Is the morality of religious believers really as twisted as it often appears?

I think one of my all-time favorite atheist quotes has to be this:

For those who find the image hard to read:

Atheist are routinely asked how people will know not to rape and murder without religion telling them not to do it, especially a religion that backs up the orders with threats of hell. Believers, listen to me carefully when I say this: When you use this argument, you terrify atheists. We hear you saying that the only thing standing between you and Ted Bundy is a flimsy belief in a supernatural being made up by pre-literate people trying to figure out where the rain came from. This is not very reassuring if you’re trying to argue from a position of moral superiority. ~Amanda Marcotte

I was reminded of it when I saw this attempt by a Christian on Twitter to hit atheists with a “gotcha” question:


The implied message of the tweet struck me as twisted. It implies that if there were no God, then more “highly evolved” humans (perhaps ones who got that way through genetic engineering) would have a right do dominate others. That’s the kind of thing that normally only shows up in believers’ caricatures of what atheists believe and other villains of bad fiction.

I tweeted a reply, and we went back and forth a couple times. One tweet I got simply said, “By whose standard? Natural selection’s?” What kind of adult says stuff like that in a serious moral discussion? “Genocide is bad.” “Who says?” “Rape is bad. “Who says?” If you think rape and genocide are by default OK unless the right person says they’re bad, something is very wrong with you.

Normally when I run into these situations, my working assumption is that believers don’t really want to say the things their rhetoric implies. They’re just trying to come up with any lame defense of their religious beliefs they can find, and variations on, “if atheism, then no morality” are easy to grab because they’re so common in religious circles. Yet lately, I’ve been wondering.

For example, I’ve written:

There’s a simple way of explaining how I see the world that I think will work for most religious believers at least in western countries… What I believe is what you believe, minus the bullshit. For example: I can generally count on religious believers to agree with me that genocide is a bad thing. Where you get problems is when religious people insist on adding an exception for when their God tells you to commit genocide.

When I wrote this, a reader questioned it, and they did make me wonder whether there’s really any deep similarity between my position on this issue and that of some religious believers. Maybe some religious believers don’t actually see anything wrong with genocide other than that, they think, God happens to disapprove of it in most cases. Could that really be?

Or: in a comment on Scott Alexander’s review of After Virtue, I said that the book’s dismissive attitude towards outrage and protest made me queasy:

They can be misused, yes, but it’s not like they can be arbitrarily used to support any cause with equal ease. They depend on appealing to values we all share, even if we struggle to articulate those values or apply them to particular cases. And very often protest and outrage are the tools of oppressed groups, and dismissing them suggests a dismissive attitude to oppressed groups.

Scott’s response was that I need to listen to more Rush Limbaugh and I’d understand how wrong I was. Now, my tentative response to that is that I think most people, even religious conservatives, have enough empathy to understand why people get mad about headlines like, “Gay Man Arrested At Missouri Hospital For Refusing To Leave Sick Partner.” But… maybe, for some people, that’s giving them too much credit. I don’t know.

Or: this post by Fred Clarke (see items on “living in sin” and Al Mohler) has served as an unpleasant reminder that for religious fundamentalists, “morality” often seems to mean respect for a handful of arbitrary taboos, mostly having to do with sex (taboos which aren’t necessarily in the Bible).

I’m left feeling uncertain here, but while writing this post, I was reminded of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s post “Fake Morality,” which among other things points out:

You don’t hear religious fundamentalists using the argument: “If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from eating pork?” Yet by their assumptions – that we have no moral compass but divine reward and retribution – this argument should sound just as forceful as the other.

The fact that religious believers don’t make arguments like that involving pork or, typically, sex, but do make arguments involving actions that harm other people suggests that maybe, deep down they really do mostly care about the well-being of others. Maybe.

Your thoughts?

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