6/17/2008                                                                                       View Comments

Does a belief in God give us morality?

From www.TheBlackAtheist.com

Two of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of God—or against atheism— are: 1. God gives us morality, 2. without religion people would be immoral. These arguments, which are essentially one in the same, are illogical and ill-informed on several counts. Nonetheless, this type of thinking permeates so much of our culture. We can approach, and subsequently debunk, this argument somewhat scientifically:

1)One popular assumption is that the “godless” are less moral than those who believe in God. If we use propensity to commit crime as a measure of moral health, you would expect that there would be a high ratio of atheists in prison. But studies have shown that at least 80% of people in US prisons define themselves as religious: 50% as Baptist or Catholic, and roughly 30% claim to have a religious preference but do not specify a specific religion or denomination. Additionally, if morality was a byproduct of a belief in God, than states with a high number of believers would conceivably have lower rates of crime than those that are comparably more secular. But this is also entirely untrue. SC ,Tenn, Tex, Louisiana and Georgia all rank among the top 10 in terms of crime rates, and these states are the heart of the Bible Belt...but if there are so many believers then why do these places have the highest rates of crime? The point is if we use crime rates as a metric, a high degree of religiosity does not correlate with morality, which is exactly what you would expect if religion or a belief in God were the bedrock of our sense of morality.

2) What about Hitler? Theists just love to point out that the mass murderers of the 20th century (Hitler, Stalin, etc) were all atheists, which proves atheists are evil and cannot be trusted in positions of power. Again, this view is not based in the facts. Hitler's ideology contained both pro- and anti-religious doctrines and dogmas so at the very least his religiosity is inconclusive. On one hand, he speaks about carrying out 'His' (God’s) will in exterminating the Jews and the importance of prayer. On the other hand, he speaks of maintaining the superiority of the state over the church. Beyond that, anyone who has ever read the Bible knows it provides ample anti-Semitic ideology. Not surprisingly, Antisemitism in Germany was biblically based and these ideas were prevalent in German society well before Hitler ever came to power. My point is that, despite Hitler's religious ambiguity, Antisemitism would never have been tolerated if not for its biblical roots.

Stalin was a self-affirming atheist but he does not support the conclusion that atheism leads to moral decay since he never killed anyone because of his atheism. Compare that to murderers that are clearly motivated by their religion—Timothy McVeigh, the September 11th martyrs, abortion clinic bombers, etc. Who could dispute that, but for a belief in the afterlife and the ideas of martyrdom, Islamic terrorists would lose most of their destructive motivation? Who could deny that religious ideology has been the root cause of innumerable conflicts in modern times?

3) More recently, scientists have begun studying what underlies morality. They’ve found that regardless of social class, religious upbringing, or country of origin, people have similar basic principals regarding morality. Additionally, specific areas of the brain are activated in response to moral questions. Collectively, these studies suggest that our sense of morality is innate and, therefore, independent of religious background. If our morality is not dependent on religion then where does it come from? Although the jury is still out, there is evidence of morality in animals. One study demonstrated that a chimpanzee will starve itself in order to prevent harm to another chimp and studies from behavioral biology clearly demonstrate that social primate societies are intolerant of rape or theft. This is obvious evidence of morality among creatures that completely lack the capacity to believe in God.

From the examples above, it is clear that being religious and believing in God does not correlate in any way with social health or general morality. Furthermore, scientists are beginning to understand where our morality comes from and it is clear from the work done thus far that our sense of right and wrong has roots in our evolutionary past--not a system of beliefs and ideologies invented merely 2000 years ago.


THE ACE said...

Here's some support for you. The
early-morning network news at the
radio station where I work carried a story today about how scientists
have noticed chimps will show compassion for one another. If a chimp has been assaulted by another, or treated badly, some of the other chimps will come over and
try to comfort it. All without hearing about God or the Bible.

I've also run across the Christian
arguments involving Hitler and Stalin many times here. Hitler
actually had a Catholic background
and did, at times, claim he was doing or wanted to do God's will.
(Check out "Mein Kampf).

Stalin launched a brutal purge of the Red Army in the 1930's, removing 3 of 5 Field Marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 50 of 57 corps commanders, and 154 of 186
division commanders, among others.
In total, 30,000 members of the armed forces were arrested and executed. Stalin, like most dictators, was highly paranoid,
and believed, based on documents that supposedly originated in Germany, many of his military people were disloyal. I would find it hard to believe, considering this was in the Soviet Union, that
most of these men were Christians.
(Figures from Wikipedia).

Mriana said...

I'm glad to see posts like this. All too many times we hear religious say things like this and they simply are not true. I think it is part of the brainwashing that comes with religion and keeps people in religious groups.

Here's another one my mother, an Evangelical Fundie, uses: It goes something like this- Since God gave us knowledge of Him we are better than animals. This knowledge is what separates us from other animals. THEN she goes into the "without God" we would just be animals without morals bit.

I think the truth is, this superstition is what makes us animals. Ever notice how your pet is "superstitious" of things they do not understand and fear it? The more curious check it out, sometimes to their own detriment, but have less fear of some things. I have one cat that fears the broom, the hairdryer, and other things. Another just sits there uncaring, even if you pretend to try and sweep her up with the dust too, and another who tries to check out these things and seems to have no clue why the fearful ones runs and hides, it were something is something bad and evil. She just looks at her, like "You're so stupid. It's not going to hurt you. Mama has it." Of course, that probably isn't the words she is thinking, but the look says millions, concerning the fear of the unknown v the known. One knows because she explored it and the other won't try to find out due to fear.

