Sunday, March 30, 2008

Atheism and Morality

For people who are raised with religion, it's hard to imagine morality without a god.

As a child I was told that God had a giant book with the names of every human being on Earth, and that he put a check next to your name every time you did something bad. Of course, since God is everywhere, even in your mind, you could get a check next to your name just for thinking something bad. When you die, I was told, God adds up all your check marks from your entire life and decides whether you go to Heaven or Hell.

This wasn't something I learned officially in Church, but for some reason, this was the version of God's judgment that made the most profound impact on me, probably because I'm a very visual person. Every time I even thought about doing something bad, I had a vision of God opening up that massive book and turning to the page with my name. This vision did a good job of keeping me from many little childhood sins like lying, stealing candy and what not (that's not to say that it worked perfectly).

But that's not morality. Refraining from doing bad things because you think someone can see what you're doing isn't the same as refraining from doing bad things because you're a good person.

As for bigger sins, like hurting others, I never had a desire to hurt anyone. When I hurt someone accidentally, I felt genuinely sorry for the hurt I caused that person. Fear of a god had nothing to do with it. So when people say things like, "Well, if you don't believe in God, then you can just rape and murder because there are no consequences," they are saying that their fear of a god is the only thing that keeps them from raping and murdering, and while that statement may be true for them, I don't think it applies to the majority of people.

The fact is that morality is hard-wired. On the broader points like rape, murder, or theft, we all know right from wrong. On the finer points like marriage or prostitution, opinions vary from person to person and culture to culture. How far an individual deviates from their own or their culture's accepted standards of behavior has nothing to do with any supernatural beings in the sky. Individuals, and sometimes entire communities, will either find a way to justify doing something they know is wrong, or they will feel guilty for doing it, but do it anyway. For people who are mentally ill, people whose hardwiring has short-circuited, no supernatural being can convince them to behave morally, even with the threat of eternal damnation. The BTK killer, for instance, was a pillar of Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, as well as one of the most horrific serial killers in American history.

If gods and religion have no impact on a person's morality, and atheists are just as moral or immoral as anyone else, then how can I say that Atheism is superior to a supernatural belief system?

The aspect of Atheism that is superior to religion is that it is rooted in logic and reason.

Children raised with religion are told not to do bad things because their parents say so; because the preacher says so; because God says so! Faith in authority figures is valued over rational thought. As a result, many children are not given the opportunity to develop their rational mind. They are trained to be motivated primarily by their fear of the wrath of authority figures.

My children are told why something is right or wrong. They shouldn't steal because they're hurting the person from which they steal. They shouldn't lie to their parents because their parents have more experience with the world and wish to guide them through the rough spots; every punishment is done with love and for their benefit, so they must be honest about what they've done and accept the consequences because they will be stronger for the experience. They mustn't lie because lying is weakness. They mustn't lie because there will come a time in their life when all they have is their word, and if they don't have their word, they will have nothing at all.

It is profoundly more difficult to explain the logic behind the values you are trying to instill in your children than to say, "Because God says so," but instilling rational thought as well as morality in a child is immensely more beneficial to them.

In the end, my kids will probably lie or steal as much as the children of the Christians next door, but what my children will not do is believe what they are told without rational explanations. They will not be led into a war on flimsy justifications. They will not follow authority figures simply because they are afraid to question them. They will not be capable of blind faith. They will not shut-up and get in line.

They will be strong-willed and capable of leading others, not as shepherds of mindless sheep, but as leaders of intelligent human beings.

16 comments :

wormwood said...

Here, here! Those are dangerous words Heather. By the beard of Zeus you may inspire the wrath of nevermind prophet of jon! TB hopefully between my post and Heather's you will find the information needed to explain your morality dilemma. For every unknown in life there is a rational explanation, and as an engineer you should know that. The mind of someone religious must be a mind in turmoil. One half of the mind tries to reason out a problem and the other sees god lurking in every corner. Inevitably what happens is the logical section of the brain is eventtually blugeoned to the point where the true self is destroyed. With reason suppressed you end up with simpletons, sheep that regurgitate dogmatic slogans that are ultimately void of any meaning. That nag, what jon so misunderstood is the last remaining part of your true self screaming for its existence!

