Friday, October 30, 2009

God's Morality

As atheists, we are accustomed to being asked, "Where do your morals come from?"

The oft-spoken assumption is that the world has reason to fear and hate atheists because there is nothing to restrain the atheist from committing horrible atrocities. Which is why the question itself identifies the person asking it as a bigot - seeking to promote an unfounded hatred and fear of others.

The common atheist response is to present a theory of morality. Morality is an evolved disposition, or morality is that which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or morality is a social contract we all implicitly adopt.

Or, morality resides in the fact that desires are malleable and people generally have reason to promote those desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

However, another form of response is available to those who claim they get their morality from God.

"Where did God get his morality?"

The correct answer to this question, of course, is that God gets his morality from his inventors.

"What you are doing, sir, is taking your own personal likes and dislikes and assigning them to God, then telling the world that God gives you permission - even commands you - to impose your preferences on others. Or you are the blind follower of somebody else who assigned his preferences to God, and then deceived you into promoting his interests by telling you that you are really working for an imaginary super-being that he invented."

This is the fact of the matter. This is also what is wrong with most religious morality - that religion provides a way for individuals to justify in their own mind imposing their own interests on others by assigning those interests to an imaginary super-being called God, then convincing oneself or others that, "No, you are not serving my interests. You are serving God's. The fact that serving God's interests coincides so closely with serving my interests is simply testimony to the depths of my spirituality."

The elm tree in my front yard exists. The evolutionist and the creationist might disagree over the history that brought elm trees into existence to start with.

Here's an absurd form of argument.

"Elm trees come from God. You do not believe in God. Therefore, obviously, you cannot believe in elm trees. As an atheist, you cannot account for elm trees so you are at risk of walking around the world bumping into elm trees and crashing into elm trees because you cannot account for their existence."

We do not hear that argument much. In part, we do not hear it because of the absurdity of it. We may disagree on how elm trees came about, but that does not imply that we must disagree on whether the elm tree in my front yard actually exists.

The same is true of morality.

One attitude to take is that the atheist and the theist disagree on how morality comes about. However, this does not imply a disagreement over the actual existence of morality. The person who wants to accuse the atheist of having no morality needs to provide more than evidence that the atheist does not believe in God. He has to provide evidence that not believing in God is necessarily associated with moral blindness. If morality is real, this is as absurd as saying that not believing in God makes it impossible to see elm trees.

So, why do we see this argument with respect to moral principles and not with respect to elm trees?

Because people who use the argument with respect to moral principles have a drive to promote hatred and fear others. The motivation for the argument is not that the argument makes sense - because it makes little sense for morality as it does for elm trees. The motivation for the argument is to tell the members of the congregation (or the school assembly or the legislative chambers), "You should hate and fear them because nothing restrains them from committing the most atrocious of evils."

Of course, "hate and fear them" immediately translates into, "love and trust me." It is a way for the speaker to promote himself (or his church) by putting down others. Thus, bigotry becomes hate-mongering; the act of selling hate to others for the purpose of personal gain.

An atheist and a theist can have a perfectly legitimate discussion over where elm trees some from. The theist can hold that there can be no elm trees without God. In other words, a conversation about where morality comes from is a perfectly legitimate subject for two good people to engage in.

However, the view, whether explicit or implicit, that atheists are to be hated and feared because they do not believe in God and, thus, are liable to all sorts of evils is not a thesis that a good person can advance. It is as absurd as the thesis that the atheist cannot see a elm tree. Somebody who is blind to that absurdity is either a bigot who adopts such an attitude out of a sense of hate, or a hate-monger seeking personal gain by selling hatred to others, or both.

Probably both.

Interestingly, the thesis, "God gets his morality from those who invent him (and God is being continually re-invented)," does not support the type of hate-mongering bigotry that is used against atheist. It does not support the conclusion that all theists are to be hated and feared. Instead, it supports the thesis that a moral theist will invent a moral God, while an immoral theist will invent an angry, petty, jealous, violent, destructive, and/or bigoted God.

Here's a slogan that might be of some use.

Since God gets his morality from those who invent (or re-invent) him . . .

"You can tell a lot about a person by looking at the qualities of the God he invents."

