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Religion and Morality June 7, 2007

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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A common claim on the side of religious belief is that without religion you couldn’t have morality. While an easy response of atheists is to point out the numerous cases of immorality from religious people, this is actually a pretty weak argument because it is really just a claim of hypocrisy and ignores the actual issue. The three arguments I believe seal the deal is that firstly morality is clearly independent of religion, secondly that an enforced morality is not morality at all, and finally I’ll mention Christopher Hitchen’s challenge.

Morality is Independent of Religion

There are a number of ways of approaching this but I will start with the obvious. There are devout religious people who are amoral, there are devout religious people who are moral, there are atheists who are moral, and there are atheists who are amoral. Statistics show that prison populations have roughly representative populations of religious and non-religious people. Experience shows us pretty clearly that religiosity is not strongly linked with morality.

That aside (it is not a strong argument either), I would question where religion claims to get its morality from? I will focus on the Christian religion for examples but they equally apply to pretty much all religions. The only source of guidance for Christians is the bible and therefore it must be considered the source of any moral guidance they receive. The only way someone can gain a contemporary sense of morality from the bible is to cherry pick the good verses from the bible and use them. But what is the criteria for such cherry picking? Take any moral issue and the bible will offer conflicting points of view. A simple example would be the creed in Leviticus 20:13 that homosexuals should be put to death. If the bible is the word of God, why are Christians not killing homosexual males? The only possible reason is that the contemporary moral zeitgeist has shifted in favour of homosexuality and away from killing as a punishment for anything (in spite of the numerous creeds such as the one above in the bible rather than because of it!).

The point I want to get across here is that morality exists entirely independent of religion, religious texts or beliefs. That is not to say the bible doesn’t have some examples of good moral guidance, but that is exactly the point – the judgement that the bible does have some good points precisely shows that the criteria for making that judgement exist outside the bible. If I went and killed a homosexual man right now for no reason other than the fact he was homosexual, would it be judged to as a moral act? Of course not! And yet those people who claim morality comes from Christianity have no religious basis to claim it was not a moral act unless they cherry pick the bible and therefore use external moral judgements to ignore that passage. Either that or they must say it is a moral act, in which case why doesn’t it happen? The answer? Because morality exists independent of religion.

Enforced Morality is not Morality

This one is simple: which of the two examples is the more moral position?

  1. I don’t kill people because god will burn me in hell; or
  2. I don’t kill people because I see the inherent benefit in not doing so.

In other words the person that lives a moral life because it is the better way to live is much purer morally than the theist who lives the moral life either out of fear of hell or desire for heaven. There are literally people out there for whom the only reason they don’t kill their neighbour (for example) is that they are afraid of god! They are NOT moral people, they are frightened amoral people.

I don’t think much more needs saying on this point but I’m happy to expand if necessary – Sam Harris’s The End of Faith has an excellent discussion on this topic.

Christopher Hitchen’s Challenge

I want someone to get up, tonight, and say that they can name a stand made, moral or ethical, a stand of moral courage or political courage made by any religious person that could not have been made by someone who thought that the whole idea of god was ridiculous to begin with.
(From a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges on the topic “Is God…Great?”, held at King Middle School in Berkeley, California, on May 24, 2007.)

In other words there is no aspect of morality that is exclusive to religion. What does religion bring to the moral discussion that atheism can’t? This is a very simple point but very powerful.

In conclusion it seems to me the very claim that somehow religious people are more moral than non religious people is simply unfounded and indefensible – anyone can be moral or amoral, and the judgement of that morality is entirely independent of religion, belief or scripture.

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Comments»

1. Lucyna - June 13, 2007

It comes down to what a definition of morality is. Without religion, who defines morality? Generally it’s society – but society can become corrupted over time. If it comes down the individual, what prevents a murderer defining it moral to kill all those who piss him off?

I personally think it is entirely possible to be a completely moral person by anyone’s standards and be an atheist. But that is alot harder to do when raised in an atheistic society. Several generations down the track when all influence from any religion doesn’t exist anymore. I would bet that sort of society would be very unpleasant, to say the least.

2. Ian - June 13, 2007

With religion, who defines morality? The answer is still society.

Religious organisations can and regularly do get corrupted over time. Why? Because they have the illusion of moral superiority and this is clearly a recipe for disaster.