My father used to say if it sounds to good too be true, then it probibly isn't true. Heaven is one such fantasy. Life is cold and hard and difficult enough when you know what's going on, but life becomes almost impossible when you allow your fanttasies to dictate the actions you make! Every culture that has relied on a god for sustinance instead of self relaince has perished.

tb said...

@wormwood

Sorry I just disagree. My mind is not in turmoil. Not sure what kind of churches you were exposed too, I guess ones that damned you too hell for every little thing you did wrong...

Hmmm the Catholic faith has been around for 2000+ years, doesn't seem like it totally failed. Islam even longer still and still going strong. But maybe when you talk about cultures failing there is more too it than that. Yes they both have problems of course but every religion, political system, etc. has problems.

See my kids also get that stealing is wrong not just because God said so but because it does hurt others. That is part of what gets taught as well. Sorry but part of what also gets taught is that sodomy is wrong and I have no problem with that either. But if someone wants to practice that then more power too them, I am not the one too judge them.

Here's a question for you. In the last 30-50 years do you think society as a whole in America has gotten more religious or less religious? Once I get an answer to that then I will follow it up with another question. I personally think we have gotten less religious.

Heather Annastasia said...

TB,

Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity. You really need to pick up a History book.

The Catholic church is still around, sure, but it's no longer in charge of any governments. The Pope no longer has armies at his command. The majority of Western Europe is no longer religious, and the pews of Catholic churches here in the US are emptying. The Catholic church is morally and financially bankrupt.

I can't answer for wormwood, but I think the religiosity ebbs and flows in this country. I think we reached a peak in the last few years with so many voters voting for Bush because he was perceived as a god-fearing Christian. I think the pendulum may swing the other way for a while.

I think Christianity has lost some ground: women can vote, black people can marry white people, science is being taught in public schools...

But Christianity has made some gains as well: teen STDs and pregnancies are up thanks to abstinence only programs in school, our population is easily led into unjustified wars because they think the President is a godly man, executions are at an all-time high, our military has degenerated into utilizing torture...

Rational thought is making progress, but it is a long and uphill battle. And we can never forget what is really at stake. Think about it; when the church rules, dissenters like myself, damion, and wormwood can be burned at the stake for heresy.

tb said...

Ok heather my bad Islam is younger than Christianity. If you want I'll go read history and not have time to post here I guess. As you probably already know I am NOT a history major.

So basically everything Christianity has done has been bad is what I get from the above, there is no good in Christianity at all?

tb said...

Morality is a tough topic though. We both seem to agree that stealing and murder are bad. I think we disagree on the morality of homosexuality.

There are tons of things though like adultrey, pornography, gambling, and I could go on an on that are gray area's so too speak. Some people are going to say they are fine. Some are going to say they aren't. In the end who decides all these gray issues?

wormwood said...

Hmmm the Catholic faith has been around for 2000+ years, doesn't seem like it totally failed. Islam even longer still and still going strong. tb.
Hmmm a history lesson from one who does not know history, sarcasm to boot tb you are one sharp cookie! No but really, what do you expect from someone who knowngly brainwashes their children. Muhammad was born in 570 C.E.

Humanity in its present form has been around for 100,000 plus years . Civilization in as what you would recognize has been around 6000 to 7000 years. Mesopotamian culture lasted more than a thousand years, Egyptian well over two thousand. Each one of these cultures never advanced beyond their superstitions and each and every one is now dead. The reason they died was because of their inability to correctly deal with a disaster in front of them. When there is a drought that last for years no amount of dead virgins is going to make it better. I could go on and on.

sodomy is wrong and I have no problem with that either. But if someone wants to practice that then more power too them, I am not the one too judge them. tb

TB what you said is a complete contradiction to say something is wrong is to judge. This is a great demonstration of a religious mind not able to see the most obvious of contradictions. This is why your children will become the cannon fodder of the next great war of liberation.

