Doug Giles has an article in TownHall.com called, “Hey Atheists . . . Get Your Own Moral Code,” where he asserts that atheists borrow their morality from Christianity. Of course, atheists cannot have their own morality – morality comes from God and atheists have no God. So, the only option left is to borrow somebody else’s.
Actually, Giles gets the cart before the horse in this case. Every moral code – including the moral principles written into the Bible – were invented by humans. Some humans saw fit to assign their moral beliefs to a God as a way of saying, “It’s not me saying this – I can understand why you would not want to listen to me. It’s God saying this, and God will visit great suffering upon you if you should dare disobey me . . . I mean . . . him . . . if you disobey him.”
We can get a hint that religious ethics were invented by humans and assigned to God by their content.
When Moses came down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments, he found the people he had left worshipping a golden calf, so he slaughtered 3,000 of them. Of course he said that their sin was not following God. However, it seems that a benevolent God could think of something better than a slaughter to get the point across. On the other hand, a self-important mortal without divine powers angry at people who were serving some other so-called priest might face a more limited set of options.
Killing a child who talks back to his parents; some ancient scribe must have been particularly angry at his child that day. In fact, I can easily an abusive parent – a pillar of the community, no doubt – losing his temper and killing his child, wanting some way to keep the villagers from turning against him. So, he tells them, “God said that I can kill my child. In fact, rather than condemn me, God said that I should be able to bring my child before you and you should kill him.”
This is not to say that everything in the Bible is mistaken. If, as I have written, morality is a rational attempt to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires, it would be quite surprising if people 2,000 years ago got everything wrong.
In the realm of physics, this is not the case. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew that the Earth was round and that things were made up of atoms. Of course, they got the details wrong. However, they went surprisingly far with what they had.
Similarly, it is not unreasonable to hold that ancient cultures could also recognize that they would be better off if others simply told the truth – so they invented a commandment against bearing false witness, and claimed that this was one of the rules that came from God. They certainly did not want their neighbors to be sneaking into their house and killing them – or those they cared about – so they promulgated a moral prescription against killing.
Of course, ancient writers would also realize that they needed a way to make sure that people obeyed these rules, even when they could not get caught. One simple solution is to tell them, “Even if you kill me while I am alone and my back is turned, God sees all, and will make sure that you are punished in the afterlife.”
Actually, I do not believe that there was a great historical conspiracy by a bunch of atheists to promulgate a god belief that the conspirators knew to be false. The people who promulgated this belief were victims of their own ignorance as well. Yet, this does not change the fact that religion (and religious morality) is invented, and that the inventions that showed the greatest promise would be those that caught on. Along with some twisting and manipulating by those with power to help make sure that they stayed in power.
The Enlightenment, from which we got the principles written into our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, was perhaps the greatest borrowing of all time. In the 17th and early part of the 18th centuries, philosophers tried to do to morality what they had done to physics and chemistry – tried to discover a set of ‘natural laws’ without looking at scripture.
John Locke, for example, did not quote scripture when he derived his two Treatise on Civil Government. He turned to reason – imaging humans in a ‘state of nature’, and looking for the moral laws that would govern people in such a state. He showed that one can take moral philosophy a significant distance without looking to scripture, coming up with a set of principles that made far more sense than anything the Church had been saying for countless centuries.
Locke wrote, for example, that if we look at man in a 'state of nature', we can see them coming together. However, reason finds no clear and unambiguous mark that identifies one as 'he who has a right to rule' and another as 'he who has a duty to obey'. Without such a mark, reason tells us that all people in a state of nature are morally and politically equal. When they come together and form a civil government it derives its power from the consent of the governed, not from some natural right to rule for some and natural duty to obey for others.
Locke was a religious man, but his morality and his methods were firmly grounded on enlightenment principles of reason over faith. When he was done, he, and other theists, took those conclusions and assigned them to God.
Another moral system, invented by humans, and assigned to God.
Actually, if the dispute over whether moral truths that can be known by studying the real world were put there by God or emerged through natural process, I would have a different response. This would be like a group of people in the grips of a famine spending the time they should be spending in harvesting food debating whether food comes from God or evolution. Debate this in your spare time as you wish. However, regardless of how they got here, let’s at least make sure we harvest enough to survive.
Giles, however, has no interest in the possibilities of theists and atheists deriving the same moral principles by reason – the same way that we derive the same periodic table of elements by reason, wondering only where it came from, but not what it says. He has so much hatred that he needs to see a difference – a condescending and denigrating difference – between their moral views.
Another significant place where religious ethics borrowed from an outside source is on the issue of slavery. Many abolitionists were religious. However, they did not find their arguments against slavery in the Bible. If those arguments were in the Bible, then where had they been hiding for the previous 2,000 years? Why is it that the Christians living in the Roman Empire never heard that slavery was wrong?
In fact, those who defended slavery were able to find substantial support for their position in scripture. If God was against slavery, then why were there so many passages in the Bible where God commanded people to take slaves? Why were there passages on the proper care and feeding of slaves? Why instead of a commandment that says, “You should not own another human as if he were cattle,” there was a commandment that said that, “You should not even have your slaves do work on the Sabbath?”
The argument for the abolition of slavery comes from the same root as the argument for government from the consent of the governed - that reason does not see in nature any natural and unambiguous mark identifying one person as a right to rule and another the duty to obey. It does not matter that scripture tells us of such a right, we find no such mark in nature.
Once again, there was no appeal to scripture in this argument. It was an appeal to reason alone. Once reason showed the immorality of slavery, theists took the lessons of reason and assigned them to God.
Giles then comes along and asks, “Why do atheists seem to follow Christian morality?”
The answer is, “Because what passes for Christian morality these days is non-scripture based morality adopted because of its reasonableness and then assigned to God.
People are going to continue to adopt secular moral principles. The reason they will do so because people who look at morality through the light of reason are finding real-world solutions to real-world problems. People will see the way these principles will make their lives better, and will adopt them.
Those who do not wish to give up their religion – who also want to think of an afterlife and a God – will continue to mix the two. They will take reason-based morality and continue to assign it to God, ignoring whatever elements of scripture contradict morality and asserting that those fragments of truth found in the Bible are proof that morality came from God.
In short, people such as Giles are like the apprentice, stealing the masterpiece of a much more skilled student, holding it out in public, and saying, “Look what I did!” Not only does he fraudulently claim to be a master craftsman, but he claims himself to be the moral superior of those he robs from as well.