What prevents people from killing other people? The recognition that widespread ad hoc murder is bad for society as a whole. Utilitarian morality makes a lot more sense than strict (and often archaic) dogmatic religious morality.

And while we are on the topic, what prevents a Christian from killing a homosexual? The bible explicitly demands it. The answer? Society does, not religion.

I’m curious why you think an atheistic society would degenerate to amorality over time? I think I have pretty clearly argued that religion is not provide a source of morality so its absence shouldn’t make any difference?

Thanks popping in 🙂 I look forward to more discussion.

3. Lucyna - June 15, 2007

Depends on which religion you are talking about. Some religions are very much influenced by the society – some not at all.

I agree, religious organisations can and do get corrupted over time, and there were no God, then there would be absolutely no way of purifying them again.

Certainly society enforces the illegality of murder in most cases. But is becoming increasingly lax in enforcing murder laws in the cases of abortion and euthanasia.

What prevents a Christian from killing a homosexual? Vigilante laws, for one.

I’m not a fundamentalist, btw. So you won’t see me using the Bible as my ultimate authority. I certainly believe it is the Word of God, but it does not give me the authority to personally interpret it and then act in such a way that would be circumventing legitimate state authorities. Just to be clear.

Look at NZ. It is becoming increasingly atheist. And it morally degenerating. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

You’re welcome – you looked like you needed a little company. I recommend commenting more on the blogs of people that you’d like to have come and visit you. You’d probably get quite an audience at fundypost.blogspot.com. Some raving atheists there.

4. Ian - June 15, 2007

I agree, religious organisations can and do get corrupted over time, and there were no God, then there would be absolutely no way of purifying them again.

But you are assuming there is a god, and yet still they remain corrupt?

Look at NZ. It is becoming increasingly atheist. And it morally degenerating. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

Why do you presume NZ is morally degenerating? Allan seems to think that decreasing godliness equates to decreasing morality – what do you think?

My personal view on what is happening in society is that we are without any overiding vision and I’m not sure how to solve that problem. I am pretty sure however that religion is not the answer. We need a vision linked to sustainability, self sufficiency, environmental stewardship etc.

I hope you don’t think of me as a raving atheist 😉 There are plenty of those around and to be honest they probably annoy me more than you! I am slowly getting word out about the blog – no rush, I’m not doing this as a popularity contest 🙂

5. Lucyna - June 15, 2007

But you are assuming there is a god, and yet still they remain corrupt?

Enough dancing around the bush. Which religions in particular are corrupt?

Why do you presume NZ is morally degenerating?

Well, the massive increase in solo parents.

The decrease of long-term commitment in relationships.

The highest ever abortion rate, including a massive increase in abortions for 11-14 year olds.

Allan seems to think that decreasing godliness equates to decreasing morality – what do you think?

I think there is a very strong connection, yet it is not unusual for the ungodly to be very moral individuals as well. As a society degenerates, everyone degenerates. Including those who have belief. Human beings are very much like flock animals in a metaphorical sense.

My personal view on what is happening in society is that we are without any overiding vision and I’m not sure how to solve that problem. I am pretty sure however that religion is not the answer.

“Religion” as a concept in and of itself is too vague in order to be of any use. There are many different religions. I used to be a follower of the new-Age for many years, and in the end gave it up because it didn’t quite make sense.

My belief is that if you are a truth-seeker and you are not arrogant, you will be attracted to the truth and repelled by the lies. There is beauty in truth and the desire to find both is very strong in us. I would say that is what orients us towards God.

In fact, you can’t say you don’t believe in God (as per our previous conversation), even though you do say you are an atheist. That must mean that on some level you cannot totally deny God. That is good.

Anyway, I have no problem with atheists such as yourself. I do have a problem with people such as fugley, however. They get boring so quickly.

6. Ian - June 15, 2007

There is a lot in that comment – I’ll deal with the morality based things and leave the rest in the interests of keeping these comments on topic 🙂 (there are pages of discussion sitting underneath the last part of that post lol)

I don’t mean to imply that religious organisations are corrupt because they are religious – but they are as likely to be corrupt as any other organisation. I would add though that giving any human moral authority over other humans is almost always a bad idea. Catholic priests and little boys as a clichéd example? Tamaki? Ted Haggard?

