The following was published as a Guest View in the Eugene Register-Guard on 21 Aug 2021 with the title: “Whose morality carries more weight?” I submitted it with the above title. I spent a fair amount of time writing this and I think it’s self-explanatory.
Saying that an entire class of people is immoral, such as Blacks or Jews, is generally considered prejudicial and hateful. I would be surprised to see, and don’t recall seeing, such racist statements in the RG. Yet, versions of “atheists are immoral” have appeared at least eight times in the past four years – including three columns within the last year. This is usually stated in less obvious, but logically equivalent, variations of “morality derives from god.” But, after all, how can atheists be moral when they deny the source of morality?
This isn’t just a philosophical issue. There are countries where atheism is a capital offense. I’ve met someone that is hiding for fear of their life because they left Islam. Complete shunning – loss of family, friends and jobs – is not unusual when people leave some religious communities. I’ve met someone that was kicked out of their house at sixteen for leaving Christianity.
The acceptance of openly stated anti-atheist prejudice epitomizes religious privilege. But this privilege shows itself daily via “in god we trust” and “under god.” Public promotion of faith and prayer is also an example of this privilege and prejudice. And it is very concerning that the Supreme Court is legalizing religious discrimination based on this prejudice.
Claims of moral superiority based on god aren’t limited to denouncing atheists. There are religions where not believing in the proper god deserves eternal torture. Even within a single religion, god’s supposed morality has been used to claim supremacy and privilege for men, heterosexuals, the monogamous, the married, whites, and castes (among others).
Another harmful result of morality from god is the promotion of the U.S. as a Christian nation. Stating the mistaken belief that the Constitution is based on Biblical principles reduces the roughly 30% of the U.S. that are non-Christian to second class citizenry. I’ve personally been told I should leave the country because I’m atheist. This erroneous belief also played a part on Jan 6th. Most of the people in the capital mob weren’t just white supremacists, they were also Christian Nationalists. Their movement is partially motivated by the belief that Christians are morally superior. Their violent actions are even supportable by Jesus’ militant side (Matthew 10:34). The Christian god is an authoritarian figure – a divine king, not an elected official.
I am not saying that all theists are inherently immoral. I am not claiming there is a single external source of morality and that you are immoral if you deny it. I claim, and the evidence supports, that theists are simply mistaken about their source of morality. For example, most people today condemn slavery, yet slavery is doctrinally supported by the three largest religions. Jesus never denounced slavery and implicitly condoned it, while Paul explicitly wrote, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters …” (Ephesians 6:5-6); Mohammed owned slaves; and then there’s karma. Even if some doctrinal passage appears to be anti-slavery, it demonstrates doctrinal self-contradiction rather than elimination of the doctrinal support. This is evidence that people look for doctrine to support their preexisting beliefs rather than deriving their beliefs from doctrine or god.
Religions are doctrinally in opposition. Yahweh is not Allah is not Zeus. Reincarnation does not lead to Valhalla. Claiming belief in one religion is claiming that all other religions are false. (Why claim one of thousands of religions if you don’t think it’s the one true – and thus superior – religion?) If you want to promote unity – to bring everyone together – you have to keep your religion out of the public square. This is the reason for the establishment clause of the First Amendment. This is why it is unconstitutional to promote religion in public schools and why it is polite to hold a moment of silence rather than a prayer at public gatherings. I fully support people’s right to their religious beliefs, but that same right allows me to say, “Keep them to yourselves; they’re divisive.”
Where does morality come from? There are arguments based on evolution, but most people are unaware of them. I believe most people, secular or not, derive morality from love, compassion, and humanism. Isn’t having a conscience part of the human condition? Would you rape and murder if god didn’t tell you not to?
What’s more important, promoting morality and unity, or claiming one group of people is morally superior to all others?
(The cover image is the Atheist logo developed by the Dawkins Institute.)
3 thoughts on “Promoting Unity and Good – Without God”
Important statement, Charles. Well done.
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Hi Charles! Here are some thoughts I had on this topic. Unfortunately I ended up with more questions than answers. Perhaps OR4SR and Atheists United groups can discuss some of these questions at future meetings.
Where do we get our moral values if not from God?
