Time to Move On: Religion Has Cost Too MuchThe Causes of Fundamentalism, Intolerance and Extremism in World Religions, and Some SolutionsReligion, Violence, Crime and Mass SuicideMorals With or Without ReligionChristian Moral Theory and Morality in Action: Biblical Morals and Social DisasterGrowing Fundamentalism in Islam: How Moderates are Subjugated by Muslim Hardliners
When people approach a religious text or any large book from which they intend to derive ethical teachings, nearly without exception the person will pick up the book and pay very particular attention to all the morals they already agree with. A homophobe will pick up the Christian Bible and realise that homosexuality is an evil sin. A misogynist will pick up the Bible or Qur'an and realise that after all this time he's right: Women are inferior, and he can quote the Bible or Qur'an to prove it. A fluffy liberal will read it and find all the hippy love-thy-neighbour bits and therefore will be able to prove that all those homophobes and misogynists have it wrong. People mostly get, from religious texts, what they put into them.
It is said by some that God decides on an absolute level what is Good or Bad. Some even say that such Divine definitions are the requirement for being judged worthy to enter heaven: If your actions do not match goodness, then you fail. As such some religionists hold that absolute morals are highly important and that firm belief in a particular religion is what is required of us, according to God.
Every person who reads a long text will understand it differently, as each one of us is unique in our character and experience of life. All of our brains are wired up differently; it is impossible for any two people to share exactly the same understanding of anything at all. In epistemology, this basic fact is called subjectivism. A person who reads a holy text will have to judge it, analyze it and think through it and in the process every person observes a different set of moral rules.
Where holy text can appear to very definitely uphold one person's opinions there are others who are sure it does not. Christianity, Islam and other religions with sacred texts proceed to splinter as people interpret the texts in different ways and assert that their way is right. It is impossible for two people to read anything but the most basic sentence without them forming differing opinions of what the text implies.
The creator god is the supremely intelligent one responsible for creating the way that mankind's brains work; such a being must realize that Human Beings can only interpret life subjectively, and that no text will mean the same thing for any two people. But, into the world they place texts written in transitory human languages, filled with cultural references and complicated symbolism that is certainly going to be misunderstood more and more as time goes on.
Therefore by design, any sacred text only contains guidelines or pointers to moral codes of behaviour, and no actual absolutes. To try and write an absolute into a text that can only ever be interpreted subjectively is pointless, especially in theoretical matters such as morality, where scientific investigation is generally fruitless.
A moral absolute is a statement that is implied to be utterly correct, divine in nature. However, as all people are going to think of that moral in a different way, it is useless even speculating what they might be, and any such attempt to state it would be useless and result in a whole range of opinions - moral absolutes only apply to omniscient beings, for other beings they can only be pointers and recommendations.
Doctrine has often been specifically formulated with behaviour-control in mind. Origen, one of the founding (Christian) Church Fathers, argued that while the actual terrors of hell were false, they were useful for scaring simpler believers. Plutarch calls hell an "improving myth"1. But dogmatic and legalistic behaviour is not 'moral' behaviour. Simply obeying rules, tradition and dogmatic answers to moral questions does not make a person moral. Morality requires choices, and the more that a person relies on a "text book of morality" or pre-defined rules, the less they are acting as a moral person. Obeying rules because you think you should is not the same as making moral choices; therefore at best such people are morally neutral, amoral. It seems that as far as morality is complicated as soon as real-life situations are encountered, those best at it will be those who have long exercised their conscience while being free of religious dogmas.
We have already seen Talcott Parsons worry that secularisation undermines the legitimisation of moral rules but he also describes the way in which societies become "adaptively upgraded" by loosening their embrace on dogma and religious authority: they become "more capable of responding flexibly and appropriately to a wide range of dangers and opportunities".
“Beliefs may become so general that they lack any specific or necessary relation to particular values, and the values themselves can no longer provide a firm grounding for the society's basic rules. People follow the rules, regardless of their values, and they hold their values, regardless of their beliefs. What Parsons calls the cultural system therefore loses its grip on the social order. Beliefs and values, rules and regulations float more or less independently in a sea of cultural options that lack any logical or necessary relationship to each other. One can follow the rules because to do so is expedient rather than right. One can do the right thing because it is one way to avoid conflict or surveillance, regardless of whether one considers the right thing to be good. Furthermore, one can do what is good regardless of whether one thinks it is true or has any lasting value that transcends self. One's choices and ethics may be expedient or situational, and one's values can be utilitarian or relative to the society one belongs to, and one's beliefs may support one's values but lack and transcendent authority.”
