Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Evolution, Faith, God, Religion, Responsibility, Truth

3 Questions for Atheists — 2nd Question

If you haven’t read the first post, you can find it here. Otherwise, I’ll assume we’re all on the same page. Here’s question 2:

2. You behave ethically. I suggest that is because you were brought up christian. Most atheists choose to behave reasonably ethically, but why? Are some things really right and wrong, if so, how come in a physicalist universe? If it is just their personal choice, how can they criticise anyone who chooses differently? For example, I just read a newspaper article about rape as a weapon of war in Mali. You and I would both find that abhorrent, yet it makes sense on evolutionary terms – impregnate the women of your opponent and maximise your own genes. So how does all that fit together?

It’s true that I was raised in Christianity, so it’s impossible for me to say that I would be just as moral if I’d been raised any other way. And when my wife and I first started discussing the possibility that Christianity was false, we worried about where our morals would come from without it. But pretty soon, we realized that there were really good reasons for living morally, regardless of God’s existence. On top of that, we knew plenty of Christians who hadn’t always lived morally either, so it’s not like remaining Christian was any kind of guarantee.

As an atheist, I tend to think that this life is all we have. While there might be something after it, I have no real reason to believe there is. And I think this might help me value life more than many religious people. When all those children were killed in Newtown, I didn’t believe that Heaven had gained a bunch of new souls — I was very upset that those young lives had been cut so short. It’s a point of view that doesn’t have as much comfort as what most religious people have. Their real life was here, not in some supernatural realm, so the tragedy is arguably more real. That helps me value all life, not just my own. We are social creatures — we naturally tend to look out for others’ well-being, not just our own. And I am personally happier when I do good things for others rather than take advantage of them.

So those are some of the reasons why I choose to live morally. As to whether or not there is a true universal morality, I don’t know. I think there are some things that come pretty close to it though. Rape, torture, murder, etc — those things are good candidates for being absolutely wrong. But I don’t think we need a deity to tell us that. Most people agree that human well-being is better than human suffering, so I think that’s a pretty good standard. We don’t need a transcendent being to tell us that, any more than most of us would need a transcendent being to tell us that cake tastes better than spinach. Throughout human history (and well before Christianity), people have been coming together to define morality as what works best for them as a society. As time has gone on, we’ve gotten better at it by protecting minority rights, etc. I don’t see why we need anything more than that.

I’ll cover the 3rd question in the next post.

94 thoughts on “3 Questions for Atheists — 2nd Question”

  1. There are plenty of people who follow non christian religions and I am sure they believer their morals are fine. Chance are they ARE fine too.
    Are we to assume that only Christians have the handle on morality?

    Ouch..what a dreadful thought!

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  2. I think ethics stems heavily from empathy. Suppose a person was to witness a stranger being beaten by three other men.

    If a person were to witness such a confronting event fight or flight kicks in. Because it is adaptive in us to place ourselves in another persons role (even when that person is no longer present mind you) we soon find ourselves either helping or ignoring the circumstances we are exposed to. However, empathy allows us an inner dialogue that may go something like this: I know what it is to be in pain, therefore I can relate to that man being beaten in the street. With this identification a whole lot of emotions are triggered, strong sensations, urgency, possibly anger at injustice because we are seeing that beaten man as one of our own. We are seeing him as ourself. Then you either fight or run (leave).

    But say if a person decided to intervene to help the man being abused? Why would he put himself directly in harms way to help a stranger? I think this is partly because in order to thrive humanity needs to have a degree of self-preservation that extends from just an individual level.

    We are after all social animals, therefore we depend on one another within roles that create a functioning society. If a group of people are seen as abusing norms then preservation kicks in, but not an individual self-preservation, but a preservation that firmly rests on the empathy of seeing another human being in need.

    This I think is where we establish laws and social norms, and these norms do vary depending on the environment a community develops in, but there are some universal empathetic responses that humanity recognises eg: I don’t like people stealing stuff from me.

