Monday, December 25, 2006

Does Morality Depend on Religion?

This Christmas Day, many Americans contemplate their God. To them, their religion provides moral guidance. Without religion, they believe there would be no morality. They uphold the Nietzchean view that (paraphrasing) says, "If God were dead, all would be permitted."

Well, I am one atheist who believes in an absolute right and wrong, one that stems from an objective reality. Man's life has certain requirements. To live, he must do certain things, and if he doesn't, he suffers or dies. Morality derives from man's nature.

As an example, consider that to eat, men must plant crops. To plant crops, they must observe how plants grow, and then exert effort to plant them, fertilize and irrigate them, and harvest them. All of these steps requires a focus on the world "out there." Not only must he focus on what he sees and hears, he must accurately process that information and form correct conclusions, and then he must act on it. He must act on it in furtherance of his own life.

All of these steps are uses of his reason. Reason means adhering to the evidence of his senses (not some supernatural dimension), and using rational processes to form correct conclusions about what he sees (not blindly following emotions or whim). Then he must exert effort to achieve a goal that benefits him (rather than passively depend on someone else to do it for him).

Thus, man's nature means he must use reason to live for his own benefit. So, to be moral is to be rationally selfish, to live for oneself in a rational manner.

If man's nature demands reason to live, why do so many people believe that only religion -- i.e., the unworldly, the irrational, the supernatural -- can provide a basis for morality?

I have been puzzled by that question. To see one answer, which pins it on a mistaken response to the amorality of our age, see the following article, entitled: "Moral Values Without Religion" by Peter Schwartz, available at this link:

The first few paragraphs of the article appear below:

"Does morality depend upon religion? Most people believe it does, which is a major reason behind the appeal of the religious right. People believe that without faith in a supernatural authority, we can have no moral values--no moral absolutes, no black-and-white distinctions, no firm demarcation between good and evil--in life or in politics. This is the assumption underlying Justice Antonin Scalia's assertion that "government derives its authority from God," since only religious faith can supposedly provide moral constraints on human action.

And what draws people to this bizarre premise--the premise that there is no rational basis for refraining from murder, rape or anarchism? The left's persistent assault on moral values.

That is, liberals characteristically renounce moral absolutes in favor of moral grayness. They insist, for example, that criminals should not be reviled, but should be seen as tragic products of their "social environment"--that teenage mothers are just as entitled to welfare checks as wage-earners are to their paychecks, and that to deny welfare benefits for a child born into a family already receiving welfare is, as the ACLU declares, to "unconstitutionally coerce women's reproductive decisions"--that America is morally equivalent to its enemies, with our own policies having provoked the Sept. 11 attacks and our "unilateralist" actions in Iraq being no different from any forcible occupation of one nation by another.

Repulsed by such egalitarian, anti-"judgmental" absurdities, many people disavow what they regard as leftism's essence: secularism, and turn to religion for their values.

[for the rest of the article, go to link]"


Anonymous said...

That's called objectivism. Been reading any Ayn Rand lately? Rand says that man is a heroic being in and of himself "with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." She says that selfishness is a moral virtue (The Virtue of Selfishness) by which all men should strive to utilize their own thinking minds for rational self-interest (which is not the same as sadism).

The point that most religions make is that any moral or rational framework that claims to be objective and absolute must come from without ourself and, even more, from without mankind.

"1. How can I be absolutely obligated by something less than me--for example, by animal instinct or practical need for material survival?

2. How can I obligate myself absolutely? Am I absolute? Do I have the right to demand absolute obedience from anyone, even myself? And if I am the one who locked myself in this prison of obligation, I can also let myself out, thus destroying the absoluteness of the obligation which we admitted as our premise.

3. How can society obligate me? What right do my equals have to impose their values on me? Does quantity make quality? Do a million human beings make a relative into an absolute? Is 'society' God?

4. The only source of absolute moral obligation left is something superior to me. This binds my will morally, with rightful demands for complete obedience."

Kreeft, Peter. Tacelli, Ronald. The Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Illinois: InterVersity Press. 2003.

However, religion is a man-made construction created in order to help individuals focus on certain principles. In Christianity, the most prevalent religion, it is the fact that morality necessarily comes from an objective source outside ourselves. So, does morality depend upon religion? No, religion depends upon morality, which depends upon something outside of nature and ourselves.

