Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Do Human Morals Come From Religion?

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human ValuesTo a depressingly large number of Christians, atheists are depressed, angry, amoral people. I'll handle the first two at a later point in time (although, geeze, all of the atheists I know are super happy, and the Christians tend to be more depressed), but in this post I wanted to focus on morality. Morality is an especially timely subject considering the imminent release of Sam Harris' new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. (Set for release Oct. 5, 2010)

Two separate questions are brought up in religious debates regarding morality:
  1. Are religious people more moral than non-religious people?
  2. Does morality trace its roots to The Bible?

Are Religious People More Moral Than Non-Religious People?

Many debates on this topic degenerate to each side giving a laundry list of famous people who prove their points. For instance, "Proof that atheists are evil: Stalin. Proof that Christians are good: Martin Luther King, Jr." Then atheists shoot back, "Oh yeah? Proof that Christians are evil: Hitler. (Yes, he was a Catholic.) Proof that atheists are good: Bill Gates or Warren Buffett (probably the biggest philanthropists, by the dollar, who ever lived.)"

But citing specific people in a neverending celebrity arms race isn't productive for either side -- and isn't a solid argument regardless. I think a more salient point is what inspires people to commit certain acts. I can't think of a single incident in history -- although I admit there likely are more than a few -- when someone committed mass murder primarily because of non-belief in a higher power. Now let's look at the other side of the argument: How many incidences of mass murder, genocide, and war can you think of that were predominantly influenced by religious motives? You probably wouldn't be able to write them down fast enough, because you have so many flashing through your head.

But those aren't the only damning numbers for the Christian moral superiority claim. In a previous blog I directed you to a statistical breakdown of prison inmates by religious belief. The important point at that link is not that the majority of inmates are religious (this should be obvious, as the majority of people not in prison are religious, so you'd expect it to correspond) but rather that inmates are disproportionately religious people. For instance, 10%-20% of the country is non-religious (I know that's a huge range, but non-believers are notoriously hard to count), yet non-believers only account for 0.2% of inmates. That's not a typo ... 0.2% of the prison population is atheistic compared to 10%-20% of the general population. And no, not that many atheists are spontaneously finding God while incarcerated so as to account for the discrepancy.

So, there's all of that, and I haven't even begun to delve into subjects like genital mutilation, pedophilia (and its subsequent cover up), suicide bombings, bombings of abortion clinics, the hindering of life-saving stem-cell research, the repressing of minorities and their civil rights, and so on.

Does Morality Trace its Roots to The Bible?

Many religious people make one or both of the following points:
  1. Our system of laws is based on The Bible, especially the Ten Commandments
  2. Without God and His laws, anything is permitted
The first point is laughably easy to counter:

The Ten Commandments Are a Horrible Foundation of Laws

For those who claim the Ten Commandments are the foundation of our legal system ... have you read the Ten Commandments? Let me enumerate them for you (by the way, there are more than 10 ... The Bible is bad at math) with my notes in italics:
  1. I am the Lord your God. (O...K... not so much a commandment as a statement. Also not any law on the books today.)
  2. You shall have no other gods before me. (This one is so not a law that we actually have laws for the opposite ... we have a constitutional right preventing the government from imposing the Christian God as a God before all other Gods.)
  3. You shall not make for yourself an idol. (OK, this is getting sad. We get it, God ... you're insecure. However, we crown Idols multiple times a year who go on to make shitty music.)
  4. Do not take the name of the Lord in vain. (God can go fuck himself. After publishing that comment, it should just be a waiting game until the feds arrive to lock me up, right?)
  5. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. (Even Christians think this one is dumb. Next...)
  6. Honor your father and mother. (We're at the sixth of the "Ten" Commandments, and still no jail time.)
  7. You shall not murder. (Finally, a real crime!)
  8. You shall not commit adultery. (Yay, we're on a roll! Well, kinda. Only 22/50 states actually have laws against adultery.) 
  9. You shall not steal. (Got it.)
  10. Nineteen Eighty-FourYou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (No perjury, got it.)
  11. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. (I think I read about this sort of thought-crime in George Orwell's 1984. Thankfully, thought-crimes still aren't illegal.)
  12. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Doesn't the above commandment fit into this one? Anyway, still not illegal.)
So, of the Twelve Commandments, only four are actual crimes (and one of those only barely makes the cut). Apparently God didn't care enough about rape, slavery, or infringing upon other people's civil rights to include them in His Big Bad List of No-Nos.

