Defend My Own Morality Yet Again? WHY THE HECK NOT!

Defend My Own Morality Yet Again? WHY THE HECK NOT! May 23, 2019

I don’t know why, or what’s happened, but recently I’ve been bombarded with unusual numbers of theists lobbing uneducated, presumptuous questions and comments about morality at me. I feel like I’m at the zoo, dodging dung darts from chimps. I even hear monkey noises when I read these messages. Did Ray Comfort amass some sort of army of banana enthusiasts and unleash them on social media? Has God sent armies of half-wits on a mission?


GM aside: I have to say that it is utterly exhausting to have to defend my own morality day in and day out, but these questions illustrate how faith can thieve people of their class, respect for other people and empathy. What sort of human being goes around demanding that others, who’ve done no wrong as far as they can tell, explain how they know right from wrong? This is biblical morality? Am I supposed to be impressed? ‘Cause I’m not impressed. Like, at all.

Here’s one question I received recently on the topic of morality:

If everyone is the by-product of a bunch of chemical accidents, who’s to say anything is right or wrong? Who makes the rules?

Here’s the thing about a question like this. It’s based on the presumption that “right” and “wrong” is as applied only to the human condition. It already makes the leap that “absolute morality” is something we apply only to human behaviour and the benefit of humankind. If there is such a thing as absolute morality, would good not be good… absolutely?

For instance, from a human perspective, going for a walk in summer seems innocuous, no? From an ant’s perspective, though, a human going for a walk might be the worst (and last) thing that ever happened to them. Mosquitos can carry malaria and dengue, so it seems a reasonable thing to do to kill them when you see them, but is that absolutely moral? It ends the life of a living creature who had no idea, as far as we can tell, that his actions could harm.

So, unless we are willing to say that absolute morality includes not walking where there might be life to squish, not killing pests that cause disease, and many other actions we take on a daily basis that cause harm or discomfort to other life, then it’s not really absolute, is it? It’s pretty clear, though, that a believer presumes human life trumps all other life, and the ideas of “right” and “wrong” can only apply to our species. Maybe some of them make exceptions for cute, furry, four-legged things.

By the very definition, this makes their morality anything but absolute. How can it be, when it works only to establish what is right and wrong for one species out of 8.7 million types of life on Earth? Not even taking into account the 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. Consider this short, amusing film:

In this situation, how can absolute morality apply to both the man and the alien race? He is clearly doing nothing wrong from his perspective, but from theirs, what he is doing is catastrophic. How do you apply absolute morality to this hypothetical? Sure, it’s just an animation, but you and I both know that right here on earth when we fumigate our homes, tear down rainforests or even just take a long, leisurely shower, we’re doing the same thing to tiny forms of earthly life.

Please, apply absolute morality to these situations, remembering that “absolute” implies “total” which would include all life, and not just humans and their cute, furry friends named Spot.

For the sake of discussion, however, let’s forget that any other forms of life exist. Let’s just pretend that human life is, in fact, all that matters. Go back a few thousand years to the Mayan civilizations, where they were sure that sacrificing human beings was the right thing to do. What if they were right? What if some objective force in the clouds casts judgment on our behaviour in that way, and those of us who have not sacrificed a young virgin will spend eternity sick and starving in Xibalba?

Seven million Mayans believed this. How do we know they were wrong?

The Mayans left that behind though, didn’t they? I lived in the Mayan Riviera for two years. I knew plenty of Mayan descendants who wouldn’t harm the hair on another human’s head. Why did they change their views on what was right and moral?

Christians used to believe that witches ought to be punished and used their Bible to back it up,

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live – Exodus 22:18

We know from our own history how this ended for a lot of innocent women.

The New Testament says that women not be allowed to teach or preach or speak in church. It also says to pray in private, love your enemy and not to accumulate too much wealth, as God will condemn the wealthy. Christians ignore these commands though because they no longer suit the time we live in. Often, when I reference the verse that commands women not teach, apologists offer up the explanation that the instruction suited the time that the Bible was written in. Precisely. Times changed our morality, making morality the very opposite of absolute.

