Ethics 2

I should preface this, I suppose, by preempting objections that I am about to raise a straw man. To those who would not themselves raise this argument, I appreciate your sobriety. Please understand however that not everyone shares this admirable trait. I am compelled to write this because this argument is real and there really are people out there who think this way, at least for a few hours at a time. I am compelled to write because violence is real and because hatred is real. And I am compelled to write because, irrespective of what religion is or is supposed to be, the belief that religion prevents these things is a lie. And lastly I am compelled to write because when atheists run ad campaigns which respond to this argument (that ethical behavior rests on a god), they have been reflexively regarded as overly aggressive or provocative (to the point of ad agencies demanding more money from atheists than from other customers as ‘insurance‘). This is not about atheism or religion at large. Rather, this about one specific argument.

‘Without God’, it begins, ‘there can be no right or wrong. There can be no good or evil.’ If the advocate is feeling particularly poetical, they might throw in something about murder being morally equivalent to rescuing babies from a house fire. ‘It is God’s will alone which defines morality- what he likes is moral, what he dislikes is not. We must therefore have God if we are to maintain a moral or even just a stable society.’

When I was a Catholic, I found this argument deeply troubling. To claim certain knowledge of your own moral standing would then imply claiming absolute knowledge of the mind of god, and thereby omniscience. Not only impossible, but blasphemous. Yet clearly no lesser standard is to be safe. You saw what happened to the fig tree. Even assuming that the story is metaphorical (and I pretty much did), the Christian message is that acting according to your nature- even when that nature inherently includes doing service to others (as all agricultural plants do)- is not enough.

Moreover, is god really just playing it all by ear? Is morality nothing but a whim? What if god just doesn’t like me? (An aside, the argument that god’s plan is anything more than god’s personal preference also undercuts the argument that morality flows from god alone. If god’s plan is based on anything more solid, it is in principle derivable without god.) And what about my stake in moral actions? If my moral actions are, by definition, actions designed to please god, and such actions are supposed to be rewarded by god, aren’t they selfish? Isn’t acting exclusively in your own interest supposed to be a sin? In a best-case, this is a narrow line to walk.

Not long before I began my deconversion to atheism, I began to realize that this argument was not merely personally troubling; it was just short of an overt threat. That is, if the person making it really felt that way, what would happen if suddenly they no-longer believed in god. Note that this question is independent of the existence of god. It is not the existence or non-existence of a deity that holds this person’s moral universe together; it is their opinion on the matter.

Supposing that god existed, but this person suddenly thought that god was fictional? Would the person arguing with me be less inclined to murder and more inclined to baby-saving than the day before? Suppose that this person’s opinion of god’s will suddenly changed to be more permissive of violence- would they still show the restraint that faith supposedly brings? They just told me that nobody would.

I am left with a disturbing conclusion. These theists (the particular ones advocating this sort of morality, not theists in the general case) are psychopaths waiting to happen. I have no reason to think that someone who tells me that they would kill, or at least assault me if god wasn’t stopping them is lying. What could possibly be their motivation for doing so?

The first time someone said to me “You’re lucky I’m a Christian.”, I was inclined to believe it. The more I think about it though, the less I feel that way. I’m lucky, perhaps, that he didn’t decide that particular day that he wasn’t going to be Christian anymore. But if he’d decided the same a week earlier, he would probably never have met me; some other poor sap would have been on the receiving end of his actualized violence. And then? I believe humans at large would have stopped him from doing it again. Perhaps even stopped him before his violence even became actualized since, at least in some cases, there are warning signs when develop violent behavior. Be it law enforcement, social shunning or just one of his victims showing some spine, he would be stopped. Because that is what we do.

Humans, by and large, would rather build than destroy. We would rather sow seeds than salt. Humans would rather defend the weak than attack them. We would rather grow in knowledge than wither in ignorance. Humans rather often choose to forgive instead of avenge, but we would rather stand up to a bully than appease a coward. Life and love are worth having without the supernatural. Divine grace does not and can not make one ethical. Millions are good without god. Are you?*

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One Response to Ethics 2

  1. a coward says:

    I’m glad you acknowledged that this is not the strongest the opposing side of this matter has to offer, and that you specifically said religion doesn’t prevent instead of saying it causes. It gives appropriate limits to focus on the truth of the arguments you’re making: atheists are (as I see it) illegally discriminated and, on a larger note, that the idea that there must be a God to maintain morality is false.

