As we have seen in the debate in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, religion is frequently held up as a model of correct or moral behavior. Yet, many apologists for religion all seek to carve out reasons why their religious model is different and therefore morally superior to others. At the same time, AQAP and ISIS insist that their interpretation of religion completely justifies these killings as acts of moral goodness. How is one to understand morallity?
Here’s a thought: If morality truly stemmed from an all-powerful deity, it would not change over time.
Many books considered to be holy by religious followers contain rules for how people must live. Often the rules are used to provide the followers that they will reach Heaven or some similar blessed afterlife. Of course it follows that the failure to follow those rules often means eternal banishment and punishment.
It follows then that a person who follows these rules and is “godly” is also presumed to be a moral, upright person. In contrast, those of us who disbelieve in these texts and their associated deities (atheists) are frequently viewed with suspicion. After all, with no god to tell us how to behave, what’s to stop a person from doing whatever he or she wants? In reality, there’s no evidence that atheists as a group are any more untrustworthy or immoral than any other group. There are dishonest atheists just as there are dishonest Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. There are also atheists who are paragons of good behavior just like any upstanding religious person.
In contrast, religious beliefs do seem to incite violence. This does not imply a direct causal relationship between religion and violence. However, this is the opposite of what you’d expect if morality really did stem from God.
Morality is a Localized Concept
(both regionally and in the time space continuum).
The primary religious texts used today are not at all recent. The moral teachings that stem from their pages would today be viewed with horror and shame. Alas, nobody really reads them. If they did, I think they would come away very surprised.
In Deuteronomy 21 we are given instructions on how to legally rape female prisoners of war.
10 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.
Nice, right? I was actually at a Bar Mitzvah recently where the Rabbi actually touted this proof that the Jews were more concerned for the wellbeing of women than the other actors of that time period. Seriously.
What about slavery? Although there are some people who still believe that slavery is moral, the vast majority of modern Christians are unlikely to admit support for the ownership of another person. Nevertheless, the Bible has many references to slavery, carefully detailing the rules for proper slave ownership. For example, in the Old Testament, Leviticus 25: 44-46 explains that you can take slaves from neighboring nations but not enslave your own people: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves .” Exodus 21: 20-21 helpfully clarifies that a slave-owner will be punished if he strikes a slave but only if the slave dies within a few days of the punishment: “they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” Slavery isn’t the only questionable practice condoned in the Bible. The death penalty was also wielded quite liberally in biblical times, and death was a popular punishment for sins in the Old Testament, including violations such as adultery (Leviticus 20: 10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20: 13), lying about virginity (Deuteronomy 22: 13-21), breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31: 14-15), cursing your parents (Exodus 21: 17) and more.
Death penalty for those who won’t stick with the program. In Islamic teaching, anyone who turns away from Islam should be put to death. Inside the Hadith collections in Islam, the main source of Islamic laws and ethics, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as calling for the death penalty against apostates:
The Prophet said, “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, Book 83, Hadith 17)
Totally morally acceptable by todays standards, right? Well, ISIS thinks so.
If we follow the Quranic moral teachings on how to treat our wives, I can guess that many wives will fail to see the morality involved.
“Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more ], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.” (Quran 4: 34)
“Whoa!” say religious people, “passages like those mentioned above are taken out of context.” The claim is that critics of religion ignore the verses that come before and after and by doing so, the verses seem to mean something that they are not intended to mean. Yet many critics have actually taken the time to study these verses within their context and with a great deal of detailed analysis. I would recommended that you do not use any of these verses in an argument before studying the context in which they were mentioned in. Curiously, many believers do not demand more context when mentioning verses describing love, charity or any other positive aspect of a scripture; verses are only viewed as being out of context when the content is unflattering for the believers. This sort of cherry picking is a convenient viewpoint to hold but certainly not a defensible one.
While the punishments and habits described above may have fit into the accepted morals of the authors’ time and cultures, that doesn’t make those cultural practices acceptable today. Today, the man who kills his wife for lying about her virginity should be persecuted as a murderer, not lauded for his moral behavior. So, were back to the realization that if morality truly stemmed from an all-powerful deity, it would not change over time.
An Age Old Dilemma
The Euthyphro dilemma is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, “Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The dilemma has had a major effect on the philosophical theism of the monotheistic religions, but in a modified form: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” Ever since Plato’s original discussion, this question has presented a problem for some theists, though others have thought it a false dilemma, and it continues to be an object of theological and philosophical discussion today.
If morality exists separate from God’s will, there is no reason to rely on God for moral behavior; one could have moral standards independently without divine feedback. On the other hand, if God creates morality simply by saying whether something is right or wrong, then that’s not really morality; it’s arbitrariness. Morality would become nothing more than the whimsy of a divine being blindly followed by humans.
Either Impotent, Evil or Non-existent
Most religions claim an all-powerful, all-loving benevolent deity. However, physical reality often contradicts this claim. Terrible things happen to people every day. Children die tragically young, natural disasters wipe out whole communities and people die from accidents and disease. These do not suggest a righteous and compassionate god. These suggest that God is either powerless, cruel or non-existent.
