The Psychology of Apologetics: Ethics and Morality

October 31, 2008 at 1:04 am 30 comments

In this section I would like to examine one of the claims often made by conservative religionists, namely, that nonbelievers have no basis for morality or ethics.

This is a common apologetic maneuver. It is partly a scare tactic, to be sure, but partly, I think they say this because it really looks that way to them. From within a fundamentalist framework, based on what’s called “divine command” ethical theory, such claims can seem compelling, even natural. It seems natural and obvious that, if there is a Deity, then doing the will of the deity guarantees that one will do what is good. Without God, the universe would seem to devolve into an aimless, amoral chaos. Why do anything if there is no God? Why not cheat, lie, murder, and steal if there is no higher right and wrong and we’re all dead in the end, anyway? “If God is dead, all is permitted.”

How ultimately satisfying such a view is is another matter (e.g., Euthyphro problem), but perhaps us former believers can sympathetically recall its appeal. It does make things rather easy – your moral duty is handed to you. Nevertheless, on leaving the faith we often must work to extricate ourselves from the sometimes long shadow of this worldview. In this article, I would like to propose a naturalistic “basis” for these human needs and thus work to allay the fears of those in the midst of de-conversion. In so doing, I also hope to shed some light on what has gone wrong in the fundamentalist worldview in adopting such absolutist standards in the first place.

The (Real) Basis for Morality

I think it would be helpful to start by looking at how, empirically, people do in fact learn morality. Scientifically speaking, where do we get our ethics and why do we behave? This part is easy: morality is largely internalized from our relationship with our parents.

There is nothing mysterious about this. Humans, social primates that we are, have a protracted period of immaturity compared to other mammals. Our brains our wired to internalize the implicit social norms of the group, because cooperation of the group is evolutionarily advantageous – our survival has depended on it. Such internalization of pro-social behavior is based first (in the earliest years) on the intrinsic pleasure of pleasing one’s caregivers and the aversiveness of displeasing them. We can naturally and very keenly detect the emotional responses of those around us and, indeed, we thrive on such responses. So, at first, we behave to gain parental approval and stay connected with them.

Later, but still in early childhood, our brains develop what is (so far as we know) a uniquely human capacity: to take the perspective of another. Variously called mentalizing, theory of mind, or mindsight, this capacity is an outgrowth of that more primitive ability (just mentioned) to detect our parent’s emotional responses in the first place. Here, it is greatly elaborated and we begin to understand, on a gut level, that other people have minds like ours and thus feelings and experiences, like ours. This is empathy, the capacity to perceive, understand, and anticipate the internal state of another.

Empathy allows us to “hook up” our observations of other’s behavior with a “feel” for the mind (and set of motives) behind that behavior. We understand, purely on a naturalistic basis, purely out of the normal biological development of the social brain, how others probably like to be treated and why. And, because we are naturally social, we come to care. Other people become “real” to us, for the first time. This is nothing less than the neural and social basis for the Golden Rule.

Indeed, it is no wonder the “Golden Rule” has appeared in every major religion, and in philosophy (Kant’s “categorical imperative”): we are, literally, wired for it. Thus, empathy – putting ourselves mentally in other’s shoes – is the basis for human morality, it develops automatically out of our early relationships, and it is as natural as sunshine.

The (Real) Fear about Atheism

All this is important to understand for those de-converting. Why? Because fundamentalist Christianity goes to great lengths to convince you that your worst sense of self is your truest. As I argued in previous articles, that belief system teaches adherents that, at their deepest core, they care only about themselves, and that they think of nothing beyond the gratification of their own selfish wants and desires. Left to our own devices, we would all become animals, or something worse than animals. Such apologists argue that it is only religion, and the commands of God (and our conscience, given by God), that prevents such devolution of our selves and our society into barbarism.

So, what I am suggesting is that when apologists argue that “without God there is no basis for morality”, what they are really saying is: “Without God to tell you what is right, your intrinsic selfishness will have no check. You will have nothing to stop you from becoming a monster.” And this, I think, is what those in the midst of de-conversion are really afraid of.

