Moral Arguments


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    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.


    Morality - Theory and Practice

    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 loved Christ?
    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.


    Christian Morality

    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!
    Emo Phillips

    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 parents.

    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 be prepared
    to kill their own children on request


    No secularist regards this Christian (and Jewish
    and Moslem) position as morally defensible

    Like 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.

    The 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.

    To 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, in 1309)
    • 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 Loisy)
    • 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 1953)
    • Participating in the trial of Catholic Clergymen in any way (such as the jury in the trial of the criminal Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac)
    • 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.



    Atheistic Morality

    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 of incest.

    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.

    First, 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.

    Third, 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.

    Christian 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.


    The Moral Record of Christians and Freethinkers Compared

    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 others.

    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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    § The term Freethinker refers broadly to anyone who rejects religious dogma. Here it is used to cover atheists, agnostics, deists, pantheists and humanists including Unitarians.

    § How natural selection could account for apparently unlikely forms and behaviours (such as altruism and other such "moral" activities) is a favourite topic of evolutionary biologists. See for example Dawkins, The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, and Ridley, The Red Queen.

    § The question of "moral" behaviour in animal societies is dealt with lucidly by Margaret Knight, Honest to Man: Christian Ethics Re-examined ( London, 1974).

    § For a detailed list of God's killing of millions, as recorded in His own Holy scripture, see Satan's eleven are recorded in the book of Job — all with God's permission.

    § Mark Twain, Thoughts of God, cited by Knight, Humanist Anthology, pp 77-8.

    § Robert Ingersoll, The Gods (1876), cited by Knight, Humanist Anthology, p 76.

    § Baron d"Holbach, Good Sense, 1772 Ch LXXXIX.

    § John Stuart Mill, selection from An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, cited by Peterson et al, Reason and Religious Belief, p 105.

    § A. J. Ayer, The Humanist Outlook (1968), cited by Knight, Humanist Anthology, p 132.

    § This new area of scientific endeavour has proved fruitful. See for example Robert Write, The Moral Animal — Why We Are The Way We Are — The New Science Of Evolutionary Psychology, (Vintage Books, New York), 1994.

    § Jeremy Bentham, Deontology, or the Science of Morality (1834), vol. II, Ch 1.

    § Jeremy Bentham, Commonplace Book.


    § Based on figures available from the OECD in 2007.


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