I’m not sure how solo parents, long term commitments or abortions are a reflection of morality? None of those things are inherently immoral. I’m not sure what my view is to be honest but I am sure that religion has absolutely nothing to say on these topics that a non religious person couldn’t also say. I could have a meaningful discussion with you on the morality of abortion irrelevant of our respective beliefs.

There is absolutely no link between godliness and morality in my opinion. There are links between people who gather in groups who happen to be moral people (many churches for e.g.) and morality. However I am sure the religious beliefs are not the reason, the group solidarity and community spirit are.

So with respect to morality, what makes religious organisations anything more than a group of like minded people who happen to agree on moral issues? What part of religion transcends this? And if it is divinely inspired, why do even different churches disagree on all three examples you presented?

Incidentally I just read an excellent discussion of morality in Carl Sagan’s Billions and Billions which I highly recommend.

Have a good weekend,
Ian

7. A. J. Chesswas - June 18, 2007

I have a rather hefty post I have been working on the last couple of weeks. I’m a little scared to drop it on my blog because its so huge. Fear hasn’t always stopped me before mind you.

You said it yourself in this thread though Ian – “there are pages of discussion behind that statement”

I guess we have to expect that a theist-atheist discourse will be long-winded because to properly engage there are a stack of assumptions to get beneath on both sides of the debate.

So watch my blog, psyche yourself up.

Before I post though, I have taken the liberty to explore the bands and films listed on your profile one-by-one Ian, and judge them as immoral through a framework that is shared by many regardless of religious profession or affiliation. The results of the critique are pretty grim inasmuch as highlighting a link between atheism and immorality is concerned.

8. Ian - June 18, 2007

Allan, I look forward to your big post on this topic. In particular I look forward to how you answer Hitchen’s challenge 😉

I also eagerly await your post containing the details of this literary critique of yours and your explanation of exactly how you extrapolated a link between atheism and immorality from them? 🙂

9. Greg Bourke - July 13, 2007

“In other words there is no aspect of morality that is exclusive to religion. What does religion bring to the moral discussion that atheism can’t? “
——————
Or put in a positive constructive way: “what does atheism bring to moral discussions that religion can’t?” and “there is no aspect of morality that is exclusive to atheism.”

I am told elsewhere that atheism and theism are not similar values with opposite signs (+ve, -ve). I am told that while theism posesses a value or space that atheism is an ‘absence’, not an opposite.
How does this absence affect it’s ability to contibute with moral conherence over time, i.e. longer than the lifespan of a clique of Hitchens or Russells? If atheism’s an absence where’s the common thread, the magnetic north for the cause? It can’t be ‘humanity’ or humans because we aren’t intrinsically exceptional, we’re just another multi-celluar aggregation like whales, coral, and pelicans.

An aside, I wish that too I was a know-it-all British journo (Hitchens)!!

10. Greg Bourke - July 14, 2007

The Hitchen’s challenge isn’t a challenge it’s an off-the-cuff rhetorical trick. Charity assumes that a ‘moral position’ is ‘good’ but it can just as easily be a ‘moral’ argument for cattle cars.

It’s an imposture because there is no way a second person can have an original position if the first person has alredy claimed the entire universe of possible positions.

If person (A), say an atheist, is free to take an infinite number of positions irrespective of whether they are valid, coherent, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or just plain loopy then how can a second person (B), say a theist or whatever, take a position that isn’t already taken by the infinite set claimed by ‘person A’?
Thus, it’s a non-challenge.

In effect, Hitchen’s may be claiming liberty to hold any position, which is nice, but in fact it equally shows that any position can be held with equal strength if ‘person A’ has no a priori rigor to aid discernment. Holding all positions is as useful as holding none.

11. Greg Bourke - July 14, 2007

I hope my posts were clear. I read Hitchen’s quip:

“…a stand… made by any religious person that could not have been made by someone who thought that the whole idea of god was ridiculous…”

…and immediately thought of picking shares.
If I can compare a company’s security to a certain moral position then we see there are many thousands of moral positions and many variations of weight on those positions. The art of being a successful stock picker is having a system to pick what is profitable over time. It is not an efficient use of capital and time to take a position in every share in the global market.
Freedom to invest in any moral position does not mean they will be profitable, ‘good’. It’s the system of picking that is paramount!

Yet this is how I read ‘the challenge’. Hitchens effectively says that he is free to hold all positions (shares) and so exclude the theist from any exclusive original positions.
Well so what? That proves nothing.