But as I am arguing, this is almost certainly false. Very few people, believer or nonbeliever, need any god (or argument) to tell them that it is wrong to be cruel to their children or to harm our kinsmen. We know it in our gut. Our ethics are internalized and grow naturally out of our relationships, and our sense of common humanity, and need no supernatural world for support. Religion (all religion) simply provides secondary elaboration on internalized, biologically based human impulses (and then, often, takes credit for it all.)

I suggest that the first step here is to challenge this religious view by making the questions concrete. Ask such believers (or yourself, if this is your fear): if you were, hypothetically, to finally become convinced that there was no God, would you really just stop caring about your children, begin cheating in business, go out stealing and raping with impunity? Do you really only love your wives and husbands and parents and friends because you are told to? Don’t you really – if you’re honest – want to also? If there were no God, and you knew it, wouldn’t you pretty much behave the same way you do already?

The “Internal Selection Bias”

Many believers will have a hard time accepting this. Often, a believer’s religiously-based interpretation of his “self” is so dominant that it becomes very difficult for him to objectively look inward and ask himself whether – empirically – he really wants to behave that badly in the first place. His religion has spent years indoctrinating him to believe in his own depravity. He has never really thought to question it. And if he needs any proof, he can point to the endless parade of “selfish” feelings we all do naturally have. (And, of course, he can also look at the world and find no shortage of cruelty and evil behavior there, also).

It is, of course, undeniable that all of us, at times, want (or do) what we know is wrong. But it is equally true that we often want (or do) what we know is right. It feels good to give to our kids or provide comfort for a grieving friend. It feels good to do something that makes your parents or friends happy. We want to keep our pets happy and healthy. It feels good to relieve the suffering of others.

And this is the key point: many believers will overemphasize the former and explain away the latter –all one’s ‘bad’ impulses are one’s own, anything ‘good’ found within oneself is chalked up to God-given conscience. They apply a kind of internal selection bias to the interpretation of their own thoughts and feelings, as it systematically explains away any good impulses and demands ownership of the bad ones. The central “axiom” of the fundamentalist sense of self is: I am bad. Therefore, anything bad I find in me is mine. Anything I find in me that is not bad, must not be mine. It must come from God.

This suggests the next step, the system that must be challenged – and this is what may be helpful for those struggling with de-conversion to think about: Look within yourself. Do you not find it as natural as breathing to love and be good to your children, to care for you family and friends? Why do you explain that away? Why do you take as “basic” somehow all the selfish moments, all the “uglier” thoughts and feelings that you have? Isn’t this division of credit and blame rather arbitrary? Why not call the “good” ones basic and the “bad” ones the aberration? Better yet, why not just call them both a natural part of you?

To truly accept that thoughts and feelings are just that – thoughts and feelings, neither good nor bad in themselves, and not a commentary on the soul of the person – will, I gently offer, be one of the most liberating insights a former fundamentalist can have.

The Is/Ought Question and Why It’s Important – But Not That Important

Some readers will object that in discussing a naturalistic basis for ethics, I have not addressed the is/ought problem. From the empirical fact that we are a mixed bag of selfishness and altruism, it does not follow that I have established an actual basis for ethics. Maybe we are naturally inclined to love our children. So what? Why should we say it’s right or good to do so? Don’t we need some external standard to know what good is at all?

This criticism is valid to a point, but misses what I’m trying to say. There are, of course, many attempts in philosophy to provide a rock-solid “Ultimate Ground” of ethics, such as Kant’s view mentioned above. Such attempts are interesting and valuable and worth consideration. But I resist that conversation here because I think the emotional need for such a ground is part of the problem in the first place, at least for many struggling with de-conversion from fundamentalism. Even if I could successfully develop such a system, would I not mere be replacing one external absolutism for another? Would I not still be playing to that fear: that we need an external absolute to keep the inner beast in check?

So, with what I have suggested, the is/ought question does not go away. I freely admit I have not solved that here. But what I propose is something else, something I think more freeing: that a life spent in human struggle with human moral and ethical decisions is not such a bad thing. It is not so scary or dangerous as we have been led to believe by conservative religion. Indeed, to struggle with ethical questions, to think critically, to continually question oneself, to learn from the views of others, and to heed the call of one’s natural empathy, is not only healthy, is not only honest, it is part of what it means to be human. And it’s what it means to grow.

