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?

  • busterggi

    Nope, they care about being perceived as caring about other people.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    In my experience (which is lengthy and firsthand) the most conservative believers would have trouble differentiating between “X is moral” and “X is what God commands us to do.” They might not explicitly advocate Divine Command Theory as such, but it is generally inherent in their worldview. Which isn’t to say they are incapable of consequentialism in a pinch, since everyone has to weight consequences to get by IRL.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    When religious people say that without God, they’d be raping and murdering, they’re just empirically wrong. People who stop believing in God almost uniformly decide that actually they don’t want to rape or murder after all. The question is: is this what they really believed all along, or is it just a very predictable shift in ethical views?

    I just don’t know. My own ethics were very secular even before I left religion.

  • Ophis

    I think the problem results from the Christian and Muslim belief that humans are inherently sinful and selfish. Since people are naturally selfish, behaviour which doesn’t serve purely selfish ends seems irrational. Since they generally want to act morally they believe they need to find some excuse to not act like the evil sinners their religious theory tells them they naturally are, and they use divine commands as that excuse. When they imagine not believing in God, they fail to consider that their belief in human sinfulness might be wrong, leading to their confusion when they find atheists seemingly denying their natural selfish desires without any apparent reason for doing so.

    The simple answer to the problem is that humans are not in fact fallen, wholly selfish beings. Neurologically normal people have some level of empathy and concern for others. We have no reason to suppress our normal moral desires, so we act morally (at least some of the time).

    This is also the reason I don’t feel terrified by the idea that the religious are kept moral only by supernatural belief. The religious may say that’s the reason they’re moral, but I don’t believe them. They just don’t realise that they don’t need an excuse to justify not being selfish. The fact that divine commands are merely a justification for following their own natural morality is shown by the fact that they try to make excuses for Biblical genocide and other atrocities in terms of other moral principles, rather than simply accepting it as moral due to being commanded by God.

  • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

    As a theist, I’ll try to point out what I think some other theists are trying to get at.

    I’ll start by trying to read between the lines of the quote from Amanda Marcotte.

    Question 1: How does an atheist identify the good and the bad? Is this process and the ontology it assumes compatible with metaphysical naturalism?

    Being terrified by the question is not an answer and certainly does not reassure a theist that you even have an answer. If the atheist is terrified that an apostate might become like Ted Bundy, then how much more terrified should a theist be of an atheist who can’t even explain why Ted Bundy is a bad person to begin with?

    And while Chris says he believes what theists generally believe about morality, minus the bullshit, that does not mean morality isn’t bullshit on metaphysical naturalism. It’s quite possible for an atheist’s beliefs about morality to not be compatible with his naturalism.

    Question 2: Is it always rational for an atheist to act morally? Suppose Ted Bundy has a strong desire to murder and he knows he can get away with it. Moreover, there is no God to judge him. What rational reason can the atheist give Ted Bundy to abstain from committing murder?

    I think the quote from CAB Bible is getting at a similar point. What rational reason do the powerful have to respect the rights of the powerless? Or, what rational reason does the majority have to respect the rights of the minority? Merely identifying the good does not provide a reason to pursue the good.

    Question 3: What motivation can metaphysical naturalism provide to a person to puruse the good?

    Question 4: Can atheists identify the good without appealing to human desires or values? In other words, can you ground morality on something more objective?

    For the record, I’m not saying these questions are unanswerable. I’m merely trying get at what I think is underlying the questions you are puzzled over.

    If anyone wants to answer the questions, feel free. Time permitting, I’ll give feedback.

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

      I for one and willing to admit I don’t know how ethics is best justified. Metaethics is hard. Yet the sky doesn’t fall.

      Divine command theory does not solve the problem. If a god approves of some particular action, then this only identifies the good (here defining good as that which the god wants), it doesn’t provide a reason to pursue the good. Just because a god thinks pork is bad doesn’t give me any reason to stop eating pork. If the god has power over my eternal afterlife, that’s a different story, but it’s only a different story because we can appeal to my human desire to avoid eternal torment. I’m rather unsure why we should even want a system of ethics that does not appeal to human desires or values.

      • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

        trivialknot:

        Divine command theory does not solve the problem.

        A theist does not have to be an adherent of divine command theory (DCT). Nonetheless, I think a simple DCT where God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked does solve the problems raised by my questions.

        If a god approves of some particular action, then this only identifies the good (here defining good as that which the god wants), it doesn’t provide a reason to pursue the good.

        You admit Q1 is answered. Since God is omniscient there isn’t a way to beat the system so Q2 is answered.

        If the god has power over my eternal afterlife, that’s a different story, but it’s only a different story because we can appeal to my human desire to avoid eternal torment.

        But that is a reason to pursue the good so Q3 is answered.

        I’m rather unsure why we should even want a system of ethics that does not appeal to human desires or values.

        Suppose Group A and Group B desire/value conflicting things? Whose desire is correct?

        • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

          I suppose what I meant was that DCT doesn’t answer Q4. If you can appeal to human desires and values, the other three questions are easy to answer.

          It sounds like what you were really trying to get at in Q4 was not that there is something wrong with appealing to human desires. Rather, the problem was that human desires vary from person to person? When agents have different preferences, they can get stuck in prisoner’s dilemmas and similar games.

          DCT “solves” this problem by claiming that defectors are eventually punished, and therefore no true prisoner’s dilemmas exist. I don’t consider this a solution at all, much less a correct one. I mean, it assumes all agents are trying to maximize their own utility, and assumes no temporal discounting.

      • Matthew Petersen

        Religious ethics have always been changing to maintain appeal to human desires and values. We value freedom of love, and so portions of Christianity have embraced homosexual tolerance. Before that it was rejection of slavery, and before that it was rejection of stoning.

        I feel like humanity has always leaned toward utilitarianism, but that we are easily distracted from the right path, and especially easily when a great deal of people are also distracted (as with slavery)

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      >Question 1: How does an atheist identify the good and the bad? Is this process and the ontology it assumes compatible with metaphysical naturalism?

      I dunno. We do lots of things without fully understanding how we do them.

      >Question 2: Is it always rational for an atheist to act morally? Suppose Ted Bundy has a strong desire to murder and he knows he can get away with it. Moreover, there is no God to judge him. What rational reason can the atheist give Ted Bundy to abstain from committing murder?

      (a) Yes. (b) Because it’s wrong.

      You know, I really need someone to upload a YouTube video with a clip from the body-swap episode of Buff the Vampire Slayer, just of Buffy/Faith saying, “because it’s wrong!” Just that one line. Then I could link to it whenever theists wonder aloud why you shouldn’t murder people.

      The fact that theists like Jayman don’t, apparently, recognize this as a “rational reason” is a pretty damn good example of why atheists find them morally twisted.

      >Question 3: What motivation can metaphysical naturalism provide to a person to puruse the good?

      What motivation can your non-belief in fairies to pursue the good?

      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2013/04/afaeism/

      >Question 4: Can atheists identify the good without appealing to human desires or values? In other words, can you ground morality on something more objective?

      Yes. Can *you* tell right from wrong without appealing to God? If not, again, you’re a perfect example of why atheists find religious believers like you terrifying.

      • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

        I dunno. We do lots of things without fully understanding how we do them.

        Do you understand why theists find this answer unsatisfactory? And do you see how it eliminates the possibility of even having a moral discussion with you?

        (a) Yes. [it is always rational for an atheist to act morally]

        And why is that the case?

        (b) Because it’s wrong.

        But that reason only works if Ted Bundy desires to be moral. If, on the other hand, he desires to be evil you have provided him a reason to commit murder.

        The fact that theists like Jayman don’t, apparently, recognize this as a “rational reason” is a pretty damn good example of why atheists find them morally twisted.

        The problem is that you ignore how people, in particular evil people, make decisions. We have certain desires. We use our beliefs to determine the best way to achieve those desires. Merely implanting someone with the belief that “murder is wrong” does not change his evil desires. And note that this description of intentional actions comes from an atheist. Even other atheists realize such glib answers fail.

