Conversations with Christians: Morality

Christian:

In the Christian worldview, God tells us that things like rape and murder are wrong, but why should atheists care about others, their feelings, and desires? Surely it can’t be because you think human beings are intrinsically valuable; atheism assigns no value to the human animal. We each find things such as rape and murder undesirable, but why not, for example, commit murder in a situation where it is in your interest to do so and you are quite confident that you won’t get caught?

Sean:

Atheism is framed as nonbelief in the existence of a deity; that is its definition. Within that frame — nonbelief in a deity — there is no intrinsic moral codification or compulsion to follow specific moral rules. Nonbelief in a deity is therefore not in and of itself a particular moral philosophy, and as we see, atheists, much like religious people, have no universal consensus on all moral issues. Thus, to say that “atheism assigns no moral value to the human animal” is false insofar as no consensus on value exists within the atheist community -- therefore propagating that all atheists assign no value to humans is to falsely propagate that all atheists think alike -- but it is also false because as an atheist, I do in fact assign intrinsic moral value to humans, therefore atheism and assignment of human value are not incompatible concepts.

You’re making the mistake of assuming that a person’s position on the existence of God defines everything about their thoughts and actions. That is a false idea. My nonbelief in God does not define who I am, it only defines my position on God, which is only one of an incalculable number of things I have an opinion on. That I am atheist does not automatically make me moral-less.

As for your question, “why, for example, not commit murder in a situation wherein it is in my personal interest to do so, and where I am quite confident I won’t be caught”, well, I can think of several reasons not to do so, but those reasons are again not universally affirmed nor are they in any way specifically deduced from the “atheistic worldview”, if such a thing exists. Suffice to say that I dislike violence because it is an unpleasant emotional experience; I would no doubt feel deep shame and guilt for taking another person’s life; hurting someone against their will is a violation of another person’s personal liberty, which is something I myself would not like to have violated; and of course I can’t think of any of my personal interests, other than the protection of my own life or the lives of my friends and family, that I would consider to be of higher value than the life of another human being.

Christian:

I understand the reasons that you give for why not to commit murder when it is one’s interest to do so, but I don’t see how you could convince someone who doesn’t care about your stated reasons. Suppose someone is indifferent towards violence, wouldn’t have any guilt in taking another’s life, and believes that human interaction is just a series of attempts at obtaining our individual interests at the expense of others’. Do you think you could give such a person an objective reason as to why they should not commit murder if they think it is in their interest to do so, or is this a case where you would simply try to find some common value which he or she also holds and then convince that person to refrain by pointing to that value?

Sean:

I think that if anybody truly believes that human life is worthless, and that they should kill people if it benefits their self interests, and that they would not feel guilt for doing so, then I sincerely doubt that it will matter what I tell them, because it seems they are convinced of the futility of moral arguments against murder and will engage in murder regardless of moral direction from an outside source. However, if there is any chance of changing such a person’s opinion, I am quite confident it would be easier to do so when talking to a person who doesn’t believe they have a murder-mandate handed down by the almighty God himself.

Let me point something out, though: there seems to be a central notion in your arguments that atheism, because of its nature — rejection of deities — predisposes people to committing murder or some other heinous crime more so than does belief in God. That, put simply, is not the case. Prisons in the USA, for instance, are made up of about 75% Christians and only 0.1% committed atheists, while the general US population is about 70% Christian and 20% atheist or nonreligious. The atheist prison population are therefore inversely correlated to the general atheist population by an order of about two-hundred, while the Christian prison population are slightly more than directly proportional to the general Christian population. Even if we assume only a general-population percentage of Christians end up in prison, and the rest convert while they’re in there, in simple terms: Christians in the USA are nearly two-hundred times more likely to end up in jail than atheists.

