The fallacy of religious ‘objective morality’.


All atheists have come up against it at some point in their lives. Along with ‘so you think everything came from nothing?’, it is the main weapon in the ever shrinking theist arsenal. I’m talking of course, about the obsession with ‘objective’ morality and the absurdity that follows; ‘How can you condemn Hitler? By what standard?’ At first glance, it sounds like a philosophical conundrum that we may find troubling to deal with. But scratch the surface, and it really isn’t that difficult to respond to, without even having to begin to quote vastly immoral passages from those books.

There are several key problems, but the one I wanted to focus on is the misguided belief that religion provides a desirable objective moral standard. I thought I’d highlight where I see the problems:

Firstly, to insist on an ‘objective’ moral base sent straight from heaven to humanity, one must conclusively prove the existence of your particular God. This means not simply convincing yourself of the existence of God, but convincing the rest of us also. Otherwise, the word ‘objective’ seems very familiar to the word ‘subjective’ and any moral judgement can be declared ‘objective’ if it is preceded with the phrase “My God said…“. We often hear from the religious the rather manipulative dichotomy presented as ‘Man’s law, or God’s law‘. Without first proving the existence of your God, what that dichotomy actually breaks down to, is 21st century Man’s law, or 1st/7th century Man’s law. If you cannot conclusively prove the existence of your God (this requires first proving the existence of a creator, followed by proof that the creator is all ‘good’ rather than all ‘evil’, followed by the leap from creator to your specific God) – through more than simple philosophical guesswork – the case for ‘objective morality’ or ‘God’s law’ falls before it’s even begun.

Secondly, both the Bible and Qur’an are subject to a myriad of interpretations and continual revisions depending on the context of the time and place, and the individual believer. Sit a liberal, secular Christian in a room with the Westboro Baptist Church, and the differences between them will be an ocean the size of the Pacific. Indeed, we see members of ISIS differing intensely in interpreting Islam’s ‘objective moral base’ from that of their immediate family members. If members of the same faith, in the same household, cannot agree on the meaning of countless ambiguous passages, nor can scholars over the course of time agree, constantly revising its meanings to fit a more modern narrative, it doesn’t get the luxury of being referred to as an ‘objective base’ for morality. If a divine being sent down obscure passages that believers in the same house hold cannot agree on, I’m afraid that reflects terribly on God’s ability to convey his message.

Thirdly, our nature is often – not always – in direct conflict with the idea of objective moral standards. Religion did not inform us that senseless murder is wrong (often, religion permits murder). We know this intuitively, and we punish murder, because murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out, implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

It is then essential to note that humanity is not perfect. We are a wonderful yet very flawed species, and that reflects on our collective ideals over time, as we learn and grow. Morality is informed by complex interactions, including but my no means limited to our collective knowledge, our history, our mistakes, our experiences, and our evolved human intelligence – this essentially includes empathy and the ability to rationalise – at any given time. We are a complex species with deep flaws. Morality does not escape that. It evolved from our basic need to cooperate in order to survive the harshest of conditions, and grew as we grew. It is a natural condition in which without it, humanity would not have survived. Indeed, morality is essential for the survival of our species, yet not confined to our species. We see through the research of primatologists like Frans de Waal that our ape cousins show basic forms of moral reasoning; cooperation, conflict resolution etc. Morality is natural, and ever evolving. As with most natural occurrences – sexuality, gender, spirituality – religions tend to try to grab hold of nature, as if they own it, and shape it to fit the dictates of the faith, which in turn has the most awful consequences for those ‘outside’ of its narrow spectrum of what is to be considered God’s plan. In the case of morality, chaining moral progress by attempting to anchor moral ideals to tribal squabbles of 1st Century Palestine or 7th Century Arabia, and the obscurity of the passages that emerged as a result of those squabbles, is a distortion of nature, an attempt to reshape our nature, and by extension will without exception always end in oppression, because it cannot abide the nature of updated knowledge that contradicts 1st or 7th century far less informed dictates. From lands that were very patriarchal and very heterosexual dominated, it should come as no surprise that heterosexual males are the ones who coincidentally, God seems to offer the most privileges and power.

Further, there is a bizarre suggestion from the faithful, that no divine objective set of moral standards implies all moral conclusions are to be considered equal. For me, this isn’t true. One moral conclusion may be based on the available evidence and data, applied on a framework of our natural inclinations encompassing empathy among others, whilst the opposing moral conclusion may lack all evidence basing itself on mere belief, dismissing all contrary consideration. The two are not to be considered of equal weight. This is why I object to the reductive terms “objective” and “subjective” when speaking of morality. I don’t accept either.

So, we have noted that what the religious refer to as ‘objective’ requires as a bare minimum the conclusive proof of the existence of their particular God to begin its journey to actual objectivity; that what they tend to call ‘objective’ right now is simply their own subjective interpretation of ambiguous passages; and that anchoring morality to the moral ideals of a specific time and place is both unnatural, and by definition oppressive. So when theists insist that you as an atheist do not have an objective moral base distinct from humanity itself, by which to make moral judgements, the simple answer is; neither do you.

