Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why There Can Be No Moral Certitude

“You silly atheist, you have no God and therefore no morals. Why don’t you go grab a joint and kill some babies you liberal.”

I made that up entirely, if you didn’t notice. But it’s not entirely atypical of a conclusion a lot of religious people come to when discussing morality and atheism. They seem to associate a religion with morality, claiming that one is dependent on the other. So, by default, I must have no morals because I have no god to guide me or some shit like that. And you know what, it’s whatever. These people can think what they want about people like me. I have a great sense of morality, and the things that I consider right or wrong may not be so far off from theirs. But remember, the key thing is that I don’t have a religion, and that makes me immoral no matter what.

“Yes, but Atheism is a religion.”

Wait, what the hell? I thought we just went over that. Atheism isn’t a religion and so I can’t possibly have any morals, remember? So, now what, does it go something like “I’m an atheist, so I can’t have any morals because I don’t have a god, but I’m religious”. That just seems like a ridiculous piece of logic to me. Now, I might talk myself in a circle here, but I don’t mind since I don’t think it waters down my point considerably. There are religious atheists in the world, and guess what, there isn’t any contradiction. Here’s why.

Atheism is not a religion; it is a position in a debate. As the saying goes, “If atheism is a religion, then not playing baseball is a sport”. Atheism says only one thing about the nature of the world: that there is no god. Anything further than that is no longer atheism, but rather some sort of hybrid (like some Buddhists, which don’t necessarily believe in a god). Atheism’s polar opposite is not religion, but rather it is the belief in god. That’s all. It makes no statements on morality, the origin of life, or even what happens when you die. It just means no god.

So, I’m going to throw something else out there. If atheism is not a religion, but rather a position on the topic of god, then its opposite must not be a religion either. It only seems logical, and it is 100% true. Theism is not a religion; it is quite simply the belief in god. Agnosticism is also not a religion, but rather a position in a debate. It is the position that the existence of gods is either unknown or unknowable.

You can be a religious atheist and a non-religious theist and not be considered a walking contradiction. This distinction needs to be made in order to continue.

So, what is a religion? To put it simply, religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs (thank you Wikipedia). Let’s make some comparisons. Does Christianity measure up?
  • Set of beliefs present? Yes, Christianity encompasses many different individual beliefs.
  • Do these beliefs concern the nature of the universe? Yes (but the argument could be made that a lot of the statements that make any claims regarding the universe come from Judaism).
  • Creation by a supernatural agency? I would say being three people at once and being able to make people from dirt and a rib is definitely supernatural.
  • Devotional and ritual observances? Isn’t Lent coming soon?
  • Moral Code? Yes sir, let’s talk me some Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount!
So, as you can see, Christianity is most definitely a religion as it meets all of the requirements of a religion. How does atheism hold up?
  • Set of beliefs? No, there is only one: that there is no god. It is not a set and there are not multiple beliefs associated as is required to really be a religion.
  • Do these beliefs concern the nature of the universe? Eh, err, ummm, yes it does. More or less, the conclusions that one would come to about the nature of the universe may be derived from atheism, but there’s no guarantee or certainty.
  • Creation by a supernatural agency? Nope, once again, no god.
  • Devotional and ritual observances? Nope.
  • Moral Code? Nope, there isn’t a moral code associated with atheism.
As you can see, atheism doesn’t stand up to the standards of religion. It is not a religion, and only makes one claim about the world. How about theism?

  • Set of beliefs? Nope, once again, there is only one. That a god or divine being exists.
  • Do these beliefs concern the nature of the universe? Once again, it’s a yes and no. That decision is made on the personal level.
  • Creation by a supernatural agency? Yes.
  • Devotional and ritual observances? No, not in its purest form.
  • Moral Code? No, there is no moral code associated with theism itself. Arabs and Christians are both theists, but have entirely different moral systems, for example.

The thing I want to point out is the fact that there is a difference between atheism and religion, and even theism and religion. It is therefore illogical to associate the lack of religion or god with immorality, seeing as atheism/theism simply doesn’t make a statement about morality: only about the existence or absence of god.

Man, so I guess religious people win in this case. Coming back to this, I guess I don’t have a set moral code, and therefore I have no morals. This is where I really wanted to go with this; most of this was just warm up. So, I’m going to toss out a single notion for you to ponder.

There is no such thing as a universal moral.

