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Atheism, Morality

Godless morality…

I have been debating with a few people online about morality. Essentially, the issue is, is morality a given in an atheist universe? Are there any objective standards of morality in the absence of any god? Is it just a subjective set of rules that may vary from nation to nation, group to group, even person to person? And in that situation, which is the ‘right’ set of rules and how do you decide upon that?

Now this is a vexing issue indeed. This was one of the first questions I grappled with when I became an atheist, and I don’t think I still have a fully satisfactory answer. Of course, a “fully satisfactory” answer may not be possible to any question outside mathematics, but I digress.

Now, an objective morality is one defined as a set of rules of human behaviour and interaction that stand true regardless of whom the person is or who the interaction is with. These are a set defined by a god, an omniscient, omnipotent deity as his personal guidelines to his creations (us) and he stands guarantee behind (1) their timeless truth and (2) strict adherence to them and the consequences of disobeying them. Most people, religious people at the very least and many freshly turned to agnosticism or atheism, find this a clinching argument in the favour of religion’s necessity in the world. It is felt that divine guidelines and their enforcement by an all-powerful deity are what keep us humans on the straight and narrow. “We are good because we want to go to heaven and we are afraid of going to hell.”, similar to why children in Western countries try to be extra nice in December.

On the face of it, I don’t think this is entirely wrong. Many people do refrain from committing crimes or ‘sins’ since they’re told from their childhood that there will be divine retribution for whatever wrong they do. Of course there are any number of people who do wrong, all kinds of wrong, despite all that teaching/indoctrination too. But since this set of rules is set by an entity outside our sphere of experience and is held to be immutable, it is deemed an objective code of morals, an objective morality.

In the absence of god, there is no such external entity to define these codes for us. We can, in theory, define them however we want; so can every other human being on the planet. There could be a billion such codes and nothing to choose between them, no objective standards to measure them by. This is taken by believers as an argument in favour of belief, a sort of upended argument as it were, god has to be true or there is no objective morality. Now, of course, this is a specious argument and need not even be debated. God cannot be conjured into existence because we want an external examiner for our species.

Disregarding this, I have two problems with this idea of morality.

Firstly, the idea that god sets an objective set of morals for humans, a set of rules that are right, true, and changeless. The problem is, this set of morals keeps changing! As we have advanced along the road of culture and civilisation, our morals have changed along with us. A god four or five thousand years ago would have happily sanctioned genocide, and he did. Not only the god of the OT, even those of the so-called pagans. A few thousand years before that god was apparently happy with humans eating other humans too. Make no mistake, he not only sanctions it, he asks for mass murder and people who do it are right in the eyes of their lord. How many people today would ascribe such a set of morals? As times changed and eras came and went, morals changed. By the middle ages, god was still apparently happy with murder, but it wasn’t done in public and seldom en masse. In this day and age, not many people would subscribe to any god who called for carnage, and we would look askance at people who do think so. God was apparently okay with slavery too around that time, but times have changed and our sense of morality is offended by the idea of enslaving other humans. So the rules humans believe as divinely ordained moral truths are neither immutable nor objective. This leads to another point. How can a believer be so sure that whatever he’s taught as moral is really taught by god and not another human? What makes one believe that god wrote on stone and handed the tablets over to Moses? Or that god spoke through Jesus or Mohammed? Or, to be precise, how can one be sure that whatever we read of the sayings of any of these figures was actually uttered by them and not out in their mouths by chroniclers after their death (provided they lived, which is another story altogether)? In short I find these set of “divine” morals subjective and unproven to be of divine providence.

