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The morality and God disconnect

  1. Oct 22, 2008 #1
    I was watching a tv program where a priest and an athiest were going back and forth. At one point the priest started badgering the athiest with the question of "why be good" and "where do you get your morals from". Strangely the athiest was a big flustered and avoided the question. At first glance these seem like difficult questions to answer, but the more I thought about it they are quite easy.

    1. "Why be good"
    You could say there is natural animal altruism and that history has shown that collective cooperation has more benefits than selfish hostility. But a quick and obvious answer can simply be "I don't want to go to jail". Right? People always make the argument, "if you don't think there is judgment at death, go crazy, rob people, kill for a stereo." No thanks I'd rather not spend my life in jail. Morals a side there is a practical side that is very powerful. Maybe if we were on a "Lord of the Flies" island some of us would kill and be selfish. But society has bounds you want to live within even if your morals don't coincide. Does that makes sense?

    2. "Where do you get your morals from"
    Why do people equate a moral set with a specific belief in God? Can't I adopt some christian values and retain my skepticism? Personally I adopt my morals from many religions and philosophies. Doesn't mean I believe in their Gods. It just means they make sense to me and my life. Is that so hard for atheists to admit?

    A. Side statement: I regularly go to a pentecostal church once a week. It's a night for young adults and I go for the social side and stories. One thing I hear all the time there is during story telling (which are fascinating) they speak as if these stories are truth and how historically correct they are. I feel like I am the only one there who understands that the stories that have historical backing are the ones with a huge disconnect between the story and the proof of God. I once heard someone tell me that they thought the Bible was written and constructed in a way that people at that time could understand. That God did things in that time that people would understand. An interesting comment, but the problem is that then God should update things so that we in todays time can understand. Because what worked 2000 years ago, is not working now, atleast for me :) He should get someone to write a New New Testament and get more miracles going that we today can relate to.

    Perhaps I am not thinking these things through enough, but these are my immediate thoughts.
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2008
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  3. Oct 22, 2008 #2


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    From the practical side, there is less stress when one is good - well assuming one has a conscience. Then there are persons with pathological personalities, who commit harmful or evil acts but feel no remorse (i.e. apparently have no conscience). Examples would be Ted Bundy or Jeffry Dahmer.

    from within. Morality is choice. I have learned about morals from my parents and larger family, from friends and from my experience in the world. If I am moral or act morally, it is by choice.

    A person once said that morality without God was an abstract concept. Well - God is an abstract concept (requires belief or faith in the absence of evidence or direct observation). Some people require a belief in an authority or 'higher being'. If that helps them be moral or live a happy life, then fine. Otherwise, if it causes them to do harm to themselves or others, then there's a problem.
  4. Oct 22, 2008 #3

    Ivan Seeking

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    On that basis, it becomes a risk to benefit ratio that is subjective. The next guy might feel that murder is justified if the reward is large enough.

    Some people choose to follow the teachings of Hitler. Some people believe that "greed is good".

    A common belief is that by accepting Jesus... you are open to "the truth", as opposed to misguided and flawed principles.

    That's why the Catholics have the Pope. Beyond studying the scriptures, other beliefs lead one to pray for guidance. For example, when I was a Mormon [briefly as a young adult], I remember someone asking what sex acts are and are not... good. The answer was that you should trust yourself. If it feels wrong, it is. This is generally considered to be a good rule of thumb. It is believed that this guidance comes from the Holy Spirit.

    Once you get this all settled, let me know the correct answer. :biggrin:
  5. Oct 22, 2008 #4
    This has been soundly addressed. You may want to take a look here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_parsons/misconceptions.html#motive
  6. Oct 22, 2008 #5
    From the evolutionary point of view, developing a level of altruism allowed humans to work together and outcompete other tribes. Basically everyone enters a social contract since birth, that we impose on ourselves. Things like killing, raping, or stealing are forbidden in many cultures if not all. And if were you break this contract then you are subject to be punished by the group.

    The details of what is accepted or not is solely decided by the group or the tribe you are from. For instance in our culture we look down upon cannibalism, but it was perfectly normal for many pacific islanders. The famous captain Cook who explored the Pacific Ocean was actually captured in Hawaii and consumed by the primitives.

    The same psychology applies to Paris Hilton for example. She is a role model who is worshiped by many young women. And if she wears pink and huge sunglasses, then it must be OK. They'll all wear it.
  7. Oct 22, 2008 #6
    I do think that this is a valid question. Saying that you don't want a Lord of the Flies scenario explains why you would want other people to behave morally but it's kind of a Rube-Goldberg-machine logic, that doesn't really work, to say that you think you ought to behave morally yourself through some sort of self-interest, because you behaving morally indirectly supports the rest of society behaving morally.

    Like, you would risk your own life to stop a murder from happening, because if you do it will slightly discourage other people in society from committing murder, so you'll face a slightly lower likelihood of getting murdered yourself... if you survive your attempt to stop that murder, that is.

