Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christian Morality

Many Christians like to claim that atheists have no basis for morality. (And I would like to make clear, for the record, that I realize not all Christians make this claim. But those who do are very vocal. It's those Christians I'm writing about here.) In fact, they say, the only thing that holds those evil atheists in line is the threat of legal punishment. If it weren't for that, why, they'd be murdering, stealing, and raping all over the place. After all, without God, they have no reason not to.

The argument is, of course, ridiculous. God isn't the only basis for morality; God isn't even a reasonable basis for morality. But I won't address all aspects of the argument in detail here; that's been done before by those far more capable than I. (Such as, for instance, Plato, about 2400 years ago.) Besides, I'm not really interested in debate; there are plenty of atheists around who enjoy debate--I don't--and who are much better at it than I am, and I'm content to let them handle that.

I do, however, want to bring up one aspect of the argument that I haven't really seen addressed much. See, as absurd as this argument is in one way, in another way, it's absolutely right. God is the only basis for morality...provided you use a particular definition of "morality".

Murder, theft, rape? All of those are clearly immoral with or without God. Christians have no monopoly on goodwill for one's fellowman; as much as they may like to lay claim to the Golden Rule, it's been around a lot longer than Jesus. The Golden Rule--not in the same words as appear in the New Testament, obviously, but the same idea--was preached by Confucius, by Seneca, by Socrates. It makes up a part of the teachings of virtually every religion, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. It doesn't take the Christian God, or any God, to make people want to follow the Golden Rule--all it takes is empathy, and that's something that humans can have whether they believe in God or not. And murder, theft, rape...clearly those aren't in line with the Golden Rule. Those aren't treating other people as you'd want them to treat you. Those are all hurting other people. And those are clearly immoral, whether or not God tells you so.

But that's not what Christians mean by morality. At least, when they accuse atheists of being immoral, those aren't the charges they bring. It seems that almost inevitably, when a Christian accuses a non-believer of immorality, it's sexual immorality that's explicitly referred to. I've seen it on a certain messageboard (on a site not devoted to religious topics, though the post in question did appear in the anything-goes "General Discussion" forum), where a Christian poster made the usual claims that atheists had no basis for morality--and to make his case, presented a laundry list of immoral acts he wanted to know if his interlocutors considered wrong. Murder, theft, and rape appeared nowhere on this list...every single one of the immoral acts he named was sexual in nature. More recently, a particularly dunderheaded Christian troll on Rockstars' Ramblings accused Bronze Dog of having no "objective moral standard", and when he got to specifics accused him not of lying or theft or of having hurt other people, but of being a "fornicator" , and backed it up by asking if he had ever had sex outside of marriage.

By the standards of the Christian god, premarital sex is immoral. So, of course, is homosexuality. And so are a host of other like sins. Whether these are immoral from a secular standard, though, is much less clear. Do they hurt anybody? A case could be made that, say, premarital sex does pose possible harm, by carrying the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease--but it's not a particularly strong case, and certainly the potential harm is much less than that accompanying murder, theft, or rape. The case against other versions of "sexual immorality"--such as committed, monogamous homosexual relationships--is even weaker, if not nonexistent. I admit I'm not really comfortable with many of these concepts myself, but that's attributable to my not having entirely shaken off the effects of my upbringing; rationally, I know that there's no way to reasonably claim that these are immoral deeds nearly comparable with the aforementioned crimes.

So why is it that when the Christian tries to accuse an atheist of immorality, it's inevitably sexual immorality that he brings up? Even by a Christian standard, these aren't the worst of sins, but they're the ones that always get invoked when the accusations get to specifics. Why? One possible argument is that these sins of sexual immorality aren't illegal. The atheist only follows moral rules, remember, for fear of punishment; since premarital sex and homosexuality and the like aren't actually illegal, atheists can get away with them. But that doesn't really hold water. There are plenty of other things that are legal but immoral--things far more clearly immoral than these, things that do involve harm to other people--that never get brought up. Lying, for instance. Except in very specific circumstances, when it might get classed as fraud or libel, lying is not illegal. And lying can certainly be harmful to other people. So why don't Christians ever bring that up when they ask about someone's morality? What about taking advantage of people, or child abuse (illegal, but all too easy to get away with in moderation), or, heck, littering (illegal in many places, but not all, and even where it is the law's seldom enforced)? There are plenty of things that are much more harmful to other people than these sexually immoral acts, and that carry just as little risk of punishment. So why is it only these that get brought up?

