Good, but not religious-good
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Under
the Greenwood Tree
In this section we look at some moral arguments. First we
look at what theoretical reasons there are to believe, or to
doubt, that morality is provided by God. Next we look at how
a God-given morality varies from other moralities. The greater
part of this section is concerned with Christian claims concerning
morality. Do the Churches have a good moral record, and has
Christianity always encouraged moral behaviour amongst its followers?
How does this record compare to the record of others, notably
freethinkers ? Quakers
occupy a halfway house between conventional Christians and freethinkers,
so we will note their contributions explicitly.
If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the
Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions
alone whether it was jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Here we look first at Christian morality
from a theoretical point of view. Then we look at one of a number
of alternative approaches to morality, and see how the two differ.
When I was a child, I used to pray to God for a bicycle.
But then I realized that God doesn"t work in that way
so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness!
Christianity has traditionally taught that morality springs
from God. Moral behaviour is impossible without religion. With
no God there can be no good or bad. This argument can be attacked
from several directions.
The first is to note that there is no reason to suppose that
morality has arisen in a way different from all other animal
characteristics, i.e. by the process of natural selection.
Natural selection in a totally amoral world is adequate to explain
traditionally "moral" behaviour such as altruism.
Notions of good and bad arise purely from social behaviour.
There is no need to call upon a divine moral agency. What is
generally called moral behaviour occurs in many animal societies.
When one rabbit warns other rabbits about a nearby predator,
Christians do not usually deduce that God has imbued it with
a portion of his divine morality.
A second problem for supporters of the innate morality argument
is that human beings display no innate morality. There is no
evidence that we are born with a sense of morality, any more
than animals are. However unpalatable it may be, our behaviour
is not on the whole different from that of animals. We form
pair-bonds just as some animals do. We instinctively care for
our young, as many animals do. We even indulge in altruistic
behaviour, as some animals do. Yet no one suggests that animals
have a God-given moral code.
Normal children develop a morality that matches their
environment and that can subsequently be affected, for
example, by changes to parts of the brain. Certain psychopaths
never develop a moral sense at all. We have already noted
that occasionally new-born human babies have been adopted
by wild animals and have grown up with them. When they
have subsequently been captured and investigated by humans
they have proved exactly as amoral as their animal foster
So too, for various reasons, children have occasionally
been raised by human beings, but without human contact.
They too are apparently as devoid of any concept of morality
as they are of any deity. If morality was a divine gift
to all humanity, we should expect to find evidence of
it even in circumstances such as these where there was
no opportunity for it to be taught by other humans. But
we do not.
Followers of God are expected to
to kill their own children on request
No secularist regards this Christian
and Moslem) position as morally defensible
other characteristics that are supposed to distinguish human
beings, morality is known to depend upon brain activity, which
undermines the traditional idea that it was somehow associated
with the soul. The soul was imagined to be the special gift
of God to humankind, and it was this soul that distinguished
humankind from all other animals and provided human beings with
their moral sense. But this theory did not match the evidence.
Moral perceptions could be changed by experience, or by alcohol,
drugs or certain illnesses. Was the soul subject to bodily experiences?
The answer might have been in the affirmative when the soul
was thought to be a physical organ somewhere in the body. A
favourite theory was that it resided in the head, since the
human sense of morality seemed to be based in the physical brain.
In 1848, one Phineas Gage accidentally triggered an explosion
that shot a tamping iron through his own head. It entered through
his cheek, passed through the front of his brain, and left through
the top of his head. Gage survived and became famous in neurological
circles. He recovered all of his mental abilities except that
he seemed to have lost his sense of morality. He lost all respect
for social convention, started lying and swearing, failed to
honour his commitments, and lost his sense of responsibility.
Since Gage, many other people are known to have suffered the
same loss when the ventromedial frontal region of their brains
has been damaged. This seems to confirm that what we regard
as morality is seated in the physical brain. Christians have
now abandoned the idea that the soul is a physical organ in
the head or anywhere else.
