Saturday, January 5, 2013

Plato: Smarter than Play-Doh

One of the main arguments for theism is that it provides a moral compass for humanity. After all, without God telling us what’s good, we’d all just go around raping and killing, right? (You know, like they did in the Bible.) This may come as a shock, but I would argue that our morals are determined independently of religion, and that arguing for religion as a source of morality is actually an argument against religion as a whole after enough critical thinking is applied.

I’ve spent a fair amount of words in this blog pointing out how flat-out crazy the Bible is. I probably spent too many words on that topic, but I think it’s important to note how much nonsense is in there. Of course, there’s some good stuff in the Bible. However, if we’re going to cling to that “good stuff” as a means of determining what is right and wrong, we must decide which stuff is the good stuff. As far as we know, God gave the entire Bible His blessing, so if we’re going to follow some of the rules set forth there (but not others) then we have to figure out which ones on our own. Which passages individuals pick and choose to accept as valid says infinitely more about the moral values of those people than the validity of the scriptures themselves--there is no more holy justification for helping others than for hating gay people.

Moderate Christians (who can rationalize better than anyone besides Rihanna) would argue that they believe in just the parts of the Bible that are universally accepted as “good” by most people. They care about the Golden Rule and loving everyone, and luckily most of them will overlook the majority of the nonsense that I’ve pointed out in my Bible posts. But even “moderate Christians” is an ambiguous grouping, as there are a whole host of denominations that have different beliefs about how to worship and which Bible verses qualify as “good.”

This is the first of many issues with trying to use God as a moral compass--doing so requires everyone to interpret God’s intentions the same way. Here’s the sequel (The Secret of the Ooze, if you will (that’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference and yes, I’m making a cheap Ninja Turtles joke in the middle of a serious discussion about morality because I am powerless to stop my inner dork)): how do we know that God’s intentions are good to begin with? We had better be sure that He is, because placing the moral authority of God (who we know to be bipolar in His love and disdain for humanity) above our collective moral authority can lead to completely ignoring the actual ramifications of our actions because we’re too concerned about appeasing an imaginary deity. To put it another way, by attempting to get into heaven (a mythical place whose existence we have no credible evidence of), we run the risk of fucking up the lives of people on Earth (whose existence we can prove because we see them and talk to them every day). Quick example: the Christian insistence on abstinence-only before marriage has had a terrible effect on the rates of unwanted pregnancies and STDs. There is no rationale for this idiotic stance that is not religiously motivated. So before we blindly accept that God is good, let’s examine that claim honestly.

Plato asked: are actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they are right? This question is way more important than it initially seems on the surface. If we take the former stance, we’re in a heap of trouble. Taking the stance that God determines morality carries with it a laundry list of implications, and most of them are unsettling to what would otherwise be considered “moral” people.

First of all, God approved of a lot of shitty things. Killing. Slavery. Rape. Genocide. Bigotry. Sacrifices. War. Plagues. Misogyny. Bear maulings. Eternal damnation. Are we supposed to believe that this behavior is moral just because God said so? Do we not abhor slavery and killing and the use of bears in retaliation to insults? This would put our moral code at odds with God’s. If we hold that killing innocent people is immoral, then we’re implying that we live by a higher code of ethics and morals than God himself, the benevolent creator of the universe. Hmmmmm.

Secondly, God also gave us a bunch of commands in the Bible that we no longer follow, so that also makes us all immoral by His written standards (except for religious fundamentalists). In addition to an abhorrence of the list above, we eat bacon and shellfish, shave our sideburns, work on the Sabbath, treat men and women equally (in theory), and many of us (though certainly not all) are even cool with gay people gettin’ hitched. Of course, this is assuming that you get God’s commands from the Bible. If you get God’s commands communicated directly, that opens up the possibility of literally any action with complete justification.

For example, I can kill anyone because God told me to. We can go invade Iraq and Afghanistan because God told George W. Bush to do so. Israelites can kill Palestinians because God told them to. Palestinians can kill Israelites because God told them to. Hell, Joseph Smith started up an entire new religion thanks to a secret message from God. (The idea that any action commanded by God is morally good by default is known as Divine Command Theory. Obviously, one could drive a truck through the holes in this theory.)

If your response is “those people didn’t really get a message from God; they’re either deluded or dishonest,” do you know that? Because God told you who to trust? How can you refute an accusation that you’re deluded any better than Joseph Smith could have? What makes your interpretation of God’s intentions true and Smith’s false? God clearly didn’t tell everyone what he purportedly told Smith, and it doesn’t seem like He’s told anyone the same thing. Catholics and Protestants have plenty in common, but they also have plenty to differentiate them.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that God really does speak to people. Some people simply lie about God speaking to them or misinterpret His messages, but God is benevolent so he only really commands “good” acts. God tells us to take certain actions because the actions themselves are morally right (the second option in Plato’s question). This stance also presents a problem: if we can objectively say that stoning children who talk back to their parents is “bad” but donating money to the American Cancer Society is “good,” that means that it is not God who decides what is right and wrong, but we as individuals who decide what is right and wrong. God may have told you to donate that money, but He is not the one who made that a “good” act--the God of the Bible thought killing disobedient children was good and has no opinion on researching cures for debilitating illnesses.

This means that God is entirely unnecessary when determining what is right and what is wrong. Entirely, completely, 100% unnecessary. Our morality has superseded His morality. This, in turn, means that religion is only morally effective from a standpoint of obedience--adhering to a religion can only be considered “good” as in “Good dog! Way to shit outside instead of on the carpet!” Religion provides a punishment/reward system for following the rules, but that’s only really a “good” thing if the rules themselves are “good.” In many cases they are: just like we objectively consider it good for dogs to shit outside, we objectively consider it good to treat others as we’d like to be treated. On the other hand, if I teach my dog to shit on my neighbor’s doorstep because I don’t like my neighbor, that makes both me and my dog jerks even though I can still call my dog a “good dog” for following my rules.

Speaking of dogs, it should be noted that tons of studies have been done on a variety of different animals from rats to dogs to chimps to elephants that show that these animals exhibit the most basic tenet of morality: be nice to others. Rather than being motivated by Jesus’ words, these species are moral for much simpler reasons like tribalism and self-interest. Even rats that have not been mutated by green sludge will aid their fellow rats simply because helping a brother leads to helping the species as a whole.

So what’s the moral of this story (see what I did there?)? In short, the argument that religion is useful because it provides a moral framework for society doesn’t hold much water. We don’t need the Bible (or any other religious book) to differentiate good from bad. God is not qualified to differentiate good from bad. We’re better off trying to figure out what’s best for everyone collectively without letting theism get in the way because, frankly, theism kinda sucks. Finally, if there’s one takeaway from this post, let it be this: have your pets spayed or neutered because animals really like to fornicate.


  1. This is below the level of the AHA 'love' letters.

    1. I'm curious to know in what sense this post is "below the level of the AHA 'love' letters." Stylistically? Morally? Its cogency? Ability to be comprehended? Clarity? Edibility?

  2. Good points - the shortcut version of this is simply that all religions and holy books are 100% man-made because of course there is no God. All morality as we know it comes from humans. The question we have to answer as individuals through our behavior in society is which man-made morality we wish to follow: a violent, bizarre, unpleasant morality created by Bronze Age shepherds; or an enlightened morality based on reducing suffering, respecting others, and the advances we've made in the past 2000 years of civilization.

    1. Well put--I like your summary better than my summary.