So I want us to be less afraid of that struggle, less overwhelmed by the prospect of not having a sure rock to stand on, of having no certain answers to give. It’s okay to struggle. It’s okay to be uncertain. Our souls, our behavior, and our society will not unravel. Our ethics will be “naturalistically felt”, not supernaturally proven, and that – I think we will find – will be quite enough to guide us through a (sufficiently) noble and righteous life. Our natural social “instincts” about basic ethics are quite enough for most people to get by in life and make ethical decisions every day without being professional ethicians… or fundamentalist Christians.

In Jewish legend, a man approached Rabbi Hillel and said, “Tell me the Torah [the Jewish law, the basis for Jewish ethics] while standing on one foot.” The rabbi replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Now go and study the commentary.”

Empathy – not doing to others what we ourselves find hateful – grows out of our most basic human relationships. The rest of ethics is commentary. And by all means, study the commentary. But you’ve got your whole life to do it. In the meantime, our own common, shared humanity is all the basis we ever will need to be “good” – whatever we decide we mean by that.

So, when a conservative religious believer says to you that you have no certain basis for ethics, the best response is: why in the world do you need one?

– Richard

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The Solace of Nonbelief Failing the Insider Test – My de-conversion story

30 Comments Add your own

  • 1. writerdd  |  October 31, 2008 at 10:17 am

    This is so true. When I was born again, I was SO afraid to backslide (I never thought I’d become an atheist, just that I would possibly stop feeling so fervent about God), I just knew I would become a drug addict or a prostitute or a homeless wino. I was completely amazed as I watched myself through the deconversion process, always a bit panicked about where I would end up, to see that I really didn’t change at all except in the one area of belief. My self is the same as it was before and I don’t “sin” any more than I did before — that is, I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do, and I don’t do anything that I think is wrong. I follow my own moral principles, which truth be told, are not very different than the ones I held before. The main difference is that I don’t expect that everyone else should follow all of the rules that I set out for myself. I understand that some are personal, not universal. That is, I don’t think anyone should commit murder or rape, but I don’t care if other people smoke pot or have sex outside of marriage, etc. My moral sense has actual become much more mature and stronger than it was when I was just following rules because “God said so.”

  • 2. Josh  |  October 31, 2008 at 11:24 am

    “To truly accept that thoughts and feelings are just that – thoughts and feelings, neither good nor bad in themselves, and not a commentary on the soul of the person – will, I gently offer, be one of the most liberating insights a former fundamentalist can have.”

    Richard, once again a beautifully argued and well-crafted piece of writing. This portion above has struck me as so true. In my own de-conversion this particular discovery made such a difference. I no longer had to attribute “bad thoughts” that I did not want to have as somehow mental implants from the devil. I no longer had to attribute feelings of empathy toward my fellow man to the work of the Holy Spirit. I no longer had the confusion as to why David could have such bad thoughts toward his enemies (… blessed are those who dash their babies against the rocks…) and yet be called a man after God’s own heart. I no longer had the schizophrenic approach to my own thoughts that basically monitored and analyzed everything I was thinking to make sure it was godly or not.

    To some extent, fundamentalism is animism toward the mind, where every thought has a “spirit” lurking behind it. Christians may no longer find spirits in lightning, trees, or vicious animals, but they certainly find spirits behind every idea – whether good or bad!

    By realizing it was all me I was truly set free.

  • 3. Ubi Dubium  |  October 31, 2008 at 11:48 am

    I also concur on a natural origin for a sense of morality. I tend to see it from the point of view of cultural evolutionary fitness. We are a social animal; we depend on each other to a tremendous degree. So those behaviors that help an individual’s success within their social group will tend to be taught to their children, and so retained in their culture. Behaviors that strenghthen the group itself, or protect it from outside attack, would also be favored, as would the willingness to punish any individual who weakened the group by transgressing the rules. All the basic the moral values that are held by all human cultures, like taking care of each other, politeness, refraining from stealing from or violence toward group members, to me all of these stem from this basic idea. Any cultural group that does not follow these basics falls apart. Unfortunatly, it seems that following a common religion was a part of this social glue, right from the beginning.

