothing to offer to the humanities such as music, painting and other arts. I tend to agree with this

    I wouldn’t want to be subjected to your narrow view of what constitutes art. Similarly, I wouldn’t trust your opinion on what constitutes an explanation for morality. You seem to have made your conclusion then filled the void between question and answer with whatever made you feel comfortable.

  11. The simple answer to all questions regarding origins of morality, or other concepts such as justice or beauty is the same answer as to why so many educated people today believe in the supernatural and question science. They have been brainwashed by bad philosophy. The bad philosophy boils down to the statement “there are things that science cannot explain” or “there is a lot we don’t know”. The trick of this statement is that these statements are not made to actually acknowledge how much we have yet to learn, but rather to open the uncritical mind to the existence of the world of the supernatural. The supernatural realm is where morality, beauty, the soul, love, gods, and other unexplained human experiences are kept hidden from rational investigation. A rational approach to understanding morality could begin by asking “who does the morality pertain to?”. Morality exists only when discussing the intention of humans towards other beings that can experience suffering. For example, if a person kills another person it could be seen as “evil” unless done in self defense. Or if we harm animals or even plants, the moral question comes up. But how would morality show itself in another planet where only rocks and gases exist? The concept of good and evil is born in a world where lifeforms can experience suffering and death which is an axiom for altruism which itself is a natural result of evolved brains that are able to connect the suffering of others to the welfare of the host or of group solidarity. The ability to label acts as good and evil and define morality within a complex social setting arrives once brains evolve to be able to make those connections . Inevitably, humans, who have the brain power to practice altruism within a complex social structure, further solidify the role of morals in group survival by adding accountability, which is the beginnings of justice.
    Basically, the point is that those who believe in the supernatural due to bad philosophy or wishful thinking, have created a world that is really just a scapegoat for their ego and a smokescreen for their ignorance. It is not the result of rational thinking, thus when people try to define morality or anything else as being part of this “other world” or being created by a god (there are a lot of different ways rebranding the concept, but it all comes down to the lack of understanding and respect for the scientific enterprise coupled with the logical fallacy that the things we do not know are potentially unknowable because they are locked away in a supernatural realm which, due to our brain’s ability to create and manipulate definitions of explanatory concepts, such as gods, is endowed the axiomatic property of having, by definition, the power to explain everything and anything without the oversight of rational thought or investigation of evidence.

  12. The sorts of moral codes atheists come up with are infinitely better than the bible. Nearly everything in bible even Christians ignore because it is so obsolete. Further Jehovah demands genocide, rape, theft and every other imaginable crime. Some moral document!

  13. We don’t need a god to create law or social custom. We do this by consensus. The Law has the advantage of adapting to new features of existence, like the Internet. The bible is stuck describing a morality for a world millennia old.

    Law does not need to derive from some hoary religious document. All the important things like killing, stealing, abusing children are part of natural morality. They don’t require a religion. That is where religion got its core ideas in the first place, not some extraterrestrial being.

  14. A great piece Scott, and I’m almost excited for you, if you haven’t yet watched perhaps the single most relevant video regarding this topic. Sam Harris “Who says Science has Nothing to Say about Morality”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v91cA-mu1MU

    Keep up the great writing, and the inquisitive free thinking. Hitch wouldn’t have it any other way!

  15. In reply to #10 by DocWebster:

    Theists also say that science has nothing to offer to the humanities such as music, painting and other arts. I tend to agree with this

    I wouldn’t want to be subjected to your narrow view of what constitutes art….

