You are perhaps going to have to forgive me for writing a blog that is all over the place, this is a subject that I have tried to grapple with for the past few days, almost non-stop, and so this blog is almost just a bunch of thoughts splashed on a page. It may not make sense.
On Thursday night I went to along to a debate between the Muslim International Public Speaker and Researcher Hamza Tortzis and Atheist Philosopher and editor of the Philosophy magazine “Think“, and senior lecturer at Heythrop College in the University of London Dr Stephan Law.
Allow me to set the scene.
95% of people in the room – Muslim.
5% – Atheist.
The fallacies set fourth by Tortsiz were just too easy to discredit. Law was good, but he didn’t have enough time to really get to grips with the arguments. And he was faced with a room full of people who had already decided he was wrong, before the debate even began.
After the debate I got a few minutes to try to debate with Tortzis myself. Unfortunately he had to leave and so I didn’t get the chance. But he very kindly left me his email address, so that we could carry on the debate via email.
One of his points that I took issue with, was the subject of objective morality. It is widely used by the religious community. Tortzis claimed that one can only have a sense of objective morality through God, because the Bible/Koran are books that anchor morality. I find that claim to be ludicrous. It is ludicrous because if it were the case, we would still be advocating stoning people for working on a Sunday, and selling slaves. We have outgrown religious morality, and so it cannot possibly be anchored, transcending time and culture.
I emailed this:
Firstly I wanted to debate a couple of points you made.
You suggested that we Atheists can have no moral basis, simply because we don’t have a belief in a God. You somehow linked a lack of belief, to a lack of basis for morality, to….. Hitler. As if Scientific rationalism (which i’d even agree, can be flawed) lead to Hitler and the holocaust. You mentioned Hitler and the holocaust in relation to a lack of basis for morality several times. The Pope actually made very similar remarks when he was in England.
Firstly, Hitler was Roman Catholic. He certainly wasn’t Atheist.
Hitler in 1922, said this:
“My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. .. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.”
Hitler in 1933, said this:
“Today they say that Christianity is in danger, that the Catholic faith is threatened. My reply to them is: for the time being, Christians and not international atheists are now standing at Germany’s fore. I am not merely talking about Christianity; I confess that I will never ally myself with the parties which aim to destroy Christianity.”
Hitler, also in 1933, said this:
“We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”
Hitler in 1934, said this:
“National Socialism neither opposes the Church nor is it anti-religious, but on the contrary, it stands on the ground of a real Christianity.”
To even have suggested Atheism can lead to the rise of people like Hitler, is a gross manipulation of the historical fact, which shows quite clearly that Hitler’s motives came far more from a belief in organised religion, than it ever did from some sort of Christopher Hitchens style Atheism. It is simply wrong of you to have suggested that, it cannot be presented in any other way.
Another reason why it is wrong to have suggested that it is Atheists who have no basis for morality, is that it would appear you chose to ignore the absolute atrocities committed throughout the history of religion, in the name of religion. Atheists did not imprison Galileo. Atheists did not torture people of other faiths. Atheists did not start a war, killing innocent people, over a piece of land in the middle of the desert. Atheism did not behead, torture, rape, encourage our “brothers” to kill in the name of our religion like the Catholic Church did in the 16th Century, or like Protestant England did around 1534 onwards. Atheism is not responsible for the idea that it is perfectly acceptable for a grown man to suck the blood out of the mutilated penis of a baby boy, like the Jewish Mohel is employed to do. It wasn’t Atheists who called for Salmon Rushdie to be beheaded, simply because he wrote a book. It wasn’t Atheists who burnt down a Danish embassy, simply because a cartoon “offended” them. It wasn’t Atheists who moved to the Colonies of the United States and began the biggest mass genocide up until that point, in history. It isn’t Atheists who shoot abortion doctors in America. It isn’t Atheists who go to Uganda and profess that condoms actually cause AIDs. It isn’t Atheists who torture and kill people in Africa simply for being in love with someone of the same sex, because their vicious dogmatic hatred tells them that is acceptable. It isn’t Atheists who blocked the entrance and constantly picketed and threatened staff at a cancer unity, and made that cancer unit in England give it’s donation back to the writers of Jerry Springer the Opera because they considered it “blasphemy”, thereby depriving that cancer unit of key equipment. Religions claims on morality are bordering on laughable, given the history of it. Where is the morality in that? Those people aren’t Atheists. They are religious, and they genuinely believe what they are doing is right by their God. Christianity even has ten commandments, in which most of them are just rules on how to not make God jealous, rather than something like “do not molest children”. You chose to ignore all of this, and by doing so, presenting just one simplistic version of what morality is, you managed to make a bunch of people who clearly could not think for themselves, sat in front of me, say constantly “great point!! Atheism is fucking nonsense”. And again, for our Atheist debater to have not picked up on any of this, was incredibly frustrating. What you essentially did, was ignore the immorality of religion over the years (which is so vast, I don’t even know where to start) and point to the holocaust, as evidence for where a lack of moral basis can lead, and even that was flawed because as seen, Hitler was Roman Catholic. So that entire five minutes of your argument was just invented history.