The second problem I have is with the idea that a subjective set of morals cannot be right, or one set of morals is as good as another. The holocaust is often brought into the picture at this point and the believer claims that we cannot call the Nazis immoral, since there are no right or wrong actions. I find this attitude defeatist, pessimistic to the extreme, lazy, and quite inaccurate. It’s amusing and saddening at the same time to find people shying away from formulating a morality without a divine compass to chart their way. It’s as if they lack the courage to step out on their own and need that crutch to walk the “right” path. My contention has been and still is that we can form a set of morals without god and we can decide on whether one set of morals is better than another or not. The basic idea stems from certain fundamental truths most people can agree upon, the ideas of what is good for our well being. Getting food, for example, and being safe from pain are the kind of things I’m talking about here. Other such concepts could be added as the pre-requisites for a happy life. Now once we can agree upon these basic needs and that achieving them is desirable, we can formulate a set of rules governing human interactions to bring about this state. Any such rules generally agreed upon would be quite similar no matter who the two humans were who sat down and made the list. Any set of morals that are not designed to achieve these ends are therefore, immoral. Now, putting fellow humans in gas chambers can in no way be described as conducive to their well being. So why do we need god to call the Nazi actions wrong?

I have also heard it said that this theory would flat when faced with a person who did not agree to the basics of human well being. How can we call someone immoral if he/she doesn’t even accept our basic premise? Of course we can’t. A psychotic cannot be reasoned with, not by atheist morals, neither by a god based moral system. The presence of insanity doesn’t invalidate our thought-out set of morals. Insanity itself invalidates the person under consideration. Whatever set of morals you subscribe to, their validity depends ultimately on general acceptance by the society at large and in an intelligent society, an atheist moral system can work just as well as a god based one.

The biggest problem that people have, I think, is that this puts the onus on us as sentient creatures to work out a code of morals for ourselves and to self-govern ourselves according to that code. I think we fear our own self too much and give our intellect less credit than its due. It’s a hard task but we can and must evolve a moral standard that stands on its own without any external adjudicator to validate it. It will be an incomplete set in the beginning and I’m sure will go through a number of revisions of text before we come to an acceptable conclusion, but it will be an achievement in its own right.

 

About hbhatnagar

I need to fill this up with much better content than I had populated it with earlier. Why I write a blog maybe? I started blogging in 2009 or thereabouts. I was a newly turned atheist and wanted to converse with others of the same persuasion. We're not exactly a big population group in India! It didn't go very well and I sort of lost interest, posting a few things now and then. I got a lot more regular over the last few months and have been posting almost daily since February '15. There were many reasons why I gradually became more regular in posting, but one way or the other, here I am! So this blog has taken shape, being at different points in time my showcase, my comedy club, my art gallery, my book club, my therapist, my close friend, my innermost self....but always my little corner of the world. You are all welcome to visit and I hope you stay awhile! A few points about me because I don't want to lead anyone on(and trust me this does become an issue more often than I'd care to admit). I'm Indian, the brown-skinned variety; if race, ethnicity or skin colour is an issue, you don't have to get to know me any more than what you see on my blog. I'm 40, so if age is an issue, please be informed accordingly. I was a doctor, an ophthalmic surgeon for 10 years before I quit practice.

Discussion

25 thoughts on “Godless morality…

  1. I am still reading and digesting this. Its hard to debate on line
    However, one of your fellow countrymen, wrote this piece. I read it a lot. Relates to Germans /Nazi etc etc

    https://rajivchopra.me/2016/04/02/the-dispatches-of-hira-singh-hermann-said/

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by everyday housewife | 26/06/2016, 3:38 PM
  2. I needed to read this again when I could digest it. My first reply ( above last week) was far too simplistic and frankly somewhat patronising for such a complex and, may I say, well write piece or prose. I think you have certainly thought about this and gone way beyond the usual banal phrases and sound bytes that people churn out… me also included in that. Actually its a stonkingly good piece or writing not only for the way it was put together but because I think the points you make are valid beyond belief. In fact the points were always there, we just needed to be pointed in that direction. You are right that religion, for so long, was the Judge of our actions and in a less civilised world it worked to a lesser degree…. As you say, time to move on and view it from another angle.
    I am with you on that. That’s for whirring this old brain into action on a wet and dismal Saturday morning.
    Oh and greetings from England… land of the rain ( please imagine the smiley)

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by looneybitch | 13/02/2016, 1:34 PM
    • Thank you for the compliments Jackie! It is an age-old post, but I’m gratified that you can identify with the ideas in it. We can only hope that the world will move on beyond religion and form a clearer idea of morality. 🙂