There's one possible answer that presents itself. Maybe it's because those are the ones that the Christian knows he's most likely to catch the atheist on. It doesn't always work--Bronze Dog's answer to his heckler's question was "no"--but it's more likely for the atheist to have had premarital sex than it is for him to have lied about a coworker or hit a child. Maybe those are the acts the Christian asks about because--even if he's not totally conscious of his own motives--those are the ones he knows are most likely to hit home.

(It could also be, incidentally, that that's part of the reason why Christian sects are so keen on insisting these things are sins in the first place. Oh, of course there may have been other reason for that in the times the Bible was written, but there are plenty of other injunctions in the Bible that nowadays go unfollowed. Why hew so hard to these? Perhaps because that way, the Christian retains some point of "morality" on which he can be almost assured dominance over the non-Christian. Were Christianity only to consider immoral that which clearly hurt other people--well, the heathen is perfectly capable of considering such things immoral too, whatever the Christian may claim. But this way, there remains some point on which the Christian can still consider himself better. But anyway, that's all complete speculation, and not something I'm strongly convinced of...)

But that very fact completely belies the main argument in the first place. Because if the atheist is significantly more likely to participate in acts that aren't as harmful to other people than acts that carry equally low risk of punishment to himself but greater risk of harm to others, that demonstrates that fear of punishment isn't the factor keeping the atheist in line. It's the desire to not hurt others. It's empathy. It's the Golden Rule. It's the very thing that the Christian likes to claim (against all historical evidence) only God can give reason to follow.

By the standards of the Golden Rule, by the standards of not wishing harm to others, atheists are every bit as moral as Christians--certainly there are some immoral atheists, but then history has had its share of immoral Christians too. Certainly God has nothing to do with making people wish to avoid harming their fellowman. So, by that standard for morality, the argument that atheists have no reason for morality is complete nonsense.

Now, if you bring in the type of "sexual morality" Christians are fond of asking about, then things are different. Though I've seen no statistics of the fact, I suppose atheists probably are significantly more "immoral" than Christian believers, especially those of more fundamentalist sects--if one defines "morality" to mean adherence to these sexual mores: avoidance of premarital sex and homosexuality, etc.

The problem is, the Christian argument tries to have it both ways. They say that only the fear of punishment is keeping atheists "moral"--keeping them from murdering, stealing, and basically running rampant over society. But then, when they come to specific charges of immorality, they turn to the sex. The problem is, then they're not talking about the same thing. They're using two different definitions of morality. And they're making some odd choices as to which to consider more important.

You know, such a bait-and-switch argument seems almost like a form of lying. Which seems to be to be at least a bit immoral.

11 Comments:

At 12/23/2006 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love your blog. It is ironic how religions have hijacked morality as if they have a monopoly on it.

Hope you're at RfM. That's www.exmormon.org
I'm T-Bone over there.

Cheers,
T-Bone

 
At 12/24/2006 9:30 AM, Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Thanks for the plug and the excellent takedown of the whole stupid argument.

I considered pointing out Weapon's complete lack of understanding of the very core of morality, but that would have lead back around to the moral relativism of Divine Command Theory, and completely fly over his head. (What doesn't?)

So I answered the question directly. I find it curious that he dropped all talk of morality after that.

 
At 12/30/2006 6:39 AM, Blogger vjack said...

I just discovered you through Atheism Online, and I'm glad I did. This appears to the sort of thoughtful, well-written blog I love to read. Keep up the good work.

 
At 1/07/2007 4:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It doesn't take the Christian God, or any God, to make people want to follow the Golden Rule--all it takes is empathy, and that's something that humans can have whether they believe in God or not. "

The problem here is that empathy is just a feeling; an emotion. Is justice to be founded on emotion? Is it wrong in your view not to have empathy? And if so, what would be your basis for that belief?

Matt

 
At 1/08/2007 12:46 PM, Anonymous Berlzebub said...

Anonymous (Matt) said:

The problem here is that empathy is just a feeling; an emotion. Is justice to be founded on emotion? Is it wrong in your view not to have empathy? And if so, what would be your basis for that belief?

Wrong Matt. Empathy isn't an emotion. It's asking yourself "how would I feel if this happened to me?" Although emotion plays into the result, empathy is not an emotion.

Now, since they weren't directed at me, I'll let Anon Coward answer the questions. However, I have a question for you (that is if you're not a troll). Do you consider stoning disobedient sons a just punishment?

