It is often claimed by theists that those who do not believe in God are immoral because they do not accept and follow Biblical morality. “Without God and without a future life…everything is allowed. You can do anything you like!“, Mitya tells Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov (1982 p.691 | 2009 p.665). To some, this is a persuasive argument. It has most certainly been instrumental in deterring those who are fence-sitters from calling themselves atheists and joining the camp of the unbelievers.
It is also precisely because of this that the adverb “godless” has acquired the pejorative meaning “wicked” in popular parlance. The view that morality must of necessity be based on religion is, however, false. Unlike Biblical commandments, ethics consists neither in following instructions blindly nor in it’s enforcement by means of a carrot and a stick. That the Bible promises eternal bliss (the heaven) to those who comply and damnation (the hell) to those who disregard divine injunctions make them neither good nor bad. The same principle applies in respect of laws passed by secular authorities. It would for instance be ridiculous and repugnant to argue that the now repealed section 16 of the Immorality Act, 23 of 1957, (which prohibited sexual relations between persons belonging to different race groups) was good simply because it prescribed a punishment for those who failed to comply with the provision and (by implication) rewarded those Whites whose children were not the product of miscegenation by conferring on them the right to vote.
The question of what is ethical depends on how one decides what is “good”. This has been a problem at least since the time of Plato. In his dialogue Euthyphro for instance, the question that needs to be answered by Socrates and Euthyphro is whether things are holy (or good) because the gods love them or, on the other hand, whether the gods at any rate prefer those things that are holy (or good). Although the matter is not resolved in the dialogue, there can be little doubt that Plato would have chosen the second alternative on the basis of his theory of forms. In the Christian faith the atrocities of the Israelites are frequently justified on the ground of the so-called Divine Command Theory. According to this theory any command that God gives is good solely because he has given it. This argument is, however, not logically acceptable. Margaret Knight puts the reason why it must be rejected as follows on page 7 of her book Honest to Man: Christian Ethics Re-examined (1974): “Does God prefer certain things because they are good? Or are certain things called good because God prefers them? If he opts for the first alternative, the believer implies that he has knowledge of good that is not dependent on his knowledge of God’s preferences. If he opts for the second, he is in effect saying that the word ‘good’ means ‘preferred by God’ – so that the statement that God prefers what is good amounts to no more than that God prefers what he prefers, which is a tautology.“
An analysis of Biblical passages clearly shows that theistic morality is not merely objectionable but in many instances repugnant. In her book Knight discusses many of the positions that the Church took over the years in to demonstrate just how repulsive they are. They include their views on slavery, the position of women, witchcraft, sexuality and heresy, to name but a few. There is a handy website where the Bible has been analysed for this purpose: See http://www.evilbible.com/. With all the moral dilemmas which modern man is confronted, it would have been marvellous to have had an authoritative book where we are given guidelines on how disputes are to be settled. The Bible, however, is not such a book. Take for instance the question of how parents should deal with their rebellious semi-adult children. What does the Bible say? Well, it does give instructions on how parents should approach the problem, but these hardly qualify as useful advice. In Deuteronomy 21:18-21 we are told, in all seriousness, that if parents cannot control their recalcitrant son he must be stoned to death by the community. This approach is rejected by Jesus who suggests yet another radical solution to the problem. In the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32, he tells of a father who immediately and unconditionally forgave his wayward son and rewarded him for returning home (probably to loaf and sponge on his parents) while disregarding the obedient child who had remained at home and carried out his wishes. (Incidentally, anyone who interprets this parable as God welcoming an apostate back into the Christian fold, is gravely mistaken. According to Hebrews 6:4-6 God will never forgive a repentant apostate.)
Christians generally admit that they find the morality of the Old Testament embarrassing and concede that it belongs more in the Stone Age than the 21st century. According to them, however, one should rather look at the New Testament, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, where one will find sublime and exalted ethical precepts that are still applicable today. But is that so? One person who took the Christians up on their challenge was the Oxford philosopher Richard Robinson who analysed the morality of the New Testament critically in his 1964 book An Atheist’s Values. Robinson points out that many of the things that Jesus said were immoral such as the explanation that he gave in Mark 4:10-11 namely that the idea of telling parables was that the uninitiated would not be able to understand, convert and have their sins forgiven, the fig tree that Jesus cursed for not bearing fruit out of season (Mark 11:13-14) and the lie that he told in promising to return to earth while those present were still alive (Matthew 24: 29-35).
After analysing the three synoptic gospels, that is Mark, Matthew and Luke, Robinson manages to identify five (5) commandments of Jesus. The first is to love God; something that a believer does by repenting and being righteous. The second one is to believe in Jesus while the third requires that believers must love their neighbours as well as their enemies. What is expected by Jesus in the fourth place is that Christians must purify and regulate their thought processes (so as not to be guilty of what George Orwell called a thought crime in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four) while what is lastly required is humility on the part of the believers and a refusal to judge others. The values that are, however, conspicuous in their absence are the ideals of freedom, integrity and beauty and the related and extremely important one of knowledge. Instead of admitting the importance of knowledge, Jesus and his precursor Paul condemn it in the strongest terms possible (see for instance Matthew 11:25 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-27 as well as 1 Corinthians 3:18-19). These attacks are aptly called by Robinson “blasphemy against reason”. What is also wholly absent from Jesus’ values is the pursuit of human happiness while no mention is made of the way in which the welfare of the community is to be attained. If anything, Jesus undermines family values and the community spirit that may exist by encouraging his followers to abandon their wives and families and hating them. This, he says, will earn them rich rewards. (See Mark 10:29-30 and Luke 14:26). How this is to be reconciled with his condemnation of divorce (Mark 10:6-9) where the opposite is said, we are not told. Jesus’ rejection of civic virtues is also worrisome. His instructions to his followers to be carefree and make no provision for the future has the potential to cause great social problems (see Luke 12:22-34). Fortunately, few people take his irresponsible advice seriously.
Christians often claim that Jesus’ formulation of the golden rule in Luke 6:31 that “…as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise” is an exalted ethical precept that ought to be followed by all. But that cannot possibly be correct, for it doesn’t take into account the view of the other person. Worse, this failure may even lead to crime. Say a man sees for instance an attractive woman and desires her sexually. Acting on the advice of Jesus, he decides to have intercourse summarily with her without consulting her. Does anyone think that Luke 6:31 will be a good defence if he is subsequently charged with rape? I, for my part, much rather prefer the formulation of the rule by George Bernard Shaw in his play Man and Superman: “ Do not do unto others as you would that they should do to you. Their tastes may not be the same.” Although it sounds as if Shaw was being facetious, his formulation is supported by philosophers as the most sophisticated form of the phenomenon known as universalization or universalizability (See in this regard Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong by John L Mackie (1977) pages 92 – 97 and John Hospers An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (2nd Ed 1967) pages 596 – 600).
Despite all the propaganda being made for Biblical ethics, one often finds that Christians only follow those rules that they like. Sometimes they even do the reverse of what is prescribed. For instance, instead of putting two men who have had sexual relations with each other to death, as God demands in Leviticus 20:13, theists have now legalised marriages between such men and permit them to adopt children. They have also ordained women as preachers in their churches despite being admonished in 1 Timothy 2:11 – 12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women must remain silent during church services and may not instruct men. The selective acceptance or distortion of Biblical morality by Christians makes a mockery of their claim that those of us who do not believe in God are immoral.
One would expect that far fewer theists than atheists would be in jail if Biblical morality is superior to secular ethics. Research has, however, shown that the reverse is true. See: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/07/16/what-percentage-of-prisoners-are-atheists-its-a-lot-smaller-than-we-ever-imagined/ .Catholics, in particular, are over represented in jail. One reason for this phenomenon, one can be sure, is the Christian dogma that God forgives offenders time and again for their transgressions irrespective of the seriousness of the offences (except in the case of apostasy). All that is required of them is that they must believe and repent. If they do that, they guaranteed admission to heaven after death. Unbelievers, on the other hand, do things that they think are right, or refrain from doing things that they regard as wrong, not because they expect a reward, but because they respect their fellow man. Viewed in this light, their moral values are superior to those of theists. Support for this view can be found in research that demonstrates that unbelievers have more compassion with their neighbours than those who are intensely religious. See https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120430140035.htm
If Biblical morality is rejected, what is the ultimate foundation on which secular morality rests? There is is a great deal of disagreement among philosophers regarding this issue. (See for instance the book Humanist Ethics; a Dialogue on Basics edited by Morris B Storer where 20 philosophers unsuccessfully took part in a symposium to resolve this question.) But to my mind, the solution does not lie with philosophy, although it is indispensable for the formulation of morality in the fields of normative and applied ethics. Only science can provide us with an answer and explain why Homo Sapiens regard certain conduct as praiseworthy and condemn other as unacceptable. That was also the view of Charles Darwin. In his 1871 book The Descent of Man he linked human “moral sentiments” to his theory of natural selection. Given the lack of research at the time into the matter, it was easy for critics to dismiss his view as idle speculation.
Theists often object to naturalistic explanations for the existence of morality on the basis that it is a supposed violation of the dictum of the Scottish philosopher David Hume who held that it is generally,but not always, impermissible to derive an ought from an is. That is, however, an unfounded objection in this case as appears from Alex Walter’s article The Anti-Naturalistic Fallacy. See http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/147470490600400102. At any rate, if the objection is a valid one, it will also be fatal for the popular, but misguided, argument which infers the existence of God from man’s moral sense. After all, what is sauce for the goose, must surely be sauce for the gander.