Again, if morality were impossible without religion then we
should expect Buddhists to be immoral, since their belief (in
its pure form) is a philosophy without any god. And yet again,
if human morality was God-given, we might expect different societies
to share the same moral codes. But they do not. Some practice
cannibalism; others find cannibalism morally repugnant. Some
eat food in public; others regard eating in public as morally
repugnant. Some practice human sacrifice; others regard human
sacrifice as morally repugnant. We could extend this list: capital
punishment, bull fighting, infanticide, displaying female knees
in public, mutilating criminals, transvestism, kissing, and
so on. Even in areas on which one might have expected universal
"moral" agreement (such as for, example, incest),
universal agreement is not to be found. Incest taboos vary more
between human communities than they do in many animal societies.
Jews took for granted the fact that God approved of polygamy,
and Muslims still do. The fact that Christians do not permit
polygamy looks suspiciously like a Western cultural phenomenon.
To St Paul it was self-evident that it was shameful for a man
to wear long hair, but many cultures find it self-evidently
shameful for a man to cut his hair. Some Pathans find it bizarre
that the smoking of hashish is illegal in Western culture, while
the drinking of alcohol is permitted there. The idea is so alien
to themthat it is literally incredible. Westerners who have
travelled extensively will have had their moral presumptions
compromised by the morality of other cultures: the subjugation
of women, the treatment of animals, the acceptance of blood-feuds,
child abuse, extreme fatalism, arranged marriages, ritual mutilation,
and so on. If we had been brought up in a society where wearing
the colour green was considered morally repugnant, then at least
some of us would honestly believe that it really was evil to
wear the colour green. We would teach our children so as well,
and the chances are that they would believe us.
For centuries Christians genuinely believed that it was wrong,
positively evil, to treat illness, to wear antlers on one's
head, to collect herbs by moonlight, to eat meat on certain
days, to study the heavens, to favour one's left hand, and so
on. To them it appeared self-evident that such things were immoral.
On the other hand it was not immoral to burn people alive for
their beliefs. These Christian morals seem thoroughly alien
by the standards of today, precisely because the prevailing
morality has changed. Indeed traditional Christian teachings
now seem as immoral to Christians as they always have to non-believers.
Here for example is W. E. H. Lecky, in his History of European
Morals on the doctrine of Original Sin:
That a little child who lives but a few minutes after birth
and dies before it has been sprinkled with the sacred water
is in such a sense responsible for its ancestor having six
thousand years before eaten a forbidden fruit, that it may
with perfect justice be resuscitated and cast into an abyss
of eternal fire in expiation of this ancestral crime, that
an all-righteous and merciful Creator, in the full exercise
of these attributes, deliberately calls into existence sentient
beings whom He had from eternity irrevocably destined to endure
unspeakable, unmitigated torture, are at once so extravagantly
absurd and so ineffably atrocious that their adoption might
well lead men to doubt the universality of moral perception.
A further problem is that conventional morality, even contemporary
Christian morality, cannot be squared with what is known about
divine morality. For example there is a major difficulty in
the fact that some of God's statements and actions offend our
moral sense. He kills innocent Egyptian infants (Exodus 12:29).
He causes fathers to eat their sons, and sons to eat their fathers
(Ezekiel 5:10). He punished Pharaoh and his whole house for
an innocent mistake (Genesis 12:14-20). He is keen on capital
punishment for crimes that are now generally considered trivial.
He carries out genocide, kills innocent women and yet more innocent
children, advocates slavery, and punishes children for the sins
of their parents but takes no action against men who
rape virgins. He allows people to be killed in order to test
others Job's ten children and a large number of servants
are killed by Satan with God's acquiescence as part of Job's
test of fidelity to God (Job 1). He even kills innocent people
in order to set an example, as he killed Ezekiel's wife (Ezekiel
24:15-18). Christ himself promised to kill Jezebel's children
because of her teachings (Revelation 2:23), again to prove a
point. God the Father kills over two million people in the Old
Testament alone, plus countless others. This is rather more
than Satan's tally of just eleven.
educated gentiles the Jewish scriptures were barbarous and obscure,
but when they were comprehensible they were morally repugnant.
Like theirs, our concept of morality is completely different
from that of the Jewish/Christian God, and this difference is
the clearest possible indication that our morality is independent
of such a God. Jesus himself held views that seem morally repugnant
to many people. For example the idea (stated at Matthew 25:41-46)
that humanity can be divided into two groups: the righteous
(who will enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven) and the cursed (who
will suffer eternal torment in Hell) completely ignores the
gradations of human behaviour. His injunction to "resist
not evil" (Matthew 5:39) is also morally repugnant to many.
