Good without god

Over at Talking Philosophy, a post by Jeff Mason has generated a few interesting comments. The post itself is interesting (hence the comments, I suppose), but one comment (by Tom, a self-professed religious believer) is perhaps particularly interesting. Here’s an extract from the comment, followed by some general comments in response:

religion, particularly belief in a deity, is an incredibly useful concept the human mind uses to funnel its understanding of many issues into language which is not only powerfully symbolic, but also compact and economical. Finally, religion tightens the concept of duty due to the psychological implications (a la Pascal Boyer) of a personal god in relation to our intuitive psychology of each other.

In this way, atheist morality, at least all the one’s which I’ve seen, can get it right on the “rationality” part, but cannot gain in the public sphere due to lack of persuasiveness, and for very good reason: lacking the religious funnel means atheist morality cannot be used in quick and dirty situations where one person doesn’t necessarily know a great deal about the other person. This may be the reason why many regular people have a hard time even conceiving of morality without religion.

Sure, you can sub in some washed out humanism in place of religion, but again, I think to many people, even many education people, this concept just doesn’t provide all the pros of religion in funneling morality.

1. There’s a fair amount of descriptive truth to what Tom is saying. Many people do use religion in this way – this is of course an entirely separate issue from whether they should do so. The latter question would be answered by knowing which was the most optimal way to derive moral rules (in terms of their intelligibility, motivational force, outcomes, sustainability, coherence, etc.).

2. On his claim that religion provides us with a “compact and economical” way to understand issues: this seems false if we understand religion as a particular religious system, rather than a religious outlook more generally. Even within religious circles, endless debates occur around how to interpret sacred texts, and what the “right” way is of being a Christian, Jew, etc. So it’s not so much religion as what people understand by a given religion, in other words their interpretations of those scriptures, etc. So it’s the idea/structure/foundation of religion, rather than a particular religion itself that seems best connected to moral notions.

3. In cultures where religion is almost entirely absent from civic life, such as Scandiwegian cultures, people seem to have little difficulty in relating to each other on a moral level – in fact they often seem to do a better job of it than more religious cultures. So there seems to be no evidence that we lose any of these abilities when we drop the religious talk.

4. The religious foundation may still be there, in that religion used to be a strong cultural force in such nations. But it’s being sustained (effectively) non-religiously. Plus, we have plenty of evidence of moral interaction amongst non-human animals, with very limited cultures compared to ours, and presumably no religion at all.

5. The phrase “some washed-out humanism” is misleading and uncharitable. I don’t see any evidence that it’s been difficult to ground our standard moral beliefs in secular concepts like reciprocity, fairness, desert, etc. Of course, “washed-out” belief systems or ideologies exist, and they can be intellectually bankrupt whether religious or not. But this claim is too general.

6. Tom speaks of “all the pro’s” of religion in “funneling morality”. While I’m not dead sure what he intends “funneling” to mean, the pro’s are perhaps easily outweighed by the cons. First, for the obvious reason that religion rests on a (almost certainly) false belief in the existence of god, and second, because the various religions disagree with each other in offering moral guidance – so we can’t know which one to pick, and therefore we can’t know what to do morally. By contrast, grounding morality in evolutionary biology (or something else that we can use to test competing moral propositions) does allow for universal agreement (even if we never get there).

7. Tom says that “atheist morality cannot be used in quick and dirty situations”. Why not? Unless we are sure that the people we are having a moral encounter with happen to share the same religious outlook, religion is going to be little help in quick and dirty situations. Atheist morality, by contrast, will be appealing to something common to all humans (or sentient beings), and therefore seems to have the upper hand in these situations. This is of course only true if we care about the good – if we don’t, then religious morals may have the upper hand when treated as dogma, and applied unthinkingly, but then we may not end up doing good (plus we have the problems mentioned above, in terms of religions not necessarily agreeing with each other).

All that said, it’s undeniable that religion provides us with a useful ready-made consensus, and also with various short-cuts to making tough judgement calls, so long as we share the same type of religion. And that consensus, along with those heuristics, can sometimes result in actions that everyone is happy to call “good”. By contrast, it’s certainly possible that if we pull that rug out from under everyone’s feet (or, to use Dennett’s analogy, take away Dumbo’s magic feather), some people may take the absence of god or religion as an excuse to be evil.

But a) some people already use religion as an excuse to do evil, and b) we don’t have any evidence that people start doing more evil once they lose the religious grounding for their moral beliefs. So to the extent that it’s a risk, it seems to be one that’s well-worth taking. Progress is rarely easy, especially when it involves overturning centuries-old mistakes – but the difficult things are often the ones most worth doing.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.