‘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 compass.
Theists claim people are, deep down, flawed, sinful, evil, and a necessary divine authority is around to give that moral compass. Atheists reject this saying a naturalistic viewpoint is enough to explain our moral intuitions.
My views lean towards naturalism and Buddhism.
The toxic idea of Sin
One of the worst aspects I see of theists’ faith is that we are all cursed from the moment we’re born—the concept of Original Sin.
To a Buddhist, the idea of Sin is a cause of suffering. It’s a way of fostering dependency and an excellent way of creating power for yourself. How appalling to exploit people’s fears with unsubstantiated claims.
The church convinces people they are flawed and sinful and then upsells them the solution of salvation through God.
But it’s still spreading fear and doubt to sell them something. Where is the evidence sin even exists, more than the mere idea we have?
The solution lies to suffering, and immoral acts not in salvation but in no longer believing in Sin. ‘Solve the problem at the source and the rest will fix itself.‘
Sin can be dismissed because it based upon the idea of a self, a soul. Buddhists don’t accept there is a fixed, perpetuating Self or soul, so where is the Sin?
Atheists don’t have to explain God because it’s the assumption of theists claiming Non-believers still believe in sin. No sin means no corrupted natured, no need for a saviour.
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?
Evidence shows we are generally good most of the time.
Adam Smith’s book The Theory of Moral Sentiments points out that we do have morals and care for each other.
Also, how would one measure moral activity, by what metric?
Good moral behaviour needs no advocate
The moral argument goes nowhere because it assumes good deeds have to be justified. But non-believers, Buddhist believers, ‘re considered good. We’re altruistic, compassionate, and empathic by our nature.
We don’t need a book or an ultimate authority to tell us to do good. We need to find reasons not to.
As such, justifying good behaviour is not a burden Buddhist and many atheists have. No-one gets dragged in front of a judge to justify good behaviour, only our bad behaviour.
Where does our morality come from? A big chink is from our cultural norms but also our evolutionary past. We all agree on what is good; we don’t need ink-on-a-page to tell us.
Religion doesn’t prescribe morality; it tries to describe it. We evolved a moral compass, then religion came along and ‘hung words in it’. (See Below).
Written moral codes are part of the culture we create to express or attempt to describe our moral intuitions; they don’t prescribe them.
If we define our morals to what’s written down, then we are on a slippery slope because anyone can justify any act regardless of how horrifying, just as long as there is ink on a page. Morality like this becomes based on whatever prejudice the authors codify.
Instead of trusting paper, ink, and imagery, maybe we should trust ourselves more. We know it is right to take care of children; we don’t need a scripture to tell us this.
Evil is lazy thinking
‘We have jurisprudence because morality and laws are messy, each case taken on it’s merits.’
Part of this particular debate is the idea of evil and how we account for it and address its problem.
But to a Buddhist, there is no evil; the cosmos doesn’t follow our theories or rules.
Evil, and the attitude of believers seems more about demonising others, puffing ourselves up by putting down others. We have an overinflated opinion of ourselves, our morality and our skills.
Evil then becomes a way to protect our fragile ego from having to admit an uncomfortable truth – that we have something in common with these people we label ‘evil’.
Furthermore, the label evil doesn’t explain anything. It just permits our laziness. It’s a cop-out; it falls into stereotypes and sweeping generalisations. A way to ignore a more in-depth nuanced understanding—avoiding the challenging task of finding out the truth.
It’s also used as an excuse to cleanse the world of ‘undesirables’—a way to justify pre-emptive violence against those who disagree with us.
Also, what use is evil?! No one calls themselves evil and honestly means it. Evil is always the other guy. The worst people in history thought they were doing the right thing.
It’s often said that non-believers need to explain evil, but no they don’t; for Buddhists it’s not part of their worldview. There is no idea of sin, good or evil, and no fallen world in other religions.
Is religion necessary for morals?
Interestingly, one Japanese Youtuber, Shogo, says the Japanese don’t consider themselves religious.
They still follow rituals from Buddhism and Shinto, but religion isn’t talked about, along with politics or money. Religion is considered a troublemaker.
You don’t need to be religious to be ritualistic in daily life, and there is no national religion in the Japanese constitution.
There’s also a question mark over whether Buddhism is a religion; some argue it’s not
One could also ask what was the religion of Jesus or the Buddha? They didn’t follow a religion but rejected the beliefs of others.
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.
