Morality and God, Part II

Prevailing_world_religions_mapDistribution of World Religions

While writing Part I of this essay the other day, I had an epiphany (a moment of sudden revelation, not a manifestation of something divine). I thought I’d better write it down before I forget…I am of that age. So if there is some repetition here, from Part I, forgive me, but this is important (maybe all of you already know). It suddenly struck me that…

God is an Atheist Hoax!

One of the most irksome and unsupported bits of Jabberwocky is the idea that non-theists (atheists, agnostics, etc.) have no morality on which to base their lives. No one has ever successfully demonstrated a causal link between lack of religious belief and immoral behaviour, although a logical association is certainly possible to conjure up, and the correlation is certainly obvious, and for good reason. When you go looking for law-abiding people, you tend to find them among groups dedicated to abiding laws.

But we all know that correlation does not equal causation, and to extrapolate to the idea that non-theists are immoral is illogical. To conclude that non-theists cannot be moral is ridiculous, and there are lots (billions) of counter-examples. Examining the issue conclusively is probably a waste of time. There are simply too many confounding issues.

Human History and Law/Morality

The earliest evidence for something human is millions of years ago. Various forms of our pre-historic ancestors date back 1 to 3 million years. Our modern form of human…bipedal, increased brain size, with longer childhoods and increased differences in gender appearance (sorry ladies, apparently ancient hominids were more feminine, or at least, more easily differentiated from males), leading to social learning, language and other cultural pursuits…developed no less than 50,000 years ago. It took a while to get out of the hunter-gatherer stage, but about 10,000 years ago civilizations, in terms of agriculture and communal living, began to develop.

The timing is mildly important, because the laws as codified in the Bible and set down on paper (or papyrus, or stone, I suppose), were written about three thousand years ago. And yet, historical evidence of formal laws date back to four or five thousand years. While the Old Testament dates back to about 1200 BC, parallel civilizations in Greece, Egypt, Rome, India, China and Mesopotamia all had codes of behaviour.

The point is, there is good reason to believe humans are capable of producing, and indeed did produce laws to live by long before the god of the bible gave his rules to Moses.

Alternative Explanation

Suppose there is no god to hand down rules. Almost by definition, the final arbiter of rules to live by, if you are inclined to believe in an absolute morality, is God. This, at least, is the argument given by William Lane Craig. Existence of absolute morality implies a god. In fact, this argument is circular because existence of absolute morality is God.

I cannot really think of any other method of getting to absolute morality. Could there be a supreme sets of laws somewhere that has no living embodiment, no intellectual existence? If there were, one could never prove it, not without some live (even if historical) being to defend it.

Could there be two supreme intelligences, both giving different accounts of an absolute morality. This is even more complicated than one god, and puts the definition of supreme in question. So lets agree for the moment that absolute morality and God are essentially the same thing.

Non-Theists and Relative Morality

We all ‘feel’ that there is a right and a wrong to most, if not all questions. Sometimes, in fact, we are sorely puzzled by the position taken by others, and we look to colleagues to agree with us, essentially expecting such agreement out of hand. It may be that this feeling of knowing, this empathy or understanding of some human plight, is basic to our biochemistry and DNA. Or it simply may be tacit, almost subliminal, learning, often by modelling behaviour from those we know, respect and love.

This overwhelming feeling of ‘knowing’, what I have referred to (metaphorically) in the past as ‘listening to the voice of God,’ may indeed be a stimulus to concluding the existence of absolute morality, and thus that God exists.

I have argued, also in the past, as have others in publications, that morality is a result of natural selection and communal living. Rules of behaviour leading to control of anarchy and chaos tend to improve the survival of communities and thus promote the dissemination of DNA. Such sensations as empathy, guilt and fairness would then lead to a general understanding of what is considered ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ without really thinking about it much, reinforcing that feeling of some ‘voice of God’.

Morality thus arises in us as a selection advantage.

Short-Cuts to Morality

We were all, once upon a time, non-theists. We may have thought periodically that maybe some god existed because we didn’t understand things like thunder and lightning, but at some point, formal theology didn’t exist.

