Atheist vs Theist Morality: Is there a Clear Winner?

When I identify myself as an atheist, one of the first objections/questions raised is something to the effect “Well, where do you get your morals from then?”  Which is a very good question and deserves some thought.

First, let me say that I reject the argument that if people have a sense of right and wrong (or good and bad, your choice) that this is some kind of proof of god.  The human moral sense can be explained in purely secular terms.

First we start with mirror neurons which gives a sense of empathy.  Empathic behaviors have been observed in elephants, dolphins, primates and other animals.  You add to empathy a social structure that you don’t want to violate because you cannot live very long outside of that social structure.  Finally, add in our ability to reason.  Thomas Flynn talks about the importance of being able to consider the hypothetical in moral reasoning (“What would you think of that if you were gay?”).   Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger describe here well the advance or moral reasoning.  So, I don’t think we need any supernatural explanation of our moral sense.

As a final piece of evidence I would also point out that we seem prone to built in fears (phobias), feelings of disgust for certain things (feces and blood) and tastes (preferring sweets and fats, for example) which seem to have an evolutionary explanation and no one claims god gave us these things.

So, overall where does an atheist like me get our morals from?  Are they just made up?  No, they come from the kinds of sources you would imagine: my parents, social institutions such as schools, Boy Scouts and yes, even the Catholic Church which was certainly a part of my early  life.  I have added to that my own reasoning and reading of many other sources.

And where does a theist get their moral values?  Since I was a theist at one time I think I safely say: from parents, social institutions, especially the church and outside reading, including the bible.  The only theists who claim to have heard directly from god and told what to do strike me as extraordinarily scary, and we will get to them someday.

So, we come by our morals in a pretty similar fashion and I will say that in everyday practice theistic morals and atheist morals end up being pretty similar.  “But can’t you just decide to do what ever you want to do?”  the theist asks.  And the answer is, of course, “Yes.”  Well, if you believe in freewill that is.

But, let’s be honest, theists also “just decide” what is right and then claim that the decision really came from god or their religion.  But the fact of the matter is that they are making the decisions and they are fully human decisions, in essence no different from an atheist’s decisions.

For example, if you were raised in a certain religious tradition, you chose those moral choices by staying in that religion.  Or you find new ones in a new religion.  Or maybe you follow some of the tenants of your religion and ignore others (like the many birth control using Catholics)  You are picking and choosing using human reasoning as surely as any atheist.

For example, theists like to cite the ten commandments as an example of the kind of moral certainty we atheists lack.  Fair enough, let’s look and see.

So, to stay a little less controversial, shall we look at a simple commandment:  “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.”  Not a bad idea, let’s not work ourselves to death, we need a day off.  Universities pick up this idea in the form of sabbaticals.  But how do we implement this?

Of course, Orthodox Jews spend they day sitting in the dark eating leftovers, because lighting fires (or ovens or lightbulbs) are considered to be work which they feel is forbidden.

For many years in our society, it was felt that we should encode this commandment in civil law and mandate that stores be closed.  And then it was decided that only “immoral” stores such as liquor stores should be closed.

Today, most Christians seem to feel that an hour of church, followed by some time at a breakfast buffet, followed by 6 hours of football is the proper way to “keep the sabbath holy.”  How did they decide which is morally correct and pleasing to god?  Unless they have a direct line to the almighty, they do it the old fashioned way, they decide something and then convince themselves they are right, from their own logic.

I could go through many more examples, but I am not at all convinced by the theist argument that there are some kind of moral absolutes that are handed down by god.  If there was such a thing all theists would have the same behaviors and philosophies.  We all make our own moral decisions using what we think we know of the world and our background knowledge.  I don’t see too much difference in decisions between those that include supernatural factors and those who do not.

In the same way I am not at all convinced of the “eternal justice” argument that theists sometimes use.   The idea that the threat of hell (or the love of god) keeps my behavior “within bounds.”

