Atheism-Theism – The Moral Argument for God

‘In tune with the mysterious forces of the cosmos that believe there is nothing like millions of frustrating trial and error to give a species a moral fibre, in some cases even a backbone.’

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett.

One of the biggest points of contention in the theist-atheist debate is morality. Both sides accept that we are moral creatures, but the debate rages over where we get our moral values and duties. Think of it a a compass that guides us.

Theists claim people are, deep down, flawed, sinful, evil, and a necessary divine authority is around to give us moral laws, and be a ground for our virtuous behaviour. Atheists reject this saying a naturalistic viewpoint is enough to explain our moral intuitions.

My views lean towards naturalism and Buddhism.

Sin & Nature

Being human doesn’t just mean having opposable thumbs, it also means having moral compass, intuitions.

One of the negative aspects of the Abrahamic faith is the concept of “Original Sin,” which states that everyone is cursed from birth. Original sin gives ideas like Thomas Hobbes and our ‘Nasty, brutish and short’ ancestors. Or Dostoevsky’s notion that ‘If there’s no God, all is permitted.’

This idea has been used to justify the notion that humans are inherently evil and need an all-powerful authority to maintain ethical behaviour. However, this attitude elevates civilization and religion while degrading tribal cultures, our ancestors, and those who do not believe in their god.

What this comes down to is what is human nature. Some people believe that without divine laws and authority, everyone would resort to stealing and murder. The church reinforces the idea that people are flawed and sinful and then offers salvation through God as the solution to these problems. However, there is no evidence that sin even exists beyond an abstract concept.

To understand our species’ survival, we must examine how our ancestors managed to thrive without religion. The notion that hominids were nasty and brutish without religion is baseless and a cultural myth we need to discard. It’s also a way to demean tribal people while elevating “civilized” people.

Before developing language, our species had to learn to live in the world and with each other. Without laws, those who transgressed unwritten taboos were ostracized or even killed, limiting their opportunities to procreate. Natural selection ensured that harmonious tribal members were more likely to have children than those who did not. We are descendants of those survivors; our minds are inclined toward thriving and survival, which involves sociability and community.

Our existence rests upon a moral framework that predates language and organized religion. We have well-developed social skills that allow us to create a social order because we need to get along with each other. Being part of a tribe provides safety, security, shelter, food, and companionship. Conformity is reassuring; we feel safer in the herd; ostracism means being alone, insecure, unsafe, and uncomfortable. We gravitate toward comfort and away from pain, so our moral compass is part of what we are—a drive toward conformity and the tribe. We mostly treat each other well because we don’t want to be alone. Even young children and chimps show a moral compass and a sense of fair play.

From a biological perspective, we see this in oxytocin (the “cuddle chemical”), mirror neurons that help us feel others’ emotions, and psychological concepts like empathy, sympathy, and stress. Issues like social anxiety, loneliness, and depression underscore how much we are social animals and how much we dislike feeling isolated.

We evolved to need others; we are successful and happy because of others; that’s why morals were necessary before we learned to speak.

In contrast, Buddhists has no belief in sin because Buddhists do not believe in a fixed, separate perpetuating self or soul, so there is not way sin can exist.

If anything such and idea causes suffering through dependency and subservience to power. The solution to suffering and immoral behaviour lies not in salvation but in rejecting the idea of sin, soul, heaven and hell altogether. ‘Solve the problem at the source and the rest will fix itself.

Are believers more moral?

Where is the evidence that followers of God are more moral than non-believers? Where is the proof atheists commit more crimes vs the general population? If God or belief in god makes our more moral there must be evidence that god believers are so.

In a PLOS One research a paper studying the behaviours of Atheists and Theists across the Us and Sweden.

As the researcher Ståhl points out ‘The most general take-home message from these studies is that people who do not believe in God do have a moral compass. In fact, they share many of the same moral concerns that religious believers have, such as concerns about fairness, and about protecting vulnerable individuals from harm. However, disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion, such as having respect for authorities, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity… It is possible that the negative stereotype of atheists as immoral may stem in part from the fact that they are less inclined than religious people to view respect for authority, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity as relevant for morality, and they are more likely to make moral judgments about harm on a consequentialist, case by case basis.’

In Adam Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments it points out that we do have morals and care for each other.

Good moral behaviour needs no advocate

We didn’t invent morality, but the language about morality.

The moral argument falls short because it assumes good deeds require justification. However, we are inherently altruistic, compassionate, and empathetic beings. We don’t need a book or an ultimate authority to instruct us to do good. Instead, we need to find reasons not to.

