Well, thanks for reading, I hope I’ve enlightened and enriched a few more lives.
Oh, alright, I’ll elaborate for anyone not quite convinced.
One of the most prevalent and slanderous rumours about atheists, and others who live a largely secular life with little god-influence in particular, is that we have terrible oral hygiene and off-puttingly bad breath. Nearly as pernicious as this, however, is the accusation that we have no basis for moral behaviour. This latter claim is the one I’ll be repudiating here. (The bad breath rumour isn’t actually that widespread, if I’m honest.)
Ever since the arm or the chair was invented (I don’t know which came first, I’m not a historian), the notions of God and morality have instigated some of the most idle armchair speculation in our species’ history. (That is, the largest amount of idle armchair speculation, not the armchair speculation that was the most idle.) But after all this time, people can’t seem to make up their mind what a word like “morality” even means – a sad indictment on the failure of the “Big Dictionary” corporations to adequately define reality and shape our perception of it, as is surely their responsibility.
But, I suppose you can see why it’s not something they’ve ever managed to solve by simply ordering pizza, pulling an all-nighter, and resolving not to leave the room until every last straggling loose end of the issue has been ironed out and nailed down (neither of which sound like things you’d do to loose ends, but hey, I didn’t invent idioms). It is a tricky one.
And a big part of the issue lies in identifying the “source” of our morality – how it is decided what qualifies as a moral action. No surprise, then, that in such a controversial and significant area of undecided philosophising, religion should claim immediate and unequivocal victory, proudly trumpeting its own candidate, the Supreme Being and Creator of the Universe (who I’ll informally refer to as “God”, at the risk of sounding impertinently over-familiar) as the answer to this problem, as well as to virtually every other problem ever posed.
So, do humans need God in order to be moral?
The common claim is that God is the only source of all morality. He alone defines what is good and moral, and what is not. The only moral actions are those that please God, and immoral actions are anything which angers him. Make the big dude happy, don’t piss him off, and you’ll get along just fine.
And on one level, this doesn’t sound like such a bad idea – God is one guy you really don’t want to piss off, after all. Seriously, he’s hardcore. If you’ve ever touched an electric fence, you’ll know how even a small and momentary burst of current can send a powerful and unsettling jolt down your arm. Well, God is the dude who holds onto lightning in his bare fucking hands, before throwing it down and destroying your home. Bad. Ass. If he told me to stop kissing girls I’m not married to because it’s an affront to his divinity, or not to… I dunno, something about coveting and asses, then there’s no way I’m gonna argue.
The thing is, we already have a word for this idea of being told exactly what to do, and then doing it obediently. It’s called obedience. It’s often associated with adjectives like “blind” and “unquestioning”, and it feels like there must be some important difference between this and morality. Morality, for instance, surely has more to do with concepts like good and evil than simply following the directions of some scary cloud-dwelling electric-fetishist.
If there is no such difference, then God could command you to murder thy neighbour, covet his ox, drown his cat, burn down his house, key his car, and give his kids papercuts in their eyes before stealing their Nintendo Wii, and it would actually be immoral of you not to do all this. Who cares if the little brats are crying because Mister Whiskers is all soggy and won’t wake up? God’s the only one whose opinion matters.
The less sociopathic among you, however, might reject this rather macabre idea. You might, in your woefully ill-conceived innocence, try to tell me something like, “God wouldn’t command anything like that”. But if his word is all that’s stopping your vandalistic rampage from being morally righteous and good, then why the gosh-darn flipping crikey wouldn’t he? Why is he any more likely to tell you to give charitably and love your neighbour, than to go out and start raping nuns at the fastest rate you can muster, if good is whatever God says it is? Is there something already “wrong” about raping nuns, by some rule which God can’t just rewrite at his whim?
I chose the examples in that paragraph up there because they would clearly cause unjustified suffering, and because very few people would deny that they are all certainly immoral acts. (Also because my neighbour’s a dick and I want a Wii. But that’s not important right now.) It seems implausible that God could simply assert that these things are all morally okay, and they would instantly become so. Our ideas about what’s “good” and “bad” seem inextricably linked with, well, whether things are good or bad. And papercuts in the eyes are just bad. It just naturally feels that way, even if it doesn’t occur to us to stop and think about what God’s thoughts might be.
