During a trial at The Old Bailey in February 2010, a man was given no jail sentence for deliberately breaking a stranger’s jaw in an unprovoked attack. He was let off with community service and a fine. The judge reasoned that the accused merited no harsher punishment because he was religious, and therefore unlikely to reoffend. The decision highlights the bizarre, yet persisting, assumption that religious faith is somehow an indication of good character – that there is something intrinsically and self evidentially good about being religious.

Society supposes to believe in the morality of religion due to its moral teachings and the charity done by religious groups. However, if you do think religious people are moral, you must ask yourself why they are moral. Is it plausible that their morality comes from the teachings of the holy books and from a belief in heaven and fiery hell? The holy books of the monotheisms were written when humans had no understanding of bacteria, tectonic activity or electricity; when they believed the earth was a disk, and the sky a dome. Is anyone seriously suggesting that without these we wouldn’t know right from wrong? If the Jewish ancestors were not at the foot of Mount Sinai would we not understand that it is wrong to murder? If God were proven not to exist would we all immediately embark on lives of theft, murder and cruelty?

Virtuous behaviour by a believer, or on behalf of a religious organisation is not proof of the moral steadfastness of religion. It is not even argument in its favour. People of religious charity did not originally lead self-centered and selfish lives until instructed by scripture to donate their money and free time to others. Such an argument goes nowhere in explaining the good actions done without supernatural consideration or inducement. With the claim that religion is inseparable from ethics and morality they are conceding that if it were not for faith, they would lead a lives of unbridled immorality. Is it ethical to be good only because you fear punishment? A person who led a good life only because they feared hell would go straight to hell.

Morality is part of human nature. It is also in the nature of a large number of animal species that don’t claim to be divinely inspired. If you see a child trying to run into a stream of traffic, something tells you what you ought to be doing about it. Equally, if you think of the worst thing you have ever done, the action of which you are least proud, and that you would least like to have widely known about, it undoubtedly pales in comparison to the actions of Dr Harold Shipman. Dr Shipman took great pleasure in murdering people who trusted him. Although you are ashamed of what you did, you think: “Yeah, but I’d never do that, I wouldn’t, and no one needs to tell me why I wouldn’t’.”

Morality is effortless, it’s innate, and doesn’t need to be taught to children. Even an 18-month year old child will try to comfort someone they see in distress. The argument is brilliantly summed up by Christopher Hitchens: “name me an ethical statement made, or an action taken by a believer that could not have been performed by a non believer. As yet I have heard of none. However, if you ask an audience to name a wicked action directly attributable to religious faith, nobody has any difficulty in finding an example”.

In spite of the current pessimistic view of the declining morality of society, the historical trend is of a positive improvement in society’s moral outlook. Today’s views on race, gender, equality, war, torture and sexual orientation are wildly different from the widespread views of society at the beginning of the 20th Century, and even from the views of the 1950s. Mainstream views on all these topics have only improved. The standard of morality in society improves decade on decade, and it is only based on our own ethical intuitions, and on conversation with the ethical intuitions of others. The moral standard has advanced so far that even the actions of Hitler, widely regarded today as pushing the envelope of evil into unchartered territory, would not have even been noteworthy in the time of Genghis Khan.

In accordance with this shifting morality, people of faith choose to reject the holy pearls of wisdom that encourage death by stoning for, among other things, adultery, premarital sex, atheism, belief in another God and homosexuality. These teachings are in the holy texts not as metaphors or analogies but as explicit instructions. The monotheistic texts celebrate war, murder, and genocide. Even good old Jesus was clearly a fan of slavery. Religious believers instead choose to emphasise the teachings similar to the golden rule – to behave to others as you wish them to behave towards you. The golden rule is not unique to any religion or society past or present, in fact, almost every society in the history of the world had a version of this rule in its cultural teachings.

A large number of believers go through the holy texts picking out the nasty verses from the nice verses; they choose the teachings that conform to current secular, moral standards. Religion gets its morality from society, not the other way around. The social standard to which religion conforms is available to everyone, and it advances in parallel in everyone. The places in which the moral standard has not advanced are typically the places in which religion looms large. Equally, the most successful, prosperous and democratic countries are those in which state and religion are separated by law (the only legal exception is the United Kingdom, however, the UK plainly functions as a secular republic).

