Can Morality Exist Without Belief in God?

  • Thread starter Greg Bernhardt
  • Start date
In summary: This is not unique to any one religion, it is found in all religions. Again, if you are not religious, where do you get your morals from?
  • #36
CaptainQuasar said:
(Though, as you may recall russ, I consider "terrorist" to be a relative term. But that's because I really believe that, unlike a concept such as "murder" where it seems you can give at least examples that most people agree is a case of murder, even if they can't agree on a definition, the way "terrorist" is applied it seems pretty dependent on whether you're on the same political side, not solely on qualities of the act itself. But not to re-open that argument, I just wanted to explain because as I recall we differed on that.)
A lot of people differ with me on that, so I don't recall it specifically, but in any case, my opinion has always been that people know where they stand and they know why they say things like "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". It isn't because they don't think definitions in general are/should be consistent, it is because they are unwilling to attach a consistent definition to that particular word because of the implications for their own beliefs. I tend to assume people are self-aware when it comes to their own motives (though I admit I've been disappointed on that score more than once).

Or, they see other people do it and think that because a lot of people do it, that makes it ok. If you think that through, you may just find you are letting yourself be played - allowing others to weaken your morality by slipping in some moral relativism.
 
Physics news on Phys.org
  • #37
CaptainQuasar said:
Wow, what a strident, rigid, non-evidential claim to make. You should have entitled your post "An atheist creed written as a parody of intolerant and obtuse religion."
It has nothing to do with being an atheist. You, apparently, have no idea what an atheist is.
 
  • #39
russ_watters said:
A lot of people differ with me on that, so I don't recall it specifically, but in any case, my opinion has always been that people know where they stand and they know why they say things like "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". It isn't because they don't think definitions in general are/should be consistent, it is because they are unwilling to attach a consistent definition to that particular word because of the implications for their own beliefs. I tend to assume people are self-aware when it comes to their own motives (though I admit I've been disappointed on that score more than once).

Or, they see other people do it and think that because a lot of people do it, that makes it ok. If you think that through, you may just find you are letting yourself be played - allowing others to weaken your morality by slipping in some moral relativism.

I actually see more moral relativism in the people who say "Sneaking in and bombing something - when Muslims trying to free Palestine do it, that's wrong! That's terrorism! But if the U.S. military does it, or if some U.S. ally group does it with CIA support, that's fighting for freedom and democracy."

I think that this is how things like Abu Ghraib happen or the "extraordinary rendition" stuff. Taking people and torturing them somewhere out of the sight of the law in secret hideaways... when insurgents in Iraq did that, it was terrorism. But slap a fancy name on it like "extraordinary rendition" and it's just peachy for the United States of America to do the same thing!

So the 21st century began with the USA apologizing to Germany, of all nations, among others, for torturing people in secret prisons. I cannot effing believe that. What a black, black mark on our honor. I was actually a little bit relieved when John McCain won the Republican nomination, because at least that way we know both candidates have the moral fiber and integrity to oppose torture and we can hope that the next White House will not stand for those kinds of things.

"Terrorism" ends up as a weak term meaning "what the bad guys do", whatever that may be, and there's no examination of whether the "good guys" doing the same things are wrong... because they're the good guys! They can't be terrorists!

So I would say that if you think that through, you may just find you are letting yourself be played and allowing others to weaken your morality by slipping in some moral relativism.
 
  • #40
LightbulbSun said:
Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist would disagree with you.
I'm a fan, but I think he's revising history there. Worse, he's arguing against one of the primary points he makes against religion - one of it's biggest flaws is that it is static, yet here he argues that it evolves!

It's pretty simple, though: how many times have the 10 Commandments been revised?
So the USSR failed because they were atheists? You really can't believe that, can you?
That isn't what I said. I said the USSR failed because it was morally bankrupt. It is very likely true that atheism was just used for the purpose of elevating communism to a state religion. But it still explains the rise of right wing Christianity.

I know my style is a little unusual here, but please: I make a distinction between how others see things and how I see things. It's there if you read what I actually said and don't jump to conclusions about what I meant but didn't say. All I was saying there is that it is not surprising for people to equate athiesm with immorality (moreover, it has been used - improperly or not - for the purpose of justifying immorality). I didn't say *I* equate athiesm with immorality.
Guilt by Association.
Communism with athiesm or athiesm with the USSR? Bah, either way, you cannot separate these things. That athiesm was an important part of the development of Communism is not arguable. And Stalin took an extra step with both athiesm and Communism, but the basic ideas still came from Marx.
No, it's just fallacious reasoning on the part of believers. Like you said, these dictatorships were more based upon their own warped ideologies, which acted like a religion itself, than them simply being an atheist. Correlation does not imply causation.
When the data set is so thin and it is all one has to go on, I think they have to be forgiven for that. Heck, I'll take it further: I know people who personally struggle with this very problem. They don't believe in God, but they also don't know where else to find morality. This is why I say it needs to be taught in school.
The primary leaders of the founding fathers were deists, not Christians.

