If No 'Soul,'
Whence Morality?
Patrick Redelings

Graphic Rule

From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Patrick Redelings
Subject: Re:
Date: Thursday, November 04, 1999 5:47 PM

I am sorry this has taken so long. This is a one-man operation, and I have been way behind for weeks. I take time from my last minutes preparations to interview a particle physicist on Saturday to put together the following response for you:

This is a below-the-belt remark: it betrays the all-or-nothing thinking we encounter so frequently on this forum. Have you ever heard of thinking for yourself? or do you think all people are robots who read one single program (whatever program that may be) and then live by everything they have read? Of course you don't. Please do not assume that we would stoop to such an indignant position.

Besides, since Deistic creationism was the position of most intelligent men during the Enlightenment (and beyond, until 1859, when Charles Darwin published Origin of Species), we can expect this language from a document which represented the pinnacle of human intellectual accomplishment in the eighteenth century.

I would predict that had Darwin's work existed in 1776, not even Rev. John Witherspoon would have allowed this language in such an important document. I am convinced that none of the others would have tolerated such language in a public document.

No. It is possible that the universe (or the meta-system within which the universe exists , if such a meta-system exists) has always existed. However, the universe within which we live appears to have exploded from a singularity. It is possible, in a vacuum, for electron-positron pairs to spontaneously materialize literally out of nothing and to dematerialize just as spontaneously. This violates no known laws of physics. It is also very likely that the Big Bang required absolutely no energy to get started and to expand to fill a vacuum, producing what we have today.

As unlikely as this seems, it is not impossible. This scenario violates no known laws of physics.

To posit a creator to explain the existence of the universe is to explain nothing. We are worse off than when we started, because we then must explain the existence of the creator which is, by definition, more vast and complex than the universe. If the universe is so vast and complex (it isn't) that it needs a creator to explain it (it doesn't), then a creator would be that much more vast and complex and would, that much more, require an explanation for its existence.

As it stands, though, the universe that we live in requires no unnatural explanation: using the known laws of physics, we can develop a very feasible explanation. It is unlikely, but not impossible. If it could be shown that it is impossible, I, too, would be tempted to complicate matters by positing a creator.

You must first explain to me what you mean when you use the word soul.

Then you must argue that without a "soul," humans necessarily "exist only and entirely of physical matter" and that there are no structures or processes or information occurring within that physical matter. Consciousness exists if anything at all exists; this was the message of the Existentialists. Today, we can explain consciousness by means of biological structures, systems, processes, and information (learning).

True, in physics, everything ultimately boils down to particles. However, certain properties, such as water's "wetness," are not manifest at the particle level. This becomes even more apparent when we examine such complex situations as exist within a human nervous system and attempt to discover a natural explanation for the phenomenon of our own conscious awareness.

If animals have no "soul," are they then unconscious and unaware? Just what do you mean when you use the word soul -- when your only alternative to the "soul" model is that we "exist only and entirely of physical matter"? (I suspect that we may have a "false dichotomy," here, in addition to a "straw-man" caricature of the opponent's position.)

This is a patently false caricature of our position: nobody believes how you accuse us of believing. The human is very special to us, much more special than rocks. To us, the human is the most advanced and intelligent being with which we can communicate. If there are no gods, the human is all we have for companionship.

Unthinking theists often accuse us, on this forum, of being capable of murder simply because we have no god belief. Is this slander commonly taught among theists, or did you perchance make this up?

Right and wrong are abstractions, which are always the product of human thought and discussion -- even when people claim that they are the product of divine inspiration. Most people develop a personal ethic based upon what will enhance or detract from both survival and happiness. In this sense, good tends to enhance survival and happiness, and evil tends to detract from survival and happiness.

Humans evolved from a long line of mammals, and almost all mammals are social animals, depending almost entirely upon interdependence for our survival. Also, in order to have a better chance of procreating, we must have complex social skills and a desire to get along and be attractive. The human child spends a larger fraction of its life span helplessly dependent upon others. Cooperation and what we call "love" and "patience" are not only naturally selected into our innate emotions, but are thoroughly instilled through learning and experience.

Ever since we organized into cities and societies, survival has been enhanced by accepting the dominant paradigm, and the dominant paradigm is usually religious. Until only moments ago (on the time scale of human existence), you believed in the dominant religion or you died. If you were not killed, you were imprisoned and tortured or you were enslaved or you were banished. In any event, any property you owned became the property of the religion or the religious state. Any tendency toward skepticism has been unnaturally selected out of the human gene pool, and tendencies toward obedience and credulity have been allowed to thrive.

Religion has never succeeded in helping people achieve moral behavior. I don't think it is moral for an adult to act simply out of fear of hell or hope of heaven. While good acts still accomplish good, and evil acts still accomplish evil, I cannot describe acts inspired by these motives as moral.

This seems merely academic until you attempt to discover or develop a system which is more likely to instill behavior that results in more good and less evil. If we can investigate beyond the mere outcomes of various acts and discover reasons and motives for those actions, we come much closer to developing a working system of ethics that we can teach our children.

No religion that I have encountered gives reasons for its commandments beyond reward and punishment from supernatural beings. Until one establishes the existence of a jealous supernatural being, the fear of such punishment or the hope of such reward carries no weight: it is no reason whatsoever for obeying the commandment.

Even if we were to establish the existence of a supernatural being who rewards and punishes, I would still say that fear of such punishment and hope of such reward does not constitute genuine morality. True, it would (theoretically) get the job done, but I could not call it moral.

The truth is that no religious system is superior to any other -- or to secularism -- for inspiring moral behavior in humans.

You tell me:

The Jewish and Christian Bibles tell us that "God" commands no pity in murdering someone who believes differently from the dominant paradigm: "If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers ... Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people" (Dt. 13:6-10); "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Ex. 22:18).

The Christian New Testament continues in the same vein, having inspired its followers to burn hundreds of thousands of unbelievers at the stake: "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned" (Jn. 15:6).

In the Islamic Koran, "Allah" commands: "Kill those who join other gods with God wherever you may find them" (Sura 9:5-6); "I will instill terror into the hearts of the Infidels, strike off their heads then, and strike off from them every fingertip" (Sura 8:12).

Throughout history, religious zeal and unquestioning obedience to a barbaric code has done more harm and caused more pain than any secular system could ever do. Some have carried this policy of unquestioning obedience even to secular systems, betraying a complete misunderstanding of the entire point of secularism: think for yourself. Gora says that theism is any surrender to any system, and atheism is the refusal to do this. I tend to agree with him on this.

Thus, here is the ultimate sin within all monotheistic religious systems: think for yourself.

Graphic Rule

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