Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


The Argument | The Refutation

The Argument Back to Top

The Moral Argument argues that the very existence or nature of morality implies the existence of God. The argument takes various forms, among which are sometimes distinguished: the Formal, Perfectionist and Kantian Moral Arguments and the Argument from Values (or Moral Absolutes).

The Formal Moral Argument suggests that the very form of morality implies that it has a divine origin. If morality consists of an ultimately authoritative set of commands, where can these commands have come from but a commander that has ultimate authority (namely God)?

The Perfectionist Moral Argument suggests that morality requires perfection of us, but we are not in fact perfect. However, although we cannot achieve moral perfection by our own strength, we can do so with God’s help, which implies the existence of God.The gap between our moral duties and what we are capable of doing, then, is a paradox which can only be resolved by the supposition of a supreme Being.

The Kantian Moral Argument was proposed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century. It is perhaps better known as the Argument from Justice, and will be considered separately under that heading.

The Argument from Values or Moral Absolutes claims that there are universal human values and ideals - things like goodness, beauty, truth, justice, etc. - and these values are not simply experienced subjectively but really exist. As these values are common to all humanity, they cannot be human creations but must be creations of God.

The Refutation Back to Top

The Moral Argument, and particularly the Formal Moral Argument, begs the question as to whether morality is in fact ultimately authoritative, and whether morals actually exist or have meaning independently of us or whether, as many believe, there are alternative explanations for the existence of morals. In reality, it is neither necessary to follow a religion in order to be moral, nor is a religious person necessarily a moral one. Certainly, there appears to be no good reason to suppose that the absence of religion predisposes a person to be “bad”.
Religious belief is not a precondition either of ethical conduct or of happiness.
- 14th Dalai Lama (1999)

Morality, ethics and values can happily exist in a godless, secular context, as demonstrated by the many godless atheists who lead moral lives every day. Atheism does not have its own characteristic moral code, but most atheists follow many of the same “moral rules” as theists, even if for different reasons. Atheists view morality as something created by humans and the human condition, rather than a set of rules decreed by some supernatural being.

Furthermore, atheism is quite compatible with philosophies like humanism which do have a system of ethics and purpose. For theists who argue that atheists have no motivation to be moral, the atheist could answer that virtue is its own reward and that, as Aristotle believed, being good and living virtuously is the only way to a fulfilled, self-actualized life. God and religion do not need to come into the equation at all.

The idea that morality flows from religion received a major set-back in the public perception with the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when nineteen Al-Qaeda suicide hijackers occasioned the deaths of almost 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, secure in their expectation of a special place in paradise, complete with the use of 72 virgins, as a reward for their martyrdom. In fact, according to the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, 224 of 300 suicide terror attacks between 1980 and 2003 involved Islamist groups or terrorist acts in Muslim-majority lands.

Similarly, the incidence of paedophilia and child molestation among Catholic priests has been well documented in recent years, and more evidence comes to light with each passing year, suggesting that even the devoutly religious are far from immune from immoral behaviour (as well as bringing into question the wisdom of the Catholic doctrine of celibacy).

Interestingly, 1997 U.S. statistics suggest that only 0.21% of prison inmates were atheists, despite a percentage of atheists in the general population of between 10 and 15%. A 2005 study showed that more secular, evolution-accepting nations (such as Japan, Europe, Australia, etc) tend to have much lower levels of most kinds of crime, particularly homicides and violent crime, than less secular developed nations such as the United States, as well as lower rates of teen abortion, teen pregnancy, teen sexually-transmitted diseases and infant mortality.

Studies by the biologist Marc Hauser, involving a series of hypothetical moral choices, have shown that there is no statistically significant difference in the moral judgements made by atheists and religious believers, nor by members of the Kuna, a small Central American tribe with little or no contact with Westerners and no formal religion.
Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right.
- attr. H. L. Mencken (c.1925)

Most theistic morality is inevitably based, at least in part, on some version of “divine command” theory, i.e. that something is moral if God commands it and immoral if God forbids it. Most religions claim that some god created morality and issued moral commands to humanity, and thus their moral system is ultimately based on obedience to this god, regardless of what the commands are. Usually, neither disobedience nor questioning are permitted, and threats of punishment (even eternal punishment) for disobedience are prominent features of most religions.

