Tag Archives: Existence of God

Morality, Survival and Religion

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Morality is a human construct, by and for humans. If not, we’d have to get it from a natural source . . . or a supernatural one. I’m an atheist, so a supernatural source isn’t a serious alternative to me. That leaves one alternative: Nature. But I can’t detect the slightest whiff of morality in nature. Mother nature is red in tooth and claw. She is indifferent to violence, suffering and killing. Survival is her prime directive. So, if there is morality to be found in nature, what else could it be based on? Can the imperative of survival provide an objective moral standard for humanity?

If survival does provide an objective moral standard for humanity, “survival of the fittest” ain’t it. We’re not that cut-throat or indifferent to suffering. We have empathy and a sense of fairness: probably written in our genes. So how could survival serve as an objective moral standard?

I think that survival COULD serve as an objective moral standard if it’s considered at all levels. By this I mean survival at the: genetic, individual, family, group, species and global levels. The idea here is that an act can be judged on its survival value at all these levels: the more value and the more levels that benefit, the more moral it could be considered.

But the problem with the survival-at-all-levels concept of morality is that it suffers the same weakness that all moral systems suffer from: Subjectivity. An objective moral standard is an ideal impossible for humans because humans are not, and can’t be, perfectly objective. We could try to adopt this moral standard but it’s implementation is certain to fail when we interpret survival values.

So morality — no matter where it comes from — will always be a matter of personal beliefs, priorities and biases. Human morality is subjective because humans are subjective.

Assuming a healthy mind, where does morality come from? I think we make it out to be more complicated than it really is. We develop our personal moralities from a combination of just two fundamental human characteristics: empathy and experience. From experience, I know what hurts me. Through empathy, I know the same things are likely to hurt you too. It’s the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Because empathy is informed by experience, morality matures as we do. If we’re lucky, life lessons correct or reinforce our morals as we get older. If we’re unfortunate or downtrodden, life lessons can twist and corrupt our moral sensibilities.

The best religion can do with morality is to endorse some morals and condemn others. Historically, this has proven to be more of a hindrance than a benefit. Morality is what we say it is. As humanity advances, so does our morality. By “writing our morals in stone” as religions are wont to do, they fall behind the times. They become antiquated. In the Bible, not even Jesus was aware how human subjugation (women and slaves) is unfair and unkind. His morality was derived from the social milieu of his era and area. Religions don’t define or mold morals: they usurp them.

It’s not a very satisfying answer but there is no objective moral standard that humanity could actually implement successfully. Morality is subjective. It’s an inherent property of the human condition.


© Copyright 2013 AtheistExile.com All rights reserved.
eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com

 

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Atheism, Agnosticism and Absolutism

Absolute Certainty
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  • “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” ~José Bergamín
  • “The educated in [the critical habit of thought] are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.” ~William Graham Sumner
  • “Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.” ~Bertrand Russell
  • “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.” ~Richard Feynman
  • “Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.” ~Voltaire
  • “Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.” ~Will Durant
  • “Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.” ~Bertrand Russell
  • “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and of many things I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things: by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose . . . which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” ~Richard Feynman
  • “One reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other sciences, is that its laws are absolutely certain and indisputable, while those of other sciences are to some extent debatable and in constant danger of being overthrown by newly discovered facts.” ~Albert Einstein

The quotes, above, are for those who claim absolute certainty of God’s existence or nonexistence. Think about them.

No matter which freethinker discussion group I visit, it seems there’s always a thread debating agnosticism versus atheism. There’s always divergent views about the meanings of these two words. To me, the apparent confusion stems from ambiguous word usage. It should be noted that dictionaries don’t define words for us: they merely reflect how we use words. Lexicographers write dictionary definitions according to the actual usage of words. So, if they are ambiguous in actual usage, dictionaries will reflect this ambiguity. But what is NOT ambiguous is the etymology of these two words. The root of the word, ‘agnosticism’, means ‘knowledge’. The root of the word, ‘atheism’, means ‘belief’. By adhering to what we know, unambiguously, about these two words (their etymologies), we can more easily and clearly distinguish them.

Etymologically, agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. One can be both. In fact, I’d dare say most atheists are ‘agnostic atheists’.

Atheism claims a lack of belief in God. That’s all. It’s about belief . Belief involves subjective claims and opinions.

Agnosticism claims a lack of knowledge of God. That’s all. It’s about knowledge. Knowledge involves objective facts and conclusions.

Atheism is a subjective (belief) claim. Agnosticism is an objective (knowledge) claim. I lack knowledge of God and I lack belief in God. I am atheist by subjective opinion. I am agnostic by objective conclusion.

I would happily believe in God if solid evidence for him ever surfaced but I think the odds of that ever happening are vanishingly remote. Until physical evidence of God’s existence or nonexistence surfaces, rational integrity dictates that I have no logical basis for certainty either way. So my agnosticism is absolute but my atheism isn’t: I am 100% certain I lack knowledge of God but my lack of belief is only 99.99% certain. Personally, I lack belief in God because all evidence points to natural – NOT supernatural – causes.