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25 Responses to The fallacy of religious ‘objective morality’.

  1. Without a first cause, which is God, then necessarily everything happened all by itself.

    And we know from science that our universe had a beginning which means it had a first cause, which means it had a Creator.

    For atheism to work, the atheist simply denies basic common sense and the findings of science.

  2. Josh Lord says:

    @silenceofmind

    “We know from science that our universe had a beginning which means it had a first cause, which means it had a Creator”

    Here you state a well-evidenced scientific conclusion followed by two successive non-sequiturs.

    “The atheist simply denies basic common sense and the findings of science”

    1) “Common sense” becomes irrelevant when dealing with topics that our minds did not evolve to handle intuitively. If we could do science and philosophy by common sense alone, there would be no need for scientists or philosophers and their methods of systematic enquiry that have taken thousands of years to develop as our species has painstakingly progressed from a naive to sophisticated epistemological understanding.

    2) There is no published scientific evidence for a creator. If you have discovered some evidence hitherto unknown to science, please submit your findings to a peer reviewed scientific journal and then inform the 93% of members of the National Academy of Sciences who currently lack belief in any God to take note.

  3. Josh,

    The atheist doesn’t get to label well established reasoning as “non-sequitur.”

    The atheist tries to cloak a pre-civilization worldview in modern science and obvious irrationality in formal logic.

    For that is the only way atheism can possibly work out.

  4. Guessing at how the universe sprang into existence with nothing to offer except philosophical God-of-the-gaps tired ideas, does not get to call itself ‘reason’.

    “And we know from science that our universe had a beginning which means it had a first cause, which means it had a Creator.”

    – A quick rehash of the old and miserably weak cosmological argument. A beginning implies something came before. The universe has always been. This is the weakness of your point, because there was never a ‘time’ when time didn’t exist. Therefore, there was not a ‘beginning’ in the sense that you just suggested. Secondly, to be a ’cause’ requires time in order to cause. When you create something, you do so in time and space, you have no evidence that there is an outside of time and space, and if you do, please feel free to give us its attributes. And so at this point you have two options; 1) The creator caused something to happen, in which case time preceded the creator, which means the creator did not create time. Or 2) The creator caused something to happen outside of time, and we anxiously await your evidence for there being a realm outside of time and space in which causation is divorced from time and space. Point 1 suggests your creator is not in control of time, meaning time is greater than your creator. Point 2 is absurd, unless you can offer any evidence that causation is not related to time, and that cause can exist outside of time. Good luck with that.

  5. Futile,

    This time around you assign a facile label to well established reasoning instead of constructing an actual argument of your own.

    But that is expected of the atheist since atheism is a philosophy which demands the rejection of reason.

    Reasoning one’s way back to the first cause is simple and not difficult at all.

  6. Ah I see. You’re refusing to address points raised, and resorting to a tantrum lacking any substance. You’re one of those types. Got it.

  7. Futile,

    This time around you got personal and labeled well established reasoning as a “tantrum.”

    How can I respond to your points when you don’t have any.

    All you have are labels that you puke out as the situation requires.

    The atheist gives up the human capacity to reason for a list of labels and talking points.

  8. Blah blah blah. Another tantrum lacking anything resembling substance. Any more?

  9. Josh Lord says:

    @silenceofmind

    “This time around you assign a facile label to well established reasoning”

    Please drop this “well established reasoning” triviality. Not only does it whiff of an appeal to authority but it also omits the fact that the refutations to the line of reseasoning you speak of are equally well-established, rendering the point utterly moot.

    “instead of constructing an actual argument of your own.” +
    “How can I respond to your points when you don’t have any.”

    You’re either being dishonest or spectacularly dense. Futile’s comment is comprised nearly entirely of arugmentation and what any reasonable person might call “points”. Points that you’d need to address before you have any right to expect to be taken seriously. I won’t hold my breath…

    “But that is expected of the atheist since atheism is a philosophy which demands the rejection of reason.”

    I get the impression that you think atheism is a belief system of some sort. It isn’t. It’s merely the rejection of a very specific kind of positive claim made by theists. It has no positive content whatsoever. It’s only due to the unfortunate prevelance of theism, both historic and current, that the absence of belief in God has garnered its own name. Don’t let this confuse you into thinking that atheism is an “ism” like any other. “Isms” are typically ideologies or positive claims. Atheism is neither, which is to a large extent what distinguishes it from religion.

    “Reasoning one’s way back to the first cause is simple and not difficult at all.”

    I agree, it’s very easy, just fallacious. People once quite easily reasoned their way to the conclusion that the earth was flat. As far as they were concerned, it was self-evident. Nevertheless, science has since elucidated for us exactly where our intuitions misled us on this matter. It has also now given us reason to believe that any intutions we might have regarding the origins of the universe are almost certainly as unreliable.

