Religious people – some of them, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are religious…hell, I used to be! Grew out of it though. Just a phase. Anyway…
I read a comment attached to this thread over at Alonzo Fyfe’s place, which I found via this post in the latest Carnival Of The Godless. The comment, posted anonymously as seems usual with religious commenters on heathen blogs, was this:
So if atheists can be moral, how do you concur with
other people on right and wrong? Most atheists I have talked to say that they
decide right and wrong for themselves… what happens if two of you
The ol‘ chestnut known as The Argument From Morality once again rears its head (to be honest, it never really seems to dip below the surface very deeply or for very long).
Yes, it still seems (in some corners of the globe anyway, mostly in America) that if you don’t believe in gods or the that the bible is true you’re automatically an immoral, covetous, thieving, whoring bastard who decides, all on his own, what’s good and what’s not (as if that’s any more arbitrary than “thou shalt wear THIS amusing hat and thou shalt not eat THIS animal and thou shalt not work on THIS day and thou shalt complain to the high heavens and every tabloid current affairs show & half-baked “family” group about any TV show that rankles you, rather than just changing the fucking channel or, Me forbid, turning the thing off and reading something that doesn’t contain the word “shalt””). Seemingly without the guiding hand of a god we’d all just be raping each other in the streets – if we’d actually stopped the raping for long enough to invent streets in the first place.
The very idea that group cooperation and acceptable standards of behaviour amongst social animals is as natural and vital for survival as breathing and eating is something that doesn’t seem to occur to many religious people. The idea that our apparently unique human morality is not something bestowed upon us from above, like a layman receiving superpowers in a bizarre but fortuitous accident in a Marvel comic, also seems to receive little consideration. Equally unlikely: the idea that someone not raised within the confines of a particular parochial religion could ever develop decent moral standards through normal everyday interactions with parents, siblings, teachers, co-workers, friends, extended family and any other influence you’d care to name!
So how am I not a rapist or baby-eater? You might say “look at your first paragraph, you were religious once!” I was indeed a bible-carrying Christian, for a short time in my teens. I was looking for something, I tried to find it in the New Testament, whatever it was was not there & I continue looking to this day. I’m not even sure what I’m after but I certainly know where it isn’t. But that’s beside the point! The point is my parents, whose religious views I’m not entirely certain of anyway, to be honest (though I suspect dad’s a total heathen and mum’s at least agnostic or maybe just a soft deist), did not raise me or my older brothers as Christian kids. They’ve also always had a healthy disrespect for the tactics of evangelists, JW’s, Mormons and other fundamentalists. The one time they exposed us to any religious teaching on purpose was a brief stint at our local uniting church (soft Protestant, FYI) Sunday School. They say they wanted us to receive some moral guidance (apart from theirs), presumably from the fables of the Old Testament (hope they weren’t thinking of the Midianite massacre!) or the words of Jesus; I actually believe they wanted some quality time together on Sundays. Either way, our enrolment was cut off sharply the instant my parents learned that we were being taught about the awful doctrine of Hell and the evil personage of the devil. I must agree with my ma: Hell and its boss, the ultimate bogeyman, are awful things to teach young kids (false & really scary. Can’t get much worse) – I was five or six at the time if memory serves (it frequently doesn’t). I only learned this last year at the usual Christmas family gathering. I’d always assumed that it was because my brothers or myself kicked up a fuss because we wanted to watch cartoons in the morning (Space Ghost rules!) and not cop bible stories. Incidentally, that’s an interesting example of the kind of causality that religious people sometimes fall into: incident A happened, then incident B happened…therefore A caused B! Hallelujah! But that’s a topic for another time. The point is, my one experience with religious morality (before school forced it on us later) ended before it began due to my parents’ objections to us being taught the doctrine of eternal punishment. I started thinking about the fairness of Hell later on: how bad do you have to be to earn eternal roasting? Was Hitler even that evil? I lean toward “yes”, but if he was clinically bugshit insane (as he appeared to be) he might’ve been able to work out a lesser sentence. Again, I lean toward “I hope not”. Again, another time.