Society is most definitely moving in a secular direction like Heather noted in western Europe the majority now consider themselves to be non-believers. This makes sense when taken into account that western Europe was the epicenter of the enlightenment. Now America has always had a love affair with superstitions. A large segment of our population was the religious rejects of Europe. And on the other hand the intellectual foundation of this country was built upon what I would call a more rational philosophy, deism. This has lead to an interesting dichotomy in this country. The forefathers had the vision to create a system of laws that would slowly strip the church of its ability to control. No longer is prayer in schools, sodomy is legal, white and black can now be married. And most importantly we don't burn witches anymore! Tb to become an engineer one must obtain a college degree no? Unless you are the engineer of the choo-choo train at the mall?

Heather Annastasia said...

there is no good in Christianity at all? tb

The good in Christianity is the good that exists in human beings of any faith, or without faith.

I believe that people are generally good, but religion poisons rather than promotes our goodness because it encourages people to have faith rather than to think.

In the end who decides all these gray issues? tb

At the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, we are alone with our own conscience. I believe that people of faith can more readily silence that voice of reason within. They have been trained to listen to what an authority figure tells them is right and wrong. They choose to lay that burden at the feet of an imaginary being in the sky rather than accept responsibility for their own thoughts and actions.

tb said...

Ok you guys win, enjoy your blog.

All I have proven is I was never on the debate team and that I am too stooopid too post here.

You all are superior over me.

There ya go hope you feel better, have a nice life...

And you all wonder why there isn't any peace in the world. geez...

Heather Annastasia said...

TB,

There was a point where I thought that my arguments with atheists were failing simply because they were better at arguing.

It still took a long time from that point for me to accept that my arguments failed because I was wrong.

I wish you well, TB. I hope you'll be back.

nunya said...

I've been waiting for your next post. Thank you, it was worth the wait :)

Heather Annastasia said...

nunya!

What up?

Thanks for stopping by.

cancan said...

I was taught that God puts checks next to your name in a giant book also!

I tried to keep track of the checks myself, so i would know how many i had...

I tried to apologize for each mark, or do something to make up for it, thinking God might erase some of them.

I was terrified that if I didn't go through all the day's sins and apologize, every single night, that the rapture would happen while i was sleeping and i would be left behind...

I often had insomnia as a child...

Jales said...

Refraining from doing bad things because you think someone can see what you're doing isn't the same as refraining from doing bad things because you're a good person.

This is the best quote I've ever seen about this...I'm stealing it.

Heather Annastasia said...

Jales,

Help yourself!

:)

Anonymous said...

I was just wondering...if your kid manages to convince you that the reason you've told them not to do something is not in fact true, does that make it OK?
I didn't learn about a big book. I did learn that God watches all that I do, and that made me want to impress Him. I did not learn that he judged me for bad thoughts...in fact, if I had a bad thought and I didn't act on it, God thought that was a good thing.
I don't see anything wrong with acting in a manner that would make anyone (or God) be impressed with your character.

Heather Annastasia said...

if your kid manages to convince you that the reason you've told them not to do something is not in fact true, does that make it OK?

I'm sorry, I'm not exactly sure what you're asking.

Does that make it ok to tell your kid something that isn't true? or Does that make it ok for the kid to disobey you if the reason you gave was not true?

Personally, I think your putting everything you do in the wrong context if your actions are for the purpose of impressing someone. That's still a really self-serving attitude. I would like for my kids to see the real value in the things they do. I'd like them to do their homework because they will learn more; to do their chores in order to contribute to the household; not simply because I will be impressed if they do and punish them if they don't.

I would like them to be the kind of children who would stick up for a kid who's being bullied, and then not even tell me that they did. I would like for them to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. It's a tall order, I know, and their just kids, so I don't expect these things. But these are the values I try to instill so that they may grow into exceptional people and contribute to the world in a positive and meaningful way.