So why have so many things that were once considered moral, been left behind in antiquity? Why don’t we burn witches anymore? Why don’t the Mayans sacrifice people to the Gods?

The reason is simple. It’s because as civilization grew and evolved, we began to realize that some actions are not good for the well-being and progress of humankind. We did this through our own observations, using our own innate moral guidance system otherwise known as conscience and empathy.

When you and I experience pain, suffering, anger, frustration, or sadness, it doesn’t feel good. This is a purely subjective feeling. Our experience with these feelings allows us to recognize them in other people. When you see a person experience pain, and you know what that pain feels like, you experience discomfort by proxy. This is called empathy. You are empathizing with your fellow human beings. Because you experience discomfort when you recognize pain in others, you avoid causing it. We all, innately, want to avoid this discomfort.

As we progress, humans learn more about each other. As we learn more about each other, we understand more about what actions and practices may help our species progress, and which ones will hold us back. This is the reason why we drop old, outdated versions of morality. Even commands found in your so-called source of “absolute morality” have clearly been dropped for better, more effective ideas. This is not objective morality. This is not absolute morality. What is right and wrong for our species is an ever-evolving set of ideas. Human morality changes as time marches forward, and it differs from place to place.

The fact is, most us have no desire to kill or rape or steal in the first place… without being told it’s wrong. We are born with empathy and conscience. We are set up with this mechanism built-in already so that we act in ways that help to keep our species healthy, alive and moving forward. While some people clearly lack some levels of empathy and a conscience, they do so in the way that some people lack a finger or their hearing. It is a disorder that can be described as anything from autism to sociopathy.

What is right and wrong is discussed daily in parliaments, congresses, and senates around the world. Some argue that action A is good and will help humankind. Others argue that action A is bad and will hold us back. In most places, it is the majority opinion that wins over and passes laws for or against action A. Laws that passed 1919 may be repealed in 2019 because they no longer match what we know about us. Right and wrong, as applied to humankind, is constantly changing, morphing and moulding itself to suit new findings, new technology and new ways of thinking.


To assert the existence of absolute morality in a world where right and wrong changes quite drastically from place to place and time to time, is to willfully ignore the evidence. Morality is anything but absolute. It is a writhing, untamable chameleon, changing with the wind and seething like a rough sea. It’s not a fully knowable thing, only a testable thing; a do-your-best sort of thing. What we consider moral today, may disgust the humans of the future, as slavery and ritual human sacrifice does us now.

For me, the only way I know how to be moral is to recognize negative feelings in others and avoid causing them. Unlike Abraham of the Bible, for me, this would trump the word of any God sick enough to command me to kill. Would it do the same for you?

So, who makes the rules? We do. We always have. We always will. Our morality is on us; it’s our responsibility and ours alone. The sooner believers accept this, the better off we’ll all be.

I want to know if you believe in absolute morality. Let me know in the comments.

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  • bullet

    The best we can do is continue to evolve toward an absolute morality. We will never get there, but we should keep trying.

  • Milo C

    I don’t think an absolute morality is possible or desirable; it is nonsensical because our world is not black and white.

    If I put up a windmill generator, that may be called good. If it kills some birds, that may be called bad. If I put it closer to a city to have a lower impact on a wild area, that may be called good. If the closer distance annoys people that think it’s ugly, that may be called bad.

    Morality will always have shades instead of absolutes; weighing the positive with the negative, who benefits more at one time or another, what qualifies as a benefit under the current social system, etc.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    1) My morality follows objectively from “Be Excellent to Each Other.” I evaluate everything I do in light of that. What is my source? Bill and Ted, of course. Oh, I know what you say, my choice of Bill and Ted is subjective, which makes the whole thing fall apart. I disagree. I rely on the teachings of Bill and Ted because they are truly righteous. Granted, I don’t have the moral underpinnings of following Bill and Ted because I fear that they will smite me for eternity if I don’t, so I realize it’s not the same as Yahwehists in that regard, but hey, there it is.

