"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 23 July 2010

Morality: What's God got to do with it?

This blog was never intended for weighty philosophical essays and in any case compared to some atheist bloggers I’m a philosophical lightweight. However I’m going to have a go at the question du jour that seems to be popping up all over the atheosphere at the moment. To wit, on what, in the absence of God, do atheists base their morality?
First of all it is not at all self evident that religious people are any more moral in an objective sense than atheists are. Theists of a fundamentalist stripe define morality by edicts found in the scriptures they favour, but even the most literal of these pick and choose which to follow. As has often been pointed out, Christians who decry homosexuality on the basis of Leviticus cheerfully ignore the prohibition against eating seafood from the same source. In fact the bible tends to be used as a pic-n-mix stand for whichever morality suits the moment and the prejudice of the moralist.
Atheists of course reject scripture entirely as an infallible source of morality. This is not to say that there are not good moral lessons in scripture, it is just that as a human document codified in the ethics of the time inevitably there is some pretty horrible stuff in there too. So despite some theists’ claim that atheists lack a moral compass, theists and atheist alike are really facing the same dilemma.
Scripture aside, theists will also claim that there must be an absolute standard of good and evil against which we all measure moral worth. God, they claim, defines the rules and arbitrates between right and wrong. The obvious problem with this is that God is not seen to intervene in even the most ecclesiastic moral dilemmas. Witness the Anglican Church’s wrangle over the ordination of women or gay clergy. One might expect a bit of hands on divine guidance, but no. The cosmic umpire is A.W.O.L and his church is heading for schism. Once again the moral question is back to a matter of all too human opinion informed by selective reading of the scriptures, prejudice and confirmation bias.
The other problem with God given absolute moral standards is the Euthyphro dilemma. I won’t rehearse this in depth because the argument is already familiar to most atheists, but in a nutshell it asks the question “is something good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good?” If the former anything deemed to be the will of God is assumed to be O.K and since scripture is pretty big on genocide, stoning rape victims, slavery and blood sacrifice that doesn’t seem to work by modern standards. If the latter, what external standard is God referring to?
So, if theists are really only fooling themselves about the source of their morality and atheists reject the source anyway, whence comes human morality?

At the root of human moral behaviour is altruism. Universally we agree that an individual who acts for the benefit of others is acting morally, whereas someone who acts in their own interest to the detriment of others is behaving immorally. The source of this uncontroversial attitude is, I argue, deep within our evolutionary history. We, like many mammals, and like the species that were our ancestors are social animals. Societies have hierarchies and relationships and interdependencies that require individuals to subsume their own interests to that of the group. Reciprocity between individuals requires the trading of favours and delayed gratification; "you groom me today, I’ll share my food tomorrow".
Successful individuals within successful societies will propagate genes leading to a level of altruistic behaviour that maximises their survival.
After many millennia, our species with its enhanced intelligence has codified this innate behaviour as morality. We know socially desirable behaviour when we see it, whereas theft, infidelity, murder, and usury all raise our moral ire because we are wired to punish this sort of behaviour within our own tribe.
The “within our own tribe” is important, because historically and to some extent today, we do not necessarily extend this sense of morality to outsiders. It has been seen as O.K to steal land, mates and resources from the tribe in the next valley just not from your own. This application of morality specifically to the in-group is strong circumstantial evidence that it is an evolved behaviour.

There are however more controversial types of morality. There are those who see moral issues with abortion, “deviant” sexual behaviour, intoxicants, modes of dress, promiscuity and blasphemy. All of these I would suggest are cultural and have more to do with command and control strategies adopted by those at the top of human societies. Historically, control has frequently been a function, either explicitly or implicitly, of religion, so various churches have espoused these deontological mores.
It is not surprising then that as the power of religion wanes, these command moralities have become the focus of much debate. Liberal Christians, atheists and agnostics in the main no longer see these things as inherently immoral. Socially conservative right wing types do, as does fundamental Islam and Christianity. These moral battle lines are of course approximations, there are liberals who disagree on abortion for example and conservatives who disagree on drug policy so one has to be wary of stereotyping. However, in general it is individuals who have a command mentality that still obsess about these things.
With the possible exception of abortion, many atheists I believe would see the above list as morally neutral, as long as these behaviours did not adversely impact on anyone else. Sexual behaviour either alone or between consenting adults is nobody else’s business, what intoxicants a person consumes is up to them, what they wear and how they express themselves is a free personal choice. However when sexual behaviour becomes rape, intoxication becomes abusive and free expression becomes violent they then enter the moral sphere. But it is these consequential behaviours that are immoral not the root behaviour.
To take one example, intoxication; if a person wants to drink alcohol that’s fine, but if that person knows that too much makes them violent getting that drunk becomes immoral, as is the act of violence. Now it might be pragmatic for that person to avoid drink altogether, but that doesn’t mean drinking is immoral for everyone all the time.
Atheists can take this rational approach to morality. The golden rules of “do as you would be done by” and “live and let live” are generally good enough as a guide, built as they are on our genetic predisposition for altruism.

Finally, I would argue it is not atheists who have a problem with finding a moral compass. It is in fact the religious, who are dragged backwards by scripture, written in primitive societies for the purpose of social control, that are not free to make rational and objective moral decisions. They are the people who obsess about what goes on behind their neighbours’ bedroom doors and somehow find it more moral to discriminate on gender and racial grounds than to “live and let live” for the greater happiness of all.


  1. This is spot on. I've grown quite weary of the "morals come from God" argument.

    This line sums it up:

    "Universally we agree that an individual who acts for the benefit of others is acting morally, whereas someone who acts in their own interest to the detriment of others is behaving immorally."

    I'm not sure that people would universally agree, but I'd like to hear why. My guess is that the other "immoral acts" you mentioned would violate this statement to fundamentalists.

  2. Hi Rob
    I guess it depends on how you define "detrimental". Fundamentalists would 9I'm sure) say that encouraging someone to endanger their immortal soul is not acting for their benefit so on that count I agree. But taken out of the moralistic as opposed to the moral sphere I think these ethical axioms are common to everyone regardless of philosophy or epistemology. Christians have to explain why this should be true if they accept that heathens behave as well as they do on this basic test of "good".

  3. Take homosexuality for example. A very high number of people in the U.S. have a "moral" problem with it. Allowing people to be openly gay can be seen as "detrimental" to a Christian community.

    Now that I think about it, atheism is exactly the same.

    The fundamentalists are very strong in the U.S. They have to be convinced that a particular behavior isn't a threat or is "the right thing to do" with regard to freedom. Usually the latter is what gets things through.

  4. The fundamentalist mindset is almost by definition difficult to appeal to with reason. It kind of makes my point in that if you strip away the scriptural injunctions and look at it from an individual human rights perspective homosexuality cannot be immoral between consenting adults. Even public displays are only a threat if one is of the belief that heterosexuals can be "perverted" by exposure to the concept. Any rational heterosexual knows that this is not true, even if they are fundamental christians. Which only proves that the dogma is overlaying and stifling a humanistic moral attitude.