        What motivation can your non-belief in fairies to pursue the good?

        My belief that God will reward me for pursuing the good and punish me for pursuing the bad provides me a reason to pursue the good. Note I did not claim it is the only reason. Does your non-answer mean you don’t have an answer?

        Yes.

        That seems to contradict your answer to Q1.

        Can *you* tell right from wrong without appealing to God?

        Yes, and I even granted that an atheist could too. Instead of just blowing off the questions atheists should seriously try to answer them. Your attitude will merely reinforace stereotypes of atheists and ethics.

        • Mikel Syn

          Let’s turn this on you for the moment. Just because some more powerful guy who can punish us if we do things he doesn’t like tells us not to do somethings, why should we listen to him? You’re basically telling me that not standing up against Kim Jong Un is the right thing to do. That’s the problem there. The one with the dawinian morals is you. You simply create a fictitious character to be more powerful than you.

          • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

            Mikel, note that earlier I said a theist does not not have to be an adherent of DCT. But I’ll put on the “hat” to answer your questions.

            Just because some more powerful guy who can punish us if we do things he doesn’t like tells us not to do somethings, why should we listen to him?

            First of all, God is the most powerful guy. And you obey him because it will fufill your strongest desires while disobeying him will thwart your strongest desires.

            You’re basically telling me that not standing up against Kim Jong Un is the right thing to do.

            That would only follow if Kim Jong Un’s position was the same as God’s.

          • Alexander Johannesen

            But you’re not answering his question. Why is power the indicator for why something is right or wrong?

          • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

            Alexander, I took his question to be why we should listen to God, not why what God says is good. But if following God fulfills your strongest desires then it is at least good for you in the sense of having your desires fulfilled.

          • Alexander Johannesen

            You’re just avoiding the question. Why is your gods power the reason we should “listen to him”? You’re avoiding the problem of “most powerful guy” as some kind of *reason* for listening to him outside of a “or else!” scenario.

          • busterggi

            So we should only obey the strongest bully?
            How is that moral?

          • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

            So we should only obey the strongest bully?

            Note I answered the question from a simple, bare-bones DCT perspective. It’s hardly the only theistic morality. But the mere fact that God dishes out rewards and punishments doesn’t make him any more of a bully than, say, a government enforcing the law.

          • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

            The crucial difference is that it’s possible for citizens under a democratic government to *change* the law.

            Additionally, I don’t see law as defining morality, but merely a way of enforcing it, often imperfectly. I expect that most people, at least in the first world, agree with me. This is different from how DCT usually works, where God actually *creates* morality.

          • DavidMHart

            Actually, it does make him more of a bully if he dishes out punishment in an arbitrary and capricious manner, or punishes people for things that are not real crimes at all. Now in this world that we live in, there is an astonishingly poor correlation between the amount of good or evil that people do and the amount of unpleasant stuff that happens to them. Even in the most tyrannical of dictatorships, you do not see the government inflicting earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis on countless civilians without even explaining what they’re being punished for.

            So the only way you can possibly call god ‘not a bully’ is if you deal only with what happens to people in some other life beyond this world that we live in.

            Ignore for the moment the fact that we have not a single shred of good evidence that humans have souls that can survive the physical destruction of our brains. Consider that according to most brands of Christian theology, God rewards people for believing in the divinity of Jesus, and punishes people for not believing in the divinity of Jesus. This is not a fair system of rewards and punishment, since the resurrection story is wildly implausible, and those of us who are skeptical about it cannot be persuaded of its truth by threats, any more than I could make you actually believe in leprechauns by holding a gun to your head and telling you to start believing in leprechauns.

            And that’s before you even get started on the idea of Hell, which is, of course, infinite punishment for finite ‘crimes’. Anyone with any compassion at all knows that disproportionate punishments are unjust. And an infinite punishment is infinitely disproportionate.

            So, whether you are looking at the standard Christian God’s alleged rewards and punishments in this life or in an almost-certainly-imaginary afterlife, he is still a bully.