It’s not about the liberty to hold any position you want (as if we had the time and resources) but whether certain positions you take are PROFITABLE. i.e. how do you pick successful moral positions like Warren Buffet or George Soros pick shares??
——————-
Given that there is no market or objective judgment system for ‘truth’ or ‘morality’ why is the atheism meme any better than the postmodern meme, the theist meme, the paris hilton meme, or the perky ophraism meme??

12. Ian - July 16, 2007

Welcome aboard Greg, here are some responses to your comments:

“what does atheism bring to moral discussions that religion can’t?” This was exactly my point – religion (or a lack of it) has nothing to do with moral judgement. I don’t claim that atheists have the answers, I claim that humans have the answers independent of belief.

Where does long term coherency come from? Social values. The moral code is continually changing, there are no absolutes in my view. People from different ages and places in history would have significantly different views of the world morally than we do and I suspect it will continue to change over time. Even religious interpretation of morality has changed.

I think you have missed the point of Hitchen’s challenge. It is simply a response to a common claim by religious apologists that only by being religious can one be moral. Hitchen’s challenge neatly punctures that claim because if an atheist can make any moral stand that any religious person has ever made, religion does not have a monopoly on morally good behaviour.

If you can then accept that religions are not the source of morality you then go onto a different question as to whether religions generally promote moral behaviour as opposed to atheists, and given I think morality is relative, this really brings us to a “my belief is better than yours” argument which I’m not really interested in.

13. Cameron - August 2, 2008

The real problem with “the problem of morality” is that the atheist has no basis to have a moral standard. It isn’t that the atheist can act morally. The fact that the atheist can act morally is only secretly assuming the Christian worldview. So again, how does atheism even account for a standard of morality? I have never heard atheists talk about what is required for morality to even be a real possibility, hence REAL rights and REAL wrongs.

The real foundation for morality is not Scripture, but God’s eternal character within Himself. The Christian’s (and everyone elses) standard of morality ultimatley comes from His eternal, good, and true character within Himself. Scripture only reflects these in readable form, and a lot of people reflect these, as they are created in His image.

The real problem with “morality” is to account for a standard whereby there are real rights and real wrongs. If we just conveniently “assume” a standard then it does not good without accounting for it.

14. Cameron - August 2, 2008

1.I don’t kill people because god will burn me in hell; or
2.I don’t kill people because I see the inherent benefit in not doing so.

What is an “inherent benefit”? Is it material? Oops. Atheism (to the extent it is Naturalism) is false. Killing is a bad example. Sometimes it beneficial to protect yourself. There certain instances where killing IS bad, however, yet must be judged by ‘intention’ not mere action. Yet, ‘intentions’ are not physical. Oops. Atheism is false.

In other words there is no aspect of morality that is exclusive to religion. What does religion bring to the moral discussion that atheism can’t?

Because “religion” intellectionally accepts the super-natural. Yet, morality assumes a non-physical standard of real rights and real wrongs which we ought to conform to. This means morality says the physical ought to act and intend a certain way as opposed to another way. Oops. Atheism is false again.

15. Ian - August 2, 2008

Welcome aboard Cameron. To respond to the key points that you mentioned:

the atheist has no basis to have a moral standard

Sure we do – it basically boils down to a two-step cost benefit analysis. Firstly: do the benefits of this action outweigh the costs? and secondly is it possible to get the same benefits with less costs?

Of course assigning values to various costs and benefits is very difficult but we do the best we can.

REAL rights and REAL wrongs.

This is the funny side to your argument. What are the real rights and wrongs? Do you know? If so, please relieve the world of its ignorance. If not, even if they do exist they are of no value to us and you have no choice but to fall back on a more utilitarian system because we have to act from day to day whether we have them or not.

What is an inherent benefit?

Inherent may have been the wrong word but I’ll stick with it – any action has a set of associated consequences (as opposed to externally imposed values). A person who decides not to kill someone because they acknowledge that those consequences would be unfavorable has made a moral choice. If the consideration of the consequences was sufficiently robust and logical one could argue it was a good moral choice. Choosing not to kill someone because it’s #5 (or #6) in a list of Thou-Shall-Nots is a refusing to take responsibility for ones own actions and is a weak moral choice in my opinion. The result might be right but for the wrong reasons.