Gradually all these non-theists evolved morally, and taught their children and their community members. But, as always, a group or groups misbehaved, and would not respond to general rules. “So you say…but I believe otherwise.” With all the work to be done, who has time to explain the need for communal behaviour to these recalcitrants and miscreants? So the non-theists used threats of violence, and punishment, but implementation was always a problem that could only be settled by more threats of violence and chaos.

“You need to do this.”

“Who says?” Bingo.

“God says.” Brilliant. In one fell swoop, a whole bunch of problems can be addressed.

Atheists created God in order to keep theists in line. And it worked. The theists took the bait, hook, line and sinker. They ran with it.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The non-theists returned to their fields, content they had taken care of law and order, and the theists ran with it. The concepts of God and redemption, forgiveness and sin, Hell and everlasting torment, Heaven and everlasting paradise, all became carrots and sticks for new theists who needed moral tutelage. Before we knew it, the whole thing had run amok.

Hundreds of religions, sects, cults, hundreds of rules monitored and implemented by clever people who saw a sinecure. A whole new industry of largesse. A whole new industry of control . Methods to keep people in line, to obtain power, to control entry into the elite, to justify inequities like slavery and economic gaps, anti-democratic power distribution.

Subtle refinements, such as supporting the poor and the sick gave justification to protection from taxation or military service, influence peddling and power-mongering.

And the ever-present promise of forgiveness, if only you would choose the right church, the right religion.

Survival of the fittest lead to survival of the church, using the same basic rules. If you take the fears and exploit them, create a political base of believers, you can win by force of ‘conscience’ others to your side by supporting their favourite cause: white nationalism, jingoism, racism, anti-Semitism, even slavery and elitism. Even anti-science disdain for experts. Even excuses for property hoarding, misogyny and other inequities and iniquities. Even protection of paedophiles because the image of the church is more important than anything secular.

Even war: “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Religion is the great recruiter. Only family competes successfully with religion when it comes to recruiting for a fight.

So the original good idea of using an all-powerful all-knowing god to enforce rules of civil behaviour in people who do not feel the empathy required for fairness and ethical or moral behaviour has been used by those self-same guiltless heartless people to achieve their own goals. Of course, not every theist is a psychopath. Very few, in fact. Most are good-hearted kindly people who have been gathered up by all these arguments, who believe earnestly in the idea of loving their neighbour and helping where they can. They believe non-theists about them will suffer badly if they do not comply and convert. They are full of good intentions, with their eyes firmly fixed on the values and morals of the past, of the original contractual obligation with the non-existent God. A few will recognize it for what it is, a hoax, though very few will see that the hoax was originally the atheist’s hoax. And maybe the original huckster thought, “Maybe there is a god, and if there is, he would do this, providing a tool to control the community. Maybe the concept of the god is faulty, but you have to admit, the tool it is a great idea!

And little by little, people would add to the tool, to promote ideas they favoured (for example, celibacy of priests, once they’d had their fun), to remove adversaries from positions of power (excommunication of non-believers), to promote friends in high places (royalty by divine right), to advance their personal views of moral behaviour (protection from legal consequences for people discriminating against homosexuals), to control competing religions (entry into heaven only through Jesus Christ).

Religion As A Tool

Viewing religion as a tool to solve community control issues addresses a number of problems, largely by providing a forceful reason for believing. It clarifies a powerful incentive to the development and continuation of an idea which has no visible evidence. People support this idea of organized religion because it works, because it has worked in the past, and because many others agree.

It explains why there are religions in most cultures on earth, whether they be theistic or not, because of its civil order need. If one geographical section of the world was largely out of reach, it developed a parallel but similar structure to control its people, a different religion.

It explains why something with virtually no evidence can persist in the minds of intelligent people. But it also explains why the strength of its arguments falters as the populace becomes more educated.

