Morality without deities

Everyone believes they have rights. But individual rights crumble without universal human rights.

Near Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

The universe, or nature if you prefer, seems indifferent to me.

Species evolve then die out. And things go on.

An animal eats another animal alive, at great suffering to one and benefit to the other.

Millions of human beings have lived and died but today are completely forgotten as if they never lived.

Yet, human beings evolved a set of behaviors that enhance the survival of individuals who depend in part on the group to survive.

Those who did not play well with others in the evolutionary environment found themselves ostracized — and perhaps unable to survive without the group. And the group killed some for being a threat to other people’s survival.

Our innate moral sensibilities, in order of importance, are:

  1. You shouldn’t do that to me.
  2. You shouldn’t do that to people I care about.
  3. I shouldn’t do that to you if others will hold me accountable.

We’re first and foremost concerned about what happens to us, and how we treat others is often an afterthought — especially if we think there won’t be any consequences.

This sounds cynical and selfish. But everyone is self-interested. Those who deny this are the most dangerous of all because they fail to see their selfishness until it’s too late.

But just because selfishness is part of our evolutionary inheritance does not mean things ought to be this way. The fact that we can do better challenges excuses for acting selfishly.

Further, morality isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It’s true that no man is an island — even a hermit needs other people to survive.

An important aspect of morality, then, consists of standards generally accepted by a group for continued membership in that group.

And the recognition that we are incorrigibly egotistical is necessary to see the larger group picture.

That’s why various iterations of the Golden Rule — from the Far East to the West — tell us to treat others the way we want to be treated.

It’s a moral ideal precisely because it runs counter to our impulses.

The problem, however, is that a group might oppress a minority or an out-group without negative consequences. Tribalism is also an evolved feature of human behavior, and it has serious consequences for our treatment of foreigners, minorities, and so on.

On what basis can say this is wrong?

If our primary moral sensibility is that “you shouldn’t do this to me” then the rights of the individual are the basis for all human rights.

To put it selfishly, if you don’t support human rights for others then you have no reason to expect others to support your human rights.

Moreso, culture is the mechanism for promoting ideals such as universal human rights.

If limiting ourselves to our biological inheritance were sufficient then we’d still be living in caves. But we are capable of creating technology that improves our lives and reduces the capricious effects of nature.

Likewise for culture extending moral ideals beyond our selfish impulses.

Still, we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. But we know we’re failing when we point a finger at others.


Belief & disbelief in God is just an opinion

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Religious belief or disbelief isn’t really a big deal. After all, religion and atheism are only matters of opinion.

Agnosticism is a half answer

Does God exist? How can we quantify the something that’s allegedly infinite? It’s not a testable claim.

Agnosticism, however, is about what we can know or not know for a fact. But you don’t have to know to believe or disbelieve.

Science doesn’t settle the question

Each perspective has its strengths and weaknesses. The improbability of our life sustaining universe is a serious objection to atheism. Speculations such as multiple universes, where the improbable would become inevitable, are unproven. Ideas like our universe being a simulation are even less satisfying. Who created the simulation? An alien from another universe? Who created that alien?

But then, who created God? And who created the one who created God?

It’s enough to make your head spin.

Proving the multiverse exists wouldn’t settle the debate, though. Who created the multiverse? Besides, true believers already reject evolution and would reject any new scientific evidence.

Faith doesn’t answer the question

At least science is about testing propositions, not asserting opinions. But religions often prohibit tests of their doctrines.

If God exists there’s the question of what God is like. That’s where revelation and sacred texts, which are based on someone’s personal experiences, enter the picture.

I can’t deny your personal experience because it doesn’t belong to me. But because it doesn’t belong to me I can’t accept your experience as the basis of my belief. Instead I accept that it’s your perspective.

But for your or my experience to be accepted as fact requires empirical verification under strictly controlled conditions that must then be independently verified.

Besides, personal experiences and religious texts vary wildly. How you can be so certain – even to the point of condemning others – is a question anyone must answer if they’re going to claim their beliefs are facts.

Further, Christians often say the Bible is inerrant. Yet biblical contradictions are numerous. The Bible also justifies slavery and orders women to marry their rapists. So it’s reasonable to question the claim that the Bible is the word of a perfectly good deity.

Our flawed world raises more questions about God (if he exists)

The belief that God can do anything has its problems. The universe appears to work a certain way, and there are no verified instances of the laws of nature being violated. Miracles where the laws of nature are suspended either rely on hearsay or turn out to be false when rigorously tested. Atheists like to point out that amputees never regrow limbs no matter how hard they pray.