The Christian Nation Myth
First, I need to correct one error in what I said: I was thinking of two different passages, but both were in the Declaration. The Preamble doesn't mention God.

Now, while I'm unclear of the facts about certain founding fathers' beliefs, the idea that the US was not founded on Christian principles is a relatively new revisionist myth. Their particular proclivities helped form the Constitution as seclar document insofar as it never mentions God, but that does not mean that the morality contained in it is divorced from religion or Christianity specifically.

There are some very famous court cases where people challenge laws based on freedom of religion and lose. Probably the biggest was Reynolds V US in 1878, on polygamy. Why can a man have only one wife? Because western moral tradition - from Christianity - says so. The decision there reads like a history of western morality (where it concerns marriage). And that history is firmly Christian. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_v._United_States

Reynolds also firmly establishes that lawmakers do not need to divorce themselves from their personal morality when they create laws. Thus the fact that the US is a Chistian nation is not about a handful of founders, it is about the nation as a whole. The nation was made up mostly of christians when it was founded and the laws they passed were based on Christian morality.

I took a Constitutional law class in college that focused on "Individual Rights and the American Constitution". That's the title of the book and I still have it. Since the rights are outlined in the Bill of Rights and the first clause of the Bill of Rights is the Establishment Clause, the first sentence on page 2 of the book reads:
Colonial America was Protestant Christian.
And much of the first chapter is quotes from state Constitutions and framers on the subject of religion. Here's a good one from Washington's farewell address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens...
 
Last edited:
  • #41
Evo said:
It has nothing to do with being an atheist. You, apparently, have no idea what an atheist is.

Sorry if I was unclear - I didn't say that his post is what atheism is all about. I said that his post was written like "An atheist creed written as a parody of intolerant and obtuse religion." (He did, after all, start off by saying he was making distinctions about the position of atheism.)

I am an atheist myself. (As I said above, but I talk alot.) So when I disagree with what he's saying, I certainly don't think his statements represent what atheism is all about.
 
  • #42
Evo said:
I said "does not believe" in a God.
The rest of the post and the quote you were referring to from Lightbulbsun implied to me the more generalized version that I responded to.

That a person wouldn't build a church to visit every week and discuss how they don't believe in God is so trivial as to be meaningless. But LightbulbSun said this:
LightbubSun said:
I can't think of a single person in history that killed in the name of disbelief.
That's also trivially true. People kill each other because they believe something different, not because they don't believe. Stalin didn't kill people because he didn't believe in God, he killed people because he did believe in Communism.

There is no such thing as an absence of belief in general and to try to constrain the issue to an absence of belief in God only is not a fair constraint.

[edit] Similar, so I'll include it here:
robertm said:
I think that the distinction should be made that the position of atheism is not one of systematic belief, but of systematic non-belief. Once the position of atheism is declared, then one can discuss subsequent systems of belief. An atheist is not required to believe anything at all. In other words it is a default position, and really should not even have a name or a cause.
No, an absence of belief in God is agnostic. Athiesm is an affirmative belief that there is no God.

But even agnosticism (is that a word?) doesn't let people off the hook: it just means people are confused/unsure/indecisive about the issue. It's an 'I don't know' answer to a yes or no question. It's a reasonable position, but it doesn't let people off the hook.
 
Last edited:
  • #43
Can we agree then, that true atheists think about religion as much as an ant thinks about world economy? I find that the hardest thing for religious people to believe is that there are people that really don't care or think about what the religious believe in as long as they keep it to themselves. They seem to want to believe that atheists are upset and are concerned about religion. They don't want to believe that atheists simply write them off the same way that someone would write off a person that believes in fairies. I am offended that there is even a label applied by the religious to someone that doesn't believe in their stuff.
 
  • #44
robertm said:
Also, it is important to remember that Theist do not simply claim to receive their morals from a god, but that morality can not be achieved without said god. As if, " I could not be moral without God, and neither can any of you." To be self-consistent, religion must be inherently universal in it's claims. And that is offensive.
Actually, to be self-consistent, any belief system must be universal in it's claims. That's flaw #1 in moral relativism and it is the reason why evangelism itself is not offensive (only the way people evangelize).
 