It explains the need to proselytise. It explains the desire to encompass all. It explains the incredible popularity of religion. It explains the public display of what many might expect to be a very personal relationship, the believer and God. Non-believers need to believe, or need to be seen to believe. Even non-believers know they need to be seen to believe. And so they do. And so they hide their true belief.

It explains why religion cannot change, because God had to be always right to provide absolute morality to all people. After all, absolute morality cannot change…it’s absolute. It explains why holy books can never be revised. It explains why certain contentious parts of the Bible get ignored.

The tool is weakened by disbelief, by non-acceptance. So impossible parts of the story are skipped, contentious parts are reinterpreted, certain policies are characterized as parables, myths, fantasies or literary devices.

“We don’t stone people for apostacy.”

“But the Bible says…,”

“No. No. That’s just literary license.”

“Well, how am I going to figure out what is correct, God damn it…”

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in …” and punishment is applied.

Yes, viewing religion as a tool explains its popularity, its past almost total acceptance, its intransigence, as well as its inconsistencies.

God is an atheist hoax. And it got away from us. Boy, did it get away from us!

Morality and God, Part I

William_Lane_Craig

 

Dangerous Man?

William Lane Craig argues that he has proved there is a god, that god teaches that homosexual activity is abhorrent and that therefore it is right and proper to condemn the behavior, if not the gender preference. He is somewhat more modern than many, or at least he reduces his cross-sectional area as a target, by pointing out that nowhere in the Bible does it say that being a homosexual is bad;  rather that homosexual activity is bad. Homosexuals, then, must abstain to be good people. Craig does seem to admit that homosexuality is not the gay person’s choice, but nevertheless, this is their cross to bear, unfairly perhaps (but who ever said God was fair: certainly not Job, nor Abraham, nor even Jesus, really).

The two criteria are that according to the absolute morality given to us by God, we must eschew homosexual behavior, and that there really is a God who defines this absolute morality.

It is an interesting position to take, to claim to be moral by doing God’s bidding. Craig is clever enough to consider a…to him hypothetical…thought experiment.

What if God Does Not Exist?

One of Craig’s arguments appears to be that absolute morality exists and therefor God exists. To show that absolute morality exists he appeals to emotion; torturing babies is bad…everyone agrees (well, everyone except baby torturers, I suppose).

But I would like him to imagine that there is no God, and then answer the following question? Is torturing babies no longer bad?

Let’s pretend he says torturing babies is still bad, then his line of reasoning that morality comes from God loses some support, the quantum of which is dependent on just how good he is at imagining stuff. Here, he would have to admit that the morality he relies upon is coming from humans, not God. He will deny this and say he cannot put the specter of God out of his mind sufficiently to rid himself of God’s absolute morality.

OK.

Try anyway. Consider the state of affairs where there never was any God, and two people on the desert island are told that a baby is about to be tortured. One is told he must oppose such an evil act, or he will be immediately shot in the head and killed. He complies, and his behavior in this test is consistent with a moral person. The other is told nothing of the sort, simply asked what he thinks, and let’s suppose his answer too, is consistent with the behavior of a moral person.

Assuming you can quantify morality, and I guess you can, who is the more moral?

I do think Craig, and most sentient people, would argue in favor of the guy who makes the right decision without the gun to his head. Well, Dr. Craig, that is the atheist. The first guy, the one who needs a gun to keep him moral, is the theist (I admit that not all theists require this coaxing. In fact, I think most theists would be quite moral without God, they just don’t realize it). God was created by atheists (among others) to keep the rest of the populace in check, as a quick method of teaching morality. Atheists knew that people needed something, something to keep them on the straight and narrow, so they created God. And it worked. Sort of. It was not our greatest invention, but it served its purpose.

The above is hyperbole, clearly, but the point is that the person who requires hell and damnation to be moral, is not moral, they are simply rule-abiding and risk aversive. In fact, the guy who only occasionally tortures babies is more moral than the guy who never does this because of the gun, but who would always do this if God did not exist.

