Friday, February 08, 2008

Morality without God

Some Christians I speak to are convinced that morality cannot exist without God. Or, alternatively are convinced that the existence of morality proves the existence of God. They think that the alternative to belief in God is moral nihilism. I get the impression that they think a country full of atheists would instantly disintegrate into anarchy as everyone would go out and murder, riot, steal and so forth... So here's a few little exercises to show why all of the above ideas are completely misguided.

Imagine you are a person who does not believe in God. If you were such a person, would you think that murder is an act that harms people? Of course you would. Would you be happy about the idea of someone murdering you or one of your family or a friend? Of course not. Since you care about yourself and various other people in your life, you have a desire that no harm comes to them because you value their well-being.

So you'd want to prevent people killing them. Indeed, you'd want to stop people from causing any sort of serious harm to those you care about. If you were such a person, would you prefer to live in a society that permitted murder and where hundreds of people were murdered every day, or one where murder was illegal and a relatively rare thing? Obviously, you'd prefer to live in a society where murder was rare because you don't want those you care for to be harmed.

In other words you would view murder as a bad thing because it causes harm to those whose well-being you value, and you would want your society to prohibit and condemn murder by making it illegal and discourage it. The same applies for any other behavior you would consider harmful to those you value. Conversely any behaviors you deem beneficial to those you value, you would want your society to encourage and applaud.

Each atheist in society would be like you - being against behaviors that cause harm to people and being supportive of behaviors that are beneficial to people, because they in turn have those whose well-being they care about. All these people would want to see their society use its laws and customs to discourage, condemn and prohibit conduct that harms others and to encourage, praise and allow conduct that helps others. This atheist society would label many things "right" and allow them and label many other things "wrong" and disallow them. They would have a system of morality and do so without believing in God.

11 Comments:

Blogger Drew said...

Atheists make the reverse argument - without God there would have been no 9'11, no Al Quaeda, etc.

It's a selective ethics from the argument you are raising. Without God gays and abortionists would run rampant apparently. Those are the two hot button issues that are the focus of the myopia of the ethical stance.

The atheist argument contra God actually has more credibility in this regard.

11/2/08  
Blogger Andrew said...

Religions of most kinds can provide various strong motivations for people to act in certain ways. eg "Remember, God is always watching", or "You'll go to hell/heaven if you act like that". Religious organizations also tend to repeat over and over again that certain behaviors are good and others are bad. This can positively reaffirm society's views on a subject in the minds of the adherents and make them more likely to engage in appropriate social behaviors. Alternatively if the behaviors taught by the religion are different to socially accepted behaviors it can set up a strong conflict within the individual as two sources within their lives proscribe mutually incompatible behavior patterns.

So on the one hand religious indoctrination on ethics can (and has) lead to terrible acts being committed. But on the other hand religion can serve as a vehicle to reinforce optimal ethical behaviors. It seems to me that like a knife, religion can be used for useful or for damaging purposes.

11/2/08  
Blogger Bryan L said...

Of course morailty can exist without God. The question is just what that morality would look like. What are the things that will be considered right and what are the things that would be considered wrong (besides the big things like murder) and will people be highly selective about when those things are right and when they are wrong as it applies to their selves.

I can only speak about what my morality would be like were I not a Christian because I remember what my morality was like growing up before I became a Christian at the age of 21.

I made an earlier comment that "I also wouldn’t think things like adultery, polygamy, lying, drug use, murder, fighting, war, revenge, profanity, pride, greed, injustice, etc. were wrong if it weren’t for the Bible (and the message of the Gospel which is reflected in the Bible)." This was a highly selective list that I came up with because I could cross the majority of those things off the list before I was a Christian without having any bad conscience about them.

Just because someone doesn’t want those things to happen to themselves doesn’t mean they care whether they happen to others or that they won't practice some of those things themselves or do some of those things to other people.

What was your morality like before you became a Christian?

