What Do You Think? (Religion)

Well, they say that religion and politics are the two things you’re not supposed to talk about.  Obviously, we aren’t mindful of the warning regarding the latter, but I think perhaps we might delve a little into the former, yes?

A little background.  My stepdad and I get along pretty well, even though we are ideological opposites for all intents and purposes.  We may not be so opposed as maybe Rush Limbaugh and Rosie O’Donnell would be, but we have our differences and we discuss them calmly without, you know, resorting to calling each other evil and wishing the other would die.

So anyway, we get to talking last night, and since we have somehow managed to find how to talk about politics and survive, I suppose we decided to give religion a shot.

Now, my beliefs are what they are.  I have a faith that works for me at least for the moment, and I’m good with that.  His beliefs are what they are.  But the question ultimately became can you have morality without faith in a higher being?

It’s a good question, and one I pose to you and regardless of you stance you should expect me to play devil’s (or atheist’s if it is more appropriate) advocate.

For an added twist, why not try and argue the opposing side?  I have a guess where most readers would fall on this topic, and sometimes agreeing with each other is no fun at all.  Anyway, that’s the topic, what do you think?

10 Responses to “What Do You Think? (Religion)”

  1. DM Metzger says:

    But the question ultimately became can you have morality without faith in a higher being?

    It’s a good question”

    You may find it hard to play the atheist on this one; I’ve got that role covered. The above quote is, if I surmise correctly, the cornerstone argument the faithful bring to bear to debates on morality and moral action. It is, at it’s core, fundamentally flawed. The idea that people only act “in good faith” because of a higher power is the concept that requiring threats of punishment or promises of reward are the only way to get people to act in a moral fashion. It’s a flawed argument, one not taking into account humanity’s evolved sense of morality.

    Universal morals include such things as an aversion to murder, altruistic kin relationships, and a tendency for reciprocal trade. They are found, in one capacity or another, in all cultures. Put it this way: When you look at the sky you see the color blue. It doesn’t matter what language you know, it doesn’t matter what origin story your religion has to explain the sky, you always see the color blue. Your sense of morality is much the same way.

    Your social experiences and religion can help shape your morality, not create it. When I, an atheist, choose to act in a moral manner I do so because it’s the right thing. I feel it to be right. If asked to explain my decision I may come up with a rationalized reason behind my choice but, when push comes to shove, you’ll find that my decision to act came before my rationalization. Those who practice religion will, to a large degree, make the same choices. Their rationalizations may be different but their actions will not. This is the concept of universal morality. Religion’s post hoc claim to morality only works because of the universality of morality.

    Which brings us to a counter-claim: that religious and cultural conditioning can make a person “less moral”. If you look at each religion and the cultures they spawned you will find vastly different social mores.

    Take the Muslim faith for instance. In many parts of the Muslim world women are treated as property. They have neither the rights nor privileges of their male counterparts. To the Muslim male there is nothing immoral about these restrictions. They have, by virtue of their shared religious culture, erected a wall of rationalizations for their behavior to the point where anything else is seen as “sinful”.

    Morality is universal; it’s only the finer points that can be rationalized and explained by religious/social conditioning.

    Your turn.

  2. god , there are a lot of good discussions to be a part of, and I hope that my afternoon is not so busy that I actually have the chance to partake in them. heading to the office now.

  3. Dynamic says:

    The human animal is just that – an animal. He (and she) is prone to all the shortcomings and base instincts of an animal. It is this instinct that drives governers to hire prostitutes rather than remain faithful, it is this instinct that responds with rage rather than reason, and it is this instinct that drives us to feel a tribal unity with our nation and demographic rather than our species.

    It is also this instinct that we overcome every day through the excercise of reason.

    In the United States, we have the unique situation of having founded our nation with a bill of rights. This, coupled with our Constitution, is an excellent example of a social contract, whereby we the people set a standard of morality (for that is what it is, no matter what code name people give it) and agree to adhere to it collectively. This too is unique to the human animal.

    A social contract doesn’t work, however, without a degree of faith in our fellow man to adhere to it. Society functions when we trust our compatriots to play by the rules, and falters when they fail to do so. A complete retreat to Hobbes’ state of nature is a reversion to an amoral (not immoral) culture – though the social nature of the human animal tends to limit this collapse, in practice, to small groups of people at the least, rather than to individuals.

    In regard to DM’s point, morality is hardly universal – cannibalism is about as far from modern sensibilities as you can get, yet is not difficult to find in the social record from various cultures. By the same token, murder is universally reviled – so long as one is speaking about one’s own “tribe.” But killing an outsider is in many places respected and honoured. Mankind will evolve cultural and moral responses to his environment, and because the fundamentals of what drives a social grouping remain the same throughout the globe, you’ll see a good deal of similarity in that evolution, but as reason supersedes instinct you’ll see more complex and more radically different moral expressions (as, indeed, we have seen). DM’s examples of aversion to murder (killing within the tribe) and altruistic kin relationships can be easily expressed as functions of the genetic lubrication for social animals building groups; reciprocal trade is highly subjective, and the very nature of capitalist society (with it’s emphasises on profit, which is by definition an unfair trade) argues against the existence of reciprocal trade as a universal value.