    Being employed in the Graphic arts and being involved in the arts my whole life, I can see how science/technology has greatly influenced the arts. Consider the invention of the camera, tin types, Muybridge, the polaroid, movie film, the video, the digital camera. Surely, the advances will continue. In the graphic arts: consider scribes, consider the invention of the press, the use of wood and lead type, the stat camera, the various ways of setting type first by hand, then by film and an antiquated typesetting computer, then the mac… Every few years an update of Adobe software comes out. Consider electronic music – consider the phonograph, consider the tape recorder, vinyl records, digital recordings. Consider pottery and the potter’s wheel. Consider rubber molds enabling multiple dishes to be produced and mass marketed. Consider dayglo florescent colors, glow-in-the-dark inks, consider synthetic dyes and paints that utilize synthetic instead of natural pigments. Consider fabric design and textiles. Ever wear polyester? Maybe cops will one day wear a bullet proof vest that utilizes spider silk. An industrial designer will be involved figuring out the best design utilizing the uniqueness of the materials. Check out the meticulous crinkle technique of a Fortuni dress. You can’t achieve that without science. I recently heard how one celebrity made one of the biggest advances in the perfume industry. She wanted a dark (black) liquid perfume that turned clear when applied to the skin. Science found a way to do it. Who were the early architects and engineers? artists. To create a stone tool or wheel requires the same mentality and thought processes required in most all arts. Traditionally, artists and scientists tend to be independent, introverted individuals with much mental energy.

    Hand in hand, the arts and science/technology have had a humanity long relationship in which innovation and advancement is honored. At one time art was used to express the human “spirit” through ritual, dance, and community oneness. Religion utilized the positive aspects of art for the advancement of their views. Over the past centuries, art is no longer under the spell and financial support of the church. Most all of the advancements that I mentioned have happened over the recent centuries as secular thought and technology has advanced. Show me a work of art that does not have the hand of science or technology within it. Do you still think science has nothing to offer the humanities?

  16. In reply to #15 by QuestioningKat:
    What a great point. My first thought in reading your response was to say that a change in medium isn’t in itself art but as you went on I began to think about how I would never put a cave painting on the same level as a Picasso. Technology has definitely increased the quality of art and therefore the possible response we have to it. Thank you for sharing. You have shown me something new and changed my mind on this point.

  17. In reply to #15 by QuestioningKat:

    Show me a work of art that does not have the hand of science or technology within it. Do you still think science has nothing to offer the humanities?

    Whenever people say science has nothing to offer art, I always point them in the direction of Theo Jansen’s ‘strandbeests’. If there exists a more apposite example of science driving art, I’ve yet to see it. Wonderful things.

  18. In reply to #17 by BenS:

    In reply to #15 by QuestioningKat:

    Show me a work of art that does not have the hand of science or technology within it. Do you still think science has nothing to offer the humanities?

    Whenever people say science has nothing to offer art, I always point them in the direction of Theo Jansen’s ‘stra…

    Thanks, I think I was first introduced to Jansen through a TED talk. Very cool

    scottcgold, woo hoo! I finally convinced someone to change their views! at least about something. 😉 The arts, unlike religion, embrace new discoveries, information, and changes. A new discovery is made and the arts already have their mental wheels spinning on finding ways to utilize the technology or finding.

  19. religion seems to be the source of “objective morality” which is something I odn’t believe in. I tend to think that when theists and atheists are debating morality they’re talking about two different things.

    much of the bibles objective morality translates universally, for example don’t steal, don’t kill. we can all relate to those but that’s because they exist in the middle ground of moral behaviour.

    on the other hand, homosexuality for example, is considered immoral. it’s not in itself, however it’s not very moral to pretend to be straight and have a secret gay lover. then again social norms need to be taken into account so if living in a society where coming out is not an option the question becomes more and more muddled, the wife of a secretly gay man is still a victim of immorality but then so is a gay husband in denial for fear of reprecussions.

    theists aregue that morality has a historical start point, when moses brought down the 10 commandments or jesus suggested people don’t act like dicks but atheist morality doesn’t. morality did not have a starting point. the holy books of dominant religions are not being written right now, they’re already written but for those of us who don’t care what nomads used to think, morality is something everyone must test and struggle with every single day. to turn to a manual to decide the outcome of a moral quandry is actually a completely different thing.

