Can Atheists Be Moral?

I do not think that a belief in God is necessary for a person to be moral. However, if this survey from Pew Research is to be believed, that puts me and many people in the richest countries in the world in a distinct minority from a global standpoint:

Many people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, according to surveys in 40 countries by the Pew Research Center. However, this view is more common in poorer countries than in wealthier ones.

In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, clear majorities say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East. At least three-quarters in all six countries surveyed in Africa say that faith in God is essential to morality. In the Middle East, roughly seven-in-ten or more agree in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Lebanon. Across the two regions, only in Israel does a majority think it is not necessary to believe in God to be an upright person.

Many people in Asia and Latin America also link faith and morality. For example, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Malaysians almost unanimously think that belief in God is central to having good values. People in El Salvador, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela overwhelmingly agree. However, most Chinese take the opposite position – that it is not necessary to be a believer to be a moral person. And in Latin America, the Chileans and Argentines are divided.

The linked source has lot of interesting charts and graphs.

While I don’t think it’s necessary, I think that whether you believe in God or not it’s very difficult to be a moral person with the level of moral education that most Americans possess. Most of our moral educations are what we learned at our mothers’ knees. If that.

I don’t believe that moral conduct is natural to human beings (the Roman Catholic belief is that it’s natural but our present condition is unnatural) and it requires some work to gain an understanding of right conduct, work that most of us are unwilling to do.

59 comments… add one
  • TastyBits

    Most atheist use a God based moral system, but few have any understanding of this. They have removed the theist portions, but they have not replaced the theistic foundations.

    In the pre-Darwin world, man began as a noble savage. He was apart and above the animals. Until the late 1960’s, the universe was assumed to be static, and the Earth and man always existed.

    For the atheist, there was no need to establish this premise, and because man was always separate from the animals, it could be assumed that man always had the ability to reason.

    Using this as a foundation, one could reason from nature that there is a natural moral system. The problem is that once this foundation is kicked out, the natural moral system can no longer stand.

    Because man has evolved from lower life forms, man’s morals must have also evolved from the morals of lower life forms. The problem is that lower life forms have no morals except survival and procreate.

    The foundation can be rebuilt using Social Contract philosophy, but rather than man the noble savage, one must use man the blood thirsty savage. Man with the morals of a beast.

    When one rebuilds the moral system, there is a tension that matches what we find in reality. When we use this moral system as a basis for our laws, the actions of miscreants are not unexpected. This also explains why utopian societies can never work.

    I suspect that most atheists are fashionable atheists, and they have never considered what it actually means. Today, nobody challenges an atheist. Years ago, I was an atheist, and at that time, an atheist was challenged on each and every aspect of his philosophy.

    For an atheist to win a debate at that time, he/she had to be able to build a foundation from the ground up. There was no calling upon the conventional wisdom that there is no God. One began with a metaphysical and epistemological basis. Assuming that something comes from nothing is not the best way to begin a debate.

    This is barely a thumbnail sketch.

    For any atheists interested, DesCartes got it backwards. The reason that God answers Moses, “I Am” is that is the metaphysical and epistemological basis of all existence. This is your starting point.

  • PD Shaw

    If 53% of Americans believe theism is necessary to be moral,
    and 43% of Americans believe theism is necessary to be President,

    Then doesn’t it follow that at least 10% of Americans do not believe morality is a necessary qualification to be President?

  • Then doesn’t it follow that at least 10% of Americans do not believe morality is a necessary qualification to be President?

    I think it’s probably a lot more than that. However, although it’s likely that your deduction is correct it isn’t necessarily so since the 43% are not necessarily completely contained within the 53%.

    I didn’t mention it in the body of the post but note how much of an outlier the United States is. Some of that might be an illusion—some high-income European countries are quite religious but weren’t sampled.

  • PD Shaw

    On a more serious note, if I understand Augustine correctly, he didn’t believe that the non-believer could not be moral; it would seem difficult for him not to so believe, as he borrowed heavily from Greek pagans in developing Christian ethics. However, their morality would not reach the highest levels of virtue, as its foundations were limited.

  • PD Shaw

    Yeah, I know there is an assumption in my proofs. I remain amused though.

