On ethics and morals and Sunday School

Somehow and for some reason, when I woke up this morning I was in the middle of thinking about ethics and morals and how my parents taught them to me. The key point which kept rolling around in my head was along these lines: if my parents were able to teach me how to behave ethically and morally, without invoking deities as their inventors or enforcers, it stands to reason that anybody with any knowledge of morals and ethics should be able to teach them to anybody else, also without invoking deities.

The obvious religious objection naturally & instantly arose: where did your parents get their morality? That they taught you good behaviour without using Scripture as source material means nothing; they had to get theirs from somewhere and so did their parents and so on. Even if your family are all a bunch of atheists going right back to Noah, they nonetheless followed religious morality. Morality is a gift from God and you can thank Him for it or not, it’s your free will (which is also a gift).

The above paragraph probably isn’t going to be representative of the entirety of religious moral arguments. Consider it an amalgam of all the things I’ve heard most frequently from religious people about morals over the years; take or leave what you will when reading it, as you like. Basically it boils down to “religion = morality.”

But here’s the problem. Some variants of the “religion = morality” stance would have us believe that positive behavioural codes didn’t exist before Jesus or the Ten Commandments (apparently we’re meant to imagine some hedonistic free-for-all where people ran around the entire planet Earth raping, killing and generally being unpleasant with no consequences, just because noone had heard of Hell or God’s wrath yet). Well, that proposition is easily debunked by pointing in the general direction of two great civilisations that were both contemporaneous with and predated Jesus & Moses: Rome & Egypt. You don’t get to be a continent-spanning Empire without some kind of behavioural code which prevents & punishes destructive behaviour and encourages beneficial behaviour. You might also point to the ancient Athenians, with their Golden Age of scientific inquiry and philosophy; the Chinese, with their economic, philosophical and military strength or the Persians, whose empire once rivalled that of Rome. Yes, they were brutal societies a lot of the time, but that was how things got done in the BC’s – and need I mention the thousand years of brutality of the Christian empire which later grew from the ashes of Rome? There didn’t seem to be much Christian love on display during the early years of Roman Catholicism and, frankly, there still doesn’t. The Mesopotamians, Celts, Aborigines, Mayans, Native Americans & countless others were also all thriving and all had detailed societal codes governing individual and group behaviour long before any of them had heard the stories of Jesus or Moses (indeed, it wasn’t until one and a half millennia after Jesus’ life that far-off civilisations like the Native Americans and Aborigines were introduced to Jesus, yet there they were, in possession of morality, ethics and part of thriving, successful, complex societies).

The obvious objection to the above examples: all those ancient civilisations and tribes had gods! They all had their mythologies & sacred stories & fables keeping their behaviour in check. They may have been the wrong gods and the wrong stories, but they wouldn’t have had their laws and their functioning societies without them.

Apart from ignoring the obvious point that human societies across the world developing independent codes of conduct which have many key aspects in common is evidence of morality being a natural development of human society and not a top-down heavenly imposition, such a position also puts the cart before the horse. It’s pretty simple to imagine beneficial behaviours arising in a group long before anyone had the ability to verbalise what they were. Considering even ant colonies and schools of fish behave, comparatively unconsciously, in ways that benefit the wellbeing and safety of the group, it’s no great stretch to imagine that our hominid predecessors would have, as social creatures living in groups, arrived upon a system of behaviour that worked to keep their group safe, fed and together, all without a single word of English or Latin or Arabic or Hebrew needing to be spoken. You see it today in our cousins, the apes, monkeys, lemurs and other primates. You see it in little meerkatswatch over each other can develop in a less intelligent species, why should you ascribe to a highly intelligent species like us the need for a celestial code of conduct? Why should humans, the smartest creature on the planet, need to be told how to behave by a god when chimps, ants and fish can figure it out for themselves?

We’re humans not because we’re bald apes that can talk; we’re humans because we use our unique verbal ability to discuss & codify & disseminate existing positive behaviour in ways that other humans can understand and accept. Since “humans” as we know ourselves first walked through Africa a million-ish years ago, we’ve carried with us the unspoken behavioural codes that kept us alive & kept us together in the face of extreme weather, rival groups and any number of predators, long before we had words for any of those things. We survived a million years because, just like our hominid ancestors, we looked out for each other and played within rules that worked – even before we spoke them. To think we, unlike every other species on Earth, needed to be told not to murder each other or steal each others’ food or mates by a god, is ludicrous and insulting to our intelligence.

And now, to close, I think it’s worth pointing out a couple of things. First, whenever my parents were giving my young self a serve for doing something stupid, careless or hurtful, one very effective question always posed was: “How would you feel if that happened to you?” That was always a showstopper (although I wouldn’t admit it at the time). A simple appeal to empathy – or just naked self-interest, which is all sometimes children of very young age can process – is often all a child needs to make them think about the effect of their actions. With this simple approach, a god or his stories are not needed. That’s not to say mythology isn’t useful: a fable by Aesop can be a useful illustration and a way to encourage children to think empathically, but there’s no reason to dress a talking tortoise as the absolute truth. In fact, I think a book of Aesop’s fables would be a lot more use in teaching morals to children than either of the Testaments, considering the questionable and sometimes outrageous “morals” displayed in those books by God and his chosen. Not to mention the lack of talking tortoises.

Second, up until I was about six years old, I attended Sunday School at the local church. The reasons were twofold: my grandmother liked my mother to accompany her to church and my mother thought Sunday School would be a good place to learn some moral lessons (and probably keep me busy for a morning). My parents didn’t necessarily want me to be Christian as such but mum thought some Bible stories might give me pause to think about some of my more demonic behaviour (for the record, I thought it was all incredibly dull except for the stories about guys like Samson & David hacking their way through the Bible). Eventually, my brothers and I were removed from Sunday School. At the time, and for years afterwards, I thought it was because of a successful campaign to allow us to watch Sunday morning cartoons. Only last year did I find out from my mother that she’d removed us the moment she discovered that we small kids were being taught about Hell (I don’t remember it, but I was only six and I probably wasn’t paying attention anyway). Religious or not (well, dad’s a godless heathen but I’m still unsure of my mother’s affiliation – I suspect it’s because there are and always have been more important things to discuss), my parents could not abide small children being taught the vicious & hateful doctrine of infinite torment for finite crimes. The concept of being tortured for billions of years was so despicable that my mother removed us from the church the family had patronised for years without a second thought. Yet Christians, who invented a punitive afterlife worse than a billion Auschwitzes, would have me believe that without them and their teachings the human race would have no morals!

And they wonder why we look at them sideways when they make this claim.
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