    Because people don’t like having stuff stolen from them, its not functional to live in a society that doesn’t have a shared understanding not to do this, then enforced by people in various roles. Same with murder (and yes in a functional society rape as well).

    However, when a society is ravaged by war people get desperate and empathy probably is redirected towards a “us and them mentality”. Battle lines are drawn and a select group becomes “less than human”, therefore easier to separate from that empathy triggered preservation.

    Interestingly I think people would be less compelled to help or intervene if two drunken me are having a fight outside a bar. Yet, most people I assume would feel a sense of outrage if a small child was beaten by a group of men. Preservation and empathy go hand in hand. We feel strongly if the weakest of our species and tribe is being harmed, even if we don’t personally know that weaker member. In the same way, a man being beaten by a number of other men for no known reason carries with it a public outrage, since we have we would not like to be in his position there on the ground all alone.

    That empathy might be redirected if we learn the man on the ground is a serial rapist, but we still might feel like it is unfair, because we know what it is to be in pain.

    However, Empathy can sometimes be wrong, after all not everything I want to be done to me others necessarily want done to them.

    Not only is there physical pain, but also there are emotional triggers like anxiety that we assume most of the human population has experienced to some extent. Unless you’re a psychopath or sociopath and empathy is either ignored or maybe just isn’t triggered.

    Anyway those are some of my thoughts

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  3. Great answer. I loved your illustration – “We don’t need a transcendent being to tell us that, any more than most of us would need a transcendent being to tell us that cake tastes better than spinach.”

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  4. Hi Nate, just to clarify first, I agree that there are good and bad atheists and good and bad christians. I don’t think we need a God to tell us what is moral. But I think you haven’t answered the difficult questions.

    1. You say you choose to behave ethically because you value life and living that way makes you personally happier. Ryan says ethics is based on empathy. But my question is this. If someone doesn’t feel that empathy, if it doesn’t make someone happier to value life, is there any reason why they shouldbehave morally anyway?

    2. You later say that “there are some things that come pretty close to … universal morality”. But what do you mean by universal? Do you mean all people happen to share it, or that they are objectively, truly, right and wrong? And if the latter, what makes them objectively right and wrong?

    As I said about freewill, I don’t doubt that you have a strong morality, I just think your atheism is totally unable to explain what we all think about morality.

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  5. 1) Psychopaths are sometimes defined as not having empathy, but they should still be held to some standards of morality because their actions can impact others. As a society, we have the right to hold others accountable to our laws.

    Even if God existed, people without empathy typically wouldn’t follow God’s laws any more than they would society’s. So this still wouldn’t result in a change of behavior, and it has the added problem of having to wonder why God created such a flawed individual?

    2) I disagree that atheism is unable to explain our feelings about morality. As Slimdusty said in the other thread, even animals possess certain moral rules. Through evolution, we developed into societies where it was very important to work together and respect one another’s rights. We’ve gotten better at doing that over the centuries, but that’s to be expected from an evolutionary point of view. I just fail to see where any of this is a problem for atheism.

    Also, it’s important to remember that atheism doesn’t really make any positive claims. As I’ve conceded before, perhaps a god of some kind really does exist. But I’m reasonably sure it’s not a god from any of the revealed religions.

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  6. Nate, you wrote: “As to whether or not there is a true universal morality, I don’t know. I think there are some things that come pretty close to it though. Rape, torture, murder, etc — those things are good candidates for being absolutely wrong.” If you believe in absolute wrong, do you also believe in absolute good? If you do, doesn’t that contradict with the notion of being an atheist? You wrote you “don’t know” if there is universal morality. Isn’t this a position held by agnostics instead? Just trying to understand your view. Thanks.

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  7. Hi UnkleE 🙂

    you wrote:

    “I just think your atheism is totally unable to explain what we all think about morality.”

    I think an exchange that develops a model of morality could go like this:

    Imagine many, many years ago there existed small community of people that happened to live close to one another. One day they meet and start to exchange food and start to communicate. Over time, they build houses for shelter from the elements together, since they are stronger together than they are as separate families (especially in times where things are hard). In order to build such shelters they would need to work together, or at least stop fighting in order to look for material to use for building.