It’s not unreasonable to say God (if he exists) either won’t or can’t suspend the laws of nature. If God can’t then he’s not omnipotent. If he won’t then he’s not perfectly good.

On top of that, the design of the world could be better. Birth defects are an obvious example. Or the fact that it’s easy to choke on food or for women to develop fistulas after childbirth when a better design would prevent these raises serious questions about the omnipotence of the Designer.

But is it worth believing in a God who is not all-powerful even if he’s more powerful than anyone else? For some, yes. For others, no. It depends on your opinion.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.

Money is a cultural myth.

Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.

Human rights don’t exist objectively.

Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.

The faith that science will save us is mistaken.

How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.

The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.

As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

We are a tribal species. But it doesn’t have to be our downfall.

Us vs. them is human nature. Human rights, equality & democracy are the answers.

Us versus them is one of the most common themes in politics, history, IMG_0472sports, business, music – in human nature in general. But people also can be amazingly generous, compassionate, and cooperative.

In the 1970s E.O. Wilson proposed sociobiology to explain this contradiction. We’re a super social species, and just as adaptations to the environment drive our physical evolution, adaptations to the demands of our social group drive psychological evolution. In other words, our social behavior has biological roots.

Today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past.

But this social behavior has its limits. In The Social Conquest of Earth Wilson notes, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Social skills are key to human survival. The most socially cohesive tribes surpassed less adept tribes. And today’s social groups are like the tribes of the past. But cooperation, while valued among members of the ingroup, is valued far less with the outgroup. Often there’s violence.

And we mustn’t forget about competition within a tribe for power and social status. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to quote a Bedouin saying: it’s me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; and me, my brother, and our cousin against the stranger. The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

This is why Wilson tells us that human beings seem to be of two minds: self-sacrificing and viciously selfish, altruistic and self-interested, peacemakers and warriors, empathic and uncaring, and so on.

The more distant our connection the less you matter to me.

I don’t think argue pure altruism exists. Evolution ultimately is about the perpetuation of an individual’s genes, so it all comes down to self-interest. But there’s narrow self-interest, or competition, which is win-lose; and there’s broader self-interest, or cooperation, which is win-win.

Both cooperation and competition can be good. But narrow self-interest is our default. And this can be problematic. Our shared humanity (and shared DNA with other species) means we’re closer to others than we often think. But failing to realize this leads us to think that others don’t matter, and we can do whatever we want to them. This is how rape, murder, genocide, torture, and any number of horrible things happen.

Human societies have tried to solve these problems. It took us thousands of years, however, to figure out that democracy, equality, and universal human rights are essential to mitigate the dark side of human nature.

Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe.

And we can do better still. Religion fuels tribalism, but atheism is just another tribe to contend with. What can we do about this? Wilson suggests:

  • Challenging the claims of those in power that they speak for God, are God’s special representatives, and have exclusive knowledge. This includes challenging the alleged special status of the pope and even the Dali Lama.
  • Acknowledging that we are solely responsible for our actions, which includes how we treat others, animals, and the earth.
  • Accepting that science is the best method we have for discovering objective truth about the world.

To this I would add that we should try to figure out what encourages cooperation, and what encourages competition. After all, competition is often good. Competition drives us toward something better. But competition can get out of hand. Where is the line, and what leads to us crossing it?

We need democracy on a global scale, and a universal bill of human rights.

We need democracy on a global scale. There are still too many undemocratic countries. And most corporations are not democracies even though there’s no reason why corporations can’t be run more democratically.

I don’t advocate a strong world government, however, because that would be too big of a temptation for a would-be dictator. But we could have a universal bill of human rights that we would strive for all nations to amend into their national constitutions.

When Is It Okay to Criticize Religion?

A person’s religion is a huge part of their identity, so criticism of religion is often taken as a personal attack. Progressives claim it’s racist to criticize Islam, conservatives say liberals unfairly single out Christianity, and atheists criticize every religion (even Buddhism).

Some people say we shouldn’t criticize religion. Yet, religious beliefs have an enormous impact on people’s lives – especially for those don’t belong to the dominant religion.

Others say we can and should criticize religion because attacking ideas is not the same as attacking people. But it’s an easy line to cross. If a belief is absurd does that make the believer absurd?

At least some criticism of religion is hard to avoid, however. Christians try to convert others, and they back it up with the threat of eternal damnation. By proselytizing a believer invites a response, and that response might be critical.

And Christians in the United States led the campaign against same-sex marriage primarily because of biblical morality. There was no way for marriage equality supporters to argue their case without criticizing what Christians believe.

