One Can Be Ethical
And Moral Without God
To: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Monday, February 05, 2001 6:06 AM
To Whom It May Concern:
I am doing research for an Independent Study at Rutgers University, New Jersey, to provide empirical data showing that one can be ethical or moral without God. Words are subject to interpretation while numbers are not. I have found one survey showing that drunk-driving, illicit sex, and drug use are more common in Born-Agains than in nonbelievers. If you could direct me to more of this data to support my thesis I would greatly appreciate it.
Thanks in advance for any help you may provide.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <email@example.com>
To: "Rebecca Donnarumma"
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Monday, February 05, 2001 12:35 PM
Thank you for the opportunity to go over a few of the issues surrounding these questions. I wish to preface what I am about to say by insisting that what others believe in the privacy of their own minds is of no concern to me. I am convinced that all theists have (or think they have) valid reasons for believing the way they do. I hold very strong views regarding what I see as the destructiveness of religion, but I usually keep my views to myself in day-to-day life, limiting such expression to my writings and our Forum.
In order to address your questions, I must pull out my guns and fire away at what I see as a great injustice in the form of a thoroughly institutionalized and almost universal slander of people without religion. I doubt I'll even get around to spelling out, explicitly, what that injustice is; what I aim for here is hope for a solution rather than simply another rehash of the problem.
I wish to reiterate that despite my hostility toward religion itself, I am keenly aware of what it's like to believe. Perhaps my hostility toward religion can be seen as a form of empathy toward my fellow-humans who continue to suffer as I did, but I'm not asking anyone to see it this way.
This said, I will tell it as I see it and you may do with it what you will.
Regarding alcohol abuse, Stanton Peele is fond of pointing out that those cultures which forbid drinking in their young tend to produce adults who drink problematically, whereas those which introduce alcohol at the dinner table at a young age, and which encourage moderation but place a strict taboo on drunkenness, enjoy a low incidence of problem drinking. Taboos and the like tend to go along with the fundamentalist mind set, but that's as close of a link as you'll get without putting together some diligent and exacting research and coming up with some statistics.
I've also heard that Christian "help" programs of the Orthodox variety report unusually high instances of problem drinking in Utah, where the religious dogma frowns sternly upon any use of alcohol; however, these reports could be biased, or even outright lies designed to discredit Mormonism for an Evangelical Christian audience. Even if such data exists, I don't know where to begin to find it except from those anti-Mormon books like you find in Bible stores run by Evangelicals. (I think I remember the late Dr. Walter Martin, a prolific anti-"cult" writer, mentioning this "fact" in passing at a lecture in the late 1970s.)
The Limits of Statistics.
Now to the meat of the matter: First, several atheistic activists don't quite trust the following studies, but you might want to take a good look at them. Perhaps you can "see through" some of the problems in them, problems that would be inherent in any studies of this nature.
There was a Masters and Johnson study about five years ago, assessing the sexual proclivities (adultery, etc.) of various groups: it did not look good for American conservative Christian evangelicals, when you compare the way they talk with the way they act. They like to practice those very activities which they seek to make illegal for the rest of us! The statistics suggest that they really like these activities -- a lot more than the rest of us do, in fact!
Dale Clark reports on some studies which examine the religious beliefs of prisoners, and finds the Roman Catholic faith to be much more heavily represented in American prisons than it is on the outside, with most of the Protestant denominations close behind, and Unitarians and nonbelievers making nary a bump on the chart. The book is called The New Criminology by Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith, and I would recommend looking at it with a critical eye.
For example, I don't think it takes into consideration the fact that people facing long-term incarceration tend to turn to religion (thus, I would poll people during the booking process, and would only enter their data upon conviction). I also know from firsthand experience that being involved in religious programs while incarcerated is an express ticket to receiving perks -- little perks that would mean nothing to us, but would mean more to a prisoner than any amount of integrity ever would. I've known fellows to attend the prison Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for example, because they were allowed to smoke a ciggie on the way back from the meeting. This was their only reason for going, and the guards probably knew that if they allowed this little perk in an otherwise smoke-free facility, this would surely increase attendance at the meetings. It's not unlike the Rescue Mission near me: the Christian converts get their pick of denims, while the others must choose between plaid slacks and psychedelic bell-bottoms. Guess who's going to pretend to be a Christian if that's what makes the difference between looking like a bum and perhaps even passing for a "citizen" (as they like to call us regular folks).