    • Ophis

      I’ll have a go at this. Obviously I can’t speak for all atheists, as we have no common moral theory, but hopefully I can provide one perspective on the issue.

      Q1: Assuming you mean moral good, it’s identified by our understanding of and concern for the wellbeing of other persons. It’s compatible with, but not dependent on, naturalism.

      Q2: It’s rational in so far as a person has empathy. In the case of wholly selfish people, it’s rational to the extent that a minimal level of moral behaviour is necessary to survive and prosper while living in a society full of other people. In the case of Ted Bundy, since he was probably psychopathic, he would have little concern for other people or for his own future self, and so it would probably be impossible to reason him out of a murder.

      I don’t actually think basic desires can be classed as rational or irrational, except where they are self-contradictory. Why should the desire for self-preservation be considered more rational than the desire to help others, or vice versa? We might, however, class certain behaviours as rational or irrational as methods of fulfilling desires.

      Q3: The question is weird. I don’t think metaphysical naturalism can provide any such motivation. I consider the desire to pursue the good to be independent of metaphysical belief.

      Q4: No, because morality must deal with human desires and values. If humans had no desires or values, there would be no moral law and no need for one.

      • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

        Ophis, thanks for the considerate answers. I think your answers to Q1 and Q2 are about as good as it gets from the atheist perspective.

        Yes, Q3 is poorly worded. I guess I mean what reason is there (in an atheistic universe) to be good? But you kind of answered this in Q2.

        On Q4, what happens if we were to live alongside, say, Martians? It seems you would at least have to move morality back a level to deal with desires and values and not specifically human desires and human values.

        • Ophis

          “On Q4, what happens if we were to live alongside, say, Martians? It seems you would at least have to move morality back a level to deal with desires and values and not specifically human desires and human values.”

          It would depend on what exactly the Martian values were. But if we at least assume they care about their own present and future wellbeing then it would be rational for them to exhibit some moral behaviour, so that they can cooperate with others for mutual benefits. As I said in my Q2 answer, even if we dispense with normal human empathy, I think we still need a fair amount of morality, because when deciding how best to benefit ourselves we have to account for other people’s responses to our behaviour. If their desires don’t include either caring about other people or caring about themselves then we couldn’t expect them to behave morally.

    • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com/ JQuinton

      I’ll answer all of your questions with one explanation, that even includes your own morality:

      Everyone’s morality is derived from intuition. You feel something is wrong first, and then you rationalize why this is so. Your rationalization just happens to be god.

      From the second link:

      Greene and Singer give other examples of things that have no inimical
      effect on society are nevertheless rejected via intuition as immoral.
      Three examples are a man who masturbates with a grocery-store chicken
      before cooking and eating it, a woman who cleans her toilet with an
      American flag, and a man who reneges on a promise to his dying mother to visit her grave every week. Such judgments are
      instinctive—deontological and not consequentialist. They stem from an
      innate outrage that something is wrong. Yet their consequences for
      society are nil.

      Why do we make such moral judgments about situations that have no
      negative consequences, and which we’d probably retract were we to think
      about them? All the authors think that instinctive judgments are
      largely a product of evolution. But of course these judgments must then
      be justified. When pressed, people who think about the
      chicken-masturbation or grave-visitation scenarios think up
      reasons—often not convincing—why these behaviors are immoral. All three authors suggest that these post facto rules are examples of
      confabulation: making up stuff post facto to rationalize your
      instinctive feelings.

      This is why Yudkowsky’s argument is so strong. It’s pointing out something that we have no intuitive aversion to so ascribing god’s decree to not do it doesn’t make (intuitive) sense… since god is just like us is averse to the same things we are thus it would make sense that he would make moral rules that a REALLY BIG HUMAN would make.

      • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

        Everyone’s morality is derived from intuition. You feel something is wrong first, and then you rationalize why this is so. Your rationalization just happens to be god.

        So on your view there is no right and wrong, just different people’s intuitions?

        What do you make of people who change their position on a moral question in light of reason?

        • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com/ JQuinton

          Intuition can be overriden by reason, but not many people do so.

    • Anat

      1) In all sorts of ways, but in a large part by comparing outcomes of societies that implemented various rules or by trying to predict outcomes of implementing various other rules, and deciding whether such outcomes are desirable or not.

      2) Other than a very small minority, people desire to be part of society. People need a working society in order to live most productively. Acting morally is what keeps society working, so though one might get away with acting immorally for a while, it is one’s best long-term interest to act morally more often than not. This does not apply if hope for social stability is permanently lost. The few who have no desire for a working society or who cannot understand the need to act morally in order to keep one going are dangerous, society must defend itself against them.

      3) Creating a working society and keeping such a society going.

      4) Not appealing to human desires or values is pointless when defining morals for humans. Appealing to human desires and values isn’t a bug, it’s an essential feature.

    • eric

      My shot
      at Jayman’s questions:

      Q1: at a meta- level, the same way a theist does. They make some assumptions about how the world works. They develop a methodology for reasoning from assumptions to conclusions. They apply that methodology to their assumptions to arrive at moral conclusions. The major difference between atheists and many theists is that atheists generally accept that their assumptions and methodology are uncertain; tentative and subject to revision. At least some theists, in contrast, insist that their assumptions and/or methodology are divinely revealed and thus certain or inerrant. This insistence to me, at least, seems unwarranted. So in that respect such theistic morality is worse off from atheistic morality – they are doing the same process, but the theists don’t recognize the possibility of error, while the atheists do.

      Q2: No. Like anyone else, an atheist can fashion a moral code that may not be rational according to either their own or someone else’s definition of rational. Re: Ted Bundy, atheism really has nothing to do with this question. There are many moral systems under which such behavior would be judged immoral and which have nothing to do with divine command. One example: serial killing is immoral under Kantian categorical imperative. If everyone did it, there would be no one around. So the answer is: there are probably many already developed moral systems that atheists can use to judge Bundy’s actions immoral; which one an atheist uses will vary by individual.

      Q3: you seriously can’t think of any? How about normal human emotional desire to leave the world a better place for one’s kids? Metaphysical naturalism would not prevent someone from desiring to leave a legacy. Heck, it arguably increases that desire. I can think of one concrete example of this: many conservative fundamentalists care much less about environmentalism than I think your standard atheist* does. In the long run, quality of life on earth is pretty much all an MN can really leave as a legacy – while the fundies don’t think there will even be a ‘long run.’ *Excluding Objectivists…but they’re a bit crazy…

      Q4: like theists, atheists can appeal to human beliefs about how the world works to ground their morality. That is not ‘desires or values’ per se, but it’s a human-level knowledge rather than something more objective. The really important point, however, is (repeating answer #1) that theism provides no escape from this type of subjectivity. A theist might say “God says x is immoral,” but absent any direct, publicly available and indisputable proof of God saying x is immoral, their statement really amounts to “my best human understanding of how the universe works tells me that God says…” And that sort of statement (‘my best understanding of how the universe works tells me…”) is exactly the same sort of grounding that atheist morality has.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kellen.conner.5 Kellen Conner

    Well, now I’m a godless heathen and hungry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kellen.conner.5 Kellen Conner

    My mother truly and deeply believes that the “fear of God” gives people morality. My mother truly and deeply does not like to think very hard. I just shrug and live with it, for myself, and I try to give other religious people the benefit of the doubt; i.e., assuming that they make their silly arguments because they really do want what’s best for society as a whole. Remember, we all started as newborn babies, the least intelligent lifeform in the world. Some people haven’t reached the intellectual maturity required to look at that argument and say, “Hmmm… you know, that’s actually pretty stupid.” We just have to be patient with them until they get there.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com/ JQuinton

    I always considered the “why don’t atheists rape and murder if they don’t believe in god” to be a good argument for atheism.

    By way of analogy, say you have two kids. For one of your kids, the
    only reason that he doesn’t take cookies from the cookie jar is due to
    fear of punishment. The other kid, she doesn’t take cookies from the jar
    because she knows it will ruin her appetite. In this scenario, which
    kid is the better kid? Which kid would you want as your own?