    In fact, I would argue that morality of all sorts is typically an application of the lessons of evolution. If you view evolution as a means of life passing information about its environment, you see that evolution has accelerated – information that could only be passed genetically before is now being spread through more rapid and more efficient intergenerational communications methods such as writing and education. This is leading to a diversification of the expression of that evolution, allowing for different selection pressures to act on ideas directly rather than being forced to work through the intermediary of killing the carriers of genetic information.

    So can we have morality without faith in a higher being? The answer is NO – with the understanding that rational man is, in every way that matters, a higher being.

    Because the article was intended to address our spirituality, I’ll note here that my own views on spirituality are rather complex, but I am in no way an atheist.

  4. Dynamic says:

    Sorry, can’t leave this one well enough alone, it’s something of an obsession of mine. 😆

    I think it’s important to draw a distinction between faith and religion. Faith – in all it’s guises and expressions – is an essential part of the human experience. It is one of the many tools in our quest for understanding about the universe around us and mind within us. It is an expansion of our minds and our souls.

    (In many ways, you could use faith as a shorthand for inductive reasoning, but that is also off-topic.)

    By contrast, religion constrains thought and restricts expression. It is an attempt by mankind to put the notion of God and souls into easily understood boxes with concise rules that apply universally. Besides being rather small-minded, this is especially arrogant – I have my notions of what constitutes the divine, but far be it from me to claim I know the sole truth and encompass the entirety of the mind of God within my own brain.

    In fact, it is physically impossible to know the mind of God in it’s entirety. By definition, a creator exists, in some way, beyond his or her creation. You cannot be preceeded by the story you write, for example – you are temporally beyond it. However, every law of logic and reason that drives your notion of what makes sense, of cause and effect, is derived from the laws of nature that govern this universe. By definition, the Creator resides beyond this universe – and thus beyond these laws and this logic. So to attempt to understand Him with our own logic is impossible, not for lack of information but in principle.

  5. Not going to say says:

    Excuse me, but I think that what everyone is talking around is the basic fact that yes, we are animals, however, unlike the rest of the biological life forms on this planet, we have the ability to reason. Our brains have the unique ability understand input, formulate plans, and recognize the consequences of one’s actions (all be it that we don’t always recognize the consequences). We have the ability to feel joy, sorrow, reget, pity,etc. This ability to reason, understand, and feel has also led us to the most unique ability of being aware of one’s own mortality. I would submit that we must credit this to a Creator, whatever you want to call it. These abilities could not just have evolved. If this were true, would we not be fighting (oh say) sharks for tickets the to the opera, or wishing that the turtle in front of us in line was not paying with a check?
    I know that this sounds ludicrous. So too, does the notion that we as a species evolved by happenstance. Now, if there is a Creator, you must have faith in that Creator. If you have faith in the Creator, it follows that you should not only honor the Creator’s wishes, but all things made by the Creator’s hands. And simply stated, such is the basis of morality.

  6. Don’t be tentative, Not going to say, the point of this discussion isn’t to get up in arms, but to discuss, to simply air out our believes and explore them. So please, feel free and don’t think we’re all going to pounce on you for doing so.

    In fact, I want to thank you because I was going to, for funsies, take the opposite stance that people posted here, but I’m woefully unexperienced at it. So, if you want, continue, elaborate, and have fun.

  7. Dynamic says:

    Sorry “Not Going to Say,” but these abilities CAN just evolve. Exhibit A) we have them.

    Your argument that if they could evolve, they would evolve universally doesn’t hold water when applied to evolutionary theory. We have evolved to meet our circumstances as other animals have evolved to meet theirs.

    And if you reverse the argument and say that God could only have created intelligence, well, He could also have created intelligence in every other animal. So again your argument can’t carry water, in my opinion.

    You also state – “if there is a Creator, it follows that you should have faith in that Creator. IF you have faith in the Creator, you should honour His wishes.” This is a chain of logic that I can’t necessarily agree with. I believe that it is important to have faith in mankind and the Creator, but not simply by dint of the Creator’s existence. It is what the Creator represents to our species that makes Him worth worship and emulation; and to attempt to understand His wishes is doomed to failure no for lack of knowledge but purely in principle, as I explained above. We CANNOT know the mind of God, simply because of the way our minds work.

    So I agree with you regarding our uniqueness, and I agree that we ought to have faith in ourselves and our God, but I disagree on the reasoning. However I am open to being disproven – I have been wrong before and I shall be wrong again.

  8. Okay, but then here comes the question that I think needs answered. Wherein does the nature of morality exist? For morality to be morality and not merely some hardcoded and subtle behavior and belief set that is principled on species based survival, there must be an ultimate altruistic endgame.

    In other words, if we were to look at an atheistic, or non-faith based picture of morality, we say, well, atheists can be moral because they just are, they have developed a sense of morality. However, without a higher purpose, or a spiritual other, we must therefore deduce that there is a mechanical and physical underlying cause behind atheistic morality. We have to justify and ultimately reverse engineer it to understand it.

