The source of human morality: an email to my father.


Paul Wilson 23 December at 20:38
In your blog about the WBC protest you wrote;
“I personally don’t need a master to tell me what is right and wrong, and I think when people let go of their fear and look inside, they will realize that none of them need servility either. We can make the world better, but we aren’t going to get any help from an outside source, it’s up to us as human beings to fix it ourselves.”  Question: If you have no standard for your morality, then how do you define what is right and what is wrong?
What follows is my answer to my father, unedited. I had planned on looking into this further to form the best possible response to this question, but seeing as my blog is more a tool for me to articulate my thoughts in an orderly fashion, mostly for my own benefit, rather than an ultimate argument for my ideas, I think it is appropriate to address some of these issues as they present themselves. So here, only minutes after I sent the message, is my response at this time on the issue of human morality. All forms of support and criticism are welcomed and encouraged. Your scrutiny makes my view better when I accept it.

It’s interesting that you would ask me this particular question. It’s one that I’ve run into many times, especially lately. Actually I’m preparing to address it shortly as part of my next blog which is going to be a response to a catholic man with some rather extremist views on atheism. It was a question I had when I was first fully realizing my atheism, and I think it is a legitimate question, although it is somewhat insulting to atheists when you examine it.


The answers that I found when I looked into it are what pushed me to choose secular humanism as a moral platform for my life. You could say that in atheism (although certainly not with all atheists, because atheism is much like the left-wing in that it is more of a loose commonality of ideas held by widely different people, skepticism and the scientific method are the most widely accepted ideas comparable to your theology, and secular humanism is the most widely accepted idea comparable to your biblical morality.

In order to answer your question I first have to critique it. You ask how I define what is right and wrong if I have no standard for morality. This is what can be frustrating for atheists. The connection between religion and morality has been enforced, by the religious, for so long that they are culturally synonymous. But I believe that religion has very little positive impact on morality, and that morality is demonstrably a separate entity from religion. And the idea that people who don’t believe in a god are incapable of understanding morality is an understandable but annoying constant slap in the face for us heathens. When religion states that it is not only morally superior, but has a total monopoly on morality, I kind of roll my eyes and try not to be the arrogant atheist dick that constantly spouts off endless examples of immoral behavior being rewarded by or commanded by god in the bible. So it’s an easy question to answer, but it’s a difficult question to answer without coming off like a jerk, because in order to answer it I have to eventually point out why I believe that all religions are fundamentally unhealthy for not just human progress, but human wellbeing.

I think morality stems from two different things. First off it is a function of survival useful for most life and has been widely propagated among the species on earth through evolution. Second, it is one aspect of our higher cognitive function that gives us an advantage over less intelligent forms of life, and at the same time gives us a greater degree of responsibility for how we conduct ourselves given the ability to understand complicated and intangible concepts that affect the quality of life of our own species, as well as that of all other species on earth.

My first point is that morality is a survival tactic we received from evolution. We have the ability to empathize with other memberz of mankind, and their survival becomes a part of our survival. The most basic example of this in nature would be the tendency for almost all life to either sacrifice its own safety or its own food source for its offspring. Animals especially (as opposed to plants, fungus, or microscopic life) tend to be aggressively defensive of their young, putting themselves in much more dangerous situation than they would normally when a threat is imminent for their children. I think this is the root for our connection, and our behavior. At some deep subconscious level we instinctively understand that our survival is linked to every other member of our species. Humans are the most socially linked species on the planet, as far as I know, and so our social survival instinct would rationally be stronger than in other creatures. This survival link can be show even better when you examine other social or hive type creatures. Most species of cats and dogs work together in groups, and the group will work together for food and safety, and give up a portion of their own supplies to help feed other members of the group, say the sick and injured, or the young who can’t hunt for themselves. Hive creatures like ants or bees split the work up, so each member has its own purpose, but they all collectively reap the benefits. And so their own survival depends on the survival of their hive members, causing them to toil for the greater good and to sacrifice to protect the greater good.

And so for the most basic and fundamental aspects of morality, religion is totally unnecessary, since the ideas of not killing, stealing, or inflicting harm on members of one’s own social group, to the point of self-sacrifice for the well-being of others, are demonstrated by creatures far inferior to us. These attributes help us survive off of each other in a sort of symbiotic relationship, and are so simple and obvious to us that they don’t really need to be carved on stone tablets to be understood by all societies.

My second point was that we humans have a unique mental ability. We are by far the smartest creature in existence, at least as far as we know, and I would have to imagine that any other creature as smart as us would be capable of figuring out a way to communicate their intelligence. Anyway, that’s an irrelevant tangent, or at least a totally different debate about the possibility of higher beings. Our higher brain function allows us to grasp intangible concepts in a way that we don’t believe other life here can do. This is what gives us morally grey areas and allows us the ability to deal with them; the issues that can both harm and help life, such as how to define human rights, or how much speech should be allowed for whom, and what aspects of society should be mandated for the benefit of all, and which should be left to the individual.

This is where my idea (and I use the term “my” loosely, since most of the ideas I’m presenting here aren’t really my own, and the few that are have undoubtedly been argued better by someone else already) that religion is actually a hindrance to morality comes into play. If you assert that morality comes from your god and not from mankind and the laws that govern nature, then you will have a hard time excusing the teachings of the bible. And this is actually an issue that has bugged me from an early age, long, long before I rebelled and then eventually dismissed the idea of believing in a god. The bible has in it, especially in the old testament, but there are plenty of good examples of evil in the new as well, a plethora of commands to do things that we today consider extremely reprehensible. Abraham was made the father of all believers for his willingness to murder his own child when he heard a voice commanding him to. No normal Christian today would defend a parent who murdered their child and said God told them to do it. It’s right there in the ten commandments, thou shalt not murder. And yet Abraham inspired three completely different religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Not only did god reward Abraham for his willingness to murder his son, he also endorses and supports outright genocide and imperialistic warfare as a norm, in multiple situations. Believers in other faiths are routinely wiped off the face of the planet, and even for followers of gods teachings, fairly normal “wrongs” are responded to with outright bigotry and violence. For instance, a woman who was raped is commanded to either be stoned to death or to marry her rapist, as long as she was raped outside the city, if she were raped inside the city then she just has to die. The term sodomy even comes from the story of God wiping out an entire city of homosexuals, who he calls an abomination, a term poorly translated that breeds bigotry, but one supported by a story of merciless hatred. (I really don’t feel like looking up these verses, but I assure you they are in there, as I predict you will already know, and if you don’t think so I will gladly take the time to look up verses to prove my point)

And so I contend that most of what we consider to be moral, at least the moral parts I agree with, have stemmed from a secular viewpoint rather than a religious one. One common argument made by believers is that many aspects of moral improvement have been championed by religious people, and inspired by religious text. I do not argue that religious people have been instrumental in the positive changes we have made in society, especially in the last couple of hundred years, or that your bible may have inspired them to be better people. There are many passages in the bible that agree with secular humanism. Do unto others … Let him without sin cast the first stone … judgement is mine sayeth the lord; they all rehash the golden rule. Actually the first one is the golden rule now that I think about it, and I am not sure if that is in the bible or not. But it’s also the basis for all morality, which I already argued, and for example the first rule of Wiccan is, “Do what you will, so long as it harms no one.” My issue is that the rest of the bible isn’t so humanist. A famous example of morality being forwarded by a religious icon would be the civil rights movement and MLK Jr. Sure his faith was part of his passive campaign for equality, but the bible not only condones slavery, but sets out elaborate rules for how it should be done. Nowadays I doubt you can find many Christians who would admit slavery is a good idea, worthy of public support, but it’s still right there in your holy text. Likewise, few Christians would openly support a war with another religion without an excuse for it besides the opposing side being of a different faith. But again, plenty of examples of your god waging such jihads. And I don’t think I need to point out the obvious paradox of chauvinism versus female empowerment in your bible, since you and Mom have had, to my knowledge, some butting of heads with your church leaders in the past over what is and is not allowed for women by your bible.

So if we look at these things like civil rights, women’s equality, and the push for equal treatment of everyone, and you can point out examples of religious people, and the church in general, adjusting your morality to contradict your own divine scripture, then where have these ideas of right and wrong come from? I think that they are not natural to us. The simple forms of morality key to survival are natural to us, and this is what you have titled a conscience. But the grey areas of morality that we have worked out as a species are inarguably important, and the solutions to these problems, although sometimes accepted by the religious community, fly in the face of religious literature and teachings. So the question then becomes, where do we get and how do we define our system of morality. My answer, which is secular humanism, is that we should use our most successful techniques, those being skepticism, rational thought and reason, and the scientific method to constantly test our morality and determine where morality is working for our species and where it is hindering our progress. As we have seen with all areas of life with which we have applied the scientific process, I think morality will be best determined for our species when we put our greatest attribute in charge, that being our ability to think and use reason.

Unfortunately for your side of the argument, religion by its nature denies both reason and the scientific process. Any religion requires its believers to use faith in their lives, and faith by its very nature is the suspension of rational thought to accept an extraordinary claim without conclusive evidence, and often without using any logic at all. And when religion accepts faith, and claims that it’s scripture is the inspired word of god, it denies any application of the scientific method. Once you claim god said something, you aren’t allowed to challenge it until secular society comes along and forces you to adapt, and adaptation is the one evolutionary factor that is even stronger than our intelligence. By contrast, any theory or point of view on morality put forth by a secular humanist is open for rebuttal and debate by every other person on earth, and through this process of intellectual self inspection as a species, we can choose the strongest and most beneficial ideas for our future. I think any idea worth following should withstand scrutiny by the smartest minds available, and religion neither teaches this concept, nor demonstrates it, as evident by the extreme majority of scientists who are atheist.

One quote I hear a lot from the believers is that “atheists don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” This is exactly why we are offended and annoyed. The entire premise that we are incapable of, or have never considered morality is ridiculous. Most atheists find the ideas of religion and morality almost all-encompassingly important, and have spent years or possibly all their life learning and thinking about it. Study after study shows that atheists are on average, more educated on matters of religion and philosophy than are the people who profess to believe in ancient scrolls. So it’s a valid question to ask where we nonbelievers get our morality, but in asking it you shine a light on the overwhelming cultural bias towards freethinkers and skeptics and atheists, and at the same time highlight your own ignorance of alternative beliefs while requiring us to have a deep knowledge of your beliefs. I’m not offended by you asking me this Dad. It was one of the first questions I went after when I realized there was no god, and so I can empathize with never having considered any other option. In fact I am glad that I get to answer it for you instead of some other atheist who may be less friendly with their world views. I hope this gives you some food for thought as far as moral alternatives, and if you have any questions for me, and I hope you do, hit me up. Remember, no idea worth following should be above scrutiny, even mine and especially mine.

Later gator,
Josh.

4 responses to “The source of human morality: an email to my father.

  1. The points you wrote here….. they are exactly the same questions I’ve been asking myself, especially that one of Abraham willing to kill his child… to this day, that one still bothers me…………and about the parting of the Red Sea by Moses, there was no CNN then to verify the news….. but I plod along, just the same. I ‘m a practicing catholic, I go to Mass every Sunday, but I have so many questions.

  2. Since it seems like I may never find the time to write the comment I would actually like to on this, and since I don’t know why I think you would want someone to leave a friggin’ BOOK as a comment on your blog, (seriously, I have several rough drafts), I thought I might just recommend a book instead. The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. He’s got a blog you might enjoy as well.

    • Well Ms. Elckd, if my haggard memory serves me right I had actually just discovered Mr. Harris a month or so before I wrote this email. I am much more familiar with his ideas now than I was then, although I haven’t read the book you suggested and would like to. On the one hand I can identify more with Sam Harris as an American than I sometimes do with say Dawkins or Hitchens. I would say my one feeble critique of his work (and I would like to point out that I am in no way qualified to critique his work as I am lacking in higher education) is that his style of public speech is much less eloquent than his two British counterparts who I previously mentioned. Hitchens in particular was my first taste of confrontational atheism, and I suspect that he will always hold a special place as an inspiration to look up to as much as I am able to look up to a fellow man. But you were right in suggesting Harris, I think I had watched a talk he gave on the premise of the Moral Landscape and that was a big part of what prompted this response.

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