It’s a fairly common opinion in the U.S., which is predominately Christian, that religion or a belief in a god is a requirement of morality. A recent Pew poll continues to support this notion.
Of course this is not the case. No, not even close. But it is what believers tend to believe and it IS an interesting question: where do we get our morality? For the religious, it comes from a holy book such as the Bible and is often presented along with a threat of hell for the sinner or a promise of eternal life for the repentant. Of course it gets a bit confusing as most Christians also believe in the forgiveness of sins in the act of accepting Jesus – so go ahead and behave badly, just accept Jesus before you die and you’re good to go. Makes for some pretty loose morality I’d say. Now, I’m just speaking here of Christians. Other faiths do not necessarily provide such an easy ticket into whatever version of an afterlife they are promoting.
Before we go any further let’s have a look at the definition of how morality is defined:
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary:
morality |məˈralətē, mô-| – noun (pl. moralities) principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
• a particular system of values and principles of conduct, esp. one held by a specified person or society: a bourgeois morality.
• the extent to which an action is right or wrong: behind all the arguments lies the issue of the morality of the possession of nuclear weapons.
I see no mention here of religion as a requirement for morality. From Wikipedia:
Morality (from the Latin moralitas “manner, character, proper behavior”) is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are “good” (or right) and those that are “bad” (or wrong). The philosophy of morality is ethics. A moral code is a system of morality (according to a particular philosophy, religion, culture, etc.) and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code. Morality may also be specifically synonymous with “goodness” or “rightness.” Immorality is the active opposition to morality (i.e. opposition to that which is good or right), while amorality is variously defined as an unawareness of, indifference toward, or disbelief in any set of moral standards or principles. An example of a moral code is the Golden Rule which states that, “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.”
I think it is fairly obvious that morality is relative depending on different sources as well as interpretations. But we’re not just talking about the source or framework of morality are we? We are also talking about actual human behavior and the notion that only those that believe in a higher power can or will behave in a moral way. One aspect of this seems to be that the threat of eternal damnation should serve as a deterant even as the promise of an eternal heaven serves as an enticement. Of course, for many Christians, actual conduct is irrelevant as long as one accepts Jesus before dying. As an atheist I’d suggest that human morality, both the structure of recommended behavior as well as the actual behavior, is far too important to leave to religion. I would suggest that our morality requires a level of rational thought and understanding of evolving complex systems and that to rely on outdated and unproven religious beliefs rooted in confused texts and superstition is nothing short of folly.
Let me put it another way. Any morality rooted in contradictory and confused texts written by men worshiping an unproven supernatural power should not be the basis for a modern morality that guides human behavior in era of science and rationality. Such texts are, simply, not up to the task. What is needed today (and what has been needed for a very long time) is a living morality that is being actively questioned and fine tuned by the humans of today. In this regard I would suggest that it is to atheists that we might look for a new, updated morality that is based on an understanding of reality as informed by the best minds of our times. This is not to say that such a morality is to be the sole province of atheists but that it is past the time that we stop pretending that superstitious belief systems can be the primary foundation for what is considered good human behavior. In fact, the longer we cater to such belief systems the more likely we are to cause irreparable damage to our planet. Let’s explore some examples.
A common emphasis of faith-based belief systems is the idea of eternal life after death. Depending on which interpretation of the New Testament you might prefer, such eternal life takes place in heaven or on a new earth. Regardless of that, in such a worldview long-term life on Earth becomes far less important. Our dealings with our environment, with the ecological systems of our planet, are one area of morality that might be considered not only important but critical to our survival. What kind of morality do we get from religions that not only emphasize an unproven afterlife but which explicitly state that that life is more important than the current one? What kind of relationship can we expect with our planet’s life support systems when the guiding morality explicitly states that a new Earth will be provided?
The problem of faith-based belief systems is the resistance they provide against critical, rational thought. In the U.S. there is a long standing conflict between many Christians and those that advocate science literacy. It manifests in a variety of ways, most notably in the “debate” over evolution and creationism. The “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the Universe is another. On the issue of human-caused climate change and what might need to be done to address the problem, we see a situation in which the public, lacking the scientific literacy needed to understand the available information, has demonstrated a very confused reaction. While this confusion is not the direct result of any specific religious influence, it might well be presented as an example of what happens when a superstitious population, lacking in basic scientifc literacy, is presented with a very serious and complex social-ecological problem that can only be understood in scientific terms. Without the skills and knowledge needed to evaluate the quality of information (and the sources) being presented on the internet and in the corporate media, public opinion has swayed back and forth year to year.
Ask a few adults you know about the cause of seasons on Earth and many will not know the correct answer. This is basic science knowledge and yet many do not understand. According to a recent National Science Foundation poll, 25% of Americans do not know that the Earth orbits the Sun but think the opposite is true. These are just the basics of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately we also see a general lack of understanding of the scientific method or of how science works on a larger scale via peer reviewed publishing. Unfortunately it’s not just average citizens that are ignorant of basic scientific knowledge and process but also many elected representatives that make important decisions on funding and regulation. Currently less than 2% of U.S. Congressman have a background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Perhaps this helps to explain why so little has been done to solve problems such as climate change?
A society which has the capability of sending spacecraft to the edges of its solar system is one which is obviously capable of leaving behind superstition and embracing complex, rational thought. A society which has remotely landed a variety of rovers on other planets is a society which is capable of developing advanced technology and has, at the very least, some portion of the population which is dedicated to scientific endeavors. Of course it is also true that science is the tool that is often used for ethically questionable ends. Asking how we might develop this or that technology is not enough. We should also be asking why we should be developing such technologies. Bioengeneering is one area of scientific development which has met with a great deal of resistance across the planet. Whether the issue is the genetic engineering of the food supply or some other application of the technology, the ethics are not yet settled. Who do we turn to when we are uncertain of the ethics of certain technological development or the ethics of the goals of some areas of scientific pursuit? Is there a difference between science that is conducted by a corporation such as Monsanto and that conducted by a publicly funded university? Science is a tool and can be used in many ways. Are we to turn to the religious texts of history to guide us in such discussion and decision making?
I propose that there really is no need for debate on this topic. Human society has outgrown moral frameworks based on unproven historical texts that are little more than superstition. Such frameworks are not just a hinderance to our understanding of the Universe around us but also an obstacle to our ability to adjust to new social ecological problems. What is needed today is a living, rational morality which is informed by reasoned discussion and debate guided by the most current information provided by peer reviewed science.