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Religion Is Not Essential to a Moral Society

Dave Matson

Dave Matson states in the following viewpoint that morality exists independently of God or religion. He argues that moral laws, such as those that prohibit murder and theft, were created by humans so that society could function peacefully and efficiently. While some moral laws vary according to the needs of specific societies, Matson contends, the one universal standard of morality is empathy for others, and this standard holds true for atheists as well as believers. Matson has authored a variety of articles for the Skeptical Review and the Freethought Exchange. He is also the editor of the Oak Hill Free Press.

Once upon a time, in the bad old days, ancestor Mitchell became annoyed with ancestor Till. Since there were no moral laws then, ancestor Mitchell decided to act on his anger. Thus, one fine morning, he gathered together his hunting buddies and savaged ancestor Till's household. Many of ancestor Till's relatives were killed and ancestor Till was staked out for the vultures. Since there were no laws then, life went on as before. Then, one fine morning, when many of ancestor Mitchell's friends were out hunting mammoths, ancestor Mitchell's household was ravaged. Many of his family were killed and ancestor Mitchell was staked out for the vultures.

In the months that followed, there were raids and counterraids and the violence spread throughout the campsites and caves. Every man kept one eye on his neighbors and one hand on his war club, which made it hard to sleep or have any fun. Worse, a neighboring tribe, sensing their internal disorder, moved in on their favorite mammoth hunting grounds! There were no happy campers in that neck of the woods. Nobody was benefiting from this arrangement except the vultures!

One hot day the grumbling got so bad that some surviving sons of ancestor Till and ancestor Mitchell got together and declared a truce. The importance of upholding the truce was so great that each side threatened to exile any of its own members who broke it. It was better to lose one man than to endanger everyone. Thus, the first moral law was made: Thou shall not kill a fellow tribesman. Soon, another law was made to prevent theft, a situation that often led to killing. Still other laws were made to allow for cooperation on the hunt and for mutual defense. Thus, there was less fighting over mammoths and other goods. Soon the old hunting grounds had been won back, and everyone in that group had the same sense of right and wrong in large and small matters. Without having to watch their backs constantly, and with laws and conventions to minimize friction and handle incidents, the Till people and the Mitchell people worked together efficiently on complex projects and prospered. Their moral laws were not perfect, but they were good enough to get the job done.

The point of our little story, which is not intended as a scientific reconstruction, is that morality is the grease that allows a group to function. People simply cannot live together and do as they please any more than city drivers can ignore all the traffic rules. Chaos would set in, and the tribe would soon fall apart or be conquered by its neighbors.

Morality Promotes Cooperation

Morality was born in efficient communal living, and that is where we must initially seek its meaning. It's no accident that the very qualities of moral behavior relate to life within a group. Kindness, sympathy, honesty, generosity, mercy, loyalty, justice, and courage are qualities that strengthen the group. Even courage, which may apply to a hermit, takes its highest moral form in a group. Morality is, therefore, concerned with minimizing disruption within the group and, equally important, promoting cooperation. Efficient cooperation, in turn, requires justice. Nobody's going to cooperate on the next mammoth hunt if he is constantly cheated of his fair share! Thus, we see the origins of morality and justice.

Animal communities, each according to their particular needs, must also obey moral "laws" and conventions in order to function efficiently. Therefore, it should not surprise you to learn that many animals exhibit some fine moral traits that would put many humans to shame. It is beyond the scope of this viewpoint to go into the fascinating world of animal morality, but its mere existence is another proof that morality originates in the needs of a group.

Whether we're dealing with animal or human societies, keep in mind that not every society has found ideal moral solutions. Some societies grind along less smoothly than others. Some limp along, their demise likely. The insights into morality are not in the particulars but rather in the general landscape. Having briefly traced some of the major threads defining morality, we see that morality is neither entirely relative nor completely fixed. No doubt there are many different rules that would work beautifully for any given society. Furthermore, the needs of a jungle or tropical island society are not the same as those of a European society, and even in cases where similar rules might apply there is no guarantee that similar conventions would be adopted if several good solutions exist. Thus, an island society might go about in the buff whereas a Victorian society would be shocked by such behavior. One society might allow premarital sex while another condemns it. To that extent morality is relative to specific societies.

Yet, there is a core of common bedrock to morality. The basic needs of all societies are quite similar inasmuch as the basic human needs are similar. Murder and theft, with possible ritual exceptions, have no place in any well ordered society. Harmfulness in any form, within the group, is invariably frowned upon. Good behavior towards others in the group is an asset. How you rate with your hunting buddies could be really important the next time you're cornered by that tiger! Thus, in a healthy society, morality is never a case of "anything goes." To that extent, even though the boundaries are a bit fuzzy, we may say that morality is absolute.

Thus, having explored the rudiments of morality, we must extend it to all of mankind. The great moralists have seen that the tribal boundaries are, in the final analysis, an artificial division between human beings. Why should morality be limited to one's tribe? If there is a great truth here it must be a universal one. We must not do to others what is hurtful to ourselves unless it is to prevent a greater physical harm. Tribal good manners must now apply to everyone if humanity is to be one, happy family. Let those who would allot happiness to a select portion of humanity live among the deprived!

