“That most of the [kosher] laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 per cent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is no great proof that I believe in God or am fulfilling His [sic] will. But, if He tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peaces at lunchtime, that is a test. The only reason I am doing that is because I have been told to so do. It is something difficult.”
—An unnamed Jewish rabbi, quoted in Richard Dawkins’ “Viruses of the Mind”
“But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for, in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely rôle…”
—C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
The story of the giving of the Ten Commandments is one of the most iconic in the Bible. The imagery that accompanies this story conveys all too well the idea of a terrifying, unapproachable overlord: the peak of Mt. Sinai wreathed in smoke and flame, the earth trembling, a thunderous voice speaking from the dark clouds, and a divine hand reaching down out of the sky to engrave stern rules on heavy stone tablets as an everlasting covenant.
More generally, God’s manifestations throughout the Old Testament continue this theme, each one making glaringly clear the vast distance between God and man and the fearful, alien otherness of God. On multiple occasions, the text gives dire warnings that the unworthy, were they to tread on his holy ground, would be struck dead – and there was no reliable way to tell in advance who was worthy. His authority was absolute, his demands not to be questioned, and anyone who dared to dispute his rule would usually be instantly annihilated in some dramatic fashion.
This model of human relations with the divine exemplifies quite well a more general trend of religious morality. In systems of divine command ethics, the emphasis is always on following the rules, not on understanding them. In religion, the rules should be followed simply because they are the rules – the justifications behind them are irrelevant and sometimes nonexistent, as the quote at the beginning of this essay explains, and it goes without saying that they may not be questioned or changed. They are rules for the sake of having rules, existing for no higher purpose than to accustom believers to the habit of doing as they are told. C.S. Lewis defends a common religious viewpoint when he asserts that obedience is “intrinsically good”, regardless of the content of that obedience.
By contrast, atheists have moral rules, but we have no commandments in this sense. To an atheist, the rules are not arbitrary – they exist for a very good intrinsic reason, namely, to prevent acts that harm others and decrease their happiness. And rather than promoting blind obedience, we want people to understand that; we want people to understand the motivations behind the rules and freely choose to abide by them. More, in an atheist moral system, the rules can and should be questioned. If people think a rule is misguided or unnecessary, we should not just allow but encourage them to make their case in a suitable public forum, and set up a process by which the rules can be changed. A rational system of morality, founded on sound general principles and set up on this democratic basis, is far more adaptable when it comes to difficult real-world dilemmas, and far more likely to produce the best result for all parties involved.
There will always be those who spurn this flexibility and seek refuge in the rigid, unchanging certainty of religious dogma. But any security this approach provides is purely illusory; dogmatic morality offers no certainty but the certainty of error. This is because religious morality is far easier to subvert than morality based on reason. Literally anything can be justified by claiming that it is God’s will, and people who are accustomed to obedience and believe it to be “intrinsically good” are far more likely to fall under the sway of an eloquent sociopath who knows the right code words.
The examples of this phenomenon are legion, from the pre-World War 2 Germans who were swayed by the Nazis’ racist Christian rhetoric, to the young and often prosperous and well-educated Muslims who are persuaded to throw their lives away in suicide terrorism by hate-spewing Wahhabist imams. There is even the case of Elizabeth Smart, the Mormon teenager whose fundamentalist kidnapper brainwashed her into obedience by invoking Mormon doctrine she had always been taught to obey (as Jon Krakauer documents in his chilling book Under the Banner of Heaven). By accustoming people to unquestioning obedience, religion cripples their skills of moral reasoning, often resulting in a sort of induced “ethical dyslexia” where they are unable to recognize evil for what it is, even when it is staring them in the face. Just consider how many Christian apologists continue to defend the atrocities recorded and praised in their own Bibles.
Theists say that abandoning the inflexible approach of religious dogma risks a headlong plunge into the swamp of moral relativism. But the reality is that a consistent, objective secular morality can easily be constructed from just a few basic principles. If anything, I would venture that atheists are, for the most part, more in agreement with each other than theists are. While religious groups are forever arguing about what God’s will is and how to interpret ancient books that are self-contradictory to begin with, we are broadly united by a commitment to justice, happiness, and human welfare.
In any case, both theists and atheists debate over what moral directives are best. If this is moral relativism, then everyone is a moral relativist. The only difference is that atheists do not claim our conclusions are God’s infallible will, which saves a lot of embarrassment when they subsequently need to be reevaluated. Theists, on the other hand, often find themselves faced with the bizarre difficulty of exalting a past religious leader as the infallible messenger of God while simultaneously acknowledging many of his beliefs and proclamations to be gravely immoral.
An atheist morality based on reason and human conscience avoids all these pitfalls. Instead, it teaches people to think for themselves, and never to obey an authority figure without questioning. It teaches them to welcome, rather than fear, rational debate over moral principles as the only way to get at the truth. It encourages them to question and reevaluate older principles and throw out those that show themselves to be in error in the light of new understanding. And it brings out the fact that what is truly and intrinsically good is not obedience or blind faith, but happiness and the actions we take to bring it about on behalf of each other. Where religious ethics would have us still quaking in fear before the fires of Sinai, atheist morality heartens us with the realization that we have nothing to fear from asking questions. In fact, it is the only way to move beyond the primitive and often savage moral systems of our species’ youth, and toward a future where what guides our decisions will truly be what is best for all people.
Other posts in this series: