Morality Without God

10 03 2011

It keeps being said that without God, there can be no morality. It keeps being said that if we’re evolved from selfish genes, there can be no altruism. It keeps being said that a universe without a divine creator is a universe without meaning.

It keeps being said.

And it’s flat out wrong.

I’m sympathetic to religious sentiments, even if I think the accompanying metaphysical interpretation of those sympathies is in error. But I’m entirely unsympathetic to those of a religious persuasion spreading untruths and fallacious arguments about secular morality.

It’d be like me saying that there is a God, and He is malevolent.

Disagreement over the existence of God is one thing, but to misrepresent the religious view is not acceptable. Not for anyone. Likewise, misrepresentation of the secular view by the religious is ignorant at best, malicious (and immoral) at worst.

So, in the interests of providing a clear and unambiguous exposition of the secular moral position, I’ve compiled a list of false claims made by some in the religious community and the reasons why they’re in error.

And, helpfully, there’s one recent article that neatly sums up many of the fallacious representations of secular morality, so I’ll use it as the foil for my arguments.

Gary DeMar , theologian and president of US Christian think-tank, American Vision, has written that evolution necessarily results in a dog eat dog morality, where murder, rape and even cannibalism(!) are permitted because without God, anything is permitted.

His is effectively a retelling of the old Dostoyevsky misquote that “without God, anything goes”. And he’s wrong.

He writes about how evolution selected for traits that were “useful” to our ancestors:

Rape and killing the weak were also useful, and with no God, perfectly “moral.”

This, to DeMar, implies a ruthless, rule of the strong over the weak, morality – reminiscent of the position advocated by Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic:

“Since there is no God,” the strong Amoeba said to the weak Amoeba, “there is no reason why I can’t use you for food or enslave you to make my life more fulfilling. Who is there to object except a stronger Amoeba.”

Add to this the notion that without some non-physical spirit, there is no meaning to the world, and no meaning to human action:

Given materialistic assumptions, their actions are nothing more than the survival instincts of evolved sacks of meat animated by electrical impulses.

Which extends to a psychological claim that we’d, therefore, expect a self-interested ruthlessness that is the slave of our “selfish genes”:

As evolved animals, there should be no aversion to killing and eating human flesh since we are, as evolutionists assure us, the products of our DNA that, according to Richard Dawkins, “neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.”

Which arrives at his ultimate position: a naturalistic, non-theistic view of the world, one that uses evolution to explain the origins of humanity, necessarily implies a hard form of moral nihilism:

In scientific terms, all a naturalistic scientist can conclude is that some people kill other people. He cannot say whether this is “right” or “wrong.”

And, as a parting shot, he suggests that ‘materialists’ (used in the pejorative) have to co-opt religious morality in order to prevent a slide into, wait for it, preventing other atheists from “stealing their stuff, raping their wives, and eating their children”:

Because of the inability of materialists to account for morality given their presuppositions, Christian morality is hijacked to create their needed moral center. Without God, there is no way to account for prohibitions against murder and cannibalism or calls for altruism. They need the morality found in theism to keep consistent atheists from stealing their stuff, raping their wives, and eating their children.

The sheer offensiveness of this claim aside (morally and intellectually offensive, I might add), it’s about as incorrect an analysis of secular morality as one could possibly muster.

Here’s why.

First, DeMar, like many other religious commentators, carries his own leaden assumptions into his argument, the heaviest of which is not even the existence of God, but the assumption that morality must be absolute, universal, binding and supernaturally grounded in order for it to be morality at all.

Thus, any position that challenges any of the tenets of this definition of morality – these assumptions about morality – is immediately dismissed out of hand.

The problem with this is it presupposes the very conclusions it seeks to defend. It defines morality in such a remote and exclusive way that no other account can challenge it.

It’s like defining a human as “white skinned and possessed of two arms and two legs,” and then dismissing evidence of humans who don’t fit this description by simply declaring that they can’t be human by definition.

It ‘begs the question.’ Embarrassingly so.

Any rational debate about the nature of morality must admit that the very notion of morality is open for debate. It can admit our intuitions, our sentiments and our preconceptions about morality, but it can’t define it in such a way so as to stifle debate. To do so would be to forfeit one’s place in rational debate about morality and retreat to irrational dogma.

