Sunday, 10 March 2013

Good God! No God Needed.

At least in theory, every religion has a set of ethics or a moral code by which their members are expected to live, although sometimes these morals are hard to find in the holy books one would expect them to be in and the moral codes of 'practitioners' of different religions tend to be remarkably similar to one another, and often remarkably dissimilar to those we can find in their books. Almost all religions have either explicitly or implicitly some basic ethics which boil down to the simple universal code - treat other people the way you would want to be treated. This can be expressed in different ways, such as the general "do as you would be done by; first, do no harm", or the specific "do not kill; do not bear false witness", etc.

When we look at the details in the various holy books however, the most noticeable thing is how religions modify or negate these basic principles, as though their purpose is not to ensure people behave in a civilised manner towards others, but to provide an excuse for them to behave in an uncivilised, inhumane manner for when behaving decently becomes an inconvenience.

For example, soon after the Judeo-Christian Bible lays down a few crude rules in the so-called Ten Commandments (although the actual Ten Commandments are something almost entirely different to those normally referred to) where killing and theft are forbidden with absolutely no qualifications or exceptions, we get a list of when and why people should be killed and lots of instructions from God to the Israelites to go and kill people and steal their lands. It's clear that these were never intended as universal ethics applicable to all, but were only ever meant to be internal Hebrew tribal laws applicable only to interactions between Hebrews.

It is revealing how the Bible never ever condemns things which are now rightly regarded as wrong by all civilised societies but actually promotes and endorses their practice or at best treats them with equanimity. For example, nowhere in the Bible do we see a condemnation of slavery, rape (unless it's regarded as a crime against the property of a father or husband), child abuse, misogyny, wife-beating, autocracy, disability discrimination, denial of equality of opportunity, denial of the right to elect governments and hold them to account. Nowhere is there a right to habeas corpus, trial by jury, limitations on the power of government or freedom from arbitrary arrest and execution.

Almost all the things we now take for granted as the norm in a civilised society are either never mentioned in the Bible or are actually forbidden and very many things the Bible instructs have had to be made illegal because, apart from being grotesquely cruel, unjust and inhumane, they would have made it practically impossible for a decent, civilised society to function.

It's no different with the Qur'an where misogyny, child abuse and summary execution are all taken for granted, even required and encouraged and nowhere is discrimination, wife beating, slavery or autocracy ever condemned and nowhere is equality of opportunity, democratic government, the right to education for both sexes ever advocated with the result that societies based on Koranic 'ethics' are becoming increasingly regarded as primitive, backward and uncivilised.

So how did we arrive at this absurd position where intelligent people assume we need religion to give us morals, and that without them we would revert to a notional savage, uncivilised society where people kill, steal and rape as a matter of course, when the facts show precisely the opposite; that societies strictly based on the moral codes in the holy books would actually be more like the societies from which they think religions are saving us - as we can readily see in those few remaining societies actually based on the morality in a holy book?

The answer, of course, is delusion and ignorance. Few people actually read the holy books but rely for their 'knowledge' of them on priests and preachers who cherry-pick the less embarrassing passages. It is just assumed that a holy book written by a benevolent, just and merciful god would contain instructions for living the way civilised people today live. It's also assumed that other people only behave well for fear of punishment or in the hope of a reward - though not me, obviously!

As Plato said, if God defines morality then God's morality is arbitrary and not the objective morals apologists claim. On the other hand, if God is inherently objectively moral then there must exist some standard of morality independent of God to which God is subject. So, an objectively moral god is not an omnipotent god, since it is bound by an independent standard. And if an independent standard exists, morals come not from the god but from this standard, so a god is unnecessary.

Theists can't have it both ways: God can't be simultaneously inherently moral and an omnipotent source of morals. It comes down to the problem of knowing whether the god you follow is good or evil. If you have no basis by which to objectively judge your god you have no way of knowing and your choice of god might as well be decided on the toss of a coin. If you do have such a basis you do not need a god to tell you what is right and what is wrong.
Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally "obligatory", "permissible" or "forbidden."

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ______.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _______.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is, however, a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is _______.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test []. On the view that morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

These studies begin to provide empirical support for the idea that like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong, interacting in interesting ways with the local culture. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance, as much as our opposable thumbs are.

These facts are incompatible with the story of divine creation. Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good for human beings as a whole today, let alone for our planet and all the other beings living on it. But insights into the changing moral landscape [e.g., animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, international aid] have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and what we consider a life well lived. In this respect, it is important for us to be aware of the universal set of moral intuitions so that we can reflect on them and, if we choose, act contrary to them. We can do this without blasphemy, because it is our own nature, not God, that is the source of our species morality. Hopefully, governments that equate morality with religion are listening.
As I showed in Xeno's Religious Paradox, the facts simply do not support the notion that our morals are handed down to us by a supernatural deity. In fact, they support the idea that morality is an evolved human cultural artefact which is modified locally by the local cultural environment to give slight variations on a basic theme with certain major principles in common to all human groups, exactly as you would expect of an evolving, intelligent, co-operative ape. The evidence that human ethics evolved and are evolving is overwhelming, as I showed in Religion: An Abdication Of Moral Responsibility.