One alternative to revelation that I’ve heard of is from enlightenment thinkers who claimed that certain rights and probably values are “self-evident” to universal reason, or in a related view, that rights and values are part of the laws of nature (are they saying that human rights & values are a subset of the laws of nature?). Many enlightenment thinkers were deists or even atheists and wanted a justification that was not linked to a specific church or to a personal god. You can find an example of this in the Declaration of Independence where the authors wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” However it’s clear that while they thought that the self-evidence of these truths was derived from the laws of nature, there is also appeal to God in the Declaration: “to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”
Even though some of the enlightenment thinkers believed that it was Nature’s God who gave us this faculty of reason, that’s a lot different from a belief-system where God directly revealed the commandments that humans should live by (either in the Bible or by some other revelation). Instead, we were given a faculty which we are to use to figure out answers to questions about nature and society without divine revelation, appeal to some church authority, or through a monarch that is supposed to have divine rights thorough God.
However, I’m skeptical about the enlightenment belief that there is such a thing as “universal reason” across all mankind and that certain facts and values are self-evident through reason. I’m just conveying what I’ve read about their views but I think that whether or not there is such a thing as “universal reason” is something that needs to be investigated.
The fact that there are about 200 cognitive biases (See the Skeptic’s Toolbox on the Center For Inquiry website) makes me suspect that we aren’t purely rational beings and that good reasoning is something that has to be developed and refined over the course of history and also in an individual’s lifetime. I don’t think we’re born with some kind of “universal reason.”
As a person who believes in evolution, I think that our brains are adapted to certain situations and that a lot of what passes for “reasoning” is a patchwork of heuristics that might have had practical application in the environments we adapted to, but that might not be the best when thinking about many situations we’re confronted with in modern society.
In contrast to the enlightenment notion of “universal reason,” there were some later thinkers who claimed that values are relative to culture or time-period in history. There is something called post-structural historicism, which makes the relativist claim that knowledge claims and value-claims can only be evaluated within a cultural and historical “context.” That is another position that I think needs to be investigated.
There are other 20th century ideas about the source of moral values (existentialism, post-modernism, etc.) but I’m not in a position to summarize or comment on these since my minors in philosophy and history focused mostly on ideas originating during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.
One thing I don’t trust is the idea that values and morality are something that can be settled by intuition. I don’t think that ideas that come from intuition can be assumed to be rational or moral. (See Hans Rosling’s book: Factfulness and his critique of different types of human instincts and intuitions).
Intuition is such a vague term that it might take a lot of discussion to figure out what it means. The use of the term “intuition” varies according to different thinkers and philosophic systems. As a person who believes in evolution, I equate intuition with instinct. I don’t trust intuition or instinct since we are beings that were evolved and adapted to conditions that are far different from our current mode of living in nation-states and a more cosmopolitan situation. For instance intuitions like our instinct that “the other” is somehow dangerous to our own tribe might result in racism. A major problem is that social structures change so much faster than evolution. In order to keep up with our current social situation, we have to appeal to more than “intuition” or instinct. (see Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness, pp. 13-15 on cognitive illusions, instinct, and evolution – how instincts that have evolved as survival heuristics distort our thinking).
One remedy against raw instinct and intuition is to advance our moral concepts by having continual discussion/debate about them. That’s where we can use science to find out more about human psychology, sociology, and anthropology to learn about where our values come from, and whether or not our current values are effective in bringing about the kind of society we want and whether they help us achieve our goals as a social species.
Thanks for the comments. Here are a few quick notes.
Since you didn’t mention any of the evolution based arguments, I’m wondering if you’re aware of them. Two sources that can be starting points for this are “The Science of Good and Evil” by Michael Shermer and “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris. The main evolutionary ideas about morality are based on humans as necessarily social animals. Personally, I like to point out that morality is a human (or sentient being) concept and the universe has no input as an independent agency. Having said that, I’m not a fan of moral relativism. Yes, you have to consider history and culture when evaluating these issues, but there is evidence for some universal morality. An example is that slavery is now technically (if not in reality) illegal in all countries. As social consciousness rises, some ideas become obviously incompatible with humanistic values.
Mathematics and standard logic are self-contained forms of reason that can be considered universal (they are consistent across time and culture.) But you have to include evidence to deduce anything about the real world. So I agree that “self-evident” from reason alone makes little sense.
The evidence clearly shows that humans are both rational and emotional. It is not rational to deny this. But reason allows us to incorporate emotion into our rational decisions (and to mitigate totally unproductive emotions.) This is the basis behind “slow and fast thinking”
Intuitionism is not consistent with the use of reason and evidence. It can be useful for hypothesis generation but not for supporting final conclusions.