The Bible Advocates Despicable Acts

What God left out of the Twelve Commandments isn't a non-issue, either. Not only didn't he mention rape, slavery, or rights violations, he actually advocates all three at various points in The Bible (thanks to the Skeptic's Annotated Bible for the following):
  • If a betrothed virgin is raped in the city and doesn't cry out loud enough, then "the men of the city shall stone her to death." Deuteronomy 22:23-24 
  • Lot refuses to give up his angels to the perverted mob, offering his two "virgin daughters" instead. He tells the bunch of angel rapers to "do unto them [his daughters] as is good in your eyes." This is the same man that is called "just" and "righteous" in 2 Peter 2:7-8. 19:7-8
  •  God tells the Israelites to make slaves out of their neighbors and their families. The "heathens" and "strangers" are to be their possessions forever. Leviticus 25:44-46

The above list is necessarily short, as there are nearly endless examples from The Bible. But what's even more interesting than those are the cruel acts that God advocates that go against the Twelve Commandments, like when He commands His people to wage wars, as well as loot and pillage enemies. What's more, Jesus wasn't exactly a shining example of honoring his parents. He was notably mean to his mother, and he is quoted in The Bible as saying "For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household."

In short, even if laws of the land were based on The Bible, not even The Bible agrees with itself on what's God hates and what He advocates.

No, We Wouldn't Go Apeshit Without The Bible

The other extremely weird argument Christians make in favor of God-given morals and laws is that if we didn't get them from God then they're all entirely arbitrary and meaningless -- and if that's the case, why should we have any morals at all? Given this viewpoint, without God everyone would be killing people at random, and the world suddenly would get, like, 1,000% rapier. Without God, what's to stop people from going on baby-killing sprees? There's no one to hold us accountable, so who cares?

Well, the simple answer is ... everyone cares -- that's why we have morals. Morals against killing and stealing arose naturally in distinct and separated societies around the world. (Note: In this case, killing and human sacrifice are held in different lights, as they were seen differently.) Plus, morals have evolutionary benefits. Tribes of people who are genetically predisposed not to kill each other or build up conflict through theft were more likely to thrive.

The idea that without God watching over our shoulders we'd all be evil people is beyond unfounded. Nothing points to that being the case, and you should be incredibly nervous turning your back on anyone who claims that to be true, because if they some day come to their senses about religion ...

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

The argument that morals are arbitrary and meaningless if not God-given is also covered in Sam Harris' upcoming book The Moral Landscape, which I mentioned at the beginning of the post. In that book, he argues that science can explain morality on its own -- in fact, science can be used to determine what is moral. He explains his theory in the TED lecture that I've embedded below. To be honest, I'm not 100% sold on his argument, but he makes some great points, and it's worth thinking about.

Regardless of whether science can determine moral values or not, it should be obvious that religion certainly does not.

-- The Atheist Apologist --


  1. God loves you man, Christians aren't all crazy like you make them sound. What if they're right and there is life after death? It also says in the Bible that we don't have to be afraid to die because God has given us a way to heaven: Jesus. You'll probably read this and dismiss everything I've said. I hope you don't though, God loves you and wants a relationship with you, not a religion. Post-death eternity is a long time, think about it.

  2. Well said. The frequent claim of believers that morals can only be derived from religion is fallacious. That somehow morals as derived from a religious text are absolute whereas any study of anthropology will show moral relativism to be a more realistic viewpoint. And the corollary that society would somehow descend into anarchy as a result of secularism is asinine.I would surmise that we have evolved as social animals and so working together necessitates an agreed system of rules by which we must interact, albeit a rule-set that varies depending on the group. Game theory shows the advantages of moral behaviour very well. In fact neuroscience points towards the existence of a bit in the brain that is primarily concerned with fairness. As such I would reverse the flow here, i.e. morals come from humans and hence feed into religion; a source that bodes well for society.
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