The point, which I should’ve assured you earlier was coming, dear reader, (and I’m sorry), is that noone’s morality needs to come from scripture and if it does, they’re probably the victims of child abuse. Yes, child abuse. If you teach a five-year old kid, as absolute truth, that he will burn forever in everlasting torment for transgressing the laws of god at the hands of an immortal despot with horns on his head and a fork in his paw, you are scarring that kid for life. The reason I’m not a serial brain-devourer or sex-slave trader is because my parents are decent upstanding people who have great care & concern for their fellow humans. Simple as that. They loathe violence, suffering, injustice & greed, they admire & respect (and display) generosity, love, fairness & honesty. They wanted to impart those values to my brothers and I and I think they did a fantastic job, all without a bible in sight.
The other part of the question from anonymous religious commenter #400 billion asked what happens if two atheists disagree on a point of morality. Well, we know what happens when religious people have disagreements: holy wars, Crusades & sectarian violence along the lines of the infamous Sunni/Shia or Catholic/Protestant schisms, for a start (but you probably saw that smart-arse response coming a mile off & I apologise). Still, back up when atheists disagree: there’s likely to be a discussion! Watch ’em, when they get in the ring and start discussing their differences like grownups, atheists are liable to do anything.
I’m not sure what kind of moral disagreement ‘anonymous’ (why don’t these cats ever use their names?) is expecting to be honest. Perhaps a couple of guys sitting around throwing back a few cold ones discussing their weekends: “Mate, totally raped this chick last night. She wasn’t into it but BAM! Knocked her cold with her baby’s rattle. Then I ate the baby. Spewing you missed it.”
“Wait up mate, isn’t that wrong? Sounds a bit over the top if you ask me.”
“Shit no, nothing’s “wrong”. Do whatever you want, there’s no god watching over us.”
Yeah. Bloody ridiculous isn’t it?
Atheists’ moral standards are the same as anyone else’s: be honest, don’t hurt people. The two commandments (think about it, you really only need two). Common sense mixed with empathy. If you’d hate it, don’t do it to someone else. Hell, even chimps do this! Basically, regardless of the religion of your parents, if you weren’t raised by sociopaths or psychopaths you’ll have these values. They’re universal. Human. Faith aside, people who don’t abide by them are viewed as criminals, or at least utter bastards.
But now I have a question for religious people: if it’s true that atheists have no source for their morals and just make it up as they go along (as religions never do … much), what would happen to your moral compass if your religion was suddenly proven to your satisfaction as complete fiction – an utterly false collection of fables with no basis in truth whatsoever? What would happen to you when confronted with the undeniable knowledge that your entire upbringing and culture was a lie? Without the heinous blackmail of Hell or the bribe of Heaven (and of course the watchful eyes of their respective CEOs) to keep you on the straight and narrow, would you then just degenerate into a whirlwind of debauchery and brutality? Or would you continue as you (presumably) had been, being a decent, law-abiding person who cared for the welfare of others? My guess is the latter, and if that was your answer, you’ll understand why some non-religious people get so exasperated by this fallacious assertion that religion is the sole source of morality in the world.
A few other things occur to me whenever this topic is raised as well: as the human race has evolved and society has matured over the years, we’ve stopped doing a lot of things that the bible told us we must do in honour of god. Just as a few examples, the bible lays down rules & guidelines for executing people talk back to their parents or work on the sabbath and it endorses slavery and gives rules about who you can enslave and who you can’t. We don’t allow those things anymore (not in polite, civilised countries anyway) and the usual reasons given for that are along the lines of “Well, it was a different time two or three millenia ago in ancient Palestine and humanity has thankfully moved on since those days. We prefer to focus on the positive and empowering things Jesus said…” So…in other words, you’re using your evolved, modern moral code to weave in and out of the more disagreeable parts of the bible and apply to your life the parts you agree with. So, in more other words, the god-given morality you’ve been raised with is actually superior to the morality on display in the very book you’re betting your very soul on. Because of your modern, non-bronze-age morality, you feel comfortable enough to leave aside anything in that all-important handbook for life (and afterlife) that makes you uncomfortable.
So in the end, don’t ask what atheists do when they have a disagreement on morals. Ask yourself what you’d do if the bible and the religion it supports was shown, indisputably, to be a 100% fabrication from go to whoa. From where would your morals come? Would you muddle along and use your common sense or would you look elsewhere in other sacred texts for guidance? What if it was conclusively proven that all religions are false and we are indeed alone on this rock with no heavenly father of any kind watching over us? Like it or not, you’d be an atheist and you’d have to figure it out.