Jul 5th 2014

God and Morality: Never the Twain Shall Meet

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Ah for every one step forward two steps backward. The Pew Research Center just published a survey conducted in 40 countries demonstrating that many people in the world still hold onto the idea that one must believe in god to be moral. That view is more common in the poorer countries; and the idea is nearly universal in Africa and the Middle East (with the exception of Israel). The survey is deeply depressing because the idea that faith in god is essential to morality is one of humanity's most dangerous and destructive myths.

Five Pillars

As I argued in Beyond Cosmic Dice, religion pathologically persists in service of five different masters of human weakness: fear of death and the promise of seeing lost loved ones; the need to explain away the unknown; hope for controlling one's destiny; a desire for social cohesion; and the corrupting allure of political power. So we create, each of us, and collectively, a god who is all-powerful and all-knowing to address some combination of these five masters, or all of them.

There is no link between morality and the five pillars; nothing about being moral would lead to a belief in god. The two concepts do not intersect. The history of religion proves the point.

That morality does not derive from, or lead to, religion has been the conclusion of some of our greatest minds, including David Hume, the father of religious studies. Due to certain inconveniences, like the possibility of being burned alive at the stake, Hume restricted his writings to polytheism. But it takes no great leap to read between the lines and apply his words to monotheism and Christianity in particular. Hume did not believe morality is a gift from god because he thought religion a false construct and therefore no foundation for human behavior or thought. Instead, humanity's first beliefs in a higher power were borne of ignorance and fear of the natural world: every disaster that befalls us demands an explanation. Naturally, multiple unknown causes leads to the idea of multiple powers; polytheism is the natural state of a primitive mind.

We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear.

From Many, One

But so too does this apply to belief in one god; one is just a derivative of many. The idea of powerful gods, or a god, controlling each important aspect of our lives would not by itself be satisfying. We want to put a face to the power; we want to be familiar with the deities that control our fate; we want to know them so that we can communicate with them and solicit their interventions. We are all Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, seeking to reveal the nature of the man behind the curtain, hoping to strike up a conversation with whoever is in charge.

By no coincidence then do our gods take on idealized human form. Our egoistic species has a universal tendency to transfer human-like qualities to surrounding objects, giving them characteristics that are familiar to us. This tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us has the consequence that we attribute human malice or benevolence to inanimate objects, and of course to the gods above. With their human form, gods also take on human personalities, with passions and weaknesses that make them jealous, vengeful, spiteful, fickle, wicked and foolish. How comforting to know that one's fate and fortune, tossed about by unknown causes, can be controlled by dialogue with an invisible power that possesses familiar sentiments and intelligence!

But attributing human qualities to a higher power has a paradoxical consequence, one leading inevitably to the idea of multiple gods, at least initially. We raise our own estimation of ourselves as god-like, but diminish the power of the very gods we create by humanizing them. Once again, Hume is right on the money:

They suppose their deities, however potent and invisible, to be nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind, and retaining all human passions and appetites, together with corporeal limbs and organs. Such limited beings, though masters of human fate, being, each of them, incapable of extending his influence everywhere, must be vastly multiplied, in order to answer the variety of events, which happen over the whole face of nature. Thus every place is stored with a crowd of local deities; and thus polytheism has prevailed.

The idea that deities are "nothing but a species of human creatures, perhaps raised from among mankind" of course applies to more than the old discarded gods of the past. The words exactly describe Jesus. The link between the one god of today and the many of the past is forged in steel. The characteristics that originated in polytheism continued to apply even as the number of gods diminished. One could argue, in fact, that today's religions are not truly monotheistic. Christianity has created hundreds of objects of worship in the guise of saints, who have become minor gods to many followers. So this conclusion from Hume is particularly poignant:

...it will appear, that the gods of all polytheists are not better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors, and merit as little any pious worship or veneration. These pretended religionists are really a kind of superstitious atheists, and acknowledge no being, that corresponds to our idea of deity.

So we conclude that most of the multiple divinities of the ancient world were supposed to have been human or human-like, thereby diminishing their power. Yet Christianity is no different: we have Jesus, in the flesh, bleeding like a regular guy, no different from what Hume disparages in his idea of a cruder polytheistic god. Like many gods, one god is nothing better than the elves or fairies of our ancestors. Nowhere in this narrative is there any suggestion that morality is linked to religion, or that morality elsewhere derived would lead to a belief in god.

While I emphasize David Hume as the father of religious studies, we cannot neglect to mention its grandfather, Baruch de Spinoza, who preceded Hume by almost 100 years. When Spinoza took on the question of ethics he created a path to secular enlightenment that Hume did not fully assimilate. I raise this here because at no point in Spinoza's masterpiece, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus did he ever link the development of human morality with a future belief in god. As did Hume later, Spinoza concluded that the history of religion precludes any connection at all between morality and religion, in any order.