    Our basic morality developed when humans were living in small clans, and small villages and towns. Every group needed an “us versus them” aspect to their culture to survive. Now that we are becoming a global culture instead of individual tribes, the challenge I see is how to adapt our sense of morality to this. People are going to have to expand their idea of what their “group” is. Our “group” needs to be “our species” if we are to survive. As long as we retain the “my tribe is good, and your tribe is evil” mentality, we will be stuck with intertribal violence on a global scale. And one of the main things locking us into this mentality is the persistence of the old tribal religions. Until their hold on us fades, we are stuck where we are.

  • 4. Josh  |  October 31, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    “Behaviors that strenghthen the group itself, or protect it from outside attack, would also be favored, as would the willingness to punish any individual who weakened the group by transgressing the rules.”

    I must confess, while I agree with this view, it does present a serious difficulty. If Christianity was the view that has thrived so prevalently, how is it then that we can just reject it? A Christian could argue that because Christianity has done such a “good” job in their community that this is good evidence (evolution or not) that it should be followed.

    I have not received this argument from Christians myself, but just bracing myself for it…

    Any possible solutions?

  • 5. LeoPardus  |  October 31, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    that belief system teaches adherents that, at their deepest core, they care only about themselves, and that they think of nothing beyond the gratification of their own selfish wants and desires.

    And they generally do a fine job of living down to that don’t they?

    apologists argue that it is only religion, and the commands of God (and our conscience, given by God), that prevents such devolution of our selves and our society into barbarism.

    Yep. Used that very argument myself many times. Of course I must give credit to the Christian faith in that it did provide me with a moral compass at a time when I needed one. All these years later I’ve found that it’s not the only compass though (contrary to what I was taught).

  • 6. Ubi Dubium  |  October 31, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    A Christian could argue that because Christianity has done such a “good” job in their community that this is good evidence (evolution or not) that it should be followed.

    I have heard this argument myself: “How can you reject the church when it does so much good in the community?”

    Well, doing a “good job” does not equal being true. I can reject Xianity, not for whether it’s doing a “good job”, but for it’s basic premises being false. An ancient Greek might have argued that their religion did a “good job” for their society, but that’s not an effective argument for becoming a follower of Zeus.

  • 7. Richard  |  October 31, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Christianity does a good job in some respects. I will admit it does good for many millions, at least by their own report. But it has also done great harm, as when the Inquisitors drove out 100,000 Jews from Spain, forcibly converted 100,000 more, and killed the rest. I tend to think its better to isolate out those parts of religion that we can attribute to bad results and leave the rest of it alone.

    For instance, I would argue that the central psychological feature of fundamentalism is not any particular set of beliefs but rather then phenomenon known as splitting — dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, good vs evil, us vs them. This is not exclusive to fundys; extreme ideologues all over the political and social spectrum do it too.

    But it tends to lead, I think, to xenophobia and presumption of malice on the part of the Other (whoever the other is), to the false sense of certainty about their beliefs and opinions, to crusadism, to the psychological rigidity we see in them, self-alienation from society, and immunity to evidence and argument. Those who split see no need to compromise — the very heart of deomcracy — because, why would you compromise with the enemy?

    But “splitting” is another article…

  • 8. Richard  |  October 31, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Ubi – I agree with you that morality devloped because it was evolutionarily advantageous to us.

    From the standpoint of human development and psychology I tend to focus on the “how” question, or at least the more immediate how question — how do each of us, as individuals, learn morality?

    And again, my point is that it is internalized from our early realtionships with caregivers. Psychotherapists have been saying for decades that young children “internalize” their relationship with their parents, so they they come to carry around with them a sense of the parent’s “presence” even when the parent is not physically there. Historically, this has been called “object relations” by psychoanalysts.

    Today it would tend to be called mentalizing or theory of mind, as I mentioned, which is again an internal model of the mind of another, intitually modelled on ones parents. Incidentally, this also serves a powerful emotional function, too, as it gives the young child a sense of continuing connection with the parent. It helps him come to tolerate the parents physical absence for longer and longer times.

  • 9. peridot  |  October 31, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

    I’m new here, but very pleased to find a group of thinking, former Christians. I have been agnostic for about 15 years now, but was deeply into the Christian faith/lifestyle for 15 years prior to that.