The Universal Principle of Empathy

On a deeper level, it is ignorance that separates human from human, and humans from animals. If we could but perfectly understand the feelings and thoughts and dreams of our fellow man, even as we learn that absolute truth is not our personal property, we would see that the boundary between him and us is very faint, that to harm him is very much like harming ourselves, that to help him is very much like helping ourselves. This natural sympathy, this empathy for our fellow man, is the keystone in the arch of morality whose foundations are anchored in the needs of the group. It allows us to see morality as a universal principle that, in its ultimate form, takes in all thinking creatures according to their needs.

This great arch of morality is built out of stones we can see. There are no supernatural elements in it. According to Kai Nielsen, "A man who says, 'If God is dead, nothing matters,' is a spoilt child who has never looked at his fellowman with compassion." To look at our fellowman with compassion is to understand his feelings, needs, and dreams, to walk a mile in his shoes, to become as one through empathy.

Being rooted in the human tribal condition, morality can never be simply what God commands. That is, something is not moral because God commands it, but rather because it successfully fits the needs of a human society. Thus, once man becomes God's chief concern, moral law is largely fixed and independent of God himself. God, knowing the human condition, is free to choose among those moral rules that will work, but he can never be the standard. ...

Morality Originates in the Human Condition

We may consign to oblivion the claim, so often heard, that atheists have no standard of morality. Indeed, as you can now see, they draw from the same standard as the most devoted Bible-believer! The chief difference is that the Bible-believer is confused as to morality's true origin and, as a result, may commit atrocities in "the name of God." Again, morality originates in the human condition and not in divine edicts, and the man or woman who realizes that has the clearest compass to travel life's moral highways.

We may consign to oblivion the claim, so often heard, that the Bible sets the standard for morality. No book can set the standard for morality. At best, a book might illuminate workable principles that can be discovered by other means. Many cultural roads lead to morality. The Japanese, for example, are a highly moral people despite being unfamiliar with the Bible.

We may consign to oblivion the claim, so often heard, that "anything goes" without God. Since moral rules are rooted in the smooth functioning of a society, they will be enforced even if there were no God. Do as you please, and you go directly to jail! (Do not collect $200.) Rulers, even bad ones, would no more dispense with morality in general (inside their own societies) than they would dispense with traffic rules. Societies, of course, can become perverted to various degrees. Indeed, past Christian societies have some of the blackest records of all. A belief in Jesus offers no magical cure, as any good historian of Christianity can tell you.

We may consign to oblivion the claim, so often heard, that God cannot be judged on moral matters by mere humans. We might imagine that God is very wise, that he knows far more than we ever could hope to know, but that doesn't mean we know nothing. We do know something about our world!

Consider a chess game in progress. On one side of the board sits God, a Grandmaster whose skill we wood pushers could never hope to equal. You (a mere human) are his opponent. Although your knowledge is nowhere near that of the Grandmaster, it does not follow that you know nothing about chess. Indeed, there are many positions you could win even against the Grandmaster. Should this Grandmaster allow such a position, you would rightly judge his game to be lost. In charges of gross immorality, it is no defense to claim that God is so much higher than we are that we cannot hope to know what he's up to. We do have a pretty good idea of what morality is all about! Human morality deals with conditions down here on Earth--not those of inscrutable heaven. Thus, if an action appears grossly immoral with no obvious, compensating circumstances, then there is no adequate defense.

The idea that God might have to do a great harm in order to insure a greater good is no defense. It makes God out to be a weakling! [One writer], for example, suggests the possibility that God might have looked down the long corridor of time and seen "that the babes of Amalek were destined to become vicious beasts like their ancestors." God winds up with great eyesight but no brains! Whatever happened to retraining? If God is all-wise and all-good and all-powerful, then retraining the Amalekites could not have posed a problem to him. Indeed, we might expect God to do even better than that! There must be dozens of solutions that are infinitely better than butchering all the women and children.

God Has No Claim to Morality

One might urge that God, being no part of any human society, is free to do as he pleases. However, an all-powerful being with perfect empathy towards creatures he needlessly torments can have no claim to morality. Such is the description of a fiend. We don't need a second opinion about torturing children for fun. If it's evil for us to do it, then it's no less evil if a king--or a god--does it. The evil of an act lies in its consequences, its hurt, not in who does it. One's only hope would be that a sufficiently powerful being did it to bring about a greater good that was hidden from the rest of us. Unfortunately, the greater the agent's power, the less need there is for a hurt-now-enjoy-later solution. Thus, the theist, whose God is absolutely powerful, is deprived of his only escape hatch.

If the slaughter of the Amalekites were done without God's orders, then we would immediately judge it to be a gross act of immorality. That would be a clear violation of a universal morality whose basic nature we worked out earlier. Indeed, the particular crime suggests that the participants have not evolved beyond the primitive, tribal concept of morality.

To make God the author of this act does nothing to lessen its immorality. Since God is all-powerful, he is deprived of his only possible defense, i.e., needing to commit a harm to reach a greater good. Therefore, since we have an adequate understanding of morality, to whose standards even God is not exempt, we may say that if God directed the massacre of Amalekite men, women, children, and babies--and even the animals--then he stands convicted of gross immorality.

Copyright Dave Matson