A common riposte by the faithful is that the 20th Century was the most secular period in human history, and produced such monsters as Hitler and Stalin. If we’re on the subject of dictators, however, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar were installed and maintained by the Catholic right wing. Hitler was a Catholic, and the Catholic Church said prayers to celebrate Hitler’s birthday until as late as April 1945. Stalin was also able to exploit the apparatus of subservience adroitly created by the Russian Orthodox Church. In response to this argument, it is only necessary to highlight the decision of the Pope in 2005 to announce that condom use could worsen the problem of HIV and AIDS in Africa. It is difficult to imagine how the Pope could have caused more misery and human suffering with fewer words. Equally the advance of stem cell research is held back due to the religious theory of ‘souls’, a theory, which is shown to be spurious by a short spurt of the most basic scientific analysis. In any case, is the ‘soul’ of a cluster of cells more important than the life of a six-year-old child with cerebral palsy? The religious bludgeonings in the Middle East are almost too obvious to mention. It must be noted, however, that the actions committed there are not done “in the name of religion”, which is a common get-out clause of the faithful, but under the direct instruction of Imams and Rabbis. The easiest response to this claim of the deficiency of secular morality is that there are no atheist suicide bombers.

The idea that religion, ethics and morality are intrinsically linked is promulgated alongside the taboo of criticising religion. Throughout human history no one has been able to provide any type of evidence for a supernatural being, in fact only an abundance of evidence to the contrary. However, it remains that people’s faith cannot be questioned because ‘it’s their religion’. Although it is not understood where human morality comes from, it certainly does not come from religious texts. Richard Dawkins describes a convincing evolutionary theory in The God Delusion. Stephen Fry, however, concludes the argument most eloquently: “we should never allow religion the trick of claiming that the altruistic, the morally strong, and the virtuous are in any way inventions of religion, or particular or peculiar to religion”. An argument that claims morality stems from religion would be equally as convincing as an argument for an all loving, all powerful God who kills tens of thousands of people every year in natural disasters, who only chose to reveal himself after 100,000 years of human existence, whose only method of getting his son to earth was to impregnate a Palestinian virgin, and then to have all subsequent revelations in the same district.

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32 Comments

  1. Michael Butlin
    April 29, 2010 at 11:11 — Reply

    What an excellent article. Well done.

  2. Mark Barry
    April 29, 2010 at 14:18 — Reply

    Bravo.

  3. Kelly Michelle M.H. (last name abbreviated to M.H.)
    April 29, 2010 at 16:36 — Reply

    You are absolutely right, and I agree with you. This is how I have tried to think and approach life for quite some time now. You put this concept together so eloquently and beautifully…excellent. This is simply sensible and logical, and I do not understand how anyone could not see things this way, or at least try to honestly respect this way of thinking and being.

  4. April 29, 2010 at 18:40 — Reply

    On the microfinance website KIVA.org, where anyone can give an interest free loan of USD 25 to entrepeneurs in the developing world (no interest paid to the lender), the largest team of lenders is Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious, beating Kiva Christians into second place.

  5. Goutham
    April 29, 2010 at 23:26 — Reply

    Concise and to the point..well written..

  6. April 30, 2010 at 03:10 — Reply

    I see no defence of atheism here at all. Simply attacks on theism. Anti-theism is not atheism and this article does nothing to defend atheism whatsoever. It only attacks. The title offers a very poor description of the article.

  7. April 30, 2010 at 06:45 — Reply

    I’d like to add another resource for those who have redefined their life structure. Charitable giving IS being done by Atheists. Humanists, Free thinkers, non believers. The Foundation Beyond Belief (www.foundationbeyondbelief.org) was created to respond to this issue. It is a site where atheist, humanists, nonbelievers make donations to charities that are selected because their world view is in tune with ours. Believers pass the plate, we can go to The Foundation. 100% of all donations go to the charities that we choose, with a $9 annual fee being used to pay the very small staff and web costs (also funded by some grants).

    And the best part is that atheists, humanists, etc. can choose exactly what charity gets how much and have input into the charities picked each quarter.

    Please, everyone, visit the site and help make the Foundation a real voice in the real world, so we can unite our voices and our dollars. Help spread the word, share this cause on your social media pages! The Foundation is truly good-hearted, transparent, and a great idea! We’re scrambling to make this idea a real power in the world.

  8. Ant
    April 30, 2010 at 10:40 — Reply

    How remarkably similar to ‘The God Delusion’. Not that I disagree with it, just saying…

  9. Charlotte
    April 30, 2010 at 16:14 — Reply

    Greg has the right idea.