In "Utilitarianism" by John Stuart Mill (1879) the author notes that some religions in history, in particular Judaism, used to work on the principal that all laws ought to be derived from divinity, often, through divine texts and exegesis (which means the interpreting of holy texts), but adds a rather sensible refrain: "But other nations, and in particular the Greeks and Romans, who knew that their laws had been made originally, and still continued to be made, by men, were not afraid to admit that those men might make bad laws"4. This is great thinking: by allowing our laws to be gradually improved, we can edge forward morally decade by decade, working out what is workable and what isn't.
The evidence points very much to the fact that it is not a bad thing if the beliefs that underlay moral actions lack transcendental authority. It seems to be turning out in the long run that this is a good thing. The embrace of human rights, the greatest preventer of national and cultural abuse of minorities, for example, is promoted by secular organisations (the United Nations being the biggest of them), and, opposed strongly by religious organisations in every country.
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”
Theists have a two-pronged pair of incentives that serve to lessen the worth of any apparent moral act on their behalf. If I am threatened into behaving in a good manner then I am at best amoral, because I am not acting with free will. If you believe that a supreme god is going to punish you (in hell) or deny you life (annihilation) if you misbehave, it is like being permanently threatened into behaving well. In addition, if you believe there is some great reward for behaving well, then your motives for good behavior are more selfish. An atheist who does not believe in heaven and hell is potentially more moral, for (s)he acts without these added factors. Most atheists who do not believe in divine judgement, and most theists who do, both act morally. Some of both groups act consistently immorally. The claim that belief in God is essential or aids moral behavior is wrong, and any amusing theistic claim that they have "better" morals, despite acting under a reward and punishment system, is deeply questionable. Who is more moral? Those who act for the sake of goodness itself, or those who do good acts under the belief that failure to do so results in hell?
Consider the fates of these three people:
Out of all the religions, this person picks the one that sounds like it will give the best rewards after death.
This person simply accepts whatever religion he was born with, and tries to live his life as best he can.
Out of all the religions, this person doesn't know which to pick even though he studies them, so he tries to simply live his life as best he can, deliberating carefully over the moral stances that he takes.
Imagining for the moment that god is benevolent (good) and judges us, then, it is surely the third person who deserves most merit. The first person, who follows Pascal's Wager, is openly self-centered. Given that many religions proscribe punishments for those that worship the wrong god, the third position (pick no religion) is the safest of all three options.
Take as an example the lesson being taught in Proverbs 6:20-35 (See: Proverbs Chapter 6). It is about the reason for not committing adultery but it does not mention the suffering caused to other people's married lives, nor the immorality of the act: It solely talks about the seriousness of revenge that the husband might exact, and, about the importance of looking after your own skin. Even when giving good advice, it seems the Bible manages to miss the point of moral thought!
A good test of whether or not a person truly believes that God is necessary for morality is to ask them what immoral behaviour they would suddenly engage in if they ceased believing.
“If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder', you reveal yourself as an immoral person [...]. If, on the other hand, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.”
If a person is only behaving well because they are threatened by hell and want the reward of heaven, then, then this test reveals the underlying truth that good people are good no matter if they believe in god or not, and, bad people are bad even if they're forced or coerced into doing good.
You can gradually change character by reflecting on the flaws of your own actions and by receiving advice and instruction from people in your community and from reading. But, there is no particular need for this input to be religious. Indeed, those who use a codified system are often less adaptable and find themselves desperately applying anachronistic moral ideas to a world where they no longer fit.