For example, I don't think it takes into consideration the fact that people facing long-term incarceration tend to turn to religion (and thus I would poll people during the booking process, and would only enter their data upon conviction). I also know from firsthand experience that being involved in religious programs while incarcerated is an express ticket to receiving perks -- little perks that would mean nothing to us but mean a lot to a prisoner. I've known fellows to attend the prison Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for example, because they were allowed to smoke tobacco on the way back from the meeting. This was their only reason for going, and the guards probably knew that if they allowed this little perk in an otherwise smoke-free facility, this would surely increase attendance at the meetings. It's not unlike the Rescue Mission in our town: the Christian converts get their pick of denims, while the others must choose between plaid slacks and psychedelic bell-bottoms. Guess who's going to pretend to be a Christian, if it makes the difference between looking like a bum and possibly passing for a "citizen" (as they like to call us regular folks).
Meanwhile, I think the most forceful argument still remains the one based in psychology. We ought to commission a new, highly controlled study of the religious beliefs of prisoners, one that is written with many unused "distraction" questions, but is only very lightly salted with the questions that you are really asking. I'm sure the pollsters or statisticians could help foresee the problems that would face a researcher trying to ferret this information out of any social group, not to mention the advice you'd need in dealing with prisoners. Religious surveys tend to be highly suspect even when you're polling the regular population; one sociologist pointed out that people tended to tell pollsters that they were at church last Sunday, but whenever Health Department officials try to track people's activities to find out if or where they'd been exposed to a toxin or an infection, the percentage of the people who were at church last Sunday goes way down. Can you imagine people lying when their health is at stake, versus fibbing (or even forgetting) in the presence of a Gallup or Harris pollster!?
Psychology and Religion.
Many have suggested that there are psychological reasons why one would expect someone with a fundamentalistic world view to have a tougher time with the lawman than more rational people (regardless of religion: there are many fundamentalistic-thinking atheists out there; it's the fundamentalism, to me, not atheism versus religion, that makes the biggest difference. Freud, and later Albert Ellis, made some very crude (and, in my opinion, very biased) analyses of religious faith and what it does to the human mind. Twelve years ago Edmund D. Cohen wrote a book called The Mind of the Bible Believer, which goes into great detail to describe the ways in which biblical fundamentalists think. It also charts the damage done by a conversion to biblical fundamentalism. Unfortunately, Cohen is silent on the prospect of coming back to reality!
Is Anyone Moral With God?
These are some of the issues to consider, though none come close to your initial question, Can one "be ethical and moral without God?" First, if there is no God, then all who are ethical became that way without Him! Atheists, contrary to the popular slander, tend to simply remain unconvinced by the various god claims; thus, we lack a belief in those gods (rather, we do not give assent to those creeds). It's popular to show us asserting that no gods exist -- and many of us do assert just that -- but the common denominator is that we lack a god belief. One is either a theist, or one is not. If not, then that person is an atheist, which is the default position when it comes to religious opinion.
The Euthyphro Problem.
We must first dispense with a theological argument dating back to the question raised by Plato: Whence cometh morality? There are two basic takes: (1) God decrees what is right and wrong; thus, morality equals obedience to God; (2) right and wrong are independent of God, and thus God simply recognizes good and evil. (Please be aware that I use the terms good and evil and right and wrong as shorthand, for the purpose of discussion, to describe how many people think. My current understanding of reality does not recognize any intrinsic good or evil.)
Plato raised an intriguing question in his work Euthyphro, which is a dialogue between a character named Socrates and a fellow named Euthyphro. Plato, you may remember, sought to honor the memory of his fallen teacher, Socrates, so he gave the name "Socrates" to any character in his works who played the ultimate philosopher. Thus, Plato's "Socrates" character often thought, spoke, and acted as the real Socrates probably did or might have, but just as often he acted quite the contrary. I have not heard a convincing argument that the Socrates character de facto represents Plato's viewpoint; rather, I prefer to think that Plato preferred the continuing discussion over the tendency to solidify a body of "truths" into a codified dogma. This tendency to dogmatize came about not long after Plato died.
In our story, Socrates meets Euthyphro, who is on his way to court to prosecute his father for murdering a laborer. Socrates raises the question, "you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?" On hearing Euthyphro's response, Socrates then asks for a universal definition of piety. Euthyphro eventually says that "the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else, whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else; not to prosecute is impious."
Socrates objects, reminding him that "I did not bid you to tell me one or two of the many pious actions but that form itself that makes all pious actions pious."
Euthyphro then summarizes by saying, "what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious."
Socrates suggests that various gods may differ as to what one or the other loves.
Euthyphro objects, saying that "no gods would differ from one another, that whoever has killed anyone unjustly should pay the penalty." On Socrates's further objection, Euthyphro suggests a democratic (deiocratic?) method for determining the will of the gods: "the pious is what all the gods love ... what all the gods hate is the impious."
Socrates then asks The Big Question, so to speak, and he puts it point-blank: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" Ah! The very crux of theistic morality! After a brief discussion of cause and effect, Socrates then asks again: "Is it [the pious] loved because it is pious, or for some other reason?"