We do not even need to rely upon the Christian scriptures,
for the natural world bears witness to God's concept of morality.
Here is Mark Twain illustrating the gulf between divine morality
and human morality, with one small example:
Let us try to think the unthinkable; let us try to imagine
a man of a sort willing to invent the fly; that is to say,
a man destitute of feeling; a man willing to wantonly torture
and harass and persecute myriads of creatures who had never
done him any harm and could not if they wanted to…
If we can imagine such a man, that is the man that could
invent the fly, and send him out on his mission and furnish
him his orders: "Depart onto the uttermost corners of
the earth, and diligently do your appointed work. Persecute
the sick child; settle upon its eyes, its face, its hands,
and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret and madden the
worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and who humbly
prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the
deceived and the unteachable. Settle upon the soldier's festering
wounds in field and hospital and drive him frantic while he
also prays, and between times curses, with none to listen
but you, Fly.... ".
Here is the nineteenth century orator Robert Ingersoll pressing
the broader point:
What would we think of a father who should give a farm to
his children, and before giving them possession should plant
upon it thousands of deadly shrubs and vines; should stock
it with ferocious beasts and poisonous reptiles; should take
pains to put a few swamps in the neighbourhood to breed malaria;
should so arrange matters that the ground would occasionally
open and swallow a few of his darlings; and, besides all this,
should establish a few volcanoes in the immediate vicinity,
that might at any moment overwhelm his children with rivers
of fire? Suppose that this father neglected to tell his children
which of the plants were deadly; that the reptiles were poisonous;
failed to say anything about the earthquakes, and kept the
volcano business a profound secret; would we pronounce him
angel or fiend?
If God is perfectly moral and if God appears immoral by human
standards, then he must have created us with basically untrustworthy
moral faculties, which is not a conclusion that most theologians
are keen to accept. The problem is not a new one. In Plato's
Euthyphro, Socrates asks whether conduct approved by
the gods is somehow inherently good, or whether it is good just
because the gods say it is. The French philosopher Baron d"Holbach
(1723-1789) saw the difficulty clearly:
Theologians repeatedly tell us that God is infinitely just,
but that his justice is not the justice of man. Of what kind
or nature then is this divine justice? What idea can I form
of a justice which so often resembles injustice? Is it not
to confound all ideas of just and unjust to say that what
is equitable in God is iniquitous in his creatures? How can
we receive for our model a being whose divine virtues are
precisely the opposite of human virtues?
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) also considered
the problem of right and wrong:
In everyday life I know what to call right and wrong, because
I can plainly see its rightness or wrongness. Now if a good
god requires that what I ordinarily call wrong in human behaviour
I must call right because he does it; or that what I ordinarily
call wrong I must call right because he so calls it, even
though I do not see the point of it; and if by refusing to
do so, he can sentence me to hell, to hell I will gladly go.
A. J. Ayer had more to say in the twentieth century:
No doubt the premise that what God wills is right is one
that religious believers take for granted. The fact remains
that even if they were justified in making this assumption,
it implies that they have a standard of morality that is independent
of their belief in God. The proof of this is that when they
say that God is good or that he wills what is right, they
surely do not mean merely to express the tautology that he
is what he is, or that he wills what he wills. If they did
mean no more than this, they would be landed with the absurd
consequence that even if the actions of the deity were such
as, in any other person, we should characterize as those of
a malignant demon, they would still, by definition, be right.
But the fact is that believers in God think of the goodness
that they attribute to him as something for which we ought
to be grateful. Now this would make no sense at all if the
deity's volition set the standard of value: for in that case,
no matter what he was understood to will, we should still
be obliged to think him good.
The fact is that this is a serious
problem for advocates of divine morality, and so far no convincing
explanations have been advanced.
