Objective Or Subjective:
Can Morality Be Both?
Aaron Nicholson

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Aaron Nicholson"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Sunday, November 19, 2000 3:07 PM

Our piece, "Introduction To Activistic Atheism" explains the basics of what atheism is, at least what we think atheism is. Basically, atheism is the lack of a god belief and we acknowledge that atheists range from a simple lack of a god belief (perhaps we're merely unconvinced of any of the god claims) to having studied and rejected the very notion of gods. The rest of the first section describes how we think atheists can reduce the stigma which is everywhere against us.

First of all, we recognize that all morals are human-made -- even those that allege to have come from a god. So, in one sense, all ethics are personal, because even a theist chooses which religious system to follow.

But in another sense, most ethics are universal. This is because all humans have similar mental constructions and experience similar upbringing. There are certain things that no healthy human could be convinced to do, and there are certain sacrifices that any human would make for her or his fellow-humans.

True, there are exceptions: a small number of humans will disregard ethics that the rest of us take for granted. All cultures have developed laws -- game rules -- to remove such lawbreakers from our midst. If you look at the various cultures, you will notice that some rules or laws are common to all cultures. The same acts are taboo and are swiftly punished wherever you go.

Most of us, though, learn to respect the game-rules of the culture in which we have been raised. These game-rules include the universal human morals plus the unique cultural quirks of that group. We all want to live, and each culture group has developed for itself a set of rules that it has found conducive to survival. Each group also has imposed upon itself a set of superstitions, many of which remain long after the basis for the superstition has vanished.

Humans differ from other animals in that our young spend the largest fraction of our life-span completely dependent upon the nurturing of the parents. Our brain cannot grow in a mere nine months of gestation, so we each spend fifteen to twenty years growing our brain and learning to use it. All our social regulations, in one sense, revolve around caring for our young. Nurturing and caring for one another is our natural human heritage, resulting from the situation in which we all find ourselves. This is universal, and colors everyone's understanding of reality. Our reality is culture based, and it is this cultural basis which forms the bulk of the reality we see and experience.

So, is it one or the other? is it either subjective or objective? No. It's not either-or at all, but both. To ask the question this way is to ask a trick question. This is true for almost all culture bases, including religious cultures. The only exception would be fundamentalism, which demands unquestioning and unthinking obedience and complete loyalty to the tribal totem.

Since renouncing the human mind is one of the most unhealthy things one can do (and probably the most difficult thing for a human to do), fundamentalism will not work for very long -- especially in the global community, or at least a large, diverse, and free community. Few people are cut out to ascent to and obey rules that they see as arbitrary -- that they think make no sense -- and this is the core of fundamentalism: a single set of rules arbitrarily applied to all people in all situations without regard to circumstance and without regard to whether the rules are healthy or even just.

So, in any fundamentalistic subculture, you will find a large number of people unable to obey and subsequently being rejected by the community. Even today, the fundamentalist Taliban movement dishes out strict enforcement of insane laws (men must grow beards just like Mohammed) because the human mind cannot possibly act this way under natural circumstances. The Jehovah's Witnesses ostracize members for the slightest infraction. The Puritans burned anyone who did not obey their intricate and inhumane laws. The Roman Catholics and the early Protestants (Luther; Calvin; Knox) were the same way. Only the liberal, tolerant societies (ancient Egypt; ancient India; ancient Greece; ancient Rome; pre-Enlightenment Islam; America; post-Enlightenment Europe) thrived in any way. Such societies trusted the human.

In a free society, fundamentalism is a self-regulating venture. In any situation, fundamentalism requires periodic exposure to the dogma and frequent exercises in tribal loyalism. This is why religious groups meet regularly: the dogma would never stick if subjected to free inquiry and to the natural testing that any inquisitive mind naturally places upon any idea. So, fundamentalism requires daily, weekly, and yearly renewal of the tribal loyalty in order to survive the rigors to which an unencumbered human mind will put any idea.

The basis for any culture's laws is, of course, the set of laws under which that culture finds itself. More and more in recent centuries, the people are being allowed to contribute to the construction of those laws (democracy and representative republicanism). The Divine Right of Kings has been rejected by most cultures for the religious dogma that it is.

Hopefully, all laws are constantly tested to see how effective they are at keeping peace. Hopefully, all laws are subject to revision based upon new evidence and new situations. And hopefully all laws have exceptions: I would hope that killing someone who was attacking an innocent person will not earn me the electric chair, even though I would expect (even demand) swift punishment for anyone who killed out of greed or passion.

Personal morals very from individual to individual: I emphasize honesty and integrity in myself, while both of my parents seem to emphasize tolerance and privacy. I am more likely to treat everybody the same than are my parents, while they are more likely to let each person succeed or fail according their decisions and their own abilities. The three of us feel very strongly about helping those who are unable to take care of themselves.