    2) That all being said, I challenge those who claim their great Yahwehist basis for morals to tell me where my morality fails. I grant that, as an atheist, I do not follow the first couple of commandments (although I don’t know what a “graven image” really is (then again, growing up catholic certainly blurred any boundaries) and I do take Sundays off to a large extent), but how else do I “sin”? I mean, I don’t cheat and I don’t lie and I don’t mess around on my wife. Is my moral “failure” that I don’t condemn homosexuality? If you call me a sinner because I do not condemn others for being gay, then I will just say that is your problem.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    Absolute morality is only one absolutist argument that appeals to religionists. They also seem to like an all-powerful, all-knowing God, an eternal afterlife, absolute meaning, etc.
    Quoting myself from elsewhere on godless Patheos:

    The debate tactic I plan to use if I ever debate WLC (Christian apologist William Lane Craig) or someone like him:
    “Take out your wallet. How much cash do you have there? Is the value infinite? Is the value eternal?
    Well then, since the value is not infinite and not eternal, then it is of no value whatsoever to an absolutist like yourself. So please hand it to me. I know how to value something that is not infinite. That money will not feed me for eternity. It won’t even feed me for a lifetime. But I can buy lunch with it, and that is better than nothing at all.”

  • ThaneOfDrones

    So, who makes the rules? We do…

    The definition of “we” has changed over time, and continues to change. At the founding of the USA “we” consisted of white male property owners. The broadening of “we” is considered a good thing, and a sign of progress, by most people.
    One of the first steps in justifying aggression against other people is to dehumanize them; literally to deny their humanity so that you do not have to consider their interests. The examples of this are too numerous too mention: almost every war ever fought, slavery, people with different sexual preferences (why do homophobes continually confuse homosexuality with bestiality?), etc.

    And these people who are questioning the source of your morality; where do they get their own? Is it from a book that refuses to speak out against rape and slavery? A book they likely have not read?

  • ThaneOfDrones

    What is right and wrong for our species is an ever-evolving set of ideas.

    The broadening of “we” continues. We are now considering how we should treat non-human animals. The current state is that we have realised we should not be too shitty towards them but they do not receive the same considerations as humans.
    Up next: Plants are people too. (joking. Or am I?)

  • For those inclined to science fiction, check out Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, about humanity’s first encounter with an alien species (multiple intelligent species that co-evolved, to be precise), and the conflict between their moral views and those of the humans (in particular, their Jesuit leader). Quite thought provoking, especially for anybody who leans towards a belief in the existence of some kind of absolute morality.

  • My morality follows objectively from “Be Excellent to Each Other.”

    That would be excellent, of course. But I’d settle for “don’t be a dick”. That would still be a big step forward.

  • If you look at the moral systems of absolutists (which includes those who follow all the Abrahamic faiths), they are structured around rules. They focus (obsessively at times) on means. Of course, as society changes those means become obsolete. I look at humanism as a much more effective source of moral decision making. It doesn’t look primarily at means, it looks at ends. Ends tend to be very simple- things like “people deserve respect”, “people have value”, “it is always desirable to minimize harm”. The means that are most effective in achieving such ends can change over time, and indeed, need to. The values defined in the ends, broadly, are quite stable over time.

  • Sounds like Dr. Richard Dawkins Moral Zeitgeist. We do not get our morals from religion anymore. One thing all religions are literally fighting against, their own inevitable slide into irrelevance.