The survival of the friendliest in anthropological history is an appraisal of the knowledge and wisdom of tribal cultures. Justifying good behaviour is not a burden for Buddhists and many atheists. No one is dragged before a judge to justify their good behaviour; only our misdeeds are scrutinized.

Our morality stems from a combination of cultural norms and our evolutionary past. We mostly agree on what constitutes good; we don’t need ink on a page to tell us.

Religion doesn’t prescribe morality; it attempts to describe it. We evolved a moral compass, and then religion came along and ‘hung words on it.’ It’s the same argument with myths and legends, they’re not the source of our morals, but the source of the language we use to talk about morals. We don’t have morals because of stories. We have stories because we want to talk about morals.

If we define our morals solely by what’s written down, we embark on a slippery slope because anyone can justify any act, no matter how horrifying, as long as there is ink on a page. Morality based on this becomes subject to the prejudices of the authors.

Instead of blindly trusting paper, ink, and imagery, we should trust ourselves more. We inherently know it is right to care for children; we don’t need a scripture to tell us this. Religion doesn’t prescribe all of our ethics. Different cultures have different ethics, but what we do agree on is formed way before religion and culture. Our Moral compass is our nature, but a toxic society and ego can create immoral behaviour.

Do we need religion? One could also ask what was the religion of Jesus or the Buddha? They didn’t follow a religion, but they were moral. It goes back again to ink on pages, authorities, rituals; We don’t need any of that to treat each other well. Confucius created a successful moral system without a creator god. Interestingly, one Japanese Youtuber, Shogo, says the Japanese don’t consider themselves religious. 

Maybe we should trust ourselves more instead of trusting paper, ink, and imagery. We know it is right to care for children; we don’t need a scripture to tell us this.

Evil Language

‘We have jurisprudence because morality and laws are messy, each case taken on it’s merits.’

The Buddha’s message resonates like a bell through contrast. We are not inherently evil; some people remain incorruptible because there is no fixed essence, no soul, no original sin to cultivate in the wrong circumstances. For those Buddhists who embrace the idea of a ‘Buddha-Nature,’ our true nature is uncorrupted.

In Buddhism, liberation comes from seeing through the falsehoods that imprison us, make us feel small and worthless, and foster insecurity and hatred. The aim is to identify and address the root causes of suffering within ourselves and others.

We tend to have an inflated opinion of our morality and abilities. Labelling others as ‘evil’ becomes a way to protect our fragile ego from admitting an uncomfortable truth – that we share commonalities with those we deem ‘evil.’

Furthermore, the label ‘evil’ fails to explain anything. It’s a cop-out, falling into stereotypes and sweeping generalizations, avoiding the challenging task of seeking a more nuanced, in-depth understanding. The ‘evil’ label is also used as an excuse to cleanse the world of ‘undesirables’ – a way to justify pre-emptive violence against those who disagree with us.

Moreover, what purpose does the moral language of ‘evil’ serve? No one genuinely identifies themselves as evil. Evil is always attributed to the ‘other.’ Even the worst individuals in history believed they were doing the right thing.

Non-believers are often expected to explain evil, but they need not; for Buddhists, evil is not part of their worldview. There is no concept of sin, good or evil, and no fallen world in Buddhism as in other religions.

Closing thoughts

Christianity is selling you a solution you don’t need for a problem you don’t have

The greatest tragedy to befall us is the belief that we are fundamentally broken. If you can’t sell the idea of Sin, you can’t sell the Abrahamic God. Spreading such ideas doesn’t improve the world as much as they claim. The enterprise is corrupted from within because it is based upon craving, desire, and neediness, which Buddhists know only causes suffering.

Contrary to the belief that abandoning cultural identities like religion means losing our morality, I argue that our morality is not confined to words on a page. Our evolutionary past has endowed us with a moral compass, shaped by our emotions that select for altruistic behavior to foster social bonds. We are not blank slates, but possess an innate ethical compass that is an integral part of our nature. We are undeniably human, with both good and evil aspects.

Our biological past casts a longer shadow than any faith or creed. Yet faith and religion erroneously get credit. Religion didn’t invent morality but invented the words and stories for it. Our moral codes are outward expressions of an evolutionary necessity to live and thrive.

In theism, we see an attitude of claiming a monopoly on morals, despite non-theistic moral systems like Buddhism, which view morals differently.

Many world problems will be resolved when we let go of the fixation on the Self, our belief in our culture, and accept that we are moral creatures. Solve the problem at the source, and the rest will fix itself. 

Then, we can stand up and accept responsibility for making a better world.

References

Moral Animals. Behaving like animals: The Bonobo and the Atheist. Tessa Kendall reviews Frans de Waal’s new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. How much of our humanist behaviour do we owe to our cousins in the animal kingdom?