I was involved in a discussion in which the host advocated switching to the word, "ethics", and relegating the word, "morals", to religious types. He wanted to do this because he felt morality was too tied to religion. Yes, religious types would very much like to make morality their exclusive domain. But it's not and never will be as long as there are freethinkers.

I believe that human morality is a by-product of human evolution. As the human capacity for memory evolved, we gained a greater capacity to recall experience. As social animals, empathy evolved because of the advantages it lends to cooperation with others. Together, experience and empathy combine to produce morality. Because we know (from experience) what hurts us, we know what hurts others (empathy). This combination, in effect, makes the Golden Rule a part of the human condition. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you because you need each other to survive.

I say that, to the extent morality is tied to religion, religion is winning the argument. As an atheist, I hate to see a fellow atheist concede unwarranted territory to the enemy.

My take on religion's claims to morality is this:

Creationism is heavily tied to religion.
Intelligent design is heavily tied to religion.
Intelligent falling is heavily tied to religion.
Book burning is heavily tied to religion.
Circular logic is heavily tied to religion.

Since when do we prefer the religiously dumbed-down versions of things? If I don't allow religion to subvert evolution, gravity, education or reason . . . why would I make an exception for language? Just because so many of them think that morality can only be God-given, am I supposed to say, "Okay, morality is your word from now on . . . we'll just use ethics instead."?!?

Not only is this surrendering prematurely, it's missing the opportunity to deflate the religious notion of moral superiority. Religious morality is based on scripture and God-given rules; it's based on authority. Natural, human, morality, on the other hand, is based on empathy and experience (I know what hurts me, so I know what hurts you); the Golden Rule. I ask you: which morality promotes enlightenment?

As we all know, Abrahamic religions, through their scriptures, promote slavery, subjugation of women and some pretty horrendous battlefield atrocities. It can be fairly asserted that the Abrahamic religions have been THE most persistently divisive influence in the history of mankind. Such are the moral products of religion.

Now, look at the reforms in religion. We no longer support slavery, the subjugation of women and battlefield atrocities. That's because our natural, human, morality has overruled religious morality. Not only is human morality more solid than religious morality, it dictates what we accept as religiously worthy. It determines what IS religious. If human morality determines what is religious, why do we need religion in the first place?

So when I hear any suggestion that we relinquish our moral advantage, I get riled up and try to convey the wrong-headedness of such a notion. The claim, that morality has too many religious connotations, is just an ancillary concern to me. The real point is that the religious folks are winning the argument when we lose sight of the REAL force and source for morality . . .


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Replies to This Discussion

Nice post. I concur and would take it one step further: as we judge morality on outcomes instead of authority, we have the high ground in the morality argument. We can show our morality and ethics works, the religious can not.
Morality and ethics are largely synonymous. There can be subtle differences in certain contexts. If you look up "morality" at dictionary.com, you'll find many definitions. Not a single one makes any mention of religion. So, yes, who gives a flying fork which word we use. The real issues is: do we surrender morality to religion?
Yes, Stephan,

That's an important point. So many religious adherents take such pride in their moral superiority, it could actually prove useful to show them that they exercise their highest morals when they reject the immoral teachings of their beloved religion.
I have no problem with that, John. I haven't really looked too deeply at just what humanism represents but it's hard to imagine anything inherently wrong with it. I guess it's about time I moved out of the shallow end of the pool and explore the subject in depth.
Morality is nothing more than a set of agreed upon standards of behaviour shared by members of a social species. The degree to which the members of the species interact with each other dictates the "amount" of morality that is required. In species in which members of that species act independently, the amount of morality is very low. In species in which members of that species act dependently, the amount of morality is very high. Famous examples of the latter would include ants and piranha.

Religion, according to Dr. Jared Diamond, serves up to four purposes, the relevant one here is the need for authority figures to teach the members of its society how to interact both with other members of the same society and members of other societies. Prior to the existence of broader societies, countries, for example, all you had were tribes. The rule for interacting with anyone you didn't know, i.e. a member of another tribe, was very simple, either treat with suspicion, flee or attack. With the existence of societies formed of many tribes, you had to teach everybody how to interact with other tribes that were members of the same society. Thus, "love your neighbour". On the other hand, societies still wanted to be able to attack each other, thus its still desirable to kill people belonging to other societies, oops, I mean religion. Religion taught members of different tribes in the same country to get along and yet still justify the killing of members of tribes from different countries.

Religion is, one might argue, a step from the childhood of our growth to moral adolescence. It cannot, however, take us to moral adulthood.
Morality is nothing more than a set of agreed upon standards of behaviour shared ...
Concur. What is "moral" is relative to culture.
Agreed, each society, from the smallest tribe to the largest country, establishes its own set of morals, which of course change over time.
Anthropology holds many clues to why we are the way we are. It's a fascinating field of science. I agree that it's hard to imagine that mankind can reach its full potential if still saddled with religion. If religion ever served a useful purpose . . . it's over.
We are moral beings because we evolved to be that way ... .
I don't think so. Morality, or standards of conduct, is not a epi/dna evolution, but (like gods) an environmental brain resolution--socially developed. As I recall (at age 77), morality had to be taught to my children ... through discipline, i.e., how to get along with others in our specific environment. Assigning brain production to ancient cultures is, as said, a slippery slope ... and poor science (no proof ... just opinion). Societies do evolve, it is true, but speculation is not necessarily fact.
Hi Adriana,

I love Michael Shermer's way of thinking and his books but I haven't read his "The Science of Good and Evil". Actually, I mentioned the Golden Rule because I've always been so impressed with it. No scripture or commandments necessary . . . just one rule. The Golden Rule is far more ancient than Jesus and was paraphrased around the world before (and after) he was born.

I really think the Golden Rule is part of us.
As an aside, the Golden Rule, like other religion-derived rules, is suited for an Iron Age civilization, but is entirely too primitive for today's society. The real rule should be something like:

Do unto others as you have good evidence to believe they would want done unto them

As an example, which isn't mine and yet I'll use without proper attribution, let's say you are a college student and you are approached another college student of the opposite gender. Depending on your gender, you would very likely have entirely different desires for that other student to ask you if you would like to go to their dorm room and have sex with them. Not necessarily, of course, but gender is a huge determining factor in predicting the response to that question. So if you are a male, as much as you would like that person to ask that question of you, you should not ask that question of them, despite what the Golden Rule says.
It is, and has always been, sheer idiocy to pretend to follow and apply the Golden Rule (or any of its variants) to the letter. Its spirit and intent should be clear to any reasonably intelligent person. When Muhammad wanted his disciples not to worship him, he used the metaphor "don't make images of myself". See how a literal interpretation of this statement has led the Muslims to craziness?




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