Saturday, June 16, 2012

The one behind the wheel is all that matters: Why the moral argument for God drives me crazy

It comes with the territory. Once you become an atheist, you have to be prepared to get the arguments for why there is a God from left and right, almost on a daily basis. The theist doesn't have to use an indicator, we know the arguments that are coming just around the corner. First cause, complexity, meaning of life, Pascal's Wager along with a string of anecdotal testimonies and near death experiences in tow. Their discussions always take you down the same road. The potholes of fallacies don't matter, they just hope that one day one argument, any argument will bring you back on the highway to Christ. By and large such arguments don't bother me, I shrug my shoulders, sigh and give the defence of my position if I have the inclination, knowing that if the discussion continues there will be more roundabouts ahead than there are on the ABC Highway in Barbados. However, there is one argument that really does drive me crazy .I am sure for many atheists it is the same. It is the moral argument for God.

Here is how it goes. The theist will say that the fact that we can all recognise 'good' from 'evil'  in the world suggest that 'good' and 'evil' can be defined objectively. There are concepts that are not simply matters of taste or culture. The fact that they are not dependent on an individual human, means they must be dependent on an an individual non human. Therefore God. That's it! QED!

This argument is an extension of the Cosmological argument or the argument from origins. What it comes down to is this. We have a 'something' in the universe. That 'something' needed to be created. Therefore God created the 'something.' That 'something' can range from physical things such as universes, trees, planets, puppies, sunsets, babies and chimpanzees to abstract things like logic, love, consciousness, intelligence and yes, morality. So from an intellectual perspective the moral argument should be able to be dismissed just like any of the other , 'Who created X?' arguments. But no, this one goes much deeper than that. It hits me harder becomes implied in it, is the notion that the morality of people who don't believe in God or some supernatural agent are morally compromised in some way. That is the part that offends me.

Throughout my life, if there is one thing that I have always tried to do, it is to live to the highest moral standard possible. Back from when I was a Christian growing up in Barbados, up until today, living in Canada  where I solidly identify as an atheist. When it comes to the desire to 'do the right thing' my religion or lack thereof  plays no part now and it didn't play a role before either. I always saw my faith as incidental to my sense of morality. Christians will say it's God, atheists will say its a consequence of my evolutionary history, but whatever the reason I have always felt torn up inside when I have recognised that I have done something that has hurt another individual. I have always told people that I don't mind being called stupid even as I try to make good decisions. But being labelled as evil or unethical is something that hurts to the core.

I can hear all my Christian friends saying in chorus," No, no, you have it all wrong ! We know you are a moral person, we know you are good.What we are saying is that you don't have a basis for determining your morality!"

Borrowing morality form them

This is the point when I feel like tearing my hair out. It irks me more because when Christians say this, they say it with a tone that suggests they are being magnanimous. That we should be praising them for being so compromising, for telling us that we CAN be moral. They seem genuinely surprised when we are  unimpressed by what they perceive is a fantastic compliment.

Why are we unmoved? Let's explore this statement a bit more. ' We can be moral, but we have no basis for morality.' The implication is that they are the ones with the basis. Some say that we atheists are simply borrowing their morality from them. Suppose a white person came up to me and let me know that he has a lot of black friends and from those interactions he knows that black people can be good people, even though many of his white friends argue otherwise. What if he went on to explain that his view was that although most blacks were moral they had no basis for determining what was moral? Suppose he added that what we good black people are doing is behaving 'white like', copying the moral code of HIS people, even though most of us don't realise it. What if he continued by saying that white people that are evil are either not true white people or white people who through a conscious rejection of their race based moral code have lost their way? Should I  look at a person who suggests something as ludicrous as this as anything but a flat out racist?

I know it will be said that race and religion are too totally different things and the analogy doesn't hold. I disagree. I fail to see how a difference in opinion about what is the essence of nature has any more to do with how good a person you are, than the melanin content in your skin.

