Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Bro, do you want someone to do that to you?"

Some religious people suggest you can't have morality without God, and therefore atheists have no reason to act morally. Some atheists respond by saying we shouldn't need the threat of eternal damnation to inspire us to act decently.

As an agnostic, I don't see why a belief in God is necessary in order to want to live a moral life. I can see the benefits of the Golden Rule regardless of whether you think someone will eternally reward (or punish) you depending on how you behave.


And I have secular friends that I think are perfectly lovely people, so I'm obviously not convinced that without God we are all just awful.

I will say, though, that when secularists insist religion is the only reason anyone would be pro-life, they sure do reinforce the "atheists have no morality" stereotype.

I'm against abortion because I recognize the fetus as a member of our species and I believe human beings should be valued and protected; at minimum, I think it should be illegal to non-defensively kill someone. I don't consider any of what I just said to be radical, and I don't see why any of what I just said would require religious faith in order to make sense. From the pro-life perspective, when people insist you have to be religious to be pro-life they're insisting that you have to be religious to value humanity and/or to think it's wrong to kill others. Great.

But I understand that there's a disconnect here. Many pro-choicers make a distinction between human beings and people, and while the fetus is a human being, they will insist the fetus is not a person. A pro-choicer could believe that all people should be valued and protected while all fetuses can be killed. So, from a pro-choice perspective, the idea that you must be religious to be pro-life is really the idea that you must be religious to believe the fetus is a human being of moral value.

I still think it's a little sad that some secularists believe you have to be religious to value all members of our species...but I guess it's better than thinking you must be religious to think, you know, killing others is bad.


Jameson Graber said...

The relationship between morality and theology is really an interesting and much more subtle debate than people make it out to be. Some would suggest not that belief in God is necessary for being moral, but rather that the existence of morality is one of the signs of that "imprint of the divine" in us. Others would suggest that at the very least, religion has played an important role historically in the development of our morals, even if the theology behind it isn't strictly speaking true. It's a complicated relationship.

I will admit, I see a strong connection between the kind of utilitarian thinking that leads to justifications of abortion and other questionable bioethical practices, on the one hand, and secularism on the other. Maybe the link doesn't need to be that strong, but that's the historical situation we seem to be in right now. I'd love to be proven wrong.

Anonymous said...

I think you have a rational perspective on the abortion issue, and I had a similar line of thought. I also agree that you don't have to be religious to believe that murder at any stage of life is a gross violation of human rights. I totally stand with you in that respect. I just want to thought this out there, though, and I realize that this was merely a side point in your post: While I can't speak for all the religious, personally, it is neither the threat of damnation or the prospect of eternal life which motivates me to take this position. Perhaps it might make me a more staunch advocate of it, but I think it's the most rational one to take. I have the intellectual (and moral) high ground. Thanks for you post. I enjoyed it.

Dolce said...

"I can see the benefits of the Golden Rule regardless of whether you
think someone will eternally reward (or punish) you depending on how you

This is an extreme over-simplification at best.

Firstly, let me just say that I ABSOLUTELY agree in essence with what you are saying - that you do NOT need to be religious in the least in order to believe that abortion is wrong. This is one of the (many) reasons why I LOVE that your organization exists!!! You guys make me so, SO happy :D (also, your blog is awesome).

BUT the caveat here is that in order to say that something is "wrong" or "right" you need to have an objective moral standard that applies to all people in equal measure. This is one of the many ways that philosophers have "shown" (from a logical standpoint) that God (where here the definition of God is simply a standard of right or wrong - i.e.: this does NOT address the concept of a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc... or - more generally - personal God in any way) exists.

People who do believe in a personal God find it hard to understand how one can believe in a moral standard without believing in said God. This is, in my understanding (which is at best very cursory) where the idea of relativism comes from (i.e.: no personal God becomes associated with no moral standard therefore anything and everything is ok as long as you are true to yourself).

Anyway, I guess my point is, religious people do not believe killing is bad because they are don't want to be punished - they believe it is bad for the same reasons that you do. They believe in a moral standard that says that all human beings should be treated a certain way, and at minimum (to paraphrase) they should not be killed for unjust reasons. They just believe that this moral standard is established by God. You believe it is established in another way. Anyway, it can be really annoying when people simplify your beliefs to mere caricature (i.e.: Atheists cannot have morality! You only do good because you don't want to be punished!), so lets be mutually respectful and make an effort to really understand each other without oversimplification (and yes, that effort definitely has to come from the religious side of the debate!) :)

Clinton Wilcox said...