One of the important cultural changes which is currently driving our ethical evolution is the growing realisation that religions are mere superstitions which are becoming increasingly irrelevant, so we no longer regard women as lesser beings just because the Bible or Qur'an say they are; we no longer tolerate racism and slavery just because the holy books say they are okay; we no longer allow girls to be sexually exploited just because people who wrote holy books saw nothing wrong with it and we no longer regard disability as a punishment inflicted for sin by a creator god or caused by demons allowed in due to moral weakness.

Because we are increasingly rejecting the primitive tribal savagery which passes for ethics in the holy books we are becoming increasing more civilised, not less. Gradually, we are taking responsibility for our ethical development away from the clerics and priests who usurped it in the childhoods of our species and who have been abusing it, and us with it, ever since by using it not for the good of mankind but to extend and enhance the power and privilege of the priesthood.

We will soon be in the position to take responsibility for ourselves once again and to develop ethical codes suitable for a modern, technological, scientifically literate culture and free from primitive fears and superstitions.

Humanism - an idea whose time has come.


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  1. Good summary of the problem of religion and morality. This argument is so pure and easy to understand that I always wonder why not everyone with an IQ above 80 can accept it.

    Although I somehow can accept delusion as a plausible reason, one question remains for me: what is the root cause of this delusion.

    Sometimes I wonder if, just like an innate sense of morality, religiosity is an evolutionary advantageous trait. Or at least, has been. And then I hope that evolution will help us to get rid of it. Just like we do not really need our appendix (that one in the belly, don't know if it is the right word) any more, we do not need religion any more to survive as a species.

    1. As both a believer in God and a man of science, I struggle with the idea that Christianity sprang from a delusion. Whatever the motivation was for people to endure the difficulties faced by early followers of Jesus, it was far stronger than any run of the mill cult we've witnessed in our lifetime. Especially for a guy whose very existence is debatable. While Jesus' life is not very well documented in the secular realm, the oppression of the early followers of Jesus certainly is. I doubt even the Mormons would carry on if they were treated as harshly by the American government as the Christians were by the Romans, and we know for a fact that Joseph Smith existed.

    2. I always like the 'people died for this belief, so it must have something in it' argument because it can be used for so many different faiths and beliefs, not all of which can be right, of course.

  2. Richard Dawkins himself often claims that the only reason people follow the religions they do is because it is how they were raised. Had I been born in Saudi Arabia, it is very unlikely that I would be a Christian. Yet in his God Delusion book, he ignores this very argument.

    His own question: "If there is no God, why be good?" seems to forget the idea that western society has largely been shaped by a belief in God and the Christian moral code. If we stopped believing in God, the influence that code has held on society would remain. Just as a child born to Christian parents may reject their faith one day, yet retain their sense of right and wrong, society may reject the religious traditions that molded it's moral code. It doesn't take a sociology degree to notice the stark contrast in moral codes between the European Christians and the long isolated lands they interacted with hundreds of years ago. If I reject the idea that my righteousness as defined by my faith will be rewarded, it doesn't mean I reject my righteousness as defined by the society that for well over a thousand years was heavily influenced by that faith.

    As you said, "morality is an evolved human cultural artefact which is modified locally by the local cultural environment to give slight variations on a basic theme with certain major principles in common to all human groups". Don't discount the influence the belief in this supernatural deity had on the local cultural environment. I would also invite you to reexamine the major principles in common to all human groups. African slaves were sold to Europeans, but they were enslaved by other Africans long before the Europeans arrived. Christianity as practiced long ago condoned and even provided new incentives for continuing the behavior, but did not start it where it did not already exist.

    1. That must be why we have had to make almost all the 'moral code' in Deuteronomy and Leviticus illegal in all civilised countries then, and why about the only parts of what morality can be found in the Bible which isn't obviously repugnant, brutal and primitive, is pretty much common to all human societies and undoubtedly pre-dated any book of the Bible.

      I hadn't noticed that Dawkins ignored that argument, but then I didn't expect each of his books to merely repeat the arguments he used in all the others. Possibly, I wasn't looking for reasons to dismiss what he was saying and needing to settle on anything.

      If, as you seem to be implying, you get your knowledge of right and wrong from the Bible, how do you know Satan didn't write it - assuming that, as a Christian, you do believe in Satan?


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