Galileo Blogs said...

You say: "The only source of absolute moral obligation left is something superior to me."

No, the only source of absolute moral obligation is our natures as man. The objective requirements of our well-being, which are determined by our identities as humans, is the basis of morality.

It is an absolute moral principle that man must eat to live. Why? Because our biological nature means that we will die if we don't eat.

It is an absolute moral principle that we need freedom from coercion to live. Why? Because reason, which is our faculty of awareness and means of knowledge, requires it to function.

Man's nature is objective and knowable using reason and the evidence of our senses. It is man's nature, and the objective nature of the world, that underlie morality, not the existence of a supernatural dimension or entity.

Anonymous said...

The first example is refuted by the first question, "How can I be absolutely obligated by something less than me--for example, by animal instinct or practical need for material survival?"

The second example isn't entirely true. You can live without freedom from coercion. Just ask prison inmates.

It may be man's nature to use reason and his senses in relating with the world he perceives to exist, but is this nature inherent in the universe or in man himself? If it is in man, then it is subjective to the ideals of man, which goes back to the second and third questions. If it is in nature, it is objective according to some universal morality that everyone must adhere to which, if no higher entity exists, necessarily comes from something less than man (e.g., the necessity of living organisms to eat in some fashion).

Galileo Blogs said...


Man and his nature are both within the universe. They are neither higher nor lower than the universe; they are part of the universe.

As for morality, it is not something external to man. It is simply a code of action which man needs since he must make choices in order to live.

Morality stems from man's nature, not any other authority.

As for your overall argument, it suggests that you believe that morality, while "objective" according to you, is actually given by God. If so, you must establish that God exists, something that cannot be done.

Belief in God means reliance on the cognitive method of faith, which is the willingness to believe without regard for evidence.

Faith is a show-stopper, since the only basis I know of for a discussion is reason, i.e., logic and the evidence of my senses.

Am I characterizing your argument correctly? Do you believe in God? Is God the ultimate source of morality?

Anonymous said...

Where does man's nature come from? From where does it emanate?

Morality ties into this question as well. If it is simply a code of action which is necessary to man, where does this code come from? I believe you are saying it comes from his nature. If so, his code comes from his nature which comes from the universe. But what is the universe compared to man? It is nothing but dead, inert matter dancing to the laws of physics. Along with it, in relation to living organisms, the bottom line is survival. Instinct is key here. But base instinct is primeval, something that is lower than man (it is the basis of the id without any higher guidelines but to live--it promotes sufficiency and, if it creates an advantage, ruthless competition to the point of devouring or eliminating it), but is undoubtedly necessary. Are you saying our entire basis for morality comes from this?

Your argument suggests that morality, also "objective" according to you, is actually given by nature, otherwise it is subjective and subject to the whims of the individual.

You'll have to define what you mean by "evidence." Evidence can very well be subjective, especially when it comes to the senses. Is sensory perception reliable? The mind is a delusion-generating machine that can make you believe anything. Your mind is your playing field. People can be put under hypnosis and made to believe they are feeling a myriad of false sensations. People claim to see ghosts and ufos and all sorts of things based on perception.

Reasoning and the evidence of your senses are not always reliable. Minds will try to reason everything away while senses will play on erroneous, naive, or misinformed conclusions, having the ability to convincingly substantiate anything subjectively.

If faith is a "show-stopper," it is not the only one. Reason and evidence from your senses are "show-stoppers" as well. A friend of mine is completely convinced that he had an out of body experience because of what he claims to have experienced. But the evidence of his senses and the conclusions he draws through his form of reasoning are subjective to him and unconvincing to me.

So yes, you are characterizing my argument, but only in part.

Galileo Blogs said...

Clever sophistry, but no argument. Despite the quantity of verbiage, you did not answer any of my questions about whether your argument is one that stems from religious faith. However, from your responses, it is clear that yours is a religious argument. Religion relies on faith, which is the negation of reason. Therefore, it can't be argued.

All one can say is that you have faith and I don't. I accept only the external reality as perceived through my senses. I rely on senses that are valid. I will form conclusions using the method of reason. Since your argument rejects all of these premises by its belief in a supernatural dimension, there can be no basis for a discussion.

Thank you for your comments. However, this dialogue is over. There is no commonality of basic premises or method that would make it possible to continue.

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