    This issue of the basis of morality was one of the most important issued in my own deconversion, and one that I struggled with for many years. As a questioning christian, I certainly didn’t believe that if I left the faith, that I would start doing horrible, immoral things. My experience was different from winterdd’s in this respect. I knew the doctines of special and general revelation, and thought that general revelation in form of individual conscience, would keep me from slipping too far into the gutter. It was general revelation that explained how some unbelievers live very honorable lives, to me at the time.

    The problems I had were more abstract, and even now I have a hard time articulating them. It is said in evangelical circles that the existence of the church and christian ethics has a sanctifying effect on the whole culture — christians were the salt of the earth, the holy spirit is a world-wide ‘restraining influence’, etc. I always tried to figure out what this means and exactly how it worked, and I never came up with very satisfactory answers.

    Also, I became increasingly troubled by the fact that the people who seemed to be the best people were often not the most devoted to the religion. This was true among outright nonbelievers, some very admirable and some not, with varying reverence for religion. Some ‘nominal christians’ with very weak testimonies seemed to be very strong contributors in their families and community. Others who clearly believed more gave far less of themselves. I was deep in the evangelical church for many years, so I knew and believed the usual explanations, but it troubled me more as the years went by, not less.

    I used to think about ethical questions like why is abortion wrong? Raised in the church, steeped in things like prayer-meetings over Supreme Court nominations, etc. I always believed that abortion was wrong. But I wanted to understand exactly why it was wrong . . . why is technology like oral contraceptives which destroy unfertilized eggs morally acceptable, or is it, and why is technology like the abortion pill which destroys a fertilized human egg tantamount to murder? What really troubled me was that nearly all of the christians around me accepted the usual teaching that the bible condemns abortion, when the bible verses cited are so very, very flimsy. I thought that to go from the like of ‘God knit me in my mother’s womb’ to condemning abortion was very flimsy hermeneutics. (Please, christians out there, spare me the other christian arguments against abortion. Having written research papers on them for bible college, I am familiar with them all.) Eventually, I felt that we all rejected abortion based on other factors, and the bible teaching was just made up to condemn abortion as foregone conclusion. And yet, nearly all the christians I knew believed, really believed, that the bible teaches that abortion is wrong. At the same time, all of the verses in the bible mentioning slavery but not condemning it were explained away in other ways. It became clear to me that christians don’t condemn abortion or slavery or much of anything else based on the bible. They use the bible to support their ideas about morality that they receive from other sources.
    When I realized this, which took YEARS, it made the whole christian message much more questionable.

    Does anyone else here think that the church is on the brink of changing what it teaches about sex outside of marriage? I wouldn’t be surprised if the church liberalizes what it teaches about this, just as the church liberalized its teaching about slavery during the abolitionist movement. It may take one more generation or several, but I don’t think the church is going to find the ‘no sex outside of marriage’ ethic workable much longer than that. I think that the availability of reliable birth control has changed the prevailing secular mindset about sex being more morally acceptable outside of marriage. The church lags behind and the bible does clearly condemn fornication. Still, I see signs (such as Dr. Phil who is a churchgoer but doesn’t condemn premarital sex) that the church is already loosening up on this a little. I see small signs of this in my own very evangelical extended family, as well. It’s an example of changes in medical technology and economics causing changes in what large numbers of people believe is moral.

    Just a few thoughts . . .

    By the way, I’ve decided that I would like to participate on this website, but I’m not here to debate christians who disagree from me. As I understand it, it initial purpose of the site was to provide a forum for former christians to discuss with one another. I, for one, will not be spending time talking to christians who try to hijack it into an attempt to reconvert us.

  • 10. Richard  |  October 31, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    peridot – Thank you for your thoughts and welcome; we are glad to have you here.

    I read your remarks with interest. You said you did not fear that, were you to leave the faith, you would suddenly start doing horrible things. But from you wrote it seems to me that you, implicitly, accept the dynamic I layed out in the article — that your soul is corrupt and wishes to do evil, and needs a “restraining” inlfuence of some kind to keep that from happening. You didnt say that exactly, but seem to suggest it. Am I correct in that? I dont want to assume.

    Anyway, I also agree that the Bible is generally used as post-hoc justification for whatever moral issue you want to find support for. The real motivation, I think, for the kind of morality you see in fundamentalism comes from psychological sources.

  • 11. Josh  |  October 31, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    “It became clear to me that christians don’t condemn abortion or slavery or much of anything else based on the bible. They use the bible to support their ideas about morality that they receive from other sources.”

    Wow, well said! The slavery issue always confused me. The one that confused me even more were my Christian friends who claimed that certain types of music beats were evil because the Bible says they come from the devil. After all, the Bible says to “Make melody in your hearts to the Lord”, which means rock music (which focuses on the beat instead) must be evil.

  • 12. peridot  |  October 31, 2008 at 3:25 pm


    Oh yes, I definitely agree with you. As a fundamentalist, I believed that human nature is sinful and that we need a morality given to us from God to keep us in line or we would all fall into barbarism. Now that I think about it, when I was a fundamentalist I probably did believe that I would slip into bad behavior at least somewhat if I left the faith. This idea was tempered by the idea that I was taught that human conscience came from God and was given to everyone, not just believers, aka ‘general revelation’.

    I liked what you said about how it is good to struggle with moral questions. When I was deepest into fundamentalism, I thought that God has provided the bible with verbal inspiration and inerrancy so that believers had a moral roadmap that wouldn’t require us to struggle. Slowly, and it took years for me, I realized that the bible is inadequate on one issue after another. I remained a christian but became more moderate and ultimately liberal as I decided that God wanted us to have to struggle to figure out moral questions. It was a little scary at the time to give up the security of a dictated morality and realize that people have to think more deeply than that. I did this while I was still a christian. My own journey was to become a very liberal christian before finally admitting I was more agnostic than anything else.


    This kind of teaching:

    The bible says ‘make melody in your hearts’ = rock music is evil

    always disappointed me. Obviously, a lot of christians are just looking for justifications for what they already believe. It wasn’t enough to make me leave the faith, but it made me value the bible teachers who seemed to have more intellectual honesty. It was significant to me when when of the pastors I knew who seemed to be the most genuinely interested in what the bible ACTUALLY says and not what he wanted it to say left fundamentalism to become a Presbyterian minister. I was just a teenager at the time, but I kept thinking about that.

  • 13. Josh  |  October 31, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    “It wasn’t enough to make me leave the faith, but it made me value the bible teachers who seemed to have more intellectual honesty.”

    Agreed. What I began to notice in my life was that I generally considered the things that made me feel uncomfortable to be “sinful”, even if I wasn’t sure why. Rock music makes people feel uncomfortable if they are not used to that loose feeling, and so I think that some interpreted that discomfort as a sinful feeling and then juxtaposed it as if it was coming from the Holy Spirit – and hence there must be a prohibition of it somewhere in the Bible! Dig hard enough and a person can find a prohibition for just about anything – even Christmas Trees (I’ve heard that one before…)

  • 14. Postman  |  November 2, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Well said, Richard.

    I tend to satirize theistic argument, myself. However, it’s nice to see people who deal thoughtfully with it for the benefit of, among others, those who are deconverting and may not be comfortable with satire.
    I shall watch your future posts with interest.

  • 15. matt  |  November 3, 2008 at 7:14 am

    I appreciate your article, Richard. I was first introduced to an evolutionary biology basis for morality when a friend who was working on his PhD in Evolutionary Psych was staying with me. Out of curiosity I picked up “The Moral Animal” and started reading it. It made an awful lot of sense. Since I had rejected religion I had always hated the “How do you know what the right thing to do is without God?” argument. But my rebuttal of “It seems self-evident to me” always sounded a lot like the sort of un-thought-out dogma that made me leave in the first place. I thought you elucidated the general arguments of intrinsic morality very nicely. I also liked the story of Rabbi Hillel and “the rest is commentary”. I hadn’t heard that before.

    On a side note, when I was in a sarcastic mood, I would reply to question of morals without God by asking if the person had read the bible, and really believed in biblical morals. There is some pretty messed up stuff in there! Especially in the OT. Slavery almost seems like the most palatable. I like stoning your own children, and women who are menstruating being so unclean that anything they come in contact with automatically gets cooties, too. I always had a problem with this sort of thing when I first read the bible. Even young, I remember feeling like this stuff was awfully glossed over, but homosexuals were somehow still evil, even though the biblical justifications for that were right in the same book.

