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Isn't it pretty?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ethics, Morality and Religion (or Not)

There has been a lot of talk in the Blogosphere lately about whether morality is necessarily based on the existence of a God and whether atheists can have a moral code without it. I'm going to jump on the bandwagon here (as much as I make attempts not to) and write a post of my own on the topic. Because I haven't managed to actually read all the posts out there about the topic, I'm not going to argue with anyone or rebut anyone else's point. I'm just going to try to figure out my own.

My undergrad program required each student to take an ethics class. I learned a TON in my ethics class; the phrase categorical imperative still haunts me and the thought of Hobbes' philosophy of humans being in a natural state of war still fills me with dread and sadness. Even more, the memory of being one of only two people in my class arguing that people want to do good to others, unselfishly, still manages to deflate my idealistic bubble just a bit.

The instructor of my class happened to be the best professor I have ever had, and I had taken a class with him previously and gotten to be friendly with him outside of class. Unbeknownst to the rest of the class, my professor was an atheist. He was also one of the most moral people I have known, and while we certainly differed on our views of the origin of the world, we agreed on a lot.

Being an ethical atheist can't be easy. And while he strived to do the right thing, he messed up sometimes, even making big mistakes that he really regretted. But you know what? We all make mistakes; I honestly don't believe it has anything to do with our belief or disbelief in God.

What I think was different about this professor was that he really thought about what was right or wrong; he didn't defer to a Higher Authority, or someone interpreting the words of a Higher Authority. He looked inside himself and asked whether his actions were going to hurt another person; he took full responsibility for his decisions, good or bad.

And that's a big part of what bothers me about religious people claiming that there are no morals or ethics without religion. The people saying it, often haven't really thought about their morals and ethics - they have learned what their Holy Book and Higher Authority say they should do and they accept it. And many times they use these Holy Books and Higher Authority to justify what, if you take the categorical imperative, or often just your common sense, says is wrong. From killing and stealing, to evading taxes and the laws of the country you live in, various very "religious" people use what they claim to be God's laws to justify and rationalize behavior that, if others did unto to them (aka the Golden Rule), they would be very upset about.

Do atheists need a God to justify their actions - to lie, cheat, steal? No. And in some ways, I think it's a nobler take on things, because they have no creed or Authority to blame their actions upon - they have only to take the blame themselves. They can say they don't think their negative actions are wrong, and pay the consequences just as we all do, but they don't fall back on anyone else.

I'm not saying that I think all religious people are bad, nor do I think they are all immoral. But I honestly don't think that religion is necessarily a moral motivator. I think people have within themselves to do right or wrong. What religion does, sometimes, is give a framework for fear of punishment for doing the acts that the specific religion one follows is deemed wrong. And that's not all bad; it probably does keep a lot of people from doing a lot of bad things. But I also think we've seen what happens, over and over throughout history, when religion goes wrong, and people kill and harm in the name of God.

So, I think we should all think more before claiming that atheists are immoral and can't possibly be ethical. I learned more about ethics from an atheist than almost anyone else I've known. It takes thought and care to be moral, and if a person desires to do so within the framework of a religion, then all the more power to him. But if not within that framework, then from within yourself.


  • shoshana,
    you seems to have varied view,your view on ethics and atheists is bit subtle.
    in brief athiests do'nt work by their conviction,they only and only believe in truth,
    now who decides that truth, for godlovers it is their religious book and godman etc.
    for atheist it is there intuition,facts and knowledge these are there motivation.
    some people may quote religion to do wrong thing these are not atheists.
    i can discuss a lot on this topic.
    iam spirutualistic not ritualistic at all.

    By Anonymous anuj, at 10/31/06, 11:05 AM  

  • Shoshana, I agree with you. However, I think atheists in general are no more or less moral than religious people (in general). Then again, I'm an agnostic, so no one ever asks me. ;)


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/31/06, 5:44 PM  

  • Don't know if you caught this?

    By Blogger e-kvetcher, at 10/31/06, 10:38 PM  

  • I think religious people have a hard time understanding why a person would be moral if they were an atheist, but they don't realize that we live in a profoundly moral country so even if you don't believe in G-d, you can't help but be influenced by society's mores.

    So when you have a society that's atheistic (think Europe) it leads to all sorts of problems, including intolerance of those who are religious.

