Monday, September 22, 2008

Morality without God

John Locke was a very clever man who made an excellent and influential argument for religious toleration in the middle of the seventeenth century. This followed a over century of violence in Europe between the old and new denominations of Christianity and a much longer period of resentment and ill treatment of European Jews and Muslims. Locke said that you can't and shouldn't try to make people believe something they don't, because true faith is something an individual must come to by themselves; if they convert to the “right” religion under torture or because they were persecuted, then it doesn't count. What's more, it is sinful to torture or persecute one another so you'll have buggered things up for your own immortal soul in the process.

But despite all this, he didn't trust non-believers. If you didn't believe in God at all, he said, then there was no disincentive (i.e. the threat of eternal damnation) to stop you being naughty.

And this view persists among some people of faith; a different kind of faith is okay, but no faith at all is not. Religious ethics are privileged, in the law, in education and the media above non-religious ethical frameworks such as Humanism. And the really sad thing is when atheists buy into this, and conclude that there are no absolutes and everything is relative. So...

We know that morality exists without the Abrahamic God. We have had many great civilisations who, whilst believing in supernatural entities, did not have anything like the benevolent Father who wants everyone to behave themselves. You might negotiate with the gods, spirits, ancestors or whatever, make sacrifices and give thanks, but there was no one divine law to which everyone had to adhere. What there always has been is a set of social rules to which everyone has to adhere. It is only for certain periods in our history where they have been completely inextricable from religious doctrine.

Of course, not all cultures are equal, but there is no evil unique to societies without God. Nor do monotheistic cultures have the monopoly on freedom, compassion, social cohesion or anything else we might value. So where does goodness come from?

Nephew Alexander has a dreadful book he asked me to read to him, full of religious poems (there's nothing wrong with religious poems, but these were all dreadful). I had to read a poem where a child misbehaves in all sorts of ways. Among other offenses, the child thumps his sister. But in the end he stoped because his mother explains that this is not the way that God wants the child to behave. The poem doesn't explain that misbehaviour harms other people, but merely God.

Now clearly, that's not where morality comes from. Christians don't refrain from assaulting one another simply because they're frightened of the wrath of God. A good Christian refrains from assaulting other people because other people are valuable; their feelings matter. Also, justice matters and violence is unjust. A Christian may add that God loves and feels for all people and justice is God's will, but that merely supports the decision they have already made not to thump a person. I hope.

I don't think you can describe a two year-old as a Christian, but Alexander is most certainly a moral person. His interactive play is very much concerned with working this stuff out. One of his earliest games involved giving and taking. It doesn't really matter what the object is, but he wants to give it to you and take it from you and give it back and so on. Sometimes he offers a thing, but doesn't give it. Sometimes he snatches a thing away. He is very interested in objects that are forbidden; he might attempt a swap or get upset if you won't hand over the thing he wants.

And he exhibits kindness and appreciation for others. He feeds his friend and teddies, he shares thing out. He gives hugs and kisses and says Peas when he wants something – something we've interpreted as please (although quite possibly, he just likes peas). Not yet two years old, Alexander already has a rudimentary grasp of that fundamental rule of all human morality, the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by. *

A small child is in an extreme version of the position we all share; he is dependent on other people. If he was to mess up in a big way, and everyone walked away from him, he could not survive. So his interest in co-operation is as deep-rooted as his fear of loud noises and his pleasure in sweet food. He cannot afford to be neglected or abandoned.

This is not to suggest that we are all born good. Small children must manipulate those around them to meet their needs, whatever that takes. Alexander is learning by example, experience and experiment. He is very fortunate to be finding that kindness is met with kindness, but he has to keep testing. He pushes at the boundaries, he tests patience. He has to find out what's possible. Other children learn other strategies, some not nearly so nice.

We are excellent adaptive organisms in this respect; our instincts are at once selfish and altruistic. There isn't always even a clear dichotomy between altruistic and selfish motives – nor should these be necessarily be associated with good and bad. Someone once pointed out that true altruism, in evolutionary terms, might be to go round pricking holes in condoms, thus facilitating other people to pass on their genes far more often than they would otherwise. But passing on one's genes is not the goal of the individual. It is merely side effect of other instincts we have (sexual desire and the love of children); it doesn't actually make people happy just to be a biological parent.