    I am compelled to point out that your following argument – that having no lesser standard than absolute knowledge of God’s will to act moral in the eyes of God – is flawed. You use the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree as a metaphorical argument that, even if we act in our own nature to the best of our ability, God will strike us for our weakness. There are several flaws with coming to that conclusion, of which I’ll attempt to tackle in an appropriate order:

    One, “bearing fruit” is a metaphor commonly used for “good deeds” in this context (see the following):
    It’s apparent that Jesus is stressing the importance of good deeds.

    Two, the majority of the parables in the Gospels spell out that Jesus is all about forgiveness, mercy, searching for the one among many who is ‘lost’ in their ways — to then interpret that we are not safe from “mistakes” or misfortunes in our nature and circumstance from this one story alone ignores the message laid out in the majority of the Gospel. Looking at the whole of that chapter, it’s apparent that Jesus is also stressing the importance of faith in relation to good deeds.

    Three, Mark’s account is not the only one of the fig tree. See Matthew’s:

    Note that there is no mention of it “not being the season” for fruit, and if we’re to give credit to the authors and believe that the omission was not accidental, we can take in context the other parables and safely assume that this was a “bad tree” which would not change its ways.

    Now I’ll certainly agree that the parable of the fig tree, as well as some other few parables such as the servants charged with increasing their king’s wealth, are disturbing in their implications. I’ll also agree that there are, at best, mysteries as to God’s will (and at worst, immoral messages presented). However, I will not agree that God as understood in Christianity requires absolute understanding of his will — only sincere effort, faith, and desire to give and receive forgiveness.

    Your argument that follows essentially boils down to “God’s will is personal preference. Personal preference is a bad metric as a person is flawed with bias, misinformation, and so on. I do not have the faith that God’s personal preference is not also without flaw.” The term “personal preference” is charged with an inherent argument that, in assumed context, is flawed. It’s generally why you stick with “will” instead. Now, you’re perfectly free to believe that God cannot be perfect in his will; it’s a perfectly logical assumption to make. However, if you accept that it is possible for God’s will to be perfect, then his “personal preference” is stronger than anything else, even principles, and your root fear comes down to “am I someone who God doesn’t want to save?” See above points on forgiveness and so forth.

    I /am/ in full support of your argument that doing good deeds to please God as your sole or even primary motivating factor is selfish and goes against the point of doing the good deeds in the first place in said context. If the main reason I gave you gifts and acted nice to your friends because I wanted you to give me gifts and act nice to me in return, would you really consider that love? No. However, would you not consider it love if that were a reason at all, even if I would do these things without reciprocal love? I would think so, and you would likely give gifts and be my friend in result. Even Jesus preferred not to have to die on the cross if he could help it. The line does not seem thin to me with sincerity of love factored.

    The rest of your argument — that those who only do good deeds out of a reward/punishment factor believe that is the only reason to do good deeds and that they are dangerous people — is, again, something I fully agree with. I’ve met plenty of these sort of people too, and it troubles me greatly. How do you deal with someone with such a metaphorical knife at their side?

    The cynic in me questions your last paragraph. If people are inclined to act good, I believe it’s only through a civilization that encourages that. Can divine grace make you ethical? By definition, yes, as if you believe in divine grace, you believe it ALLOWS you to be ethical. Think of the opposite argument: Does divine grace KEEP you from being ethical? No. Now, DOES divine grace MAKE you ethical? No. If you believe in free will (a grace – an opportunity – granted regardless of origin), you believe that you always have the choice to act unethically. Since I may appear to have lost the original point, I’m simply saying that I agree that morality and ethics do not require God, but being moral and ethical do not require the LACK of God either. They only require choice, however small it may be.

    And just as I don’t care for believers of any faith to sell their faith to me, I don’t care for atheists to sell their ideologies to me either, especially considering that last line was a blatant fallacy of the majority statement. America could stand to shed some of its merchant culture.

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