The second problem with DeMar’s rendering of secular morality is his deep misunderstandings about evolution and our evolved moral psychology. It’s true that evolution is a process that selects for traits that advanced reproductive fitness in our past. And it’s true that one popular interpretation of evolution takes a ‘selfish gene’ approach , by which the unit of selection is not the species, or the tribe, or even the individual, but the gene.

But it’s desperate misreading the voluminous literature on evolution to suggest that this implies organisms evolved such must behave selfishly.

One of the most important concepts to be elucidated in biology is the distinction between ultimate cause and proximate cause. To use Ernst Mayr’s (1961) characterisation of the distinction: the ultimate cause of a warbler bird’s flight south for winter might be that it would starve to death if it remained too far north; the proximate cause for the warbler’s migration is a response to specific environmental cues, like shorter days and a drop in temperature.

In human terms, the ultimate reason why you seek out a mate is to reproduce to spread your genes to another generation. But thoughts of one’s genetic legacy are far from front of mind once the lights dim and the Barry White starts playing. At that point, the proximate mechanisms we all know so well take over and, as they say, nature takes its course.

Talking about selfish genes is talking about ultimate causes. And it has been comprehensively demonstrated that the best way for humans to spread their selfish genes is to live and cooperate with other humans. As such, the very selfish genes that so desperately seek their immortality through reproduction are the same selfish genes that selected for altruism, empathy, compassion. And morality.

If someone helps another, even at a cost to themselves, they might ultimately be doing so because such actions encourage altruistic behaviours in others, and that individual might be the happy beneficiary of such altruistic behaviour from others down the track.

On one (ultimate) level there’s a cold calculus to such behaviour. But from the (proximate) psychological level, genuine altruism does exist. People really do help other people with no expectation of reciprocation. People really do feel compassion and empathy for others without selfish genes demanding they kill, rape and (sigh) eat them.

Evolution, according to a very popular view, is responsible for our moral sense. It’s why humans have been so successful living in such massively social environments, and it’s why we don’t tolerate murder, rape and cannibalism (at least, not within our social groups).

But – and this is a crucial ‘but’ – evolution didn’t make us wholly altruistic. The very same processes that gave us empathy and compassion also gave us greed and avarice and violent tendencies.

We have many evolved traits, most of which have been selected for at some point because they helped us reproduce and spread the genes that produce those traits. Some traits we’d consider ‘good,’ others ‘bad.’

This point was made unambiguously clear by T. H. Huxley – also known as “Darwin’s bulldog” for his vigorous defence of evolutionary theory – in his famous Romanes lecture of 1893, when he said:

Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it – but in combating it.

Huxley acknowledged that evolution had made us social, and therefore moral. But it had also lent us a propensity towards wickedness and cruelty. As a consequence, while we cannot ignore the significance of evolution in making us moral beings, we also cannot lean upon evolution as the sole arbiter of what is right and wrong.

And few, if any, secular ethicists do lean so on evolution.

DeMar is thus wrong to in his implication that a secular, naturalistic worldview that accommodates evolution is committed to a “red in tooth and claw” view of our evolved nature.

What, then, of DeMar’s claim that a being constituted of ‘mere’ matter, animated by lifeless electrical impulses, suggests an empty and meaningless existence?

Hogwash.

There is an unfortunately common tendency when we come to the realisation that one thing we know and love turns out to be identical with, or based on, another thing of which we’re less immediately fond.

We’re inclined to think of the mind as wondrous, inexplicable, fantastic. And we’re inclined to think of matter is dull, boring and uninspiring. So when we hear that the operation of the mind actually is the convolutions of matter, we have a tendency to reject this ‘lowering’ of the glorious mind to the level of dull matter.

But, instead of looking at the mind and seeing it as lesser, we ought to turn our gaze towards matter and see it in an entirely new light. What a wondrous thing matter is, which can turn from being lifeless into being animate, from mundane into being self-aware. Knowing the mind is matter ought not diminish our opinion of the mind, but elevate our opinion of matter.

Likewise our opinion of natural processes, and their astounding ability to create meaning for themselves.