    Also, where is the discussion of morality? Acting to help a child running into traffic, and feeling guilty for past wrongdoings is conscience, not morality.

    The back and forth namecalling by atheists got boring three years ago. Religious or non-religious, humans have the capacity to be virtuous and evil to eachother. Childishly pulling apart religious texts (which, I imagine, have now been accepted as being a literary thing to interpret, not as a hard fast lifestyle manual) is just a waste of everyone’s time. When religious people do “wicked” things, they’re surely missing the point of the religion they claim to follow. This is also fully applicable to atheists following their own moral code.

    I recommend the author focus his (undeniable) writing talent on something more interesting.

  10. Hannah
    April 30, 2010 at 20:10 — Reply

    I think this is a really well written article, however there is one point I slightly disagree with, “Morality is effortless, it’s innate, and doesn’t need to be taught to children.” Although the ability to be moral is there with a child, they perhaps more amoral until they reach an age where they can make their own decisions. Whilst you are correct in saying that an 18 month old would probably comfort someone who was distressed; its more than likely because they know this is what their parent does when they are distressed. Children do need to be taught moral rules, which why we have stories such as the “Boy Who Cried Wolf”, that we explain from an early age that they must learn to share and that it’s not OK to hurt someone because they don’t do exactly what you want. And perhaps to some extent, the Bible and other religious teachings are useful here, because they have examples of morality for people to learn from. Crucifying someone is generally considered wrong, regardless of whether their name is Jesus whereas helping your neighbour is not limited to just Christians.
    Morality is effortless for those of us who have been taught from an early age, the potential of morality is innate but not morality itself.

  11. April 30, 2010 at 23:01 — Reply

    WELL since religion is a human invention then surely it stands to reason that morality is intrinsic within human nature! morality comes from people, so no we donot need monotheistic sky gods to be good,it is already within our nature to live emphaticaly with others,organised religion gets its morals from human nature not the other way around,to reitterate Religion is a human invention its also the reason why it too is very broken and distorted and contradictory.because humans are not so constituted to adhere to these puritanical roles so dogmatically imposed by an inherantly facist regimes as organised religion that belongs to our pre history.

  12. Philip Whitehead
    May 1, 2010 at 10:05 — Reply

    Oh dear.

    Does the author really think that a person’s religious beliefs have no bearing on their ethics, and are therefore irrelevant to morality? Nothing could be farther from the truth. While some aspects of ethical behaviour may be consistent across adherents of many faiths, and the nonreligious (for example, not murdering), the motive for the ethical behaviour will be very different, and this will show itself in how people respons to some of the less clear-cut issues (for example, killing by euthanasia, war, abortion, capital punishment). These issues, a staple of moral philosophy, are often not “common sense” and require a sophisticated philosophical, and in many cases, theological framework to resolve. Without getting bogged down in whether or not any of the above are morally permissible (you’ll find disagreements even within Christianity, or atheism for that matter), such discussions almost always involve appeals to wider principles of behaviour and justice for which some kind of metaphysical basis is assumed. This basis is ‘theological’, in the broadest sense, and makes claims about the ultimate nature of reality, justice and the purpose of humanity. Such claims must be permissible (and subject to criticism by others) within secular discussion of ethics, for to rule them impermissible beforehand is already to assume that any non-atheist theology is invalid, and thus, implicitly or explicitly, take an (anti)theological stance.

    An example of the role of theological belief in ethical decision-making might be Desmond Tutu’s opposition to apartheid. I’m told by those who remember that there was no great public outcry at his defence of racial equality on the basis that humanity was “created in the image of God” (a statement taken from the first chapter of the Bible), or that the New Testament called those of all ethnicities to become one in Christ. Both these claims are explicitly theological, and in this case, taken from the Bible, but provided the rationale for Tutu’s opposition to apartheid. I’m sure an atheist (or a Muslim, or a Buddhist…) could provide reasons to oppose apartheid (many did), but these would be different reasons, and if you were to ask Tutu if he believed in racial equality for those reasons he’d tell you “no”.

    There are a number of other big problems with this article, including the rather naive “whig view of history”, and a tendency to lump all religions together over against atheism, and thus grossly misrepresent them. I’ll leave these criticisms to others, but just point out one massive error of fact:

    “there are no atheist suicide bombers.” – I take it you’ve never heard of the Tamil Tigers?