Like I said you can have morality without God but I wonder what you will end up basing your moral decisions on if you don't have a set standard.

I also think it is odd that you would assume that everyone in an atheist society would have the same desires as each other (or as you).

Either way I think you fail to take into account what the heart of man is really like and how pervasive sin really is especially when it is left unchecked.

Bryan

11/2/08  
Blogger Bryan L said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11/2/08  
Blogger EONsim said...

"Atheists make the reverse argument - without God there would have been no 9'11, no Al Quaeda, etc."

I think that's a rather foolish assumption if it is actually used by atheists, humans would just invent alternative reasons. The rallying cry would instead be "for your family" or "for the country" or "for the ideology". After all until the 1990/2000's communist (atheist inclined) terror groups were some of the most common. And even today are apparently the second most common form of terror group after Islamic.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_terrorism

"It seems to me that like a knife, religion can be used for useful or for damaging purposes."

That is a realistic view point like all ideologies humans can and will twist anything too suit there purposes rather than the "original" purpose such an ideology was designed for. And I think a lot of the time they're so good at twisting it that they end up believing they are actually correct and that there version was the real original one.

11/2/08  
Blogger Andrew said...

Bryan,

If I understand you rightly, you are agreeing that societies can have consistent moral standards without reference to God, but you are suggesting that without God there is insufficient motivation for people to act morally.

I fully admit and agree that religious systems can provide lots of motivation - eg "God will send you to hell if you don't". So yes, someone who held to no religious systems would not have that sort of motivation.

I have suggested a system where morality is about concern for the well-being of people, and is derived from the fact that people place value on such well-being. A person who placed no value at all on the well-being of anyone else would therefore be a pretty immoral person.

Perhaps your argument then is effectively that in a non-religious system no rational motivation could be given to such a person in order to induce them to change their values. I suppose that's possibly true. Society could (and does) have laws threatening punishment on those who performed harmful acts to others, and that would lead such a person to not perform such acts. But it would not lead them to value other people, and thus not stop them wanting to perform such acts.

In practice of course, non-rational psychological factors influence people's desires and values. People tend to love and value their families and friends in a way that is not purely rational. I suppose a psychologist could tell you some of the things that cause people to place value in non-rational ways. People's desires and values also seem to change over time in ways not consciously controllable by them.

So an atheist society would, I suppose, depend more for its moral motivation on the psychological factors that lead to people placing value on other people than it would on rational arguments for moral motivation. I'd be interested to see other commentator's comments on the possibility of giving an atheist who valued only themselves a rational argument as to why they should also value others.

I remember what my morality was like growing up before I became a Christian at the age of 21.
In my observation, children and teenagers tend to be particularly self-centered and to place increasing value on others as they grow up.

What was your morality like before you became a Christian?
I grew up in a Christian family. There has never been a period in my life when I did not self-identify as "Christian".

I also think it is odd that you would assume that everyone in an atheist society would have the same desires as each other (or as you).
I think different people have all kinds of different desires and values. Morality only deals with a tiny subset regarding the well-being of people. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the vast majority of people value the well-being of at least some people.

11/2/08  
Blogger Bryan L said...

"If I understand you rightly, you are agreeing that societies can have consistent moral standards without reference to God, but you are suggesting that without God there is insufficient motivation for people to act morally."

I am saying atheists can have moral standards that Christians can look at and approve of. I don't know whether an atheistic society would have consistent moral standards or not (since I don't know of any society that could be classified as atheist do you?) and even if it did I would wonder how much of it was influenced by Christian morality and sort of just inherited (such as if the society was originally Christian and gradually became more atheistic).

Either way, hypothetically I'm sure an atheistic society would have some sort of standards of morality. I just don't know what they would hold up as their moral values. Would we expect an atheist society to have the same values as Christians? Why? How would we even be able to judge whether it was moral or not? I mean if they decided to kill their unborn babies that were males after they already had one male son or instead expose them on the trash heaps to either die or be taken to be raised as male prostitutes would we be able to say that was a moral society? Who's standard of morality would we judge them on?