      Like

      Posted by hbhatnagar | 13/02/2016, 6:36 PM
  3. Just be nice to people and people are nice back
    simplistic idea. It seems to work on the whole

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by looneybitch | 09/02/2016, 1:07 AM
  4. Spiritual laws go for every faith. Putting your “Higher Power” in a box leaves very little room for interpretation. I also believe that you need unwavering faith in your “Higher Power”. Romans 10:17 for Christian’s Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. I haven’t studied other Faith proclamations outside the Christians sects so I don’t have the other proclamations that serve their Higher Power. For atheism it’s a complete disbelieve in god, but still has a higher power in something else. Simple examples are Wealth, Fame and Recognition, (I would bet that everyone knows who that is) but people can have faith in anything. I’m not Proselytizing just trying to put my two cents in –Smile–

    Like

    Posted by booguloo | 14/01/2016, 9:40 AM
  5. Interesting set of arguments. Never having been religious, I never assumed that morality stemmed from religion–especially since I didn’t see religious people (with, of course, individual exceptions) following their declared morality particularly well. I suspect that most people’s real, as opposed to spoken, morality is almost instinctive rather than codified–buried on a deep enough level that much of it isn’t consciously chosen anymore, or given much thought. It’s something we learn and choose that early in our lives.

    Just a guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Ellen Hawley | 22/10/2015, 1:27 PM
    • Religious people cherry pick and quote lines to try to prove their claim, whether it’s god’s judgment on the day of apocalypse or the karmic theory.
      I’ve never truly understood why they can’t see the obverse side of the coin.
      Is morality instinctive? Some research into infants and into ape societies seems to suggest so. How much that instinct is worked over by our conscious mind and drive is open to question and, I suspect, highly variable.
      Thank you for reading through and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by hbhatnagar | 22/10/2015, 2:15 PM
      • I should have chosen my words more carefully. I wasn’t trying to say morality’s inborn, hardwired. It may be, but it wasn’t what I was reaching for. What I meant is that I think we build up a morality when we’re very, very young, and much of it works in us, unquestioned, forming our choices before our conscious minds have time to build up a rationale. It’s not that we can’t affect it, modify it, change it, it’s just that so much of it is buried so deep that what many people end up doing is plastering a layer of nice verbiage over it and congratulating themselves on the nice words.

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by Ellen Hawley | 22/10/2015, 2:26 PM
      • I got the general drift, but I don’t deny the possibility that some part of morality may as well be inborn, though you are right in saying that major parts of our moral landscape is possibly designed by our early life experiences, things we might not even remember much less question. Redesigning that landscape is not an easy task, as any psychologist would tell you..

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by hbhatnagar | 22/10/2015, 2:34 PM
  6. ok so i realize i’m a little late in commenting,but i agree.Not in a godless morality per se because honestly i’m more of an interesting breed; polytheist agnostic.
    But i believe that if at all morality exists its universal and thus is predisposed to all of us so the issue of God or no God isn’t at all to be considered because we all know that religion and God in its intricacy isn’t at all universal so logically it follows not to connect the 2.
    Also you said that morals change with time, i disagree they don’t change but rather our understanding of them overtime.It is easy to confuse the changing of the perspective on the subject matter with the changing of the subject matter itself but in fact the two are two different things altogether.
    Great post.

    Like

    Posted by impostorpawn | 26/07/2015, 9:17 PM
    • Oh, it’s never too late to join a debate. 🙂
      You posit that there might be a universal morality, I don’t think there is. We all think we’re more or less moral (the degree changes from person to person and so on), that can’t be true.
      And I do believe morals change with time. If the subject matter is the issue morality is framed for in that instance, slavery, say or genocide, then it obviously remains the same. But if the issue is the action taken with regard to slavery or genocide and so on, then that changes. It changes all the time. Thanks for reading and commenting. I wrote it ages ago, but for some reason the post has gained traction only recently! I’m glad you liked it, 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by hbhatnagar | 26/07/2015, 9:31 PM
  7. I completely agree with the perspective that a code of morality shouldn’t have to be related to or shaped by religion. In fact it seems that more blood has been shed throughout the history of the human race in the name of religious codes of conduct than for any other reason – “My God is better than yours” could be the catch phrase used by any number of”crusaders” trying to make the world a better place. But I think the problem with trying to come up with any kind of moral rules is that there are always exceptions to the rules. And no doubt we’d run into problems with “My rules are better than your rules” thinking. With or without a God we are intrinsically alone, separate individuals with minds and opinions of our own. Perhaps if we one day evolve to a point where we could share a consciousness we would then be able to develop a shared moral code but until then I think the best we can hope for is that we all just try to get along.

