Morality: Big “M” and little “m”

I had the pleasure of discussing morality and atheism with a commenter who I would assume is a Christian although his/her actual beliefs haven’t been specifically discussed. In responding to the second of two posts the commenter left, I realized that I rambled on far longer than a general comment, so I thought I’d go ahead and repost it as a separate post of its own.

In this post, you’ll see me discuss the capacity for Morality (big “M” ) among humans, giving rise to the cultural establishment of moral (little “m” ) codes. I make an analogy to the human capacity for Language (big “L” ) which gives rise to the cultural establishment of languages (little “l” ). I don’t know if this analogy holds -I haven’t really thought it through- and I’m not arguing that the capacities of Morality and Language are part of the same genetic mechanism or have the shared origins.

I’ll begin with Robin Leboe’s comment today and follow with my response, both of which can be found in the Myths of Atheism: HIlter/Stalin/Pol Pot were evil because of atheism thread.

Robin Leboe, on July 1st, 2008 at 8:26 am Said:

Leaving aside the definition of atheism for the moment, the properties of atheism can be examined regardless of how it’s defined. For instance, one attribute of atheism I’m sure we can agree on is the lack of a transcendent source for an objective moral law.

If there is no transcendant being then any truly objective principles under girding existence are illusory. Your reference to evil in the post above hangs in a vacuum. Any attempt to codify right and wrong takes a leap into another realm i.e Platonic ideals.

Right and wrong are simply not an inherent property of ‘being without gods’ and morals are relegated to utilitarian, pragmatic, subjective or emotive trappings. A function of culture at best or the opinion of an individual at worst. Neitsche was very honest in driving home this point when writing of the ‘death of God’.

It is this lack of ultimate moral arbitration that people often point to when they speak of the atrocities advanced by cultures who have, by your definition, disavowed themselves of a belief in God.

On the other hand, atrocities committed by religious zealots can clearly be seen to be in opposition to the moral law they espouse. The teachings of Christ leave no interpretive room whatever for the inquisition or crusades. Many societies and institutions have been hijacked by lunatics, both theist and atheist. As it is often said, it’s not a good idea to judge a philosophy (or faith) by its adherents.

Thanks for the cordial discussion and taking time to respond to my previous reply.

I’m willing to take the transcendent source point further and say that you can insert “for anything” after “transcendent source.”

Transcendent refers to that which is “beyond comprehension” or “independent of the material universe.” I, of course, see no good reason to believe such a definition is needed since there is no evidence of anything existing “beyond the material universe.” In addition, I see no reason (and history bears this out) that this material universe can at least be potentially comprehended. I concede that I know very little of the universe and will likely learn only a fraction more when compared with the potential things that can be known, but I refuse to accept that there is anything unknowable about the universe or that anything exists beyond the knowable universe. Gods, magic, ghosts, and hobgoblins included.

But that’s me. If anyone knows otherwise and can demonstrate that knowledge, however, I’m open to revising my position.

Moving on to your other points, the very argument that morality is “divinely established” is an argument that isn’t sound nor is it cogent. That’s because the premises fail. If the conclusion is “God establishes morality,” then the premises followed by the conclusion must be:

  1. humans have not the capacity for morality without God;
  2. only God can provide morality;
  3. morality exists in humanity;
  4. thus God exists and establishes morality.

The premises fail for several reasons. The actual god in question is not identified. There are thousands upon thousands of extant and extinct religious cults in human history through present day, most with pantheons of gods. Yet, morality has flourished throughout human history. Were humans prior to the very recent cults of Judeo-Christian doctrine immoral? Hardly. We have a very detailed and accurate account of moral behavior in ancient societies. Indeed, our own democratic-republic form of government is based largely on one such pantheistic, but moral, society.

Further, there are countless similarities cross-culturally that exhibit very similar moral behaviors that are independent of a single religious superstition. For instance: in no extant or extinct culture that I’m aware of is it morally acceptable to murder one’s parents in order to take their property.

Very clearly, the preceding two paragraphs show that morality is a human endeavor and not a divine one and, therefore, humans provide their own morality, much in the same way we provide our own language. Language (big “L” ) is a human endeavor. We establish individual languages (little “l” ) based on the capacity for Language. Perhaps the human establishment of morality is a function of the capacity for Morality (big “M” ) [incidentally, I’m hypothesizing here more than arguing a position in order to show that divinity need not be the answer when one is ignorant of an explanation].

The only premise in the divine establishment of morality argument that is valid is that humans have morality. If morality is established by humanity (since it exists cross-culturally, independent of religious doctrine, and prior to modern concepts of God, then it clearly is), then humans have the capacity for morality without gods and gods are not necessary to provide morality.

The very evidence for the existence of morality and zero evidence for the existence of God invalidates nearly completely the argument that morality is established by God. There is, of course, the slim chance that a hidden god has created morality -but this begs the question and provides not a single bit of cogency to the argument. After all, how would one know he/she was praying to the right god if that god is hidden?

I won’t pretend to know why humans have a capacity for Morality any more than I know why they have a capacity for Language or Music. There is much about cognitive science that is unknown (though advances in the last decade are tremendous!), but I certainly see no logical or rational reason to settle on a god-explanation simply because I don’t have an answer. Thankfully, there have been enough rationally minded people in the history of scientific discovery who have sought answers beyond the god-explanation for lightning, weather, crop failure, disease, etc

Thank you again for taking the opportunity to post on an atheist blog and participating in discussion. I realize that many of the blogs and forums in the “atheosphere” are rather harsh and hostile to Christian and theist posters. I also realize that my own casual use of terms like cult, superstition, and the like are likely to be taken as offensive to the believer and religious adherent, but is an honest position and opinion that I hold and not intended to be solely pejorative.

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