There is something even more curious about this morality argument that I am not sure even all atheists realise.  Their argument for an objective morality is based on the universal interpretation by  human beings of concepts such as 'good' and 'evil.'  In 'universal', they are including atheists, agnostics, spiritualists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, every conceivable religious and non religious group. All these people's perceptions on 'good' and 'evil' are used to support their view that an objective morality exists.

Then comes the big sleight of hand in their argument. The God that is responsible for this objective morality that everybody recognises, is their God that only followers of their God recognise. It's a strange notion. It's not like the old days when a God just concentrated of taking care of his people. Their God takes it upon himself to step into everybody's territory. Their tribal God is responsible for the universal experience.  But this tribal God is not just any God. This tribal God is one who has advocated every atrocity in the book at some time or another. Genocide, infanticide and  much much more. Yes, there are many  'cides'  to God. In fact the only 'cide' that God seems to have evaded so far is 'suicide', well unless you want to count that 'hanging on the cross' weekend a couple of millennia ago.

So, naturally confused atheists ask Christians how can they claim that their God is the establisher of objective moral good, when so many of  his actions are in direct opposition to the objective morality that we humans universally recognise? The answer we get then is the real 'slap in the face.'

"You can't judge any actions of our God because you have no basis for morality! You have no licence to criticize! How can you say that even killing babies is evil?"

Apart from the obvious ad-hominem in this response, there is a bigger problem. In determining the existence of universal, objective morality they took into consideration the views of ALL humanity. The fact that OUR atheist view of morality is similar to theirs was seen as evidence in favour of 'objective morality', which was a crucial part of their argument for the existence of THEIR God. Now that they have used our moral perspective to help 'establish' their God's existence,  they want to dismiss that same moral perspective when we use it to challenge their God's morality. Effectively what they are telling us is that we can vote their God in but we can't vote him out. It's a one way democracy.We need to call them out on this inconsistency.

Debating Mistake?

In the last post I made on Imagine No Religion 2, Matt Dillahunty took me up on a comment I made where I said that even if he made a mistake in a debate he had enough consistency in how he structured his argument to not falter or get tied up. He asked me in the comments thread of that post  to point out to him if he made any mistakes during the debate in Kamloops. He playfully added that he didn't consider that consistency in making mistakes is a good thing. I smiled at this, because the comment about him making mistakes was a passing statement within a paragraph that was very complimentary of him and the work he does. Still, I suppose it is human nature to pick out any note of criticism, I am sure I would do the same. It's great however to see someone of his stature in the movement seeking constructive criticism. That is the true strength of the atheist community. In that thread I outlined one area in which we had a difference of opinion and I won't go into that here, you can look back at the comments in that thread if you wish.

However, Matt's comment did make me reflect on 'mistakes' of atheists a bit more. Not just his, but those of all of us. That's what I am getting to here. When theists tell us we can only get an understanding of morality from God, we challenge them on it and try to show them how patently false it is. In so doing  we take ourselves further and further from the person that they see as the law giver and this opens up the chance for them to claim we have no grounds to criticize them since we have gotten away from the one who makes right right. Perhaps what we need to do is just leave them with their assumption and say that we don't know where our moral instincts come from, and yes maybe their God did give us them. The point is that it doesn't matter, we have moral instincts which clearly work well enough for the majority of us not to be  mass murderers. As such, we have all rights to challenge the morality of the God that they claim set the rules.

Even if our basis for morality is borrowed, it is still every bit as valid and we have every right to use it and have confidence in it. If I am driving a car on the highway, I may claim the car is mine, someone else may claim it isn't. They may claim I borrowed it, rented it, even stole it. My parents may have handed it to me or I might have won it in a raffle.The fact is that none of that matters once I am driving it. I have the same rights and responsibilities as every other road user. You are obliged to give way to me if I have the right away,  you can't expect to run a red light to overtake me. It doesn't matter who owns the vehicle, who made it or how it got to me, it matters only who's behind the wheel. Once I have successfully passed my driver's test and have fulfilled all the legal obligations of the jurisdiction I am in, I have license.