  • #45
Evo said:
Can we agree then, that true atheists think about religion as much as an ant thinks about world economy?
Absolutely. If you don't believe in something, there isn't much reason to think about it unless somone specifically presses you on it (ie, in a thread in a philosophy forum...).
I find that the hardest thing for religious people to believe is that there are people that really don't care or think about what the religious believe in as long as they keep it to themselves. They seem to want to believe that atheists are upset and are concerned about religion. They don't want to believe that atheists simply write them off the same way that someone would write off a person that believes in fairies.
From the post of mine above, this is a really important point: for a moral belief to be self-consistent, it must be universal. I'll have to find the source for that (Kant, perhaps?). The implication is that if an issue of morality is critical - for example, mass murder - then moral people have a moral obligation to do something about it if they can. That is why people try to spread their beliefs. It is wrong not to and we shouldn't discourage people from doing it, otherwise we end up with an amoral society. Heck, if we say people can't spread their beliefs, then we can't even justify having most of our laws!

Instead, what needs to happen is that people need to be taught to critically examine their beliefs themselves to see if they make sense. Find the right ones and spread those.

An example: If you knew that your next-door neighbor was crushing peoples' heads and suffing their bodies in a trash can, would you not consider it a moral obligation to do something about it? Then consider that someone who is pro-life sees abortion the same way. They may be right and they may be wrong, but they are just as obligated to do something about it as you are to call the police on your neighbor.
I am offended that there is even a label applied by the religious to someone that doesn't believe in their stuff.
Some labels are just labels. There isn't necessarily an intended insult in a label.
 
  • #46
Yeah, Kant:
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative

And while I'm at it:
A moral imperative is a principle originating inside a person's mind that compels that person to act. It is a kind of categorical imperative, as defined by Immanuel Kant. Kant took the imperative to be a dictate of pure reason, in its practical aspect. Not following the moral law was seen to be self-defeating and thus contrary to reason. Later thinkers took the imperative to originate in conscience, as the divine voice speaking through the human spirit. The dictates of conscience are simply right and often resist further justification. Looked at another way, the experience of conscience is the basic experience of encountering the right.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_imperative
 
  • #47
Evo said:
Can we agree then, that true atheists think about religion as much as an ant thinks about world economy? I find that the hardest thing for religious people to believe is that there are people that really don't care or think about what the religious believe in as long as they keep it to themselves. They seem to want to believe that atheists are upset and are concerned about religion. They don't want to believe that atheists simply write them off the same way that someone would write off a person that believes in fairies. I am offended that there is even a label applied by the religious to someone that doesn't believe in their stuff.

Like I said, I take arguments about "true atheists" about as seriously as "true Christians".

And, while as above I think that there are all different kinds of atheists, it is definitely not just a term that religious people use for others. There are all kinds of atheist web sites and forums and atheist chat groups on the internet and local atheist community groups and all the ones I've been to discuss religion actively, often saying the sort of stuff robertm said above. Those people self-identify as atheists. There's an enormous market out there of people who Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens target their books at and which movies like Religulous and Jesus Camp are targeted at, and I would be surprised if a big slice of them don't self-identify as atheists.

I think that it's this atheist culture that hangs out at those web sites and consumes those books and movies which people are most frequently talking about when they say "atheists". People sometimes make ridiculous absolute statements about all atheists, certainly. But sometimes they're specifically talking about that culture.
 
  • #48
russ_watters said:
Stalin didn't kill people because he didn't believe in God, he killed people because he did believe in Communism.

I don't think that's true, any more than it would be true to say that Ivan the Terrible killed people because he believed in Russian Orthodox Christianity. I think Stalin killed people basically because he was nuts.

russ_watters said:
But even agnosticism (is that a word?) doesn't let people off the hook: it just means people are confused/unsure/indecisive about the issue. It's an 'I don't know' answer to a yes or no question. It's a reasonable position, but it doesn't let people off the hook.

I think Evo has a point on this one - I think it's a particularly Judeo-Christian position to think that people are "on the hook" for that. Most people in human history have been agnostic to the existence of most of the gods in human history. It's only within Judeo-Christianity that you have the "jealous god" who not only demands worship but demands that you disbelieve in other gods.

I think that, more than being anything like indecisive, many agnostics are simply blase about the whole affair. "If Buddha exists and he wants something, he can send a bodhisattva. If Yahweh exists and he wants something, he can send a burning bush."
 