In the current presidential campaign, Christian Ted Cruz famously said that he would make the sand in Syria glow if he had the opportunity.  Christian Donald Trump said that not only would he kill terrorists, that he would also kill their wives and families.  Now, I have no idea if either of them would carry out those ideas if given the opportunity.  Both of them, I assume, feel that they have justified their actions and “thou shalt not kill” does not apply in this particular case.  They decided on their own, using their background knowledge that it seems the greater moral good involves killing innocent people.  Christian Obama has used similar logic to justify drone strikes.  If any of them considered the possibility of hell in their decision making they apparently already feel god is on their side and it is not a problem.

So in and of itself, religion does not give us moral absolutes, does not remove human decision logic from making moral choices and even the eternal carrot and stick doesn’t seem to have much influence.

I just don’t see that in and of itself either believing in god or not helps anyone to make better moral decisions.

Naturalism, Materialism and Causality

For thousands of years, philosophers have argued that people are somehow different from the rest of the world and have somehow become more than the sum of our parts.  This has lead to the famous mind/body distinction with the addition of a soul in some philosophical systems that include religious thought.

A fairly typical expression of this school of thought is something like this quote from this (unfortunately unnamed philosopher) from the University of North Carolina:

Yet the most extensive knowledge of the biology of the brain, body and external environment would still not yield an explanation or description of what it’s actually like to feel pain, taste chocolate, see green, or experience beauty.  No amount of understanding the “parallel computing power” of the brain will explain a belief in God or a fear of death.  In short, biology and physics cannot explain consciousness.

The opposite way of thinking, which goes by the name of physicalism, naturalism or materialism, says that “Yes, indeed, biology (and by extension chemistry and physics) will explain all that.   No need for a non-material “mind” or a supernatural “soul.”

It seems to me that we have a language issue when looking at this issue.  For example, it is abundantly clear that machines can distinguish different colors, but can they “experience” them?  What does it even mean to “experience”colors.  Could we possibly explain the “experience of color” to a blind person?  Do birds and other animals “experience color?”  If so, do they have a mind?  Where does this “mini-mind” come from, if not their tiny little bird brains?

For me, naturalism makes the most sense.  What we call “mind” is the workings of our physical brains.  How does this phenomenon arise?  Well, we are not sure yet, but I agree with Daniel Dennett that basically, there is no “hard problem of consciousness,”  That it is simply an emergent property of brains.

It is not hard to figure out where I come down on this issue, I am naturalist, I think that “mind” is simply what we call the workings of the brain, nothing more or less.  Animals have a form of consciousness because they share some of the structures of our brains, and they fall short of our level of consciousness because their brains lack some of the complexities and structures that we humans have.

Now, it could very well turn out that I am wrong on this, although I don’t think there will be any sort of definitive answer in my lifetime or maybe even the life times of my children.

If you disagree with naturalism, I can assure you that you are in good company.  Many philosophers, both secular and religious believe that, ultimately, mind cannot be explained by physical processes.  Obviously such a belief held by many people who have studied the issue much more thoroughly than I cannot be simply dismissed by me.  I do not dismiss such people, I just happen to side with the many people who have also deeply studied this issue and land of the side of naturalism.

I will also say that I have read many arguments for some sort of mind/body dualism.  I don’t find them convincing and I highly doubt that new argument in this field is going to come along in the next few weeks to change my position.

I am saying this, in part, because much of the reasoning for posts that I have planned in my head really come back to this question.

As a naturalist I believe that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors arise from the meat computer that is in our heads and that the brain evolved because it had survival benefits, not because it is the best or most elegant solution.  I think our brain is like a Swiss Army knife, the tools are somewhat useful, but not always ideal for the job.


Is Catholic Abuse Different?

It seems that the answer to this question is “Yes.” “No.” And “Maybe.”

Since the John Jay Report to the Catholic Bishops, there have been a spate of articles, especially in Catholic media crowing that the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church™ is “no worse” than in other organizations that serve families or children.  The report found that around 4 percent of priests committed some form of abuse and that this percentage is about the same as pedophilia in the general population.