Religions almost universally emphasize the moral duty of the individual. "God knows all" as the Qur'an and Bible repeat: examples in the Christian Bible include Job 28:24, 37:16; 1 John 3:19-20; and very frequently in the Qur'an: the first chapter (after the introduction) iterates God's omniscience ten times, for example Sura 2:29, 77, 85, 115 and 137. We all answer to God eventually. Buddhism and Hinduism likewise teach that we pay the consequences of this life throughout our next. So many people come to think of religions as being a bastion of moral thinking, because, religions tend to dramatize and exaggerate the rewards and punishments of good and bad behaviour. Don't forget that when Psalms 14:1 says "the fool saith in his heart that there is no God", the word it uses in Hebrew also means immoral people: immoral people say 'there is no god'. This emphasis is strong amongst laypeople: despite their record against human rights on an institutional and national level, locally popular religions are often seen as a force for good. A 2002 poll in the USA, an unusually religious country for its state of development, found that on average 44.5% of the adults believed that "It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values"8. This included both church-goers and laypeople. 65% of regular churchgoers believed it, thinking therefore that the vast majority of the members of "wrong" religions therefore could not be moral people. This ridiculous belief is still held by 25.7% of those who never attend church. Although it is hard to believe that this level of ignorance can exist in the rest of the world, the underlying belief was more popular in pre-modern times throughout the world. Academics have also toed this line; Talcott Parsons in 1966 said the same thing, merely using bigger words. After saying that what makes moral rules valid is a 'legitimation system', he adds that 'a legitimation system is always related to, and meaningfully dependent on, a grounding in ordered relations to ultimate reality. That is, its grounding is always in some sense religious. [...] The process of secularization, then, undermines the system of legitimation by which a society's rules seem to be grounded in ultimate reality.'3
Bryan Wilson is an insightful and respected sociologist of religion. Even he, in 1982, warned of mass breakdown in morality in the West if the religious underpinnings of moral propriety were forgotten.
“As Wilson (1982: 52) concludes, 'Unless the basic virtues are serviced, unless men are given a sense of psychic reassurance that transcends the confines of the social system, we may see a time when, for one reason or another, the system itself fails to work...' [...] Wilson (1982: 86) describes how secularization resulted in the breakdown of morality in Western societies: 'When in the West, religion waned, when the rationalistic forces inherent in Puritanism acquired autonomy of their religious origins, so the sense of moral propriety also waned - albeit somewhat later, as a cultural lag. Following the decline of religion [... and the resultant] process of moral breakdown [... we should have] genuine concern about the role of morality in contemporary culture' (Wilson 1982: 87)”
After Parsons in 1966 and Wilson in 1982, Karen Armstrong repeats the same story in "A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4" (2005), arguing that myth is essential for good ethics and meaningful living. How do all of these thinkers rationalize the fact that many god-believers, myth-believers and suchlike, appear to commit the same atrocities and immoralities as unbelievers? From the Dark Ages presided over by Christianity, to the spectre of Islamist brutality against (for example) women and gays in Islamic countries, it seems that religious morals are hardly a panacea. Karen Armstrong dismisses these problems with the odd concept that they are caused by "failed myths"9. An element of double-think appears to be in place: if religious people do good, it is because they are religious, whereas if they do wrong, it is because they are fallible human beings. Such circular logic ought to be challenged wherever it is heard.
So there are numbers of people who, if they want to be good or, wants to be seen as good, will gravitate towards religion simply because they think it is what required. These people, who have come to actively choosing to be a better person, will find that their efforts are rewarded whether or not they choose to do it within a religious framework.
There is plenty of evidence that religion is not required. Parson in 1966 and Wilson in 1982 both warned of systematic collapse in morality if secularisation continued. It not only continued, but has accelerated. There has been no mass failure. Crime is down, wars are shorter, violence is down. It happens that people can also adopt non-religious and secular philosophies in order to promote good moralizing. Secular movements such as the British Humanist Association and IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union) are devoted to encouraging moral behavior, moral thinking, overall conscientiousness and rationality. The main difference between these and religious groups who do the same, is that the religious groups often teach that they are the only valid source of morals.
It is very telling that while society's morals change over time, religion's acceptance of new ideas (from human rights and equality to animal and environmental care) often lags behind by several generations. This hasn't always been the case; once upon a time, in general, moral thinkers were religious reflectives. Bryan Wilson, the esteemed sociologist of religion, records that instead of shaping the morals of secular society, religion in the West now slowly follows11.