    Like

    Posted by Kathryne Miller | 06/04/2015, 11:44 AM
    • Thanks for reading and commenting.
      I agree that there will always be some differences between rules laid down by two separate sets of individuals. We all have our own opinions. I just feel that at least the broad contours can be agreed upon. Outlawing murder for example, protecting basic human freedoms, free expression, protection from fraud, things like that. The minutiae will always be different.
      In the end though, you’re right, the best we can hope for in the real world is that we all just try to get along.

      Like

      Posted by hbhatnagar | 06/04/2015, 11:56 AM
  8. Terrific thoughts – thanks for sharing them! I’ve been pondering this for myself as a relatively recent de-convert to agnosticism. What makes us “good” people? And what’s “good” anyway? Your last paragraph is beautifully worded; that the onus is on us as sentient beings to work together in developing a “code” for a morality that allows us to live together without bringing ourselves to extinction in the process. I love how Richard Dawkins puts it: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”

    Like

    Posted by David | 26/09/2011, 11:04 PM
    • Thanks for the compliment. It has been a tricky issue for me too. It’s only lately that I have been able to come to grips with it somewhat, after hearing more from Dawkins and Sam Harris.

      Like

      Posted by hbhatnagar | 27/09/2011, 10:09 AM
      • In the OT we were given 12 laws to live by. In the NT He basically makes it easier to follow the 12 with one.
        Jesus’ New Commandment
        John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

        I would think that this piece of info would resolve or set aside any conflict being a Christian or not. It’s a universal law that stretches over all of mankind for any possible belief and non belief systems….. Just Saying

        Like

        Posted by booguloo | 17/05/2015, 4:34 PM
      • Luke 14:26 for one. The Catholic/Christian treatment of Jews in Europe, Muslims in the Middle East, Pagans in general all over the world, murder to the point of genocide and beyond…. I don’t say it’s an exclusively Christian trait, not by a long shot. But let’s not pretend that any religion preaches universal love. If they did, their numbers would never increase at the cost of others. Nor has Christianity truly resolved the contradictions between the OT and NT. Cherry picking and believing what one wants to believe is a rather haphazard way to go about things. God says love one another, but hates fags? God is gentle but wants anyone working on Sabbath to be stoned to death? There are a lot of contradictions twixt the two versions of god which only goes to prove that morality based on god changed between the time the two Testaments were written down, and it has changed in the time between the fourth century and the twenty first. Hope you don’t feel I’m out to insult any religion, I just think they’re not necessary to evolve a moral code.

        Like

        Posted by hbhatnagar | 17/05/2015, 6:11 PM
      • http://www.tektonics.org/gk/jesussayshate.php It’s a simple translation error. We could go round in circles chasing our tails. ISIS members are going around and cutting the heads off Christians? Last time I heard was in Syria.

        Did you know our American founding fathers were Theist? For a later time perhaps -smile-

        Like

        Posted by booguloo | 17/05/2015, 11:41 PM
      • The virgin birth is also claimed to be a mistranslation. 🙂
        As for the American founding fathers,
        a) their belief system, theism, deism or atheism has always been controversial
        b) whatever they believed in, they could be wrong, they were only human.
        Another time, yes. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by hbhatnagar | 18/05/2015, 12:10 AM
      • At least we now have Jane. I’m wondering how long they’re going to keep her prego.. 2 or 3 seasons?

        Like

        Posted by booguloo | 18/05/2015, 6:11 AM
      • Well the second is on the cards at least.

        Like

        Posted by hbhatnagar | 18/05/2015, 6:18 AM

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