    They shared their lives around the campfire. Over time strong connections were formed among families through routine and co-operation. Eventually they built walls to protect them and those around them from wild animals or other humans.

    Through trial and error, these are the shared dislikes that this particular small community came up with (in no particular order of importance):

    1. “Hey you live pretty close to me. If we are going to exist together and not waste all our resources fighting, then we need to establish a social contract so to speak.”

    2. “I don’t want me or the family with me to get hurt. I don’t like to see them get hurt because I have very strong connections to them”.

    3. “I don’t much like having stuff (particularly stuff I’ve worked hard to get) taken from me”.

    4. I also don’t like to get murdered. I also don’t like my family getting murdered. Also, \

    5. I don’t like me or my family being sexually abused (for obvious reasons).

    These are things that I would say most of humanity wants to avoid, and because of this we see similar models of living that have developed all over the world. In order to stop people doing those things to me, a social contract must be reached in a society that prevents anyone doing those things.

    Based on those basic shared preferences, people throughout history have organised meetings and outlined what they wanted to avoid. I think this is how a society can then establish laws.

    Then these shared preferences, once agreed upon and enforced, become the norm. The norm is like an invisible wall that keeps each member of that society in compliance. The norms are reinforced by authority figures (maybe village elders or young men who act as a sort of basic police force).

    And the rest is history.

    As technology progresses these ethics evolve to take into consideration how to prevent the less desirable outcomes of some other things (pollution) from impacting us in ways that we each want to avoid.

    Throughout recorded human history each society has developed its own models of enforcing how ethics are enforced. Hierarchies have been developed and punishments for trespasses have been discussed, adapted and reinforced. How these models look may vary depending on how isolated a society has been, where it has developed and whether it’s rich in resources or not.

    However there are some basic dislikes (including the ones I listed above) that most if not all human beings share. In an increasingly globalised world and tools like the Internet, we are seeing these models crashing into each other every day.

    I think possibly some religions try to complicate ethics so they can claim that without them ethics could not exist. Yet, it seems to me that a sense or right and wrong can naturally develop as a basic requirement to function as social animals. It also comes down to trial and error. Furthermore, we have the tool of writing though to make things stick.

    I think this to some extent could explain why societies have ethics and how these shared ethics are organised and presented in different societies and environments.

    Kind regards, Ryan

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  8. Noel, thanks for the questions.

    I really classify myself as an “agnostic atheist.” In other words, I haven’t seen enough evidence to make me actually believe in a god, but I’m rather agnostic as to whether or not one exists. I’m doubtful of it, but I recognize that one could be there.

    As to morality, my post was pretty vague on what I meant by “universal morality.” I think that we humans make our own morality, but I think that things like rape, murder, torture, etc are almost always recognized as wrong by everyone. To me, that makes them universally wrong. Not universal in the sense that they were dictated at a cosmic level, but universal in that they apply to all humans. Certainly there are people that would disagree with me on that — it’s just what I think. And I don’t think that position violates atheism, because I think those moral laws developed naturally alongside our evolution as a species.

    I don’t really believe in an absolute good. I view morality as more “middle of the road.” Morality is doing no harm, in other words. Honestly, I haven’t thought too deeply about that until now, so I reserve the right to change my mind about it down the road. 🙂

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  9. I don’t think its about objective right or wrong. It’s about what is effective.

    What model effectively prevents pain, harm, abuse being directed at any member of that society. In any society, in order for one person to effectively avoid pain, abuse and theft, they themselves cannot steal, kill or abuse others.

    We now live in a world where there is a global society. People know about and care what’s happening in other countries. We may not always agree on another countries ethics, or way of doing things

    It is effective for the majority to follow shared morals, otherwise a society cannot maintain itself and still remain productive. It would waste all its resources and energy of ripping itself apart. Of course people do still kill, steal and abuse – but that’s where law and order step in. There still needs to be cheques and balances, for that’s how societies work well.

