Godless Morality and Fear

Hambydammit's picture

 A fellow blogger recently voiced his discontent with Christopher Hitchens' standard response to the accusation that godless morality is a scary thing.  Hitchens states that he is appalled to think that anyone would be good just because they're afraid of a big supernatural hammer.  True morality, he asserts, comes from within oneself, not from without.
I have also felt a vague discomfort with this response for years.  The thing is, it's only partly true, and it's skirting around a bigger issue.  Theists are right to be afraid of godless morality.  Yep.  I said it.  Godless morality is a scary thing, and theists are right to fear it.  Atheists also ought to fear it.  It's scary.
Unfortunately, it's the hand we've been dealt, and making up stories to make it seem less scary doesn't accomplish anything -- nothing good, anyway.  Atheists debating morality with theists make a fundamental mistake out of the starting block.  They allow themselves to be caught using theist models and trying to make atheist morality fit.  When a theist speaks of the difference between theist and atheist morality, he is literally not saying anything, for there is no difference.  There is no god, so morality cannot derive from it.  All theists are functioning within the same moral paradigm as atheists.  They're just lying to themselves and others about it.
This is why I don't like invoking the Crusades.  All of the atrocities attributed to God are directly attributable to humans and human nature.  We do have an evil side.  It's really nasty.  It's worth mentioning, though, that many of the atrocities committed by humans have been driven by lies or falsehoods.  We atheists can certainly decry the actions of the Crusaders, but if we are to be factually correct, we must blame humans who believed in God -- not God.  They were acting within the bounds of the same sense of morality that you and I possess.
The reality of human morality is that it is subjective.  It is not, however, arbitrary.  As I've previously mentioned, killing is not always wrong for humans.  Most people get turned on by Dirty Harry or James Bond or some other hero from that genre of movie.  There's a reason we spend millions of dollars to watch the good guy shoot all the bad guys.  We like killing bad guys.
Young men join the army in droves, and not because of the health insurance.  They want the chance to kill, or the chance to help someone else kill.  It's exciting and sexy.  They'll get laid more because they are in an organization formed with the express purpose of killing other humans.
We are animals, and animals kill.  It's a fact of life.  We also steal, rape, embezzle and defraud.  It is part of the human experience.  Everyone reading this blog has done something that they knew was wrong, and they knew it was wrong while they did it.  Nevertheless, they did it, and they would do it again if put in the same situation.
So yeah, theists are right to be afraid.  Humans are scary creatures.  The thing is, we're also good creatures, and we are instilled with empathy for others.  More importantly, we have amazing intellects which are capable of recognizing our own dark drives for what they are -- evolutionary adaptations.  We are not bound by our natures in the same way as dolphins who gang rape females or apes who murder the babies of their rivals.  We have the choice of looking at our own bad behavior and deciding not to do it anymore.  More importantly, we have the capability of building societies which encourage good behavior while making bad behavior less appealing.
There are human societies in which murder has been all but eliminated.  In a recent television program about a certain city in Japan, the commentator mentioned the collective shame felt by millions of residents because eight murders were committed in one year.  (I believe it was eight.  It was less than ten, at any rate.)  It didn't take god to do this.  It took human ingenuity and good planning.*
The fact is, with knowledge, humans are capable of great engineering feats, and we should not exclude human society from the discussion.  Humans work just like anything else -- we follow natural laws.  We have set natures which give us the capacity for good and evil, and we do good or evil based upon our environment, not our inherent goodness or badness.  This simple fact can change the world if we only embrace it instead of recoiling in fear.  Fear, after all, is a great motivator for change.  Change the environment, change the behavior.
This is the true explanation of morality.  It's a little scarier than believing everything will be ok because God said it would, but let's be honest.  God's had his chance.  He failed.  It's time to see what humans can do on their own.


* I should mention that near perfect majority in this country are either atheist or non-theistic -- that is, follow a philosophical religion, not a god-based religion.  I know most of you know what country I'm talking about, but I'm keeping it to myself anyway.

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

Books about atheism

zarathustra's picture

Well said, Hamby. In his

Well said, Hamby. 

In his debates with Christopher Hitchens, Dinesh D'Souza repeatedly quotes from The Brothers Karamazov"If god does not exist, everything is permitted."   We must acknowledge with some apprehension that this is true.  Our moral principles offer no iron-clad assurance against another Hitler/Stalin/Saddam etc. 