  • michael reynolds

    The idea that morality derives from God is of course complete nonsense. What God? Or if you prefer, which God? Did morality suddenly pop into existence upon the occasion of Moses’s descent from the mountaintop? Were people prior to that randomly killing whoever they liked without any sense of transgression? Did morality come from an earlier God? Baal, perhaps? Isis? One of the ten thousand other gods who’ve come and gone?

    And what of other cultures? Are the Japanese incapable of morality, given that they are not part of the Judeo-Christian system of thought? Are modern Swedes amoral since they are so atheistic? A lot of extra badness going on in Stockholm versus, say, devoutly religious Birmingham? I have to say I think I’d rather be out on the streets of Stockholm late at night.

    I’m an atheist and I haven’t killed anyone or beaten anyone up all week.

    In any case, Christian morality is barely moral, it’s a system of carrots and sticks. Do this and you go to heaven. Do that and go to hell. Apparently Christians require threats to avoid behaving like swine, whereas we atheists seem to be able to behave just as morally without bribes or extravagant threats of eternal torture. That would make atheist morality superior in that it is uncompensated and not the result of coercion.

  • michael reynolds

    As for needing to teach moral education, I’m sorry but the middle school and high school kids I know – and I know a lot, both family and readers – are so much more kind and decent than we were in my day it makes me embarrassed.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    It is not quite that simple. First, you must define the concepts Good and Evil. You can either define concepts based upon your declaration, but this would be a moral system based upon you. The other option is to define the concepts from the ground up.

    This is not quite as easy as it seems. You cannot reason from a civilized society backwards. Pre-Darwin, the noble savage was man at an earlier time, but he was still man. Post-Darwin, you must reason forward starting at or prior to man’s beginnings.

    “Back in the day,” liberals were agnostic, and I was the atheist. I find it amusing that liberals have the same objections to my atheist philosophical system.

    Jettisoning God means tossing Him and everything about Him overboard. Period. If you are not willing to toss the “Love Your Neighbor” crap, you are not an atheist. All Good and Evil gets tossed onto the trash heap. Being an atheist means replacing God with man, and rebuilding everything in man’s image. All else is folly.

    Otherwise, you are an agnostic in atheist’s clothing.

  • Michael, I think you’re too dismissive of the possibility that for most of the people most of the time there is no substitute for a divinity-based code of morality. Some very clever and well-educated people, e.g. Voltaire, have believed that.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    I carefully avoided engaging you directly because I am trying to be a nicer person, and there was no way to engage that was nice. You are talking utter nonsense.

    There was never a noble savage, there was a romantic literary conceit of same. I don’t even know what the rest of that paragraph is supposed to mean. H. Sapiens has been around for about a million years, round numbers. Recorded history is about 10,000 years. Jehovah is about 5000 years old. And of course the rest of the world remained blissfully unaware of Jehovah for thousands of years more. And yet they managed to evolve systems of morality.

    Gosh, I wonder how that happened?

    Lacking any knowledge of your God, entire civilizations have arisen evolved moral codes, and fallen. Hundreds. Thousands maybe.

    And this you explain with some drivel involving a 19th century literary conceit? What are you talking about? You’re so far from making sense that in order to justify your wandering storyline you have to inform me that I cannot possibly be an atheist.

    Well. What else can I not possibly be that I am?

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:

    Lots of people need lots of different things. I agree that the threat of hell can work on some people. It can also work quite badly, so that, for example, a medieval baron might burn a village down and rape the women, then confess and be made whole to do it all over again. That threat only works so long as people believe it — and fewer do every day.

    Of course as a sidebar the notion of hell is evil in itself, a terrible abusive thing to indoctrinate children with. In fact an idea so pernicious it completely voids the morality it is meant to support.

    But the fact that Person X is so thick he needs goblins and fairies to restrain his desire to murder random people is not an argument for the necessity of god or religion in all cases. It’s a statement about the moral bankruptcy of one individual. Look, if talking about hell keeps Jeffrey Dahmer from eating people, swell. But most of us manage to avoid cannibalism without recourse to religion.

  • michael reynolds

    By the way, yes: arrogant atheist. I realize that. Like I said: trying to be a nicer person, but it’s a work in progress. And because I’m waiting for a phone call I can’t get high or have a drink, and caffeine isn’t mellowing.