If you say that God wouldn’t tell us to drown kittens, or rape nuns, or do anything “bad”, then there must be some reason why those things are bad, beyond whether God has instructed it or not. Wherever our values of morality do come from, it’s not from some allegedly benign dictator who has the authority to say, “Alright everyone, listen up, stabbing each other in the neck is now okay! There’s nothing immoral about it! So go crazy!” It doesn’t work like that. The fact that we can all find this concept ridiculous is enough to show that moral decisions are something that we can make up our own minds about, at least to some extent.
It’s just not plausible that some obvious abomination – be it stabbing or stealing, GTA or GBH, rape or Riverdance – could be made “moral” simply because God decrees it so. We can tell that murder is immoral, because of what it does to people, based solely on our understanding of the world and of humanity. We didn’t need to be handed down instructions from on high, we actually figured that one out on our own. Even if God hadn’t told you that murder was wrong, you’d still be able to work it out, right? Because, if you couldn’t… I think I’d rather you didn’t get too close to me.
His lerningz, let Him divienly reveel them
But even if God doesn’t define the morality of our behaviour, he could still be helpful in deciding what we should be doing. He’s God, after all. He’s supposed to know a thing or two, he’s been around a while, he might have picked up a few tricks. We’re not really in the same league as this guy – we may have managed to work out some of the easier, less subtle bits ourselves (stabbing people in the neck: mostly bad), but for more intricate moral guidance, why not rely on someone with a bit more life experience? Say, someone who created all life, and gave it a fairly massive play area for it to start eating itself in? That’s some serious life experience, right there. Maybe we should listen to the guy when he tells us what he thinks.
Sadly, we run into the occasional chasmic snag with this idea also. Although submitting to the superior knowledge of an ineffable authority might sound nice in theory (well, assuming you don’t think it sounds like the most sinister and dangerous idea imaginable), we don’t really have any such authority available for us to follow. There seems to be quite a lot of his advice written down here and there, but some bits of it keep saying that other bits are just stuff that people made up, and shouldn’t be trusted. Obviously I’m not saying we should go against God’s instructions, so we’d better ignore those bits… but wait, those bits are saying that this is the stuff that was fictionalised later on by just a bunch of guys… Oh, this is getting confusing. Couldn’t God have sorted things out a bit more clearly, so we knew exactly which bits of his supposed dictation we were supposed to trust him on?
That whole area, of the unconvincing nature of all the supposedly holy writings, will get covered in more depth in future essays. But whichever we decide are his divine instructions, they seem a bit thin on the ground. I mean, have you ever tried to read, like, the Law, for whatever country you’re living in at the moment? Because whenever I see people on TV reading stuff about law, it looks like there’s loads of it. I mean, loads. There seems to be a paragraph or a subsection for every tiny thing, and even if TV can’t entirely be trusted to accurately mirror the real world (which is obviously ridiculous, but bear with me), then the whole of the Law for a reasonably large and modern country has got to take up, ooh, five or six whole books, at least. Maybe more.
And some of the people arguing for God think this could all be done away with, in favour of a set of rules ten sentences long. Can that really be all a civilisation needs? In a world of patents, trademarks, copyright law, and intellectual property, to consider but one area of the legal system from my own entirely uninformed perspective, is “Thou shalt not steal” really going to cover all the technicalities? I think we’ve done a not-too-shabby job ourselves of formulating legal systems relevant to our own societies; God hasn’t released any new material in a while, and his old stuff’s starting to seem a bit dated.
Also, I know I threw it in there as a casual aside a few paragraphs back, but it really is quite a dangerous idea to unquestioningly give up one’s will and reason to some alleged “authority”. Most actual gods do sound, if not sufficiently benevolent, at least terrifying enough that they shouldn’t be argued with. But if you’re going to throw your lot in with one of them, trust them to get it all right, and completely stop thinking about it yourself, then you’re going to want to be damn sure that you haven’t just been duped by a bunch of mystics with some crazy ideas about what kind of bread you’re not allowed to eat. Especially when the punishment for getting it wrong is to have rocks thrown at you until you die.