Rules of civil behavior have developed over time, and pre-dated the Bible by at least a thousand years. It’s hard to argue that such civil behavior was demanded by God before the Ten Commandments, or rules in Leviticus, because prior to that is seems God had not voiced His concerns. Thus there is every reason to think some people, including all those who never heard of God, live on another planet, can’t read, or whatever…there is every reason to think some people figured out some semblance of morality before being taught by a deity. History tells us that rules of law pre-dated the Bible, anyway.

Animals Have Rules

Look at animals. Those who spend any time with animals can see evidence of love and nurturing, as a mother and newborn, certainly among the mammals at least. Such bonds clearly develop between dogs and their owners, and while I realize the anthropomorphic attributes we project onto them are problematic, many of us, myself included, have been helped by our pets. As a young boy, my dog tried to pull me out of a fast running river.

Of course, among the carnivorous animals (which includes us), there is a competition of behavior. Eating your enemy is a pretty efficient way of a gaining a useful quantity of energy. But rampant cannibalism is held in check by…what? By rules of civil behavior. By instinct. By species memory or whatever instinct turns out to be. By social learning.

There is a component of volition in instinct, as opposed to reflex, and sometimes the drive can get muddied, as in breathing, for example. Or sex. Or eating. No one seems to question these issues of instinct or inherited memory, but somehow civil behavior is interpreted by theists as taught by God. We atheists often suffer the “Oh, how can you have a moral code if you don’t believe in God?” Bigotry much?  Since God ‘taught it’, there must be absolute morality. This leads to the circular argument that God creates absolute morality, and thus there is an absolute morality, and because there is an absolute morality, God must exist (do I need to provide the reference for that one?).

But no one seems to question that animals, in the varied hierarchy of life, show evidence of instinctual behavior, of volition, of empathy and nurturing, of friendship and even of codes of civil behavior. Do animals listen to the voice of God? Well, I suppose the theist can argue about that, and I have no idea what the Franciscans might say, but if you think, as I do, that ‘the voice of God’ is a metaphor for our code of behavior, I would say, “Yeah,” animals have a code which they consider, and which is subject to their own volition, and which varies from species to species as well as from individual to individual.

If humans get theirs from God, where do animals get it?

Let’s back up a bit. A lot of Craig’s argument seems to centre on the existence of absolute morality. But is there such a thing, really?

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Unless God tells you to, in some sort of indemnification by divine command. Unless you are defending yourself, which to the best of my knowledge does not show up in the bible. And when this commandment was handed down (written in stone, no less, just to emphasize the point), there was no equivocation about the perp stealing, or murdering, or messing around with someone else’s husband (remember, there are gender distinctions in the Bible…this degree of punishment is pretty straight forward for the female…if you can define what female is, which is a whole other story). Thou shalt not kill is pretty absolute. And yet, very few God-fearing individuals quibble with it in all circumstances.

War, punishment, self-defense, treason. All of these are stimuli for looking the other way when it comes to this commandment, this absolute morality. In fact, it seems to me that the only time the theist really complains about justifiable killing is when it is done in order to help the person being killed, as with the relief of pain and suffering. Very strange, don’t you think?

Slavery

Is keeping slaves contrary to some absolute morality? Certainly the bible, the word of God, mentions slaves several times, though never that I am aware of in some way that suggests slavery is wrong.

And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. Leviticus 19:20 (KJV)

We certainly accept this to be wrong now, and have done so for the last 200 years (well, 150 or less for the Americans) though most people are hard-pressed to see the obvious slavery inherent in the socioeconomic ‘gap’.

One can safely infer that absolute morality has changed. To me, this means it is not absolute. [Please, biblical scholars, don’t quibble that slaves are different from bondmaids. Other translations of the bible call them slaves in the spirit of literary honesty, and the author of the bible could have given his writing more clarity, if he had been concerned about misinterpretation.]

Relative Morality

Moral relativism asserts that different groups have different codes of conduct, and that there is no absolute morality. The problem with denying absolute morality is that religious apologists lose their best circular argument for the existence of God. And unfortunately, I believe that is what guides their arguments. Instead of reviewing the facts to develop the conclusion, they appear intent on finding the ‘facts’ that support their conclusion.