  • 16. Richard  |  November 3, 2008 at 10:42 am

    matt- thank you for your comments.

    I think your instinctive “it always seems self evident” is exactly dead on. It seems self evident because it is: our morality is internalized automatically, unconsciously, and emotionally (in large chunks). This “reciprocal altruism”, as sociologists call it, can start to be seen in young children long before they have much in the way of abstract concepts. Specific abstractions about empathy – e.g., the golden rule — are very much products of a more adult mind. But the fundamental “rule” itself was internalized long ago.

    So, thats why it seems self evident: on a gut level, it is. And it is for everyone, even fundamentalists! They just have learned not to trust themselves.

  • 17. freestyleroadtrip  |  November 3, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    Just a question. If morality is an evolutionarily selected trait, why is the morality that we find generally the same across all regions and cultures and religions? It would seem to me that we would see widely varying moralities over time in differing groups, and while I do realize their are variations, they are not wide. For example, “don’t murder “would be a common theme across most cultures. This leads me to believe that a common morality could have been placed within humankind by a creator God and may actually be evidence for God’s existence. I would wholeheartedly agree, contrary to what most evangelical Christians believe, with the de-con folks that morality is certainly not explained by the Bible at all.

  • 18. Josh  |  November 3, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    “This leads me to believe that a common morality could have been placed within humankind by a creator God and may actually be evidence for God’s existence.”

    This is exactly the argument C.S.Lewis used in Mere Christianity – and that subsequently helped in the conversion of Francis Collins (head of the human genome project).

    Honestly it is probably one of the more beautiful arguments for the existence of a moral law-giver. Unfortunately I just do not think it cuts it, and here is why.

    All animals have the ability to empathize with each other. I have two kittens and I have learned that they learn how hard to bite each other based on how hard the other one bites them. I think the same goes for humans: we get hurt by each other (especially when we are growing up) and then learn from this how we should probably not treat others.

    In a sense, the idea of a “covenant” itself is an evolutionary product where two individuals by human communication agree not to hurt each other.

    Here is my hypothesis. The “common morality” that we find throughout culture is nothing more than a silent “handshake” between each member of the human race and everyone else that “I will not do painful things to you and I expect that you will not do painful things to me in return.” It is like an unspoken moral economic transaction.

    That’s my theory anyway.

  • 19. Richard  |  November 3, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Josh and freestyle –

    I would tend to think that the common morality we see across cultures — what sociologists call reciprocal altruism — is exactly the sort of thing we would expect to see if morality is evolutionarily selected for.

    I.e., all human societies or groups share a common set of traits which impels us to behave in some ways but not others. All (normal) human children have a neurologically-based sensitivity to the emotional states of others (esp. easly caregivers). This later develops into a internal, gut-level sense for the “mind” (internal states, motives) of others, providing a basis for compassion and empathy.

    Of course, this all *could* be explained by a “law-giver”, but I dont see how that explanation is necessary or even likely. The idea that morality emerges out of empathy, which itself emerges out of the social brain, seems to me an elegant explanation (and argument for) naturalistic bases for moraluity.

  • 20. freestyleroadtrip  |  November 3, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Richard. You are now the second atheist that has given this same explanation, and I appreciate that. It gives more validity to it for me. I need to study this a bit more to get a better handle on it. I am having a bit of trouble in my mind differentiating what you are saying above to social Darwinism. How would you say they are different or are they one and the same?

    Josh. I discovered this in Mere Christianity when I read it for the second time in late 2007 as I was simultaneously reading Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion. My previous reading was when I attended a fundamentalist Nazarene university and was much more interested in basketball and girls so got little out of it but wasn’t ready to hear it anyway. I decided to read these two together in 2007 to give equal weights to opposing sides of the argument. And I haven’t sorted this part of it out yet for myself. Still working on how it can make sense to me.

  • 21. drdave  |  November 3, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    For a defense of morality without god(s), see Richard Carrier’s book “Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism”.

  • 22. Richard  |  November 4, 2008 at 12:47 am

    I think the difference between what I am proposing and what social Darwinism is/was, is that SD generally was an “ought” sort of ideology, whereas Im talking about “is” questions.