Another puzzle is provided by the Church's historic views of
what constitutes a serious sin. We could use any traditionalist
Church to illustrate the problem, but the Catholic Church provides
the best examples. Historically, Catholics were excommunicated
for the greatest sins, and their souls would spend eternity
in hell unless they became reconciled to the Church. (We leave
aside the question as to why this position has changed in the
last century). The striking thing is that excommunicating have
been incurred for many actions, often secular in nature, minor
in impact, and not obviously sinful. On the other hand many
Catholics have committed enormities, of outstanding immorality,
that have incurred no sentence of excommunication. No one has
been excommunicated for rape, child abuse or genocide, nor for
murder other than the murder of Catholic clergymen. On the other
hand there have been excommunications for
- Rejecting (bogus) papal claims to temporal authority (Henry
IV & King Philip the Fair of France in 1303)
- Refusing to surrender relatives to the pope (eg Jacopo Colonna
and Pietro Colonna, two cardinals whose relative had robbed
the Pope's nephew
- Failing to hand over a royal crown (Ladislaus Kán,
- Being on one side in a war in which the pope was on the
other side (Giovanni Bentivoglio, in 1506. Giovanni ruled
Bologna when Pope Julius II lead an army against the city).
- Being too left wing and unsympathetic to the Catholic Church
(Pope John XXIII excommunicated Fidel Castro in 1962 on the
basis of a 1949 decree by Pope Pius XII forbidding Catholics
from supporting communist governments.)
- Carrying out textual analysis of scripture (Modernist, Alfred
- Holding the traditional interpretation of the doctrine "outside
the Church there is no salvation", (Leonard Feeney, a
U.S. Jesuit priest, excommunicated by the Pope on 13 February
- Participating in the trial of Catholic Clergymen in any
way (such as the jury in the trial of the criminal Archbishop
- Allowing an abortion, even when the mother's life is threatened
(for example the mother of and doctors to nine-year-old girl
who had an abortion after being raped and impregnated by her
stepfather. They were excommunicated in 2011 by Archbishop
Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, who did not excommunicate the rapist
because the abortion was a "more serious" sin)
- Participating in the ordination of a woman priest (for example
Roy Bourgeois, a priest, excommunicated latae sententiae
on November 24, 2008)
- Violating the confidentiality of the confessional (again
latae sententiae, ie automatic excommunication, even
if by maintaining secrecy the priest breaches the the civil
law, and enables serial murders, child molesters and rapists
to continue unhindered)
Napoleon was excommunicated for invading feudal properties
of the papacy in Italy, but Hitler was never excommunicated.
On the contrary, Catholic masses were said for him. No Inquisitors
or Catholic Nazi leaders have ever been excommunicated (though
Joseph Goebbels was excommunicated for marrying Magda Quandt,
a divorced Protestant). For many secularists, the very concept
of Catholic mortality seems a paradox.
What is morality in any given time and place? It is what
the majority then and there happen to like and immorality
is what they dislike.
A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947), Dialogues
A popular question among fundamentalist Christians is “If
God did not create morality, where did it come from”.
On receiving the answer “I don"t know” they
deduce that in that case God must have created morality. This
is a variety of the “God of the Gaps” argument and
the “Argument From Ignorance”. If we cannot yet
find a good scientific answer to the question then the only
explanation must be God. The argument is similar to the one
about complexity in nature. Complex organs must have been designed,
so there must be a conscious designer - God. Morality must have
been imbued, so there must be an imbuer God.
In both cases the argument is not strong even if the phenomenon
cannot yet be properly explained, whether complexity or morality.
Once a scientific explanation is available the argument is not
even a weak one. It is no longer an argument at all. In the
case of complexity in nature, the scientific thery, developed
by Darwin, is evolution by natural selection. In the case of
morality the more recent scientific theory, developed by Darwin's
successors, is also evolution by natural selection. Altrusism
and other core moral behaviours can be explained by evolutionary
theory so successfully that many surprising predictions can
be made and have been verified.
An alternative traditional Christian line has been to deny
that atheists are moral, since by definition they deny Christian
morality. This view is still held by many Christians. Atheists
do reject the Christian concept of morality. On the other hand
they generally have their own, but share with modern Christians
and others the common evolutionary morals such as disapproving
A number of different interpretations exist of morality without
God, but for simplicity we need consider only one here. According
to this position, morality is little more than a convention,
built on a common core morality determined by our genes. We
undertake not to steal because we accept that society runs more
smoothly if people do not steal. Similarly we do not kill each
other because it is more comfortable to live in a society where
life is respected. We frame our moral laws on a broadly utilitarian
basis. As the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
put it "Morality is the art of maximising happiness"
and again, "The greatest happiness of the greatest number
is the foundation of morals and legislation".