  • persephone

    Absolute morality is impossible. For example, I live in a state bordering Mexico. I believe that immigration reform is necessary and moral. But there are plenty of people here who disagree. Some of them want no immigrants. Some want open borders. I absolutely cannot find any moral argument in the refusal to allow immigrants to enter the U.S., especially the behavior of those who believe this. I disagree with open borders, but I do see morality in that choice, and the people who voice it.

    The theists who show up in comment sections for atheist bloggers here are utterly ridiculous. They’re trying to score brownie points with their church and god. They aren’t interested in a discussion of any kind that doesn’t involve us admitting that we are totally wrong and they’re totally right. The argument that morality only comes through religion is ridiculous. Religion influences morality, but that doesn’t mean that it is morally good. They happily buy into the fallacy that they are the moral base for humanity and civilization, and atheists are the marauding hordes ready to destroy it.

  • otrame

    This young man has a few things to say about morality. Worth listening to.

  • Michael Neville

    Most of the people questioning atheists’ morality claim that morality comes from their god. According to Judeo-Christian propaganda, their god is a sadistic bully who kills people because he can. He orders genocide and sexual slavery and condones chattel slavery. According to my subjective morality these things are not good behaviors, so by my moral code Yahweh is pretty immoral.

  • Raging Bee

    Does “absolute morality” exist? I don’t think so, simply because “absolute” is a vague word with a fuck-ton of religious baggage weighing it down, which makes the word worse than useless. I prefer to use “objective morality,” since it implies a morality based on observation of benefits and harms done by various actions. And that, in fact, is what every progressive or social-justice movement in human history is based on.

  • Jim Jones

    Where is the graveyard of dead gods?

    What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a time when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And who of Huitzilopochtli? In one year – and it is no more than five hundred years ago – 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried out with the sun.

    When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha and Wotan, he is now the peer of Richmond P. Hobson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler and Tom Sharkey.

    Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca was almost as powerful; he consumed 25,000 virgins a year. . . . .

  • “Be Excellent to Each Other” — An honorable goal.

  • Sophotroph

    If there is no absolute morality, we could only be going in the wrong direction.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    The best we can do is continue to question our morals, and try to be the best we can.

  • HematitePersuasion

    The question of where does your morality come from is a distraction.

  • Derek Mathias

    I actually love arguing with fundies about morality. But you’re right, it can be tedious to have to say the same thing over and over again. So I keep a document of all my most commonly used answers to simply copy and paste as needed. I’ve also made a few videos I can provide fundies to respond to their naive understanding of morality:


  • Shaun G. Lynch

    If you want to understand how concepts of morality can develop in the absence of a rule-imposing god, you need look no further than game theory. The laws we adopt and the norms we adhere to can, in all cases, be explained in terms of a natural tendency to seek equilibria in our interpersonal dealings.

    So, we don’t resist killing those we dislike because God said “Don’t kill each other.” Nor do most of us refrain from doing so simply because there are laws saying we’re not allowed to. No, we tend to choose to let others live because, as a species, we long ago figured out that indiscriminate killing, whatever short-term value may be derived from it for the individual perpetrator, always has medium-to-long-term effects that are significantly more costly than are the corresponding effects from eliminating killing as an acceptable option in social discourse.

    I’m regularly flummoxed by the popularity of the whole “How can you have a moral world without God?” argument. It suggests that those who espouse this philosophy would become complete monsters were it to be proven to them that there is no god!

    On the other hand, they’d probably respond to my criticism by claiming that God created game theory…

  • Leum

    If society can evolve and change in such a way that it becomes better, that is an argument in favor of objective morality, not against it. It suggests that our perception or knowledge of that absolute morality improves over time, and that in the past we had less access to it, not that it doesn’t exist.

  • David Peebles

    This dehumanizing of the “other” is what enabled otherwise decent groups of people to colonize others around the world. I speak of the British, of course (and the French, the Germans, the Belgians, the Italians, the Russians, and of course ourselves. Did I leave anyone out?). It’s okay to invade, and say, “Nice country you have here; but of course you don’t know what to do with it, or how to run it, so we’ll do that for you. It’s the white man’s burden, you know, to bring you medicine and religion and education. And we’ll show you how to take advantage of your resources, which otherwise will just go to waste.”