  • #49
russ_watters said:
I'm a fan, but I think he's revising history there. Worse, he's arguing against one of the primary points he makes against religion - one of it's biggest flaws is that it is static, yet here he argues that it evolves!

It's pretty simple, though: how many times have the 10 Commandments been revised?

Lets delve deeper and contrast the Old Testament to the New Testament. There's significant differences between the two, and none of them have anything to do with divine intervention. Do you really think they would of published a New Testament if secular society didn't evolve? The only reason religion appears to evolve is because secular society evolves. Religion's evolution is the byproduct of secular society's evolution and not the other way around. This is why any "religious morals" is just a byproduct of the evolution of secular society's moral standards. Once secular society deems something immoral that contradicts the holy book, people will omit that passage from their moral standards. So religious people are no different than a secular person in that we pick and choose our moral standards. That's the bigger point Dawkins always points out.

I know my style is a little unusual here, but please: I make a distinction between how others see things and how I see things. It's there if you read what I actually said and don't jump to conclusions about what I meant but didn't say. All I was saying there is that it is not surprising for people to equate athiesm with immorality (moreover, it has been used - improperly or not - for the purpose of justifying immorality). I didn't say *I* equate athiesm with immorality.

It's a rather disturbing concept that some people feel humans can't be good without a God.
Communism with athiesm or athiesm with the USSR?

No, it was from the fact that you said the following:

Russ Watters said:
Marx was an athiest and I suspect that his athiesm played a part in the development of communism...

This is just guilt by association where you're linking atheism with communism.
Bah, either way, you cannot separate these things. That athiesm was an important part of the development of Communism is not arguable.

One has nothing to do with the other. Again, correlation does not imply causation. If someone is arguing that it does, then that is their own warped analogue, and not the truth.

When the data set is so thin and it is all one has to go on, I think they have to be forgiven for that.

No, they shouldn't be forgiven for that. If they don't understand the context of those situations and understand what was really the causal link, then they shouldn't blather on about atheism being a crutch for some of the worst dictators in human history.
Heck, I'll take it further: I know people who personally struggle with this very problem. They don't believe in God, but they also don't know where else to find morality.

Those would be weak atheists. Look, it really isn't that much of a mystery. We all pick and choose our morals whether we're religious or not. Some of our morals are forced upon us through secular pressures, but generally we pick and choose freely which ones we like and which ones we don't like.
Now, while I'm unclear of the facts about certain founding fathers' beliefs, the idea that the US was not founded on Christian principles is a relatively new revisionist myth.

Which Christian principles?


Reynolds also firmly establishes that lawmakers do not need to divorce themselves from their personal morality when they create laws. Thus the fact that the US is a Chistian nation is not about a handful of founders, it is about the nation as a whole. The nation was made up mostly of christians when it was founded and the laws they passed were based on Christian morality.

I took a Constitutional law class in college that focused on "Individual Rights and the American Constitution". That's the title of the book and I still have it. Since the rights are outlined in the Bill of Rights and the first clause of the Bill of Rights is the Establishment Clause, the first sentence on page 2 of the book reads: And much of the first chapter is quotes from state Constitutions and framers on the subject of religion. Here's a good one from Washington's farewell address:

I think we have to provide some context to that quote. This was back before the Theory of Evolution was ever confirmed, this was back before the discovery of the atom, this was back before the discovery of genetics etc. Secular morality has evolved dramatically between that address and present day. We also have a greater body of knowledge. I'd even disagree with Washington about "religion being an indispensable support" even during his time. As I pointed out above, religious evolution is a byproduct of secular evolution.Also, about your statement of "not a single person in human history has killed in the name of disbelief" being trivially true is something I strongly disagree with. When you get down to it, all of us have some form of a belief set, but the degree of spectrum is what differentiates all of them. Some people's beliefs only stretch out to themselves. Other people's beliefs are stretched out to be taken as knowledge. It's when the latter happens that it becomes a problem. So I don't think dismissing my statement as only being trivially true is a wise thing to do. Maybe more of a lack of belief would do society some good.
 
Last edited:

Similar threads

  • General Discussion
Replies
2
Views
4K
  • General Discussion
Replies
10
Views
2K
  • General Discussion
6
Replies
184
Views
30K
Replies
9
Views
1K
Replies
10
Views
1K
Replies
19
Views
213
  • General Discussion
Replies
1
Views
832
  • General Discussion
Replies
4
Views
2K
Replies
4
Views
6K
  • General Discussion
Replies
4
Views
712
Back
Top