-Berlzebub

 
At 1/09/2007 12:06 AM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

The problem here is that empathy is just a feeling; an emotion.

As berlzebub said, no, it's not. But even if you wanted to stretch definitions to claim that it is, how does it help to bring God into the equation? If you believe that God dictates morality, well, why obey God? Because it's the right thing to do? But that just brings things full circle and doesn't answer anything. Or if your only reason for following what you think is God's word is to get a reward (or avoid punishment) in the afterlife...well, then you're acting purely out of self-interest, and it's hard to see what basis you can have for calling that "moral".

Is it wrong in your view not to have empathy? And if so, what would be your basis for that belief?

With the exception of some psychopaths, perhaps, I doubt there's anyone who's completely without empathy. The question is whether you act on it. Do I feel it's wrong to treat other people badly? Of course. What's my basis for that belief? Well, that I don't like bad things happening to people. I think that's pretty clear.

Now, what's your basis for your beliefs in morality? Because claiming God defines morality doesn't accomplish anything at all. I linked in my post to Plato's Euthypro; have you ever read that? Not that the ideas there aren't something you can't find somewhere else--I had similar ideas myself before I'd ever heard of Plato's Euthypro--but they're laid out pretty well there. If after reading Euthypro you can come up with a coherent counterargument to the argument attributed to Socrates there about the meaninglessness of attributing morality solely to God, then get back to me.

 
At 2/07/2007 10:21 AM, Anonymous Tom Davidson said...

I've had a number of discussions about this on various forums (ironically, many run by Orson Scott Card), mainly because I'm an atheist myself who's fascinated by the common development of "morality." I don't think the issue is really one of exclusively sexual immorality, but rather authority. In other words, sexual sin is one of those sins that, as long as everyone involved in careful and consenting, appears harmless. There's no obvious downside to the act, but it is believed to be harmful for some reason. An atheist morality cannot assert that such behavior is harmful without being able to demonstrate causation between sexual behavior of some sort and a direct harm. Religions, however, can claim to speak with the authority of an all-knowing God; they can argue that while no harm APPEARS to result, a chain of events starts that invisibly leads to harm -- or even causes invisible harm, like a stain on your soul that you cannot otherwise detect but which will affect you in the afterlife.

In my experience, what religious people mean when they say that there's no morality without God is that they do not recognize any moral authority other than God, and cannot imagine how someone might adhere to a moral code without appealing to such an authority.

 
At 3/21/2007 4:10 AM, Blogger 10Matt39 said...

Of course empathy is an emotion. It is feeling something similar to what someone else is feeling.

A feeling or emotion is a very weak basis for morality for after all, we can easily hone or dull our sense of empathy and sympathy. We can give to the beggar or ignore the beggar. There is no moral authority, no "ought", to a feeling.

The Christian doctrine is that God placed our capability for compassion within us and therefore our compassion has moral authority.

The Christian listens to moral authority for the same reason children listen to loving parents.

Matt

 
At 4/26/2007 7:54 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Matt--Would have replied sooner, but comment notification is spotty, and I wasn't aware of your comment until just now. In any case, you'll probably never check back and see my reply, but just in case you do--and for the benefit of anyone else who might wander by here, I guess--I'll write it anyway.

Of course empathy is an emotion. It is feeling something similar to what someone else is feeling.

Well, no, that's not what empathy is, exactly. There's more to it than that. But for the sake of argument, I'll concede for now that it's an emotion; it really doesn't help your case anyway.

A feeling or emotion is a very weak basis for morality

You haven't suggested a better one. Or any basis at all, for that matter.

for after all, we can easily hone or dull our sense of empathy and sympathy.

Well, of course we can. So people can strive to become more moral (or can backslide and become less moral). That shouldn't be news to anyone.

There is no moral authority, no "ought", to a feeling.

Then where does "moral authority" come from? Again, you haven't suggested any coherent alternative.

The Christian doctrine is that God placed our capability for compassion within us and therefore our compassion has moral authority.

Our compassion has moral authority because God put it there? That's a complete non sequitur. If you believe in divine creation, then God placed our sense of smell within us as well. Does that have moral authority?

(Besides, isn't compassion a feeling?)

The Christian listens to moral authority for the same reason children listen to loving parents.

Which is...why, exactly? Out of love? Oh, but that's back to feelings again, and you've already rejected that. Out of trust that the parents know what's best for them? But then that just boils down to self-interest; is self-interest a real basis for morality? (If you really think it is, you'd love the objectivists.)