It is true that the world is intrinsically meaningless – there is no meaning written into the very fabric of the universe for us to reveal. We make meaning for ourselves.

Does this mean we can shape meaning and values however we wish? Does this lead down the slippery slope to rampant relativism or nihilism, as DeMar and his ilk would have you believe?

No.

We don’t create meaning and value randomly. There is something about the way we are that shapes the way we create meaning and value in our lives. And, first and foremost, we’re social beings. Certainly, we all want to satisfy our desires and interests, whatever they may be. But we realise that if everyone behaved unchecked, then none of us (or very few of us) would satisfy our desires.

So we engage in a social contract. I agree to give up some of my freedom to impinge on your interests if you give up your freedom to impinge on mine. Such a contract needn’t be explicit. In fact, every moral system known is a variation on this contract, tailored to the unique conditions in which the moral system was forged.

Evolution also played its part in promoting the social contract. Our evolved emotions of empathy and guilt, for example, encourage us to have concern for others, and concern for adhering to the behavioural mores of our particular group.

Long before Thomas Hobbes described his ‘state of nature’ – that “war of all against all” – evolution had already conspired to make the state of nature a far more peaceful and cooperative thing.

Yet, as mentioned above, evolution is not solely sufficient as a moral foundation. It’s ultimately up to us to decide how we ought to behave. And once we’ve decided on our moral rules, it’s up to us to decide how to encourage ourselves and others to adhere to it. Encouraging moral sentiments and an active conscience is one part; applying punishment to those who deviate from the moral code is another.

Furthermore, far from suggesting a precipitous slide into relativism of nihilism, this is precisely why we have religious morality today. Religious morality employed the dual motivating factors of carrot and stick to encourage its adherents to behave socially. The carrot was eternal life, or the love of the deity. The stick was eternal torment or, more practically, the fierce ire and strict punishment metered out by other mortal practitioners of the faith.

It’s no accident religious texts encourage punishment of the wicked in this life rather than simply letting them run riot and have them chastised after they expire.

And for those who declare that religion, with its absolute, God-given moral law, is a concrete foundation to right and wrong that is lacking from secular morality. Well, also wrong.

Every religion, every religious text, every parable is multiply interpreted, discussed, debated and argued over. Which of these interpretations ought I follow? Which of the contradictory laws ought I adopt. Which of the opposing religions ought I subscribe to?

Ultimately it’s up to each of us to decide – or, in many cases, no decision is made as adherents simply adopt the religious attitudes of their region unchallenged. It’s no accident that many Indians are Hindu, many Saudis are Islamic and many Americans are Christian.

There’s no more absolute guide in religion than there is in secular morality. In fact, naturalistic morality has reason and the natural world as its guides, which gives a dramatically narrower range of interpretation than does the manifold and wildly different supernatural worlds offered by most religions.

So, if you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’ll see that the oft-touted claims by the religious that evolution and secularism are tantamount to calling open season on your fellow humans are patently false. And you’ll see that religious morality is, on the whole, more prone to wide interpretation and relativism than secular morality.

So, hopefully, when you come across claims such as those made by DeMar in future, you’ll immediately see the absurdity and disingenuousness of those claims, and you’ll dismiss them as philosophically and empirically naive and deeply in error.

If we’re to debate about morality – one of the most important debates we can have – at the very least we need to get the terms of the debate clear. One side is not allowed to define away morality to its own ends before the debate starts. They’re not allowed to misrepresent the claims of the other. They’re not entitled to stifle debate on the grounds they already have all the answers.

To do so is to disqualify yourself from the debate. As DeMar has unfortunately done.

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8 responses

11 03 2011
Tom of the Sweetwater Sea

It seems to me that WITH DeMar’s god there is no morality. Because of god, we do not do “good” or “bad”, we do “what god wants”, or else he will punish us. That hardly counts as moral.

Tom

11 03 2011
Paul

There’s no more absolute guide in religion than there is in secular morality. In fact, naturalistic morality has reason and the natural world as its guides, which gives a dramatically narrower range of interpretation than does the manifold and wildly different supernatural worlds offered by most religions.