  • Cstanley

    I have on idea how many Christians fit this caricature of childish imbeciles who base their moral reasoning on threats of fire and brimstone, but that’s certainly not my belief system nor that of Christians I know.

    Anyone can be moral to a degree (which seems to reflect something in our nature which strives) and all of us fall short of perfection. If you agree with that statement then you’ve already accepted two axioms of Catholic theology. Carrots and sticks, punishment and reward, are really not the point.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    You are wordier than the other agnostics, but no more philosophically grounded than they were. History is not a basis for a moral system. If this were so, slavery has a long history.

    You are a fashionable atheist. You do not believe in a god, but you cling to the moral remnants of the god you eschew. I am not sure where you are finding moral systems sans gods.

    The problem with today’s atheists is a lack of balls. I always thought that it was God you feared to toss, but it is His morals that you fear to toss. Pathetic.

  • michael reynolds

    CStanley:

    Carrots and sticks, punishment and reward, are really not the point.

    Ever visit a cathedral, say Notre Dame de Paris? Ever look at any religious art? Ever read any medieval or Renaissance history wherein various potentates obsess over the odds of going to hell? Ever wonder why babies need to be baptized really quick?

    I wonder why they even have heaven and hell what with the concept being so trivial and unimportant?

    They are central to Christian theology. Central. But they’ve become unfashionable and hard to defend. You’re embarrassed by the idea, so you want to wish it away. Now we’re supposed to pretend they never mattered. Right.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    You know how you want to tell a person who sings off-key to stop singing? Because it hurts? That’s what it’s like listening to you attempt to talk philosophy. Just don’t. It’s not good.

  • I found Notre Dame de Paris the most intensely spiritual place I’ve ever been. I know all sorts of people and by “all sorts” I mean including atheists, agnostics, etc. who’ve had the same reaction.

  • Cstanley

    Not embarrassed, Michael. I won’t presume to know your motivations and I’d prefer you not to do the same.

    I will concede that historically the theology has been taught in that dumbed down fashion, I see it even in my mother’s generation much more than in mine. Still, a thread of catechesis has survived through the ages and it’s not at all necessary to view religion in that childish way. I also don’t find that most Christians I know don’t think in those terms, but perhaps they do or perhaps I hang with a smarter crowd.

    I’m curious if you are familiar with Tolkein’s poem Mythopoeia? It’s a favorite of mine, and I found myself recalling it when reading your comments earlier (the theme of natural revelation.)

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    I guess like everything else, you will school me on atheistic philosophy. I see that you are also giving lessons on Catholicism.

    With atheists such as you, Christians have nothing to fear, and the best part is that you are clueless. Like I said pathetic.

  • TastyBits

    @Cstanley

    I would recommend learning more about Catholic Theology and history. Most of what is used to attack the Church is not the theology. Most of what is written is inaccurate. Furthermore, most people project today onto the past.

    I would not bother defending your faith against an atheist who thinks he is an expert on Catholicism. He has glommed onto the moral system he is attacking. He believes that fully formed moral systems spring forth. He is a fiction writer who takes liberty with the truth and is prone to emotional outbursts.

    Today’s atheist is yesterday’s agnostic, and both sound more Christian than most Christians. A was a hardcore ultra-militant atheist, and I would argue with them any chance I got. Christians would usually end an argument with, “it’s based upon my faith.”

    They believe in the same moral system as you, but they have no reason for believing in it. They are embarrassed by the source of their moral system, and they attempt to destroy it. Today’s atheist is not willing to accept a non-god(s) based moral system.

  • Cstanley

    Tasty- sometimes a conversation is just a discussion, not a battle.

    What makes you think I’m not aware that most attacks on the Church are on the history? Of course they are, with good reason. But that goes to the point of the imperfection of man. Where two or three gather in His name, there is He among them…but there also is a group of fallen creatures, still reaching for the forbidden fruit instead of tending the garden.

  • Andy

    Personally, I think a system of morality is a necessary construct of human society and is present in all societies. What specific form that takes depends on the society and religion can, and does, influence that.

  • Cstanley

    To Andy’s point, this book is worthwhile IMO:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Righteous-Mind-Politics-Religion-ebook/dp/B0052FF7YM/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1394890805&sr=8-1

    The author considers why political conservatives tend to embrace the idea of shared morality as a kind of moral environmentalism.