Real morality, however, cannot be mere obedience, and for a person to be morally responsible, they must be able to reason out their choices and decide for themselves. We cannot make responsible, moral choices without having reasoned through our choices and the consequences of what we do, so that a truly moral system must emphasize the importance of the intellect and reason as much as love and compassion, something which few religions do.

The problem was neatly illustrated as long ago as the 4th Century BC by the so-called “Euthyphro Dilemma” (from Plato’s “Euthyphro” dialogue). The protagonist, Socrates, asks whether the gods command what is good or moral because it is intrinsically good, or whether the good is considered good merely because the gods command it. If the first option is true, then the idea of what is good is completely independent of the gods; if the second option is true, the idea of what is good becomes totally arbitrary, and the gods could theoretically choose to designate anything (torture, for an extreme example) as good. Thus, the gods cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary, and for the gods to be considered as good, the idea of goodness needs to be independent of them.

It seems, though, that in practice good and evil do exist independently not only of human opinion but also of the will of the gods or God. Suppose, for example, that God commanded that lying, stealing and murder were now good and therefore our moral duty - it is very unlikely that these actions would somehow suddenly become morally acceptable in the eyes of most humans, suggesting that we do not need God to determine for us what is right or wrong. There are in fact examples in the Judeo-Christian Bible (such as in Deuteronomy, Exodus and Kings, for example) where God appears to openly encourage stealing and lying, and in some cases even more extreme measures tantamount to genocide and mass rape, but these have not become acceptable practices for Jews or Christians.

There may in fact be good Darwinian reasons for altruism, generosity and “moral” behaviour, which have applied throughout history and prehistory, for instance, the favouring of genetic kin, the giving of favours in anticipation of reciprocation or payback, and the social benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity or kindness (as in the potlatch custom of North American native groups). Even if circumstances have changed in the modern world, such hard-wired urges likely persist, in much the same way as the sexual urge persists even when the Darwinian pressure to procreate is not the primary motive.
Our moral sentiments - the moral emotions contained within our mental armory - evolved out of premoral feelings of our hominid, primate and mammalian ancestors, the remnants of which can be found in modern apes, monkeys, and other big-brained animals.
- Michael Shermer (2004)

Our moral sentiments appear to have evolved out of the “premoral”sentiments observed in other higher mammals, particularly in the more intelligent mammals such as elephants, dolphins and whales and to an even greater extent in the animals genetically closest to humans, the great apes and monkeys. The fact that the foundations of morality, guilt and conscience are most apparent in those animals evolutionarily closest to us, strongly suggests that morality has evolutionary origins.

Most religions date from ancient times, when practices such as slavery and the subjugation of women were commonplace and accepted. Ancient moral codes, like those in the Bible for instance, while not inherently worthless, are therefore not the best guide to morality in the modern age, and obviously have nothing to say on contentious modern issues like genetic manipulation, cloning technology, global warming, etc.

Moral codes clearly do change over time. For example, the practice of women working outside the home in Western societies has changed over time from being considered immoral to moral as changes have occurred in how women are valued as well as in what women themselves value in their lives. In the same way, the torture and burning of possible witches in 17th Century Europe can be seen as either a supreme act of morality or as the product of evil incarnate, depending on one's perspective.

It is also clear that moral behaviour is highly malleable, and subject to psychological, social and cultural pressures. The well-known “shock” experiments of Stanley Milgram and the “Stanford Country Jail” experiments of Philip Zimbardo in the 1960s were graphic illustrations of this malleability, especially where the subject is just an intermediate link in a chain of evil actions and under social pressure to demonstrate obedience to authority. It should be remembered that these experiments were conducted in the wake of the Adolf Eichmann Nazi Holocaust trials, in which the phase “the banality of evil” was first coined.

