Moral Character

If there were no God, there would be nothing stopping me from murdering anyone who annoyed me and stealing everything I wanted!

Could there possibly be a more frightening statement? I identify as an antitheist because of the harm religions cause by teaching people that it’s okay to accept bad reasons for both belief and action. Yet any time I encounter someone who makes this claim, I am deeply thankful for their belief, irrational though it may be. My natural inclination is to smile and be thankful for my ability to avoid people like this. (Seriously, if you agree with this sentiment now and still do at the end of this article, I will absolutely think less of you for it. Come see me after class, as it were.)

* * *

In any discussion of morality between believers and nonbelievers, a believer will invariably ask, “But where do you get your morality?” Here’s my answer to that: The same place you do.

Ah, but at this point, the believer will object. “But I get my morality from the Bible. Aren’t you admitting that you follow Christian morality?” No, you don’t. No, I’m not. When’s the last time you murdered your neighbor for working on the Sabbath? (Exodus 31:12-15) Oh, never?

Don’t quote the Old Testament at me. Jesus removed the necessity of following those laws.

Did he? Let’s set aside that debate for now, and proceed from here assuming that’s true. Do you support the cold-blooded murder of people for the unforgivable sin of not being Christian? (Acts 3:23) Do approve of the irrational, xenophobic hatred of “the Jews?” (NT:pretty much everything) Are you looking forward to unleashing your righteous vengeance on the masses of nonbelievers with your iron rod in the end times? (Revelation 2:26-27) If you answered no to any of these questions, congratulations! You’ve officially just proven that your morality does not come from the Bible.

I anticipate another objection here, which I will accept without question for the sake of argument: “But the blood sacrifice of Jesus means we’re no longer judged by our actions. All that’s required of us is faith in Jesus!” (I will overlook the fact that not every denomination professes this belief because this seems to be the strongest possible defense and thus the best one to address.) This most generous interpretation of the Bible’s moral code is still woefully inadequate. Even if you believe that the NT does not require you to obey its instructions, that does not dispense of the objection that the Bible contains these things. It presents them as the teachings of Jesus. Even if you think God wants you to actively ignore these parts of the NT, it still talks about them as if they should be regarded as good and proper. So if that moral voice in the back of your head tells you that it’s not okay to kill nonbelievers, hate Jews for being Jews, or to act as a tyrant ruling over the ranks of nonbelievers, how do you justify any claim that belief in God is all that stops you from committing horrible atrocities on your neighbors? You’ve already admitted that you selectively reject the commandments of the Bible, so your morality must come from somewhere else.

This is not a bad thing, of course. If Biblical literalists, en masse, sought to live their lives by following these commandments exactly as laid out, this would obviously have a profoundly terrible effect. I don’t see how a democratic society could possibly flourish under these circumstances. Neighbors would be, in essence, put at odds against one another (sort of like Matthew 10:21-23 suggests Jesus wanted), and I think it’s pretty obvious that this would not be ideal. Does being religious inherently make a person more moral? Unfortunately not. (Oh yes, even I would prefer it if religion consistently made people more moral, but it doesn’t.) In many ways, it functions to quite effectively dehumanize members of out-groups, thus making it that much easier to justify treating them poorly. (Blood libel, anyone? Or this little fad. Or these, which were in wide use when Christianity ruled with an iron fist.)

But we still haven’t gotten to the heart of the matter: from where do morals come? To answer this question, I’d like to offer the example of a parent and a young child (perhaps three or four years old). The parent (P) has taken the child (C) to the playground, where C is engaged in play with a group of other children. C wants to play with another child’s toy, but that child refuses to share. C strikes the child and takes the toy, and, being a responsible adult, P intervenes. At this point, how does P handle the situation? A responsible parent would surely chastise their child in this situation, so this is what P does. The specifics of that censure are largely unimportant; it doesn’t matter whether P makes an appeal to a god in explaining why C’s behavior was unacceptable because either way, C knows that P is upset and responds accordingly. It should be obvious that this system of behavioral reinforcement begins long before this point—even babies respond to social cues. If you yell at them, they understand that you are unhappy, so they cry. Your unhappiness becomes their unhappiness. Conversely, if you make goo-goo faces or play peekaboo with them, they understand that your intentions are good, and they laugh. (Unless you’re scary—then it’s obvious that you want to eat them, you big bully, you.)

That is perhaps the most important foundational pillar of our morality. We are a social species (we can’t help it—that’s just how we’ve evolved), and we tailor our behavior to fit our social context. The discovery of mirror neurons allows us to understand why we get happy when other people are happy and why we feel bad when we hurt someone. Language allows us to communicate our feelings about any given behavior; instead of resorting to physical violence when we feel slighted, we can rationally explain why a given behavior is unacceptable and describe any potential consequences of that behavior, curtailing offenses before they happen. Thus, morality has its basis in both biology and sociology—genetics and memetics.

Can religion have a positive effect on morality? Of course. If you’re a devout Jainist, it should be pretty obvious that you are relatively unlikely to commit violent crimes. Is it possible for a Christian to overlook the hateful teachings of the Bible in favor of the “love your neighbor” message? Absolutely. But making the choice to be moral is not a “Christian” choice. It’s a Human choice. Nothing about deciding to accept the imperative to treat people well requires adherence to a centuries-old text. The reason you don’t go on daily killing sprees isn’t because you’re (insert religion here)—it’s because you’re biologically and socially conditioned not to. Just like me.

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