Euthyphro responds: "For no other reason."
Socrates here has Euthyphro talking in circles. He has now told Socrates: (1) the pious is that which the gods love; (2) the gods love these things because they are pious. Socrates's goal is to raise a fundamental question that any thinking theist must face:
Does God approve of something because it is right, or is something right because God approves of it?
If the gods approve of things because they are pious, we still don't know why they are right. But if things are right because the gods approve of them, then morality is arbitrary, is it not? Would not incest and murder have been morally right if the gods had approved of it? To say that the gods would never approve of incest or murder is inadequate, because the point is that this alternative has the gods defining the pious, whereas the other has the gods merely acknowledging what is and is not de facto pious.
This forces into a tight spot those who seek to establish that God is the source for morality. As Douglas E. Krueger suggests, on page 27 of his book What Is Atheism?, if something God commands is called good on the grounds that it is God's will, then it would make no sense to ask whether God's commands are good. Krueger points out that "God could command someone to bash infants to death, to commit genocide, to stone people to death" (such as we see the Bible god commanding of His followers), and such thing would by definition be good acts simply because God has commanded them.
Bertrand Russell sums it up nicely:
"If the only basis of morality is God's decrees, it follows that they might as well have been the opposite of what they are; no reason except caprice could have prevented the omission of all the "nots" from the Decalogue."
Theists who take this tack must admit that they don't have a standard of ethics, but rather a standard of obedience. As Krueger suggests, "Slavery, however, is not ethics" (p. 27). Krueger also points out that to say "God is good" is to say nothing more than "God is God," since God, here, is the standard of goodness. Finally, without an independent standard of goodness, there would be no way for us to independently verify whether God is good, because good is defined as what God is. We could never say, as Euthyphro was trying to say, that an Evil Being might do thus and so, but Good God would never do such things.
The other side of the dilemma, the view that God merely recognizes what is good, renders God into a journalist of cosmic heft, reporting to us what we probably can discover on our own, if we merely simply ourselves. God is not the source of morality, in this case, but is independent of it. Therefore, God is Himself subject to it. If this is the case, then even from a theist's perspective, there is nothing to show that an atheist cannot have morality. God, even if He exists, becomes unnecessary when it comes to moral questions.
In either case, God is not the source of a system of ethics, the first being not a system of ethics, and the second being not from God.
Ethics By and For Humans.
Meanwhile, many powerful systems of ethics exist which require no belief in gods whatsoever. Krueger suggests: (1) Immanuel Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785; (2) John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, published in 1861; the virtue-based systems dating back to Aristotle (ca. B.C.E. 300) and more recently expounded in Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, published in 1930 and later covered in Paul Kurtz's Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, published in 1988. This is not to mention the many godless religions throughout the world, as well as many religious views, such as the Deism (which most of the architects of America's political and legal system followed), which do not recognize any communication between God and humankind except where humans observe and reflect upon His creation (what now we call science).
I'm sorry to have spent so much ink establishing this view, but I feel that the main point of this issue lies in the fact that theism does not have even a claim to morality -- much less does theism have a monopoly on morality -- but in fact, all systems of morality are human based.
I will now venture into a brief examination of the Bible, which advocates or commands the following atrocities that many modern people find abhorrent: (1) "resist not evil" (Matthew 5:39); (2) human slavery: e.g., selling one's daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), beating one's slave to death (legal, as long as death lingers and is not immediate), condemning the opposition to human slavery in I Timothy 6:1-5 (consult King James or Douay readings: newer versions cover this up), keeping virgins of conquered tribes "for yourselves" as sex slaves (Numbers 31:14-18); (3) genocide (Deuteronomy 31; Genesis 7; Deuteronomy 20:16; and especially Joshua 11:20, where God deliberately hardens the enemy's heart to war against Israel to the end that Israel can justify slaughtering them); slaughter of civilians during wartime -- including infants and pregnant women (Isaiah 13:16-18; Hosea 13:16); (4) human sacrifice: "a tribute to the Lord" (Numbers 31:40), not to mention the whole concept of Jesus as a human sacrifice, plus Isaac's "sacrifice" was ordered by God (Abraham's willingness is praised to this day) and the sacrifice of Jephthah's unnamed but not unsung daughter was never condemned in Scripture; (5) the oppression of women through an institutionalized and systematic double-standard (an entire study, instituted throughout the Bible).
Meanwhile, would you have the audacity to teach your five-year-old not to commit adultery, to bring even a ten-year-old to an understanding of that Commandment? Besides, is the burden of that Commandment equally distributed between an eighteen year old and an eighty year old? Does the Bible even apply this commandment equally between men and women?