August Berkshire- 'Does God put the moral instinct into our brain? If so, do his fingers slip during the rewiring?'

Speaking of morality and license. I have to mention August Berkshire here. He gave a memorable presentation at Imagine No Religion 2 on the topic of morality in the bible. It was one of those presentations that had the impact of making me gasp time after time. It was basically God and his criminal record  put together in Power Point. Forty two she bears led us off on what would inevitably become a very bloody parade. I don't know what it is, but there is something about seeing God's old testament tyranny on the big screen that makes it seem one thousand times worse than reading it on a lap top. After his presentation, you could be left with no other conclusion than that God is a monster. It was  the one presentation that weekend that I genuinely wished my Christian friends were there to see. For in spite of the horror presented, their was no twisting of the context of the stories to suit an agenda. It was just a retelling of what was right there in the book. It would be hard to know what they would have said in defence. He scoffed at the idea that God could be the one putting the morals in our brain. "Maybe his fingers slipped during the rewiring!" he quipped.  He ended by saying that if God existed and had the record that we read about in the bible, he should be the one praying to us for moral guidance. It was hard to disagree.

One other focus in August's presentation was the image of the photo above. The car he drives in his hometown in Minnesota proudly displaying "ATHEIST" on his license plate. He spoke of a few awkward discussions and hostile reactions at gas stations but he also spoke of the smiles and 'thumbs up' he got from many people, especially young people. It is heart warming to recognise that those of the future realise that the atheist label is one that we can display without fear wherever our travels may take us.

It is worth remembering that whatever its origin, whatever the car maker's name is, whoever is the mechanic, morality becomes our vehicle once we buy into it. We are also free to customise our plates to suit us. Once we are not breaking state laws, we have right of way. We are the one's in the driver's seat and unless you have evidence that we are not in control of our mental faculties, we have every right to be on the road and call you 'idiot' if you do foolishness and endanger others' lives. With all due respect, you are the ones that are driving under influence. You need to look at yourself in the mirror.You can't dismiss our rare view because your rear view says that our rare view can't tell you that you're wrong.

Given all that many of you believers think about us, it is a miracle that we actually still have models of morality that are allowed on the road. Especially given the fact that we, unlike you, are not eligible for 'Accident Forgiveness Insurance.'


  1. Good piece. Note that the analogy of the Racist does work. It certainly makes the larger point. Indeed, maybe the Christians morality was given to them by Buddha, how do they know this is not so. They don't. There claim of morality coming from their God is subjective, and all other believers from other faith, certainly makes the same subjective claim. Their God/gods place their morality in their hearth. It is an attempt to explain something innate to humans within the context of one belief. It always have been said that "God's words don't change. It remains as it is forever". If this is true (we have not yet seen an updated book from God himself), then the character of God is sealed in the pages of the Bible, as a result, base on what we accept as morally wrong in our society today,shows that humans has eclipse God in morality. Humanity has gone and left God in the mud of immorality. Even Christians, most of them, will not do the things God commands them to do. Thus, we don't need God nor his outdated book to be moral.

  2. Yes, everybody thinks that the God that makes everybody good is the one that they believe in. You would think that the source for something that permeates right through humanity would be an entity that is not specific to a single culture or subculture. The most obvious explanation is that it is something innate to the human condition.

    It is interesting that the interpretation is totally different when it comes to evil which is also very universal to humanuty. Here the similarity in that type of nature throughout cultures is purely a matter of flawed human nature. They don't claim that evil could not exist without the existence of their God. Why not? If they are consistent in their reasoning that is what they should be arguing.

  3. If you claim that morality is subjective, then you cannot hold anyone to a subjective moral standard. I am glad you stated that possibly morality did come from God. My question to you is then how do you rest with the knowledge that God exists and not believe? If you do not believe in God when the evidence is presented to you on a silver platter, you are simply avoiding, resisting, neglecting, and denying reason and disqualifying yourself as a rational person.