The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Society Just Doesn't Need Religion to be Moral

One of the most common complaints theists make regarding atheism is the alleged amorality of atheists. This mirrors the common misconception that atheism is either equivalent to or at least a kissing cousin of nihilism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The genesis of this allegation is the notion that human morality is dependent upon the existence of and adherence to a system of morality mandated by the divine. The obvious utility of this allegation is that it means that religion, all religion, is necessary to prevent humanity from descending into the Hobbesian nightmare of the eternal war of all against all.

But is it obvious that human morality can exist only within the confines of an externally mandated system of divine rewards and punishments?  Is a divine code of conduct necessary for human morality?  This canards is not only patently ridiculous, but demonstrably against the weight of the evidence of the entirety of human history.

As a threshold matter, the idea that human morality is dependent upon a divine code of conduct depends first and foremost upon agreement as to the basic tenets of what that code of conduct IS. It should first be noted that over the course of human civilization innumerable human religions that have waxed and waned.  More importantly, those innumerable faiths do not possess any overall consensus as to what code of morality the divine actually intends for us to follow.  Indeed, nearly all express not only skepticism regarding the morality of other faiths, but outright condemn those who practice them.  Given that supposed moral exclusivity, one would assume that within a given religion, at least, that code of morality would be as unchanging as the eternal divinity it purportedly represents.  Even within a single religion, however, that code of conduct, that supposedly unchanging moral code has shifted over the millennia.

To be blunt, the written code of conduct and ethics that dominated each of the Abrahamaic religions is incredibly barbaric.
Chattel slavery was expressly permitted. Women were expressly relegated to second class citizens. Sex outside of marriage and was considered a sin so vile that adultery, let alone any whiff of homosexuality was to be punished by death. God not only authorized, but expressly commanded genocide. The list of barbaric conduct not only permitted, but demanded by the gods of the Abrahamaic religions is too extensive to list.  Suffice it to say, however, that adherence to such a code would make God a war criminal if he were human.

Even more troubling, the Abrahamiaic religions were obsessed with what we would probably call 'thought crimes' today. Envy, covetousness, lust, etc. Simple human emotions were themselves branded as sinful.

Obviously, the draconian code of conduct demanded in ancient stone tablets, scrolls and parchment, and its demand for the death penalty for ridiculously minor offenses, is somewhat difficult to put into practice.  So over the centuries, religion gradually filed off some of the harsher edges.  Such softening was utterly necessary if only to ensure that they didn't execute half of their citizenry for having sex and the other half for thinking about it. As the centuries progressed, humans recognized that chattel slavery, DESPITE its Biblical stamp of approval, was itself a moral evil, and that freedom in and of itself is a moral good.

This revelation is rather striking in that one would assume that an all knowing, all powerful super-deity would have been well aware that slavery was inherently evil LONG before humans figured that out on their own. One would assume, that had this being had any interest in our code of conduct reflecting its own, that it simply would have added another commandment stating “Thou Shalt Not Enslave Or Own Thy Brethren.” The ancient texts' treatment of women eventually suffered the same fate as that of slavery in that over the centuries, human beings came to understand that females were fully capable of being amazingly productive members of society and that, in fact, they were MORE productive when they were not subjugated to the patriarchal whims of their husbands. The same is presently occurring with regard to homosexuals and their inevitable recognition as full members of society and their entitlement to all of the legal and civil benefits afforded to heterosexuals.

As further evidence of this softening, it is fascinating to understand that many of the heroes of the ancient religions would be considered war criminals in the modern world. Moses and the itinerant Hebrews launched waves of invasions and genocidal warfare against their neighbors and their God commanded the slaughter of the men, women and children of the cities they seized. Imagine the present day reaction to a stateless religious group of men and women who invaded neighboring countries, attacked and razed their cities and butchered their citizens. We would call such people war criminals.  We would label them terrorists. Our leaders would declare that we want them 'Dead or Alive.'  We would hunt such barbarian thugs to the very ends of the Earth and execute them for their crimes.

Theists will argue that the world was different then, that it is unfair to apply OUR morality to a different world, but is that not the very ESSENCE of moral relativism?  Indeed, in defense of their founders, Theists MUST argue such things.  Must argue that Abraham was on the side of light and was perfectly justified as he lifted the knife and prepared to murder his son.  Must argue that Moses was on the side of justice as he and his followers butchered innocent men, women and children and plundered their cities.  Else they must recognize that the moral code, the ethical code handed down to us by the Divine is fundamentally flawed and has required numerous revisions.

As an atheist I more than happy to accept our moral relativism.  Moreover, I am endlessly encouraged by the fact that secular countries, far from slipping into some degenerate state of social, political and economic chaos, significantly outperform highly religious countries by almost any conceivable metric of social or political well being.

As an atheist I am unfettered from ancient, archaic and barbaric traditions and codes of conduct, and am free to acknowledge the reality that morality is a social construct.  A flexible, malleable and adaptable set of expectations whose reciprocal obligations are enforced through social dynamics such as shame, guilt and ostracism.  As an atheist, I am delighted by the fact that morality evolves, that it can and will grow as we mature as a species.  It evolves with us, because it IS us, it is our will, our desires, our conception of ourselves and how we should be.

As an atheist, I am free to recognize that just as our societies, as our human civilization has grown more egalitarian, more fair, more just, that morality will adapt and evolve along with it - hopefully towards greater justice, greater freedom, greater liberty, and greater acceptance of others.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  May it ever be so.


  1. Awesome, as always.

  2. One of the most pernicious religious dogmas is the Christian doctrine of original sin. The idea that humans are born evil and can only be "saved" by accepting Jesus into their hearts has been used to justify everything from dispatching missionaries to "sell" Christianity throughout the world, to forced conversions and subjugation of "heathens". It's also allowed its smug "saved" adherents to assume an air of moral superiority over non-believers that persists to this day and in almost every geographic region.

  3. ...and yet when they're fetuses they're called "innocent." I dont' understand that!

  4. Even elephants feel morality, they help each other, mourn for their losses ceremoniously and generally act with hierarchy. They did not read a book to know these things.

    A christian answered me on this one with "Animals don't count because they have no souls"

  5. Why do you even feel the need to be moral? Are you saying you admit there is BAD or evil? Then you must admit there is Good? Why is Good, "Moral" Who says so? And if there is NO GOD... who cares right? You think Christians are so judgmental and are wanting you to do what we say, or think what we think.... aren't you doing the same? Why, if there is NO GOD are you dedicating so much time to this? Listen to a guy named Ravi Zacharias... He is a smart dude, i think you might like to debate him one day! I hope you keep asking questions and seeking answes! ♥