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Scientifically Moral Atheists?

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was reading an interesting blog (here) and had a coincidentally interesting thought. SVS’s blog mentioned new atheism lacking compassion because everything is determined through rigid reasoning and science. The mindset of “if there is no evidence, there is no meaning” is applied to everything, especially religion (which is a fatal flaw in itself, since there is evidence). But I want to put this thinking alongside morality and see what result we get.
I have read and heard answers from atheist concerning morality and the best sense of an answer I have received, the only answer at that, was morality was developed through our genes by evolution. In that case, we all have different genes, and therefore a different sense of morality. That makes sense, right? It actually sounds pretty accurate. But now we test it: What evidence is there that this is because of evolution?
I hate to break it to any new atheists out there, but you can’t have any insight into morality because there has been no scientific research into the origin or even the true existence of morality- perhaps it was all made up by some group of people conspiring against the world. (sorry for being so suggestively mean).
But it goes further than that, does it not? If morality is specific to each specific person, we all have differing DNA, then all morality is absolutely subjective since it is defined absolutely objective but different for each individual. One could then make up their own morality and not be immoral since they are merely ‘dancing to the tune of their own DNA.’ In fact, why not just get rid of law because someone thinks it is moral to speed, or rape, or kill. To have a rigid law the government would be DNA discriminatory. Murder is only wrong if your DNA says so. I don’t believe that, and no atheist should either since there’s no scientific evidence to support it. I’m not making a case for Christian morality, though it is pretty good, but I am pointing out the ridiculousness of the ‘evidence must be shown, or I will doubt’ philosophy. Of course there is a right and wrong that is not individually defined. Search for it.

  1. November 23, 2010 at 10:39 PM

    Very good point! While they say that our faith is superstition they’re asking us to take a leap of faith into something science can’t even really test, only theorize about. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. November 24, 2010 at 8:47 AM

    Atheism means non belief in gods or a god. You are an atheist in regards to almost every god except one. You don’t believe in all these other gods because you have no good reason to believe that they are true. Yet you are not subject to people trying to define you by this reasonable non belief. You don’t have people claiming that you possess some different kind of morality based on your non belief, that you worship ‘scientism’ because of this non belief, that you are an apologist for Mao Tse Tung because of your non belief, and so on. Relating all this to your non belief in all these other gods is obviously very poor reasoning; again, you don’t believe in these gods because you have no good reasons to believe and that’s where it ends.

    Your non belief is a default position in the face of these thousands of other gods and you will not change your mind just because someone tells you this makes you a believer of a different kind, a non belief believer who by nature of your expressed non belief automatically subscribes you to a fundamentalist, evangelical, militant, strident kind of non belief believer. This description of you based on your reasonable non belief of thousands of gods is very stupid, inaccurate, irrelevant, irrational and offensive as a compilation of lies associated to you by proxy of your rational non belief, and that those who mistakenly insist that because of your non belief, you are a believer of a different kind, are simply wrong. Obviously your non belief in Muk MUk in no way defines you, any more than not collecting stamps makes you a hobbiest of a different kind. For me to insist that this absence of belief defines who and what you are simply IS NOT TRUE.

    The question this raises in response to those who wish to define your non belief as a meaningful belief of a different kind is equally simple: do you actually care about what’s true?

  3. November 24, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    Thanks a lot Tildeb for your thoughts here. You’re right in a lot of ways, I am an atheists with the exception of one god, and it would be ridiculous to be defined by my non-belief in all other gods.
    However, I want to redirect you to the point of this blog, which I’m not sure I really stated very clearly. To the atheists who can’t believe in God or ‘god’ because there is no scientific evidence I’m asking how they can believe in morality without scientific evidence. Or any metaphysical quality of that kind.

