A few follow-up thoughts to my “Whence Comes Morality” blog of August 7th, 2010. Any atheist or agnostic has likely faced the claim or question of the religious that, without God, you have no basis for morality or even for moral behaviour. In a recent discussion involving the two Hitchens brothers, Christopher and Peter, the latter claims that “morality is what you do when you think no one is looking”. At first glance this seems to be a decent definition. We may note how children will behave one way when they know someone is watching and another when they believe they are not being observed. We may even go so far as to think that a child that behaves well when they think no one is watching is a “good child”, or is moral.
But I have some problems with this definition of morality, as is evident in my prior writings on morality. I believe morality is a human construct. But that is really beside the point. What I find surprising is that a person of religion would claim this as a definition of morality (as the religious so often do). Surprising because, of course, the religious believe that someone is always watching their behaviour. Therefore, for a religious person who believes that definition, their morality has never in their whole life been put to the test, or more accurately, they have never had to make a moral decision. All of us have, at some point in our lives, been faced with a decision that we believe involves a clear choice of right versus wrong when no other human is watching. Perhaps we’ve had the opportunity to steal money without anyone finding out, or to lie knowing that there is no way anyone will ever know. The religious, however, if they truly believe this claim about morality, are never in such a position. God is always watching. The temptation to steal the money is not quite the same because they will always be dealing with their belief that God knows what they did. It is not a choice of morality, it is a choice of whether they want to get in trouble with their religious father figure or not. This whole conundrum is ludicrous really. On the one hand, you have the religious claiming that morality is what you do when no one is watching you, but on the other hand by that very definition they themselves are never called upon to make moral choices. There is always someone watching.
I hope that any religious person could honestly ask themselves what they would do if they really believed God wasn’t watching for a few minutes. If you really had carte blanche for a few minutes, what would you do? I believe the religious are unable to answer this question because it is too hypothetical to their beliefs. But the point is, perhaps the religious’ claims that morality comes from God are true – for them. Perhaps without God they would not live moral lives or make moral decisions. I find that frightening. But, extending that to the non-religious is quite illogical and demonstrates an inability to connect observation to reality. Many are the occasions that I’ve been told by the religious that I cannot have morality without a god. It is a blind statement, typical of someone who hasn’t really thought it through but rather is reciting something they’ve been taught, and also typical of someone who hasn’t really made independent observations and then drawn conclusions (one of the mainstays of my fundamental beliefs about having a healthy relationship with the world we live in). How can someone seriously suggest that atheists have no morality without god? Do atheists actually live less moral lives than the religious? Take any objective measure of morality such as antisocial behaviour: murder, theft, fraud, dishonesty. Do atheists observably engage in these behaviours more than the religious? If you look at the prison population then the exact opposite appears to be true. Atheists represent a tiny minority in prisons, much smaller than their respective representation in the population at large. (Perhaps atheists are just good at not getting caught). So, how can one legitimately make such a claim? It demonstrates a significant inability to detach one’s preconceptions from reality and observations. As a former Christian myself, this is easy to understand. My mentality used to be exacting the same. I would recite Biblical claims about morality or human behaviour (isn’t one of my favourite such fallacies now “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” as though it were an observable fact that atheists are more foolish in life than the religious!), regardless of what the data actually said.
One of the fundamental arguments in the debate as to whether morality originates from gods or humans is whether morality is objective or subjective. Traditionally, in this debate, Christians tend to argue that morality originates from God and is objective. Their argument, at least as I have witnessed, is that without God there is no standard by which to objectively distinguish right from wrong. I have two significant problems with this argument. Firstly, it completely overlooks the history of Christianity. Morality in the Bible, the guiding moral book for Christians, is anything but objective. Morality (stemming “objectively” from God, remember) starts with the barbaric Mosaic law in which stoning one’s child for disobedience is required. It the progresses to the Christian morality (but under the same God of course), that simply claims to revolve around love. Stepping outside the Bible and into modern American Christianity, one finds even more bizarre twists and turns in the “objective morality” handed down from God. Abortion is wrong but capital punishment is right. Stem cell research is wrong, but gun possession is right. Taxation is wrong, but tithing is right. This first problem, of course, stems from another fundamental problem with religion that is simply overlooked by the religious themselves and that is the fact that the deity evolves with the culture of the times. No one, introduced to Christianity for the first time, and asked to read through the Bible objectively would ever conclude that the god Yawheh of the Old Testament and the god Jesus of the New Testament (or even the god “Father” of the New Testament) are the same personality or deity. This is overlooked by those that believe the religion, and is often justified as another characteristic of a mysterious and wonderful (albeit misogynistic, genocidal, jealous, and barbaric) god.
But the second, and more relevant problem I have with this point of view is that morality is, by definition, a human quality. We define morality as humans, which ironically makes it both objective and subjective. Morality, in the grand scheme of the greater universe, is subjective, but within human society it is objective. We all agree that killing another human is wrong. (Well, this gets complicated quickly. We don’t all agree that at all. A good many people believe killing is justified in some circumstances, often the most fanatically religious most fervently so). At least, we all agree that murder is wrong. That murder is wrong is an objective quality. There is no argument within human societies about murder being wrong. It is a black and white, objective issue. But, outside of humanity, murder is not wrong. That makes it subjective to humans, quite distinct from other issues which are not subjective to humans. Electrons hold a negative charge, whether we as humans say they do or not. Once humans no longer exist, electrons will still hold a negative charge. But once humans no longer exist, murder will no longer be immoral because without humans there is no way of even defining murder in the first place, let alone defining right from wrong.