Oooo, I know, deep subject…
I was inspired to write this on account of a videoed debate between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek. Turek kept asking (without Hitchens giving a satisfactory answer—I love the guy and I still feel he didn’t give a good answer) “if there is no God, how can anyone know what is Right and what is Wrong? Who decides? If we’re all just “molecules in motion” how do we not fall into moral relativism and anarchy? How is it we seem to know, innately, what is good and what is wrong?
Turek answered his own question by saying “God” (long-story-short)—that morality was “written upon our heart” by God at creation. Hitchens talked about Socrates referencing an “inner Daemon”, or conscience, but without saying anything about how it might have come about naturalistically.
Naturalistic Origins of Morality?
The field of sociobiology seeks to provide a non-supernatural explanation for our seemingly innate knowledge of what is moral. Reference is made to certain animal groups (primates, dolphins, elephants, etc) where social behavior and a certain moral code in some ways similar to ours are observed. The ide
a is that there were selective pressures (specifically among primates, in our case) that favored those who had a (heretofore) random genetic mutation that made them more sociable. Thus those who had more of a genetic “hard-wiring” for “morality”, or moral social behaviors, enjoyed greater reproductive success and thus those cooperative genes were passed down.
The same evidence can be argued from the other side, possibly, as “evidence of consistency of design”. However, the arugment of Consistency of Design raises questions about animals like lions; they live in social groups, but if a new male can defeat the old male, then he will proceed to kill all the cubs of the previous male and take over the reproductive duties. This does not appear to indicate consistency of design.
Besides the mammals, there are also social insects, ants being prime among them; however, on the other side there are Black Widow spiders and Praying Mantises, that in both cases have the females eating the males after the reproductive act. Again, disparate moral codes.
One Fallen Lucifer is often called upon to explain these discrepancies. Now, while there are some lines of argument for the existence of a First Cause (cosmological and teleological high among them), those arguments do not come close to proving any kind of personal god such as the monotheisms claim, and have no bearing on the existence of another powerful being that just happens to go around screwing up everything the first being does.
Occam’s Razor proves to have some utility at this point.
In researching this topic further, I came upon an interesting page: http://www.makingmyway.org/?p=567. It brought up a question I hadn’t thought about before; the debate rages about the right or wrong of God ordering genocide in the Old Testament. Theists (specifically of the Christian variety, obviously) say that “since God did it, it was good—it looks bad, but it must have served some higher moral good that we’re unaware of”. Yet still, somehow, our innate morality needs that explanation in order to be even slightly placated at this apparent moral outrage. “Even if we grant the proposition that God is a morally perfect being who can never commit a moral transgression, it still leaves us with what to make of the sense of moral violation. Why do we still have it? The natural law is seemingly producing false positives. Essentially, theists tell us to ignore our sense of moral outrage whenever divine action seems to violate the law…”
So, if God wrote morality “upon our hearts”, why is it outraged at things He does? It is almost as if it knows that “god-instructed” genocide is just as evil as the more normal kind of genocide.
“For instance, returning to the example of genocide, how do we know the Holocaust wasn’t a critical piece in God’s overall plan? Wouldn’t moral condemnation of the Holocaust be at best premature and at worse mistaken? Given the theistic supposition that God chooses to intervene or not intervene in human affairs – invisibly, unpredictably, inscrutably – there is literally no event in which God’s involvement positively can be ruled in or out, and thus no moral outrage we can be confident of. The natural law thus becomes neutered as a moral guide.”
The very “moral law” that theists argue is evidence of the god of the bible writing his perfect law upon our hearts, is effectively rendered null-and-void by the inevitable explanation of “ineffability” of god’s actions when they trigger alarm bells for that same innate moral law.
Moral, or ethical dilemmas, and moral ambiguities pose an interesting problem and can be great sources of late night conversation (esp. when the tongue is loosened with an appropriate amount of smooth alcoholic beverage).
Within the framework of the Hitchens/Turek debate, can ethical dilemmas themselves be used to help shed light on the nature, or possible origin, of our innate morality?
For example, cannibalism; so far as I know, the Bible makes no comments upon it, other than various prophecies that if the Israelites sinned too much, then God would send the armies of other nations after them to siege their cities and the siege/famine would be so bad they would engage in the activity. So, it appears to have been assumed that cannibalism was evil without God commanding “thou shalt not eat people”. Well, we could say that we don’t fall into the “clean animal” guidelines of Leviticus and thus telling us “thou shalt not eat people” would be redundant, but god did bother to say “thou shalt not kill” in the 10 Commandments, which seems equally obvious as not cannibalizing and, like not eating each other, was certainly something people already knew not to do.