  • In this context I think it’s well to bear in mind tradition as the democracy of the dead.

  • Cstanley

    That is a great read, Dave, though one worries about it being taken too literally come Election Day.

  • steve

    Historically, most morality has been thought to be associated with religion. However, those religions were all different, yet they all came up with morality that was largely similar. That suggests to me that it is probable that religions are simply co-opting into their belief systems morality that has been proven to work. As morality has changed, it has largely changed in the same directions and same ways. Again, this seems more like a pragmatic adoption of what works, rather than revealed wisdom from supernatural being(s). I think the evidence suggests we have morality because we need it to make things work. Superior moral structures tend to spread as they make societies function better. Just because religion has been the traditional delivery model for morality, I dont see any reason why it is absolutely necessary.

  • Cstanley

    Steve, what then acts as a different delivery model, and are there any modern proponents of such a model?

  • TastyBits

    @Cstanley

    Most liberals I have ever encountered are arrogant, and the only way to deal with them is to be well grounded in logic. Having a discussion is fine until you are attacked. I suspect I could get a few testimonials from our conservative friends who have commented at OTB.

    I disagree with you and @michael reynolds over the “dumbed down version being taught”. This was not a simple period to be tossed off. Trying to teach an illiterate and superstitious population good and evil is a difficult task, and the Medieval theologians were wrestling with questions that were just beginning to be posed.

  • TastyBits

    @steve

    You are correct. A moral system does not need a religious basis, but most have had one.

    You are on the right track, but a moral system needs a reference point. It needs a stake in the ground to mark the starting point. The Greeks tried a god-free virtue system based on higher ideals, but those ideals were never grounded upon anything.

    I would propose an a-theistic evolution of a moral system would start with societal animal behavior. Next, combine superstition with the Alpha male’s decree to make ruling easier. Later, the Shaman specializes in the rituals, and he extends the system. Eventually, priests, kings, lawmakers, and atheists get in on the game.

    In the case of Putin, he is probably an atheist, and he has just said fuck it and reverted back to the Alpha male stage.

  • Cstanley

    @tasty-
    It’s not that I think the simplistic teaching was without rationale or merit. That probably didn’t come across in my post, though. My point was that this form of Christian teaching represents a lowest common denominator and arguments against it represent straw man fallacies. It would be like declaring democracy a failure because people vote for candidates for stupid reasons like name recognition or looks.

    As for logic, I think most people overrate its usefulness in blog discussions. When people from opposing “camps” try to reason with one another, the disagreements can’t be resolved with logical proofs when the base assumptions on each side are different.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: Until the late 1960′s, the universe was assumed to be static, and the Earth and man always existed.

    That would be the 18th century. For the age of the Earth, certainly by the time of Hutton; for the age of humanity, by the time of Darwin. The age of the universe, okay then.

    TastyBits: The problem is that lower life forms have no morals except survival and procreate.

    Mammals generally love their children. And many animals exhibit moral traits, especially social animals. Dolphins are often known to save humans and dogs, for instance, a behavior they presumably exhibit towards one another.

    How a Leopard Seal Fed Me Penguins
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140311-paul-nicklen-leopard-seal-photographer-viral/

    See also Brosnan, Justice- and fairness-related behaviors in nonhuman primates, PNAS 2013.

  • michael reynolds

    No, today’s atheist is not yesterday’s agnostic, today’s atheist is yesterday’s Lutheran, at least in my case. I did not go through an agnostic phase. Up to a point I had not examined the faith I was taught. Then I did. Once I did, I was an atheist. No ass-covering, no waffling, the evidence is there or it is not. (Very similar to people who assume I must have previously been anti-SSM. No, went directly from ‘haven’t really thought about it’ to ‘that makes sense.’)

    The atheist case is simple: there exists no proof for the existence of God, and there should. No proof of something tiny and insignificant is a shrug. No proof of something that defines the natural order in ways radically different from what we observe? No. Can’t swallow that. Not without a whole big pile of evidence.

    I’m no more agnostic on the Catholic god than I am on the Norse gods. They equally lack any basis in evidence. There is not a single shred of evidence that supports your god versus some other god or supernatural being, so unless you want to insist that I must label myself agnostic on leprechauns, I’ll insist that I am an atheist as to both Jehovah and leprechauns.