An effect of this lag is that religions and sects that are stricter and more resistant to change their moral stances, find themselves increasingly at odds with society at large. This is particularly true in the realm of human rights; most campaigners are engaged much of the time in struggles against religious groups, religious lobbies, and religious activists who are opposed to various aspects of human rights. Typical battles occur over gender equality, tolerance of sexuality and the immorality of prejudice, abortion rights and women's rights, animal welfare - not to mention other topics such as science education. Newer religions fare better as they are founded on more modern morals.
"The Causes of Fundamentalism, Intolerance and Extremism in World Religions, and Some Solutions: 8.2. Minority Religions and Religions With No State Support Tend to Support Religious Freedom" by Vexen Crabtree (2012)
|Studying on Sunday||13||2||0|
|Social dancing (tango, waltz, etc.)||91||61||0|
|Attending 'Hollywood-type' movies||46||14||0|
|Premarital sexual intercourse||?||94||89|
|Extramarital sexual intercourse||?||98||97|
Source: Bruce (1996)12
In case anyone doubts it, statistical surveys have found that religious morals change over time too. There are many things that were once completely taboo for many Christians, but which now would only attract incredulity if you were to tell them that their forebears once held these things in anathema. The chart on the left highlights some changes amongst evangelicals, who are as a group highly vocal about the necessity of sticking firmly to the eternal morality sanctioned by God. It is clear that such sanction is quite open to exegesis (which means the way you can get various meanings from the Bible).
Take dancing; in the 9th century Church leaders gathered and condemned dancing in (and singing) in churches, calling it pagan and hoary13. Similar pronouncements occurred during the dark ages and as late as 1684, Puritan ministers in New England said the same14. It is hard to imagine a single preacher saying it now about classical dancing anywhere, let alone during worship.
The Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance (OCRT) examined how it is that such a changing kaleidoscope of religious morals can be derived from static and unchanging source texts:
“Religious groups use various methods to change their beliefs. Sometimes, the texts which support the old beliefs:
Are simply ignored;
Are reinterpreted. Passages previously interpreted literally are now interpreted figuratively; Sometimes the reverse happens.
Are regarded as having been valid at the era and/or the society in which they were written, but are not meaningful for guidance for people today.
Are considered to be ambiguous in their original language and are retranslated into English with a different meaning.
Are unambiguous in their original language, but are intentionally mistranslated into English to give an ambiguous meaning. One example of this is to translate the Hebrew word for "slave" into the English word "servant" which can refer either to an employee or a slave.
Religious systems of morality have an odd emphasis on internal thoughts, and often regard many attributes as positive that actually do no good for the world at large, such as (1) withdrawing from the world and (2) not engaging others when they have clearly done wrong, For example, consider the Catholic Church, which did not oppose the fascist Nazis at all in Europe and who opened their genealogical records so the Nazis could hunt Jews, and who didn't excommunicate Hitler for his crimes. The Catholic Church only selectively engages in politics, because its morality is too concentrated on individual sins, such as adultery, and not political ones, such as genocide or human rights abuse.
“The natural impulse of the vigorous person of decent character is to attempt to do good, but if he is deprived of all political power and of all opportunity to influence events he will be deflected from his natural course and will decide that the important thing is to be good. This is what happened to the early Christians; it led to a conception of personal holiness as something quite independent of beneficent action, since holiness had to be something that could be achieved by people who were impotent in action. Social virtues came therefore to be excluded from Christian ethics. To this day conventional Christians think an adulterer more wicked than a politician who takes bribes, although the latter probably does a thousand times as much harm. The mediaeval conception of virtue, as one sees in their pictures, was of something wishy-washy, feeble, and sentimental. The most virtuous man was the man who retired from the world; the only men of action who were regarded as saints were those who wasted the lives and substance of their subjects in fighting the Turks, like St Louis. The Church would never regard a man as a saint because he reformed the finances or the criminal law, or the judiciary. Such mere contributions to human welfare would be regarded as of no importance. I do not believe there is a single saint in the whole calendar whose saintship is due to work of public utility. With this separation between the social and the moral person there went an increasing separation between soul and body, which has survived in Christian metaphysics and in the systems derived from Descartes.”
"Why I am not a Christian" by Bertrand Russell (1957)
“Without doubt the greatest injury ... was done by basing morals on myth, for sooner or later myth is recognized for what it is, and disappears. Then morality loses the foundation on which it has been built.”