We prohibit people doing to each other what most of us would
not like done to ourselves, a principle known as the Golden
Rule, and taught by philosophers since ancient times. In cases
where interests conflict, we try to find a solution that is
acceptable to most people without infringing individual liberties.
In this view good and evil are no more than the names of categories
that we can use for ease of explanation.
The declared basis for Christian morality is different from
the basis of godless morality, yet in practice the two will
often agree, at least on important matters. Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's sports
car. There is a large area of overlap, but differences do arise,
and it is interesting to look at some of them.
the godless morality has no specific provisions against fun.
Thus it does not deny pleasures such as drinking alcohol, dancing,
singing, gambling, playing games or sexual activity. The only
restraints necessary are those that affect others: thus for
example drunken driving is prohibited because it is dangerous,
singing in the street in the middle of the night is prohibited
because it is antisocial, and so on. This leads to a great difference
in emphasis in the two systems. Christian morality is largely
concerned with sex, whereas godless morality is hardly concerned
with sex at all. Many atheists abhor portrayals of violence
but have no moral problems with portrayals of sex. Until the
end of the twentieth century Christians generally had problems
with sex, but not violence, so the moral position was completely
reversed. At the time of writing sex and violence are still
often bracketed by Christian moralists, almost as though they
belong together and carry similar moral implications.
Second, godless morality can easily adapt as society changes.
Common consent is the criterion of sanctions against antisocial
behaviour. If a rule falls into disuse it can simply be discarded.
Religious morality is, or at least was, generally held to be
timeless. Behaviour that is wrong is always wrong, and we cannot
change the rules to suit ourselves because they are God's rules,
not ours. In practice this has led to all manner of difficulty
when moral values have changed and it has become expedient to
change the law. Examples of areas where changes have caused
moral outrage to traditional Christians include cremation, money-lending,
divorce, Sunday trading, gambling, witch-burning, slavery, women's
rights, and many areas of social reform.
godless morality has no hidden sanction against offenders. Those
who operate under the godless system may be tempted to cheat
if they think that they will get away with it. People who believe
in God will refrain from cheating because they believe that
God, or their guardian angel, or some other supernatural being
will know about itand that God will punish them. On the face
of it this looks like a considerable advantage for the effectiveness
of Christian morality. Indeed it has been cited as a sufficient
reason for teaching the Christian religion. In fact hard evidence
such as sociological studies have failed to show that Christians
behave more morally when judged by objective standards (such
as the criminal law).
Fourth, it might be claimed that if everyone shares a common
Christian morality then everyone will be playing by the same
rules, whereas if everyone is free to select their own version
of morality then everyone will be playing by their own rules,
which is obviously unsatisfactory. In the past it was also claimed
that religion was necessary not only for public morals but also
for civil obedience. It is difficult to deny that a shared morality
is more practical than a ragbag of individual moralities. Many
of the current ills of the developed world can be attributed
to the breakdown of a shared traditional morality. Many atheists
concede this, and agree that there is a difficulty in establishing
a workable system that can command consensus. But, however compelling
the need for a shared morality, it is not at all obvious that
religion is the best vehicle for it, and even if it were, it
would still be necessary to demonstrate that Christianity was
the best religion for this purpose.
Fifth, Christian morality sometimes gives clear guidance where
the godless system does not, while in other cases godless morality
gives clear guidance where the Christian system does not. Thus,
a modern Christian view is that human life is sacred. Life begins
at conception, so abortion is always wrong. The godless system
is less clear. Abortion is obviously acceptable in cases where
both mother and baby would otherwise both die. Otherwise, the
question pivots on when the foetus is to be considered human.
Since this is arbitrary, no clear answer is forthcoming, which
is why opinions on the matter vary as widely as they once did
within the Roman Church (before life was agreed to start at
conception). On the other hand the question of organ donation
seems to be clearer to the godless than to Christians. The godless
have no bodily resurrection to look forward to, so their bodies
might as well be used for something useful when they are dead.