Christian doctrine acknowledge this, although tends towards the view that all actions motivated by instinct are bad and sinful and good things can only come from spirituality (a rather scathing attack on the designer). In any case, both heathens and theists can at least agree that we are somewhat conflicted.

Morality is the answer to this conflict. I 'm not sure whether to steal your pretty stone; on the one hand I want it, on the other hand I don't want you to lose it. A moral code informs me that it is better not to steal so I refrain. And where does that moral code come from? Well, it's logical. The potential consequences of an action outweigh the potential gain.

Like maths, moral philosophy is partly instinctive; most of us would be naturally able to tell that a group of seven pebbles is greater than a group of six pebbles, but we get a lot further quicker when we are taught how to count and do arithmetic. At this point in history, we inherit a lot of knowledge about both maths and moral philosophy, but none of it is useful if we swallow it raw. We need to be able to understand and to argue for the the things we hold to be true.

If I assert that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two lengths in a right-angled triangle (breath), I don't need to claim this is true because Pythagorus said so and Pythagorus was magic; I can show you that it is the case (here, see). Similarly, if I assert that we should not murder one another, I don't need to justify this because it was written in the Bible and the Bible is magic. The validity of a moral argument lies in reason, not revelation.

And yet morality as arrived to by reason is by no means inconsistent with religious belief. The vast majority of moral philosophers in our history have had religious faith of some variety. God would be logical too, right? However, belief in God is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for knowing the difference between right and wrong.

A white duck
Congratulations to anyone who read this far on a weekday. Here is a picture of a duck as a reward.

*In her The Bible: The Biography, Karen Armstrong writes about a Pharisaic sage called Hillel,
It was said that one day a pagan had approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could summarize the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Standing on one leg, Hillel replied: 'What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is commentary. [...]'


Mary said...

I read that far. Unfortunately I cannot think of an intelligent comment to make beyond "ooh, shiny pebbles".

Anonymous said...

Thank you... found myself bristling at the idea anyone could think I'm immoral just because I don't have a particular religious belief.

You've reminded me of the way a scientist will say that an animal doesn't love; it just coexists with others (and charms them) for its survival; but few people would make that claim for human beings. I don't believe a cat thinks "if I don't cuddle up to this human, I won't get dinner." They're more inclined to think "if I don't trip her up and annoy her, she'll forget to give me dinner." :-)

Robbiegirl said...

"found myself bristling at the idea anyone could think I'm immoral just because I don't have a particular religious belief."

Yeah, I've had that one. I consider myself to be pretty damn moral, and I'm a complete non-believer. In fact, I self-identify as a Bright, and don't believe in anything supernatural at all.

The implication is of course, that those of us without religious faith are somehow lesser people. That we're missing something.

Myself? While I respect other people's beliefs and defend their rights to think what they want (unless they start pushing their values onto children, who are too young to fight back), I actually think a little less of religious people because to me they aren't able (or don't want to) engage in the level of critical thinking that would lead them to conclude that (any) God doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...

"A Christian may add that God loves and feels for all people and justice is God's will, but that merely supports the decision they have already made not to thump a person"

Firstly, I agree with you. I believe that with a decent upbringing we know what is RIGHT and what is WRONG without needing to revert to what The Big Feller In The Sky™ thinks.

However, it could be argued (not by me, but some people could argue it) that that sense of right and wrong is instilled in us by God, and therefore the whole thing is divine in origin anyway.

The counter-argument from a humanist perspective gives just as good a reason to be nice as the "because God wants you to":- if this life is the only one we have, we really ought not spoil it for anybody. And if you think people can only be motivated by fear of punishment as opposed to wanting to be nice, you've obviously got a more pessimistic view of human nature than me.

I tend to object to people with world views that don't give a reasonable tolerance and respect to people who hold a contrary beliefs - so I tend to object to most religious 'fundies' and also militant atheists.

Oh, and PS - a DUCK? As a reward? I want a kitten!

PPS Which is the 'certain post'?

Anonymous said...