Actually, Christians don't argue that you need belief in God to be moral, just that God's existence is necessary for morality (the Moral Argument for God's existence). We know that Atheists can live moral lives, but morality doesn't make sense if God doesn't exist. I've never actually seen an Atheist adequately ground objective morality (though I agree that morality is objective).

Laura Nicholson said...

I've had Christians tell me both that there is no reason for an atheist to be moral and that we should consider our eternal rewards when choosing how to act in this life.

I've also had Christians say what you're saying, making a distinction between a belief in God and God's existence independent of belief. And I agree that's a more reasonable argument. However that's not what this post was meant to address.

Laura Nicholson said...

Thanks for the feedback. :)

I don't intend or want the blog post to be disrespectful. I don't think *all* religious people believe what I wrote, but that's why I said "some." It's not a simplification of all religious belief so much as an observation of what some religious people have told me. I understand that there are better reasons that believers choose to act--I've seen that a lot too. But I have known some that seem to focus more on the effects of their actions on their after lives.

Kara Baylog said...

Hear hear. By default I find many pro-choicers also assume that the only way to identify a human being as a "person" before being born is to cling onto this idea of "soul", which by its nature, is a spiritual or religious term. So they construct this strawman against pro-life atheists. It is very difficult to extract them from that belief, even when referencing unique DNA, and conception as being the only time ever that a human being can be formed. Inherent in their argument is always that as a pro-lifer, I must be bestowing this arbitrary, religiously entrenched concept of ensoulment.

Kara Baylog said...

I don't see any correlation between having morality and there being a god. You'd need to have a control group of civilizations with no morality and statistically significant lack of verifiable deities to make that claim. Otherwise you are just connecting dots - with one of those dots being in questionable existence to begin with.
I will agree with you, on the other hand, that historically, religion, even if based on entirely false mythologies, has definitely played a role in our moral development, both for better and for worse. Additionally, it is difficult to claim which comes first, a religiously inspired moral that the people then cling onto, or a secular moral that religions cling onto and help disperse. Most likely both cases have occurred.
However, secularism and utilitarianism most certainly do not go hand and hand. All you need to do is look at some of the rationalization of slavery from some of the white landowners of pre-civilwar south to see that there are utilitarian religious people. I have no doubt that there were people who truly believed the correct moral order was that of master over slave, man over woman (to the extent that women should keep quiet and do little more than bear and raise children), and what fueled a lot of their rationalization was none other than direct quotes from the bible itself - even if the benefit was very utilitarian for those people. A lot of the anger behind the holocaust, and the German population's acceptance of it was that not only were the Jews a relatively wealthy subset of people, for which there was jealousy, but that it was okay to discriminate against them because they "killed Jesus".

Sorry to get off topic!

Clinton Wilcox said...

I see. I guess it really depends on how educated the Christian is making the argument. I've known Christian who think that Atheists don't do any "good" deeds, but I think that Atheists can live moral lives, but that if Atheism were true them morals would truly be relative. In order for an objective standard of morality to exist (objective meaning "independent of the human mind"), there must be an entity outside of humanity which establishes an objective standard of morality.

Clinton Wilcox said...

Hi, Kara:

I think there is absolutely a correlation between morality and God. If God does not exist, then morals are, at best, relative, meaning that it is left up to the individual or to society in what way someone should act, and I think there are really bad reasons for believe that morality is simply relative to the person or society. Conversely, if morality is objective (meaning "independent of the human mind"), so that we can say certain actions are always wrong, for all people at all times, then I think the only way we could say that is if there is an objective standard of morality. I think there are definitely some acts that are always wrong and never justified, like rape. I also think that murder (that is, killing someone without strong moral justification) is also objectively wrong.

r.holmgren said...

"I'm obviously not convinced that without God we are all just awful."

No one says you are awful. Two points:
. Without God "Objective Morals, Values, and Duties" do not exist.
. Without a healed and forgiven relationship with Jesus you cannot be forgiven.
Since no one can be good enough to be good enough to warrant entry to heaven, how good a person is, is of no consequence, at least within that context.

