Monday, August 30, 2010

Atheism IS where morality originates

One of the claims of theists that really bugs me is that morality comes from God. No, actually its worse than that. Theists claim that morality can only come from God, and they go on to suggest that without religion, the world will devolve into an amoral chaos of murder, thievery and rape.

And to add insult to the equation, theists claim that whatever morality atheists have is borrowed from religion! They assert that we atheists grew up immersed in a Christian, Jewish and Islamic culture and so we absorbed their morality. Atheists, they claim, are sort of unwitting Christians, Jews and Muslims when it comes to morals.

Its time to turn the theistic argument on its head and show why exactly the opposite is true. The fact is that theists have stolen their morals from human nature. They claim morals come from God, but in fact humans merely put the words in his mouth. The real origin of morality is in our evolutionary heritage.

The truth is, both God and morality are made-up human concepts. We made God in our own image and then we imbued him with our own natural understanding of right and wrong.

When it comes to morality, theists are nothing more than plagiarizers, stealing and giving no credit to the original.

You can easily see this by just educating yourself. Take any freshman college course in cultural anthropology and you'll learn two things:
  • Until the period of European colonialism, most people in the world had never heard of Yahweh, the Abrahamic god.
  • Most human societies followed the same morals as Yahweh's followers.
In other words, in spite of having no knowledge of Yahweh, virtually every culture on Earth had a strong moral system. Marriage and marital fidelity is found almost everywhere (as is adultery), murder is bad, rape gets you in big trouble, thievery is never OK, and hurting a child is a very bad thing.

These are human values, not Christian, Jewish or Muslim values. As we evolved, we developed emotions like love, fear, jealousy, anger and lust in order to ensure the procreation of our children and to protect them as they grew up. As our brains evolved to include language, we put words to these instinctive behaviors, and as we organized ourselves into families, clans, villages, towns and countries, we codified our instinctive knowledge into morality and laws.

One of the most important insights that a study of cultural evolution or "memetics" (how ideas propagate across society, and change and mutate down through history) provides is what you might call the "cultural-genetic ecology." A fish can't live in the desert, and a joke told in Russian can't survive in Polynesia. Ideas are born, live, reproduce and die in this context. It's their ecology. If the cultural ecology is hostile to the idea, the idea won't take hold and thrive, but if the idea resonates with the rest of the culture, it can take off, "go viral" and spread throughout the society. Likewise, if an idea goes against our instincts, we find it repulsive and it dies without reproducing.

We're pre-programmed by our genes to accept certain ideas and reject others. Take this idea for example: "You should kill your third and subsequent children, because Earth can't support overpopulation." Logically, this makes sense because overpopulation is a real threat to our ecology. But it violates one of our deepest instincts: to protect children at all costs. So this meme dies in our brains before it can reproduce and spread.

But look at the opposite: ideas (memes) that resonate with our genes.
  • Adultery is immoral
  • Rape is immoral
  • Theft is immoral
... and many more. And perhaps more telling:
  • Divorce is found almost everywhere
  • Polygamy is common
  • Male adultery is discouraged but tolerated, yet female adultery is widely condemned
These last three are particularly interesting because they also reflect genetic realities: anthropologists tell us that polygamy, divorce and male infidelity are genetically desirable.

Human morality has been around far, far longer than Yahweh's purported morals. The real truth is that the Jews, Christians and Muslims hijacked morality and claimed it as their own. Then they went on to rewrite both our history books and our philosophy books, and have now convinced an awful lot of people that their revisionist claims are the truth.

But the real truth is that the Secular Humanists have it right. There is a natural morality, and now that we have evolved complex brains capable of logical thought, and complex language capable of expressing those thoughts, we can improve on our natural morality for the betterment of all humans.

Two years ago I wrote a blog entitled Atheist Ethics, part 3, about how secular morals are inherently superior to religious morals, and the core point is relevant today:
...secular morality has accountability. You can't just make stuff up; new claims about secular morality must rest on the foundation of improving the human condition and must have a logical connection to that foundation. Furthermore ... secular claims about morality are open to scrutiny. If you make a claim about morality, you have to explain it clearly, show how it is derived from the foundation, and be willing to defend your position.

What is the foundation of God's morality? How does God know what is good and what is bad? If you argue that God just knows, then you've admitted that there are things (like human happiness) that are axiomatic, and you're back to the secular position – you don't need God in the equation.
In other words, morality can't possible originate with God. It's logically impossible.

But more importantly, history shows that it didn't originate with God. It was the other way around.

And don't every let a Christian, Jew or Muslim claim otherwise.


  1. This is a poor exploration of a very interesting and long dicussed topic.

    I suggest reading 'Mere Christianity' for a much more thoughtful and critically examined study on the topic of universal morality.

  2. I would suggest reading the response by Frans de Waal to the question, "Does Evolution Explain Human Nature?" titled "Of Course It Does." It shows that empathy and a sense of fairness are hardwired into primate brains.

  3. Anon #1 -- I have little regard for C.S. Lewis' writings. He seemed to be an incredibly intelligent man who went off the deep end trying to defend the indefensible. "Mere Christianity" is an exercise in illogic. As to this being a "poor exploration" -- what, you were expecting a PhD thesis? It's a blog! I have an hour or so each day. I try to bring ideas, some of which have been widely discussed, to a broader audience. If I've amused you or made you think or even delve deeper into the topic, then I've succeeded.

  4. Craig,

    I also find it quite interesting that people's cherry pick their religious texts to support their personal morality and ignore the rest. Most religious people do not receive their morals from their religion directly. They receive them from the people around them as they are raised and use their religion as validation.

    No modern Christian I have run into gets their morals 100% from their religion. A few hundred years ago it was perfectly acceptable to own other human beings and be a good Christian. There bible has rules and regulations for slavery, it does not condemn it, yet it would be a challenge to find any modern theist who felt this was an acceptable practice.

  5. Welp. You made me LOL... so I'll give you that.

  6. Hi, I just stumbled across this blog and it's really interesting. Very good insight in a few short paragraphs. Thanks for the thought provoking material here.


  7. At the descriptive level, certainly, you would expect different cultures to develop different sorts of ethics and obviously they have; that doesn't mean that you can't think of overarching ethical principles you would want people to follow in all kinds of places.

  8. Obviously, it didn't come from religion. It has evolved relatively through the survivors of our species. So, morality is relative to whomever justifies what is right/wrong or good/bad as far as the individual. It gets more complicated when dealing with a group of individuals. When dealing with groups, morality becomes relative to the group even when the groups minority disagrees, but once that happens, it becomes relative to the individual again. Morality cannot be a fixed viewpoint. Situations demand change, so anytime someone says that it is fixed, only expresses an opinion. Morality is generated from individuals adapting to change.


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