    • November 24, 2010 at 3:23 PM

      When people ask for evidence about god, what people are really asking for is the same thing we ask for in every other area of our life: good reasons to inform the belief. Is your husband cheating on you? You don’t just believe it or not; you ask for something to inform the yes belief or – in the absence of good reasons – to accept the no belief. If you are told your car is being towed, the first thing you will do is go check. What you are seeking is verification for the assertion. Did you win the lottery? Believing you did or didn’t changes nothing… until you verify whether or not the numbers on your ticket match or do not match the winning numbers. We seek verification – evidence by another name – for all truth claims, which is different than simply believing a claim for the sake of believing. We can believe whatever we want, but when push comes to shove in the real world, we seek to inform our beliefs with something more. This is reasonable.

      Now your friend Bob insists that he is being followed by a large crocodile. You look, see no ‘evidence’ of this crocodile, ask Bob why he thinks he’s being followed by a large crocodile, and learn that he prefers to believe he is. You point out that you see nothing and he tells you that’s because it’s invisible. So you ask for evidence – any kind of verification that will somehow inform Bob’s belief with more than just his belief. He tells you that if you are unable or unwilling to believe him about being followed by this invisible crocodile, you cannot have a source for your morality without an equal insistence on some verification.

      Do you see the problem here? Bob has asserted a truth claim without any means to verify that it is true. When asked for verification – for something other than belief to inform the claim – Bob switches to a word game to avoid verifying the claim.

      Do you believe that morals exist in the same way that Bob believes in an invisible crocodile? Would finding a set of crocodile prints in the snow right behind Bob’s footprints remove the demand for the same kind of evidence to be found for morality… namely, physical verification?

      The answer is no because morality does not describe a noun; it describes a relationship between acts and behaviours. We apply the term ‘morality’ to help us differentiate the effects of an act or behaviour. Morality, unlike the invisible crocodile, is neither a thing nor a truth claim.

      If you asking where we get our morality from, that can be answered in principle. If you are asking how we get our morality, that can be answered in principle. If you are asking why we have morality, then you are asking the wrong question; such a question does not have a right or wrong answer in principle. But if you think you already know the answer to these questions, then I suspect you are thinking backwards: you are starting with an answer and then trying to fit the facts into it without dealing with the facts that do not fit. This is an error in thinking. If you think that our morality comes from god, then you have no answer: you are playing a word game.

      • November 24, 2010 at 8:06 PM

        Wow Tildeb! You nailed it. What you said about the difference between morality and a truth claim really shatters a lot of my previous thinking. Thank you, I do appreciate good honest information. But, I do still have a few thoughts. On the subject of morality- do you think it to be subjective or objective? If I were to answer that question from an atheist perspective I would say morality is not limited to such thinking. Morality, in that mindset, would be merely a vocabulary word to describe a relationship between actions and consequences. In that way ‘morals’ would become context-specific, but nor necessarily subjective because then anything could be ‘morally’ acceptable. However, if the consequence rendered is negative the action would be less ‘moral’. How we judge between negative and positive consequences depends entirely on the receiver’s pleasure or displeasure experience- excepting emotionally disturbed or psychologically damaged individuals who could possibly have a warped sense of pleasure. – any thoughts on that scatter-brained idea?
        I would tend to agree, however, that there is an eternal morality that transcends context, but is also personal to each situation. Right and wrong do exist, in my thinking, but what is right could also be considered wrong in different lights. I’ll work on an example later, if you like. In this thinking, which I did not work backward, the Christian God can satisfy the transcendent personal application of morality.
        Off subject, to dismiss a truth claim don’t you also need significant verification that it is untrue? God cannot be rejected because due to a lack of verification. If you could not see or check behind Bob you could not tell him that a crocodile was not following him. The only way to know is for the knowledge to come from someone or something that could know for sure, if you could not. All you can do in this situation is trust the one who says ‘yes it’s true’ or don’t trust. Yes, verify at all possible points if the outside source was accurate or was in fact knowledgeable of such things. And when that is settled, do you believe or do you not?

    • November 24, 2010 at 3:27 PM

      BTW, I won’t think poorly of you if you do not believe in Mau Mau Under-the-Sea. And I certainly won’t associate your non belief as any kind of hindrance to you being a nice person.