    In the end I think it comes down to survival. In a more simplified manner, a lesser developed organism is driven by survival and reproduction. This is hard coded stuff in biological blue prints. A tiger’s worldview therefor might be, food, positive, mating, positive, lack of food, negative, etc. But these are simpler, at least in mental capacity, organism.

    Transposed upon a human, we would take the positive and negative and replace them with good and evil, or good and bad.

    Now, social creatures provide a more interesting analogue. Let’s take bees. Bees have an interesting social structure unlike the largely non-social tiger. They work together and specialize etc. Now, for the good of the hive bees don’t engage in certain behavior; they don’t kill each other, for instance. This is still the positive and negative construct of the worldview, but instead it is superimposed upon a social order as opposed to an individual being.

    Extrapolating both of these concepts, the concept of the tiger, and the concept of the bee, and adding the complexity of the human mind, what we have are two conflicting sets of positives and negatives that can be described in the same moral, immoral sense.

    Thus, even without religion, we can denote a behavioral set as right and wrong, but does this equate to true morality?

    Because ultimately this becomes the work of thousands of years of evolution in which a more complex society with dynamics that require reason and emotion to balance out survival of the being, and survival of the social system at the same time. Thus, let’s say an atheist giving money to charity; it looks like a moral act, but if we understand that there is an underlying frame work of evolutionary mechanisms at work, we see a different picture.

    The atheist gives money to a charity, this is depleting resources from his own self resources in order to reinforce the societal needs resources. But remember, being social creatures as well as non social creatures, what we see is that the atheist is in truth acting upon survival behavior. His world view informs him that his quality of life, or his survival rate goes up if the quality of life and survival increas amongst those around him. In this way he is not giving from himself to others, but instead reinvesting in his own societal self.

    It is still an act of self preservation and not one of altruism.

    True morality, true right and wrong, involves a behavioral set that exists totally outside the self in a set of absolutes, absolutes that perhaps only a faith in something greater and outside the realm of our societal selves can provide.

    What say you?

  9. DotR says:

    I often see those who do not follow Christianity as defining themselves by that tenet. Atheism has come to mean anti-Judeo-Christian religion. These sorts of talks boil down into a fight between the two sides.

    Live and let live. If people are benefiting from being Christian then that is great, leave them to it.

    As far as not being Christian, I understand that it is hard at first when raised that way. One must construct his or her own idea of life and the universe in a way other than being against a different idea, you just become a part of it instead.

    The question of whether a person can be morally sound without faith in a higher power is absurd. I’ll just use one example, the Buddhist.

    I think anyone would be hard pressed to find the Buddhist’s idea of infinite compassion to be immoral. Buddhism is not founded on and does not believe in a higher power, it uses logic instead.

    I think this thread is more about Atheism vs. Christianity. It is up to Atheists to start defining themselves in other ways than simply anti-Christian.

  10. Dynamic says:

    Kyle – I don’t see that there is necessarily a confict between the evolutionary principles of survival and morality.

    Take your example of the bee and the tiger. What both organisms truly are, are vessels of information stored genetically. You can think of that information as a sort of experimental evaluation of the environment, whereby animals that survive to pass on their genes are a binary result of 1, and organisms that do not pass on their information are dead end experiments with a value of zero. (It should be noted that bees are all hatched from a single queen’s eggs and thus share virtually identical genetic code, and so a bee hive is a single organism in more ways than just appearance – perhaps a better analogy is a pack hunter like a wolf, or a herd animal like wildebeast, as compared with a solitary animal like a tiger or snake or so forth). Evolutionary success is survival of the genetic information – so both sets of animals are operating under the same evolutionary code of conduct.

    Where humans are different from animals is that we too contain and pass on information about our environment, but we do it through a wider variety of methods. We can store information genetically, but we can also store it linguistically or digitally. This accelerates the process of evolution. It also means that when a human being is willing to give his or her life for an idea, they are not demonstrating altruism – they are demonstrating an evolutionary imperative, whereby they give their lives so that their environmental information (in this case a belief structure) may grow stronger or continue to thrive, much the same way as a mother animal will give her life for her children in the wild.

    So is there an objective moral code? It is easy to project our own beliefs and ethics onto our deity of choice in order to believe we have a handle on the truth, but of course that’s hardly likely to be true. What is much more likely, I belive, is that the entire notion of “objective morality” is flawed and, more importantly, even if there IS an objective morality, there is no way for us to ascertain it with absolute certainty. What we can do is provide a framework for ethical treatment – a social contract – of agreed-upon social norms and accepted moral behaviour.

    I feel we have to leave room for people to work out their own beliefs – but that is itself, of course, an ethical belief, and others may disagree, and so here again we have evolution at work through the proxy “culture wars” where certain ideas gain and lose acceptance, leading me to conclude that it is the evolutionary progression towards greater self-awareness that represents the only truly objective morality.

    DotR – The above statement ties in to your “live and let live” philosophy – that’s a social contractual framework (the agreement to live and let live) that allows each of us the freedom to work out our own beliefs and awarenesses. It is an acceptance of a logical derived ethical system (rather than an arbitrary contrived system) for the purpose of allowing intellectual evolution to proceed.

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