Monday, March 21, 2011

Atheists and Morality

Note: The following post will use the broad terms of "Atheists" and "Christians".  I do not presume to speak for everybody in either of those groups.  When I speak of "atheists" I speak first of myself and those that I know with the understanding that there are exceptions to every rule.  The same goes for when I speak of "Christians", I speak of my personal experiences as a former Christian and my experience with other Christians.  Do not take the broad statement personal.  If the shoe fits wear it, if not then be a grown up and put the shoe back. Don't get your feelings hurt by insisting on personalizing statements.  

One of the primary complaints/arguments I hear and read by people who need to find a way to defend their faith and at the same time attack atheists and their lack of faith is that atheists are immoral at worst or amoral at best.  The argument goes that if there is no God then why would anybody do what is right or worse how would anybody know what is actually right or wrong.  The argument is based on the assumption that morality is determined by God and originates with God.  If the argument were based in fact then frankly it would be something that a person really should be concerned about because the ability to know right from wrong is something that is key to society, a fundamental building block as it were.   Let us consider a couple of things in reply to this concern/argument.

Does morality originate in God?

This is really a crucial question.  Does morality originate and by a lesser degree exist only in the existence, control and acknowledgment of a deity?  Is it possible for a person to have moral standards and not believe in God?  And, if morals do not originate or depend on faith in a deity, then where do morals come from?  These questions may seem obvious to an atheist but for many people it is not and therefore deserves a logical and respectful answer.

First, we must consider the real purpose of what we regard to be moral standards.  At their core, moral standards are codes of conduct that have adapted and evolved over thousands of years in human social development that stem the tide of chaos and anarchy.  In their most basic form morals are behaviors that keep us from destroying ourselves.  Moral standards are, at their root, rules of conduct that have developed over time through self interest.  For example, death is not something any of us enjoy, much less a violent or malicious death, neither do any of us wish to lose a loved one to a violent death, therefore it is in my best interest to adhere to a rule that bans killing somebody.  I like keeping the things I have worked hard for and I don't want some lazy bum with sticky fingers coming and stealing my stuff. therefore it is in my best interest to adhere to a rule that prohibits stealing.

It is this self interest that has established rules of behavior in a society where humans wish to co exist in a successful and peaceful manner.   More primitive cultures that do not have these rules live in a constant state of disorder and fear.  For example, early Native American cultures considered bravery to be of utmost importance and did not see a problem with torturing a prisoner before killing them, giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their bravery before they died, for all the good it would do them.  Primitive tribes in South America valued deception and considered it a measure of status in the tribe to deceive their victims, "fattening them for the kill" before eliminating them.  For these tribes being treated nice was something to be afraid of.  These tribes and cultures by logical progression end up eliminating themselves because they cannot exist indefinitely.  It is only in the establishment of set rules rules of conduct that we can co exist and succeed as a society.

This also helps us understand that the Golden Rule is not something new, something that just exists in a world dominated by Christian behavior or beliefs.  The Golden Rule states that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  This rule is a basic code for survival of any society.  I do not want to be killed, therefore I don't kill.  I don't want somebody to steal my stuff or sleep with my wife, therefore I will not steal or commit adultery.  We even invented a name for it, karma.  If we cheat on our spouse then at some level we are not surprised when our spouse cheats on us.  We understand this and while we may not always enjoy karma or even accept it we do comprehend that one turn deserves another, whether it be a good or bad turn.

I would answer the question then as no, morality does not originate with a divine being but rather originates in the self interest of human social development as basic rules of survival and co-existence.  The real question that I must ask, with as minimal amount of sarcasm as I can, do you really need a Divine being to tell you that killing somebody is wrong and is probably not a good behavior to participate in?  Do we do what is right only because there is a God that tells us to?  Is it possible to do what is right just because it makes sense to?  Every code of conduct, ethics and laws can be traced to basic rules of social interaction and do not require a religious overtone in order to follow them.  Where it gets complicated are the rules that religion in and of itself imposes as a form of control, something we will discuss further down.

Are the Ten Commandments original in their demands?

The Ten Commandments are often pointed to as the foundation of Western Civilization's laws.  The Christian culture in our country points to this as clear "proof" that this is a Christian nation and ultimately it gives them, their religion and their views preeminence.  But do the Ten Commandments, and more importantly the moral standard they represent, actually originate with the Judeo-Christian story of Moses and Mt. Sinai?  Were the Ten Commandments given exclusively to the Hebrew people?  For that matter, were they divinely given to the Hebrew people at all?

