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.

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Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.

The Dangers of Moralizing

Human beings are moral creatures. Whether you believe God made us that way, or that evolution favored people who worked well with others, doing what’s right matters to everyone. (Well, maybe not to psychopaths.)

For millennia, morality has been a religious monopoly, but today millions of atheists show that you can be good without God. Secular morality (such as the wrongness of homophobia) is overtaking religious morality (such as the wrongness of homosexuality). And that’s a good thing.

But not all moralizing is the same. Some moralizing is an abstract investigation of general principles, or ethics. Some moralizing is self-critical – striving to be a better person, or character. And some moralizing is accusatory, pointing a finger at others and demanding better behavior. Which is to say, self-righteousness.

I grew up in a very religious, Catholic family. In 8th and 9th grade I attended a Christian school run by the Pentecostal, evangelical Assembly of God church. I need not detail the characteristics of right-wing preachers. But I see liberals railing against right-wing evangelicals without pausing to consider why their reaction is so visceral. Yet, a casual glance at Twitter’s left-wing Puritans solves that mystery.

Another example is that the judge who released a court transcript where Bill Cosby admitted giving women Quaaludes for sexual reasons (that is, rape according to two dozen women) said he did so because of the “stark contrast” of Cosby the public moralizer who has behaved in an “improper (and perhaps criminal)” manner.

Which reminds me of the Bible verse where Jesus says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” A priest once told me that Jesus wasn’t saying don’t judge. Rather, he was saying you’ll be held to the same standard, so be careful of the judgments you make.

I’ve heard it said, “When you point a finger you’ve got three fingers pointing back at you.” (Point your index finger then look at your middle, ring, and pinkie fingers.)

The problem with self-righteousness is that it’s often a cover-up for bad behavior. This includes passive-aggressive self-righteousness, where the person doesn’t say, “You are bad,” but rather, “I’m the kind of person who lives by a higher moral standard.” In other words, I’m better than you and you need to be more like me.

As a young social worker in the late 1990s I worked at a residence for people living with AIDS, some of whom were recovering heroin addicts. One resident (I’ll call her “Jane”) had become particularly vocal about the importance of recovery, and how most of the people at Narcotics Anonymous were lying about their sobriety. It got to the point where she began targeting a certain peer.

The residence manager, and de facto substance abuse counselor (and best damn substance abuse counselor I’ve ever known, even if she didn’t have the credentials), told me that Jane had either relapsed or was about to.

I was doubtful. How could someone so passionate about recovery be using? That’s the first sign, she told me. Jane is pointing a finger at others, and she doth protest too much. Sincerity is typically self-focused: the recovering addict talks about fighting her own urge to use.

That lesson stuck with me. As a counselor, she struck a balance between toughness and deep empathy. Such a hard balance! I can be empathetic. And I can be confrontational when need be. But I’ve never been able to be tough and empathetic simultaneously.

This is why I don’t like Dr. Phil. It’s easy to judge him. But it’s true that I don’t like what I see in him because I see it in myself. This is true for all of us, and the people we don’t like.

And that’s the key. If I see something that really riles me about someone else, I need to find where in myself that same fault resides.