  4. November 24, 2010 at 10:55 PM

    CJ, the subject of morality encompasses a huge amount of philosophy and ethics. Rather than go into a lot of that, it may help to think of it this way: in order to determine where on a moral spectrum or landscape an act or behaviour falls, we need some kind of goal. In other words, against what are we judging an act or behaviour as right or wrong?

    Let’s take an example of an act and see where on the moral spectrum it falls: murder.

    If you think about, you can say murder is wrong. This is called a tautology, which means a needless repetition of an idea. The reason why this is so is because the term ‘murder’ means an unlawful killing, which in turn implies an immoral taking of a life. To call murder immoral is a repeating of meaning. It doesn’t touch the point of an example of something that is morally wrong. So let’s change it up a bit and look at a killing. We don’t yet know if it’s a murder so now we can look at whether or not killing is wrong.

    The biblical literalist will pronounce that killing is morally wrong because Exodus and Deuteronomy tell us thou shalt not kill (depending on which biblical version you are using and which religious tradition you follow). This is word of god and beyond reproach.

    But is that actually true?

    Can you think of a time and place and situation where killing another person is the right thing to do? How about in self defense? How about in defense of someone you love or perhaps to protect your family from someone deranged and on a murderous rampage? How about someone suffering the end stages from a terrible and pain-filled terminal disease? During a war? Is there any situation where killing may be exactly the right thing to do… or at least an excusable act?

    I suspect you can think of some situation, some context, where what appears to be a moral certitude just doesn’t apply. And this is true of ALL moral precepts except the very broadest like the kind represented by what I call Golden Rule or the rule of reciprocity that goes something like: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. I say ‘something like’ because all major cultures and philosophies bear the same idea and have been around in written form long before any of the major religions attempted to co-opt it as its own. It pre-dates the Old Testament, for example, by many centuries in the East.

    So if we can’t use a straight-up example like a commandment to bring us any kind of certainty that covers all the possible contexts and scenarios we can imagine, then the rest of scripture is no clearer. In fact, much scripture empowers us to act in ways many consider immoral by today’s standards. Think of clear examples of misogyny, bigotry, and even slaughter of children order by god. Think of eternal and everlasting torture of hell introduced to us by Jesus. Think of what that looks like ten billion years from now still suffering torment for an act that cannot ever be undone. Surely that kind of eternal suffering can only come from a capricious and intolerant immoral god… one bereft of the moral quality we call forgiveness. And so the moral interpreting of scripture begins…

    What’s clear is that whatever moral imperatives we find in various scriptures are subject to our own filters. Justifiable killing is only one example. There are many (I suspect you would not argue that a woman’s testimony is worth half a man’s any more than you would argue that slavery is just). That means that we bring our morality to the reading of scripture in order to better interpret it’s moral suggestions. And that indicates that we must have morality prior to obtaining any understanding of god’s morality from the reading of scripture. And that’s why the argument atheists bring to table is so powerful: morality precedes religion, precedes the learning of what’s moral before the first bible is ever cracked open. So this raises the question that if our morality precedes that brought to us in various religious garb, then where do we get it from?

    Dozens of early childhood studies reveal that infants as young as 8 months of age show clear moral preferences for what we call ‘good’ behaviours and acts. How can this be if they have yet to learn anything about religious beliefs and all the various dictates scriptures bring to us? There is a growing body of evidence that what we call moral awareness is innate: we are born with this neural circuitry. We grow our morals. We develop our ethics. Our understanding of what is and is not moral behaviour is deeply affected by how much learning we have done and the results of how we our interact with our environments. Yet under this veneer of morality, we exhibit similar yet logically unreasonable moral standards that cross cultural, linguistic, and even religious boundaries. This tells us (from Hauser’s trolley studies) that our circuitry is species wide and we find strong evidence that we share much of our basic moral behaviours with higher primates.