Poseidon and Morality

Religion's history begs an important question: why of all the gods does the god of Abraham own the right to morality? The history of religion can be understood as the winnowing of gods from many to one. What this means is that all of us are atheists, even the most devout, undoubting, dedicated priest, rabbi or mullah. Atheist means "without god," and all of us are without at least some gods. All monotheistic believers reject all gods, except one. They reject all the Greek elder gods Cronus, Gaea, Uranus, Rhea, Oceanus, Tethys, Hyperion, Mnemosyne, Themis, Iapetus, Coeus, Crius, Phoebe, Thea, Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, Metis, and Dione. Muslims, Jews and Christians all deny the existence of the Greek Olympic gods Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, and Hephaestus. All major religions today dismiss as nothing but myth the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, Apollo, Diana, Mars, Venus, Cupid, Mercury, Minerva, Ceres, Proserpine, Vulcan, Bacchus, Saturn, Vesta, Janus, Uranus and Maia. Yet this roster of gods was real to multiple thousands of people for thousands of years, every bit as real as the one god worshipped by Christians, Muslims and Jews today. Was the morality derived from a belief in those gods any different from what we see today with one? If asked, Christians, Jews and Muslims today would use numerous and diverse reasons to deny the existence of Greek and Roman gods, who were so important to so many people for so long. I simply extend that reasoning to include the one remaining god. Everybody rejects as silly the idea of gods; I merely exclude the existence of one more god than those who consider themselves religious.

Something that we all reject is hardly a sound basis for morality. A more compelling basis would be the Tooth Fairy. Hear me out. No adult takes the myth seriously, of course. Yet the evidence for the existence of the Tooth Fairy is in fact more compelling than that for any other belief system. As a child, you put your recently yanked tooth under your pillow. The next morning, lo and behold, you have a dollar where the tooth used to be. That is concrete, real, undeniable evidence that the Tooth Fairy came to visit during the night. What other explanation could be possible with such incontrovertible evidence? What could be more compelling: you can hold that dollar in your hand, and you know for a fact that the previous night only a tooth lay beneath your head. The Tooth Fairy exists, end of story. Now, science might try to convince you, as a five-year-old, that there indeed is a more rational explanation for the nocturnal switch, such as a caring parent acting the part, for example, but you will have none of it. You believe the Tooth Fairy exists, have evidence to support your belief, and dismiss the scientific explanation as heretical. Just a bunch of pointy-head liberals who don't understand that of course the Tooth Fairy is real.

Fortunately, we all grow out of believing in the Tooth Fairy. Well, no, we don't. We just transfer that belief to something we call "god." God is the Tooth Fairy, and the Tooth Fairy is god. Instead of looking for a dollar under our pillow, we look to miracles as evidence to support our belief, ignoring the fact that belief cannot be supported by evidence. Yet, we insist. We see statues of the Virgin Mary crying blood, or the face of Jesus on an eggplant, or witness a healer laying hands giving ambulation to the disabled. Instead of the story involving a tooth and quarter, our narrative becomes more complex (we are adults after all), with the plot thickening to include creation and an afterlife. But both stories are made up, figments of our imagination, equally supported by "evidence." Both are valid only because we believe. The first impulse would be to dismiss as completely absurd any equality between god and the Tooth Fairy. But resist the temptation, and ask yourself a simple question: how do the two really differ? Whatever argument you come up with to support a belief in god, can you not also apply to the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus, or trolls under a bridge in Ireland? Yes, of course, the concept that the Tooth Fairy is real is lunacy. But so, too, the belief in god. The notion that god exists is as childish and as silly as the belief that a mythical creature enters your bedroom at night to give alms for your milk teeth. This is a poor foundation for human morality.

Morality and Biology

Fortunately, we can understand the basis for morality without invoking god either as a cause or a consequence. Morals are not derived from religion, nor god's grant of free will, but instead arise from inherent characteristics embedded in human nature as a consequence of our sociality. What we view as moral behaviors - kindness, reciprocity, honesty, respect for others - are social norms that evolved in the context of a highly social animal living in large groups. The evolution of these social norms enabled a feeble creature to overcome physical limitations through effective cooperation. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development. Morality is our biological destiny, deeply embedded in the human psyche. Our moral characteristics are primeval adaptations that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only through mutual cooperation: good (moral) behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Religion has nothing to do with morality: our understanding of human history, and the development of religion over the ages provides compelling evidence that morality is not derived from religion, nor leads to a belief in god. Morality is an embedded human trait that has been corrupted and lost in the cathedrals of false promise and empty threats of eternal damnation. Human are moral without being bribed and cowed; we are moral because we are human. We do not need religion to offer us a morality nurtured on fear and hope or based on the ideas derived from primitive nomadic tribes from 2000 years ago; our morality is stronger than that.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."