In defense of “thou shalt not kill”, one can look around and see that killing always seems to come rather too easily to people; but again, why is killing not as innately reprehensible as eating, esp. if the one who commanded “thou shalt not kill” wrote such moral codes within us at creation?
Refraining from cannibalization isn’t a moral absolute, though. Well, for some it certainly is and they will die of starvation before going so low as to eat another human; however, there are a great many others who will countenance the act in times of grave desperation, like the soccer team that crashed in South America back in the ’70s, or the Donner Party. And society does not condemn them.
Meanwhile, in much of Oceania (Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, etc), and some areas of Africa and South America, it was more of a norm—though usually only practiced upon those of the neighboring/defeated tribe. But again, if there were a universal moral code from a divine creator “written upon our hearts”, one would expect more uniformity. I don’t think we can claim that the fallen Lucifer was able to negatively influence Polynesians and Aztecs more than other peoples.
Incest, like cannibalism, is also almost universally detested (except in the Deep South of the U.S….BOOM, cheap shot! Lol), though it used to be widely practiced in ancient Egypt, especially in the royal family. In the modern day, it isn’t just that we know it leads to deformities and genetic diseases, but is just generally abhorred (and was similarly viewed in much of European society throughout history). The bible does have a list of specified prohibited incestuous relationships in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (though not all things are prohibited in all places, and there are differences in what is prohibited for males and females), but according to the bible, humanity only exists through numerous acts of incest; Adam and Eve & Children would have been without choice in the matter for a few generations, as would the children of Noah’s sons and their wives. Abraham (father of the faithful) married his half-sister Sarah even though there was no shortage of non-related females.
So why was the biblical god initially OK with the practice, especially considering that he later made certain prohibitions against it? What about the issue of genetic diseases? Did he alter the genetic code with cases like Adam & Eve, and Noah & Co.? Why not just make the proper amount of people to ensure genetic variation in the first place? We may never know…
So, what’s your point?
My point is that the evidence in the world around us appears consistent with a naturalistic origin of morality. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t appear to make a very convincing case for a divine origin. There are too many inconsistencies, both within nature, and within the bible itself, for any to honestly claim either that “only believers can be moral because they are the only ones with a True Moral Foundation” or that “our intrinsic morality was put there by god” (who is supposedly perfect and never changes).
And why does this matter? It matters every time there is a mass shooting or similar event–“oh, if only prayer were allowed in schools, this kind of stuff wouldn’t happen!” Not likely. Perhaps for some, the only reason to be Good is that there is an ever-watchful, all-knowing Big Brother in the sky who will grant you eternal bliss…or will toss you down below to roast for eternity if you’re bad. Greed and Fear are a fairly potent combination, even though it doesn’t seem to work for child-molesting priests; of course, the whole Carrot-and-Stick approach is rather neutered when your belief structure has a built-in “get out of jail free” card in the form of “confess your sins and all will be forgiven”. Every time people fight to get more prayer in schools, or to get the Ten Commandments on the walls o
f Federal Buildings, that is time, thought, and energy being taken away from figuring out what really needs to be fixed in order to reduce the chance of another mass shooting (or whatever horrible event that has happened recently).
Every Crusade, every Jihad, every Inquisition, every Honor Killing, every Witch Trial, every instance of “kill ’em all, God will know his own” is evidence that we don’t need religion to be moral. It makes a mockery of Dr. John Lennox’s arguments, who, when debating Prof. Richard Dawkins, laments that an Atheistic Worldview that denies the idea of an Ultimate Judge and Ultimate Justice would only encourage evil. Conversely, I think it rather lends credence to Hitchens’ line of “name a good thing that could only be done by a Believer–something that a non-believer could or would never do. Now, name an evil deed that could only be done by a Believer. Odds are you couldn’t think of any of the first category, but you’ve already thought of several in the second category. The suicide-bomber community is an entirely faith-based community”.
Character, it is said, is what you do when you’re sure you would never be caught. Sure, if you have poor character and lack self-discipline, the thought that you will, definitely, be caught (and punished horribly) by the all-knowing Creator will probably keep you from stealing that gold watch, or sleeping with your neighbour’s wife. But do we really need that? Why not be good for goodness’ sake?