    Its not so much objective as it is effective. It works and therefore through its many versions it continues to persist.

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  10. Ug. The arrogance in that question is appalling. Christian values are ethical? Genocide is ethical? The subjugation of women is ethical? Advocating murdering infidels and homosexuals is ethical?

    I grew up in the United States and I am proud that though I was exposed to the Christian religion, I *never* accepted their brand of ethical thinking.

    Christian values have shifted with the social winds throughout its conception, suiting the political needs at the time – like most religions.

    My morals and values come out of my head.

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  11. In my country,
    A textbook for Islamic or Moral Studies mention that;

    All major religion teach their follower to be moral and ethical values.

    For me, fighting about “Be Atheist” is moral, “Be Christian” you’re good- Is “not so good” ideas. Japan is the largest non-religion society can be morally good. Commonly, all major religion teach about morality and ethic.

    Still, to be maintain morally good you must have “principle of moral” which agreed by major of people. To maintain the “principle of moral” is not easy, it require a belief that “principle” is correct and acceptable. In Japan, they have principle of “honor”, “adoption of Buddhism”, “respecting elders” to maintain their culture…

    The idea of religion should teach to find the truth, “obedient to God”, “way of life”, and of course morality is a part of it…
    The important idea still “Finding the Truth”…

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  12. “I think an exchange that develops a model of morality could go like this:

    Ryan, I think your scenario is quite what one might expect granted evolution. It just isn’t mortality that you’ve come up with.

    What you have described is a pattern of behaviour that evolves for various reasons. Societies which develop those patterns of behaviour presumably survive better. But what about the recent example of the uprising in Mali, where it was reported that the rebel soldiers used rape as a weapon of warfare – it punishes the enemy, stops their women passing on their men’s genes (temporarily) and adds some of their genes to the gene pool. All explicable in evolutionary terms, but not at all what we’d call moral.

    Morality is about not doing what comes naturally when there’s a moral reason against it. Morality says we can condemn the behaviour of those soldiers. But your tale doesn’t suggest that at all. It suggests that whatever we decide as a society is OK, for your source of morality is what societies decide.

    So I still can’t see a naturalistic explanation for freewill and true ethics.

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  13. “Ug. The arrogance in that question is appalling. Christian values are ethical? Genocide is ethical? The subjugation of women is ethical? Advocating murdering infidels and homosexuals is ethical? …….
    My morals and values come out of my head.”

    Hi tmso, if I grew up in some churches in the US, I guess I would probably feel as you have expressed here. But I don’t think I talked about “christian morality” did I, still less about the morality endorsed by some sections of the christian church? (If we were talking about christian morality, we would talk about the morality taught by Jesus, just as Confucian morality would be the morality taught by Confucius.)

    But do you notice the inconsistency in what you have said right here? At the start of your comment you infer that a number of behaviours are not moral, a statement I agree with as it happens.

    But then at the end, you say your morality comes out of your head. But if that is true, what gives you the right to pronounce these behaviours as immoral? If you say that is just your opinion, why shouldn’t someone who differs from you say and their view is just as valid?

    You have nicely portrayed the dilemma I am talking about. We don’t seem able to live without making moral judgments, yet naturalism doesn’t provide any reason to believe those moral judgments are true. I suggest you probably have the right morality, you just may lack a worldview that logically supports it.

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  14. @Unklee
    “As I said about freewill, I don’t doubt that you have a strong morality, I just think your atheism is totally unable to explain what we all think about morality.”

    The real question is how you and other religious folk believe you CAN explain morality from a religious, god-belief perspective.
    To suggest, however obliquely, that your morality and ethical behavior is somehow divinely imprinted is diatribe of the highest order.
    When one considers that the most brutal act in human history, the biblical Deluge ( even though this is a silly story) was visited upon the earth by your god, Unklee, albeit in his Non -Jesus form, it makes your god based morality appear nothing but an heinous aberration.
    You should be thanking your lucky stars that there are non religious people of decent morals and exemplary ethics around to correct your deviant beliefs.