    Our brains evolved in a universe in which cause and effect is an inviolable principle. Therefore, the idea that something could have simply sprung into existence is extremely counter-intuitive, as is, for instance, much of the phenomena observed at the quantom level (another subject matter our brains are not evolved to deal with intuitively). However, once you understand that there’s no reason to think that the principle of cause and effect we observe as PART of the universe was in operation “prior” to the big bang, the idea that something could have spontaneously sprung into existence is no longer far-fetched (technically there was no prior to the big bang, but it’s the cloest I can get to expressing what I mean).

    Not that I’m asserting that that’s what happened. I’m only pointing out that there’s good reason to doubt the premise of your argument, which is that all things must have been caused (except for God himself, of course, *cough* special pleading *cough*). And even if I *were* to grant you a first cause, which I’m not, you’d still have all of your work cut out to explain why this cause is a complex, intelligent being, and why this being, ostensibly even more extraordinary than the universe itself, doesn’t itself require an explanation.

  10. Josh,

    The well established reasoning I refer to is over 2500 years old and is often called our Western Heritage by educated people.

    Where the atheist can only cite his own personal opinion as his authority (which is a logical fallacy), I have cited our Western Heritage which, indeed, is well established and taught in most graduate schools.

    As usual, you are left standing with your pants down around your ankles desperate to clothe your rather diminutive nether parts a cloak of malignant ignorance which goes by the name, atheism.

  11. You do understand that appealing to tradition in a fallacy? Nowhere have I suggested my opinion is authority. I offered my debate points. You had three replies worth of tantrums and no substance.

  12. Futile,

    Appealing to well established sources of reasoning is how its done in nearly every university in Western Civilization.

    It is atheism that is founded on logical fallacy.

  13. You haven’t provided anything resembling reason. You’ve just had a bit of a sulk about atheism.

  14. Futile,

    You wouldn’t know reason if it came up to you and gave you a kiss on the cheek.

    Your comments here prove that to be absolutely true.

  15. Another tantrum. That’s about seven in a row now. Try again champ, this time provide substance.

  16. You tuber ‘theoretical bullsh*t’ has a great series on the nature of so called objective morality.

  17. Suit,

    Theoretical Bullsh!t truly lives up to his name with his verbose, rambling YouTube gab fest on morality.

    His argument boils down to natural law which atheists must reject in order to be atheists.

    He defines that which is good as that which promotes health and well being.

    The is an argument based on human nature and goes back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

    Immoral acts violate human nature.

    That is the exact argument Christians make against abortion and every immoral act, in fact.

    So why is it okay for an atheist to base their arguments on human nature and not okay for Christians to do the same thing?

    I call Bullsh!t’s bullsh!t for what it is. And that’s objective reality, not theory.

  18. Just saying commenting that it’s a good series/videos.

    It is also as he states his personal view. I find the videos interesting to contemplate and generally thought provoking. However philosophy is not a great interest to me in general day to day life. I believe he answers many of the questions you have asked insofar as they are his personal views in his video ‘Treatise of Morality’.

    Im not sure why you think its necessary for atheists to reject natural law.

    Not theory!

  19. Good piece.

    The poets view?

    Auden: From ‘Sonnets from China’

    Sonnet 1:

    ‘So from the years their gifts were showered: each
    Grabbed at the one it needed to survive;
    Bee took the politics that suit a hive,
    Trout finned as trout, peach moulded into peach,

    And were successful at their first endeavour.
    The hour of birth their only time in college,
    They were content with their precocious knowledge,
    To know their station and be right for ever.

    Till, finally, there came a childish creature
    On whom the years could model any feature,
    Fake, as chance fell, as leopard or a dove,

    Who by the gentlest wind was rudely shaken,
    Who looked for truth but always was mistaken,
    And envied his few friends, and chose his love.’

    And from Sonnet IX

    ‘History opposes its grief to our buoyant song,
    To our hope its warning. One star has warmed to birth
    One puzzled species that has yet to prove its worth:’

  20. “If a divine being sent down obscure passages that believers in the same house hold cannot agree on, I’m afraid that reflects terribly on God’s ability to convey his message.”

    Great point. This is the exact issue I have with religion. Not the people that choose to follow it, but the fact that God trusted us with his message. Did he not realise that most of us are assholes? He seems a bad judge of character ;)

  21. Daley,

    You are blaming God because human beings are so fractious.

    That is like shooting the messenger because the message is bad news.

  22. Absolutely that’s God’s fault. He can see the future, the past, He knew the consequences of his creation. He created our future, for which we have no choice. This is all His doing (if you believe in a God). Everything humanity does that doesn’t please God, is God’s fault.

  23. Futile,

    Knowing doesn’t affect anything.

    We all have freewill regardless of whether or not anyone knows what we are going to do before hand.

  24. Free will in this case extends to our perception of reality only. To God, everything we say and do, he has full control and responsibility for. Otherwise, He is not all knowing.

  25. […] and the moral dimension (which you predictably brought up with regards Hitler, and which I wrote on here) I come to the conclusion that I am 99.999% sure that god doesn’t exist. And since you asked […]

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