They reason that if everyone allowed their organs to be transplanted
after death, thousands of lives would be saved each year, and
health services would be spared the cost of artificial kidneys
and other expensive machinery. Moreover, we would all enjoy
a slightly improved life expectancy since organs would be available
if we needed them. In addition the sordid illegal trade in live
organs would disappear. God has delivered a negative judgement
on the question of organ transplants to some Christian sects,
but has not yet informed most mainstream Christians of the correct
ethical line to take. In the meanwhile thousands die through
renal failure each year because not enough spare organs are
available. To many atheists this is a far clearer scandal than,
say, the abortion issue.
A further difference is that the Christian system is represented
as comprehensive, while the alternative is not represented in
this way. It is free to expand or change as society changes.
Some Christians have committed themselves to the proposition
that the Ten Commandments cover all moral precepts. But this
is difficult to sustain. For example the Ten Commandments do
not explicitly cover many of the Christians" traditional
favourites concerning sex (such as masturbation, incest, sodomy,
bestiality, rape and prostitution, not to mention child abuse).
Neither do they cover many other crimes, for example financial
crimes (fraud, embezzlement), nor crimes of assault (beating,
mutilation, grievous bodily harm and torture), nor crimes such
as kidnapping or false imprisonment, nor property crimes like
arson. God also seems to have neglected to prohibit activities
that the ancient Jews did not consider wrong (such as slavery,
cruelty to animals and trafficking in drugs). Claims that the
Ten Commandments provide a unique, complete, infallible and
eternal code of law are difficult to sustain. In fact there
are only four genuinely moral prohibitions in the Ten Commandments.
They prohibit murder, adultery, theft and perjury and it is
difficult to find any society that does not share these prohibitions,
often with fewer permissible exceptions. Even most atheists
would sign up to at least three of the four.
and godless moral systems sometimes give contradictory judgements
on important matters. The traditional Christian view is that
contraception is flying in the face of God, and therefore immoral.
Overpopulation on the other hand is not a problem. God told
us to go forth and multiply. We have done exactly that. We must
surely merit divine favour because of our obedience. The godless
view could not be more different. Contraception harms no one,
so there cannot be anything inherently immoral about it. On
the other hand overpopulation is highly immoral, because it
threatens to harm all of us. It uses up the world's resources.
It underlies territorial wars, famines, epidemics and pollution.
It threatens the environment, the survival of other animal species,
and the quality of human life
Christians of different denominations
often have opposite views on moral questions.
Even members of the same denomination can have diametrically
opposite views. In 2012 in the USA, Catholic bishops
decided that healthcare legislation was immoral, while
Catholic nuns campaigned in support of it.
Again, Christian preoccupations with the link between morality
and sex have given rise to views that seem particularly bizarre
to the godless. The Church traditionally saw masturbation as
a great sin, calling for many years" penance, since it
was a divine duty for men to deposit all their God-given sperm
inside a woman's vagina. For the godless there is no moral question
here at all. What people do with themselves or with other consenting
adults is their own business. Questions of morality arise if
one of the parties does not consent (and atheists are generally
happy to accept the legal convention that children are incapable
of giving consent). Because of the absence of consent an atheist
is likely to regard rape as seriously as the present criminal
law does, and perhaps more seriously. The traditional Christian
view was that rape was hardly a crime at all. Sometimes it did
not even warrant so much as a fine. No great sin had been committed
since sperm had been deposited in its proper place, so God would
not be upset. As a crime against God rape was simply not in
the same league as serious crimes such as masturbation.
Sometimes the Christian moral system gives guidance that looks
impressive but is of little practical use. For example, what
is the value of a human life? The usual Christian answer is
that human life is sacred and therefore infinitely valuable.
A logical consequence of this is that there should be no limit
to the time, effort or money that society should be prepared
to spend to save a life. This sounds fine until the implications
are thought through. If we really believed this, we should increase
the resources available to health services in Christian countries
to the point where no one is allowed to die who could possibly
be saved, no matter how much this might cost. Speed limits for
traffic would have to be reduced to a few miles an hour to eliminate
all risk of fatal accidents. All manner of dangerous occupations
and practices would have to be abandoned. If society were changed
to preserve all possible infinitely valuable lives, our existence
would have to change radically. To the atheist there is no reason
to attribute an infinite value to human life. A more workable
idea is to allocate some reasonable value that allows the world
to function. Nominal costs and benefits can then be compared.