The Koran improves one or two situations, but excels even the Bible in other atrocities. Even such modern revelations as the Mormon Scriptures seem barbaric by todays humane and humanistic standards, to the point where most adherents are oblivious to much of this material, as are the alleged followers of the Bible who would be shocked and dismayed if you showed them a passage like Ezekiel 23:20.
Final Arbiter of Scripture.
In short, the alleged Scriptures are all run through the filter of human reason, and always have been. Even the New Testament attests to the fact that the Pharisees, though much slandered by the Gospel accounts, had liberalized what is surely the most brutal of all the Mosaic laws: that requiring parents to haul a rebellious son out to the gates of the city and demand that the city elders stone him to death. The Pharisees, to their credit, interpreted this law so that it would be almost impossible to carry out -- even if human standards might be tempted to suggest that the child had it coming to him! But Jesus denounces this humanitarian "filter-ing" of the Mosaic law in Matthew 15:
 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
As ruthless as Christians have been and as bloody as their history reads (and even with this reminder from Jesus that the child-stoning law is still in effect, in that he sternly denounces the Pharisees for liberalizing it), I have not studied any era of Christian history where the orders of either Moses or Jesus were invoked to justify the execution of one's own son!
All Ethics Are Human.
I think I have come a long way toward showing that the question, "Can one be ethical and moral without God?" is not even the right question.
I have suggested (though I admit that I'd like to see a better study, and have, for many years, advocated commissioning such a study) that religion's statistics are not very good when it comes to crime. We must also consider the fact that both religiosity and crime are indexed almost identically to economic level. No doubt this correlation weighs heavily on the question at hand, to the point where I am willing to entertain the possibility that religion is as much the result as it is the cause of a higher incidence of crime among the adherents of certain fundamentalist styles of thinking, which themselves are as much a result as they are a cause of certain social and economic pressures. Each factor probably feeds the other.
I have touched only too briefly on the psychological causes of religiosity as well as the psychological damage done by certain forms of religious adherence.
The claim that morality comes from God shows itself to be dubious at best -- even from a theistic perspective.
We've seen that even those who claim to have "The Rule Book From God, Etched In Stone, Once and For All, and For One, and For All," inevitably discover that their human ingenuity must come to play, that they must "adjust" the Will of their God!
As far as morals is concerned, religion offers nothing good that cannot be found outside of religion. Religion also carries baggage found nowhere else. Furthermore, God can't be shown to even exist (a fact readily admitted by believers when they take God's existence "on faith"). Thus, I suggest that even those oracles which are alleged to have come from God are really nothing more than the inventions of humans to begin with. So, even if it could be shown that there are a few good things in religion that cannot be found outside of religion, we still have yet to establish that those good things were not contrived by the human mind. And Plato showed the serious problems with suggesting that they come from God.
I apologize for suggesting an answer other than the one you requested, hoping you are able to get a few clues. My sincere hope is that either your team or some other team real soon commissions a very thorough study of the religious beliefs of convicted criminals. Just putting together a study like that would be a monumental task. I'd be glad to assess any proposed studies and look for ways to shore up the holes that in any such study would be inevitable -- if I am still around by the time such a study receives the proper funding.
Thank you for indulging me. It was an honor to be able to toy with these ideas in your presence. Take it easy, but take it!
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
people with no reason to believe
I sincerely apologize for the amount of time I have allowed to pass before replying to you. I want to start by thanking you for the time and effort put towards your most helpful response. I was a bit surprised when I first received them and have just now had the time to really sit down and absorb the content. It was the second email you had sent that has exposed me, really for the first time, to written, thorough and intelligent atheist views. I was raised in an extremely politically liberal family and have always taken the stance of an atheist without much exposure, outside of my immediate family, to organized views of that subject. As an adult, I have, through experience and the basic process of maturation, come to the decision to identify myself as an atheist. Basically what I'm saying is that I relate and believe to the views you have presented to support your argument.
I have had questions similar to those you raise when concerned with a doubt of a "higher being." I also regard religion as having a destructive effect, especially with regard to the treatment of women and the tolerance of dehumanization. Anyway, I am looking for the various books, lectures, articles, etc., that you have suggested and have also taken into consideration your point on the correlation between religiosity and poverty and crime. I am a criminal justice major and am very interested in those related fields. My exact purpose hasn't been finalized so I am free to narrow it down to any specific question. I will mail you back if you'd like after I make some progress on your suggested topic. Once again, I apologize for how long it's taken me to get back to you and sincerely thank you for your time and effort.
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Rebecca Donnarumma"
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Wednesday, February 14, 2001 12:09 AM
I suspect that it's poverty that is much of the cause of crime and religiosity, with the lack of education being a major cause of all three. Well-to-do people have less need and more to do, to keep themselves busy, if nothing else; educated people can more easily see through hucksterism and can more easily resist being conned into doing something stupid and dangerous.
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
people with no reason to believe
Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.