Monday, January 17, 2011

Can those who do good in order to reap a heavenly reward be called "moral" ?

Ideological Christians often claim that atheists can't be trusted because they have no reason to be moral.

This is a common trope. It's one of the arguments they use to justify the fact that no avowed atheist can get elected to national office across most of the country, and certainly not the presidency.

But morality evolved, along with the more obvious physical aspect of our being. A well-written book describes how this probably came about: The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. He also wrote a book on how God evolved, so to speak: The Evolution of God (Back Bay Readers' Pick).

Actually it's easy to describe atheistic morality.

First, it's the only morality that's actually moral. Religious people are working for a reward. How is that moral? They're just playing the game. Do this and that and you get heaven as a reward. How is this different from paying kids to get good grades? It's entirely extrinsic. Selfish.

So-called atheists realize that this life is all there is, so they find it infinitely precious. They also realize that if they're wicked they can't be happy, because of the heuristics built into the human mind--heuristics that we can't eliminate. Lots of people do evil, of course--including innumerable people who claim they do that evil in the name of God. But in my long life I've never met anyone who was happy who also mistreated others. Such people, regardless of their riches (if any) live in a private hell, utterly isolated.

So I tell religious people--prove to me that you're moral, because on the face of it just looks as though your acts of charity are nothing more than looking out for #1.

With the added kicker that people who are focused on the "next life" that they imagine they'll have often give this life short shrift.

That's how you get Catholics placidly propagating, even when the world now holds at least five times as many people as it can carry without environmental degradation--i.e. making the world less and less able to carry future generations. Especially since some of that degradation is permanent, including the mass extinction now going on and the collapse of porous aquifers worldwide.

So along the lines of the path to Hell being lined with good intentions, even religious people who do have actual love for others in their hearts and not just the smug self-satisfaction of the Pharisees are destroying the Earth with their "kindness."

It's not the so-called atheists who have to defend their claims to goodness. Quite the opposite.


msantanna said...

There’s also the opposite of the reward. When I hear somebody say that “only religion gives morality” I say: “So the only thing that prevents you from killing me right now is the fear of the police or hell? Let me get out of this wicked place.”

Sean said...

I think you're giving too much merit to the "afterlife reward" way of thinking. Ultimately, both atheists and religious people get the same endorphins from doing good works. But ultimately, is it the thought or the deed that counts? Philosophical debates such as this are interesting, but after a while, I find that it can become ridiculous.

Ehkzu said...

Yes, we all do it for the endorphins. My purpose here--unstated, unfortunately--is to enable empiricists to take the offensive with the sorts of religious people who claim that atheists can't be moral.

Too often rational people wind up letting the other side frame the discussions. So I'm trying to give rational people ways to put the other side on the back foot.