I managed to get to about 19 without meeting anyone who didn't believe in God. When I finally did, it was an enormous shock, and indeed quite a humbling experience, to discover that few of them were less moral than me, and a significant number were far better people than I will ever manage to be. Today, some of the most "christian" people I know, are those who believe in nothing at all. It's regrettable that some people will never come to realise this; perhaps atheism should be ranked alongside Christianity, Islam et al on school religious education curriculums, with extracts from something like The God Delusion as a textbook...

More importantly, however, the duck is utterly adorable :)

Unknown said...

What Mary said

The Goldfish said...

Diddums - this is right, and an evolutionary of psychology does not mean that our feelings are not valuable and entirely our own. I've written about love in this context before.

Anna, indeed. I don't think less of people with faith - I don't think you can reduce that to a failure to think hard enough the subject (a rather ignorant person once suggested that my disbelief was because I hadn't thought hard enough about it!) But I do think less of a person when they think that we can work out right and wrong entirely from a supernatural or unreliable source, e.g. condemn queer people because of a passage in the Bible.

JackP - sure, if you believe in God, all of evolution and everything is stuff that He has done, so that's cool. It's not inconsistent. But it does stand alone.

There is a kitten at the bottom of this post which is almost as heavy. And the certain post is one of the BADD announcements. It's mostly Chinese lettering I get, with a few English references to Shanghai hotels... can't work out why it's such a magnet.

Radio, Thanks for your comment. The British Humanist Association have actually taken legal action in the hope of getting Humanism (an ethical outlook without religious belief) included in the GCSE RE curriculum. I don't know how that'll turn out.

I thought you might like the duck. ;-)

Mary, Elmsley Rose, thank you. I think.

The Social Reformer said...


Gone Fishing said...

Strange as it may seem, I have fought the raging Southern Oceans (Mostly Hung over the side sea sick)

I have Battled the Fearsome Hissing Dragon (put out a few fires, or avoided being fried once or twice)

Could be my Church of Eingland Private school Education influences my fears but on many occaisions I have made pacts with God that if he let me live through this I would NEVER go to sea again or fight fires (I LIED!)

So do I believe in God and Hell, and the power of prayer?

I certainly believe in Hell and Heaven on Earth and that prayer in times of dire trouble helps.

What worries me is that for example in New Zealand where the Government's back has been turned on "Religious Prinicples" we see a dire increase in "Tribalism"

In many forms.

Where people are strongly encouraged to be, instead of being part of all embracing groups supportive of all people to identify with definite pride in ethnic (Sepcific triabilsm) or social (Gay or not Gay) groups.

This is resulting in escalating social problems for example yesterday 200 students from two colleges took part in a running battle apparently groups based along "gang" or tribal loyalties

A broken bus window may have sparked a mass brawl between pupils from two Hastings schools which put a police officer in hospital last night.

Police were today continuing their investigations in the after-school brawl which involved more than 200 pupils aged between 13 and 16, and prompted a big police callout.

More than 30 officers were called to Flaxmere Park to deal with the brawl about 3.30pm yesterday.

Police believe the fight had been organised, probably by text message, between pupils from Flaxmere College and Hastings Boys High School.

Hastings Boys High School principal Robert Sturch said there had been an incident the day before when a bus with some of his students on board had its window broken by a chain thrown from the direction of the other school.

"A couple of our boys sought retribution," he said.

Mr Sturch said the matter was not spiralling out of control.

"It's only a small bunch of idiots taking the law into their own hands."

Is this just the tip of an Ice Berg where attempts to instill pride and portray heroism of Ancestors is leading to a meltdown of a formerly co hesive society bult on old english ethics and respct???

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Efraim Luft says that the music I enjoy (as well as much that I don't) is not Kosher. here is the story

Fine, I'm not Jewish so that's not a problem.

But in the interview, he goes on to claim that my two preferred instruments - bass guitar and electronic keyboard - and the way that I play them are indecent and offensive to God. And that bothers me. I wonder if it bothers God when I play them in church at Sunday worship.

I'm with Jack on this one. All you need is love, peas, big white ducks and understanding.

Katie said...

And to think I sometimes blog about macaroni cheese!

Katie said...

I like the moderation. I was just asked to prove I was human by identifying the 'word' UILMP which, in my shortsightedness, I misread as ULIMP.

I thought that was quite funny. And yes, I am easily pleased.