    It seems to me that, if someone really thought morality was all simply in people's heads, they ought to regard the rest of society a bit like a farmer who raises and milks a cow: there's a sort of exchange going on - the farmer gives the cow grass to eat and a barn to sleep in, and the cow gives the farmer milk, but the farmer doesn't owe the cow anything. If the farmer decides he wants steak for dinner more than he wants milk with breakfast there's no quandary, he just slaughters the cow.

    Similarly, with no fundamental morality you've got to keep everyone else thinking you're a law-abiding citizen but you don't owe them anything; you're just doing what you need to to get the milk. Like the farmer would avoid getting kicked by the cow, you'll avoid the danger of jail, but if circumstances arise where you think you can get away with something that's immoral but in your best interest there's no reason not to.

    Personally, my sense is that it's really wrong to murder or defraud someone, for example. It may be difficult or impossible to articulate this fundamental morality as a set of rules or principles but it seems to me that the sense that those things are wrong must be perceiving something similar to logic or mathematics - immaterial but in some sense "real" or "existent". (But, I could certainly be wrong about that.)

    Religious people are gung-ho to say "well that comes from God!" but I think that would actually weaken it, for several reasons. If it's something that somehow issues from God and is subordinate to Him, then it's not really absolute morality. If it was really absolute morality God himself would be bound by it. But it's often pictured as subject to divine whim - when the Israelites are fleeing Egypt God tells them it's okay to steal from their Egyptian masters. Or in Israel it's okay to kill when they slaughter the worshipers of the Golden Calf. (Who, according to the Bible, are their own brothers and cousins.)

    Another thing is that Judeo-Christians seem to usually end up having to come up with this concept of "divine justice" - special moral laws for God that explain why it's right for God to do things to humans that it wouldn't be okay for one human to do to another human.

    And furthermore, it seems to me that it can't have anything to do with punishment. If you obey a moral law simply out of fear of punishment then it's not really a matter of right and wrong; you'd behave the same way no matter what the law was. So, while I'm sure that God could punish you with an eternity in Hell for breaking his laws, and consequently get you recant or renounce anything, it wouldn't make his laws right - any good torturer or tyrannical autocracy could accomplish the same thing.
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2008
  8. Oct 22, 2008 #7


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    It's very simple to me. I don't follow any religion or believe in any deity. I fear no punishment from any supernatural creature, but I don't harm others physically or emotionally because *I* don't think it's right, not because I am afraid of some mythical creature harming me.

    Many of my friends are religious and I know they would still be good people without the fear their religion places on them.
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2008
  9. Oct 22, 2008 #8
    The social contract concept is a good behavioral description of how society works. The problem is, I think, that it makes no sense as a rationale for one's own actions.

    I was just discussing this with someone the other day and I came up with a good way of explaining it - it's like Pavlov's dog adopting behavioral conditioning as its personal religion or something: "You don't understand - the bell rang! I have to eat now! I have no choice! That's what behavioral conditioning says!"
  10. Oct 22, 2008 #9
    Well said Evo! :approve:
  11. Oct 22, 2008 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    When you refer to God as a mythical creature, and when you belittle religion as silly rather than respecting different beliefs, and when you describe religion as "fear", rather than "love" based - the essential difference between the old and new testaments [Christianity] - aren't you trying to insult people here who believe in God and hold these beliefs in the deepest regard?

    That's not a very Christian thing to do.

    Now go to confession and say ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers.
  12. Oct 23, 2008 #11


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    That's true, but I don't think you are going deep enough. Yes, a lot of people follow a certain morality because they don't want to go to jail, but that doesn't explain how that morality came to be. It happened because people decided that these rules made sense/were necessary in forming a functional society. If morality was purely reactive, it (both society and morality) never would have developed. That's Hobbes.
    Tradition. Christianity predates widespread education, which is a good thing, because for the average person there was no possibility of developing a morality via their own intellectual power until people became educated.
    Absolutely! I consider myself Christian, but I've argued on this forum a number of times (because of your #1) that morality can be derived logically, as a matter of practicality. Heck, it can even be tested to see if it works: it is scientific in nature.
    I'm not quite clear on what you mean there, but that may be a byproduct of that second point: morality, traditionally, was purely in the domain of religion, so if you want to learn morality, you need to learn how religions defined it. It is only in the last few hundred years that that has begun to change (save for a few Greek philosophers who I doubt your average Dark Ages peasant ever heard of), but religion still has such a strong hold on people that the alternate means of arriving at morality have not been widely taught. It needs to be taught in school.

    Just an fyi, much of this moral theory I hold I had a vague idea of growing up, but it was developed in detail during my time at the Naval Academy. Due in large part to the Mai Lai incident, the military put a heavy emphasis on morality and ethics training for officers and intellectual development of morality (as opposed to religious development of morality) is the direction it is taught from.
    Your forum, so we'll talk about religion if you want....

    My opinion: there is much of the Bible that is historically verifiable, but little of that is germane to the religion. More people live in the US today than in the entire world's history prior to 1 AD, yet God has not chosen to openly reveal himself since then. That should tell us something...
  13. Oct 23, 2008 #12
    Such as?