    Theist morality is simple; does it upset god? yes? then it’s wrong. there is the end point
    Humanist morality is complex; does it upset a person? yes? there’s our starting point

  20. Morality is not an objective “thing”- a law of the universe. It is a construct of societies and individuals absorbed by children as they grow up with biological influences from the perspective of genes as altruistic but ultimately selfish survival mechanisms in a complex interaction explained by game theory.
    If somebody says “can rape or killing a child ever be right?” You can say “I don’t think so but there are plenty of cultures where it is permissible under certain circumstances, so my morality is a product of my culture” ( the example of an 8 year old child dying on her “wedding” night springs to mind but there are numerous others including the old testament)

    Also if morality is imposed by an external source that claims to be the absolute arbitrator of what is moral or not how would you ever know if that authority was telling the truth of what was moral without resorting to your own sense of morality? Without your own sense of morality you would be an amoral automaton using the Nuremberg defense for your actions.

    Finally I would say that by adopting an ethical framework where morality is concerned such as “evaluate each action to determine the outcome that will cause the least harm to all parties” we can strive to achieve a morality that is measurable and open to scientific analysis though evaluating harm might still be a subjective process, gross harm might be eliminated.

  21. As we are in danger of drowning in a flood of refutations, I will try not to add to the deluge, save to say that I am not too impressed with God’s concentration on the immorality of respecting other gods, making icons, and coveting a neighbour’s ass, while leaving out of his holy books the much more important ones, such as the immorality of casino-banking, derivatives, quantative-easing, collateral damage, economy of truth, the abuse of chapter 7 of the UN Security Council, and many others of concern to the totality of his human creatures and not just the few chosen ones. It is, as Yul Brynner said to Deborah Kerr, a puzzlement.

  22. In reply to #21 by ZedBee:

    As we are in danger of drowning in a flood of refutations, I will try not to add to the deluge, save to say that I am not too impressed with God’s concentration on the immorality of respecting other gods, making icons, and coveting a neighbour’s ass, while leaving out of his “holy” books the much mo…

    Well, that’s an easy one to explain! God’s truth is eternal, but his revealed words are tailored to meet the needs of the society to which they were revealed. The fact that we have come up with new ways to sin doesn’t refute the validity of God’s word regarding the sins that were being committed 4000 years ago. As for what God has to say about today’s sins, all we need to do is look at what it says in the Bible, since God’s word is eternal and applies just as much today as it did 4000 years ago, despite the fact that his words back then specifically were meant for the time in which they were written. In other words, God’s word is eternal except for the parts that don’t apply today and we can use his words in the past as a guide to today’s society because they are eternal even though they don’t actually apply anymore. Because God’s word is eternal. Oh, and nobody can truly know the mind of God anyway since he works in mysterious ways.

    See? It’s very straightforward…

  23. Suffice to say that theists, and I tend to agree, feel that science is a different human endeavor that only has secondary impacts on morality but no real incite as to its origins or intricate workings (at least, not yet).

    I find this unconvincing because there seems to be an emerging consilience between the biological explanations of ethical behaviour and the field of ethics itself. Firstly, biology (and more specifically, evolutionary psychology) has provided excellent explanations for how ethical intuitions, behaviours, and fundamental bases evolved into existence, not least of which are reciprocal altruism and kin selection. The development of ethics in culture continues where the biological explanations are simply too slow to have made any further impact, and psychology and other mind sciences are unravelling how and why we value the things we do.

    Secondly, this connection has been realized as the application of decision theories and game theory models that predict how people behave in cases where ethical decisions can be made, the most famous of which being the Prisoner’s Dilemma, (though there are interesting offshoots such as the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Ultimatum Game, the Dictator Game, and the work of Robert Axelrod). Based on this link that breaks the boundaries between two fields previously considered irreconcilable, I think ethics is, at heart, a very complex, multi-factorial multi-player form of game theory, in which the losses and gains are measured in the sentient experiences realized during all the participants’ lifetimes. Its peculiar logic would then be real and mathematically verifiable, though by no means fully explored; ethics is a very underdeveloped scientific field compared with the others.