    By Anonymous debbie, at 11/1/06, 11:48 AM  

  • Good post.

    By Blogger Jack's Shack, at 11/2/06, 12:27 AM  

  • It's really great that your professor probed his thoughts and feelings deeply to decide if his actions were moral, or hurtful to others.

    The big problem is that all he had to go on were his thoughts and feelings. Which are highly subjective and liable to corruption by self-interest.

    For every religious person who's convinced themselves that it's OK to defraud the US government - one could probably come up with many not-very-religious people who could justify the same thing, if it was in line with their self-interest.

    The point is not that all religious people are perfect - that's a lame argument against Torah-based morality.

    The point is that the religious person - in particular, the Jew - has an external, objective yardstick of moral behavior that s/he - or the community - can use as a bullsh*t detector, a check against self-interest's wily distortion of human judgement.

    By Anonymous Ben-David, at 11/2/06, 6:25 AM  

  • Anuj -
    Thanks for visiting.

    Kate -
    I totally agree and that's kinda my point - I think people are going to be good or bad, regardless of their religious faith (or lack thereof). I think the difference is going to be in the reasoning they actually give for their actions.

    e-kvetcher -
    Thanks for the link, very interesting.

    Debbie -
    Do you believe that the US is profoundly moral because a large number of Americans are religious individuals? Or do you think we just are moral, regardless of religious affiliation or lack of such affiliation. And if you believe it's because America is a religiously-tied country, what do you think will change as we shift to being less and less believing (which I do believe is the case currently)?

    Jack -
    Thank you.

    Ben-David -
    I'm not positive that the "objective yardstick of moral behavior" is in fact so objective. What makes Judaism's yardstick different from those of other religions? Or of just using the legal code of the country in which one happens to live?

    By Blogger Shoshana, at 11/2/06, 4:00 PM  

  • Very interesting post, and blog!

    By Blogger Lakewood Venter, at 11/3/06, 9:44 AM  

  • "Do you believe that the US is profoundly moral because a large number of Americans are religious individuals?"


    "And if you believe it's because America is a religiously-tied country, what do you think will change as we shift to being less and less believing (which I do believe is the case currently)?"

    I don't think there is a shift, I think there's a divide between the South and Midwest that remain religious and the cities and coastal areas that are secular.

    I think because so much of politics is local in America, I don't know that these things are such a big deal. Like if North Dakota wants to ban abortion, and if in Massachusetts they want gay marriage, they can co-exist because it's such a large country.

    As opposed to Europe in which the largest country, France, is about the size of Texas. (That's bigger than I thought, but think -- that's the whole country.) And other countries are much, much smaller.

    Now, consider Asia. While they're not really religious, they're profoundly traditional. Personally, I don't believe the world could survive without religion and/or deep-seated traditions that focuses on family and good behavior. Humanism just doesn't cut it as a moral system.

    By Anonymous debbie, at 11/3/06, 10:06 AM  

  • P.S. I agree with Ben-David. It's not that I don't think atheists can't be moral, but their definition of moral will change with what's popular or even the whims of what they think is the right thing to do. While if you believe in a religion, its moral system is more or less fixed.

    No one says that Judaism is better. Goyim should follow sheva mitzvot bnei Noach and that's good enough for them. Christianity would be fine if it wouldn't be for that little bit of a avoda zara that it is based on.

    By Anonymous debbie, at 11/3/06, 10:13 AM  

  • I appreciated this post. I was a philosophy major.

    By Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann, at 11/5/06, 1:31 AM  

  • Shoshana
    I've seen this question asked on other blogs discussing this issue with no real answer.Who is the secular version of the Chofetz Chaim in personal ethics as well as influence.
    On the other blogs this was asked everyone insisted there was such a personyet noone was able to name one.(based on a stastical ratio we should be able to name thousands yet they all told the guy asking he has to look harder and be more familiar with the secular world and he'll surely find one)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/5/06, 5:09 PM  

  • Great post and great points!

    I love all the comments!

    By Blogger kasamba, at 11/6/06, 7:32 PM  

  • Two of the most moral atheists that I've know in my 60 years are my father and my grandfather.
    My father would go out of his way to help people. If he was asked for directions he would go with the person to make sure they got to their destination.
    My grandfather was a dentist and would walk miles to attend to a patient.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/24/06, 6:28 PM  

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