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Why not Just Do Whatever You Want?

I was talking with my friend the other day about the dilemma of good and evil in the world. We eventually got to the idea of morals. He stated that without scripture, we could have no moral absolute of goodness and or badness, and (being an atheist) why shouldn’t I be a heathen and drink/party until I die?

Does the perfect version of right and wrong come from, in this case, the bible? Does a lack of religion lead to murderous tendencies? I would in both cases certainly hope not, but we shall examine this further below.

Thou Shall Not Kill… a Fellow Chimp

Firstly, I disagree with the assumption that we get our morals from scripture. Any relevant theologian will admit that “rational” religion does not interpret the bible word for word, and that some particularly disheartening tales are obviously allusions or metaphors. This leads them to pick and choose which parts of scripture to follow, and this is where my point lies. What already inside them gives them a measure of what to believe and what to dismiss? If absolute morals must be interpreted from scripture, by what absolute can we interpret?

I propose (as many evolutionary biologists have already stated) that we get our moral sense from certain genes that have favored altruistic behavior in our ancestors. Studies have shown that modern chimpanzees and other primates have complex moral systems that reward altruistic individual actions, and discourage selfish ones. For example, a male chimp may provide protection for his mate, or perhaps offer food to other males as a sign of dominance.

Can you imagine the morality involved with making a decision about something as potentially dangerous as a tiger cub?

These precursors to morals have persisted in Homo sapiens, and allow us to decide what is “right” and what is “wrong”. I use quotations because this decision is largely based on benefits for the group, and can vary. Psychologists have tested this very premise extensively. When given varying complexities of questions (for example Jane is standing on a train track where one fork has 5 children and the other has 1 unknowing adult, and she must decide where to direct the train etc.) atheists and theists alike scored almost identically in deciding which is considered right and what is considered wrong. We almost certainly do not get our morals from scripture, and the only way people can even interpret their scripture is to utilize the moral system already in place since the time of homo habilis.

Where are Our Morals Today?

As I stated before, we most certainly do not get our morals from scripture. Surely, scripture has hit upon some of the most highly regarded moral responsibilities, but they are only co-opted from a morality already in place. Since the time of the scriptures, our morality as a whole, our moral zeitgeist, has moved far beyond the “morality” of scripture. We have, as a society, in a kind of fluctuating consensus, decided that slavery, sexism, bigotry, racism, and homophobia are morally wrong (all of these dismissed or ignored in scripture). Was any of this accomplished through consultation of the scripture? Of course not, they are touted in scripture as the way of life! We did not need scripture to desegregate our schools, or to allow women to vote, or to do anything that we consider a victory for our morals in our modern society.

1 Bourbon, 1 Scotch, 1 Beer

The second question my friend proposed to me is more emotionally loaded. “If you’re an atheist, why not go out and drink and kill and debauch yourself silly?” I find it hard to believe that without the scripture people wouldn’t know right from wrong. Do people really need an ancient book and fear of an invisible punisher to tell them rape is wrong? Again, ancestral genes have produced a moral sense that would make individuals steer clear of rapists and murders, as well as punish them for the transgressions.

I also take issue with the woefully common misconception that atheism is akin to heathenism. Being an atheist is not rejecting morals that religious people hold so dear. Atheism is disregarding their explanation for those morals (as well as almost all other religious claims). Morals are not inherently exclusive to religion; they have been within all of us for longer than 4 million years. I would also mention that not one atheist has done any moral atrocity in the name of atheism itself. Many will claim that Stalin was so horrible because he was an atheist, but this is not a logical argument. Atheism does not have a system, like for example radical Islam does, that says to kill non-believers. Moreover, Atheism has no creeds, no holy rules, no blind faith, that could result in the “justified” atrocities we have seen committed by various religions in the past.

 However, something like christianity will, wholeheartedly, go against their own moral system if they can justify it within some scripture. Does anyone remember the inquisition?, the crusades?, “thou shall not kill”? If morality from scripture is so absolute, why would much of it today be considered immoral (concerning slavery, sexism, racism, incest, torture, etc.)? The morality in scripture has changed along with history, albeit much slower than the morality of society, and revised its notions of what is right and wrong. This is exactly my point. Because the religious believe that scripture holds divine morality, and the fact that they have changed it to more reflect the morality of the time period, is evidence enough that this morality is not absolute. Rather, it is defined on innate conceptions of good and evil, first developed before there was even a bible to fight over. Perhaps first engaged when a troubled simian was comforted by the arms of its mother.