    Lastly, ethical decisions are all connected to the nature of one’s sentient experience of the world, which is why suffering, killing, and theft are obvious and even archetypal examples of immoral behaviour, while also being connected to the trade-off between individual good (which can be blind to its effect on others) and community good (which can result in sacrifices made by individuals). I think science actually contains the seeds for the best insights into ethics, not least-ways because its basis, reason, forces its practitioners to look at reality itself rather than the “authority” of people’s views in different cultures.

  24. In reply to #22 by godzillatemple:

    In reply to #21 by ZedBee:

    Nice one Godzilla, your disambiguation is immaculately conceived; nevertheless, God having engaged 51 Middle Eastern prophets and 7 prophetesses for the ancients, isn’t it about time he appointed a latter-day FitzMoses (or equivalent) to give us some more hind-sight prophecies worth refuting here?

  25. isn’t it about time he appointed a latter-day FitzMoses (or equivalent) to give us some more hind-sight prophecies worth refuting here?

    Well, if you ask the Mormons…

  26. Judging by the length of replies and the anguish of the OP which asserts:

    Theists also say that science has nothing to offer to the humanities such as music, painting and other arts. I tend to agree with this and would also venture to throw morality into this pile as well….

    I have to assume that brevity is not permitted on this thread. However, I will be as brief as possible. Religion offers morality nothing that wasn’t already there in society. Certainly Christianity has changed its morality from 4-500 years ago in Europe, where it was OK, indeed moral, to burn witches and heretics at the stake, to one where Bishops and other holy men rant about City bankers making too much money. There’s nothing “eternal” about Christianity. It twists and weaves its way around new knowledge, with the advantage of years of side-stepping, smokescreen, and insulting the messenger. The apologist, William Lane Craig, has nothing to offer any of us.

    As to art and science being somehow removed from each other, I present Exhibit A.

    Large Hadron Rap

  27. In reply to #25 by godzillatemple:

    Well, if you ask the Mormons…

    Prophet Smith never said a word about Al-Qaida, Pressure Cookers or even the Lehman Brothers.

  28. In reply to #27 by ZedBee:

    In reply to #25 by godzillatemple:

    Well, if you ask the Mormons…

    Prophet Smith never said a word about Al-Qaida, Pressure Cookers or even the Lehman Brothers.

    No, no… I’m talking about their current prophet. That’s the great thing about being a Mormon — there’s always a prophet when you need one.

  29. I think the problem is that people make far too big a deal out of morality.

    We are a highly intelligent, social species that benefits from mutual cooperation. Therefore, we have evolved a sense of morality, which is simply a concern for how we treat each other.

    That’s it.

  30. In reply to #29 by Simon Tuffen:

    I think the problem is that people make far too big a deal out of morality.

    We are a highly intelligent, social species that benefits from mutual cooperation. Therefore, we have evolved a sense of morality, which is simply a concern for how we treat each other.

    That’s it.

    Except that people don’t agree about what is moral: that’s the complication. So changing people’s minds takes time and why brevity will usually fail to persuade – unless it is simplistic, dictatorial, or both.

  31. In reply to #28 by godzillatemple:

    Thanks Godzilla.

    I wonder when the new one will prophecy WWII and the WMD pressure cookers in Boston.

  32. Robert M Price has what I think is a good take worth reading on this topic in his September essay on Zarathustra Speaks.

  33. A tiny contribution about the probably ancient biological background to elements in “morality” possibly related to “empathy” or “wish” to prohibit harm. I once saw a magpie attack and catch a sparrow. While the magpie did its best to kill the sparrow, a great tit arrived at the scene and started to disturb the magpie persistently and quite aggressively. The magpie eventually flew away, but the great tit stayed and jumped around the dead sparrow for a while, touched it and then left. Three different species involved in this drama.