  13. Voice of reason
    May 1, 2010 at 13:51 — Reply

    Philip, it’s not that there are no suicide bombers who are atheists – it is the fact that currently the majority of religious suicide bombers do so for – and because of – their religion.

    Thank you for writing this article. It pleases me to see a growing opposition to these ancient, outdated and misguided beliefs.

  14. Charlie
    May 4, 2010 at 12:39 — Reply

    Sam Harris has an interesting angle on the issue of science and morality, suggesting non-religious folk can establish perfectly good morals. See the TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right.html

  15. Gregory Ijiwola
    May 5, 2010 at 02:03 — Reply

    Re: In Defense of Atheism

    Thanks for your above referenced article. I appreciate your candidness in expressing your thoughts. However it is obvious that your article contains certain arguments that are fundamentally flawed. The purpose of this letter is to respond to those arguments.

    First of all, you concluded, “the decision of the judge highlights the bizarre, yet persisting, assumption that religious faith is somehow an indication of good character.” I submit that though that could be a true assumption, it is not a biblical one. The bible clearly separates religion from character, or morality from righteousness. The Bible clearly declares that everyone who has not received Jesus as his Lord, no matter how good he is morally, is a sinner, and not in anyway different from someone who has no trace of morality. They are both unrighteous and condemned before God and their righteousness are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6, Rom 3:10).

    Second, you argued that because morality is innate, natural and not taught, part of human nature, it has no relation to faith, and thus is not supernatural, just an evolutionary trait. I agree that morality is innate but disagree with you as to the source. The Bible clearly says that the universal sense of morality and ethics in humans is part of God’s revelation to man of his (God’s) existence. God, willing to disclose himself to humanity has made himself known through various means like nature and the human constitution, which includes the human conscience. This is called general revelations in theological circles. Paul refers to this in Romans 1 and Psalm 19 also speak to this, talking about our creation points to God, declaring his power, nature and existence.
    Also, the conscience is a law and no law can exist without a lawgiver. So, your argument to use the sense of morality in man to justify atheism is rendered counterproductive becoming rather a proof of God’s existence. The moral nature of humanity points directly to the existence of a moral Being who is good, and just. There is no other plausible explanation for this.
    Thank you for taking time to read this. I hope you would reconsider your stance.

    Sincerely,

    Gregory Ijiwola

  16. Luke Place
    May 5, 2010 at 04:35 — Reply

    “such discussions almost always involve appeals to wider principles of behaviour and justice for which some kind of metaphysical basis is assumed. This basis is ‘theological’, in the broadest sense, and makes claims about the ultimate nature of reality, justice and the purpose of humanity. Such claims must be permissible (and subject to criticism by others) within secular discussion of ethics, for to rule them impermissible beforehand is already to assume that any non-atheist theology is invalid, and thus, implicitly or explicitly, take an (anti)theological stance.”

    But surely to suggest that theological claims are “permissable” is of little consequence to an atheist who is claiming that religious rationale is unnecessary? The writer’s challenge seems to be for someone to prove that theological reasoning is necessary.

    Using pieces of string of various lengths to measure the sides of a right-angled triangle might be “permissable” methods of supporting Pythagoras’ Theorum, but pieces of string are nonetheless obsolete within modern mathematics.

    “These issues, a staple of moral philosophy, are often not “common sense” and require a sophisticated philosophical, and in many cases, theological framework to resolve.”

    Conflicts in our moral intuitions don’t make them any less fundamental to our moral philosophy, they just highlight the fact that they’re not infallibe at seeking out moral truth.

    Sometimes things just can’t be proven, irrespective of the philosophical/theological arguments you employ. Sophisticated logical frameworks are often more problematic than blind intuition.

  17. roflcopter
    May 5, 2010 at 10:59 — Reply

    Please can you send a link to where I might view reports on the ‘most basic scientific analysis’ which has disproven the soul?

    “18-month year old”?

    Interesting that you sandwich an annecdote about Dr Shipman in between claims that ‘Morality is part of human nature” and ” “Morality is effotless, it’s innate, and doesnt need to be taughht to children” Is Dr Shipman not a human then? Or does this example contradict your other statements? You then contradict your view that morality is part of human nature and innate by stating that “the standard of morality improves”. How can an innate thing, part of human nature improve, especially in the timescale of 60 years?