The insistence of some religious groups on strict adherence to ancient scriptures (or ad hoc intepretations of them, which may or may not represent the true moral precepts of the original authors) further limits the exercise of moral choice and personal responsibility. Interestingly, only three or four of the Ten Commandments - considered one of the primary moral pronouncements of the Judeo-Christian Bible - are actually prescriptions for the ethical treatment of other people, and most of these are commonsense constraints built into the social codes of societies long before Moses. The majority of the Commandments merely prescribe accepted methods for religious rituals.

In addition, some of the grisly deeds carried out by God or on Gods authority in the stories of the Old Testament and the equally bloody Qu’ran, hardly set a good moral example. For example, what moral are we to draw from stories like that of Noah’s Ark (actually borrowed from a much earlier Sumerian myth), where God decided to drown the whole of mankind (and the other animals too) with the exception of a small handful? Or God’s instructions to Moses to kill all the Midianites except any women who were still virgins, whom the Israelites were to keep for themselves?
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of Reason than that of blindfolded Fear.
- Thomas Jefferson (1787)

Americans often like to claim that their country and their constitution was established on a Christian basis. However, most of the Founding Fathers were at best deists (believing that, although God created the world, he no longer intervenes in, or has any interest in, the world or humanity), and many of them had strong atheistic tendencies too, as shown in some of their pronouncements on religion. But above all they were all passionate secularists, believing that religion had no place in politics and the running of a country. A very clear statement of this appears in the Treaty of Tripoli, signed into law by President John Adams in 1797: “The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.

In fact, high levels of church attendance is a relatively recent phenomenon in the USA. Church membership has actually seen a gradual increase over the last century-and-a-half of reliable records, from a level of around 25% back in 1870, hardly the “good old days” of God-fearing traditionalism so often portrayed. Indeed, if America is sinking into immorality and degeneracy, as is often claimed by the religious right, it is doing so at a time when church membership is at an all-time high.

Religious moral systems tend to be absolutist and ignore the importance of context and consequences (for example, in certain circumstances, a lie might have better all-round consequences than telling the truth). Morality, in practice, is necessarily a function of social interactions and human communities and, in modern ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse communities, there is no longer a single set of religious principles and traditions which community leaders can unthinkingly rely upon for crafting public laws or standards.

Religious moral systems often focus on an afterlife, even though the reality of such an existence is highly debatable. A morality aimed at improving one’s status in a possible existence after physical death, possibly at the expense of the needs of oneself and others in the here and now, seems far from moral.

Immanuel Kant, in the 18th Century, specifically argued against the Perfectionist Moral Argument on the grounds that “ought” implies “can”, so that if we have an obligation to do a thing then it logically follows that we are able to do it, and morality cannot require of us more than we are able to give. Alternatively, it can also be argued that morality is just a guide and does not actually require perfection of us, and that it is in fact acceptable to fall short of the moral standard. Or, if divinely commanded morals and values are impossible to follow in practice, then they serve no practical purpose and it would be more beneficial for everyone to set more human-centred and understandable standards.

The Argument from Values or Moral Absolutes rests on an indefensible premise: that moral absolutes require a god. The very existence of living, breathing atheists who follow moral absolutes seems in itself to negate the claim. Confucius, founder of the ancient atheistic religion of Confucianism, stated his own version of the so-called “Golden Rule” - do not impose on others what you would not choose for yourself - some five centuries before Jesus was teaching a very similar ethical code. Similar formulations are also found in the works of Isocrates, Diogenes Laertius, Epictetus and in the Mahabharata, and it can be argued the Golden Rule is essentially a derivative of the basic principle of reciprocal altruism dating back to our Paleolithic ancestors. Moral absolutes, then, arise not from some divine edict, but from common-sense societal rules established over the millennia to safeguard communities and ensure their efficient continuation.

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