    There are only three possibilities really:

    A) He doesn't exist
    B) He exists, but he could care less about what happens to us, which would contradict Christianity.

    C) The believers have it all wrong, and God is seeing who will be smart enough to remain skeptical of his existence based on the lack of evidence. He will then burn all credulous people for eternity.

    I am curious Russ as to what aspects you're religious in, and why you're not an atheist.
  14. Oct 23, 2008 #13
    I think it's pretty offensive the way Christians always take credit for morality.
    As if God and faith is the only way to gain morals.
    There are many ways to gain a set of morals, the most obvious one is to learn of right and wrong internally.

    I have morals because I am an adult who has developed the viewpoint that doing bad things to others, is a bad thing. It's not any more complicated than that.
    People who feel they need a higher authority to keep them in check, and everyone else, must either have bad faith in humanity, or bad faith in themselves.
    And I don't blame them for it, humanity is capable of a lot of terrible stuff, which we might never grow out of.

    But I do know that 99.9% of all people I have met who are atheist, scientifically inclined and a curious nature, are usually peaceful and nice, while religious people have, through history and now, a higher tendency to violence.
    So I just find the whole Morals Through God thing ridiculous.
  15. Oct 23, 2008 #14


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    Well, firstly, I think your sampling is a little biased! The reality is that religion is a major factor in a lot of people's lives. For example, in the US I think around 80% of the population call themselves Christian!

    I agree with you, though. I think one needs to just look back in history to see how much hatred and violence religion has spawned, and such violence is still taking place today. Personally, I will respect whatever anyone wants to believe, since it's up to them to do so, but I don't think that organised religion is beneficial to anyone.

    I also don't understand how scientists can believe in a deity. Surely when they do, any chance one has of explaining nature is tossed out, since one can simply say "it was god's will."
  16. Oct 23, 2008 #15


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    Now, far be it for me to defend organized religion. One can easily check the records of my posts to know that I'm not a big fan of it.

    However, to be fair, one also should look at the fact that major violence against mankind has also been done by non-organized religion, simply based on secular ideology. Look at the cruelty done by the Nazis, the Fascists, communists Soviet Union, and currently, communist China and North Korea. So such violence isn't just a monopoly of organized religion.

    My conclusion? People who have hatred always want to latch on something to justify their hatred. This can be organized religion, ideology, etc. Why? Because it accomplishes two things: (i) it allows them to rationalize their hatred, and (ii) it gives them an already-established support, because if they can sell their hatred as being based on a set of beliefs or ideology, then all the followers of that belief and ideology will also be persuaded to adopt the hatred. One can clearly see this today with what groups like Al Qaida and others are trying to sell.

  17. Oct 23, 2008 #16

    Pavlov's dog experiment sums it up. We are already biased by being conditioned by our culture to behave in a certain way. But if you were to take this out of the picture, and contemplate on morality without bias, such as is it right to kill a living thing? then we can bring up game theory and assess the pros and cons.

    People have a potential to behave in any possible way. But what drives people to behave is a constant struggle between your ego and your emotions. Whoever wins determines what you are going to do next.

    For example, it would be a con to kill someone out of the blue, because you are putting yourself at risk, and wasting resources, and energy. So you might as well just not kill.

    But if you are driven emotionally to kill someone than that could be a pro for you, because you are satisfying your emotional needs, as it is with many serial killers.
  18. Oct 23, 2008 #17
    *Sighs in relief* I'm glad you didn't jump the gun with that tired old argument of "well the most vicious dictators were atheists!" Christians say that a lot as if it invalidates the atheist position. A lot of those vicious dictators they mentioned followed their own warped ideologies, which had nothing to do with atheism. I can't think of a single person in history that killed in the name of disbelief.
  19. Oct 23, 2008 #18


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    Are you saying you can't think of anyone in history killed because they don't believe in the religion that someone else did? That's just wrong!
  20. Oct 23, 2008 #19


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    No, I think he was referring to true atheists that simply "do not believe" in a god. And saying if you don't care/don't believe you wouldn't take action on behalf of something that you had no feelings about. I don't know if that was very clear, perhaps not.

    An example would be why atheists don't build fancy buildings and require other people that don't care/believe to meet once a week to not worship something they don't think about.
  21. Oct 23, 2008 #20


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    As a philosophy student, I took care to separate morals and ethics, as did the professors. My first class was actually designed for grad students and advanced philosophy majors, and it was a weekly 3-hour seminar in which we critiqued a book being written by the department head - "Meta-ethics". The most probing questions involved the origin of ethical motivations.

    Then and now, I see "morality" as being imposed from the outside-in, with laws and rules that are interpreted and applied by a hierarchy of authorities. It was this view of faith (held by those in power) that got Jesus into trouble, because he instead urged ethical behavior, which was antithetical to the goals of the existing establishment. In other words, you could find good within yourself and approach God on your own terms, not those of the authorities in the temples.

    I once wrote a sig on a philosophy site that said (IIR):

    The ethical man does what is right.
    The moral man does what he thinks his god will let him get away with.
    God has a very warm place reserved for the moral man.
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