Viscount Samuel (1870-1963), British statesman and philosopher, high commissioner for Palestine (1920-5) and home secretary (1916, 1931). Wrote "Philosophy and the Ordinary Man" in 1932
Not only has the monotheistic system of ethics come to be based on non-Human and non-societal fantasy, but it is actively anti-Human and anti-societal. Theist morality is given justification on the basis of their beliefs. But reasonable thought, good intentions and good character all produce good morals in action, and produce them in a more fluid, sensible way. What we base on myth and religion and then write in stone, becomes stagnant, legalistic and cold: What we base on love and reason is a superior form of morality to what we derive from religion. As Viscount Samuel notes, if we base our morals on religion, sooner or later the foundation will be lost. In addition to that, it is misguided to base morals on religion in order to claim that they are unchanging as religious morality changes over time just as secular morality does, the only difference is that non-religious folk admit the change and short-sighted religious folk don't admit it. Secular morality is more honest.
This section is taken from The Causes of Fundamentalism, Intolerance and Extremism in World Religions, and Some Solutions.
Fundamentalists largely hold that their scripture is the only authority we have as regards to the truth: It is an absolute truth. However, in order to select which text they consider inerrant there must first be non-scriptural basis for this selection. Before a person considers a text inerrant, they are in a position where their position in the world dictate their knowledge of religious texts and their approach to them. These secular and coincidental factors determine whether a person comes to decide that a text is inerrant.
“Koran, n. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.”
"The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce (1967)
The philosopher Immanuel Kant made the same argument in 1785 with regards to believers choosing that the God of the Bible is indeed a being of moral perfection: "Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognise Him as such"17. It is an illogical situation that once a fundamentalist has chosen a text, they then deny that they have no other source of authority: If there is no source of authority other than the text they've chosen, then their reason for selecting the text has become invalid. Beyond this point of self-contradiction it can be seen that the reasons are complex psychological ones.
Fundamentalists have been unable to arrive at a logical criterion for how a secular living person should select which text is true out of all the religious texts available in the world, all of which have adherents who claim their chosen books are inerrant.
Through Prophecy? All claim that correct prophecies validate their text, and all claim that all the other texts don't really have correct prophecies. It is impossible to investigate all such claims yourself, in one lifetime, so it appears that a logical intellectual choice based on prophecy is impossible. Or it is ignorant: A choice can't be made without ignorance until a person has actively investigated all claims of prophecy by all religious texts. Until the individual has done this, they're merely guessing which one can be judged, by criteria of its prophecies, to be "more" divine than other texts.
Sensible possibility: That God has inspired multiple correct prophecies in multiple religious texts or that magic operates as part of the natural laws of the universe, and supernatural prophecy-making is possible whether or not God has a part in it. Of all the prophecies that have not come true (such as the thousands made about the end of the world, etc), you could very sensibly infer that any true prophecies are only true by coincidence and luck, not by supernatural means. In all cases, it can be seen that judging religious texts by their prophecies is a poor method.
Through Faith? Decisions by "faith" are determined in 99% of cases by cultural and societal factors, by psychology, and not by virtue of which text is true. Faith is a cultural and psychological phenomenon. Or, of course there is the chance that a God does actually support multiple (even contradictory) religions, and therefore that it doesn't really matter which one you pick.
Through Morals? It is circular logic to claim that a text is an absolute authority on morals, and then to claim that you can judge a text by the morals contained in it, before knowing which text is true. If you assume particular morals, then look at religious texts, you will end up selecting the text that most matches your own morals. If you select a text then claim that its morals are absolutely correct, you could have drawn exactly the same conclusion no matter which religious text you'd selected. The factors which determine which one you select in the first place are therefore purely cultural and psychological - not moral. We have no rational basis for claims of what morals God considers best. Selection by morals is a fundamentally flawed selection criteria, requiring either genuine stupidity, ignorance or doublethink.
By Popularity? If you judged by popularity you would conclude that at the moment the Christian text is 'absolute' and correct. But, in previous centuries, Roman paganism was absolute and correct, and before that, the animist worship of multiple simple spirits was the correct set of beliefs. It makes no sense that to say that now, at the moment, a particular religion is true merely because it is popular. Especially given that within a religion such as Christianity, there are many varied beliefs. To base claims on popularity is to undermine the idea that one particular religion has correct beliefs.