Beyond that, of course atheists can be good people. In fact, if they tweek their moral code just right (i.e. set the bar low enough), they can be perfect.

abolitionist73 said...

I share this particular frustration with pro-choicers. Someone can lay out a fantastic secular case against abortion, and the response is, "You're religious, aren't you?" As if that somehow affects the arguments on the table. Saw it recently in a debate with the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform.

abolitionist73 said...

"I don't see any correlation between having morality and there being a god."
I'd be careful here, Kara. There's no shortage of major atheists who agree with the idea that, if atheism is true, then there's no such thing as objective morality -- that right and wrong simply don't exist. You don't have to agree with them, of course, but you should be aware that this is not an idea that can be flippantly dismissed.

Kara Baylog said...

Oh, I never said anything about objective morality :) What was posited was that because people have morality that this is evidence of a god. Morality is definitely subjective in my opinion. Over time, over civilizations and generations, we've gotten better at developing a collective morality that has allowed our more modern civilizations to exist as they do. Morality, as a result of education, both formal and informal, is somewhat stick, I'd argue. Very few people these days actually think slavery is ok and morally right. Go back hundreds and even thousands of years and you'd see differently.
Still, all of this does not point to any sort of god. (Nor does it negate it, I might add.)

Kara Baylog said...

As I said above, I do not think morality is objective. It is something we have been parsing out for the past several thousands of years.
Unlike you, I have no emotional attachment to a belief in subjective or objective morality. I'm only interested in what it is or what it isn't.
We have clearly changed what we think is right or wrong even in the brief period of time humans have been around where there has also been recorded history. It was considered moral to treat your daughter like property. It was okay, morally justified, to kill somebody because they looked at a king the wrong way.
And now we have a society where it is okay to kill somebody simply for the condition that they are by necessity in the body of another.
I don't see any evidence for any sort of objective morality. I do have my own morality, which has been shaped by my education, culture, and admittedly sympathetic-to-the-weak personality which I can use to compare to the world and declare right or wrong, but I don't consider this to be objective.
Subjective morality doesn't mean people can do whatever they want. We try to instill our values in the next generation, and there are moral values that can help a society to thrive, as well as values that can tear apart a society. A good society is one that as aligned its subjective morality to that which will help its civilization the best an in the long term. I believe that when we have a society that allows murder for arbitrary reasons (i.e. because they are in the womb) this weakens the value of protecting the individual (a value that started developing after the middle ages and as gained a lot of traction - and experienced a positive correlation with an overall improved quality of life.) It is then up to the government and legal system to codify those morals, and the education system and culture to nurture them.
"I think there are definitely some acts that are always wrong and never
justified, like rape. I also think that murder (that is, killing someone
without strong moral justification) is also objectively wrong."
I'm inclined to agree with you that rape is always wrong, as well as murder. But these are our own moral conclusions (conclusions, I might add, that I think we should use all of our legal might to enforce). There is no particular evidence that it is objective. I am open, of course, to any evidence you might provide that it is objective - aside from "biblical" or otherwise religious "evidence" as then you are getting in a circular argument (i.e. objective morality exists because god. Hence we see that god exists because objective morality)

Kara Baylog said...

She wasn't supporting the arguments of either of those groups. She was reporting what is often said (and I hear it a lot as well!) She wasn't making a generalization about any group at large. The point of it was to say, neither of these positions are relevant to the abortion topic...

Clinton Wilcox said...

Subjective morality absolutely does mean that you can do whatever you want. As long as your conscience tells you a thing is right, it is moral for you. We can't condemn Hitler for the Holocaust. He believed he was doing the right thing, so it was moral for him. That's what subjective morality means. If you disagree with that, then you believe in objective morality, you're just calling it by something else.

If you agree that rape and murder is always wrong, then you believe in objective morality. Objective simply means "independent of the human mind." Thus, if murder and rape are always wrong, even for those who believe it is justified, then morality is objective. But if morality is subjective, then even though you and I will never murder and rape anyone, we can't condemn those who do. That's what subjective morality entails.