On to the subject of Atheist morality itself, you suggested we have no basis for morality. I would argue that my basis for my sense of morality comes from the progress society has made to get to the point we are at now. It is all a process of Natural selection. My basis for morality is the history of morality. We have acquired such “codes” if you will, to survive. The same can be said for religious evolution. Have you noticed that people who have so-called “Conversions” almost always convert to a religion that is predominant in their culture anyway? I never see a person in Leicester suddenly decide they need to convert to Taoism. It is rare to find a person in Leicester suddenly, out of nowhere, decide they had a religious experience in which they saw an elephant with a blue face and several arms, it will almost always, in the West, be a conversion to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. There will be the odd one or two discrepancies, but if research were undertaken on this, I’m fairly certain we’d find that “conversions” are very much influenced by cultural values already quite strong in whichever area one grew up. This, i’d suggest, is because religion updates with the rest of society. If we were to abide by the Biblical or Quranic “ethics” of 1500 years ago, I cannot imagine we’d all be too happy.
You argued that Atheist morality cannot have objection meaning. Well, nor can religious. Religious people will always argue that their book can be interpreted in many ways, so by definition, it is subjective. An Islamic fundamentalist will no doubt read the Quran far differently to how you do. Does that mean he is wrong? Why is he wrong? He is interpreting the Quran in his own way. He is getting out of the Quran, how his mind interprets it. So on the one hand an Islamic scholar may completely deplore Islamic fundamentalism, and on the other an Islamic scholar elsewhere may condone it. Subjective morality based on apparently objective values. If Christians were to interpret the Bible in the way that early Christians did, then the institute of marriage now would be between a man/rapist/child molester and his virgin woman, another woman, another woman, a few more women, a hostage, a rape victim, and the female children of parents who have just been slaughtered. But never a homosexual, because that is apparently where they draw the line, quite amusingly.
So religion itself can be very subjective, because it rules are ambiguous and in many cases, very out-dated (as of my interpretation, i’d guess you might interpret it differently – proving my point).
To his credit, he emailed back almost immediately with:
Thank you for your email
I will read thoroughly and respond appropriately
But one thing you need to understand, I never claimed Atheists have no moral foundation or are immoral, not once did I say this.
What I said was that in absence of God you do not have a conceptual anchor that transcends human subjectivity. In other words there is no foundation for objective morality.
With regards to the Nazi Germany point, I never claimed that Hitler was an atheist! My point was that if we take social pressure as a foundation for objective morality then we cannot fully condemn such atrocities which were the result of social pressure.
You really need to listen to what I am saying, and not skew what I say via your previous experiences with religious people etc.
I will respond in more detail. But in the mean time please read “Ethics” by J L Mackie (who was a leading atheist philosopher) and you will see that according to the atheistic perspective there are no objective morals. They are just relative.
I never said I thought he’d told me that Atheists are immoral.
“My point was that if we take social pressure as a foundation for objective morality then we cannot fully condemn such atrocities which were the result of social pressure.”
…. is a again misleading, because if we take Religion as a foundation for objective morality, we cannot fully condemn such atrocities that are committed by people who genuinely believe what they are doing glorifies God.
Also, the line:
“a conceptual anchor that transcends human subjectivity”
is very unnerving, because a concept, by definition, is surely man made? And so a concept cannot transcend human subjectivity. A conceptual anchor is just another way of saying a theory. A concept cannot be an anchor because it is not, by definition, truth. Surely a conceptual anchor could also be a political theory…….. like Fascism? To its adherents, it transcends human subjectivity.
The greatest adversaries of morality, are those within the religious community, who sincerely believe that the acts of great cruelty and evil that they commit, are permitted and encouraged by their God and that they will be receiving a reward in an afterlife for committing such acts.
If your book of “objective morality” can permit such acts, or be interpreted to apparently condone such acts, then I do not want your objective morality; it’s fucking horrific. I never once claimed, nor do most Atheists, that we base our moral foundation on social pressure. I certainly don’t. I base it on the one rule that outshines every other when it comes to morality: Treat others as you would be happy to be treated yourself.
Are we honestly saying that for hundreds of thousands of years, the evolving man raped and murdered his way across the World, and then, in the middle of the Desert, 1500 years ago, God suddenly said “okay this needs to stop”. How ridiculous.
Surely an objective truth is objective to the person making the moral statement, unless he is lying. So if there is only subjective morality and I say “It is moral to slaughter millions of Jewish people“, that is objective to me, in the same way as a Muslim suicide bomber would argue that it is morally right to fly a plan into a building.
The reliance on a God for the basis of objective morality, is subjective also because one cannot prove, or come anywhere close to proving the existence of God, and so one cannot prove, or come close to proving the existence of objective morality. I have just as much evidence to say that my God is a man with three heads and talks to me when I am asleep, and has told me that it is morally acceptable to kill all men with ginger hair. If we are to take the Theist argument, then that is my new basis for objective morality. You can be as absurd as you wish, and claim that that particular absurdity provides you with a foundation of objective morality, without offering any proof into the existence of the very thing that apparently gave you the morals in the first place.
Moral objectivism is contradictory, because it updates itself when new evidence is presented to the contrary. So it is subjective by nature. Maybe moral conservatism is a better term. If we are the follow the “objective morality” of the Old Testament, we must surely be arguing the case for slavery? Have the moral objectivists succumbed to so-called “social pressure”? Was the “objective morality” of the Old Testament simply “objective morality” within the context of the time period, in which case, it isn’t objective.
Suicide bombing is almost monopolised by religion. Shooting abortion doctors is definitely monopolised by religion. Chopping the foreskin off of a baby is definitely monopolised by religion (it is also a crap argument for design, if you have to cut off the foreskin of a babies penis, had God messed up when he created foreskin?). Marrying off children to older men is definitely monopolised by religion (and the Catholic Church is REALLY trying hard to make paedophilia a monopoly held by religion). “Objective morality” sent by “God” necessarily makes otherwise good people do awful things they would not normally do. Where would anyone get the idea that it is okay to mutilate a child’s genitalia, without their “conceptual anchor” saying so? Is that really what we’re calling a morally superior system?
How are we to judge whether what organised religion tells us is an objectional basis for morality, is moral in itself? How can you say for certain that it isn’t the work of Satan trying to mislead us? How am I to judge the morality of your Holy Book? Where does the objective foundation for my judging your Holy book come from?
It remains, that even if you conclude that objective morality can only come from God (which I absolutely don’t accept), there is no way to know that that basis, is moral in itself, for that you require belief.
Whatever basis you select or decide for our sense of morality it will always render morals subjective, unless its God.
Take evolution and social pressure for instance. They both change and therefore make morals relative to biological or social changes.
Why must moral facts, come from a God? We can, as Atheists, say rationally that causality plays a role in our morality. We can say that by a given action, this will happen, we can deduce a moral judgement. David Kelley in “Logical structure for objectivism” (which I’ve just picked up at the library, for this very reason) states:
” Material needs such as needs for health and food: these values contribute directly to survival.
Spiritual needs such as needs for conceptual knowledge, self-esteem, education and art: these values are spiritual in the sense that they primarily pertain to consciousness, and contribute to survival by helping Reason to function properly.
Social needs such as needs for trade, communication, friendship and love: these values are social in that they occur only through interaction with others. Logically, their status as values is due to the fact that they contribute to the fulfillment of spiritual and material needs.
Political needs such as needs for freedom and objective law, which are needs concerning the organization of society. These provide the context for fulfilling our material, spiritual and social needs”
It is a similar point to what Maslow was getting at. Objective morality, they argue, is based on causality. Like religion though, the basis of that morality is quite clear, whilst the implementation may differ from person to person. My need for love being that with a member of the opposite sex, will be different to my gay friends, but the need for love itself, is objective. This doesn’t then lead us to say that that particular objective structure, could lead to the rise of Hitler or people like Hitler. Because you must introduce context to the action, because context is reality. Killing a snake as it about to bite us and killing someone on the street are two entirely separate things. The state of ourselves, the state of the thing being killed, the action needed to perform the killing, all lead to different results. One way, we are saving ourselves, the other way, we are a criminal who just murdered someone. The Bible states “Thou shalt not kill”. There is no context to that, we just must never kill. So, actually that is not objective, because it isn’t based on reality, because it doesn’t take into account context, and context is always necessary to make moral judgements. Dogmatic subjectivism cannot give moral answers. As we see every day with the way religious people use their religion to carry out horrific acts.