11 comments:

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

You hit the nail on the head at how absurd conversations with theists are over the existence of real moral relations. *shrug* That's the stupid world we live in.

Ben

mikespeir said...

While your conclusion is probably right, I think you have one thing backward, sort-of. I think the believer isn't trying to show that the atheist has no morality. I think he's trying to show that the atheist, in having morality, demonstrates that God exists. This, of course, is because of the believer's foundational assumption that morality couldn't exist without God.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Mike,

Actually it seems theists play that many ways and have no consistent or coherent approach. So you are correct in addition to Alonzo being correct.

Ben

mikespeir said...

It's unquestionably true that theists are all over the board, so to speak, on many things, Ben.

Commodianus said...

"Where did God get his morality"?

You're straw manning by implying God received something he didn't already have. Again, that's not an assertion made by Christians.

It's also logically fallacious because "get" being a verb requires time to operate in.

Atheist "ethicists" can base morality on:

Please answer the question, "what do atheists base their morality on"?

Jay said...

This morality question is such a big issue lately, but MY problem is that I just dont understand the question!
What do I base my morality on?? Where do I get my morals? Huh?
All I know is that I was raised in a totally non-religious but very loving and moral household by my non-religious but very loving and moral parents.
I truly dont understand the concept of morals coming from a 'god'...what does that mean exactly? I feel so dumb whenever there is a debate on this subject, because the concept simply makes no sense to me.

Eneasz said...

Commodianus - perhaps if your god interacted with the real world it would be possible to ask him where he gets his morals, or if he IS morals, or whatever other ridiculous claim you want to make. Unfortunately for the theist, god does not show up in the real world. So the only thing that anyone can base their ideas of god's morals upon is the stories and claims made by men. And so it's perfectly fair for questioners to ask these men making claims about god where their god got "his" morals.

As for your question, several common answers were stated near the beginning of this post. Reading comprehension failure? Or blatant dishonesty?

Luke said...

Alonzo,

You might think about this differently had you ever been a believer. I remember many instances in which my own moral sense told me one thing but my interpretation of God's will told me another. For example, I was disgusted by the thought that God would torture millions of innocent people just because they had never heard of them, but my theology taught me to believe that God must be right about that for reasons I could never understand. I also didn't see the problem with homosexuality but thought I had to "go with God" on that one and sign a petition against gay marriage when I was 20 years old. And I think that's a pretty common phenomenon among Christian believers. So I'm not sure people project their own moral beliefs onto their God as much as you think.

edivimo said...

Nice slogan, can I have your permission for translate it to spanish and put it in my blog?

Eneasz said...

Hiya Luke! :) I was also a believer, and I had much the same issues as you, altho my answer was to reject God's morality as flawed. I think perhaps the majority of many christians such as yourself could be covered by this comment in the post:

"you are the blind follower of somebody else who assigned his preferences to God, and then deceived you into promoting his interests by telling you that you are really working for an imaginary super-being that he invented."

I think the most tragic part is that in many cases, the people who have deceived others into promoting their own interests have been dead for millenia. :/

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Jay,

"I feel so dumb whenever there is a debate on this subject, because the concept simply makes no sense to me."

There's nothing coherent to understand. So your confusion is accurate, in my opinion.

Luke,

"So I'm not sure people project their own moral beliefs onto their God as much as you think."

I think Alonzo was speaking in the timeless sense of the character of God in the Bible getting his morals from whoever wrote those stories or whoever influenced those writers. Naturally there won't be a one to one correlation in every age.

Hence Eneasz is right when he says:

"I think the most tragic part is that in many cases, the people who have deceived others into promoting their own interests have been dead for millenia. :/"

And lastly, to Commodianus:

"Please answer the question, 'what do atheists base their morality on'?"

I think the best way for you to understand the answer to your question is for you to answer it yourself. What do atheists who have never heard of religion and yet strangely act in recognizable ways as though they know what morality is base their morality on?

Here's a hint: Either your question is invalid and presupposes something that is unnecessary or you are failing to recognize something you are already aware of. And then after that, when you decide whatever you have in mind "isn't good enough" I'll point you back to the question and ask, "Why is it good enough for them?" Good luck!

Ben