21 June, 2008

Morals Come From Plenty of Places Other Than God

In Summerian mythology, the gods sent a flood to wipe out humanity because humans were too noisy. Enlil didn't appreciate being kept up at night. Seems it never occurred to him to just ask the silly buggers to keep it down.

I can sympathize. My neighbors threw a party tonight, and it was like pulling teeth to get them to understand that some folks around here don't appreciate noise after midnight. They got it on the third try. Note to Enlil: you don't always need a flood.

Now, a Christian might ask me, without God to point the way, what kept this atheist from trooping down there with a shotgun and playing Enlil? Morals, you see, can only come from God, in their worldview. An atheist, having no god, has nothing to keep them moral, or so the muddled thinking goes.

I've been reading Hitch's The Portable Atheist, and there's some deep philosophical musings in there trying to demonstrate that one can have a solid foundation for morals without God. They all overshoot the mark. They get all hard-core logical and miss the simple truths: empathy and rationality are all you need.

Atheists, you see, have no trouble thinking things through, and seeing it from the other bloke's perspective.

So here's what stopped me from ending the noise pollution in the most final way possible:

First, I know the poor buggers were just unwinding after a long week, probably had a few in them, and weren't really aware of just how much they were irritating the poor bugger above them who was trying to relax after a long, hard day of watching the House sell the Fourth Amendment down the river.

Second, I would greatly appreciate it if my neighbors registered their displeasure at any noise I created with something other than a weapon. A simple "knock it the hell off" will do.

Thirdly, even if it were somehow permissible to end someone's life over something as petty as excessive noise, there's the family and friends to think about. I may not love these noisy buggers right now, but someone does, and it would make me feel a right bastard to cause them no end of pain and grief simply because I can't put up with temporary discomfort.

There are of course ten dozen other reasons I can think of for not offing my neighbors, but I don't think I need to belabor them. In a civilized society, you don't go all amoral and start the indiscriminate killing just because you don't have a god to tell you not to. You leave the other bugger alive because you have empathy, and because you know that society would soon cease to function if everybody had a license to kill.

I'd even go so far as to say that it's easier to be moral without God. Let's play a hypothetical game. Let's say it's perfectly legal to off your neighbor for disturbing you. Let's say there's no law against it. What's to keep me from trooping downstairs with murderous intent, then?

A Christian might say, "Nothing, if you don't believe in God."

To which I say, "Bunk."

And let me further state this: absent any law forbidding me to murder my neighbor, I'd still have a hard time killing him over a temporary irritation, and indeed a harder time than a Christian might have. You see, I don't believe there's life after death. I wouldn't be able to tell myself, "I'm sending him to a better place anyway." I'd have nothing to salve my conscience with. What's the loss of a few hours' worth of peace and quiet for me, set against the loss of everything for him, forever?

There's that empathy, again. Because what comes to mind when I think of this is the pain and fear of his last few seconds of life, followed by the pain and grief of his family and friends as they face the rest of their lives knowing there will never be another moment together. Not here, and not hereafter. How could I possibly bring myself to be the cause of that?

God doesn't have to tell me, "Thou shalt not kill." My humanity, which evolved as part of this extraordinary brain of ours, tells me that just fine.

I'll go further: I think that morals arising from us rather than God have greater authority. If we achieve those morals based on common humanity rather than common belief, they're far more inclusive. I can't exempt anyone based on ethnicity or creed, you see, because we're all human. I can't deny a moral arising from common humanity the way I could deny one coming from the wrong god.

I could go on. There are morals, and then there are mores. Someday, possibly, I'll discuss the difference between the big, sweeping moral pronouncements (don't kill each other over petty bullshit) and the morals that are more guidelines than rules (don't fuck in public). But I think this is enough to get us started. It's enough to present a simple answer to an inane question: "How can you be moral without God?"

I have empathy and rationality. It's really all I need.


Cobalt said...

I think that for a lot of people this is a difficulty of what they think God thinks of humans.

The obvious retort to the "humans would have no morality without God" is that Judaism (and therefore the religions that branched out of it) makes it pretty damn clear that humans have a conscience. If Genesis isn't enough (with that pesky "you can't be immortal and have a conscience, so humans have to die in exchange for full sentience" bit in the Garden), there's that bit from Romans about the consciences of gentiles answering for them and alternately condemning or defending them.

The reason people can ignore these and say that if you don't believe in God you won't have any way to discern good from evil is that they've internalized this terrible view that mortals should trust themselves as little as possible and do what they're told out of fear that they might make the *gasp* wrong choice. Not only do I feel like that creates a culture in which religion is boiled down to obedience (which sucks), but in light of some core teachings in the Bible you could even call it heretical.

So yeah. I get frustrated to when I hear atheists told that if you don't trace your morals back to God you won't follow any morals at all. Even if you believe that the human conscience was put there by God... you're kind of required to believe that it is there whether the individual believes in God or not.

There's something perverse about a Wiccan accusing Christians of heresy. But I think it's a decent case.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there's a bit in the old testament where God smites the neighbours of a prophet/leader of one of the tribes of Israel for making a noise at an inappropriate time ... I know for sure there are lots of bits where they get smitten (that seems too cuddly in the past tense - smited?) for just existing and not being part of the chosen people.

I feel the old testament gives a lot of insight into the "morality" of fundamentalist christians...

Cujo359 said...

Richard Dawkins did a great job of satirizing the premise that morality must originate from religion somehow in The God Delusion. He pointed out the germ warfare, stonings, genocides, filicides, and attempted filicides, etc. that are a part of the Bible, and asked rhetorically "Why would anyone look to this for moral guidance?"

The truth, I think, is that everyone finds the meaning he needs in the things he encounters. It doesn't matter if it's the Bible or Star Trek - if you want to be a good person, you can find the inspiration. If you want to be a bad person, you can find the excuses.

Cujo359 said...

Star Trek? I should have mentioned Babylon 5.

Efrique said...

Even funnier is the ones that think that atheists do have morals - they just stole them from God and won't admit it.

NP said...

I agree with you about achieving morals without the instruction (or demand, for that matter) of a higher power. And as a Christian, I see it as a "proud papa" kind of thing if I choose to do the right thing (or decide for myself what the right thing is) without asking God/dess/es to kick me in the right direction. After all, if I were a mother, I'd be proud of children who did something right on their own.

Incidentally, I sympathize with your neighbor situation. Our upstairs neighbors like to vacuum at three a.m.