The Tarnished Slate
Like traditional scientists, Christians still think there is the atomos, uncuttable unchanging Self that exists within.
It’s a reductionist attitude, like the atom of science; this Self has properties we can discover—a set of rules that govern our behaviour. Further, theism thinks the Self is irrevocably tarnished; therefore, a God must keep us in line.
The problem is we’re not the separate entities theism thinks we are. Realty is changing and interconnected, as scientists have discovered. There is no uncuttable Object-Self like an atom, only interconnection and webs of relationships.
We’re not separate souls (Object-Self) that can be described through fundamental laws.
We evolved a moral compass because of our interconnectedness; our ethical decisions are affected, mediated, and influenced by surrounding factors.
We are not blank slates but are affected by our evolutionary past and the culture we live within.
Insecurity and Egotism are the problems, not a lack of god belief. A self-obsessed, self absorped attitude is particular to the west. When you believe in a separate self, it fosteris that insecure ego.
All this is based upon the delusion (Moha Sanskrit) of the separate, alone, unchanging essence or self. The solution is to liberate us from that illusion, not cling to it.
Evolution shapes our goodness
Instead of religion, we need to ask how our species managed to survive this long.
The idea hominids we’re nasty and brutish without religion has no basis in fact, but is a cultural myth we need to let go of. It’s a way to demean tribal people whilst elevating civilised people.
Before we developed language, our species had to learn how to live in the world and with each other. There were no laws, but those who transgressed unwritten taboos were ostracised or even killed; they had limited opportunities to procreate.
Therefore, natural selection ensures that those tribal members who lived in harmony with the tribe were more likely to have children than those who did not. We are the descendants of those survivors; our minds are skewed towards thriving and survival, which involves sociability and community; we’re not are blank slates.
Our existence rests upon a moral framework that arose way before language and organised religion existed. We have well developed social skills that allow us to create a social order because we need to get on with each other.
To be part of a tribe is safety, security, shelter, food, and polite conversation. Conformity is reassuring; we feel safer in the herd. Even young children and chimps show a moral compass and sense of fair play. (Just trying looking for their holy book)
To be alone is to be vulnerable. To be alone is to feel pain. It also means you can’t procreate and pass on your genes.
We move towards comfort and away from pain; so our moral compass is part of what we are.
In a biological view, we see it in Oxytocin, mirror neurons. In psychology, we feel empathy, sympathy, stress, and problems like social anxiety, loneliness and depression.
Religions are the cultural outgrowth that arises from our evolutionary past. Culture ‘hangs words’ upon our existence; it doesn’t define it.’ It’s why ethics look similar the world over – because we are all human.
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.
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 appalling behaviour.
We evolved to need others; we are successful because of others; that’s why morals are necessary we before we learned to speak.
Are morals objective or subjective?
The question assumes it’s one or the other. I see it as both. One, it’s a feeling and intuition that something is wrong or right, that’s the subjective part.
The other is objective because we are all human, so our morality is similar across cultures.
It’s not written into the fabric of reality, as some have argued. There is no reason to think a meteor landing on your head is due to malice of the cosmos.
Our moral compass is a part of being human. It doesn’t eliminate conflict and violence, but the balance is towards non-violence.
We seek out what benefits our survival and avoid that which threatens it. We have an ethical and moral ‘arrow’ that’s part of our nature. There’s a natural selection of morality and ethics. Rejecting the idea we’re merely a blank slate. This arrow of morality points towards survive and thrive.
Yes, people make mistakes, but it’s not because you’re broken or sinful but because you’re unskilled.
Our moral codes are outward expressions of an evolutionary necessity to live and live well. It is in our evolved nature to value our existence and our friends and family. We feel emotions that help us create social bonds. Nature does explains altruism, ideas like ‘don’t be an so nasty to each other ‘ and ‘do unto others…’ are important parts of any society, with or without religion.
We didn’t invent morality, but the language about morality.
Our biological past casts a longer shadow than any faith or creed. Yet faith erroneously gets much of the credit. Religion didn’t invent morality by it did invent the words and stories for it.
We see in theism a rather tawdry attitude of claiming a monopoly on morals, despite the contrary fact that non-theistic morals systems exist, like Buddhism who see morals, and behaviour differently.
I don’t think believer and many non believers understand just how different their paradigms are from each other. This arguing hinges on the ignorance of both theists and atheists.
If there is any value to be had here, it is the recognition we’re the same, a shared kinship, a recognition of our common humanity.
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?