    So the issue is not simple about where we get our morals or how we develop them. But it is clear that we bring to our religious beliefs enough moral understanding to show why those who claim we get our morals from our religious beliefs does not fit the facts we do have.

    That’s enough about morals for now. I want to ask you one last thing: how you might ‘prove’ to our friend Bob in the absence of any physical evidence that a large invisible crocodile is NOT following him?

    • November 25, 2010 at 4:39 AM

      Tildeb: interesting thoughts. Have you considered the words of Romans 2:14-15 “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing , now even defending them.”
      The bible does not offer a source of moral judgement any more than our consciences, and a master of the law, Paul, recognized this. I work with kids a lot and we have some rules during homework time like staying seated and not talking. I actively go over the rules every day during homework time sometimes 3 or 4 times. I do this not because they don’t know the rules, but because they don’t follow them. Don’t steal. Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Well, you have to lay down the ‘law’ when no one’s doing what’s obviously moral.
      Now to respond to your claim “much scripture empowers us to act in ways many consider immoral by today’s standards. Think of clear examples of misogyny, bigotry, and even slaughter of children order by god.” I had a hard time when I read through the Corinthians and read that women should sit down and be silent in worship. I did not think to myself, I must be wrong that women can get up and speak if they are so inclined. In fact, I’m somewhat of a feminist concerning church issues and love hearing women address congregations. I read about the subject, and what other scriptures said. I found out some interesting things that supported my ideas of women’s roles in church. As far as bigotry goes, I urge you to read the words of Jesus. He makes a really strong case of the opposite, as does Paul in many of his epistles. And for the slaughter of children order by god…. where is that source coming from? May I please get some verification for that one, I’m interested to know what I’ve missed.
      One morally questionable command from God that I hear mentioned a lot is Abraham asked to sacrifice his son. I want to write about that at length, so check my site and I should have another blog for that. But Abraham came from a culture where that was accepted. As you said, a lot of morality is influence by our culture. When God is asks Abraham to sacrifice isaac he did so to make a point: life is sacred. He was teaching Abraham that the sacrifice would be provided, and not to kill his son. It is actually a lesson on morality- and gets a bad wrap when take from the context. When contradiction, whether internal or external, are found in the biblical text I urge you to look into them and see them first as difficulties rather than errors.
      As for hell- Jesus is an irrefutably historical person. He either genuinely believed what he said and was right, genuinely believed it and was wrong, or knew it was wrong and was deceiving. The psychology of the latter is inconsistent with the claims and the way they played out; it can be assumed he was genuine. If you sincerely believed hell existed- wether right or wrong- what is immoral about telling people about it? Isn’t it actually quite a moral thing to do? I know you didn’t really bring that up, but I thought I would share that. The question of ‘does hell make god immoral?’ is another topic. I will get into that where I feel I haven’t dragged on too long already.
      Bob: I don’t like calling the croc invisible- it makes an obvious phyics mistake. Anyways: without physical evidence, check to see if the philosophical existence of a croc behind our buddy does not make sense. God being our delicious little crocodile, I think it could possibly make sense, and actually explains the universe all around us pretty well.

      • November 25, 2010 at 9:20 AM

        If you are going to claim that morality comes from anything other than our biology in response to our environment, then it falls on you to inform this belief with something other than more belief. And I don’t see you offering this. So there are no good reasons you have offered to think that your morality or mine comes from elsewhere, or that one set is better informed by belief in some supernatural agency than one not so informed.

        I asked the question about disproving the invisible crocodile to get you to realize that arguments FOR a truth claim are not strengthened by arguments AGAINST that claim. It’s not my job to disprove every claim for which there is no evidence; it is the job of the person insisting that his or her truth claim is in fact true to show why and how. It is the skeptic’s job to point out where the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ are insufficient. Hopefully, we are educated enough to take on both of these jobs before we assert that what we believe is true is informed by more than just our belief, and our claim can withstand the legitimate criticisms skepticism should raise.