    In this analogy, the kid who doesn’t take cookies because of fear of
    reprisal is the theist. And the kid who doesn’t take cookies because she
    knows it’s bad for her in this context is the atheist. Most parents
    would want the atheist kid in this scenario, yet somehow in real life
    the theist kid is the one who gets respect.

    • busterggi

      I would eliminate the kid’s dilemma and eat the cookies myself.

  • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

    The one principle that seems to underpin all of these theistic moral “gotcha questions” is the idea that “Might Makes Right”.

    Look at Jayman’s question #2, which has the all important qualifier in it: “and he knows he can get away with it”.

    The first answer to give to a Ted Bundy is: “What if there was another person who could murder whoever they liked and could get away with it, would you want them to kill you?”

    If the answer is “No.” then you’ve given him a rational reason why he shouldn’t do it to others.

    On the off chance that the answer is “Yes”, you point out the critical flaw in his premise – there is no gaurantee you will get away with it, and no matter how strong you are, eventually enough other people will be able to stop you.

    • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

      The one principle that seems to underpin all of these theistic moral “gotcha questions” is the idea that “Might Makes Right”.

      Look at Jayman’s question #2, which has the all important qualifier in it: “and he knows he can get away with it”.

      No, the point of Q2 is whether acting morally is always rational. The threat of punishment by God makes it rational for Ted Bundy not to commit murder. Can the same be said in an atheistic universe?

      The first answer to give to a Ted Bundy is: “What if there was another person who could murder whoever they liked and could get away with it, would you want them to kill you?”

      If the answer is “No.” then you’ve given him a rational reason why he shouldn’t do it to others.

      That’s debatable since he’d presumably still have a desire to kill. How do you dampen or eliminate his desire to kill so that it does not lead to him attempting murder?

      On the off chance that the answer is “Yes”, you point out the critical flaw in his premise – there is no gaurantee you will get away with it, and no matter how strong you are, eventually enough other people will be able to stop you.

      Not that I have a problem with it, but now you are appealing to force too.

      • http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/ Counter Apologist

        “No, the point of Q2 is whether acting morally is always rational.
        The threat of punishment by God makes it rational for Ted Bundy not to
        commit murder. Can the same be said in an atheistic universe?”

        If you’re going to talk about enforcement and not ontology, then force of restraint at a minimum is required. That said there are other issues with the concept of “punishment” and how that relates to the ideas on free will you’re bringing in with it; where as a naturalist may focus on restraint and correction rather than a retributive “punishment”.

        “That’s debatable since he’d presumably still have a desire to kill. How do you dampen or eliminate his desire to kill so that it does not lead to him attempting murder?”

        I don’t think it’s debatable, you’ve shown that he values his well being enough that he doesn’t want others to act on their desires if those desires impact his well being in a way he doesn’t like. That’s a rational reason to not always act on his desires no matter the consequences to others. This is one basis for morality on naturalism.

        Further, even on your view, nothing is “removing his desire to kill”, he still has those desires, but he doesn’t act on them because he fears the punishment.

        dafa

        • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

          I don’t think it’s debatable, you’ve shown that he values his well being enough that he doesn’t want others to act on their desires if those desires impact his well being in a way he doesn’t like.

          Good point. I agree.

      • Ophis

        “The threat of punishment by God makes it rational for Ted Bundy not to commit murder.”
        What if he accepted that he would be punished, but simply didn’t care? You are assuming that he would value greater future happiness over transitory pleasures, but that would be quite unlikely given his probable psychopathy. Unless you can derive, from simple premises, the necessity of caring about our future selves, the certainty of punishment provides no reason for Ted Bundy to change his behaviour.

        • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com Jayman

          What if he accepted that he would be punished, but simply didn’t care?

          Then he’d be acting irrationally. If someone is both immoral and irrational then no rational reason for them to act in one way or another would be convincing. If possible, you’d have to fix the irrationality first.