I thought it was interesting that you said that you were raised a Christian. Have you considered whether you have a particular Christian view of morality in the sense that you think it is just natural for people to value the things that Christians do? Have you ever considered whether you value the things you do as being virtuous and moral only because of your Christian upbringing? If you grew up in Darfur or the Congo do you think you might value other things that you don't now?

"In my observation, children and teenagers tend to be particularly self-centered and to place increasing value on others as they grow up."

I don't know enough about your experiences to know whether it is valid or not or how we would even measure something like that. I mean I know plenty of adult males who threw away their families for drugs, alcohol, women or work. They didn't seem to get less self-centered but in fact got more self-centered as they got older. I know a little girl at my church who cleans the parking lot (which happens to be the type were people and cars travel through to get to the stores around us) every week and raises money by selling candy so she can go do missions trips, and she does that stuff all by herself on he own initiative. So with both of us I guess it depends on our experiences and our context.

"I don't think it's a stretch to say that the vast majority of people value the well-being of at least some people."

Oh I'm sure your right. But it reminds me of how I was reading Animal Farm for the first time the other day (I'm not big on fiction or literature) and I remember how the pigs valued their own well-being. Who's to say though that an atheistic society would not become similar to the animal farm?

Bryan

11/2/08  
Blogger era said...

I think something to consider would be to trace 'Christian ethics' backwards. I hope you will agree (if not, why not?) that this leads us back to such ancient philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. While not actually atheists, it is worth noting that they base their moral systems on reason, rather than appealing to the divine.

But then I am reminded of the debate between Thrasymachus or Gorgias and Socrates regarding whether you are better off being esteemed as virtuous while really being base, or accused of being base while really being virtuous. To me this just points out the problem that in reality good people suffer while bad people flourish. Most religious systems provide some sort of response to this, either by giving out what you really deserve in an afterlife, or being your being reborn lower or higher according to what you deserve.

11/2/08  
Blogger Jim said...

"Who's to say though that an atheistic society would not become similar to the animal farm?"

hahaha
well, of course. Animal farm is a satire of the communist revolution and rise of Stalinism in Soviet Russia. State Atheism was very militant under Stalin. So at least one real world "atheistic society" did become incredibly similar to the animal farm.

But did the leaders value themselves more than others because of their atheism, or was state atheism a convenient politcal tool for people who were in power?

11/2/08  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I'd be interested to see other commentator's comments on the possibility of giving an atheist who valued only themselves a rational argument as to why they should also value others.

Easy. Just tell them that if they don't value others others will not value them - and will demonstrate it by not providing them with food, water etc. Either they can leave society and fend for themselves, or they can opt into a society in which everyone values everyone else. No need to bring God into the picture.

While I would not go quite as far as proposing decoupling religion from morality, I think we can go a long way down this line. I can offer good atheistic arguments for more or less all traditional Christian morality, even for a hard line on adultery, homosexuality and abortion.

13/2/08  
Blogger paulf said...

I'm surprised that nobody has noted that Brian's comment that he only knew that "adultery, polygamy, lying, drug use, murder, fighting, war, revenge, profanity, pride, greed, injustice, etc." are wrong because of the Bible is somewhat questionable.

The Bible nowhere condemns polygamy, says nothing about drug use unless one juxtaposes comments about excessive drinking (nowhere is moderate alcohol use criticized), and the Bible's attitude towards things like fighting, war, murder, revenge and pride are all over the map.

Lots of senseless slayings (by any modern standard, for example, the sacrifice of Jepthah's daughter, genocide in Jericho, the slaying of 40 kids who made fun of Elisha's baldness, etc.) are seen in a positive light in the Bible. The Bible also condones things like slavery.

If we weren't already inclined to see the Bible as the Good Book, we would not see it as such a good model.

15/2/08  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home