Why is that? Well, for a start, religious beliefs -- particularly those in Abrahamic faiths -- propagate what is known as a deontological morality. That’s to say that morality is defined by hard-fast rules and harsh penalties for breaking them -- for instance, an entire eternity in hell for sleeping unrepentantly with another man’s wife -- rather than by consideration of consequence and motivation. This means that moral philosophies derived from Abrahamic religious texts -- of which there are many interpretations, and which tend to vary between certain religions and sects -- are viewed by the individual as objective, infallible, and indisputable. This in itself is extremely dangerous, because as we know from the history of religions such as Christianity, if some individual or leader interprets the holy texts to allow for murder in the face of say, adultery, people end up being executed in the streets. This kind of self-certainty is surely something that has historically been shown to incite dangerous self-conviction and create tyrannies. Not only that, but deontological, legally enforced religious moralities often create conditions where severe punishments are handed out even if the crime committed has weighty mitigating factors: think of the orphaned hungry child who steals an apple and loses a hand.

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Contrast that with morally pluralistic, multicultural, heavily atheist societies (think Iceland, which has the lowest crime rates on Earth) which instate laws with the prior motivation of protecting only against violations of individual liberties, and you can see which society is worse off in regards to murders, rapes, harsh capital punishments and other violations of human dignity. Cultures like Afghanistan under the Taliban interpretation of Sharia law are undoubtedly worse off for violence which results in grievous injury than are heavily atheistic countries like Iceland or even the United Kingdom. Even countries like the US, with a very high percentage of religious citizens, suffer a significantly higher number of severe violent crimes that result in injury when compared to the United Kingdom or any other freely majority-atheist European state.

Let’s actually take the UK as an example. In the last UK census, just over 50% of violent crimes resulted in no injury to the victim. Violent crime in the UK is defined as anything from touching another person against their will, physical sexual harassment, robbery, right up to rape and murder. While in the US -- violent crime defined less broadly, as: forcible rape, robbery, assault resulting in bodily harm, and non-negligible manslaughter -- suffers three times as many murders by firearm, per capita, than the UK suffers total murders per capita. This is a pattern in heavily religious countries which is proof that willingly atheist societies do not necessarily suffer more from crimes than heavily religious ones. In fact, the opposite is likely true.

“Well what about China or Communist Russia?” I hear you say. Yes, it’s true that violent crime in state-atheist countries like these is rife, but I wouldn’t say atheism is the cause. The common denominator between harsh religious legal codes like those in Saudi Arabia for instance, and enforced atheism in countries like China or Stalinist Russia, is totalitarian philosophy. Both the religion and the atheism are forced. In both religious-law societies and totalitarian atheist societies, people are mandated to respect, revere and aspire to a supreme being or leader (Stalin, God) whose moral or cultural ideals are enforced brutally and absolutely. It is a lack of freedom, personal liberty and a harsh brutal legal structure that lends to extremely violent cultures. Now, I sincerely doubt that many modern Western citizens, for instance those of the UK, would disregard the lessons of the past and allow such a society to unfold in their countries today, because we know the destruction that totalitarian societies have caused in Germany and Russia in the past, as well as under the Church during the Middle Ages -- citizens in the West are more educated and we are all much more aware nowadays of how political and cultural shifts are likely to impact us as citizens -- so why have these societies been able to exist in Western nations in the past? Well, the willingness to submit without question to a higher authority is an indicator of lower intelligence, and deep religious conviction has been shown to inversely correlate with IQ. You see, religious beliefs often contradict scientific facts and generally they fall apart under logical scrutiny, therefore, in order to believe and support these intrusive, oppressive ideologies, people must be willing to reject factual information that runs contrary to their beliefs -- in Stalinist Russia people rejected Western media reports, and child murder, though it happened, was not investigated because as Stalin put it “such crimes do not exist in Russia”. Likewise, those who are deeply religious also refuse learning opportunities in order to maintain their beliefs, no matter how anti-intellectual or oppressive those beliefs may be. This kind of blind faith element, combined with brutal penalties for dissent, makes people less likely to question the status-quo.