But we all know that torturing babies is wrong (though we treat neonatal cancers and leukemia). And that killing is wrong (though we defend ourselves to the point of lethal force). And that keeping slaves is wrong (though on this the bible does not seem to concur). And that homosexuality is wrong (though we don’t know how to define same-sex intercourse, because we really don’t know how to exhaustively define gender. See second half of LGBT).

Where Does Morality Come From?

When we think of morality, it seems to me most of us are thinking about some internal guide, some innate knowledge that certain things are wrong. Not simply that God declares it wrong. To be truly moral, we have to feel that it is wrong. Like those two guys on the desert island. What I like to call, “Listen to the voice of God,” in part because it confuses my theist friends. Morality, to me anyway, is not simply a list of rules, but is an instinctual or learned deep seated knowledge that some behavior should not be carried out.

How did we get it, those of us who have it, those non-sociopathic members of our society.  To answer that we learned from our parents, and others in our community, is ducking the question. To say ‘God gave it to us’ is the result of our arrogance that we think we should be able to explain everything (and when we cannot, it must be God). I think it is evolution. I think there is random variation in possible behavior with respect to morality, and that the selection advantage of Darwinian evolutionary theory promotes communal living as an survival improvement over isolationism. The survival of the community of fittest beats out the survival of the fittest every time.

We evolved to be moral, though it is by far a work in progress, and is easily subverted. We evolved toward moral behavior. And then we started teaching our children. How much is in the gene, and how much is in the meme, I don’t know. But given that memes may be hard things for other animals to develop, I would have to guess there must be a lot in the biochemistry and physiology. All for the general purpose (anthropomorphizing again) of promoting our DNA.

Jared Diamond points out (Guns, Germs and Steel) that getting people of the same religious faith to spill blood for you is the next most successful recruiting device to getting family to fight for you. Which, by the way, may well be the selection advantage of theism over atheism.

Why Do I Think WLC Is Dangerous?

I have spent a lifetime interviewing people and quickly getting a measure of them by appearance, behavior, ideas, body language, education, demeanor and so much more. I have probably treated close to 25,000 patients in the course of my career, and have interacted with many times that in terms of family. It is rare indeed that my initial impressions prove wrong.

I have listened now to several talks, debates and speeches given by WLC, and while I have heard of disagreement from others, I really find him to be amiable, pleasant, and kind. I know, as with any prominent individual, that opinions will vary, and I am aware that some find fault with him, his education in spite of two PhDs, his logic (which I also question, well, mostly his premises), and his tactics in debates. I do know that I am at one extreme of people who truly have to find something egregious and undeniable about someone before I relegate them to the categories of nasty and indecent.

So, I think I would quite like WLC if I met him, recognizing that such an opinion necessarily is shallow. So what. I don’t like everybody, but largely because I don’t know everybody.

But I think William Lane Craig is dangerous, as many moderate theists are, because the moderates provide guidance and shielding for the radicals.

I can’t get away from the feeling that if WLC were convinced there was no god, no higher authority, he might well make up his own mind that homosexuality and homosexual behavior is not immoral. Although I have read or heard him make some highly questionable and derogatory statements about disease in homosexuals related to sexual behavior, setting those rather breath-taking misunderstandings of the medical and physiological aspects aside (as examples, I suppose, of trying to find facts to support your conclusions), with time he might come to accept that there is no inherent immorality in homosexual behavior. But as it stands now, his view of the existence of a God which has condemned homosexuality as an abomination, essentially by Divine Command, can lead to hate crimes in people who believe WLC.

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Leviticus 20:13 (KJV)

Combine that with WLC’s reported acceptance of genocide as justified by Divine Command Theory, it is not so much of a stretch to think some misguided disciple of WLC could use an AK-47 on a gay night-club.

William Lane Craig would consider such an horrific action to be, itself, an abomination, but I think he would still have blood on his hands. Words matter; words are powerful; unintended consequences can be predicted sometimes. I just don’t think it is worth all the sophistry.