    Again, my purpose in my article was not to settle the “ought” questions, and thus provide a new or alternate basis for morality to subsitute for the Christian one. My purpose was to reassure prospective decons that they will not devolve into beasts without religion, *and* to explain why. Namely, that evolution and child development (depending on which scale you want to look at it from) have seen to it that we have a built-in drive to be excellent to each other.

    SD took a single strand of evolutionary theory (of the time, namely, survival of the fittest) and used it as a post-hoc rationalization to justify aggressive social and corporate practices. In other words, they took an “is” and tried to create an artifical and self-seving “ought.”

    Look at it this way. There is a reason you and I find social darwinism appalling. Why is that? Because we see that it treats people as objects, obstacles in one’s own struggle for fitness. Did you need religion to teach you not to treat people that way? Thats the whole point. Seeing people as people is precisely empathy, and is the very-natural lens through which we view and judge proposed ethical systems like social darwinism.

    You and I can both agree the SD is unethical, even as we struggle to articulate why. It would be easy (and many people of course do) to attrivute this to a god-given conscience. But our evolution-given empathy functions in exactly the same way. And without all that mucking about in divine command theory.

  • 23. Richard  |  November 4, 2008 at 12:52 am

    And BTW, I am not dogging all religion about this. I think religion can very often provide a lovely articulation of these ideas. Martin Buber, for example, in his plea to treat each other as “Thous”, rather than”Its”, is absolutely sublime, in my view. I find these sorts of religious writing very moving. I love the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman (“he who is without sin among you..”). I included the legend about Hillel in my article.

    So, I think religion (at its best) can provide beautiful depictions, elaborations, and lessons about this sort of basic human goodness. But it didnt invent it.

  • 24. freestyleroadtrip  |  November 4, 2008 at 12:54 am

    Richard. Thanks for the clarification. I agree with you that you do not need religion to tell you to treat other humans with respect and that without religion you will degrade into an animal. Enjoying the discussion.

  • 25. TitforTat  |  November 4, 2008 at 5:49 am

    So, I think religion (at its best) can provide beautiful depictions, elaborations, and lessons about this sort of basic human goodness. But it didnt invent it.(Richard)

    And this is the point where we as humans ask, what did invent it? Atheists would say its an Evolutionary process and religious people say God did it and they then give their description of who they think God is. I think we can agree on this one idea, there was a starting point. I wonder if we will ever agree on the why?

  • 26. Anonymous  |  November 4, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    And here’s where atheists respond; ‘Good question, though I would posit that there isn’t necessarily an anthropomorfic answer to the question.

  • 27. Josh  |  November 4, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    “‘Good question, though I would posit that there isn’t necessarily an anthropomorfic answer to the question.”

    I have not yet been able to find a person inside of faith who knows what an atheist is really thinking… the search continues…

  • 28. Josh  |  November 4, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    …actually that just got me to thinking. One reason I left the faith was simply because I realized that atheists have a better understanding of Christians than Christians do of atheist. The very fact that atheists can often anticipate every argument a Christian is going to use next, but Christian’s often do not have a good understanding of atheists is a good sign that one has a better understanding of the world in general. No?

  • 29. INTJ Mom  |  November 9, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    I love this series of aritcles you are writing. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • 30. lowkeyguru  |  November 11, 2008 at 8:19 am

    First of all, thanks for an interesting read folks, some great points have been made.
    I am still perplexed though Richard as to how this ‘mentalising’ ability relates to morality as such. Sure, I do agree that empathy (ie. the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes) is the basis of morality. Nevertheless, individuals with autism have again and again been shown to lack this ‘mentalising’ ability or theory of mind but yet do pass experiments designed to measure empathy and morality. Hence, this seems to hint at a dissociation between morality and ‘theory of mind’ (and neuroscientific evidence does indeed suggest just that ie. Blair, 1999). Secondly, is it not possible that a person can have moral attitudes without grasping concepts that refer to moral emotions? The crucial thing is not emotion concepts as such (implied in theory of mind), but the emotions themselves. Moralisers must be disposed to feel guilty when they transgress but in my view there is no requirement that they have the belief that guilt is appropriate. Hence, my question is, are individuals with autism that lack a theory of mind immoral or amoral people according to your definition?

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.



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