For more on the topic of how religionists approach their chosen texts, see:
In the depths of the cities of secular Europe, and out of the moral confines of the most commercial part of the computer industry in the USA, non-religious communal spirit is proving itself inextinguishable.
The British Crime Survey (from civilian disclosure, not police stats) has found that people's experience of crime has dropped from 15 million crimes per year in the 1990s to 10 million in the 2000s (despite a rising population). The Home Office reports that, from police statistics, crime has been falling for 10 years19. Yet 65% of the population report that they think crime is rising, according to the academic of journalism, Lewis (2009)20. Over this period, religion has continued its serious decline in the UK. See: "The Worst of the Modern Mass Media: 1.2. Perception of Crime Rates in the UK" by Vexen Crabtree (2009).
Over 10,000 volunteers worked hard in the rubble of 9/11 twin towers, basing themselves at nearby St Paul's Church which became a welfare HQ in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack21.
After the UK riots in 2011 Aug (centred on London) a spontaneous wave of thousands of enthusiastic volunteers was organised by ordinary people online into clearing-up parties. Symbolic gestures of communal love appeared on "love walls" featuring thousands of post-its and messages. These saw the general citizenry proclaim their positive feelings for the communities and places they lived in. No-one had to profess any particular religion, theological belief and no-one denied consumerism or materialism in order to do it. In today's secular Britain, I suspect they didn't even care what each other's beliefs were. They stood up for what they believed in, whilst not being aggressive themselves. Moral society has not died; it has merely ceased to be religious.
After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, London saw a remarkable togetherness in the mourning of a shared public symbol often in a shared, public way. Sociologists talked of a "civil religion" whereby national symbols such as Diana command a pseudo-religious respect and devotion.
A suite of organisations from national bodies such as the British Humanist Association, to international ones such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union, are continually growing, priding themselves of providing outlets for non-religious moral and ethical activism and debate, engaging constantly in human-rights battles. Their usual opponents are non-democratic hardline political regimes abroad, and, fundamentalist religious groups at home, both of which are often found actively fighting against human rights and equality. See: Humanism.
The richest man on Earth founded the Bill & Miranda Gates Foundation and gave away more money than the combined wealth of dozens of countries. So the world's greatest philanthropist is a commercialist entrepreneur who made billions from modern technology and who is an agnostic if not an atheist, and considers religion to be a waste of time22.
You can't count or quantify these elements of communal pseudo-spirituality in the same way you can count people entering Churches, but, such things have not disappeared alongside shared Christianity in the West. The world is not simple enough to simply blame areligious materialism for social ills. Most of the world's most horrendous human-rights abusers are intensely religious countries, and, most of the world's poorest countries lack free markets. It must therefore be noted as rather odd when religious types claim to represent the moral side of mankind.
Religion does not have much impact on morality: young children the world over share very common intuitions about moral behaviour regardless of what religion they are brought up in, and in adults religion has less effect on morality than cultural, familial and local moral traditions.
“We know that religious codes and exemplars cannot literally be the origin of people's moral thoughts. These thoughts are remarkably similar in people with different religious concepts or without any such concepts. [...] Finally, even religious people's thoughts about moral matters are constrained by intuitions they share with other human beings, more than official codes and models.”
"Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer (2001)24
“Preachers tell us that any universal moral standards can only come from one source - their particular God. Otherwise standards would be relative, depending on culture and differing across cultures and individuals. The data, however, indicate that the majority of human beings from all cultures and religions or no religion agree on a common set of moral standards. While specific differences can be found, universal norms do seem to exist. Anthropologist Solomon Asch has observed, "We do not know of societies in which bravery is despised and cowardice held up to honor, in which generosity is considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue."”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)25
These may be called 'universal' morals but I would not accept that term on too strict a basis as I am sure that if you look, you will find exceptions. What is the source of these near-universal moral behaviours? Evolution. If we theorize that evolution (not religion) leads to common morals, then, our theory predicts that we will find moral behaviour in many social animals and that this behaviour can be explained in terms of the propagation of genes. Well, in nature, this is exactly what we find. It seems that animal morality, including Humankind's, looks exactly as it would look if there was no set of absolute morals being imparted to individuals by God.