But regardless of why Christians obey God (or what they're told God says), that still doesn't do anything to explain why it should be moral to do so, why God should equate to moral authority. In my reply to your last comment (I'm assuming this is the same Matt of the previous comment?), I suggested you read Plato's Euthypro and get back to me when you've come up with a counter for the arguments there. From your latest comment, I'm pretty sure you still haven't read it. When you've read it, and when you think you've found a way to counter the arguments there, come back; until you do, frankly you're just wasting everyone's time.

Better yet, if you really want to debate atheistic morality, there's a whole blog devoted to the theme. You may want to go there to discuss the subject, rather than here in comment to a post where I explicitly said I wasn't addressing the argument in detail and wasn't interested in debate.

 
At 4/30/2007 6:47 PM, Blogger 10Matt39 said...

I check back once in awhile.

"Our compassion has moral authority because God put it there? That's a complete non sequitur. If you believe in divine creation, then God placed our sense of smell within us as well. Does that have moral authority?"

Why is that a non sequitar? If the highway department placed a sign on the highway, doesn't that sign then have the authority of the highway department behind it? And if you put a highway sign up because you felt like it, wouldn't that be of absolutely no authority? Our sense of smell has no bearing on morality but compassion does.

"(Besides, isn't compassion a feeling?)" ...

If compassion and love are merely feelings, then you will have compassion when you feel like having compassion and you will love when you feel in a loving mood and you will be just and honorable when you feel like being just and honorable. Yes, for the atheist, all those things, in fact, all things are mere feelings. Ought acts of compassion and justice and love and honor, things you do to others, depend upon how you feel?

Matt: The Christian listens to moral authority for the same reason children listen to loving parents.

Anon: Which is...why, exactly? Out of love? Oh, but that's back to feelings again, and you've already rejected that."

I think love is more than feelings, it is a different state of being. The very thought patterns are different from those that center on one's own feelings and one's own self interest. I will tell you from my experience that atheists don't come close to agreeing that love is just feelings.

"I suggested you read Plato's Euthypro and get back to me when you've come up with a counter for the arguments there. From your latest comment, I'm pretty sure you still haven't read it."

Yes, I did read your suggested source right after you suggested it. I still think it's a false dilemma. There are three choices, not two.

Considering all the people who say they became atheists when they were teenagers, how many of them knew or understood the Euthypro problem when they became atheist? Few, I think. So I think it has little bearing.

 
At 5/17/2007 6:42 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

Why is that a non sequitar?

Because of the example I gave. By exactly the same argument, your sense of smell should have moral authority. Does it?

If the highway department placed a sign on the highway, doesn't that sign then have the authority of the highway department behind it?

You didn't say that God's giving us the gift of compassion meant it had God's authority. You said it meant it had moral authority. Are you just assuming that anything from God must be automatically moral? Um, but wasn't that kind of the main point under debate here in the first place?

If compassion and love are merely feelings, then you will have compassion when you feel like having compassion and you will love when you feel in a loving mood and you will be just and honorable when you feel like being just and honorable.

You're playing really fast and loose with your definitions; I'd like to know what definition of "emotion" you could possibly use that would include empathy but not love or compassion. Then again, you used your own definition for empathy in your last post, so I guess it's not too surprising you're using your own definition for emotion, too.

Regardless of your definition of "emotion", though, you still haven't suggested any better basis for morality.

Yes, I did read your suggested source right after you suggested it.

Then why haven't you said anything about it before now, given that that's the main thing I asked you to address way back at the beginning of this?

I still think it's a false dilemma. There are three choices, not two.

Fine, then what's the third choice?

Considering all the people who say they became atheists when they were teenagers, how many of them knew or understood the Euthypro problem when they became atheist? Few, I think. So I think it has little bearing.

Huh? What in the world does the fact that the Euthypro argument isn't responsible for many people's conversion to atheism have to do with anything? We're not talking about the reasons for people's deconversions; we're talking about the validity of religion as a basis for morality. And the Euthypro argument has a lot of bearing on that. If you can't answer that argument, you have no basis for claiming that morality has any root in religion at all.

So let's drop the word games about emotions, because if you really want to try to argue that religion is a valid basis for morality the Euthypro argument really does get to the basis of things. So what's your third choice that you think renders it a false dilemma?

(Though I still kind of wonder why you decided you wanted to have this discussion in this comment thread in the first place, considering, as I said, that I explicitly said in the post I wasn't addressing the argument in detail and wasn't interested in debate...)

 

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