    Its about time you took a long hard critical look at the deity you consider above reproach.

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  15. let me try to take a stab on the general morality question…

    Really in regards to this question, there is the academic answer: That we behave morally, because it is byproduct of our evolutionary process. That those humans and community that have a focus on ethical and moral behavior have a higher survivability. And one that does not behave as morally/ethically is more careless with his life. There is a field of study on this topic, which is called bioethics.

    Than there is my personal answer: Which is we act moral, because we choose to act moral. We really don’t need a reason to be moral, but we should seek a reason as to what forms each persons moral behavior. And that is many things. Our friends, our family, and our daily experiences. In fact this comes out of the first law of a civilized-moral society….Don’t Do unto other, which you don’t want done unto you.

    And lastly, a Theological answer: If we are to concede that morality is proof for God and all morality is from God, than the obvious next question is, What is the most moral religion? because the most most moral would be the true torchbearers for God. And it definitely would not be Christianity.

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  16. Morality is about not doing what comes naturally when there’s a moral reason against it. Morality says we can condemn the behaviour of those soldiers. But your tale doesn’t suggest that at all. It suggests that whatever we decide as a society is OK, for your source of morality is what societies decide.

    And societies have decided that rape is wrong for many good reasons, and these soldiers (who probably believe morality comes from some god) chose to behave immorally anyway. That allows us to condemn their behavior.

    I just don’t see a dilemma here.

    And lastly, a Theological answer: If we are to concede that morality is proof for God and all morality is from God, than the obvious next question is, What is the most moral religion? because the most most moral would be the true torchbearers for God. And it definitely would not be Christianity.

    Well put, Marcus.

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  17. ”What is the most moral religion? because the most most moral would be the true torchbearers for God. And it definitely would not be Christianity.”
    Yes, Marcus. Nailed it in one.

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  18. Unklee, makes a very good point. Naturalism combined with morality has no logical support.

    In truth, moral naturalism comes down to this: you either believe in your own, subjective, morality, or you claim that moral values are still objective within a naturalistic worldview. That is to say, these objective moral values are natural values, natural facts, natural properties, etc. Or you claim that naturalistic morality should be determined by what makes the most naturalistic sense, or scientific sense.

    The problem with subjective morality is exactly what Unklee said. It gives no logical or moral basis on which to criticize the acts of other individuals because, you have already decided, that morality is subjective. Morality can’t be subjective and objective at the same time that would be a contradiction. So, if you think rape is wrong, we are in agreement, but we, as atheists, have no objective authority to appeal to for why we believe this to be the case. A condemnation of rape is not a universal truth. It is just your opinion. It may be a widely held opinion, but from within this viewpoint, morality would be based entirely on opinion. One can see how this would prove problematic in our current society.

    However, if you take the objective morality view or the effective morality view, which many do, then you are faced with Moore’s open question argument. I recommend you Google this because it is quite complex, but, crudely, Moore’s point is to show that it is necessary to distinguish “What is goodness?” from the question “What things are good?”

    Also, if you take up the mantle that science can inform naturalistic facts about morality then the moment science begins to dictate, as Harris wants, moral values you become susceptible to a whole new kind of dogma, as physicist Sean Carroll put it, a scientific imperialism. If science claimed to have discovered a moral fact really all science would have discovered would be a convention and that can easily turn into a dogma.

    The whole issue revolves around the idea that, within a naturalistic worldview, morality doesn’t make much sense, logically or ethically. I freely admit there is not a good atheistic solution to this problem, and this was a primary problem for Kant as well.

    Regards

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  19. “If we are to concede that morality is proof for God and all morality is from God, than the obvious next question is, What is the most moral religion? because the most most moral would be the true torchbearers for God. And it definitely would not be Christianity.”

    I wonder if you are basing your definition of christian morality on Jesus’ teachings, non-christian teachings in the Old Testament, or the behaviour of apparent christians in the US? And I wonder which religion you think is the most moral?

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