God, as a concept, is a meme that can’t be proved or disproved: there simply is no substantive information from which to draw an informed conclusion – much less, certainty.

Addendum:

Technically, we really should first clarify what we mean by the word ‘God’. In the West, we usually mean the personal, revealed, monotheistic, God of Abraham. The Abrahamic God is the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Alternatively, we might mean the impersonal, absentee, cosmic, god of deists or pantheists. The Abrahamic God is (allegedly) revealed through divinely inspired scripture: the Hebrew Bible; the Christian Bible; and the Quran. For their respective religions, these scripture are the inerrant, immutable, Word of God. The cosmic god of deists and pantheists, on the other hand, is amorphous. We don’t really know anything about him. He has no scripture to inform us of him.

If, for the sake of argument, we pretend that God is truly revealed by his scripture(s), then we can easily conclude that the God of scripture is absolutely false: contradictory and incoherent. This is virtually as good as proving he does not exist. But the amorphous god of deists and pantheists is another matter entirely. Without any information to go on, we can’t reach a conclusion about him: much less, an absolute one.

So, for me, when I think of agnosticism and atheism, I’m thinking of the amorphous god of deists and pantheists: NOT the revealed god of theists, who, on the authority of his own scripture, CAN’T be real . . . so, logically, I must discount him.

 

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eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com


 

Why Harris Lost His Debate With Craig

I just stumbled upon a year-old YouTube video named, “Sam Harris gets destroyed by Dr. William Lane Craig”. It’s the 2-hour University of Notre Dame debate held on April 7, 2011, between Harris and Craig. It was titled: “The God Debate II: Is Good from God?” The video can be found at the bottom of this page.

And guess what? Harris really was destroyed by Craig! What a disappointment.

Craig started off with the premise that objective morality can only exist if God exists and, alternatively, if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.

Harris then presented his premise that science can identify objective morality by determining what contributes to the well being of conscious creatures.

Craig rebutted with a scholarly evisceration of Harris’ premise that cited: the absence of moral objectivity in atheism; the subjectivity of human flourishing; the is/ought distinction; and more.

As Harris walked up to the podium for his own rebuttal, I realized that he CAN’T rebut Craig because he agrees that there is an objective basis for morality: namely the application of science to the question of human flourishing (well being). And sure enough, Harris didn’t counter a single Craig rebuttal. Instead, he launched into his usual attack on the Bible and its morality.

In disgust, I stopped watching when Craig came back to the podium and rightly pointed out Harris’ lack of a rebuttal.

Harris was so invested in his flawed thesis that “science can solve moral problems” that he was blinded to the risk of agreeing that morality is objective. The fact is that Craig is right! Objective morality can only exist if God exists: if God does not exist, objective morality can not exist.

The atheist position should have been that objective morality can not exist because God does not exist. In other words, morality is subjective. But even if you were willing to entertain God’s existence, Craig is arguing divine command theory, which was dismissed centuries before Jesus came along, by Euthyphro’s Dilemma (“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”). Euthyphro’s Dilemma stemmed from a famous conversation between Euthyphro and Socrates that took place just before Socrates stood trial for impiety and corruption of minors . Surely, Harris is familiar with it. I have no idea why he wouldn’t use it.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma can be rephrased as: “Is an act moral because God wills it or does God will it because it is moral?” If it is moral because God wills it, then it is arbitrary or capricious: without basis in reason. Anything God commands, no matter how horrendous, would be moral. If you uphold the divinity of the Bible, then you are forced to accept that God’s will is arbitrary. But if God wills a thing because it is moral, then morality is independent of, and external to, God. If morality is independent of God, we don’t need God to have morals. Indeed, God is not omnipotent if he is constrained by an external morality.

But that’s an old argument. Thanks to advances in human understanding, particularly evolution, we have a perfectly human explanation for morality that does not require God at all. Because atheists do not believe in God and the supernatural realm, only the natural realm is left: the universe and everything in it. Nature has only a prime directive: survive. There is no good or bad, right or wrong, in nature. Morality is an entirely human construct and, as such, must be subjective – because humans can never be perfectly objective: as Craig points out, that would require a perfect God – an infallible authority.

As an atheist, Harris should have had a 2-pronged strategy: 1.) point out the lack of perfection in the biblical God and 2.) provide a naturalist understanding of morality; admitting up front that it is subjective and relative but, in the end, far superior to the flawed morality of an imperfect God.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma reveals the myth of God’s moral perfection so I won’t go into much detail on that count except to flesh out the slavery criticism because it’s upheld in the New Testament as well as the Old. This is important because Christians typically cop out by claiming fidelity only to the New Testament, since it represents a new covenant with God through Jesus.

I’ve recently written on the naturalist understanding of morality. If the following is familiar to you, just skip to the end.

The naturalist understanding of morality asserts that we have evolved empathy as an impetus to cooperation. Combined with personal experience, empathy leads most of us to a “Golden Rule” sense of morality. From experience, I know what hurts me: with empathy, I know the same things likely hurt you too. Experience and empathy is all we need to decide most moral matters. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . because we need each other to survive and prosper.” We are complex social animals, so this rule of thumb isn’t sufficient for every moral decision but it is fundamental to most. Without this impulse for cooperation to counter our impulse for violence, we would probably squander the intellectual prowess responsible for our survival advantage.

