Monday, August 29, 2011

A stab at morality from the godless point of view

In the last post I attempted to speculate on how a case for morality can be built on a certain conception of divinity.  The underlying problem I was thinking about was the problem of connecting morality with God AT ALL.  I don’t think it’s easy to do.

What about building a case for morality as an atheist? That question has been on my mind for a while, too.

I actually think this is a little easier.

Let me make some suppositions here, too.
  1.            Morality is a practical reality.  If, somehow, it was conclusively proven tomorrow that God doesn’t exist, people wouldn’t all of a sudden start slaughtering each other wholesale. 
  2.             Let’s define morality liberally as a commitment to respecting the value and autonomy of other people and life forms, including unseen people.  This is roughly equivalent to, “sociopathy is the opposite of morality.”
  3.             Not only is morality a practical reality, it is practical.  There are enormous individual and societal benefits for adherence to the generally accepted concept of morality (The emergence of humans as the dominant species on the planet is due to our high level of social cooperation and interdependence).
  4.             The minutia of the “rules” of morality doesn’t have to be agreed upon in order for morality to work.  This should be obvious, since there has never been global agreement on any of this and yet, there is widespread general consensus.  That general consensus is far more important than the details.  Broad strokes matter.

Now, I want to make an assertion that some will disagree with.  Religion has not been very useful in establishing morality in mankind’s history.  If we are looking to religion to help us treat each other right, I don’t see much reason to have hope.  Backup?  Some sort of whackjob religion/ideology (that happened to be in power) has justified and moralized pretty much EVERY large scale atrocity ever committed.  Religion has, in its past, approved of mass murder, rape, slavery, racism, you name it.  So, with respect, why should I think that a revealed religion would teach me anything about this?  Where is the track record of goodness that would convince me?  (I will refrain from providing present examples).

On the other hand, the growth of human thought and philosophy (and the attendant rise of secularism) has given rise to actual, functional morality; the kind where you actually try to consider the impact of your actions on other people.  Someone recently posited to me that the rise of legitimate morality parallels the rise of religious activity in the world.  I really like that person, and there’s a darn good chance he may read this, but I just don’t see it.  The world has never been more secular than it is now.  Religion has never been less powerful politically and socially than it is now, IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF SOCIETY.  I just don’t fear the Spanish Inquisition any more, folks.  I will make a concession and say that religious thinkers and teachers have taught some wonderful things about morality, but the institutions of religion have done as Joseph Smith predicted they would; exercise unrighteous dominion.

Theists frequently assert that atheists cannot be moral because they don’t have God to provide moral authority.  What they don’t have is someone to clean up their messes; to atone for their sins; to undo the damage.  Atheists actually have the (healthy) view that the buck stops with them.  They are ULTIMATELY and FOREVER responsible for their actions.  That’s a moral viewpoint if ever there was one.

So, the real question I want to address: how can objective morality be supported in a godless reality?  Why does anything matter at all?

Easy.  Things matter because they matter to you.  What matters to other people matters to you because you are not a sociopath, and you recognize that they are beings like you and so their feelings matter because you possess (that most divinely human characteristic) empathy.   

But does that validate anything?  Doesn’t there need to be something outside that gives authority to all of this?  Does anything really matter?

There are two reasons I think that argument is kind of silly.

One: on the question of “authority”, can you find some source of authority outside of humanity?  Why do we need one?  Why can’t we be our own authority?  In fact, we are.  A valid interpretation of religion is that it is simply a societal mechanism for controlling behavior.  It has its issues, but that’s what it is.

Two: Are you willing to say that the things you love, that give your life meaning and joy, do not matter to you simply because they are not validated outside of your self?  Why is this any different?  Do you like mushrooms, or are you permitted to like mushrooms?  Do you prefer the Beatles to the Stones, or is that dictated to you?  Are your passions invalid somehow because they belong to you?  No.

So, your freedom belongs to you, and conversely so does everyone else’s and there is no way that I can think of that divine authority would validate it any more.

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