I can conceive of a situation, unlikely but not utterly impossible, where it would make sense to suppress our ideas of right and wrong and go along with some religious rules that seem, on the surface, unreasonable. Our omnipotent, omniscient overlord might have sufficiently proven his all-round omni-osity to everyone’s satisfaction, and we would be willing to take his word that, okay, we should lay off the sodomy already, even though we were really having fun. If he’s proven himself in other areas, and we’re certain that this truly is a wise and ineffable authority we’re submitting to, who can never possibly be effed, then we might choose to just take his word on other things too.
But we’re a long way from having any divine authority so well established. I’m far from convinced, anyway, and the people who are convinced can’t make up their minds which is the ineffable authority we should obey, and which are the misguided ramblings of ancient nomads. If God’s purported spokespeople want our cooperation in sticking to arbitrary rules that make no sense to us, they’re going to have to start being a few orders of magnitude more persuasive than “blah blah mysterious ways blah blah beyond our comprehension blah blah eternal hellfire blah”.
Good godless, y’all
Speaking of eternal hellfire, let’s deal with the suggestion that it’s only this threat, of never-ending suffering as a punishment for behaving immorally, which keeps any of us in moral check in the first place. After all, if you’re not constantly looking back over your shoulder to make sure you’re not pissing off someone tougher than you who’s threatened to kick your ass, why would it ever occur to you not to shoot your own grandmother in the face and claim your inheritance early?
Again, I turn to those among you who are not demented psychopaths to supply an answer to this conundrum, which genuinely has many (though emphatically not all) religious people baffled. Are all God’s followers really only trying to save their own skins from being roasted? Can a believer only ever perform good actions in a self-serving attempt to improve their own lot come Judgment Day? Or might some people actually be good?
I’d bet that the majority of religious parents love their children for no different or less worthy reasons than the non-religious. And most Christians who refrain from killing people (even when it seems to be sanctioned) wouldn’t go on a cross-country chainsaw rampage if they thought they could get away with it. People just don’t need to be commanded from on high, or threatened with damnation, to behave decently. We don’t work like that. Atheists, broadly speaking, can be trusted to behave responsibly, and it’s utterly laughable when a group like the Catholic Church ever tries to claim the moral high ground these days, or says that God is “necessary” for us to behave well.
The idea that atheism is inherently nihilistic is enduringly popular among people who have chosen not to engage their brains on the subject. These people also sometimes seem to think that, whatever is actually the case, atheists should be immoral, because an atheistic philosophy demands it – as if, by acting like generous, caring, compassionate people, we’re somehow doing it wrong. It’s simply a fact that many people do manage to deny your particular brand of creator, without going around kicking puppies whenever they can do so with impunity. (For instance, I strictly limit my own puppy-kicking to academic research purposes.) Atheists regularly live full lives and raise families and do just about everything else generally considered necessary for a meaningful existence.
But aside from all that, this attitude fails to consider whether life would actually be any more worth living (or morality any more worth adhering to) given the presence of an all-powerful god and the immortal soul that tends to accompany it.
The everlasting reward/punishment we might be in for utterly dwarfs our paltry few decades on this planet into total insignificance. Every single event ever lived through by anyone, however colossal and world-shattering it may have seemed at the time, will be followed by a trillion trillion years in which to forget about it. You may spend the rest of eternity enjoying the utter delights and wonders of paradise – in which case whatever happened to you in one measly lifetime really shouldn’t be bothering you for very long, unless you’re unbelievably petty. Or you might now find your attention rather firmly captivated by the unending suffering being inflicted on you in Hell, in which case you’ll probably be looking back fondly on whatever happened to you before all the endless pain.
There’ll be more on Hell in a future essay, but it is jarring how significant a fate we make for ourselves in this paradigm during those first few decades, an infinitesimal fraction of our existence as a whole. And by “jarring” I of course mean “completely fucked up”.
On the other hand, if these scarce few thousand days are all we’ll ever have, they might start to seem rather more significant, and we might find some reason to care how we treat people during them, without any eventual reward or punishment always in our sights. You know, being good.
This is adapted for the Skeptictionary from a previous piece of mine about God and morality. I’ll be redrafting it anytime improvements can be added, so let me know if you find it incomplete, insufficient, or unfunny.