    Great tits seem to be rather clever, they can announce to you when the food on the bird table is finished, but I don’t think the little bird I observed did any risk-benefit analysis before attacking the magpie. How well developed is our courage, e.g when someone is attacked in the street? In most humans, action from sense of morality rapidly breaks down in face of terror, no matter the extent of evolution towards higher and higher standards under peaceful conditions. All a result of our cognitive functions allowing for analysis of consequences, and our self-preservation. How do we handle it when we cannot promise an after-life?

  34. even chimpansees seem to exert some form of morality: females sometimes mingle in disputes where one chimp is singled out by others… there are more of these examples to be found in nature..these animals (I hope) do not act on any religious grounds..

  35. The entire argument along with the authors conclusion, “…so does humanity endlessly strive to throw off Bronze Age morality and create a world more beautiful and pleasing for ALL its inhabitants.” are ludicrous. There are obviously secular and religion based moral codes. Confucianism in the East and Christianity in the west have both generated systems of morality. Arguing morality in the abstract is pointless. What matters is what is the moral circumstance as it exist now.
    Currently we have what appears to be an ever increasing economic gap between the ultra wealthy 1% and everyone else that is the direct result of an economic system that has essentially become global. This system, being inexorably wedded to western culture, is exporting that culture on a global scale. All of this with the enthusiastic support of western global powers who, are actively subverting the power of any entity, political of otherwise that is not in complete support of this wester hegemony. This system for generating wealth and power is also the one that is creating man made climate change and has created (and used) and continues to create weapons of mass destruction.
    So what exactly is the moral bases for any of this? Assuming there is some sort of assumed morality (which I doubt) how is it enforced? What are the consequences of an immoral act in our current circumstance ? Are there any? “…so does humanity endlessly strive to throw off Bronze Age morality and create a world more beautiful and pleasing for ALL its inhabitants.”Really? Don’t you mean ALL the inhabitants that agree with the dominant political and economic system despite the fact it is destroying the planet? The ones who are willing to recognise their morality as something relative, maybe.

  36. As an artist and amateur astronomer I’ve long been aware that art and science are cousins. Both make creative leaps in thought; one gives expression to an idea sometimes successfully, the other explores, studies and eventually proves its validity or not. Many scientists are artists too; the most famous, Einstein, played the violin. As a potter/ceramic sculptor I used scientific methods to develop glazes, create unique effects and develop construction techniques for achieving my vision, even using algebra once to solve a problem.
    Thank you scottcgold for your excellent discussion, I’ve already directed one believer to it as a refutation of their tired old argument regarding morality.

  37. Why is morality even relevant? Why would an atheist in this day and age choose to continue to distinguish between right and wrong/good and evil? Even if we take into account that morality is a by-product of our evolution (those who lived in societies thrived, while those that didn’t perished), the need for morality suggests we aren’t able to overcome our evolutionary programming (surely society will not collapse if I steal some apples off of farmer Brown’s tree). If this truly is “all there is” and man only gets one life, why should anyone ever sacrifice themselves to the “greater good” (whatever that may be)? Why distinguish between good and bad at all, shouldn’t it be irrelevant? I’m going to die, everyone is going to die, the planet is going to die, the universe is going to die. Seconds, minutes, years… whatever, time is only relative to the observer. In the minute space of existence that you occupy, where the sum of all your experience and knowledge will be a big, fat null, why spend any intellectual effort discerning whether taking farmer Browns’ apples off his tree when he isn’t looking “means something bad”? Morality: not bad, not good, not necessary or unnecessary, just irrelevant. Choose to observe it or don’t. As an atheist, tell me why this is wrong.

  38. Devon Bott #37
    Aug 25, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Why is morality even relevant?

    Ethics and morality are relevant to having a legal basis for co-operation in the large cultural groups in which mosern humans live.

    Why would an atheist in this day and age choose to continue to distinguish between right and wrong/good and evil?

    These dogmatic biblical notions are indeed irrelevant, but that does not means that ethics based on mutual altruism and respect for fellow humans should not replace these.
    In secular societies there are laws and codes of conduct, based on resolving conflicts and recognising the interests of various parties.