But cultural laws, in order to work, must be fair to all; that is, they must be administered the same way to all under similar circumstances. This is the only context where I find the context of punishment to be appropriate: we live under an assumed contract with our fellows, and if anyone gains an illegal or unfair advantage, that person earns the swift retaliation of his or her community. This only works, though, when all punishments are meted out without regard to who someone is. Without careful attention to impartiality, disrespect for the laws renders them ineffective as deterrents.

The basis for an atheist's personal morals is the human's prize possession: the human mind. Though fallible, our minds are superior to anything else we have encountered. My fellow-humans are the most caring and most intelligent entities with which I can communicate. Like it or not, this is the best we've got. And I think we do quite well, considering the prevalence of fundamentalism's influence in its quest to impose arbitrary laws upon the rest of us.

Most humans who are unencumbered by fundamentalism basically do what they want as long as it harms nobody else. This is natural. You will find the so-called Silver Rule in almost all cultures: Don't do to another what you wouldn't want done to yourself. The so-called Golden Rule is intrusive, instructing people to do unto others without regard to their wishes, while the Silver Rule trusts that others know what they want.

But though we basically do what we want, many of us find the need to justify our actions. We will point to a cultural base or a religious dogma to justify those actions for which we cannot find any basis in innate human compassion. And we will point to a cultural or religious base in lauding those actions which do have their basis in human compassion. Religion, the "will" of a "god," has been used to justify crimes that no human could justify through natural means. I cannot fathom burning someone at the stake for their opinions. But if Jesus said we must do this (John 15:6) then I guess we've got to do it. And since we're doing it for Jesus, we ought to do it right. So we'll place the victim upwind of the fire in order to prolong the victim's suffering. This fundamentalistic style of thinking is inhuman and inhumane, and I'm glad it is rapidly dying off among humans.

I would demand a specific description of which standards from the Bible we are to live by and which we are to disregard, because I have read the entire Bible cover to cover twelve times now, and have found it to be a sea of contradiction. In one passage, I am instructed to do what in another passage I am told to refrain from doing. Nobody can put together a comprehensive and systematic set of standards from the Bible without emphasizing some aspects and disregarding the rest. Hopefully, by demanding a specific description of which standards from the Bible to live by and which to disregard, and by combining this with the opportunity to compare this list with other people's lists of standards from the same Bible, I would show clearly the folly of this notion. Some people are so fundamentalistically loyalistic that no amount of clear evidence will convince them that something is awry: they will always insist that the rest of us live our lives the way they want us to live them.

In any event, even if someone were to argue that everyone should live by the "Humanist Manifesto" or by Robinson's An Atheist's Values, my response would be the same: when we talk about imposing rules on everyone, we are not talking about personal ethics but a contract with a people group. Imposing an arbitrary set of rules on a community does not work: the community must have a basis for respecting the laws, lest the laws end up being nothing more than ink excretions on paper. So, the only way to even approach what laws allege to accomplish (peaceful coexistence and a thriving community) is to make sure we've made the laws fair and just and that we administer them evenly.

This is why I prefer a representative republic under a constitution. The constitution prevents the government from being allowed to abuse the public in ways that have shown to be catastrophic in past civilizations. The government must then administer itself under these limitations the best it can. Perhaps there is more crime at the hands of the populace, but there will be less crime at the hands of the police and the government, giving the law system a greater chance of being respected by more people. The rest of the laws are developed by the representatives we elect or, in some cases, voted on directly by the public. In any event, each and every law is subject to being overthrown in light of new evidence and new situations. And the constitution hopefully protects minorities from the tyranny of a democratic majority.

All in all, the difference, to me, between a thinking atheist and a Bible fundamentalist is that a thinking atheist tends to grant dignity to her or his fellow-humans as being capable of self-government, whereas the Bible, unquestioningly obeyed by the fundamentalist, dismisses all humans as "being filled with all unrighteousness, ... wickedness, ... maliciousness; full of ... murder, ... deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, ... inventors of evil things, ... without understanding, ... without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful." (Romans 1:29-32.) The Bible later provides exceptions to those who are loyal to the New Testament totem, calling those people "righteous." But the Bible fails to justify this latter exception, simply asserting it to be true and expecting us to blindly accept this unjustified proclamation (perhaps due to our being "without understanding," thus needing a priest to tell us what's up).

Any leader who would believe this without question, simply because that's what the Bible says, is, to me, dangerous and worthy of the fiercest opposition from the governed public. Such leaders, seeking only personal gain, exploit the natural weakness of humans. Dogmatic religion is the easiest and most effective way to take advantage of one's fellow-humans. May the governed always withhold consent from any leaders who would think of us this way!

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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