Now, the first thing to say that for an organization which holds itself to be the moral arbiter of the whole world to be “no worse” than all the rest of the world in this horrendous crime is certainly nothing to be proud of.    I also feel I have to alert the irony police that one of the organizations the church chose to compare itself to was the Boy Scouts, who are almost as homophobic as the church itself.

There also seems to be a number of people who have studied this issue that feel the problem is either different or worse in the Catholic Church™.

This is certainly an area where truth is going to be difficult to ascertain. The Bishops certainly have a vested interest in minimizing the problem, but critics of the church certainly have their own axes to grind, for their own reasons.  With that in mind, let us look at some of the sources that say the problem in the church is somewhat unique.

So let’s look at some of those sources.

The oldest I can find is this 2002 report from the Boston Globe, they won a Pulitzer for reporting on clergy abuse in Boston.  The story says that other denominations had many fewer reports of abuse and those reports were dealt with promptly, with most of the perpetrators ending up in jail.  It also quotes several academics who state that the problem in the Catholic Church is much worse than other denominations.

More up to date is this page from the Bishop Accountability project updates the John Jay report to find the the abuse rate is higher than the original report found.  They also cite a couple of other dioceses where the abuse rate is about twice what the Bishops found, which they then extrapolate to the whole country, which probably is not fair.

Richard Sipe, who has written extensively on the issue and has acted as a expert witness in abuse cases also feels that the abuse rate is much higher than the Bishops report.  Again, his report does not include links, so I don’t have immediate access to those statistics.  His overall conclusion is that given that the John Jay almost certainly undercounts the cases of abuse, his final conclusion is that the abuse rate was about 9% of priests as the story broke nationally.

One area where there seems to be a difference in the victims of Catholic clergy abuse.  According to the John Jay report, 81% of the victims were boys.  In general, girls are twice as likely as boys to be abused, so this is a possibly significant difference between clergy abuse and that which may occur in other organizations or in general.

According to Wikipedia: “The John Jay Report suggested that “homosexual men entered the seminaries in noticeable numbers from the late 1970s through the 1980s”,[12] and available figures for homosexual priests in the United States range from 15–58%”  Obviously solid numbers for the percentage of gay priests are impossible to ascertain.

There is also tremendous debate as to whether or how celibacy figures into all of this. I would have to say that entire debate boils down to opinion, there is no way to empirically say anything clear about the effects of celibacy.

But I can offer my opinion, such as it is.

Obviously I feel that celibacy is unnatural and can be problematic.  Denial of human pleasures or drives can certainly be a valuable discipline on a temporary basis, but long term it is easy to see that it can lead to problems.

I would also say that it is easy to see how the priesthood would have been an attractive choice to young men who felt a homosexual leaning in their sexual orientation.   Certainly in America during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s a homosexual orientation could have even be dangerous.  What better way to remain single (and above reproach) than joining the priesthood?  Ironically, the more homophobic the society, the more attractive the priesthood option will probably appear to young men and the church increases homophobia.  This is not to say that homosexuals are more likely to pedophiles, but only that the victims will be more likely to be of the same sex.

Ultimately, however, celibacy, homosexuality, or whatever may have contributed to the priests decision to do what they do, it is impossible to tell.  And it could well be that priests are no more likely to abuse than any other person in a position of trust working with children.

However there is no explanation of any kind that explains the actions of the bishops and church hierarchy that ignored or minimized the problem for so many years.  They are the true monsters of the scandal.

Better for a “few children” to suffer than for everyone to doubt, and risk hell by losing the faith.  It is this kind of insane logic that truly is the problem with the church.


More Perverted Theist Reasoning

Today in my newsfeed, I  came across and article that asked a very interesting question: “Does moral obligation derive from God’s command?”  This is a very interesting question, even for an atheist such as myself because obviously it influences the behavior of many people in this world.