    Naturally we are labeled as “arrogant.” That’s the go-to line of attack on anyone who questions the assumptions of the majority. But that’s not to say that on this topic I’m not extremely confident. I’ve debated this with hundreds of people, some very intelligent, and no one has advanced any argument I found even slightly compelling, let alone dispositive. In short: they got nothing. Literally nothing. Vapor.

    I remain open-minded. If I suddenly come across proof of God I’ll have a great laugh at my own expense and be charmed at the wonderful possibilities for learning. But so far: nada.

    The argument that morality must be god-derived is ahistorical, illogical, and so riddled with unsupportable assumptions as to be ridiculous.

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel(s)

    Until the late 1960’s, the universe was assumed to be static. The red shift was mistakenly identified which proved that the universe was expanding. It was later actually verified, and the Big Bang theory was validated. Prior to this the world had always existed.

    You are correct that I should have not mixed the man portion with it. I should have been clearer about the time frame. Pre-Darwin, the Universe was assumed to be static, and this would allow concepts to be static or timeless.

    Humans are vain creatures, and their vanity includes humanizing lower animals. Social animals share certain traits that increase the survivability of the group. Human animals share these traits, but the human animal has evolved these traits far beyond the lower animals.

    Most animals have a maternal instinct, but I suspect that it has not been studied nearly as much as it should. If I am not mistaken, baby hamsters emit a smell to keep the mother from eating them, and I am guessing there are similar mechanisms in all species. Stimulate the right sensors, and the maternal instinct will kick in.

    Love is a luxury of wealthy societies. While our pets may have an affinity for us, they have no emotion of love. What humans perceive as love is the animal’s brain being flooded with endorphins.

  • michael reynolds

    I look forward to the circular logic that will be required to categorically differentiate “animal” emotion from human emotion.

  • Cstanley

    I was about to make the same critique. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, our actions of love and bonding are triggered by cascades of chemicals too, though in a more complex way than in animals.

  • steve

    Cstanley- Do we need one? Certainly since the Enlightenment we have had plenty of writings on morality that have taken place outside of a religious environment. Is there any evidence that areas of our country which are more religious are more moral? Any on an international level?

    One thing I think we also miss here is that religion has been, and continues to be, used for justification of very immoral behaviors. When it comes to morality, I think religion is a two edged sword. On net, it has been a positive, but how many really look to religious leaders for moral guidance anymore? How much of that is positive?

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    There is no proof of God. God is based upon faith. Either you believe in God, or you do not. Any Christian trying to offer proof does not understand their own faith, and more than likely, they are an asshole.

    A moral system requires a fixed point. Religion is the easiest method, but it is not the only method. I would welcome the historical examples of moral systems derived from godless sources. All the big names cultures I know of are overrun with gods. Unless you mean the Greeks.

    The problem is not having a moral system without a god as the basis. The problem is having a moral system with no basis, and a moral system can have a non-god basis. You just need to work harder.

    Today, an atheist is little more than a fashion statement. Thirty years ago, an atheist was attacked by liberals and conservatives, but years of defending one’s philosophy only strengthened it. Today’s atheist is a joke.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    You seem to like to assert things for which no evidence can be produced, such as your odd assertions about atheists. But let’s stick to business: Japan. Moral system? Check. God? Nope.

    Morality does not require a fixed point. That’s an assertion without evidence. A moral system merely needs to be a moral system. It doesn’t have to be your moral system, or one you approve of. God-based moral systems like that of the Aztecs would not meet with your approval or mine.

    The notion that Christianity has managed to maintain a single, consistent moral system is a bit risible. I refer you to the entire history of the western world. But what the heck, why don’t you tell me what you think the essential and timeless morality of Christianity is. Maybe you’re right and Christians have maintained a single moral doctrine from Day 1. But of course it would have to be some belief that did not predate the arrival of Jehovah on the scene some six millennia ago.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    By the way, I do endorse your statement that no proof exists and that belief rests on faith. I keep telling Christians this when they debate me: dude, it’s called faith because there ain’t any evidence. Go with faith as faith. Anything more is an attempt to win on someone else’s turf.