Thomas Paine noted this, two centuries ago:
“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistant that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”
Are we to claim that those cruel and tortuous executions, that unrelenting vindictiveness is objectively moral?
So, i’d go one further and suggest that kinship is also a factor. In fact, i’d suggest objective morality is a very deep mental process that cannot be summed up with just “God”. It is a process of learning. It is kinship and the recognition of others right to life as we recognise it in ourselves. It is knowledge, education, health, freedom, friendship and love, and causation, leading to what it is that will make us happy without hurting those around us; treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. If we hadn’t developed this system of “codes”, we would not be here now, we would have been one of 99% of natures victims. If I bring God into the equation, I may treat others as I wish to be treated…. unless they’re Gay, or a non-believer, then I should unquestioningly presume they are going to hell, but just after I have sold my slave.
We have evolved to have certain characteristics; love, aggression, hate, friendship, compassion, anger. We note which ones give a positive response from others, and so that becomes a part of our moral decision making process.
Besides, I think I have found a moral in the Bible, that I actually like:
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But Thomas them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
I interpret this very subjective passage, to mean that one should question everything, until you see what is being fed to you as truth, demonstrated for you. I like that moral. I will stick to that moral, because that moral leads me to logically conclude that the god of the Bible, does not exist.
If we are to accept that the foundations of objective morality come from God, then why worry about anything that He has created? Humans existing and living in parts of the World that are largely uninhabitable? The fact that we have natural disasters that aren’t in anyway the fault of humanity? It’s all part of God’s plan. Why care? Do we have to care for the sake of reward in an afterlife, or fear of punishment? Is that moral? If my boss is saying to me “you either come to work, or you stay at home, but if you stay at home I will sack you”….. then morality suddenly has a context factor introduced, which renders it almost immoral; i.e – I am going to work, because if I don’t, I will be punished.
The morality of the Quran and the Bible seem to be “I, God, made you sick, with a sickness that I created, and now I have given you the chance to be well, but if you don’t get well, I will have you tortured for eternity”. If I were to enact that kind of regime on Earth, I would surely be labelled immoral by many different people, including the religious.
I find it simply absurd, that apologists of organised religion can have the nerve to claim they have a foundation for objective morality, when people within their own faith cannot even agree on its rules. It is a contradiction beyond anything I think I’ve ever stumbled across.
The mere idea of objective morality is just as troublesome, if not more so, than moral relativism.
Perhaps we should call religious “objective morality“….. “non-thinking morality” or “blind acquiescence morality“.
There are actually no amoral primate social groups anywhere in the World. Even Baboons have codes of conduct. The biologist Edward Wilson describes instances where chimps jump into water to save drowning mates. He suggests this is a primitive version of morality.
Michael Shermer, the American scientist has noted that certain traits are noticeable in great apes:
attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group.
This suggests a rather primitive form of moral codes, to aid the survival and progress of a social group.
I would argue that morality is innate, it has evolved along with humanity over millions of years. It is an essence of solidarity and survival. For a good person to commit a great evil, is far more often committed because the person believes they have permission from a God to commit such an evil. Evil people will always do evil things, good people will only do evil things for their “conceptual anchor” be it a political concept or a religious concept. A suicide bomber who blows himself up outside of a hotel or a school, is not necessarily born with the belief that killing innocent people including children is a moral act. Their interpretation of their faith is what guides them to commit atrocities, so how fucking dare the religious apologists try to suggest that they have the monopoly on objective morality, because for too long all it has achieved is the casting of a vicious and violent and hateful shameful shadow over humanity.
I would also go one step further and claim that religion came about as a product of morality, not the other way around. Fear of punishment was a great way to get humanity to obey certain rules of conduct, very similar to how Hitler used the abstract “conceptual anchor” of Nationalism.
Is it true that without a divine dictator, everyone would do exactly as we wished? We would all be murdering our way through life? No. Of course not. Morality is socially evolved, and a product of survival. Nothing else.
“If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities” — Voltaire