I was looking forward to the discussion on this because it was published on the Oxford University Publications blog and features the writing of a Yale theologian.  I was looking forward to a complex discussion of the issue, but what I found instead was drivel.  More perverted theist logic.160113101117_1_900x600

Here is the answer given, “If god exists, you know he must be wonderful and you should do whatever he says.  And he does exist, so there.”  Don’t believe me, here is the quote:

There is a response to this objection. We can say that we know the principle that if God exists, God is to be loved to be true ‘from its terms’. This is how Duns Scotus puts the point (Ordinatio IV, dist. 17). We know the principle to be true because we know that if God exists, God is supremely good, and what is supremely good is to be loved.

Where I come from (not quite Yale, but apparently more connected to the real world) this is known as circular reasoning.  Assume your conclusion and then plug it back in as the starting point.

Ignoring for the moment the difficulty of proving the existence of any god, and assuming some god exists, what is the evidence that he is “supremely good”?   We have no such evidence, this is simply an assumption by Dr. Hare that god conforms to his Western Christian notion of “god.”

But there is nothing logically that says that god has to be a benevolent creature at all.  There have been quite a few religious systems where god is not seen as benevolent in any way.

Marcion felt that the god of the old testament was a lower, wrathful and vengeful god who was an underling to the higher, all-forgiving god who sent Jesus.  But even this “higher god” cannot be considered “all benevolent” as he allowed Yahweh to run around spreading evil.  Hmmm, much like our current god who can’t seem to control Satan, even though that god is all powerful and all benevolent.

Obviously, if god is like Yahweh was to Marcion, we should, in fact, ignore his moral advice.  Remember that for Hare, the old testament god is part and parcel to “god.”  Recall that in the book of Job, god allowed a good man to be put through hell and back just to win a bet.  Would such a god issue illegitimate “moral commands” just to test us?  I would have to think he would.

In a more modern context, Jim Holt in this wonderful TED talk, thinks that if a deity does exist, the evidence points to one that is 80% effective and 80% malevolent.  Again, obviously the commands of such a deity should be rightly ignored.

I would agree with Hare that if god had all the characteristics ascribed to him (all knowing, all powerful, etc.) and was in fact supremely good, it would be true that his dictates would have to be, by definition, good and therefore moral.  Even if they seemed counterproductive in the short run, he must know their ultimate outcome and it must be good.

Unfortunately, we have no proof whatsoever that god in fact has those characteristics.  Hare (like most theists) simply assumes that god must conform to his preconceived idea.

Christians especially like to throw around phrases like “the perfection of nature” which to them “prove” that god is all powerful and all loving.  But anyone with eyes can plainly see that the universe, and Earth especially, is not filled with benevolence and beauty.  It has some of that, sure, but also much that is ugly and violent.

I can see no evidence for a supremely loving god whose dictates are worthy of blindly being followed.  Hare has simply assumed one for his own reasons, and decided that blind allegiance is what that god wants.

Both are highly dubious assertions, but apparently are what pass for logic in the theology department at Yale.

What do you think?

Perverted Catholic Logic

The Catholic Church™ uses “natural law” as a supplement to the bible as a guide to the will of god.  In practice, the church, looks at the world, reads its preconceived prejudices into it and spits it back out as “natural law.”  A very nicely circular process.  A couple of recent news items highlighted for me how truly perverted this logic can be.

On the one hand, we have the case of a court upholding the right of a Catholic™ hospital to refuse to do a tubal ligation on a woman following her c-section delivery.  The artical quotes the Conference of Bishops as saying that such sterilization is “intrinsically evil.”  So, a married woman who simply would like to have sex with her husband without having any more children is “evil.”  This is not only perverse, but sick.

The church teaches that any sexual activity that does not possibly lead to procreation is by definition wrong.  But it doesn’t take much investigation to see that by “natural law” the main purpose of sex in humans is not actually procreation.

Humans are one of the few species which mate throughout the estrus cycle.  We are not rabbits, in rabbits, intercourse leads to the release of eggs.  Not so in humans and other primates.  Humans have on average, 1000 sex acts for each conception.  And research shows that about 50% of conceptions never implant (meaning that humans are ensouled at conception, heaven is full of “people” who never got beyond a couple thousand undifferentiated cells, should make their bodily ressurection pretty interesting, but that is another post.)  So it would seem that sexual behavior might have a purpose beyond procreation.

And indeed it certainly seems to.  All kinds of animals are observed to engage in non-procreative sexual behavior.  Researchers who work with our closest evolutionary cousin, the bonobo find they use sexual behavior as a form of social bonding.  The article also points out that bonobos use many techniques to stimulate their genitals, beyond genital to genital contact, so it is no surprise that humans have developed even more techniques for that.

Natural observation seems to tell us that genital to genital sexual behavior for the purpose of procreation is not the only way to go and that the wide range of such behaviors brings about the desirable goal of social bonding.  Which is not to say that there should be no controls on sexual behavior, but that certainly if a woman wants to have sex with her husband with no fear of procreation, there is nothing “intrinsically evil” about that.

The same could be said about homosexual behavior.  It is observed often in nature, especially in our closest evolutionary cousins.

On the other hand, celibacy, while not unknown in the natural world, is vanishingly rare.  The sex drive is widely considered a fundamental drive in virtually all creatures.  In humans, researchers have found that around 1% of people have no distinctive sexual attraction, to either the opposite or same sex.  And yet the church insists on celibacy for religious and clergy.

And we know the effects of this policy.  Clergy sexual abuse.  Lots of it.   Not a few isolated incidents.  The problem goes right to the top of the Catholic™ hierarchy.  So far, the church has paid out $2.5 billion to settle sexual abuse cases.

Turns out celibacy is “intrinsically evil,” and predictably so.  So, of course, the church wants to keep celibacy, which we know has horrible effects and stamp out consensual, non-procreative sexual behaviors, which have demonstrable beneficial effects.

That is perverted.


What is Moral?

The presidential season seems to have brought a greater than usual number of Chicken Littles proclaiming that the sky is falling and that our future is bleak.  I’ll get the the political voices in another post, in this one I want to look at a couple of preachers.

Franklin Graham is running around to all the state capitols to combat this decline, here is what he had to say:

“I believe we are perilously close to the moral tipping point for the survival of the United States of America,” Graham wrote in Decision magazine. “I refuse to be silent and watch the future of our children and grandchildren be offered up on pagan altars of personal pleasure and immorality.”

Strong stuff.  Another minister, Bryan Fischer, objected to the slightest expression of tolerance in Nikki Haley’s responde to the SOTU address:

What does she mean by that? She means that the Republican Party has officially embraced sodomy-based marriage. That’s what that means. The Republican Party has officially embraced sodomy-based marriage and the entire homosexual agenda.

Wow, sodomy based marriage, I guess lesbian marriage must be OK in his book.  But these and other statements like them raise the question of what is “moral.”

Clearly for many Christians, what is “moral” consists mainly of a list that is written in a book.  It seems they have never bothered to look beyond what they think is written there.  Since Bryan Fischer brought it up, let’s look at sexual morality.

Of course sexual behavior is subject to moral analysis, as it can involve the creation of human life and also engenders strong emotions and attachments, so it is not to be taken lightly.  But are all questions of sexuality moral questions?  I would say not.

I would definitely say that who I choose to have sex with and why are certainly moral questions, but once those questions are answered I would say that how we have sex is not really a moral issue.  Whether we rub noses, kiss, stand on our head or use feathers or handcuffs, as long as we are both freely consenting really is not a moral issue at all.  And the same, frankly, goes for what extremities might contact which orifices.

Secular society has long recognized this.  Laws against sodomy and fellatio have been dropped or go unenforced in most places.  I would like to hear from anyone as to why, say, sodomy is any more immoral than kissing.  Both involve the risk of infection, but both are also done to further human bonding.

I will also say the same of homosexual behavior.  Where is the moral element?  Again, I am speaking of consenting adults.  If I choose to hug and kiss another man, why is that less moral than my decision to hug and kiss another woman?  And please don’t say it is “unnatural.” ” Unnatural” is not the same as “immoral,”  chemotherapy is unnatural, so are glasses.

