Friday, June 6, 2014

Why I Don't Believe pt. III

See prior to posts in this series here: Why I Don't Believe pt. I and here: Why I Don't Believe pt. II

Ungodly Morals

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for me has been the task of trying to discover a moral code outside of religion. In fact, this is the most repeated attack against the atheist community by the religious. "Why be moral if there is no God?" 

I once heard a powerful quote of an anonymous author: "You don't need religion to have morals. If you can't determine right from wrong, than you lack empathy not religion." 

While this does not fully answer the question by any means, it certainly quiets the attackers by reminding them that if the only real reason they are moral is to please God, they need to spend more time correcting their ethical character than criticizing non-believers. 

I will not attempt in this post to tally the number of dead bodies by either the hands of the religious or atheistic communities throughout history, for that is neither the point of this post, nor in anyway a reason to believe or not. People kill. Sometimes while muttering a name of a deity and sometimes while muttering a national ideal. As this post is titled: Why I Don't Believe, I will focus on the points that effect me personally.

Before we attempt to answer the question of why be moral in the face of godlessness, we must ask: How can we define morality without a divine code of ethics? 

I once heard Sam Harris in lecture at Oxford University give over what he felt could act as a way to know what is a good act and a bad one. He said that if we could imagine the worst possible misery for everybody and everything, for every second, without relent until the end of Earth's existence, that would be Bad. Once bad was defined, he said, we could start a continuum, and everything that brings us closer to this misery was bad and anything that furthered us from it was Good.

[For a deeper and far more articulate explanation of this concept, read the book by Sam Harris titled: The Moral Landscape. In it, Harris answers with careful all-inclusive analysis, the question raised above. Truly a remarkable piece of philosophical and scientific writing.]

Of course this is not a perfect system, and there may be moral dilemmas that would be very difficult to discern right from wrong, but it is a system bound in reason. Every conclusion can be analyzed, and critiqued, nothing is divine and therefore can change, as science, and human reason progress.  

Even if one were to posit that without a religion declaring the chosen word of God we will always be in a world of moral relativism, I shall declare: Would that be so bad?

Let us assume, for a moment, that this is correct, then I ask you: Is any system good enough? Is it not cowardly to retreat to a religion, any religion, so as not be in the uncomfortable reality of relativism? How far would you go in order to dwell in the Absolute? Would you kill infidels? The question is not meant to attack any specific religion, but to point out the fact that saying that the worst case scenario is moral relativism is saying you will accept any system so long as it is not relative. 

Of course one may retort that he would never pick to believe in an immoral religion, and I need not patronize my readers with the glaring circular logic in such a statement. 

What does moral relativism really mean? It means that as painful as it might be we cannot say: Hitler was evil. It means that we always must remember the clause: "He is evil, but only in my perception." I can see why many people retreat from such a claim. 

Even if that were the case, however, we can still conduct ourselves morally. We could still --using reason-- determine what we found to be right and wrong. In fact, since religion could not possibly preempt every moral dilemma that would face man, many is the time when even the most scholarly of believers must resort to reason to answer a moral conundrum. What we lose essentially, in a world of moral relativism, is our damning rights. 

Yet, the question from the beginning of the post persists: Whether or not we can determine right from wrong, is there any reason to act morally in a godless world? Is there any reason to act in a moral fashion if we are truly just evolved primates seeking to survive? In the end of the day, why shouldn't man act as a beast, seeking pleasure, and destroying anything in his path. 

[Notice the question here is not, "Can we be moral," or "Are atheists moral," both of these are proven by the mere fact that there are many atheists that I would trust with my life, and who are incredible examples of human ethical behavior.]

The simple answer, perhaps ironically, is: Self-Interest. Unlike the beasts of the field, man has an intellect which informs him that if he would act as a beast, and everyone follows suit, society would crumble and his own hopes for survival diminish. He will be left hoping that he is stronger or faster than the next threat. The civilized world would collapse as would most, if not all, of the human race. His morality is then, the most reasonable act known to us, that of self-preservation.     

The question that immediately follows this answer is: What about altruism? Even if it is in man's self interest to not commit crimes, what logic could ever motivate him to helping his fellow man? Why should I help the needy who will never, because I did in it anonymously, be able to repay my deeds? Again, the question is not whether people can act altruistically or not, but rather is there any reason I shouldn't fight the urge to help the poor? Why shouldn't I strengthen my character, so to speak, and harden my resolve against being swept up by their pleas?

And again I answer: Self-Interest. Everyone must ask themselves, in which world would I rather live: A world in which the rich help the poor or a world of cold selfishness? Today I may be the one with money in my pocket, but any person who has lived for even a short time knows that tomorrow I may be the one with the open hand and downcast eyes.  

I will further say that most religiously motivated acts of ethical behavior are, in their deepest essence, acts of self-interest. The believer says: Since God is watching all man's deeds, God will reward or punish me according to my deeds. He therefore, will be motivated out of self interest to act in accordance with his God's will. 

Therefore, both the theist and atheist have a the same reason to act in a moral way: The protection of the Self. For the atheist it is protection in this world, for the theist, the next.   

Of course, in reality many of us -- theists and atheists alike -- act morally, not out of conscience self interest but because something inside of us demands us to. We are compelled, and beautifully so, to help raise the downtrodden and look out for one another. The religious would say that this is the soul of man, always urging him to goodness. The evolutionist would say that these are misfirings of our primal state. Regardless of why we are, it is clear that mankind is generally trying to pursue goodness. I do not mean to sound as though I am diminishing all acts of kindness and self-sacrifice to the base need to protect oneself.

What I am venturing to answer here, however, is the "why be moral," not the "are we moral?" The why question doesn't care that we are moral -- perhaps because of our very nature -- but attempts to claim that it would seem to be an act of great irrationality to perpetuate such morals. I have shown, I hope, to the contrary. I posit that any man, using reason, can understand the great importance of moral behavior and finds no need to accept -- on this basis -- a religion.

Defining Good and Evil may be difficult without the two tablets. It may require great strides of reason in order to determine whether an action is moral or not. It will change, as our perception changes. Yet, I see this system -- a system which uses reason as it's guide -- as a far better system than unverifiable claims of God's will. Whereas the former admits to being man-made and therefore flawed and subject to correction, the latter being supposedly divinely inspired will never change and can, in effect, cause great harm to humanity's progress. As to the question of the "why be moral" I have shown that there is great logic to motivate our good deeds, even our altruistic ones. 

Once again, the question of morality is a challenge to atheism, a challenge to godlessness, but not it's demise.

Since I do not need to retreat to religion to understand good and evil, nor do I need religion to motivate me, I do not believe. 

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