Damn, that was pretty intense. I felt it all the way from here when you read that. Just kidding, but seriously I did.

Here’s one of the main reasons why there can’t be universal morals: there is no such thing as a duplicate situation. There is no situation that will duplicate itself in its entirety to the point where making the same exact moral decision will have the same exact outcome. Even similar situations may have different circumstances about them. People could be in different moods, location could be different, weather conditions may even play a part (I suppose). Nevertheless, a slight change in circumstance can lead to an entirely new decision to have to be made. Is it really logical to apply a universal moral to every situation, knowing what I just told you?

Abortion is most definitely something that most people consider a moral issue. We’ve got people on one side saying life is sacred and needs to be protected, and we’ve got another which wants to keep the rights with the woman. It really is a tough call, and there is no way to solve it. So, let’s change the debate like this.

Many times, the argument comes down to the notion of whether or not it is okay to abort a developing child. I mean, what is the answer to that really? How can anyone sit there face to face and say in all seriousness that it is okay to kill a baby. You can’t do it, and I would agree that it isn’t okay. But the question shouldn’t be whether or not it is okay, but rather whether or not it is necessary. There is no situation where killing a baby would be okay, but there may be a situation where it is necessary. What if you’ve been raped? What if you can’t feed or take care of it? What if it is going to be born with a debilitating brain disease and have no quality of life? What decision would you make there? Do you stick with a universal moral and say NO, NO ABORTION! Or, do you make that decision based on relativity and circumstantial morals instead. As I said before there is no situation exactly like another, and so each must be handled with a manner that is relative to the issue at hand.

I’ll quickly ask the same question about murder. Is it okay to kill someone? Of course it isn’t, but is it necessary to kill someone sometimes? It may be so, especially in cases of self defense or other life threatening situations.

How about robbery? If you needed to steal to survive it’s still not okay, but it becomes necessary for you to do so.

Do you see how applying a universal moral isn’t always the correct response? Morals are relative to the situation, and must be applied based on a good understanding of the consequences of those potential actions. The moral decision is not the right decision, or the holiest decision, but rather the best decision. When I look at situations, I make decisions based on outcome, not morality, and I think that gets confused with having “no morals”. It doesn’t mean that at all.

So, if there is no connection between religion and morality, and universal morals don’t exist, where do they come from?

Let’s set up a situation. Say a train car is barreling down the tracks, out of control, and is going to crash into something explosive. All of those on board will die, but you are in a unique position: you are standing in front of a lever. This lever will divert the train onto a different track, taking it onto a siding and stopping it. The problem is that there is another person on that siding. Diverting the train car would kill that person, but save those on the train. Is it moral to throw the switch?

Most would agree that it is moral to kill one to save the many, but I doubt that any of them could give me an explanation as to why they think that is moral? It ends up being a circular discussion, with each answer being “because it is” or “because it’s right”.

The simple reason for this is that morals are not thrust upon us. Atheists and theists, as well as the religious and non-religious will probably agree that the best decision was to throw the switch. So, that being said, how can belief in god or in a religion possibly be the source of our morals, if we both arrived at the same conclusion? If there are no universal morals, as discussed earlier, where did this decision come from?

The answer is essentially instinct, instincts that are chosen by natural selection throughout our history. You can’t tell me why you would throw the switch, only that it is right. The reason you can’t explain this is because it is instinct! How about attraction for another person? You can say you love them, and that you find them attractive, pretty, nice, etc. But what causes that? You couldn’t tell me that because it’s instinct; it’s something that exists internally.

There are no universal morals, but there are instincts that will guide us to similar “moral” decisions. But, those instincts merely influence us – they are not infallible.

I really want to conclude this now, so, I’m going to. Morality is not derived from any ultimate source. It is determined over time, by people making decisions that they believe to be the best. When they are wrong, the rest of us know that they are. It’s a sort of natural selection for morals. We decide every day what the moral decision must be made to solve whatever problem faces us. Sometimes that decision may seem wrong, like aborting a baby or killing someone, but the question isn’t whether or not they are okay but whether or not they are necessary.

I respect those that live based on a moral code, I really do. I respect those who believe that there are certain things that are universally moral and that those things will make them better people. What I ask of you is that, what happens when a situation arises where the only logical solution may be something that would be considered “immoral”? Where do people with universal morals draw the line between what is best and what is moral? When do those morals cease to be universal and instead become something different entirely? What happens when those beliefs have to become relative?

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