In my opinion moral judgments based on reason are far more useful that moral judgments based on dogma. And even if you have to make judgments (as you suggest), by what precise criteria do we do so? If you do not have a clear answer to that question then your “standard” isn’t really much help.

16. Cameron - August 3, 2008

Ok, you said Firstly: do the benefits of this action outweigh the costs? and secondly is it possible to get the same benefits with less costs?

This is begging the question and does not provide a standard of morality because what “benefits” and what is “costly” must be determined by someone. Therefore, you have to say that this person is the standard of morality.

What are the real rights and wrongs? Do you know? If so, please relieve the world of its ignorance.

You’re getting ahead of yourself. First, we’re talking about “accounting” for a real morality, where things are really right and really wrong, not striving for utopia yet. Let’s focus on the first since that is what your thread is about. Then we can see who’s more consistent and then change the world with the truth we’ve found.

You said A person who decides not to kill someone because they acknowledge that those consequences would be unfavorable has made a moral choice.

Again you are begging the question. You assume that there is a standard of “unfavorable consequences” without providing a standard to do so. It almost seems you are implying that YOU are the standard-whatever YOU deem “unfavorable”.

You said Choosing not to kill someone because it’s #5 (or #6) in a list of Thou-Shall-Nots is a refusing to take responsibility for ones own actions and is a weak moral choice in my opinion.

Again, morality must be based on God’s eternal good character. The 10 Commandments only reflect His character in written form. You are misrepresenting the Christians worldview. I don’t do that to yours please don’t do it to mine. “A week moral choice” in your opinion? Again, you have still failed to provide a standard whereby a real morality can exist.

In my opinion moral judgments based on reason are far more useful that moral judgments based on dogma.

This IS a dogmatic statement. And a real morality CAN’T be based on reason alone. Reason itself must fist consult an all good standard to judge what is really right and really wrong.

17. Ian - August 3, 2008

It seems to me you define morality as objective morality. If this is the case then we are talking at cross purposes. In my opinion morality (in itself) is neither objective nor relative – because otherwise those adjectives are a little pointless.

I see morality as an emergent common agreement about how we value different things over various levels of societal interaction. In this sense how I personally value things is all I have to base my moral decisions on, but I don’t come to those values in a vacuum – I am heavily influenced by my upbringing and experiences which in turn is heavily influenced by the societies I find myself in, which were in turn heavily influenced by the cumulative experience of at least 50 billion people over the history of our species, and no doubt some values (such as caring for young and so forth) were established in animals long before that for good pragmatic reasons.

This IS a dogmatic statement. And a real morality CAN’T be based on reason alone. Reason itself must fist [sic] consult an all good standard to judge what is really right and really wrong.

Two thoughts:

1. “Real morality” – I think you might need to define this, possibly in relation to my first point in this comment.

2. You make an assumption that it is necessary to have a “really right” and a “really wrong”. I don’t see this as necessary in the slightest – I can (in principle) explain all the moral decisions I see around me without resorting to that. So short of actually providing these absolute rights and wrongs, we won’t get anywhere.

18. Cameron - August 5, 2008

I define morality as relative and absolute. Thing are absolutely right and absolutely wrong but relative to, not mere actions, but people intentions when carrying out actions depending on the circumstance.

If morality is a common agreement, then it may eventually be the common agreement that common agreements don’t determine morality.

With “real morality” I am talking about real right and real wrongs needing to be accounted for. If this is not morality to you then you admit nothing is really right and wrong, thus are no longer talking about morality but simply just the way we do things. You are not saying we ought to do things a certain way, but that we just do things. This is not morality because then everything is permissible if morality only describes what we do, not prescribes what we ought to do.

19. Ian - August 5, 2008

I do admit that nothing is really right or wrong, and that everything is, in a sense, permissible. However that does not mean all things are equally preferable.

However I differ substantially on the definition issue. In my opinion morality describes the principles that moderate our behaviour. This principles might be absolute or might be an emergent phenomena but the notion of morality should accept either possibility.

20. Cameron - August 5, 2008

And preference of behavior is no basis for taking certain behaviors more serious then others. I can prefer vanilla to chocolate, or murder to helping old ladies cross the street. All is subjective without real rights and real wrongs, thus like you admitted, “everything is, in a sense, permissible”.

21. Ian - August 5, 2008

I trust you don’t think that murdering someone and helping an old lady across the street are consequentially indistinguishable in the absence of an absolute moral code?


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