Despite this lack of divinely inspired morality, each religion displays a range of possible taboos and behaviour inhibitions. It is possible for an entire religion to change its outlook. Compare the morality of the Church during the dark ages to the Christianity of today: they are opposites! But both stem from the same religion, from the same religious books. These changes are not unique to each religion over time. The same diverse ethics are apparent in each religion. So, there are Jews, Christians and Muslims who are incredibly strict on dress codes and diet. But there are many who are liberal on both. All major faiths have mystical wings where introspective contemplation (and sometimes zany experiences) are held in the highest esteem. All major faiths have communities that uphold incredibly strict rules on aspects of behaviour which they call "moral" but which the rest of the world calls petty. And all have violent, aggressive and intolerable wings. It seems that no matter what type of person who are, you can join a world religion and find a part of it that already matches your ethical thinking. This destroys the argument that morality comes from religion. Culture, individual psychology and deliberation are their true sources, and, are all secular in origin.
And a closing quote from Pascal Boyer, with an adequate and appropriate biological slant, which leads us on to the next section:
“Our evolution as a species of co-operators is sufficient to explain the actual psychology of moral reasoning [...and] requires no special concept of religious agent, no special code, no models to follow [even though] you can easily insert them in moral reasoning that would be there in any case. To some extent religious concepts are paristic upon moral intuitions.”
"Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer (2001)24
For more information, see some of these books:
“A considerable literature exists on the natural (biological, cultural, evolutionary) origins of morality. Darwin saw the evolutionary advantage of cooperation and altruism. Modern thinkers have elaborated on this observation, showing in details how our moral sense can have arisen naturally during the development of modern humanity.
We can even see signs of moral, or protomoral behaviour in animals. Vampire bats share food. Apes and monkeys comfort members of their group who are upset and work together to get food. Dolphins push sick members of a pod to the surface to get air. Whales will put themselves in harm's way to help a wounded member of their group. Elephants try their best to save injured members of their families.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)26
The quality of animal morality seems tied in perfectly with their social evolution and it seems that humanity is not particularly unique when it comes to inherent morality.
“Six rhesus monkeys were trained to pull on a variety of chains to get food. If they pulled on one chain, they got a large amount of their favourite food. If they pulled on a different chain, they got a small amount of a less enticing food. As you can probably guess, the monkeys quickly learned to pull on the chain that gave them more of what they wanted. They maximized their reward. After a few weeks of this happy setup one of the six monkeys got hungry and decided to pull on the chain. This is when something terrible happened: a separate monkey in a different cage was shocked with a painful jolt of electricity. All six monkeys saw it happen. They heard the awful shriek. They watched the monkey grimace and cower in fear. The change in their behaviour was immediate. Four of the monkeys decided to stop pulling on the maximizing chain. They were now willing to settle for less food as long as the other monkey wasn't hurt. The fifth monkey stopped pulling on either chain for five days, and the sixth monkey stopped pulling for 12 days. They starved themselves so that a monkey they didn't know wasn't forced to suffer.”
"The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind" by Jonah Lehrer (2009)27
Sabre toothed tigers look after wounded members of their own group. There is a species of caterpillar in which members of the group sacrifice their own lives to warn their fellows of impending danger. Chimpanzees share their food to those who beg, even though it makes them angry and irritated to do so. Monkey mothers spank their young if they bully others. Male ursine seals attack their own females if they fail to take proper care of their young. The evolutionary nature of these traits is additionally proved by the fact that they occur on a species-by-species basis, just as if we would expect if these traits are coded for genetically. Neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington commented that "biology cries the individual for itself" but it is "altruism that seems as yet Nature's noblest product".2
The neurological framework that facilitates moral thought is similar across animals that are evolutionarily close, and likewise, their moral behaviour is similar. It seems that biology drives morality more than religion.
“The empirical evidence does not support the widespread assertion that religion is especially beneficial to society as a whole. [...] It is not clear how society is any better off than it would have been had the idea of gods and spirits never evolved.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)28
If it is the case that Christian or Islamic morals are better than others, then we should clearly see that when these religions are ascendant and popular, mass immorality should decrease. But historically and in the present era, that is not what happens. Religion causes increased social malaise in all areas. On this topic I have compiled many statistics, found on the following pages:
"Medical and Sexual Child Abuse In Christianity: Faith Healing and Priestly Paedophilia" by Vexen Crabtree (2009): The massive scale of child abuse within Christianity.