This is in fact how speed limits are set in many countries,
and how safety levels are determined in many walks of life.
The Christian emphasis on the value of human life is also used
to justify the traditional ban on euthanasia. Without a belief
in the sanctity of life there is little reason to prohibit it.
For the godless it is unnecessarily cruel to prolong the suffering
of someone who wants to die when there is no prospect of recovery,
and nothing to look forward to except mindless vegetation or
severe pain. As Seneca put it around the time of Jesus: "Must
I await the cruelty either of disease or of man, when I can
depart through the midst of torture, and shake off my troubles?"
This is the one reason why we cannot complain of life: it keeps
no one against their will" (Epistulae Morales
LXX ). We put animals out of their misery, and with proper safeguards
there is no rational reason for the atheist why we should not
show the same mercy to people.
Bertrand Russell had a keen interest
in the differences between Christian and secular morality
In practice, atheistic morality seems to be more interested
in long-term results, while Christian morality seems more interested
in short-term compassion. Christian charity in the developing
world has created exactly the problems that the well-meaning
Christian donors have sought to ameliorate, such as famine,
pestilence and war. By providing short-term food aid but not
contraception or education, they have guaranteed a larger version
of the same problem for another generation. In an effort to
preserve one life today, they have sacrificed two tomorrow.
A serious charge against Christianity is that ithas no coherent
philosophy to deal with problems such as the one of whether
it is better to let one person die today or two tomorrow. The
usual response is to evade it. There is supposedly always a
way out of moral dilemmas, but the stark fact is that on occasion
there is no way out. It is one horn of the dilemma or the other.
Consider the mother of two children who must choose which of
her two children must die. If she refuses to choose, then both
will die. Women really have had such decisions to make, in Nazi
concentration camps during World War II. Sometimes hundreds
or thousands of lives depend upon difficult moral dilemmas.
During the same war, Winston Churchill had to decide whether
to save lives in Coventry by announcing an imminent enemy bombing
raid, or whether to stay quiet and so keep the secret that the
German signals code had been broken. Again, parents in hiding
have suffocated their own children rather than allow their crying
to give away their position and thus cause the deaths of many.
Castaways have had to decide whether to kill and eat one of
their number, in order that others might live. These were real
moral dilemmas that needed real solutions. The godless can apply
utilitarian principles, or frankly selfish principles, to these
questions to arrive at answers. Members of other religions are
told the answers by their gods, but the Christian God keeps
the answers to questions like these to himself, or else gives
different answers to different denominations. If morality is
God-given it is not at all clear why it is so incomplete, or
why Christians disagree with each other about it, or why it
changes. Few, presumably, would now support the traditional
Christian view that masturbation is a greater sin than rape.
Whatever the theory, Christians often claim a better moral
record than others. This is sometimes cited as evidence of God's
hand at work in the Christian religion and in the established
Churches. These ideas are the subject of the next section.
As a taster it is worth noting that Christians are consistently
over-represented in criminal statistics (over many studies in
different countries and over several decades). In the USA, to
cite just one example, data suggests that Christianity is not
having a positive effect on moral behaviour. The states where
the religious right exercises most power are vastly overrepresented
in rates of murder, burglary and theft as reported by the FBI.
Studies have also shown atheists to be under-represented in
criminal statistics. And other indicators point in the same
direction. Countries with the highest rates of atheism are the
same countries that turn out to be the most charitable, whether
measured by the percentage of wealth devoted to social welfare
or the percentage given in aid to people developing countries.
If Christianity provided a reliable guide to morality or encouraged
moral behaviour among its adherents, then we should expect to
see recuring patterns accross time and space where Christian
societies are visible superior in moral behaviour compared to
The most visible contrast should be seen between Christian
believers and those who utterly reject Christianity and indeed
all religions. If the Christian claims to a superior morality
reflected the truth then we might reasonably expect to find
Christians promoting moral behaviour and atheists and other
rationalists oposing them. So let's make some comparisons and
see who has the better record of leading moral developments.
The Moral Record of
Christians and Freethinkers Compared >>>
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