It’s a fallacy (with obvious religious motivations) that “we can not be moral without God”. Our morality is part of the human condition and existed long before Moses. Morality is not a dispensation from God: it is subjective and personal and, because it is informed by experience and empathy, develops as we mature. As a matter of fact, we ALL use our personal morality to overrule Biblical morality. And by ALL, I really do mean ALL: believers and nonbelievers alike. This fact is amply demonstrated by our universal rejection of slavery and the subjugation of women (well, maybe not the Muslims so much). Even though God/Jesus condoned the subjugation of our fellow humans in both the Old and New Testaments, we ALL overrule God’s morality with our own and reject such human subjugation. Not only is God NOT the source of morality but he stands corrected by us all. WE decided what is moral. WE decide what is religiously worthy. NOT God.

You need to ask yourself: “If we overrule God, why do we need him at all?”

This subjugation of our fellow humans is a failing of Biblical morality that can’t be reasonably addressed by apologetics. This is critical for all believers to understand. THEY CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS. Either God is perfect or he’s not. Either the Bible is divinely inspired or it’s not. Either God is the source of morality or he isn’t. Even a believer, if he’s honest with himself, must admit that if God’s morality grows outdated, it was never perfect and timeless to begin with. The alternative is to claim that God is right and that the subjugation of our fellow humans is NOT at all immoral – that it is, in fact, desirable. But we ALL know that’s an untenable position. We all know that is WRONG. We will not reverse our hard-earned moral progress to align it with God’s morality. This is why the issue is out of reach of apologetics.

The truth is that the Old Testament, New Testament and Quran reflect the morality and level of ignorance that existed in their respective eras and areas . . . precisely as they MUST if they’re written without the benefit of God’s input. These ancient tomes are NOT divinely inspired. God is NOT perfect. The issue of human subjugation proves that the personal, revealed, theist, God of the Abrahamic religions is irrefutably false. This doesn’t completely close the door on God, however: there’s still supernatural hope for the impersonal, cosmic, God of deists and pantheists.

Empathy is a human trait that spawns a number of other human traits just as naturally as it spawns morality. Empathy also spawns human dignity and worth, cooperation and compassion. We can live reasonably moral lives without God but not without empathy.


© Copyright 2012 AtheistExile.com
eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com


Aligning Atheism

There’s a fundamental disconnect between atheists and the word “atheist”. Part of this is because there isn’t complete agreement on what the word means.

  • Lack of belief in God
  • Lack of belief in God’s existence

Lack of belief in God could simply mean a choice not to believe in God because he is cruel or undesirable for some reason — but does not specifically address the question of God’s existence.

Lack of belief in God’s existence is more specific but still leaves the door open for interpretation because the phrase “lack of belief” is ambiguous. It might be a matter of degree or preponderance of evidence and not an absolute statement of disbelief. A more definitive position would leave no doubts:

  • Denial of God’s existence

Denial of God’s existence leaves no wiggle-room for interpretation. It’s a flat-out position that God does not exist.

It’s been my experience that most long-time atheists do not deny God’s existence and adopt a more scientific stance which is willing to consider any argument or evidence that might change their minds. They don’t want to make claims they can’t back up. They understand the need for rational integrity. Just as the unqualified claim of God’s existence is an article of faith, so is the unqualified claim of God’s nonexistence. There’s no evidence either way. An atheist can claim that there is no evidence for God or the supernatural (and never has been) and that there’s no compelling reason to believe there ever will be. But there is a possibility — however vanishingly small — that there could be. A creator God is not an impossible proposition given what we know thus far. Existence . . . whether it’s God’s, the universe’s or ours — is an ineffable mystery; the greatest mystery of all. Certainty is an illusion and a claim that science is careful to avoid. Our understanding of the universe has undergone multiple paradigm shifts and will experience more in the future.

Whether you’re absolutely certain that God exists or does not exist, you’re pretending to know facts you have no access to.


© Copyright 2012 AtheistExile.com
eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com


Dawkins and Tyson Claim Agnosticism

Following on the heels of my most recent post, “Aligning Atheism”, Big Think has posted its own page, featuring a video from Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the same topic. I agree with Tyson but will keep the atheist label because I actually DO want to be “in your face” about the ills of religion and the Abrahamic God. Here’s the video’s introductory blurb from Big Think, followed by the video:

What’s the Big Idea?

Richard Dawkins, the most famous atheist in the world, created a stir when he recently declared that he was not an atheist after all, but an agnostic. The news, which came during a debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury last month, seemed at first to be a big get for God. However, in The God Delusion Dawkins was frank about his agnosticism.

So, how does Dawkins square his public persona with his lack of certitude? Easily. No matter how strongly Dawkins is associated with atheism, he is first and foremost a scientist. Therefore, “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other,” he claims.

Similarly, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson claims the title “scientist” above all other “ists.” And yet, Tyson says he is “constantly claimed by atheists.” So where does Tyson stand? He tells Big Think: “Neil deGrasse, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.”