Willing atheists in free societies not under the rule of dictatorship -- either religious or political -- have much less reason to believe in such a strictly enforced deontological moral and legal framework, much less to allow it to be enforced on them, and as such have no issue accepting factual information that may slightly or drastically alter their beliefs; their beliefs are more often based on facts and good information rather than propaganda or religious dogma. And this liberty -- the right to choose, the right to personal freedom, free media, free thought, free speech -- is the enemy of control. The liberation of the individual from didactic, dictatorial mindsets leads to the realization of more free, more intelligent, more safe societies in which citizens are able to flourish. That’s a tyrant’s worst nightmare, be he Stalin or God.

Christian:

I did not intend to imply that atheism naturally predisposes people to committing murder more so than does belief in God. Atheism doesn’t normatively force the atheist to believe that he or she should commit murder whenever they feel like it, but I think it can’t provide an objective reason why not to. I also do not believe that belief in God is necessary for good morality, as most atheists are obviously moral people, but I do believe that God is necessary for objective morality. So I think I was merely trying to press that fact, that atheism can’t tell one what to do objectively. If you are assuming intrinsic human value, that seems to hold objective weight as a premise that would lead one to have to hold some generally objective principles or rules, like “Don’t take an innocent life whimsically, because that life has value.”

Sean:

In my experience people place the most value in the things they care about the most. Just because a person chooses to place value in a philosophy written down thousands of years ago rather than in their innate empathetic response to cultural life and all it presents in no way makes the ancient written philosophy objective. Christian moralities vary tremendously across historical periods, and between denominations there can be no consensus on “Christian truth” whenever each denomination asserts its interpretations as an exclusivist objective framework in contrast to another. In fact, by that mechanism I would conclude none of the interpretations are objective. And if indeed an objective interpretation does exist among the many thousands of interpretations, there is no mechanism for determining which one it is other than the claimant’s claim to having the correct interpretation itself.

Atheism, though, as you correctly point out, cannot tell a person what moral actions to objectively undertake either, firstly because atheism is not a moral framework, but secondly, and more importantly, because the notion of objective morality is patently false: that moralities are fundamentally matters of social convention in regards to the distinction between right and wrong behaviours means that those distinctions differ between societies — there is no consensus on morality across all cultures — so morality is thereby a subjective phenomena. Morals, unlike mathematics, geology, geography, archeology, biology, astronomy or physics (which by the way all function perfectly fine without a supernatural element) are not factual, scientific, logical processes or laws.

That said, as a species linked to one another by an intrinsic need for social contact and all the benefits thereof — comfort, bonding, close relationships and procreation — there are communal necessities that demand moral protocols. We are averse to things like murder and rape certainly because they are painful experiences that we empathize with, but also because such things damage societies for if we were to perpetrate these acts and allow them to be perpetrated without resistance, well, human culture would quickly fall apart.

I’m quite sure, in all cultures, that there are indeed people who fall into the bracket of “lacking morals”, but as we know these are usually people for whom social reliance is an alien concept. When we think of the moral-less, we generally think of psychopaths, people for whom community, affection and close bonding is either not possible or not wanted. Such people fall outside the realm of people who follow a moral code in order to live as part of a symbiotic society. They either avoid it or try to rule it. I would have no problem with the idea that Moses was one such person. For psychopaths, empathy is not a primary function, but for everyone else, it is, and as such the value of another human life is often equal to the value of one’s own, except of course in cases where one’s own life is directly threatened.

This empathy we have: the fact that we innately empathize with one another while cultural moralities vary in the finer details, shows that morality, while intrinsic, is not objective. Not all societies’ needs are exactly the same and not all people think alike. Yet, if we are to take your ideas about morality as factual ones, it would be quite surprising if all the current freely majority atheistic societies functioned less violently than the heavily Christian ones, don’t you think? The irony is that they do. Let me finish by saying that if you think that the Abrahamic God is necessary for a stable morality (I won’t say objective morality because the notion is not something I can agree with), it’s best if I paraphrase Christopher Hitchens: human cultures would never have gotten as far as Sinai if humans had hitherto lacked morals.

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