How do atheists and Christians justify morality?

Photo: Victory of Joshua by Poussin

David Quinn of the Iona Institute has written a blog post taking issue with my statement that: “I believe we should treat every individual person with the same respect and dignity and love.” David agrees with this, but says that as an atheist I cannot justify believing it.

David says that some atheists say that we should treat each other with respect because we are a social species, and our ancestors evolved to survive through cooperation.

David rejects cooperation as a reason because it suggests that the reason is survival value, which is a variation of utilitarianism, and that nonhuman animals cooperate to kill each other for utilitarian reasons.

So how, he asks, can we call one form of cooperation moral and another immoral? By contrast, he says that he is justified in believing it as a Christian because we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and this means we are all morally equal.

I’ll address here why I believe I am justified in making that statement, then why I believe adding an un-evidenced god into the equation adds nothing helpful, then conclude with some questions for David.

What are respect, dignity, love, and morality?

The words respect, dignity and love can be ambiguous, so let me clarify approximately what I mean by them. By respect I mean having due regard for a person’s rights, by dignity I mean the quality of being worthy of respect, and by love I mean a sense of strong affection.

There is an implied “by human beings” at the end of each of those words, both because I start the sentence with “we should…” and because nobody believes that they are worthy of respect or dignity or love from trees or tigers or hurricanes.

Like human rights, these qualities can be phrased as something that the person has, but they are more accurately the consequence of other people deeming the person to be worthy of respect or dignity or love or human rights.

What do I mean by morality? I mean that an outcome is objectively bad if it harms a sentient being. And an action is objectively wrong if the agent unjustly harms a sentient being.

How did morality evolve in human brains?

I believe that morality is an evolved attribute of our brains. It has evolved in the brains of social animals, including but not limited to humans, because both cooperation and competition help us to survive.

We see three phases of evolving morality among social animals. The first phase is empathy and compassion. The second phase is cooperation and reciprocity. The third phase is understanding fairness and justice.

Many nonhuman animals exhibit these types of morality. But humans and some other animals have a greater capacity for more nuanced morality, because we have evolved a greater capacity for reason.

This distinguishes us from those animals that do not have this capacity for reason. We can know that something is wrong, because we can understand that it causes unjustified harm. I subscribe to a variation of John Rawls social contract theory of morality. Essentially, that is:

How would a perfectly rational set of people design principles of justice for a society, if we don’t know in advance what position we would hold in that society? That is, we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick. This veil of ignorance forces us to be impartial, and to develop universally just principles.

My personal addition to the theory is that we also should not know what species we would be. I believe one of the greatest injustices in our world is how we treat nonhuman animals. Every year we kill over 50 billion farmed animals, and up to a trillion fish. These sentient beings suffer unjustly for our convenience, and our slaughter of them is an ongoing moral atrocity.

Morality based on belief in God?

I believe that adding a god into the equation not only adds nothing useful, but actually corrupts our natural human morality.

If there was an all-knowing, all perfect, all good God that is the source of morality and cares about human beings on planet Earth, then at a minimum, we would expect it to be able to give us all the same moral message.

If that was the case, then we would see throughout different parts of the world and different times in history that people would have the same sense of morality. But this not what we see. Instead we see different people at different times in different places evolving different codes of morality.

In any given circumstance, it is already hard enough to understand and figure out the best balance between the requirements of empathy, compassion, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness and justice.

But religion corrupts this already-difficult process by adding in imagined supposedly supernatural commands that are unrelated to compassion, cooperation or justice.

And so you see Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and 1 Samuel in the Bible, where the Christian God repeatedly commands the Israelites to attack the cities of other tribes, to show them no compassion, and to completely destroy them, putting to death man woman child and infant, and leaving nothing alive that breathes.

That’s not even mentioning the many acts of immorality committed by people representing the Catholic Church over the centuries. I’m just sticking here to the Christian Bible, which is supposed to be direct word of the Christian God.

Christians can of course find many reasons to ignore or explain away the morally bad things that their god causes to happen in the Bible, but on what basis do they make the distinction in the first place?

Some questions for David about Christian morality

Indeed, adding in a god, in this case the Christian God, to the equation merely adds a lot of new questions like this. So here are some questions for David.

How do you, in the first instance, justify your belief in the existence of the Christian God?

Why is God’s nature good? Is it good for arbitrary reasons, or is it good because it corresponds to independent standards of goodness?

Is it logically possible for the Christian God to have created a universe without suffering or evil? If so, why did he not do so?

How do you justify, as objectively moral, the Christian God repeatedly ordering the Israelites to slaughter children and infants of other tribes?

How do you determine which parts of the Bible are obviously objectively morally good, and which parts are on the face of it morally bad, so that you have to evaluate or reinterpret them to make them consistent in your mind with being morally good?

Is doing good for the purpose of eternal cosmic salvation not utilitarian?

If the point of moral duties, on the cosmic scale, is that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished for eternity, then how is it just that people who lead morally evil lives can escape their eternal punishment by simply repenting on their deathbed?

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. You might well add how come its now a moral (ab-)norm to permit murder of preborn humans, and by some severely autistic philosophers, even infants up to some arbitrary age? Humanism still has a road to travel before it properly connects with our better nature. IF you ever do become re-incarcerated Michael, don’t return as a mouse in my house. For I will find you and I will kill you 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *