Thursday, December 4, 2008

Morality and Fear

I'm afraid I've gotten off topic more than I'd like in the last few weeks.  This blog is primarily for discussing human nature, science, and what it means to be atheist.  Today, I'd like to briefly discuss one of the most volatile issues between theists and atheists, namely godless morality.

A fellow blogger recently voiced his discontent with Christopher Hitchens' standard response to the accusation that godless morality is a scary thing.  Hitchens reply is usually that he is appalled to think that anyone would be good just because they're afraid of a big supernatural hammer.  True morality, he asserts, comes from within oneself, not from without.

I have also felt a vague discomfort with this response for years.  The thing is, it's only partly true, and it's skirting around a bigger issue.  Theists are right to be afraid of godless morality.  Yep.  I said it.  Godless morality is a scary thing, and theists are right to fear it.  Atheists also ought to fear it.  It's scary.

Unfortunately, it's the hand we've been dealt, and making up stories to make it seem less scary doesn't accomplish anything -- nothing good, anyway.  Atheists debating morality with theists make a fundamental mistake out of the starting block.  They allow themselves to be caught using theist models and trying to make atheist morality fit.  When a theist speaks of the difference between theist and atheist morality, he is literally not saying anything, for there is no difference.  There is no god, so morality cannot derive from it.  All theists are functioning within the same moral paradigm as atheists.  They're just lying to themselves and others about it.

This is why I don't like invoking the Crusades.  All of the atrocities attributed to God are directly attributable to humans and human nature.  We do have an evil side.  It's really nasty.

The reality of human morality is that it is subjective.  It is not, however, arbitrary.  As I've previously mentioned, killing is not always wrong to humans.  Most people get turned on by Dirty Harry or James Bond or some other hero from that genre of movie.  There's a reason we spend millions of dollars to watch the good guy shoot all the bad guys.  We like killing bad guys.

Young men join the army in droves, and not because of the health insurance.  They want the chance to kill, or the chance to help someone else kill.  It's exciting and sexy.  They'll get laid more because they are in an organization formed with the express purpose of killing other humans.

We are animals, and animals kill.  It's a fact of life.  We also steal, rape, embezzle and defraud.  It is part of the human experience.  Everyone reading this blog has done something that they knew was wrong, and they knew it was wrong while they did it.  Nevertheless, they did it, and they would do it again if put in the same situation.

So yeah, theists are right to be afraid.  Humans are scary creatures.  The thing is, we're also good creatures, and we are instilled with empathy for others.  More importantly, we have amazing intellects which are capable of recognizing our own dark drives for what they are -- evolutionary adaptations.  We are not bound by our natures in the same way as dolphins who gang rape females.  We have the choice of looking at our own bad behavior and deciding not to do it anymore.  More importantly, we have the capability of building societies which encourage good behavior while making bad behavior less appealing.

There are human societies in which murder has been all but eliminated.  In a recent television program about a certain city in Japan, the commentator mentioned the collective shame felt by one city -- a city of millions of residents -- in which eight murders were committed in one year.  (I believe it was eight.  It was less than ten, at any rate.)  It didn't take god to do this.  It took human ingenuity and good planning.

The fact is, with knowledge, humans are capable of great engineering feats, and we should not exclude human society from the discussion.  Humans work just like anything else -- we follow natural laws.  We have set natures which give us the capacity for good and evil, and we do good or evil based upon our environment, not our inherent goodness or badness.  This simple fact can change the world if we only embrace it instead of fearing it.  Change the environment, change the behavior.

This is the true explanation of morality.  It's a little scarier than believing everything will be ok because God said it would, but let's be honest.  God's had his chance.  He failed.  It's time to see what humans can do on their own.

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