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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Yawn, morality and atheists again

We hear from a lot of religious people, both whacko, weekend warrior and all points in between, that morality is given to us, bestowed upon us by their god as decrees are handed from king to peon. Every rule and regulation, prize and punishment, every burning cinder of hell and endless pack of Tim-Tams in heaven is part of God’s absolute & universal Moral Code. Without it, we are told by faith-sellers, our species would descend into inescapable moral morass, that we are all hedonistic pyschopaths on a hair-trigger, waiting like thoroughbreds for the gates of restraint to spring open and the little demons on our shoulders to whip us into an orgiastic frenzy of killing & destruction which would make Grand Theft Auto look like Wii Fit; indeed, that would make the Old Testament itself look like The Wiggles.
Of course, this makes me wonder a simple wonderment: is the only thing holding a Christian back from pillaging his neighbours and plundering his office really just the fear of God’s wrath and/or the fervent desire to get into God’s good graces? If it’s either or both, could you even call that morality, or is it just naked self-interest that any god worth the noun could see right through? If it’s neither – for example, if it’s just the thought of someone suffering that drives a Christian to give charity and nothing else – then how is that Christian any better, any more deserving of eternal reward, than an atheist who does the same good deed for the same reason? Is it actually possible, as Christopher Hitchens has famously asked, to name a good deed performed by a Christian that could not have been performed by an atheist?If a good Christian is so because he believes he’s being watched and judged from on high – can he really be called “good” at all? Why should the Golden Rule of “do unto others” be necessarily & inextricably linked to belief in the godhood of Jesus? What happened to a good deed being its own reward? What happened to just helping people because they need help and you can provide it?

And what of atheist humanitarians? Are all the decent godless out there really closet Christians plagiarising, as is a frequent accusation, Christian principles? Are the reasons for being good solely about avoiding Hell or entering Heaven? If so, how is “exist in agony for eternity or exist in bliss for eternity” even a choice?

Naturally, I don’t believe for a second that reasonable, moderate Christians believe themselves, for a second, that only religious people can be good. I don’t believe those same people believe that good atheists go to hell. I didn’t believe it when I was a Christian and I don’t believe it now. In fact, when I counted myself among the chosen it was something I wondered about. Exactly how bad do you have to be to go to hell? Do you need to actually kill & rape & steal or is it enough to not believe Jesus was God’s son? I wondered, even as a child, where God was supposed to draw the line between Adolf Hitler and a simple honest man who fought for his country and took lives in its defence? They both breached “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, a very unambiguous commandment (though, given the example God sets in the same set of books as he lays down the law, it’s not surprising that a few non-accidental deaths have occurred over the years). Do you look at the reasons for their killings? Hitler was convinced he was doing the right thing by Germany by attempting to exterminate the Jews and subjugating Europe. Our honest soldier was equally convinced that stopping Hitler was the most important thing anyone could do, so he killed he who had to to accomplish his mission.

People do good things for bad reasons – like providing charity out of pure self-interest – and bad things for good reasons – like shooting retreating Nazis in the back. What I’m asking (mostly of moderate Christians, as the response from your average fundie on any subject is as predictable as the result of Brick vs Glass) is this: what is it about me that will keep me out of Heaven, if such a place exists? What is it about any decent, law-abiding, charitable, mostly honest atheist that makes him deserving of Hell when his only crime is not believing something he can’t in all honesty accept, given the evidence provided by believers?

Maybe I did think of something to bitch about after all…

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
disagree?


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.