    Sky recently reported on a boy having a sexual relationship with his mother. I dont know about how you feel when you read through this news articles, but it says their friends and family were shocked. Are their friends shocked, rightly because their morals are correct, or wrongly because in 2070 we will know that it actually not shocking for a man to have sex with his granny?
    http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Incestuous-Grandmother-Pearl-Carter-Having-Baby-With-Grandson-Phil-Bailey-In-Indiana-USA/Article/201004415623115?f=rss

    Oh, you then state that morality is shifting. So thats alright then. Like a great big innate shifting thing.

    “Hitler..would not have been noteworthy” Millions of Jews killed, and no-one would have made a note?

    VoR:”it’s not that there are no suicide bombers who are atheists – it is the fact that currently the majority of religious suicide bombers do so for – and because of – their religion. ” This article claims that the point is that there are NO atheist suicide bombers, that is the point to which the amazing Phil was responding.

    “Only chose to reveal himself after 100,000 yeas of human existence?” Please tell me how this value was plucked out of the air? Is it commenting on the Biblical account of God revealing himself, talking to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden after He created them?

    You state that people’s faith cannot be questioned. People question my faith regulary, so thats a wrong statement too. Also, I actually quite like it when people question my faith. The Christian Union does lunch bars every Friday at 1pm in the Atrium in portland, you are welcome to turn up, get free food and a drink, hear someone talk about their faith and question it too. When I think about it, this statement really undermines all the hard work and time people from societies at our university such as the Jewish, Islam and Christian sociteies put into their events weeks this year so that people could come and question them, and snack on refreshments!

    Also, if, now please bear with me on this train of thought. IF Jesus was right in saying said that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God, then surely the “worst thing you have ever done” is even worse than killing someone, it is turning our back on God.

  18. roflcopter
    May 5, 2010 at 11:04 — Reply

    Sorry for my horrendously typed comment, I really should type things into word first. If youll bear with my awful spelling, one thing I would like to correct is “Sky recently reported on a boy having a sexual relationship with his GRANDmother. “

  19. Just another comment
    May 5, 2010 at 20:14 — Reply

    Interesting discusion.

    Very black and white arguments being thrown around here, I somehow doubt we’ll ever know the truth. I really like the work the Christian Union does around campus, I love the fact one of things they do is give out free food and drink for nothing in return, being good for the sake of being good. I dont like the idea though that if there is an almighty being (which im not ruling out) then the most important thing for them is that I believe they exist without any evidence to same. Why would that be their goal?

    Atheists interest me too. The answer to 99% (completely plucked that number from out the air before anyone asks) of scientific questions is ‘we don’t know yet’. Saying their is no God seems foolish to me, does that mean one of the religious groups is right then? I doubt they have it spot on either.

    Do good, maybe you’ll get struck by lightning. Do bad and maybe you’ll win the lottery. Proof their is no God?- No

    Proof their is a God we dont understand?- We dont know yet

  20. Philip Whitehead
    May 8, 2010 at 14:29 — Reply

    “But surely to suggest that theological claims are “permissable” is of little consequence to an atheist who is claiming that religious rationale is unnecessary? The writer’s challenge seems to be for someone to prove that theological reasoning is necessary.

    Using pieces of string of various lengths to measure the sides of a right-angled triangle might be “permissable” methods of supporting Pythagoras’ Theorum, but pieces of string are nonetheless obsolete within modern mathematics.”

    Luke, thanks for your comment. I should clarify – I think all moral reasoning is “theological” when it goes beyond blind intuition. There’s a lot to be said for intuition, but as you admit it’s not infallible, and more to the point my moral intuition is still shaped by my theology or basic assumptions about the world, good and evil, purpose etc – as I suspect is the case for you too.

    I would strongly protest the way you seem to be linking atheism (or at least moral secularism) to moral progress with your maths example. I don’t think atheism is an improvement on Christianity. If you do, on what grounds do you think so? Presumably you have an idea of what is “good” and what is “evil” and find that atheism coheres with this moral measuring stick better than Christianity does. But where does your idea of what is “good” and “evil” come from? If it’s not to be completely subjective and arbitrary, then you’ll need to provide some sort of “theology” (whether theistic or otherwise), at least implicitly, in order to justify it.

  21. Ben Cave
    May 8, 2010 at 17:09 — Reply

    I Think that if I may defend the article against Philip’s line of attack it would be as follows:

    I strongly reject the idea of the innate quality of morality. Morality, like religious structures which deify moral codes, spring from the biological desire of the human being to maintain order. From the time of Hobbes and Rousseau we have had well formulated ideas of the social contract which offer clear indications of the social motivation for governance structures akin to religion and morality.