There is an interesting book by Stanley Arthur Cook named "The Laws of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi" in which the author covers the history of the Code of Hammurabi of ancient Assyria.  It is interesting to read that the Ten Commandments can all be found in the Code of Hammurabi.  Furthermore, the ancient Assyrian empire covered Canaan, the area where Hebrew legends and history says that Abraham, the Father of Israel, lived and sojourned.  Many ancient codes, predating the Ten Commandments, existed that had all of the same content as the Ten Commandments.  As such it can hardly be argued that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western Civilization or the beginning and end of moral laws.  In the final analysis it can only be concluded that the moral laws imposed by the Ten Commandments and other codes of ancient civilization were basic laws that simply make sense for a society to successfully thrive and co exist.

Are morality codes absolute?

This is where moral codes get a little sticky and contentious.  Take a look at the Ten Commandments.  If you break it down to its basic tenets there are really only six of them that have any application to moral behavior:

5. Honour thy father and thy mother
6. Thou shalt not kill
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery
8. Thou shalt not steal
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbour's.

The first four commandments are strictly religious in nature and are clear references to Judaistic laws and religious codes.  The final six are laws that affect social behavior.  Notice a couple of things about these commandments.  First, the fifth commandment places importance on the basic family unit of society.  Parents mold their children into the citizens that will make up the next generation of a society.  It is therefore important to place a requirement on the child to heed the parent.  The next four have to do with basic rules of social coexistence that make society a safe place to reside in, namely, no killing, no adultery, no theft and no libel or perjury.  The final commandment has to do with motive: greed.  It is interesting to note that the only moral commandment that is alluded to more than once is adultery, in commandments seven and ten.

The structure of the ten commandments is interesting as well.  The structure of the ten commandments mirrors the contemporary codes of its time.  First you establish a divine being with power to enforce them, you establish how you regard that deity and how you treat that deity, then you set forth the laws of behavior that your deity requires you to follow.

But are all moral codes absolute?  The Ten Commandments are far from the only commandments in the moral code of the early Hebrew people.  There are more then six hundred commandments in the vaunted Books of Moses.  These laws covered dietary laws, moral codes and even details on the type of clothes you could wear.  The Bible quite clearly, for example, condemns homosexuality as a moral crime punishable by death.  This is a "moral" law that is not necessarily included in all of ancient codes.  The Code of Hammurabi and the Laws of Eshunna do not include this provision while it appears that Assyrian Law added it much later in their history. (H.W.F. Saggs,The Greatest that was Babylon, New York: Hawthorn, 1962).  We can therefore conclude that not all moral codes are the same and therefore not absolute.  Moral laws should be accompanied by the basic understanding that the purpose for moral laws is the mutual self interest of the participants in a successful and safe society.  Laws that do not affect the self preservation of the individuals  protected by it are not morally absolute.  In other words, if the behavior does not affect my health, safety and or economic well being, then any laws against it cannot be considered absolute.

What is different in an Atheist and a Christian where morality is concerned?

So what difference does it make if I do what is morally right because it is logical and is clearly in the mutual interest of myself and my fellow participants in society or if I do what is right because a divine being tells me too do it?  In all practicality, nothing.  It does not matter why you do what is "right" as long as you do it.  However, personally, for me, I would rather do what is right simply because it is right, and not because I require some powerful being to push me, either with guilt or with threats, to do what is right.  I have said it before, if you require belief in a divine being to refrain from killing my children for yelling and screaming to loud while playing in the back yard, then please, by all means, believe in whatever divine being that facilitates your good behavior.

In conclusion I want to make two closing points.  First, atheists are not amoral or immoral.  Atheists are just moral for a different reason.  Second, not every Christian is moral.  I have known many Christians that committed adultery, stole and even killed.  Belief in God does not give you a corner on the market of morality.  Just because you profess to be a Christian does not mean that you will always choose to do the right thing, just like my not being a Christian does not mean that I do not care what my behavior is.  I hold to my vows to my wife, not because I have to or I will go to some place of eternal damnation, but rather because I love her and I want her in my life for the duration and because losing her would be hell in and of itself. I do what is right simply because it is right.



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