It seems that as we go back in time, we see that civilized society has always recognized some acts as wrong. For example, murder. We may disagree as to what constitutes murder, but murder has always been illegal in civilized countries. Plus, civilized people have always recognized that you ought not act selfishly, though they have disagreed as to whom you should be unselfish toward.

If morality were not objective, then it would be up to the whims of individuals or of society. But I'm sure you recognize that if a society legalizes forced slavery, that is wrong. But if morality is up to society, then there is nothing wrong with slavery. If a country legalizes it, then it is moral. And those who fight for human equality and fight against slavery are immoral for opposing it.

Kara Baylog said...

Ok, this is getting super off topic so I am going to try to be bullet point brief and lay it to rest there.
-yes we can condemn hitler even in a world of subjective morality. I don't care if hitler thought something was moral or not. I condemn him for his acts. I condemn him for his irrational and uninformed philosophical thinking. The vast majority of humanity and society has come to the conclusion that genocide is wrong. This social pressure, backed up with legal, and in some cases, violent force (i.e. police, military)

-"If you agree that rape and murder is always wrong, then you believe in
objective morality. Objective simply means "independent of the human
You are contradicting yourself here. You are positing something that I believe, I am a person, with a human mind, and then saying that if me, that human mind believes it, it must be objective. I agree, rape is always wrong. Murder is mostly wrong (exceptions for things like self-defense). This doesn't make it objective, it is a conclusion me, as a human with a mind, has come to. You are confusing absolutes with objectivity.

-"It seems that as we go back in time, we see that civilized society has
always recognized some acts as wrong. For example, murder. We may
disagree as to what constitutes murder, but murder has always been
illegal in civilized countries. Plus, civilized people have always
recognized that you ought not act selfishly, though they have disagreed
as to whom you should be unselfish toward."
There you go! You just said it, yourself. Civilized society comes to recognize murder as wrong. Excellent example of how humanity has evolved its moral thinking, within the context of humanity.
-"If a country legalizes it, then it is moral."
You got it in reverse. Individuals develop morality. Groups of individuals (i.e. societies) develop collectively held morals. There are always outliers, that is people who hold different morals to the collective morals (i.e. me and you for slavery and abortion, i.e. other people who say the 19th amendment should be overturned). In an effective, democratic society, collective morals will inform the legal system. The legal system does not make something moral. Indeed, it is the inconsistency of our legal system (protect all life, except some) is evidence that our current system is anything but perfect, as poll after poll suggests that our collective morals veer to say 2nd and 3rd trimester abortions are wrong.

This is terribly off topic though, so if you would like to continue this conversation, I suggest you do so by messaging me through my google+ account I am using here.

Caleb Wakeman said...

Maybe there is objective morality, but we just haven't hit on it yet. Then all our improvements to morals would be approaching this objective morality.
(For that matter, maybe we have 'hit on' objective morality, but it's both Simple and Hard, so we come up with moral systems that are Complex and Hard instead because that makes sense to us.)

Not that I'm debating you; I'm just throwing ideas out.

Truth said...

are 2.1 Christians in the world today, it shouldn't be no surprise that they
all come from different backgrounds. It would be statically stupid to think
that all Christians think the same way. My point, yes it's possible to come
across Christians who think that, we are not robots. When I read stuff like
"We want to see pro-lifers of any faith and no faith unite in the defense
of the unborn" I began to feel a bond with atheists, and I would think
that more Christians than not would feel the same as I do. However, when
atheists began comparing my God to the Spaghetti Monster, calling me stupid
based on cross-country-data with no context, continue to push the science vs.
religion" myth that has been debunked by all serious scholars, or use the
word "religion" as a way to shift the crimes of Islam unto
Christianity, it pisses on the idea that atheists are just as moral. However,
though most studies find Christians to be more giving and helping, the numbers
for the non-religious is still significant and not much lower in some polls. I
really wish that atheists would drop the Dawkins talking points (which is
anything but science and the same rhetoric used in North Korea, China, Soviet
Union, etc. against Christianity) and start finding common ground like Secular
Pro-life. By the way, I'm pro-choice and pro-life (I see both arguments). Keep
up the good work Secular Pro-life, once I get the money, I will be more than
happy support you and add a link from my Christian website once I get it
running. One more thing, yes I can provide multiple sources for each argument I
made. Check my history.