I was out in Philly this weekend and, through the normal course of catch-up conversation, I was asked a question that is quickly rising to the top of my “inevitable” list: “As an atheist, what keeps you from doing just anything?”
Ah, yes. The moral question is a big one. It’s been addressed many times and by people way smarter than myself (e.g., Richard Carrier), so I’m going to focus on a simple, one-word answer: empathy.
The reason I choose to focus on this word is that it gets right at the heart of what most religious people mean when talking about the moral necessity of God. Typical atheist objections to religious moral arguments are along the lines of Richard Dawkins’ observation that being moral out of a fear of hell or punishment is a very sad reason indeed for being moral. This is true for people who actually do good things because they’re afraid of hell, but I think it’s an oversimplification of the religious arguments, which, at their core, claim that morality is an argument for God because no one but God could have given people a conscience and an innate sense of right and wrong. The religious argument is ultimately about what’s inside, not about any outside force, supernatural or natural. (This is in conflict with the Christian doctrine of “total depravity,” but that’s a discussion for another time.)
In fact, the moral argument for God has to be about the conscience and an innate sense of right and wrong. If it was about external moral laws imposed by religion (or law “from God”), it would fall into the category of all the other laws that humans have erected for survival and society. It would also immediately fail to explain why atheists and members of other religions can be good, moral people (hey, they don’t have your book of laws!). No, the moral argument for God rests on the idea that there is some built-in human morality that speaks to the existence of a higher being.
Before I go on to discuss these arguments, let’s examine a few quotes to make sure I’m not misrepresenting the religious position here. Timothy Keller quotes both C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga in his recent book, The Reason for God. These aren’t straw men; they’re at the forefront of modern and late 20th-century apologetics. Here’s Lewis:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”?…What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies….Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.
Basically, he’s saying that we couldn’t know what was “just” or “unjust” if God hadn’t given us a universal moral conscience. Here’s Plantinga:
Could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness [if there were no God and we just evolved]? I don’t see how. There can be such a thing only if there is a way that rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live….A [secular] way of looking at the world has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort…and thus no way to say there is such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (…and not just an illusion of some sort), then you have a powerful…argument [for the reality of God].
Essentially, the same thing. If we admit that there is a better way to live and a worse way to live, we automatically have “a powerful argument for God.” As I established earlier, this has to be some inner moral sense that humans live out and which presents the basic argument for a higher power.
What these apologists are missing is that better and worse are judgments that don’t demand divine origin. If I’m alive (Cogito ergo sum), evolutionary theory easily explains why I want to keep living. And when I empathize with others in my species and social group (which is not uncommon among advanced species, e.g., dolphins), I’m caring in a way that can be explained in moral terms. Being imaginative creatures with large brains means we can makes guesses about what other beings are feeling or thinking (which is helpful for survival); this imaginative process results in association and empathy, which of course plays a role in group selection. These traits of caring and empathy are present even in the very young.
Social morality is as simple as two people getting together and deciding that to help them survive and prosper, they don’t want their stuff stolen or their lives threatened. They agree on these basic rules, and require that anyone who wishes to enter their social group also adhere to these rules. Socialization and evolution take care of it from there. Societies that tolerate rape, murder, theft, etc., will die out quickly. This isn’t to say, of course, that whatever naturally happens represents what is “right” (far from it, in fact); it means that humans have the ability to empathize, to work together in cooperative society for evolutionary benefit and the welfare of all, and, ultimately, to develop intellectual abilities that allow us to make moral judgments about welfare and right/wrong that transcend the dog-eat-dog system of natural selection and value every human life for what it is: a precious, one-time shot at existing.
The “conscience” that develops under these circumstances is very similar to the religious “innate, God-given sense of right and wrong” as defined at the beginning of this article. The religious explanation for this conscience is possible; I’m not saying it’s definitely wrong. But there is absolutely no reason to think that it is correct when we don’t need it or have any evidence to support belief in the supernatural. I could propose right now that there are metaphysical, translucent purple whales that somehow manage to float around us in the physical realm and softly massage our hearts when we try to make judgments that don’t fit in with what they have defined (and given to us) as “morality.”
Sure, that could be it. But why on earth would anyone think this? Just because someone has thought of an explanation doesn’t mean it is the least bit likely. (I could think of another ridiculous, possible, and unfalsifiable explanation right now.) We should be able to acknowledge that humans can make objective moral claims about what is “better” and “worse” and still not have to posit an explanation with no evidential support whatsoever. That’s what Occam’s Razor is all about. As long as I can empathize, I don’t need divine explanations for why we have a conscience, moral sense, or anything else like that.
Contrary to Lewis’ assertion, we can make “objective” moral claims because we realize that we’re alive and it’s better to be alive than to be dead. (Ironically, religious folks would have to say the opposite if they took their theology seriously.) It’s better to eat than to starve. It’s better not to get hurt and feel pain than it is to get hurt and feel pain. As long as there are better and worse choices in the world, right and wrong need no divine origin. Morality and moral sense develop over time (values certainly change from century to century), but the process is guided by the fact that we all exist. And in the struggle to assign divine labels to human emotions, let’s not ignore the fact that people naturally just give a damn about each other.
So what keeps me from doing “just anything?” Empathy. The fact that I care about people. The fact that I get pleasure from doing nice things. The fact that I know helping other people furthers our species and, to some small extent, increase the quality of life others (and myself) enjoy. And yes, sometimes the fact that I’ll get locked up if I violate society’s moral/legal code. Sure, I’ve done objectively bad things, and by many religious definitions, I’d be a really bad person; but this doesn’t change the fact that I have the ability to empathize and feel good when I make the right choices.
I recognize, of course, that a lot of people make the wrong choices, but the reasons for this are complex and include things like group pressure/atmosphere, personal needs/desires, and nurture/environment; my goal here is to talk about the “conscience”/empathy trait in humans. Religious pressure (or its equivalent in, e.g., a political leader cult) is, ironically, one of the most powerful ways to break down the natural conscience. “With or without religion you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion” (Steven Weinberg).
It’s also worth noting things that I can do without guilt. You see, there’s a big difference between “sin” as defined by religions and actions that are “wrong.” One of the reasons atheists are viewed as immoral by religious people is that we realize there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality, and we don’t make people in the GLBT community feel guilty about their private lives. There are bad/evil people in the world for sure, but I think the majority of cultural “sin” decried by religious organizations is simply the result of people who want to eat pork and masturbate. “Sinful” or “taboo” things are not always wrong, and this is a distinction that is purposefully blurred by the regulations of every major religion.
I’d like to close by saying a few words about the moral impotence of Christianity in particular (largely because it’s the religion I’m most familiar with). People who want to believe because they are in need of a cosmic sense of justice should find no solace in Christianity. Besides immediate entanglement in moral contradictions (such as the Euthyphro Dilemma), Christianity teaches that the worst murderer or thief in the world can go to heaven by believing the right thing at the last minute (just see Luke 23:32-33, 39-43), while still sending moral unbelievers (e.g., Gandhi, of course!) to hell. In other words, there’s no ultimate justice here. It’s an arbitrary “who does Jesus love” kind of deal that exalts “who you know” over “who you are.” And morally speaking, my conscience will never be satisfied with that.
post scriptum: read my comment below for the answer to a common question I’m getting about this entry…