Aren’t, in fact, the very same things guiding secular and religious morality? We do have the same ancestors, right? Also, I am not sure I would call it reason. As E.O. Wilson has pointed out, were we to be different sorts of biological beings, say, more like ants, our morality would be quite different. Which seems to me to make our morality contingent upon the natural history of our species, and not reason. Reason might be able to help us decide what trade-offs we are willing to make, but reason gives no guide to what is valuable and what is not. It only tells us what is probable, true, or false.

Also, re-reading the paragraph, I see that I might be misinterpreting its meaning. Still, I think that using the word reason when describing secular morality is misleading, as many people still think of a Platonic or Kantian Reason with a capital R that is likely just as much a fiction as God. Secular morality does have the advantage of using instrumental rationality, but certainly not an eternal rationality that has more reality than the world we see in front of us.

11 03 2011
James Gray

One of many elements of straw man atheism. One reason people prefer to believe in god than atheism is because atheism is “straw man atheism.”

11 03 2011
Mark Sloan

Reading the referenced article Tim is responding to really ticked me off. Perhaps foolishly, I commented on it. The site may decline to post my comment (it is a moderated site), but I thought some here might find my response at least entertaining.

To keep my response simple and compact, I discussed only what I believe science tells us about morality and did not mention that I may be alone in that belief – except Tim says he is sympathetic.

Here is what I posted:

“The level of ignorance revealed by both Gary DeMar and Christian de Duve in the above embarrassingly foolish diatribe is astonishing.

I am proudly a life-long atheist and I’ll cheerfully match my morality against any religious morality.

My morality can be defined by: “Unselfish acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral.”

That’s it, it is all I need.

In fact, the normal methods of science show this is the basis of not only all cultural moralities, including religious moralities, but also the basis (the reason they biologically evolved) of our moral emotions such as empathy, guilt, and righteous indignation.

You have any moral questions you want cleared up? Ask me.

How about the Mathew 7:12 version of the Golden Rule? How do you apply that when dealing with criminals and in time of war?

Science tells us that, assuming we want to maintain the emotional and material benefits of cooperation in groups, that we ought not (it is immoral) to follow Mathew 7:12 when doing so is likely to decrease the benefits of cooperation in groups as it sometimes would be when dealing with criminals and in times of war.

You think the Mathew 7:12 version of the Golden Rule which Jesus said summed up the law and prophets came from a supernatural God? Game theory shows it is merely a statement advocating two well known winning strategies from game theory: direct and indirect reciprocity. As part of mathematics, these were winning strategies when the fusion fires of the first star lit and will be winning strategies till the end of the universe.

I enthusiastically accept the burdens of my morality because I think doing so is most likely to meet my needs and preferences over my lifetime by enjoying the emotional and material benefits of cooperation.

Science shows that religious moralities, for example the “Ten Commandments” and the many versions of the Golden Rule, and are just semi random assortments of necessarily flawed heuristics (simple rules of thumb that usually work) for increasing the benefits of cooperation in groups. Morality is no more complicated or mysterious than that.”

12 03 2011
GTChristie

If God does not exist and religion isn’t true, aren’t religion and ethics all the more fascinating? They would indicate something deeply endearing about humans: we developed morality on our own.

If religion is just an invention, this indicates something even more endearing than the existence of God would entail: that humans have invented ethics as we once thought only God could do.

No one can say, as a scientist might, that God does not exist and religion isn’t “true” without implying that humans on our own, in the higher aspirations of our moral behavior, may be equally as unreachable by science as God is.

12 03 2011
Mark Sloan

Surprisingly, the site Tim is talking about did post my comment as I described above. It received a sensible comment and I have gotten posted what I hope is my sensible response.

There is vague dividing line between encouraging trolls and the demented and useful conversation. I was expecting I would likely be just feeding trolls and the demented, but perhaps not entirely.

15 03 2011
Tom Rees

People who advocate religion as a source of morality should take a look at what the Aztecs used to get up to in the name of their gods.

22 03 2011
Wes Philp

I wonder whether religion isn’t the means by which societies implement the social contract. Since for all their pernicious side effects, religions satisfy a number of human needs, how can there be any realistic hope of ever being free of them?

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