There are presently a number of disciplines that investigate morality as a natural phenomenon. Anthropologists have for instance been unable to find any society in which bravery is despised and cowardice encouraged or generosity considered a vice and ingratitude a virtue. In his 1991 book Human Universals, the anthropologist Donald E Brown listed 202 universal human traits directly relevant to moral behaviour. They include for example the expression of affection, cooperation and the ability to distinguishing between right and wrong, to name but a few.
Psychologists, on the other hand, investigated the phases through which young children go in their intellectual development. In his 1932 book Le Jugement Moral chez L’Enfant the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrated that children derive their sense of morality principally from their peers. Their parents, church etc. play a minor roll in the process. The educational psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg built on this work in the 1960’s by demonstrating that the children go through six phases in the development of their morality. According to him, they start off by blindly following rules and instructions issued by persons in authority. As they socialise, they conform with their peers because they fear rejection and disapproval. They perform the duties expected of them but only to prevent punishment by the authorities. Even so, when they fail to carry out their duties, they develop a feeling of guilt. After this, the concept of legal rules takes root in their mind. Eventually children develop a conscience and principles and disregard rules that are in conflict with their own. Although later research showed that these stages do not occur in all communities and are not applicable to girls, it did demonstrate that morality can be rationally investigated and that the Sophist Protagoras was correct when he said 2400 years ago that man is the measure of all things.
In Biology, the principle of altruism is used as a point of departure to analyse patterns of ethical behaviour in human beings. The famous British biologist JBS Haldane realised early on that altruism has a genetic basis. By way of illustration he declared that he is willing to lay down his life for his two brothers or eight cousins.(A brother or sister has 50% of your genetic material and a cousin 12.5%.) Research by others such as William Hamilton and Robert Trivers in the USA confirmed this. A distinction is made between so-called “kin-altruism” and “reciprocal-altruism”. In the case of the former next of kin are involved while outsiders make up the latter category. From a theoretical point of view, the problematic cases are those where a stranger comes to someone’s rescue. In the absence of any genetic relationship, it is difficult to see what benefit there is for an outsider who makes such a sacrifice. The best that the latter can hope for, is that a situation may arise in future so that when he is in trouble, the person whom he had previously helped will come to his assistance. A number of books have been written on the subject such as The Biological Origin of Values by George E Pugh and Richard D Alexander’s book The Biology of Moral Systems, to name but two.
Although no gene has been discovered for altruism, the phenomenon does occur in the animal kingdom. And if it is present there, so the argument goes, then it must have a biological basis in Homo Sapiens. A great deal of research has been done in this field. The most interesting case among the many that have been reported, is to my mind that of vampire bats that regurgitate their meals consisting of blood to save the lives of genetically unrelated mates. See https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/blood-sisters-what-vampire-bats-can-teach-us-about-friendship/. Frans de Waal demonstrates, moreover, in his book Good Natured; The Origin of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, that apes such as chimpanzees also have a system of values. One case that he mentions is that of two chimpanzees were held in cages next to each other. When only one of them was given food and the other not, the former protested this injustice by refusing to eat. Another book of this nature is The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson.
Research has also been done in the field of the biology of the brain and the effect that it has on morality. It is thought that the certain areas of the brain may influence moral conduct. What has been established is that a person whose ventromedial prefrontal cortex has been damaged, is unable to form the intention to act. Furthermore, in 1996 mirror neurons were discovered. They are activated in someone by causing him to experience empathy when he sees another person in trouble. Lawrence Tancredi’s Hardwired Behavior; What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality deals specifically with these aspects, while a highly regarded multi-disciplinary book on the naturalistic basis of morality is Robert Sapolsky’s recent (2017) Behave. It has the subtitle “The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst”.
In the light of these considerations, there can be, I submit, very little doubt that morality is a natural phenomenon and that it has nothing to do with the imaginary being known as “God”. I hasten to add, however, that I do not claim that science can solve every individual ethical problem that we encounter. On the contrary, nature only provides us with the ability to be ethical. What form ethical behaviour must take, is a matter best left to philosophy.
Lastly, instead of unbelievers being wicked, as we have always been told, the reverse is rather true. Physicist Steven Weinberg puts it as follows in his book Facing Up; Science and it’s Cultural Adversaries: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.” (Page 231). As might be expected, this remark was greeted with outrage by believers, but I think he is correct and his comment applies for instance precisely to the young Muslim men who intentionally flew the aircraft that they had hijacked into the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 and murdered 3,000 people in the process. You can be sure they shouted “God is great!” when that happened. If they had not been religious, they would probably never have done anything so abhorrent, something that borders on the insane. And that is the whole problem with religion – it often leads to fanaticism in decent people that causes them to do evil in the name of God.