    Evidence of ‘feral children’ (those brought up without human nurture) is that they do not exhibit moral traits beyond those basic impulses essential to living in primate social hierarchies. (C.f. JT Sprehe – The American Catholic Sociological Review, 1961).

    Morality and religion stem from the control structures implemented over the years in human behavior. They are not inborn, yet they are essential to living socially productive lives.

    I challenge any of the religious contributors to this forum to evidence conclusively that morality can be derived a priori in any area. Wittgenstein and others have clearly shown us the psychological constructs which underpin the loaded and volatile terms of ‘meta-ethics’. Religion simply lends an absolutist credo to eminently relativist concepts like ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

    In response to Mr. Whitehead, the burden has shifted from the atheist to the theist in this matter. As a theology student myself, I am well aware of a variety of theologies and completely disagree that a theology is necessary to give morality absolutely. This follows a simple logical progression that as an Atheist, I am not compelled to assert the non-existence of god (such epistemological certainty would be impossible), only that from an existential viewpoint, I have negated all need for God as a concept in my life. True Atheism comes from the recognition that regardless of the actual true or falsehood of God’s existence, his necessity to and validity within human life has been categorically rejected.

    The kind of objectivity you discuss as the preserve of theology is wildly negated by the plurality of solutions differing theologies advance to moral questions. Am I to assume that a theology of Augustine is correct or the theology of Catholic social gospel. The tell me completely different things about the way I should conduct myself morally and religiously, which is objectively true?

    The point is that objectivity itself is an illusion. The only way in which people of faith can progress from the ‘blind intuition’ that they have it right and others have it wrong, to something more progressive and in sync with logic, is to accept that there is only subjective judgement and that, religious or not, nothing can claim to be an absolute right or wrong because there is no absolute that can be consulted.

  22. Luke Place
    May 8, 2010 at 20:13 — Reply

    “I would strongly protest the way you seem to be linking atheism (or at least moral secularism) to moral progress with your maths example. I don’t think atheism is an improvement on Christianity.”

    I hadn’t intended to make that link, I merely intended to highlight the respects in which Christian lessons on morality weren’t particularly refined and to question why a God might be necessary within any moral discourse.

    Atheism (or moral secularism) is obviously an extremely broad church (for want of a better expression), so atheist claims regarding morality could be better or worse than Christian moral claims.

    I can’t see how the elimination of some higher being would mean that atheist moral discourse is inferior. In fact, the author’s suggestion that moral decisions are preferable of they come from one’s own judgements, rather than from the teachings of a God, seems plausible.

    “If you do, on what grounds do you think so? Presumably you have an idea of what is “good” and what is “evil” and find that atheism coheres with this moral measuring stick better than Christianity does. But where does your idea of what is “good” and “evil” come from? If it’s not to be completely subjective and arbitrary, then you’ll need to provide some sort of “theology” (whether theistic or otherwise), at least implicitly, in order to justify it.”

    I think moral judgements involve complex calculations seeking the optimal balance of total utility, justice, equality and so on. I would suggest that a combination of utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology are all important to any moral calculation.

    A proper understanding of the complexity of the moral domain is not, I would suggest, best achieved through citing religious teachings. Kant’s criticism of the Golden Rule springs to mind, for example.

  23. Ben Cave
    May 8, 2010 at 20:32 — Reply

    How can the citing of one man’s relative truth prove or advise all men’s absolutes? Kant’s Golden Rule (which he incidentally rejected himself in favour of the broader imperative formulation) is merely an assertion of absolutity in ethics. One wonders from where you would derive the validity of any sort of morality beyond group consensus.

    I appreciate the desire to move beyond societal relativism but it is empirically impossible to establish absolute conceptions of morality uniform across people. Therefore logically it must be concluded that morality can be neither innate nor an accurate concept. Religious or not.

  24. Daglas Markmarkin
    May 9, 2010 at 14:37 — Reply

    There is no absolute that can be consulted – except the power and authority of the Ben Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaave!

    AWAY!

  25. Philip Whitehead
    May 9, 2010 at 17:01 — Reply

    Ben, for a theology student you’ve displayed a remarkable lack of historical awareness as to where Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or Sikhism etc) actually come from. They all have origins in recorded history, as opposed to the murky pre-history which your (rather dated) Freudian analysis of theism suggests. To suggest that any particular religion is a product of innate biological desires is to display an astounding ignorance of history, and I’m sure Moses, Ezra, Jesus, Muhammed et al. would be rather surprised to hear they had so little to do with things.