The thing is, the idea that knowledge of God and alike does not make us more moral than other species nor does it separate us from them. It is, however, a human creation, based on fear of the unknown and superstition. I see the idea of God, the supposed idea that we are more moral with God, etc, on the level of other species with less knowledge.

Scientifically speaking, what does separate us from other species is the size of our brains with more parts to it, and that we do have the ability to educate ourselves about what we do not know- probably more safely too. We have the ability to make tools, but this does not separate us from other apes for they make tools too, but we can make more advanced tools to observe things, hopefully in a safer manner too. Mostly, it is the physical brain difference that separates us from other species, not a belief in or knowledge of a deity.

It's a shame more religious people can't or won't comprehend this. The human brain, even in comparison to other animals is fascinating. There are parts of our brain cats don't have and frogs have even less parts, but apes, have the same brain structure, only a smaller cerbral cortex- the highest part of the brain structure- which shows in their lack of forming oral language (or so it seems they lack an oral language). However, they do not lack the ability to learn a visual language and teach that sign language to other apes- ie Koko.

In reality, religious person who throws in this "we are better than animals because..." statement with the morality bit, is really lacking knowledge of the human mind and it's relationship or similarity/differences to other animals. The knowledge of a deity doesn't make us better than other animals- but rather brain structure. Belief in a deity doesn't make us more moral either.

IF more Xians studied science, including Psychology, Sociology, neuro-psychology and alike, they would find their ideas are totally bogus- that is, if they stop thinking science is of the devil made to destroy one's faith in god. *rolling eyes* Yup! My mother says that one about getting a real education too. Too bad she and others who think like her can't see beyond and get an education.

BTW, the ace, I've observed my cats and they also show compassion for each other and their humans, but this might not be true of ferals and wild cats. I can only observe my own cats and make an hypothesis base on what I see them do. Even dogs do the same thing, esp with the human that cares for them. I don't know if this is a feature of pets with good caregivers or if it common in those without humans.

Free Thinker said...

great post and a very important one!

MRIANA..I have to share a neat cat story to show you are right on about cats...my 5 yr old grand daughter lives in the very country of west central Wisconsin. She was playing on the ground by the deck while her male cat lay on the deck a couple of feet above her head. All of a sudden this very large black dog came running at her. the cat leaped in between them, the dog slammed on his brakes and took off....I love that cat!! Erich

Mriana said...

Thanks for sharing that story, Free Thinker.

Watching cats is great and as with any animal, I think it give us a little insight about ourselves, esp if we know something about our physiology and theirs. I know many, but not all of the different areas of the brain that store various things, but watching animals makes me wonder if morality/ethics are stored only in the cerebellum. I seriously doubt they are given what our pets do for us.

Our pets have some form of imagination, given how they play with toys (ie cats and toy mice) and I think, when it comes to protecting the young or those they express affectin to, they have very basic sense of moral duty. I do not think seeing eye dogs and alike are just trained. The people who train these dogs look for a specific personality in the dogs they select. I'm not so sure these dogs don't understand what they are doing or why they have been trained to help people with disabilities. The same goes for police dogs. It cannot all be instinct.

At the same time, humans were the ones who made animals gods and wrote stories about these "god" animals, not the other way around. Maybe it is the one with the bigger brain who has the creativity to make more than just a toy mouse fly across the floor and chase after it as though it were alive. Our imaginations maybe far greater than lower species, yet the desire to have a pet is not just in the human species- as displayed by Koko. She is one gorilla who learned to talk with her hands and ask for a cat. She got a cat, loved it dearly, much like we do our own pets, and was heartbroken when it got out and was killed by a car.

The thing about Koko is she had the sense not to kill the tiny creature. That was not why she wanted the pet. She also, surprisingly to the people who took care of Koko, was gentle with the kitten. She had the brain copacity to know she had to be gentle or she could harm it. In that sense, she had a sense of morality or ethics, without being told to be gentle or that there is a god. Koko has no god, not even the knowledge of one, yet she is good, even to William Shatner, a human she never met before, yet taught him some sign language when they did meet.

In my honest opinion, Koko is not just a scientific study, but is the very example of morality/ethics without God. What is it within her that gives her this sense of morality/ethics? Human contact? I don't think so, because as someone else pointed out, apes in the wild have some sense and standard of what is good behaviour. Even Jane Goodall has studied this.

I honestly think, if we are ever going to understand more about ourselves on a psychological level, we need not just disect various animal brains (which I found such animal experiments disturbing because they are generally alive for most of them or killed for the experiment), but rather study the behaviours of other animals. I can only hope after Jane Goodall dies, her work, like Diane Fossey's work, continues. I also hope, that after Koko dies, researchers continue what they started with Koko. I think it will eventually give us great insight into ourselves.

This is an area that I take great interest in and I was sorry the uni I attended for my bachelors did not have an animal psych program. Admittedly, as horrifying as it is, the study of animals' brains has help to understand and know about our brains to some extent and I think we can do better, now that we know more, if we took a similar approach to studying animal behavour as we do the human animal.

Brain structure wise, I would say it is a good example of evolution too. We just need to take a more humane approach to studying animals though. Although, the work done on other animals, as disturbing as it is, has helped with much needed brain surgeries and alike in humans. I just do not advocate the continued practic of invasive or deadly research on animals, esp not that we have less intrusive methods.

Louis said...

This is such a silly posture by theists.

Morality is man-made and simply ascribed to some deity to give it validity.

Hopefully, the day will come when we humans will accept our own worth and genius and do away with the mirror we call god.