The same is true of Islam. The severe impact Islam has on the lives of women, religious minorities, and others in Middle Eastern countries opens Islam to criticism. Yet, in 2014 Hirsi Ayaan Ali (an ex-Muslim and survivor of female genital mutilation) was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Brandeis University because she is an outspoken critic of Islam, which she calls a “cult of death.”

While I wouldn’t call Islam a violent religion, I wouldn’t call Islam a peaceful religion either. The same is true for Christianity, Buddhism, and other religions. And atheism too. Every one of these is a mixed bag because human beings are neither inherently violent nor inherently peaceful. We all have the capacity for both.

Perhaps it all comes down to how religion is criticized. I don’t go out of my way to dis religion, but neither am I silent. However, I avoid saying “you’re wrong” in favor of saying “I disagree.”

I try to minimize adjectives such as irrational, harmful, etc. Instead, I try to be specific about my objections, such as saying, “I can think of several biblical contradictions.”

I try to be friendly and humorous. I try to be open minded, which in my view doesn’t mean agreeing. Open mindedness means a willingness to listen, trying to accurately understand the other person’s perspective – even if I disagree.

Finally, there are some ideologues who only want to fight rather than engage in true dialogue. In those cases it’s best to just walk away if I can.

So Now Prayer Shaming Is a Thing

There’s a never ending list of things people are shamed for, which leads me to believe that we all need to lighten up a bit.

It’s no big deal if someone does something that I personally wouldn’t do, if someone dresses in a way I wouldn’t dress, or if someone has opinions I disagree with. Unless they try to impose it on me, or it causes genuine harm, then let it pass.

Having an agenda, however, often involves avoiding personal responsibility for imposing on others. This includes contrived excuses about the harmfulness of praying for shooting victims rather than taking action to curb gun violence (as if the two are mutually exclusive), a scientist wearing a risqué shirt supposedly driving women away from science, or disapproving someone’s bikini because it violates some people’s beauty standards.

And having been shamed, many people are quick to play up their victimization, thereby gaining social status as a long suffering member of an oppressed group.

But there’s more self-respect in standing firm and setting boundaries.

My attitude is that I can do what I want as long as I don’t mess with other people and I own my shit. But sometimes I find it hard to distinguish my fellow atheists from the moralists they decry. Yes, religion can be harmful when it encourages terrorism and promotes bigotry. Criticizing religious belief when it’s used to harm others is necessary, but praying harms no one unless it’s done to the exclusion of other measures or if others are pressured into praying when they don’t want to.

Perhaps the best religious response to prayer shaming would be, “Praying is my choice. Not praying is your choice. I’m not here to judge your choice, and I reject your judgment of mine.”

Of course, religious people who shame disbelievers for the immorality of not believing in supernatural forces are unable to say this without being hypocritical. Boundaries are always a two-way street.

The same is true for celebrities who face feminist wrath because they choose not to call themselves feminists. It would be great to see a celebrity set some boundaries by saying something like, “I choose my own labels. You are not entitled to say what I should call myself.”

What can I do as an individual to confront the endless barrage of public shaming? Minding my business is a huge part of stopping shaming from happening in the first place. This won’t stop others from poking their noses into my business, but I can choose whether to accept or reject someone else’s shaming.

Playing the victim means accepting the shaming in order to gain pity from others and to have a justification for retribution. But pity becomes a moot point when I reject the shaming. Setting boundaries reasserts my dignity, and retribution is not needed because an essential part of boundary setting is not crossing other people’s boundaries.

Why Religion Evolved

Everybody’s looking for something.  I think the Eurhythmics sang that.  People look for the love of their lives, devote themselves to religion, become activists for a political ideology, and are spiritual seekers because they’re looking for something.

But what is this something?  No one can quite put their finger on it.

Some people even think this something would appear if only everyone else would adopt their ideology.  And when others don’t, they lash out in anger.  And so religion and politics descend into authoritarianism.

Religion’s epitaph has been written many times, each one premature and disconnected from reality. There’s never been a culture without it, and atheists are a minority even in the most secular societies.

This calls for an evolutionary explanation that isn’t dismissive or partisan. The title of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell implies an ideological quest to diminish religion. Still, he’s right about religion being a natural phenomenon which should be studied as such.

Dennett focuses on agenticity (also called theory of mind or intentional stance): we automatically assume, even as toddlers, that other people have thoughts, intentions, beliefs, etc. But we overgeneralize. Little children often think their teddy bears can think and feel. Even as adults we might describe a computer as being stupid, as if a computer could think.