  • It’s interesting that Michael takes this:

    It doesn’t have to be your moral system, or one you approve of. God-based moral systems like that of the Aztecs would not meet with your approval or mine.

    as proof that moral systems are random and arbitrary. The Spanish took it as a proof that there was order in the universe since their moral system prevailed.

  • michael reynolds

    Some might say the Spaniards prevailed by rallying disaffected subjects of the Aztecs as well as various communicable diseases, horses and firearms. But the Spaniards had their own perspective. Their God preferred folks who had at least some immunity to smallpox.

  • Just to clarify I DO NOT take the position that victory in battle is a sign of God’s favor. I just found it amusing that the same set of events was used to illustrate something and its opposite.

    I don’t think that I view moral systems as being quite as arbitrary as you do. The framework that Steve suggests, a sort of evolutionary schema, is interesting.

    I’m not sure there’s actually much of a distinction between “learned by trial and error” and “revealed by God”. I recognize that adherents tend to see a big difference.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    You are trapped in a western Judeo-Christian moral paradigm. Of course, the Aztecs had a moral system, and the Muslims, Vikings, Egyptians, Mongols, Huns, Romans, American Indians, Indians, Chinese, and Eskimos had/have moral systems that are not based upon Judeo-Christian theology. You may not agree with them, but they are all valid moral systems.

    The Japanese moral system has a militaristic basis, but I believe this is based upon written records. I have very limited knowledge of Japanese history, but I would venture that there is a prior history with some type of a religious basis.

    A moral system is not merely a moral system. A moral system begins by defining the concept of good, and anything not good is bad. A moral system may also define the concept of evil. These concepts are the foundations and anchor for the remaining structure.

    This is what the Greeks were doing. I think this is what the Japanese were doing as well, but rather than a timeless ideal, the Japanese were using a military based ideal.

    If the Greeks and Japanese could create moral systems without Judeo-Christian theology, I fail to understand why today’s high-tech atheist cannot match them. I will grant that Darwin did muck-up things a bit, but with the internet, laptops, and iPads, an atheist should be able to whip out a moral system in a matter of hours.

    The advantage of an atheistic moral system is that you can fix any logical inconsistencies that have lead to injustice, but your moral system is your choice.

  • As has been a recurring theme around here, I’d be a little cautious in inferring what the Greeks actually believed. Every text attributed to the ancient Greeks in our possession was dragged through a succession of Christian scribes for a millennium. The view they paint of Greek belief probably doesn’t resemble what the Greeks actually believed very closely.

    As to the Japanese, I’d be cautious as well. The polls that say that the Japanese overwhelmingly don’t believe in God remind me of a story about (coincidentally) the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The Spanish had come into possession of some Aztec codices. A Franciscan friar interrogated an Aztec priest about them, pointing to each figure and demanding that he tell him what letter it represented. It wasn’t an alphabetic system so the question was meaningless.

    I think the Japanese believe in the divinity in things. I don’t think they think of a single supreme being God as Judeo-Christians do. Asking them if they believe in God won’t get a straight answer.

    I think the same is true of the Chinese. The Chinese clearly believe in something transcendent. They just don’t think of it as “God”.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:

    I wasn’t referencing the Aztecs to demonstrate the arbitrariness of moral systems, just pointing out that they had one, despite not yet having met Jehovah.

    Tasty:

    I can “whip out” a moral system in ten seconds: that which advances the cause of human civilization is good, that which does not is evil. Here’s another one: That which increases human liberty is good, that which does not is evil. Hey, let’s do a synthesis: That which advances the cause of human civilization without impinging on individual liberty is good, that which advances the cause of human civilization while placing only small limits on human liberty is acceptable, and that which retards human civilization is evil.

    You’re not really making your point anymore, you’re making mine: anyone can devise a moral system. No God required. See? No fixed divine point of reference, no reference to anything supernatural, a system derived solely from a preference for civilization and liberty over barbarism and force. Not hard. Anyone who writes sci fi can do this all the live-long day.

    The substructure of morality is survival of the individual and the species to which he belongs, with all sorts of iterations, some sensible, some crazy. God is just employed as an enforcement mechanism. In other words, morality is inherently non-theistic. It predates gods. And unless you’re going to reverse the flow of time, that which came later does not cause that which came before. Ergo, morality neither flows from nor requires reference to, a divine being.