D'Souza proceeds to cite the death tolls for the Holocaust, the Gulag and the Great Leap Forward, to imply that atheists are responsible for far more deaths than the religious.  Laying aside his equivocation of the term "atheist", his argument in essence is "Atheists killed millions of people.  Therefore god exists";  or more honestly:  "Atheists killed millions of people.  Therefore we should believe in god".  The fact is, if we have to believe in fictions to keep ourselves from acting immorally (or to encourage us to act morally), then we are already screwed.  And if the only way to give the fiction any moral value is to play the numbers game ("The Inquisition was bad, just not as bad as the Holocaust" ), then the claim of absolute morality fails.  

At any rate, we still see theists often avail themselves of moral relativism:  "yahweh permitted (even commanded) rape & genocide in the old testament, but jesus changed that." "mohammed took a nine-year-old girl to bed, but that was culturally acceptable at the time."   Furthermore, since we evolve (both biologically and societally), it is worthless if not dangerous to consult ancient works of fiction for moral decision.  How can the bible or the qu'ran advise us on stem-cell research or nuclear arms? 

So I agree with D'Souza that without god, "everything is permitted" (although with god, everything is still permitted, only with god's blessing).  That may not be a reality worth celebrating, but it is still a reality, and we have to make the best of it.

There are no theists on operating tables.


JillSwift's picture

I don't think I can bring

I don't think I can bring myself to be afraid of this "godless morality".

It's like someone trying rocky mountain oysters for the first time, declaring them delicious and having a second helping, then panicking and vomiting when he's told what they are. Nothing really changed, but he panicked because he had some preconceived notions about eating bovine testes.

I made a career out of working with teens and young adults who were criminals - from robbers and drug pushers to rapists and murderers. They were all quite religious. Not a one thought what they did was wrong until we carefully instilled a sense of belonging to the society the found themselves in. No one does evil in their own eyes.

Then, and only then, did their religious beliefs also come to mean they'd be punished for their sins.

So, to me religion/god has meant nothing at all to morality, it has always been society and a sense of belonging that has motivated moral behavior.

Dumping god and religion suddenly (which won't happen) would only detach some from their sense of belonging, giving them the room to be immoral/amoral. As religion and god will only fade over a long, long time, children will grow up at first with a dual sense - religion and society, as it is for most now - and slowly the religion will fade, become just another aspect of what society is, then become vestigial with ritual for marriage, coming of age, and the like being all that's left. Morality will be driven still by what it always has been.

(Of course, that depends entirely on parents raising their kids with some competence. That won't always be, juvenile behavior management will always be necessary because not all humans can raise a child with even minimal competency.)

"Anyone can repress a woman, but you need 'dictated' scriptures to feel you're really right in repressing her. In the same way, homophobes thrive everywhere. But you must feel you've got scripture on your side to come up with the tedious 'Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve' style arguments instead of just recognising that some people are different." - Douglas Murray

Hambydammit's picture

 I was intentionally trying

 I was intentionally trying to keep this article short because I realize a lot of people are in love with saying "tldr," a little internet slang I've just recently been introduced to -- "too long, didn't read."

There's a lot more to say about this, though.  For one thing, fear and amorality are hallmarks of the authoritarian personality.  That is, the more authoritarian someone is, the more likely they are to view the world as a scary place out to get them, and the more likely they are to be amoral.  This is almost a matter of definition, since authoritarians believe that human values derive from authority.  Morality driven by authority is not really morality at all.  It's a-morality, because a person's actions are judged by an arbitrary standard, not by their effect on other people.

What I hope to demonstrate is that even for fear driven authoritarians, there's still room for acceptance of real morality, even with its fuzzy edges.  Though morality does not come down from authority, it is within the authority of governments to make declarations regarding morality as it effects other citizens.  Of course, there's danger here, since legislating morality is a hallmark of fascist and totalitarian governments, but I suggest that understanding real morality will make this less likely.  A rational government would legislate only those actions which have real, demonstrable negative effects on other citizens.  Murder, theft, rape, etc, would clearly fall within this category while consenting sexual practice would not.  

Philosophers have tried this before, and failed, but never before have they had good science on their side.  If you take the natural consequences from several of my essays, you get a big picture of "How to Fix Society for Dummies."

Just for the hell of it, read all of these essays at once, even if you've read them before:

What Does Sugar Have To Do With Murder?!