    But, Ben, I’m not arguing that morality can be derived a priori. I am suggesting that it is, in the final analysis, forever entangled with what might be called “theological” beliefs. Perhaps if I use the word “metaphysical” you, as an atheist, would object less – but surely you are not disputing that any attempt to legitimate ethical claims must rely on assumptions about such things as human purpose, worth, the nature of reality, and whether or not a God or gods come into it. By claiming that God or gods are irrelevant to ethics (even if you do not wish to assert his non-existence) you are already making a theological claim. It is this point which I am making, and which I am surprised you consider controversial.

  26. Ben Cave
    May 9, 2010 at 21:10 — Reply

    Firstly to defend my analysis it was darwinian rather than freudian, rooted in biological evidence rather than the discredited theorising of Freud. However your point is well taken that it has no more objective validity than any religious claim of historicity and no less.

    Yet this is precisely my point. I dispute the validity of any ethical absolute whatsoever. It is my formulation as an atheist and a respecter of religious belief structures, than no man’s view of the world is any more worthy, any more objectively true than any others. Many theological debates, with their great disagreements, would support my observation that one man’s truth cannot be the next’s. I merely observe that it exhibits a hubris on the part of any ethics to claim absolute validity over even two persons. All ethical claims are the relative province of the individual and must be respected as the subjective judgements of those involved.

  27. Matt Lewis
    May 10, 2010 at 01:07 — Reply

    Charlotte says:
    ‘Acting to help a child running into traffic, and feeling guilty for past wrongdoings is conscience, not morality.’
    A concern of whether to do, or having had done right or wrong actions is certainly morality.

    Gregory Ijiwola says:
    Wednesday 5th May 2010 at 2:03 am
    ‘Also, the conscience is a law and no law can exist without a lawgiver… There is no other plausible explanation for this.’
    When making a clear argument, take the facts and reason a satisfactory explanation. You have ASSUMED the conscience to be a law.

    roflcopter says:
    Wednesday 5th May 2010 at 10:59 am
    “Only chose to reveal himself after 100,000 yeas of human existence … talking to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden after He created them?

    Also, if, now please bear with me on this train of thought. IF Jesus was right in saying said that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God, then surely the “worst thing you have ever done” is even worse than killing someone, it is turning our back on God.

    I have had to be selective when choosing about what from your comment I should ‘battle’ as a) there was a lot of poor argument and nonsensical statements and b) I’m not so sure it would even be taken on board. However, with religious connotations aside, we are all capable of redemption. So although 100,000 may be wildly off, as the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, and homo sapiens a mere 250,000, these figures are estimated using esteemed scientific methods. The 6,000 year old earth, where ‘God’ introduced himself at the beginning, is evident in one book.

    Just another comment. While I would like to applaud your superb questioning, I do believe that this is merely the first step all believers need to take in order to lead them down the true path of enlightenment. I cannot claim to call this the road of truth, as you correctly state, so many truths are unknown, but it is a road toward knowledge, and funneling new findings through faith, and the religious way of thought is not conducive to truth, as too much is already assumed. There is no convincing evidence for an intervening god, why assumed there is one? As to what caused our existence, the ‘but what came before that’ argument can go on for ever due to the beautiful nature of infinity, so let’s focus on finding out rather than wild assumptions.

    Philip Whitehead says:
    Sunday 9th May 2010 at 5:01 pm
    Ben, for a theology student you’ve displayed a remarkable lack of historical awareness … and I’m sure Moses, Ezra, Jesus, Muhammed et al. would be rather surprised to hear they had so little to do with things.

    I am not a theology student. But I do know, that in many scriptures from many areas around the Middle East, come similar stories. Take Horus from Ancient Egyptian religion, the similarities are astounding. See the link below for details, but one cannot profess the bible to be ‘more’ true than other religious evidence, especially when documentation of Horus dates back to 3000 BC.
    http://atheistempire.wordpress.com/2007/01/22/the-cult-of-horus/

    For those who say this is more Anti-theism than it is a defence of Atheism are possibly correct. It is quite weighted against theism. But then I am an Anti-theist, and I find the thought behind it outrageously illogical, and I would happily see it disappear from this Earth entirely. But I would not enforce this thought upon anyone. A human is free to think what they like, and while they may share it with me, they must not burden me with it, nor declare it as truth!