  • Cstanley

    I think you are right as far as that goes, Michael, but the trick is how do you disseminate those values? And who decides how to prioritize those that are in tension with other values?

  • michael reynolds

    Cstanley:

    Yeah, but that’s an issue whether you use religion as a basis or not. I suspect you’re as capable as I am of listing examples of Christians distorting, conveniently revising or just ignoring their own moral tenets when there’s money, power or sex involved. I think we could probably while away a long drinking session coming up with examples – and a good hour of that just on popes.

    There’s never a simple fix for anything having to do with humans. Whatever system you, me, or Jesus comes up with, clever little monkeys will find a way to manipulate it or evade it. We stuff ’em in the morality barrel, they escape, we stuff ’em back, they escape again. . . Isn’t that one way of describing the last 10,000 years or so of human history. (And most likely the next 10,000 years as well.)

    It’s fascinating to think that people who actually believed, heart, mind and soul in the bible, and equally believed the most savage interpretations of hell and damnation, nevertheless sinned their little hearts out, sometimes for something as trivial as a piece of ass. Here are the tits, they come with a side order of eternal agony in hell and, oh. . . okay, you’ll take two?

    Humans. No wonder so many sci fi stories involve disgusted aliens exterminating us as a public service to the galaxy.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    … that which advances the cause of human civilization is good, that which does not is evil. …

    I have no doubt you believe this was profound, and you probably hurt yourself patting your back. You did not define the concept “advances” or “cause of human civilization”. I have a long list of things that will advance human civilization.

    Eliminating cats will advance the cause of human civilization. Eliminating Apple products will advance the cause of human civilization. Eliminating the Infield Fly Rule will advance the cause of human civilization. Forcing Rocstar to port GTA 5 to PC will advance the cause of human civilization.

    Without a fixed reference, anything can “advance the cause of human civilization.” I realize you are far smarter than all the philosophers of the last about 2300 years.

    In an above comment, I postulated an evolutionary path for morality to evolve from pre-human social animal behavior into a human moral system. This would provide an a-theistic (natural) basis for a moral system, but that is an entirely different subject.

  • Cstanley

    We stuff ‘em in the morality barrel, they escape, we stuff ‘em back, they escape again. . . Isn’t that one way of describing the last 10,000 years or so of human history. (And most likely the next 10,000 years as well.)

    Well, it’s certainly a description of my last 20 years as a parent, anyway.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    Dude, why do you keep serving up softballs? Do you just not know how easy they are to smack down?

    Christians have spent 2000 years trying to define, re-define, and re-re-define something as simple as “Thou shalt not kill.” Four words. But they’ve managed to drive everything from simple honor killing to genocide through the holes.

    “Love your neighbor.” Three words. Define neighbor. Define love. Define your. Sqwuare your definitions with actual Christian behavior over the last 2000 years.

    Nothing is fixed. The Bible is everyone’s bitch and you can find in there anything you want to find. Start with slavery.

  • michael reynolds

    Cstanly:

    Hah! I’m only 16 years in, but yep.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: If I am not mistaken, baby hamsters emit a smell to keep the mother from eating them, and I am guessing there are similar mechanisms in all species.

    E.g. big eyes in mammalian babies, including humans.

    TastyBits: Love is a luxury of wealthy societies.

    Love is everywhere.

    TastyBits: While our pets may have an affinity for us, they have no emotion of love.

    That’s simply not the case. For instance, non-human mammals bond, nurture, and mourn.

    TastyBits: What humans perceive as love is the animal’s brain being flooded with endorphins.

    What humans perceive as love is the human’s brain being flooded with endorphins. However, that emotion is specific to the object of affection, which is what we mean by love.

    michael reynolds: The notion that Christianity has managed to maintain a single, consistent moral system is a bit risible.

    Well, the burning people of alive to save their souls was a rather peculiar practice.

    michael reynolds: There’s never a simple fix for anything having to do with humans. Whatever system you, me, or Jesus comes up with, clever little monkeys will find a way to manipulate it or evade it.