          • Leiningen’s Ants

            But belief in the supernatural is irrational. Where are you going with this exactly?

  • eric

    People often pose the question: is religion used to simply justify preexisting social beliefs, or does it actually create them? I think in this case, its the former, so I am not particularly bothered by such comments. This is not a pessimistic religious belief about human nature – its a pessimistic human belief about human nature over which believers throw their own religious patina.
    This is just the attribution bias at work, and everyone – from every culture and every religion or none – has that to some extent. Most atheists will probably show the same bias if you just parse the issue in nonreligious terms. Here, I’ll show you:
    Question 1: do we (human society) need police to keep people from raping, pillaging, etc?
    Quesiton 2: do YOU need police to stop YOU from raping, pillaging, etc.?
    If your answers are (1) Yes, (2) No, then you are showing the same attribution bias that religious believers do when they say (belief in) God is needed to keep people in line.

  • Mick

    For 200 years the Christians had no problem finding believers who were keen to get across to Palestine and kill as many Muslims as they could find.

    When that got a bit too expensive they turned on the hoi-poloi and killed them by the thousands during 600 years of Inquisitions. No trouble, either, in recruiting torturers from the church pews.

    The only reason Christians are so tame today is that they have lost political power. If they regain it they will quickly return to “the good old days.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/carol.lynn.710 Carol Lynn

    This bit has been bothering me since yesterday.

    Lets just hypothetically call “God” the highest-developed “animal” in the universe. Why is it be wrong for Him to dominate lower creatures?

    You wanna provide some evidence that this god actually exists first? Even if we, as sentient beings, can justify ‘dominating the lower creatures’ to the extent of farming them for food that we do quite obviously and conspicuously show up to eat, what you seem to be suggesting is that this ‘god’ of yours shows up and dominates people the same way we raise cattle. I don’t see that. I see a group of bulls running the farm and slaughtering, milking, and castrating other bovines in the name of a “farmer” who is never anywhere to be found outside of an old book with instructions on how to run the slaughterhouse suspiciously written in ‘old-aurochs’ and many times translated into ‘modern cow-ish.’ That some cows claim to have a deep spiritual connection to the “farmer” and are following his instructions does not make that farmer – who never, ever shows up to eat the meat or drink the milk – real.

  • Yvain

    I interpreted our exchange there differently than you did.

    You seem to be defending the statement as the existence claim “It is possible for there to be outraged protest which is obviously on the side of good.”

    I’m interpreting it somewhere between the opposite existence claim “It is possible for there to be outraged protest which is not on the side of good” and the statistical claim “The fact that something is outraged protest is uncorrelated with whether it is on the side of good or not.”

    As for your main point, Leah writes about this a lot. The argument is not that people can’t be good without God – empirically they can. The argument (at least in its more intelligent forms) is that without God, there is no good reason to be good; it’s just something people do out of taste or habit or preference or inertia.

    Most Christians have a relatively sophisticated (in the conjugational sense of “I’m sophisticated, you’re convoluted, his theory is full of epicycles”) metaphysical grounding of morality in natural law. They have very dim views of atheist morality-grounding attempts and think atheists just sort of take morality as a given.

    Maybe the best analogy I can think of – since I wrote about exactly this today – is Bayesian probability. Someone who rejects probability theory probably still makes good decisions and bets wisely and doesn’t expect sandwiches to be poisoned and whatnot. But they can’t explain their decisions and just has to say they’re “obviously common sense”. In fact, they have a pretty good implementation of Bayesian probability theory embedded in the structure of their brain and the fact that they’re drawing off of it every time they make a good decision makes it ironic and annoying that they’re insisting they don’t believe it.

    A religious believer would argue that in the same way, atheists have a representation of God embedded in the structure of their brain (soul?), they’re drawing off of it every time they make a good decision, and that makes it ironic and annoying that they’re insisting they don’t believe it.

    And just as explicit belief in Bayes can help you figure out practical problems that implicit methods sometimes fail in, so the religious believer would claim explicit belief in God, or more specifically the natural law framework that includes God as an integral part, can help with tricky moral problems.

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