Watching various debates between atheists and the religious I have noticed, as I am sure many others have, that the question of morality always wants to rear it’s head as an argument against atheism. While it seems obvious to any atheist that religion is not a requirement for morality I have yet to hear an atheist give a convincing answer to the theist about it’s origin, not that it is a requirement for our position as the burden of proof rests on the theist, however, if we wish to debate then it is our duty to make arguments not only convincing to ourselves but to those opposed to us as well. This is my humble attempt to refute the theistic claim.
I will not spend time discussing the argument that morality does or does not come from religion itself. While I do agree that it is extremely valid to point to the scriptures as immoral documents and therefore not an acceptable basis for morality especially when quoting the words or actions of the deity himself/herself, it is all to easy for any theist, William Craig for example, to throw off the religious texts and say that morality is not written in pages but in ourselves by God. This also allows him to sidestep any ridiculous notion that an atheist cannot be moral because they are not religious. Craig says that of course atheists can be moral because they bear the divine spark that God has given to all men/women.
Hitchens brilliantly devised a wager asking anyone to present him with a moral action that a theist could perform but that an atheist could not. He also inversely asked of an immoral action that could only be undertaken by a religious person. This, to great effect, fleshed out Weinberg’s claim that “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” However, this does not necessarily refute the theist claim that morality comes from God within us as it side steps the necessity of religious dogma.
Dawkins and others have argued the evolutionary reasons for morality which, not that they are invalid, seem to disappoint the theist because they automatically see it as a rebuff to their human dignity. They might say, “Morality is what separates us from the animals because it is a product of the soul or God within man.”
We will never get the theist, at least not yet, to admit that morality is a process of genetics and deterministic chemicals operating within the brain and making our choices for us; and while the atheist may be willing to accept morality as a process of evolution and determinism there is still something unsettling to a great many atheists about the notion of free will bing illusory.
Theists also say that science has nothing to offer to the humanities such as music, painting and other arts. I tend to agree with this and would also venture to throw morality into this pile as well. It is entirely possible that science may one day discover an absolute morality and describe it to us but this would be as difficult as
finding the singular equation that can illustrate the workings of the entire universe. Mathematics while the best suited of our many languages to describe the universe may turn out to be fatally imperfect in doing so or we may keep refining the language of mathematics ever closer to the limit of perfection. Suffice to say that theists, and I tend to agree, feel that science is a different human endeavor that only has secondary impacts on morality but no real incite as to its origins or intricate workings (at least, not yet).
At this time I would like to present a definition of humanities as ‘those branches of knowledge, such as philosophy, literature, and art, that are concerned with human thought and culture; the liberal arts.’ Also, I would like to now explain why, above, I have lumped morality in with the humanities. Morality like mathematics can have effects in the physical world. However, unlike mathematics which is the language of the physical world and therefore tethered inescapably to it. Morality is a humanity that operates below (or above) language. We can feel morality without describing it in words and we can endlessly hypothesize moral situations without throwing the physical world out the window. To illustrate, many people hypothesize the necessary moral action that needs to be taken to stop an abortion because of metaphysical and physical assumptions that can be examined independently. In deciding whether we are for or against an abortion at a given moment we can make arguments about a soul or argue, ‘does the baby feel pain?’ or both simultaneously. In contrast, we could hypothesize about what changes we would need to make to a constant if gravity operated in reverse or if light traveled half speed but none of the equations change if we decide chemical weapons are good or bad.
Morality is an aesthetic. Theists like Craig may want to believe in an absolute morality and this is fine so far as to say that we may one day discover an agreed upon absolute aesthetic in music and painting. However, even Craig admits that we have made “moral improvements’ although he involves himself in quite the mental contortion to explain why morality has always operated at the absolute while at the same time improving.
Theists believe that they are always operating at the moral absolute. This is necessary for their dogma. They therefore claim that God is necessary for morality. For the theist, to admit that morality is relative or evolving towards an absolute perfection while their God operates beyond the physical world and time is to admit that God is inconsistent and imperfect. The theists, like Craig, then mince words and say we have moral improvement but we would not know what absolute we are striving toward unless God was present in us and guiding us.
This is where I come to the point of this essay. When a theist asks how can we have an absolute morality without God we must say that it serves a purpose. Morality serves the desire of a species living together in close proximity. We do not need a perfect version of morality to meet the societal want. Any version of it is better than no version at all. When human beings built the first bridges they did not have an image of the Golden Gate Bridge to work toward, just as the Wright brothers
first airplane was not a failure to build the Concord. Morality exists because there is a desire for it to exist. It increases the quality of life. We see this throughout human history. As morality reaches higher and higher standards and these standards become accepted we in turn make higher demands of our moral code. We then begin to see that morality is a process of positive feedback. Just as building the first bridge meant not having to walk as far and freed time for us to pursue desires instead of needs, developing moral codes allowed us to have less fear of others within society which allows us more time to think about what we want instead of guarding against every stranger we encounter. We also can now see that as communication, travel and other technologies are at the beginnings of creating a global society, morality is once again evolving, as we demand more from it. Now that we have closer contacts with other countries, nationalism has become xenophobia and righteous persecution towards LGBT has become homophobia. Keep in mind that religious texts have remained the same for these changes and many more.
Morality, like any other humanity pleased an aesthetic and evolved, as we demanded more from it. As Mozart was not content to forever bang on drums as cavemen did but instead endeavored to create something ever more complex, beautiful and pleasing so does humanity endlessly strive to throw off Bronze Age morality and create a world more beautiful and pleasing for ALL its inhabitants.