        It is Bob’s job to provide evidence that the croc is real if Bob wants his belief to be taken as true and not dismissed out of hand as delusional. For Bob to suggest that any failure on the part of others to disprove his invisible croc means that his belief is as likely true as it is false is very poor reasoning.

        For example, you will have great difficulty disproving my assertion that mushrooms are intergalactic spies. How do you even come at disproving such a ludicrous truth claim? How is it is that your failure to adequately disprove my absurd claim somehow should be taken to add anything to the truth value of my claim? Clearly it does not. It adds nothing to my claim. All it does is shift the burden of proof that will not add anything whatsoever to better inform the truth claim. That’s why it is poor reasoning.

        The argument that demands others to disprove a truth claim is as duplicitous as it is an intentional misdirection. But you will note that we can still deal with effects that should be present if the claim is true. We can ask Bob to walk a distance through snow and see if any other footprints might appear. If no other footprints appear, then Bob’s case is further weakened, but perhaps he will insist that the invisible crocodile also has no mass and so leaves no footprints, casts no shadow, takes up no space, eats nothing, and so on. With each evidential failure to support the croc’s presence by evidence of effect comes greater clarity that Bob has nothing to back up his truth claim with evidence including effects that should be there if the claim were true.

        And this is exactly what we find with belief claims about creator gods and their interactions with the world: the evidence we have looks exactly like it should if the claims were false. Adding to a lengthening list of magical properties inserted on gods’ behalf to compensate for this lack of evidence that should be there if the claims were true reveals why the belief in the truth claim is not informed by supporting facts of evidence.

        So we have a new category under which we can insert our unsupported belief: we call it faith, meaning continued belief in the absence of good reasons. Faith is not reasonable in this sense but an exemption from being so. As such, faith is identical to delusion without any rational means to differentiate between the two. Accepting faith to be a respectable and equal way of knowing anything about anything is, to borrow Hitchens’ rather blunt title, rather poisonous to finding out what’s true.

      • November 25, 2010 at 6:13 PM

        To say that morality comes from biology in response to our environment also needs to be informed with more than just belief, or it too can be dismissed. What evidence is there that biology in response to environment produces morality? I know it sounds like a stupid question from your perspective, but imagine believing that is an incorrect truth claim. That was all I was writing about in my blog and it seems like you missed that point.
        Thank you for reminding me of my burden of proof, and I appreciate that. I neglected that fact that I have clung to in the past. Thank you, but I am also starting to see a new side of that idea. From the naturalist perspective God could not have created the universe so when a Christian or other theist says that some god or gods created the universe it is then seen as their burden of proof to back up that claim. However, from the theist’s perspective, Christianity in particular, God created the universe and when an atheist says that God did not it is seen as their burden of proof to back up that claim. It does go both ways. Also, you said “It’s not my job to disprove every claim for which there is no evidence”. Well, I do absolutely agree there, not because someone else must prove the claim and you then point out their flaws, but because every legitimate claim has evidence whether the claim is true or false. Theism has evidence. Today I’m going to write a blog about the intelligible code of matter. This serves as evidence, and I will tell you why in that blog. The only way to disprove a claim is with evidence contradicting it. So, I agree with your statement, but there is evidence either for or against theism, use it to disprove it, or see if it points in the other direction.
        Furthermore, I do not believe that Christianity can be proven beyond any form of doubt. There will always be doubters, and some pretty good reasons for it. However, I do believe Christianity offers a solid explanation for the natural world that works in harmony with the ‘supernatural’ and science and philosophy. That is what I base my faith on. I do not have “continued belief in the absence of good reasons” and disagree with your definition. Actually, a lot of what many atheists have theorized or claimed as true has been ideas worked backward from an end that there is no God. Working backward is a way to manipulate reason to continually believe in absence of good reasons. I would agree that a lot of Christians have, too. Let’s both work together to drop our preconceptions and look at the evidence. Deal?

      • November 25, 2010 at 7:02 PM


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