    No discrete system of codes can represent the complex continuum of possible behaviors. (countably infinite << continuum). That's why Jesus tried to resolve the commandments to two basic principles.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    You claimed that creating a moral system was simple. You then created a moral system in one sentence. Your moral system was so poorly designed that every mass murder would be morally good under it.

    Having failed completely at the task of creating a moral system, you now are blaming the Christians, and you are claiming that I still have no idea of what I am talking about.

    I never accused you or any atheist of having no moral system. I accuse you of having a moral system with no basis. I was never afforded this luxury, and my debating opponents were not simple Christians. The people challenging me had knowledge of the subjects we were discussing.

    They understood was that moral systems based upon god(s) or superstitions would collapse when the faith in those god(s) or superstitions was removed. The “Thou shall not kill” has no meaning without a God proclaiming it. Hence, an atheist has no reason to not kill.

    I and the few other atheist were not killing people, and we did have a moral system. For an upper level or graduate level liberal arts major, this does not cut it as an answer.

    Western morals are built upon Christian morals with a Jewish foundation and a touch of other moral systems from the cultures associated with the West.

    The task for the atheist is to rebuild a moral system without this theistic foundation. This task has nothing to do with the success or failure of the Christian moral system. This task is not a discussion of the possible foundations of a moral system. These are all diversions from this task.

    If I were to suddenly become an atheist again, I would offer the same argument, and I would once again be arguing with a liberal. Thirty years ago, I did not agree with most liberal arts thinking, but they knew how to construct a devastating argument. They probably finally became atheist, and it would be interesting to hear their arguments today.

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel(s)

    If you think animals love each other or animals and people love each other, I am happy for you. Siegfried and Roy found out that tigers are wild animals, but you cannot convince some people that animals are animals.

    Humans are vain animals, and in an attempt to cover their animal roots, humans try to make their animal roots more human. Once more humans realize there is a common link with plants, I predict humans will try to humanize plants.

    We have seen hours of Steve Irwin playing with all sorts of animals, but we have never seen the footage of the gentle stingray killing his ass. Nobody wants to see animals acting like animals.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: If you think animals love each other or animals and people love each other, I am happy for you.

    Tigers are wild carnivores, solitary in nature, with limited social behaviors.

    You kill a penguin to feed your friend. The penguin might doubt your sentiment.
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140311-paul-nicklen-leopard-seal-photographer-viral/

    TastyBits: Humans are vain animals, and in an attempt to cover their animal roots, humans try to make their animal roots more human.

    Are you saying people don’t love one another? Of course they do. It’s one of their most endearing characteristics.

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel

    First, you would need to define the concept love. The definition would need to be more than just animal social behavior. Otherwise, you have just renamed animal social behavior.

    Love is one of the more complex emotions, and I find it highly unlikely that animals cannot write poetry but can love. As far as I am concerned, I encourage people to bond with wild animals. It tends to thin out the human herd.

    The problem with many animal documentaries is that the humans must get the animals accustomed to humans, and this taints the animal behavior. Furthermore, these are like reality shows. They are chopped and reordered to tell a story, and the narrator ensures the viewer gets the correct tale. This is all about money.

    Humans are vain, and they dislike remembering they are animals. Love as with all other civilized behavior is nothing but a thin veneer over our animal behavior.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: you would need to define the concept love.

    We already did; bond, nurture, and mourn; with the behavior specific to the object of affection. Animals certainly do love, including humans for one another.

  • TastyBits

    @Zachriel

    In defining a concept, you need to be far more rigorous, and the less concrete concepts require more rigor. You now have three additional concepts – bond, nurture, and mourn – that need to be defined. Each one of these concepts deserves severals volumes of discussion.

    Concepts are building blocks, and they must be fundamentally well defined to be useful. At one time this was understood in the liberal arts, but I guess it has become old fashioned. This is just a general observation and lament.

  • Zachriel

    TastyBits: In defining a concept, you need to be far more rigorous, and the less concrete concepts require more rigor.

    We presumed some acquaintance on your part with the human species.

    TastyBits: You now have three additional concepts – bond, nurture, and mourn – that need to be defined.

    You might start with the usual definitions. These are behaviors, so they shouldn’t require “severals volumes” to comprehend.

    People will sacrifice their well-being for others, such as by sharing what they have when they have little, or by risking much to save their loved ones.

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