    And on the topic of morality, I believe we should use reason. Sam Harris’ TED Talk is superb, and highly educational on the matter. But Richard Dawkins sums up my thoughts on morality entirely, with this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxdgCxK4VUA&feature=player_embedded
    I urge believers and non-believers to watch this. I truly hope there is no-one who would watch this and not want the same thing. It is sad to know that is almost definitely not true.

  28. Philip Whitehead
    May 10, 2010 at 11:11 — Reply

    “I dispute the validity of any ethical absolute whatsoever. It is my formulation as an atheist and a respecter of religious belief structures, than no man’s view of the world is any more worthy, any more objectively true than any others. Many theological debates, with their great disagreements, would support my observation that one man’s truth cannot be the next’s. I merely observe that it exhibits a hubris on the part of any ethics to claim absolute validity over even two persons. All ethical claims are the relative province of the individual and must be respected as the subjective judgements of those involved.”

    Ben, isn’t it just as much a sign of hubris for you to make such definitive claims? The existence of competing theologies does not, as such, imply that all of them are wrong, or that they are all equally deficient. From my perspective, might it not be just as coherent to say that my point of view has greater validity than all the others (including relativism)?

    But as it stands, I couldn’t agree with you more that it’s ridiculous for one human being to claim he or she has a lock on the truth. We have a limited experience of reality and have trouble generalising from that experience. Only God perceives all of reality and thus perceives it without distortion. So the only way I can claim that Christianity offers access to absolute truth is on the grounds that God has made himself known in Jesus Christ. You might wish to dispute whether or not God has revealed himself in Jesus, but historically, Christianity has always seen itself as witnessing to truth that God has revealed, rather than truth which humans have discovered. For my money, that seems also to be Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 2.

    Matt Lewis, I really hope you’re being satirical with the Horus stuff because I have a lot of pride in my university and would hate to think it was producing students so profoundly ignorant of history that they thought Christianity emerged from an Egyptian, rather than Jewish and Graeco-Roman milieu.

  29. roflcopter
    May 10, 2010 at 19:51 — Reply

    I am very nonsensical, pleased you picked that up.
    I would be nonsensical to say that the cafe in the portland building is in the district of Paris. So I will say that. Just like in the Bible, where Patmos is in the region of Palestine.
    Thankyou for clearing up that 100,000 means 244,000.
    I only mentioned Adam and Eve as the article was bashing all religions in general. I didnt know if the revelation of God meant to them, or Joseph Smith, or Mohammed. But thanks for clearing up that it was reffering to Adam and Eve.

    I am dissapointed that you chose two points of mine to do battle with, then left one kicking its heels.

    I appreciate your scholarly journal you included in your battle against the awesome Phil Whitehead. I think we all love nativity plays with the three kings in. Also, I liked its inclussion of the widely held and accepted belief that Jesus was a Pisces. Last Christmas, on March 25th was a good one for me.

  30. Matt Lewis
    May 11, 2010 at 02:20 — Reply

    Well spotted Philip, the link was satirical, as quite clearly it is mostly made up. Horus didn’t have 12 followers, and I’m not so sure that Jesus was a Pisces… But that is what you get from a silly blog named atheist empire.

    However to leap to calling one ignorant of history, when Graeco-Roman history has been influenced by Egyptian mythology (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE63B38Y20100412) is perhaps ignorance in itself. There are many books which show huge similarities between Christianity to stories of Egyptian mythology (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Christ-Egypt-Horus-Jesus-Connection-Murdock/dp/0979963117/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273543313&sr=8-1), and a wee bit of googling will provide links information and show many opinions that Christianity stemmed from Judaism and drew many parallels from Egyptian mythology. As to whether it is true or not, I do not know, but the fact that so many similar stories exist, and only one has been chosen to be ‘true’ while the rest dispelled as myths seems illogical. I just cannot see what knowledge believers seem to have that I and other non-believers of their particular faith don’t which leads them to conclude that a god exists and that they should praise him.

  31. Rob
    May 12, 2010 at 11:00 — Reply

    ” couldn’t agree with you more that it’s ridiculous for one human being to claim he or she has a lock on the truth. We have a limited experience of reality and have trouble generalising from that experience. Only God perceives all of reality and thus perceives it without distortion. So the only way I can claim that Christianity offers access to absolute truth is on the grounds that God has made himself known in Jesus Christ.”

    Absolute Nonsence! Might as well just claim anything with that logic

  32. Rob
    May 12, 2010 at 11:01 — Reply

    Nonsense*

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