The earliest religions were animistic, where the forces of nature were thought to act intentionally and the sun and moon were deities. So it’s not much of a stretch from there to the assumption that invisible agents such as spirits and gods exist, and that whatever animated someone in life must continue after death.

But this doesn’t explain why religion is such a pervasive group endeavor. Evolution typically focuses on the individual, but individuals don’t exist in isolation – we survive in groups. So it makes sense that evolution selected for behaviors that enable individuals to be effective group members. (This is not group evolution, but rather individuals who cooperate with others being more likely to survive.)

Religion often creates the cohesion groups need, as well as addressing the uniquely human search for meaning. Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, quotes a World War II veteran who said that at first he thought marching exercises were stupid, but he understood its purpose once his unit began to function almost like a single organism with each person forgetting his individuality.

In battle you forget about yourself, but once the bullets stop flying you’re an individual again. Transcendence is short lived because it serves a specific function, that of binding the individual to the whole by temporarily leaving the self behind.  But for mundane tasks, which is most of what we do, we need to act as individuals.

The transcendence of self that soldiers experience in combat is not unlike the transcendence of self the Zen master experiences in meditation (but less riskier).  In the evolutionary environment, humans had to deal not only with conflicts with outside groups, but more often they had to function as a hunting team.  This was much harder than sport hunting today.  Weapons were primitive, there were predators like lions to contend with, and failure meant starvation.  Subsuming the self to the interests of the whole can be necessary for group coherence with nonviolent tasks as well.

In other words, civilization can’t happen without the ability to focus on something greater than ourselves – and religion helps us do this.  Haidt points out that many anthropologists view religion not primarily as belief in supernatural agents, but rather as primarily about community and ritual.

Ritualistic behavior is also a human universal, and synchronized movement – whether it’s marching soldiers or a religious ritual – seems to play an essential role in binding a group together.  The wave at a baseball game does the same thing.

That complex civilizations are impossible without cooperation is no small observation.  Haidt notes that you never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.  Chimps don’t cooperate at such a high level.  But humans cooperate to the point where we’ve gone to the moon.

As such, Haidt (though an atheist) disagrees with Dennett’s claim that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other traits, much like alcoholism’s (partially) genetic basis.  Haidt claims that religion evolved because it serves to cohere a group of people.

In sum, religion is about what happens between individuals and groups, and these individuals include invisible agents born from a pervasive human cognitive error (overgeneralized agenticity).

To this end, Haidt notes that, “Religion cannot be studied in lone individuals any more than hivishness can be studies in lone bees” (p. 248). Thus, religion can only be understood in the context of community.

Further, Nichols Wade, in The Faith Instinct, claims that morality – the need to sometimes subordinate one’s self-interest to the greater needs of society – also evolved in humans to enable us to function in groups. As such, it makes sense that religion took on morality as its special project. Supernatural agents often are the enforcers of morality, thus tying agenticity and group cohesion together.

I think another reason religion evolved is that our intelligence leads us to wonder why we exist at all, and so people everywhere seem to need a comprehensive worldview that explains why we’re here and where we’re going.  Typically, this worldview is communicated as a story or myth. A shared worldview conveys meaning, and this is essential for a species that can ask the question, Why?

But free riders are a big problem groups face. The most conservative religions today seem to be the most successful, which baffles secularists and religious progressives.  Economist Laurence Iannaccone notes that conservative groups demand a high membership price – adhering to a strict moral code, distinctive dress, rejection by mainstream society, etc. In return they receive the benefits of group membership. Free riders don’t like the price, so they drift away.

None of this shows that God doesn’t exist, but neither does it prove God does exist. But what if God does exist? The modesty that comes with uncertainty causes us to recognize a few things:

For starters, there’s no way to know, so belief is an opinion and we can’t blame atheists for disagreeing. Even if there is some higher power, there’s no reason to assume this is God rather than an impersonal principle, a Goddess, or multiple deities.

And now that we know just how vast the universe is, it seems unlikely that God created all this just for us, or that God is even a person. If horses had gods they would look like horses, as they saying goes.

Then there’s the problem of ideas that are logically incoherent, such as the trinity or evil and the existence of an all-powerful, perfectly good God. And we must recognize that science trumps religion regarding the natural world. But if science someday is able to show that multiple universes are most likely the case, then God’s fate may be sealed because the statistical improbability of our universe would disappear.

So while rumors of religion’s demise are greatly exaggerated, religion is stuck in the past and is struggling to grow up. If history is any guide, however, religion will eventually succeed. The specifics aren’t yet clear, but typically the process is organic and grassroots rather than by design or decree.