Again I will say, there are many moral questions about sexuality having to do with the nature of relationships, the role of consent, the protection of others from harm and so on.  But once these questions are answered, the “how” of things don’t rise to the level of “morality.”

Finally, in answer to Franklin Graham, personal pleasure in and of itself is not a moral issue, either.  How one enjoys oneself may be a moral issue, and even how much can be a moral issue.  But once again, the “how” is much less of a moral issue.  Whether I choose to read, enjoy a fine meal, listen to music or have sex in my free time is generally not a moral choice.

Far too many people think that things they don’t like are “immoral.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Same goes for god, whoever or whatever such a thing might be.  Making a list of things you don’t like is not a basis for any kind of moral system.


Who Needs Saving?

At times it seems to me that apologists are actually very weak in their faith and that their arguments are designed more to convince themselves rather than others.  Of course, the same could be same of me and my efforts.  But I will say that I write, not so much to convince myself (I hope) as to correct what I see as some bad ideas that have been inflicted on people by religion.

One of the most dangerous to me is the notion that we humans need to be constrained in our behaviors by the threat of eternal justice and that we need to be “saved” in some way.  I reject both ideas.

The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy famously decribed Earth and its inhabitants as “mostly harmless.”  I agree with this assessment.  Don’t get me wrong, people are certainly prone to be evil to one another from time to time, but if you look at the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time they are just quietly going about their lives in a “mostly harmless” way.

Yes, there are defects, but one has to wonder how many people who cause major problems are actually some form of psychopath.  It is often argued that people having a conscience is somehow proof of god, but it is also true that a signficant minority of people (usually men, oddly) seem to lack this social conscience.  This lack of conscience certainly causes evil on a small scale (Ted Bundy) but also on massive scales (Hitler and Pol Pot.)

Seeming psychopaths are not restrained by religious philosophies and sometimes seem to highjack them for justtification, ISIS might be a current a current example of this phenomenon.

I don’t think for a moment that all human evil is caused by psychopathy, people certainly think of plenty of things to do that seem morally suspect.  But it can also be said that many things that seem morally suspect do have explanations by those who do them.

For example, we humans do seem to have a tendency to lie.  But many of the lies that are told are told with the best of intentions, according to the tellers.  From little white lies that grease our social interactions to gross fibs that are designed to “protect the feelings of others,” many people claim to lying for a greater good.  And maybe so.

But for the most part, most people live out their lives loving their children, working hard to put bread on the table and trying to make their corner of the world a little bit better place.  And don’t say it is because they have absorbed the Christian or other religious message,  as their are and have been plenty of societies that don’t have cosmic carrots and sticks in their religious traditions and people don’t seem to behave that much differently.

It really seems to me that the threat of eternal punishment is incredibly overblown for the kinds of sins that 95% of the human race commits.  Eternal punishment for masturbating or stealing seems a bit extreme.

Currently, the incarceration rate in the United States is less than one percent of the population and many people consider this to be incredibly high and it must be admitted than many people who are there locked up for using drugs, which is possibly not even a sin.

Even if we allow for the idea that some things could be sinful, but are not criminal, we still have a very small percentage of people who do things bad enough for society to punish them.  But god needs to threaten a greater number of us with even greater punishment to get us to do the right thing?  How does that even make sense?

I could almost see a system where some small percentage of people did time in purgatory (equivalent to jail time) and a miniscule percentage of people subjected to hell (life imprisonment without parole).

But to hear many religionists speak of it, purgatory will be a full time business, pretty much everyone but the saints will stop there.  And hell will also be pretty busy, so busy in fact that each of us every day should be made aware of its existence and how lucky we are to be “saved” from it.

If a society considered most of it’s people worthy of at least some jail time and most people were afraid that they might be sent to prison, even for a minor offense, we would rightly call that tryanny.  And having the governor of such a state saying that he will gladly pardon any of those he considers “worthy” does not lessen the tryanny any.