    Morality: not bad, not good, not necessary or unnecessary, just irrelevant. Choose to observe it or don’t. As an atheist, tell me why this is wrong.

    If you want reprisals or agreed sanctions from societies, you can refuse to recognise the interests of others or laws, but do not be surprised by the consequential repercussions!

  39. Cairsely

    “The simple fact that ancient Greek philosophers were discussing and studying questions of morality and developing the discipline of ethics long before the advent of Christianity should make it clear that morality has nothing to do with religion.”

    Wrong, I’m afraid. Morality did not originate with Christianity, may not be (or is not) dependent upon the Christian religion; but Christianity is a moral religion through and through. And God, according to Kierkegaard and other deep thinkers – of which there are few – must be understood, ultimately, in a moral sense.

  40. P.S. The simple fact that moral issues were discussed way before the ancient Greeks “proves that morality has nothing to do with the ancient Greeks.” Do you see my point?

  41. If fear of God or fear of hell is not a valid reason for being a moral person, then neither is fear of ‘law’ or fear of ‘prison’. And yes, I understand why Society requires morality, as it furthers society’s existence, but why do you, personally, need to observe any kind of morality, other than some evolutionary predisposition towards it? If morality is observed simply because of the bio-chemical reactions that cause good feelings in our brains when we do “good things”, then isn’t it still the reward/punishment system of heaven and hell all over again? Haven’t we evolved past the need to quantify good and bad? Haven’t we evolved enough to override our biology?

  42. Devon Bott #41
    Aug 26, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    If fear of God or fear of hell is not a valid reason for being a moral person, then neither is fear of ‘law’ or fear of ‘prison’.

    Fear of gods and Hell are imaginary or delusional threats in the distant future.
    Fear of the law or loss of: social co-operation, employment, income, food, shelter etc. is an immediate and real threat to well-being and individual survival.

    If morality is observed simply because of the bio-chemical reactions that cause good feelings in our brains when we do “good things”, then isn’t it still the reward/punishment system of heaven and hell all over again?

    The former is about biological well-being of the individual and the related social group, the latter fantasy with no material effects in the real world.

    And yes, I understand why Society requires morality, as it furthers society’s existence, but why do you, personally, need to observe any kind of morality,

    As I pointed out earlier, sanctions are taken against selfish people who are seen as unethical or socially damaging or disruptive to the group, by their peers.
    Nature is also unforgiving of short-term reckless actions.

    Richard Dawkins has explained the topic of evolved altruism and “Kin Selection”, is his books.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene#Altruism_explained

  43. A true act of kindness is never motivated by desire for reward or fear of punishment. It is motivated by morality (sympathy) itself. However, if the reward (satisfaction with ourselves, for example) follows the act, we may enjoy it. Why not?

  44. Under societal morality, that which benefits myself at the expense of society is immoral, but that which benefits society at the expense of myself is moral? There is a law against not wearing seat belts. I face repercussions from not obeying that law. So does that mean not wearing seat belts is a moral issue as well? If the concern of facing repercussions isn’t the main factor in determining what is moral and what is not, then what is the main factor? Whether society benefit at my expense or whether I benefit at society’s expense? As argued in the article above, morality is a desire of society, not of individuals. So as individuals, we are to go along as cogs in a machine, to function or die. But as an atheist, I value my individual life more than I value society as a whole. This is my single point of existence, the only one I will individually have. Societies crumble and fall in constant cycles. Why throw my only life upon the pyre?

  45. Devon Bott #45
    Aug 28, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Under societal morality, that which benefits myself at the expense of society is immoral, but that which benefits society at the expense of myself is moral?

    The moral issue is recognising the interests of the various parties involved or potentially involved.

    There is a law against not wearing seat belts. I face repercussions from not obeying that law. So does that mean not wearing seat belts is a moral issue as well?

    It carries implications of the proportion of damage and claims which may be made by, or against, various parties.

    If the concern of facing repercussions isn’t the main factor in determining what is moral and what is not, then what is the main factor?