Worse still is the concept of hell, where non-believers suffer in eternal torment simply for disbelieving in God. Indeed, this torture is supposedly granted even to theists who believe in the wrong gods. If the Christian religion is the “right” one, every Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jew would burn in hell for eternity (John 3: 18-36, 2 Thessalonians 1: 6-10 and Revelation 21: 8), and this rule is the same for other religions that believe in the concept of hell, such as Islam:
And whoever desires other than Islam as religion – never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers. (Quran 3: 85)
Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. (Quran 4: 56)
They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary… for him Allah hath forbidden paradise. His abode is the Fire… They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no Allah save the One Allah. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve. (Quran 5: 72-73)
For them is drink of boiling water and a painful doom, because they disbelieved. (Quran 6:70)
And the dwellers of the Fire cry out unto the dwellers of the Garden: Pour on us some water or some wherewith Allah hath provided you. They say: Lo! Allah hath forbidden both to disbelievers (in His guidance). (Quran 7: 50)
If thou couldst see how the angels receive those who disbelieve, smiting faces and their backs and (saying): Taste the punishment of burning! (Quran 8: 50)
We shall assemble them on the Day of Resurrection on their faces, blind, dumb and deaf; their habitation will be hell; whenever it abateth, We increase the flame for them. That is their reward because they disbelieved Our revelations. (Quran 17: 97-98)
Lo! We have prepared for disbelievers Fire. Its tent encloseth them. If they ask for showers, they will be showered with water like to molten lead which burneth the faces. Calamitous the drink and ill the resting-place! (Quran 18: 29)
But as for those who disbelieve , garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning. (Quran 22: 19-22)
And those in the Fire say unto the guards of hell: Entreat your Lord that He relieve us of a day of the torment. They say: Came not your messengers unto you with clear proofs? They say: Yea, verily. They say: Then do ye pray, although the prayer of disbelievers is in vain. (Quran 40: 49-50)
Would an all-loving god would damn his children to an eternity of torture simply for being born into a culture that believes in the wrong deity, follows the wrong holy book or attends the wrong type of church services.? A friend of mine in collage grew up in a small Texas town where everyone except those in his church ( literally that building and congregation ) we destined for Hell. Seriously.
Why is it that when something good happens to a believer, believers often attribute that to God – any given Sunday on the gridiron I see football players make great catches and then turn their attention skyward, as if. Is this all-loving God a fan of the Dallas Cowboys over the New Orleans Saints? When a disaster occurs, believers often explain that God’s will is mysterious and cannot be comprehended by mortals. These two claims are clearly in opposition; if God’s will cannot be comprehended, how do we know that he has good intentions at all? It certainly undermines any notion that a deity is the ultimate source of morality.
A Parsimonious Explanation for Morality
(one that doesn’t require magical thinking)
As science explores the nuances of human relationships, it becomes clear that morality can exist outside of religion. In fact, it’s not even limited to humans. Altruistic ( and yes I’m making a value judgement that altruism falls into the category of moral ) behaviors have been observed in animals, particularly those with complex social structures.
It has been established now that our brains have evolved with behavioral strategies that help the survival of our genes. This is responsible for selfish desires that have helped the survival of our species, but it has also lead to altruistic desires, such as sympathy or the desire for fairness. Such natural desires have improved the survival of our genes by increasing cooperation among individuals. Social animals , including humans, behave in certain ways toward others because their brains have evolved to help to ensure not only their own survival, but also the survival of their genetic kin. To make us behave in such a way, our brains create feelings, such as sympathy and desire for fairness, that are hardwired in our brains. As Samir Okasha of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bristol explains: “Contrary to what is often thought, an evolutionary approach to human behavior does not imply that humans are likely to be motivated by self-interest alone. One strategy by which ‘selfish genes’ may increase their future representation is by causing humans to be non-selfish, in the psychological sense”.
Our genes do not seem to exhibit consciousness. They also did not have the foresight to optimize our desires for maximizing human flourishing in modern societies; hence, fully relying on our altruistic desires is not ideal. But humans are capable of conscious foresight and thus are able to design a more comprehensive set of standards. You might choose to read Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation for an excellent treatment of this subject.
Therefore, as we can now appreciate, moral standards as we understand them, are ultimately social constructs. They tie in intimately to cultural circumstances and do change over time. The source of these standards is typically rooted in sentiments such as empathy towards our fellow conscious beings and a desire for living in a peaceful and cooperative society. Social constructs based upon such desires are, in their highest incarnations, designed for maximizing human flourishing while utilizing our evolutionary desires to encourage them. Given that these desires are intimately tied to our brain states, maximizing the level of happiness for the most number of people can be best achieved by a scientific understanding of how our brains function and understanding what set of standards can best encourage more human interactions that lead to a functional society.
No God Required™