Monday, July 23, 2007

The Question of Morality

As an atheist, I am often asked about morality. Specifically, religious people ask if I have any morals and if so, what I base them on. To most believers, all morality comes from God. I not only disagree with this, I find it repugnant. If I do something considered immoral, I certainly get the blame. And that’s fine with me because I accept responsibility for all my actions. But if I act morally, it is all God’s doing and I get no credit. I am responsible for those actions too. But God even gets credit for my good deeds. I hate it when I go out of my way to help someone just to have them say “Thank God.” That is just ridiculous. We are all responsible for what we do for good or ill. We deserve the blame and the credit.

A lot of religious people find it inconceivable that an atheist can have any moral standards. They often assume that we choose to be atheists specifically to avoid having to follow any moral code. Some bizarre people even ask why we don’t just run around killing and raping indiscriminately. This demonstrates a profound ignorance that I find nauseating. One wonders if that is what they would do if they didn’t feel constrained by God. They are basically saying that only God is capable of caring about people. Thankfully, these people are in the minority. But even those who accept that atheists can be moral usually make the assumption that if an atheist does have moral standards they are invariably due to religious upbringing or at least exposure to the religious influence permeating society. Some find it to be validation of the theory that God built a conscience into all humans so we would know right from wrong. And since religion has been monopolizing the arena of moral ethics worldwide for thousands of years, I can see why they are confused. But, if anything, atheists are more moral than religious people. And we have better reasons to be so. As my Dad used to say, “Don’t shit in your own backyard.” It’s crude but makes a point. We atheists know that this is our only chance at life. There are no mulligans, no do-overs. We don’t expect a glorious afterlife. If we foul the social climate or wind up in jail, we have wasted the gift of life on nothing. Not to mention that if we take a life, we know it is gone forever. There is no heaven and no ultimate justice. There is no reward.

Thinking themselves experts on morality, religious people often decry what they call moral relativism - the notion that what constitutes right and wrong or good and evil are not absolute but depend on the individual, group and circumstances. In some respects, they are right. All human cultures have developed strikingly similar moral codes. But moral questions don’t fit in categories of absolute black and white. There are many situations that even people of good conscious disagree about such as the death penalty, war, foreign aid, criminal justice and abortion. Even in the Bible and other scriptures there are clearly situations that demonstrate moral gray areas.

We humans do certainly view some specific behaviors as good or bad with fair consistency. But does that indicate the existence of a god-given moral law? Superficially, it is easy to see how one might think so, especially if one is predisposed to accept the notion of God in the first place. But I think we need to look at humans as a species and consider the long history of human evolution along with our interaction with our environment and each other. Looking at the miniscule variation in our genes from any individual to any other, one will realize that there is no reason to infer supernaturally mandated moral law. It seems reasonable to say that we think alike because we are alike. Humans vary no more than 0.2 percent in the active coding regions of our DNA. For all practical purposes, we are identical on a functional level. The major differences between human cultures are due to effects of our environment and experience.

I don’t want to perpetuate a false dichotomy. I’m sure there are other schools of thought. But let’s consider the two possibilities mentioned so far. One says that humans have a God-given, universal system of moral laws somehow imprinted on us that gives us the ability to tell right from wrong. It tells us how God wants us to act. This has nothing to do with what we value but what God values. It is a spiritual thing unrelated to our physical being or even our cognitive process. The common religious view is that people are naturally evil and can only act appropriately through the good graces of a benevolent deity. All wrongdoing is due to the conflict between our immoral nature and the divine spirit of God he puts inside us. Like I said, if we are good, the credit goes to God. If we are bad, we get the blame. Why we couldn’t be made with a better nature is not explained.

The second of these possible explanations for our general agreement about moral rules is that humans have evolved as a species with specific common instincts, behaviors, desires and values that cause us to care about our fellow humans and our own life. We have also evolved a complex intellect that allows us to see the benefit to ourselves in creating and abiding by moral laws and ethical codes so we can live in peace and happiness. The result of all this is that our moral codes turn out to be amazingly similar across cultures. In this view morals and ethics are evolved behaviors which give our species a better chance of survival. It doesn’t mean we are mindless meat puppets without choice but that we are predisposed to cooperate and value not only our lives but the lives of those of our social groups and, to some extent, all members of our species.

As biological organisms, humans cannot compete physically with most other species because we don’t have claws, fangs, armor, speed, size or strength like they have. Our major asset is our superior brain. We are tribal creatures that live and work together cooperatively for the mutual benefit of all. We don't operate totally on instinct. We can recognize that this behavior is necessary and it should be reinforced with rules. We can sympathize with the problems and needs of others. This is true even now when we are competing with other humans more often than wild animals. Not only do we have little genetic difference, but most of coding differences in our DNA are very minor and superficial. We are amazingly like each other no matter how outwardly different we appear.

Given these facts, and that the biggest determinant for differences in moral viewpoints is the heterogeneity of our cultures, it seems that the more compelling of the two possibilities is the scientific one. And even if the two possibilities were equally feasible, the scientific one invokes no unverifiable, unexplainable supernatural entities. On the level of pure reason, the religious notion of morality is unsupportable.

There is a very good website that explains morality from a logical and rational perspective that you might want to peruse. I covers a lot more than I did here and has some excellent references that can be helpful in your study of this question. It is called, The Bible of the Good and Moral Atheist I highly recommend it.