"Traditional Religions and Abolition of the Slave Trade" by Vexen Crabtree (2003) - Religious organisations held on to their slaves the longest. Muslim slave companies in Africa freely sold slaves en masse to Christian shippers.
"The Peacock vs. the Ostrich - Religious Behaviour and Sexuality" by Vexen Crabtree (2008) and "Religion Versus Womankind" by Vexen Crabtree (2007): The oppression and denial of human rights of women, the irrational stances on contraception and abortion that cause untold suffering and disease, and the hateful and horrible attitude towards homosexuals.
"The Causes of Fundamentalism, Intolerance and Extremism in World Religions, and Some Solutions" by Vexen Crabtree (2012): Monotheism shouts loudest about morality, but, is the most intolerant form of religion.
In "Time to Move On: Religion Has Cost Too Much" by Vexen Crabtree (2010) I ask: is monotheism really this bad? To answer, only look at times in history when theocracy has reigned: the dark ages of Europe, and the current dark ages in much of the Arab world, are the domains of Christianity and Islam respectively.
Unfortunately many religious charities cannot separate welfare from doctrine. Religious charities have ran long campaigns against such things as gay rights, abortion rights for women and equality of gender. Mother Theresa, for example, spent a shocking amount of time jetting around the world in her private jet meeting with political leaders to discourage them from using such horrible things as condoms and contraception (making two of Africa's worst problems, overcrowding and STDs, worse). I am sure that this is hardly the type of causes that charitable donators had in mind when they dropped money into a charity box!
“The most vocal opposition of anything that provides equality for gays are always Christians and Muslims. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, backed by the Church of England29 and the Muslim Council of Britain30, have led a campaign to get the government to give exceptions to Catholic Adoption agencies so that they won't have to give equal rights to gay parents. He says that for reasons of conscience and morality, Catholics cannot be made to comply with the law. Tony Blair is rejecting their case, but has given them extra time to "adjust" to the new laws - they won't have to fully comply until the end of 200829. We will discuss the Catholic's pro-discrimination lobby later.”
By Vexen Crabtree 2012 Jun 30
Second edition 2010 Mar 07
Originally published 1999 May 05
Last Updated: 2014 Jul 05
Parent page: Single-God Religions and Morals: Controversies and Philosophical Absurdities
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.
(2005) A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4. Kindle edition 2008. First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd.
Bainbridge, William Sims
(2011) Atheism. This essay is chapter 17 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011).
Bierce, Ambrose. (1842-1914?)
(1967) The Devil's Dictionary. Published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz. Published by Penguin Books in 1971, and quotes taken from a 2001 Penguin Classics reprint. Penguin Group, London, UK.
(2001) Religion Explained. Hardback. Published by William Heinemann, Random House Group Ltd, London, UK.
(1996) Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK [Book Review]
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.
Dawkins, Prof. Richard
(1976) The Selfish Gene. 30th Anniversary 2006 edition, published by the Oxford University Press, UK.
(2006) The God Delusion. Hardback. Published by Bantam Press, Transworld Publishers, Uxbridge Road, London, UK.
(1995) The Dark Side of Christian History. Published by Morningstar & Lark, Windermere, FL, USA.
Fenn, Richard K.
(2009) Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion. A look at what 11 sociologists of religion think of "the sacred". Be warned that Fenn's book contains one chapter on each sociologist of religion but that his own mystical and specific take on 'the sacrad' is heavily intermingled with his commentary - see the book review for a proper description. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, London, UK. [Book Review]
Griffin, Donald R.
(1992) Animal Minds. The University of Chicago Press.
Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913). eBook was prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Amazon digital edition.
(2009) The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. Hardback. Published by Canongate Books, Edinburgh.
Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1957) Why I am not a Christian. Quotes from Fourth Impression of 1967 edition, 1971, Unwin Books.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.
(1993) A History of Sin. Hardback. Canongate Press.
(1982) 'Religion in Sociological Perspective' p52,86-87. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. In "Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion" by Richard K. Fenn (2009) [Book Review] chapter 'Bryan Wilson' p136-8.