  • Jim Baerg
  • rationalobservations?

    Fewer than 18% of Americans can be found within a church on any given Sunday according to the actual figures published by the American Church Leaders organisation – in spite of the lies told in polls and surveys.

    The figure of Americans active in religion is far higher than with the rest of the developed world and in many European educated, free, secular democracies the number is below 2% or nearly off the scale and the villages towns and cities of the developed world pay silent testimony to the ongoing death of ignorance and superstition by the growing number of empty rotting redundant churches that have not currently been demolished or redeveloped into something more useful to mankind.

    It is worth also noting that the most peaceful nations in the history of our recently evolved species of ape are also the least religious nations in the world today. Every day growing billions of citizens demonstrate that we do not need belief in terrible, ridiculous, undetected and undetectable gods, goddesses or god-men to be good and without enthrallment to any dishonest human entirely self serving institution of religion – we are much, much better.

    We look with sympathy (laced with contempt?) on those who claim that evidence of entirely natural things within the entirely natural universe or mere coincidences somehow “prove” magic and ancient superstition based mythology. Even worse are those who claim they abstain from evil only because they fear punishment and hope for reward after death actually consigns them to the eternal nonexistence that is the ultimate outcome for all living things. The rapidly growing demographic of the godless/nonreligious need no such threats because we all own the evolved things we call “empathy”, “sympathy” and an evolved “human conscience”. Not that most religionists lack these things since we all evolved in the same way at the same time – but it must be observed that evil is never done so gleefully as when done in the name of religion.

  • Brian Curtis

    Morality is invented, defined, applied, and updated 100% by humans. So was my computer. Does that mean it can’t possibly work either?

  • Brian Curtis

    You know, I once went shopping for tires but I had to reject all the ones they showed me because they weren’t “absolute” circles, a concept that we know has to be real because we can imagine it. And nothing less will do!

  • Brian Curtis

    True. If your morality consists of obeying whatever rules are handed down to you, you are not a moral agent; you’re just a drone.

    It has been remarked that religion is not a source of morality; it’s a substitute for morality. And a pretty lousy one, at that.

  • Brian Curtis

    1. Morality has evolved over time.
    2. God has not.
    3. Ergo, God is obsolete.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    I’m not so sure objective morality can actually exist.

    We may be able to approach it, but that approach is asymptotic…the closer we get, the harder it would get, due to more and more factors being considered.

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    ‘Divine Command Theory’

  • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

    Bob Lewis of Keep The Joint Running points out the difference between organizations with *rules* and those with *guidelines*.

    If you break a rule, you get punished.

    If you violate a guideline, you have to explain *why*, and maybe improve the organization / process.

  • David Cromie

    “We do not get our morals from religion anymore”. When did we ever get our morality from religion, especially organised religion?

    Was Mediaeval Europe, for example, significantly more moral than Europe is today? Is Latin America a beacon of morality dating back to its conquest by the armies of the Holy Roman Empire, in the name of the Roman church? Provide your own examples.

  • “What is right and wrong for our species is an ever-evolving set of ideas.”

    I tried once to show a Christian that morality evolved even over the course of the Bible writings. Law of Moses: Adulterers get the death penalty. New Testament: Pharisees try to get Jesus to say “yay” or “nay” to stoning a woman “caught in the act.” He didn’t bite. But it was clear from the fact that they even tried to test him on it that they knew that it was wrong, no matter what their law said. They had outgrown this particular law and knew it was immoral, even though it was still “on the books” so-to-speak.

    This was a debate on a blog site. She didn’t know I wasn’t a member of her denomination (I used to be) and was flabbergasted that I would dare to suggest that the human race learned more about morality over time.