    As I pointed out @42 Nature is also unforgiving of short-term reckless actions. so in an accident, you may well be facing natural consequences of a poor decision on seat belts.

    This is in addition to any human imposed sanctions, grief and distress caused to your friends and relatives by your more severe injuries, consequences to any of your dependents as a result of your injuries and loss of earning capacity, the size of claim against anyone responsible for an accident which injures you, or costs to the emergency and medical services in rescuing you, after an unnecessarily damaging accident.
    Unrestrained rear-seat passengers can also injure front-seat passengers by being thrown at them in a crash, in addition to any of their own personal injuries!

    If you disregard safety laws, that also has implications for your likely adherence or disregard of other evidence-based, safety laws in the possible misuse of a potentially very damaging vehicle.

    Moral responsibilities in complex societies, are rarely purely centred on simplistic effects on the individual.

    As argued in the article above, morality is a desire of society, not of individuals.

    Reciprocal altruism is a two-way process benefiting individuals and groups!

  46. Why throw my only life upon the pyre?

    Because you arose from such a pyre.

    Libertarians are astonishingly deluded to think their life could have been anything at all without the ongoing mutual adventure of society.

  47. When a young driver, I was secretly glad that my elders had the moral sense to force me to wear a seat belt. Looking cool was more important then. I am now happy for my sons to have the worse case scenario of paying a fine if it reminds them of what dad said.

  48. Olgun #48
    Aug 28, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    When a young driver, I was secretly glad that my elders had the moral sense to force me to wear a seat belt.

    Some decades ago, I had my seat-belt to thank from remaining in the driver’s seat of a disintegrating shredded heap of metal with a wheel hanging off, which a few seconds earlier had been a car, – and wrestling it to a safe stop, thus saving myself and my passenger from crossing the central reservation at speed into on-coming traffic.

    There was very little which could be learned from this experience, except that seat-belt use is a good idea, and that the know-it-all careless driver, with no license, no insurance, no idea, and previous convictions, who caused the crash, should not have been loose on high-speed roads in busy bank-holiday traffic!

  49. “Morality is an aesthetic… so far as to say that we may one day discover an agreed upon absolute aesthetic in music and painting”. If there is no absolute to morality, then why have it at all? Doesn’t it’s non-absolutism negate it from the beginning? There is a fundamental flaw in claiming morality is “open to interpretation” yet we condemn people to death soley on its basis. Would it seem so rational to put someone to death because they didn’t like sushi or they didn’t like Mozart? For an atheist, failure to observe the highest level of morality should be considered a biological fault, a chemical predisposition, and yet we hold people “morally” responsible for their biology? “Libertarians are astonishingly deluded” we sneer, judging others based on their biological flaws. It strikes one of, bigotry perhaps? (what other biological flaws do we openly deride in others?) Looking up “moral nihilism” on wikipedia…

  50. Devon Bott

    If there is no absolute to morality, then why have it at all? Doesn’t it’s non-absolutism negate it from the beginning?

    Not at all. There is pretty good agreement between us especially in common cultures. What we end up with is a collective negotiation, involving cultural narratives, soap operas and pub discussions etc. etc., resolving a mostly agreed morality the the current circumstances.

  51. Devon Bott #51
    Sep 16, 2016 at 2:33 am

    For an atheist, failure to observe the highest level of morality should be considered a biological fault, a chemical predisposition, and yet we hold people “morally” responsible for their biology?

    First a definition of “morality” is needed, or this claim simply means the “highest level of compliance with some absolutist dogmatic code of behaviour”, while implying some unspecified value judgement, grading the merits of actions on compliance rather than on outcomes!

    This simply begs the question, rather than debating the merits to interested parties, of outcomes.

    Conventions in social groupings, like professional codes of conduct, are not absolutist and are subject to updating in the light of new developments, but clearly altruistic attitudes and recognising the interests of various parties, plays an important part in their formulation and operation where evidence based reasoning is involved.

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