At the risk of detracting some readers and as much as I don’t wish to harp on about religion in general, morality is an important function of human societies and deserves some discussion. It’s an ongoing discuss – as it ought to be – and one, many secular commentators take, in my opinion, down the wrong path.
I wish to reply to the old argument that atheistic views are in fact amoral; how can you tell what is right and what is wrong without a god?
I honestly believe one has greater capacity for genuine morality without religious precursors and the most religious reader is probably unaware that their morality is derived and developed in exactly the same way as one without religion, but if anything, it hindered by scripture.
To start with an easy target that reaches a wide variance of faith, we can look at the writings that fall under what the Christian’s call the Old Testament. It is, to most people today, a work plagued with horrendous amoralities. Few would agree with slavery nowadays of any sort – but few stories go by without condoning it. Gender inequality proliferates throughout the work also – in most countries, if a father were to throw his daughter or another woman he claimed to own out to a blood thirsty mob to have their way with her, he would be, much like the mob, subject to criminal action. If, after the appalling behaviour, she was left to die and her “owner” then cut her up… Do I really need to go further?
Even most advocates of the “good book” would happily write-off much of this primitive behaviour as despicable, sinful… amoral.
The truth of the matter is scripture does not give us our morality. Even those faithful, who agree with the previous paragraph, are like the rest of us; progressive. They too, at least at a subconscious level, realise that morality is a malleable, evolving set of social values. To remove scripture from morality is not to open the floodgates for all sorts of despicable behaviours, but rather to allow morality to best reflect the values of the society as it currently stands without restrictions set by principles millennia in age.
At the end of the day, our lives are radically improved by living within large, functional* societies. The level of infrastructure, access to / diversity of goods and services and other personal options available are all completely reliant upon these large societies we have created over the industrial era. If you don’t believe me, live in a large city for a year and then in a community with less than 1000 people. Large societies allow for greater options for the individual.
This relatively new wave of individualism is counter to all of this, but while worth a mention, not the focus of this article.
However, for these larger societies to endure, a level of empathy and altruism must be adhered to; in other words, a moral code. The vast majority of us don’t wish to be abused or murdered, have our personal possessions stolen or be in a car accident etc, so we don’t perform such acts on others. Treat others how you wish to be treated; such lessons persist in our moral code not because of their religious affiliations – as we’ve seen above, others have been scrapped from modern societies – but because they make sense!
Just as societies develop and change over time, so must the moral code to reflect the qualities of that society (hopefully all for the improvement of the health and wellbeing of the local population). In this way, morality ascribed entirely from scripture is socially dysfunctional and, as is easily seen, it ultimately becomes outdated (except for the most basic and obvious social principles). At best, scripture slows down otherwise increasingly ethical decisions (removal of slavery for instance) as they become more widespread within the community solely to maintain the authority of the scripture.
You are no more open to exploit antisocial behaviour by removing the religious expectations from morality than you are to stone someone to death for speaking the name of god or to keep slaves. To suggest otherwise, as the faithful often do, is nonsense. Morality is a community construct as varied and as similar as communities are.
As for suggesting that we have greater capacity for being genuinely moral only after separating it from religion, well this will probably be a difficult one to sell to those I wish most to read this and is by no means a new argument.
The moral code of a society should develop with that society, all to improve the health and wellbeing of that community. A community cannot hope to function well with stagnant morals. More importantly, however, is the reason for adhering to the moral code. Retribution, Hell, Purgatory; these are fearful reasons to be moral. One chooses to adhere to the moral code solely to avoid negative personal ramifications. In reality the choices made are selfish and only on the surface, moral.
When one chooses to do the right thing, without fear of some hidden demonic bear trap, karma charged lightning bolts or vengeful, all-seeing entity, but only because it is part of creating and maintaining a society that they can be proud to be part of, then not only is that genuine morality, but it is also truly virtuous. Adhering to the best moral codes that reflect the local community for its own sake is its own rewards.
In this way, as I opened with, it deserves a quick mention on New Anthropocene. Being “consumers”, over recent decades we have radically reduced what we citizens feel is choice. As has been discussed here recently, we do have a choice of how our societies work and what they should look like. However, we’re more or less told to pay through the nose for cheap houses and urban landscapes of low social worth. By leaving such important decisions up to other people, we undermine our own lives. The same can be said about morality.
If nothing else, I hope to remind my readers that we all have a voice, not just a credit card. We should be louder in discussing what best reflects the types of communities in which we wish to live. We should also be mindful in reflecting those principles back upon our societies. It is without question that the carbonised industrial era is running on empty and over the next century we will develop a new one – yet to be named and described. It will require many new moral codes to suit bigger / higher density cities, shifting distribution pathways and greater need for empathy and care. This is why choice is so very important and why we need to remember we have this gift of choice, now more than ever before.
* As functional as current societies may be, I can’t help but feel that there’s a lot of room for improvement – hence a great motivator for my writing.