Morality - Where does it come from?

Years back I posed the following question to a Rabbi at my children's Sunday school.

"Christians have the fear of hell to keep them in line.. What do Jews have?"

His answer without any hesitation was

"That's what Jewish Mothers are for!"

I laughed and agreed.. To those who do not understand.. There is a cultural joke about Jewish mothers and their propensity to give the gift of guilt that lasts lifetimes. Years later after I became an Atheist I realized what the Rabbi was actually telling me.

It was not the fear of or the power of guilt.. He was telling me that Jewish mothers teach their children what is right and what is wrong. Sure.. There is a certain amount of dogma involved in being raised in any religion. The real truth is that you learn morality not from books but from the examples provided to you as a child. My mother never told me I was making baby Jesus cry. I was never told that I was going to hell. But yet I have a form grasp on reality and what is right and wrong.

Thanks Mom!!!

** From my personal blog at

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Comment by Daniel W on May 6, 2009 at 9:46am
Glad that you corrected us!
I think it Maka must be what in English we spell Mecca.
I know a Jesus who is not a saint also!
Comment by Daniel W on May 5, 2009 at 5:16pm

Your point about being more moral, than those who define morality by their interpretations of their ancient texts, is well taken. I feel the same way. So of course that means, you are 'right' :-) Thanks for bringing up an interesting topic.

Please pardon my ignorance. What is Maka?
Comment by Matthew F. on May 5, 2009 at 12:45pm
Thank you for your comments. So in short. Morality is relative to your culture during the times you live. This is a given. No need to define morality in this case. It is always relative.

My point was simple. Morality is not defined in books or dictated by fear. My words are directed at those who say Atheists can't be moral because they don't follow words in an ancient book. They are wrong and I would argue that I am more moral than they are. I've been given a gift of free thought. I've decided what is moral without any fear or prejudice. That makes me a better person.

Atheists in general do not hold any predefined prejudice. I have not meet an Atheist that (yet) that is against gay marriage, hates minorities or wants to restrict the freedoms or choices of good people.
Comment by Daniel W on May 4, 2009 at 10:22pm

I used to go to a Unitarian church, where there was frequent discussion about "What belief system causes more guilt? Jewish or Catholic?". There was often friendly competetion, regarding who had the most guilt. I always felt left out, since I can assure you that for me, growing up Baptist went beyond guilt, to self revulsion. But why try to one-up people who are having such fun?

As for the question of "where does morality come from?" first you have to define morality. For example, if you were in New Orleans during Katrina, and you had no bread for your family, but there was an empty store nearby, one personawould say that you were immoral for stealing bread for your family (not your property), another would say that you were immoral for letting your family suffer in hunger when there was clearly food within reach. (not providing for your loved ones).

Morality, whatever it is, definitely doesn't come from the teachings of Jehovah / Yahweh / god. For another example, modern morality states almost universally that slavery is immoral. The god of Abraham was absolutely pro-slavery. The god of Abraham had no problem with killing babies, infants in utero (by killing their mothers), and did so or had his surrogates to so. Modern 'fundamentalists' are anti-abortion to a person, even though it's hard to find a verse that places so much importance on that practice.

Morality more likely is a system that evolved in order to allow homo sapiens to live together in relative harmony, allowing propagation of the species. Our ancesters who killed and ate one another would not have promoted social harmony, especially within agrarian, then urban societies. Of course, there is always war, which means that it is OK to kill "not us" but withing societies at war, it is still not ok to kill "us". The genes of mothers who did not protect their young would not be passed to the next generation, while maternal behaviors would lead to propagation of the species. Cooperation, respect of property, development of empathy, critical to a sense of fairness, all appear to have evolutionary advantages - as well as many exceptions.

Whatever you define morality to be, it is explainable by evolution of species, social behavior, and memetics.


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