Free Will: Why we don't have it, and why that's a good thing.

Godless Morality and Fear

When you put together all these ideas, here's what you get:

1) Humans do not have free will.  We are products of our environment and respond predictably to our environment.

2) Morality is an emergent property of consciousness and instinct.  It is subjective but not arbitrary.

3) Instinctive morality has no inherent value.  It must be judged against its results.

4) With these facts in mind, humans can build societies (environments) which will trigger people's reactions in ways beneficial to the society, thus improving the human condition.

The thing is, trying this without science won't work.  The model of absolute morality must be scrapped, and it must be realized that human nature can only be bent.  It cannot be remade.  Only by accepting human nature for what it is can we hope to get generally good results.  There is no utopia.  There will always be evil-doers.  We can reduce their number and the frequency and severity of their deeds by creating environments which make it worth their while to be good-doers.


Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

Books about atheism

Desdenova's picture

I can't grasp the novel

I can't grasp the novel borrowed  " Without God, everything is permitted. " concept due to its failure to address the failure of morality even in theistic groups.  It seems to have the distinctive ring of a meme to it. It also fails to convey actual information.

To rephrase it ," Without Y, X is permitted. "

Y represents an unknown variable. We can make no knowledge claim pertaining to Y due to absence of information regarding Y.

X presents its own problems. We cannot take X as literal in its current context. With or without the unknown variable of Y, objects with mass still cannot travel faster than the speed of light. X must have a narrow realm to work within. Y must be explained until we can place X into context. As it is presented, the translation of the meme stands as " Without an unknown variable, everything we are capable of doing is permitted. "

Now that we have a frame of reference, " what we are capable of doing ", we can try to ascertain the unknown variable that might hinder what we are capable of doing.

It is clear that " God " does not hinder our actions. Apart from having no definition of God, we have knowledge of humanity doing what it is capable of without being hindered by unknown variables. Millions of people have been killed throughout history without the unknown variable of God interfering. What has interfered with massacres is organized human action working to counter the actions of other humans. Organized society is what prevents wayward humans from doing what they are capable of.

As myself and others have pointed out, society functions as an evolutionary ratchet, preserving actions that are beneficial to the group and weeding out actions that are detrimental. Despite ' what if ' scenarios offered by trolls on other threads, it is self evident that a group that embraces wholesale slaughter within the group will cease to exist. Any society that undertook such self destructive action would soon find the last member of the group holding a bloody club that he or she could not mate with.  Because of this, and thanks to natural selection, we can come to understand that society provides the concept of right and wrong out of necessity for survival.

At this stage we are able to provide arbitrary titles to our actions. Good is the title we give to beneficial actions, and evil to self destructive actions.  Each stable society will  hold common concepts of good and evil, because the internal events detrimental to a society are universal, not by some unknown variable, but by necessity. Existence of the concept of good and evil demonstrates the fact of evolution. The arbitrariness of the concept of good and evil is also a demonstration of evolution. If you think of each group as a different species competing for the same resources, you can begin to understand how the two faced nature of Biblical morality evolved. When group A needs a resource possessed by group B, group A will justify their actions by vilifying group B. When you vilify your rivals, it makes it easier to consider them less than human, and therefore killable.  Group B is granted ( from the perspective of group A, as in actuality group B already possesses these same internal survival attributes ) the arbitrary moral equality only when cooperation is needed between the two groups. As their trade and social bonds become more integrated, the two groups eventually come to hold that they, but not everyone else, are morally upright. The more global a society becomes, the more the self evident rules of survival apply to the world as a whole.

Having a broader picture of the arbitrary, changing, but collective nature of our concepts of right and wrong, we can now modify the original meaningless meme into one that makes sense. Having changed Y from an unknown to a known, we can make sense out of X in its original context and may reinsert it harmoniously. The coherent meme would read " Without an organized society, everything is permitted. ".

This is useful because it counteracts a nonsensical meme with one that conveys informaton possessing explanatory power. We are not reduced to an unintelligable catch phrase that is so common in religious circles, but something short and comprehendable. Too long have the memes been in the hands of the incoherent. We need to be using these tools to our advantage in order to enlighten, not stupidify, humanity.

It takes a village to raise an idiot.

Save a tree, eat a vegetarian.

Sometimes " The Majority " only means that all the fools are on the same side.