Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Secular Case for Good, Pt. 1

This is preliminary brain diarrhea on the subject of the secular argument for morality. If I could just sit down and write a convincing argument that would persuade people of any and every background to be good, I would be ordering my ticket Oslo, Norway to pick up my Nobel Peace prize. Then, I would just have to hope I didn’t instead win a Nobel Prize for Literature, because I’d have a long bus ride from Oslo to Stockholm, Sweden.

So for a topic this monumental, I figured I would suggest my initial thoughts and open them to ridicule so that I may refine/alter/abandon/bolster them as I arbitrarily see fit.

It has been suggested that belief in deities is a prerequisite for morality. Not just any god, usually it’s gotta be the God. If I worshipped Isis, I would still be “wrong” to monotheists because to them, there is only one God (though He seems to have no problem maintaining three distinct religions). To a monotheist, I can never be moral because I break the first rule of monotheism by virtue of my atheism. But let’s assume I find Moses/Jesus/Muhammad.

So from God, all morality spews. It’s very clear that God is a “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of role model. God is not really a role model at all… more of a drill sergeant who claims to have been through the shit and screams things you may not want to hear into your ear while you kneel on your boney knees.

[Intelligent design my ass… if we’re supposed to kneel, why didn’t He put pads there? Why does He give old people arthritis when they’re the ones who cling to religion most? God has a sense of humor, and apparently He’s a fan of Jackass and Punk’d… or for you yuppies and boomers: Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos.]

But imagine a world without God…

Tomorrow, God’s corpse turns up, buried in the Earth. Does the whole world go crazy? Do we all start injecting meth into our eyelids while throwing flaming babies off of balconies? Is it not only feasible, nay, plausible that the only logical conclusion that can come from the disappearance of the watchful father figure is the monstrous synergy of hedonistic excess and our modern tendency to multitask?

Except… this doesn’t happen. Atheists commit less crimes, not more. Countries with more atheists have lower crime rates. Atheists divorce less often than most main-stream religious faiths. I am afraid to say anything about divorce for fear that my wife will correct me (as she is earning her doctorate with a thesis centered on divorce). Suffice to say, if you want to argue whether atheists divorce less, talk to her… she could literally bury you in research.

I will say this: the divorce rate is NOT 50% as people so often cite. It’s much lower, hovering in the 30’s and 40’s, depending on several criteria. On the other hand, that means over half of marriages end in death… depressing, no?

So I’ve wasted a few minutes of your time without even mentioning why on Earth a person should be good. At best I’ve danced around the mere fact that atheists appear to have no problem being good. I don’t even care to make the point that atheists are “better” in any way. There have been, are, and will be bad people who are atheists, so I am not suggesting that realizing gods are imaginary will magically make you a better person. I would be happy if people simply knew that atheists are not bad people based solely on their atheism. I'm such a dreamer...

So the question is not: “Why be good without gods?” The question truly is, “What has driven people who don’t believe in gods to be good?”

Some atheists will say it is inherent. They will say it is only natural for people to be good and act “logically.” These people usually had a good upbringing in a middle- to upper-class family and were surrounded by good role models their entire childhood.

I believe human beings, in their natural state, are narcissistic crooks with little forethought and even less concern for anything or anyone not closely associated to them. I suggest spending more time around children if one maintains a naïve sense of human nobility. Watch kids mock what is different from them. Watch them take what they want without asking. Watch them lie about something you saw them do with your own eyes. If you only watch, and do not punish them, they will continue doing those things until the day they die.

Learning is about consequences, especially early in life. Touch a hot stove, burn your hand. Eat too much candy, get a tummy ache and lose your teeth later. Take something from someone, and you’ll get in trouble. Morality is initially hashed out in terms we understand, a simple series of consequences. Some occur no matter what (guilt), others only happen when we are caught (punishment).

Guilt? Atheists have guilt? Yep, apparently guilt is one of those things, like love, that has nothing to do with God. I’m sure remorse is not universal, but I don’t think it’s necessary in order for one to be a moral person. It just helps one go back and do the right thing (if possible) after one has already done wrong, and it hopefully drives one to not do it again in the future.

Ultimately, doing good is a selfish choice based on a mutually beneficial relationship with others. Being a good person makes you a likeable person, which means people will treat you better. Doing good things in your community improves your community, which benefits you as a member.

Attitudes and actions are contagious, and humans are creatures of habit. Each of us has the potential to make a positive difference that lasts not only in our lifetime, but for generations to come.

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."
~ Native American Proverb


  1. "We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings." - Emile Durkheim

  2. One of our cats is named Durkheim.

  3. I really like this post. This is a good one. I really do not understand how religious people can wonder why other people have no sense of "good" without the Bible. Insane.

  4. I agree Ginx that there is a "selfishness" in our kindness. Reciprocity is a principle that partly drives people to work together. I think it started during evolution when any set of organisms find that they survive best when they work together and share success.

    I think passing on etiquette plays a role, too. When I stopped being religious, it was very much like finding god floating face down in the water. So, do I just go hog wild now? Nope. Maybe I've relaxed on some of my standards, but not really. I still endeavor to remain faithful to my wife and kids, I still try to do a good job at work. I try not to cheat and steal. I still try to show respect to others. I look back at how my mom taught me. I still hold to much of that regardless of god being a factor in my life.

    I think you're on track with your argument, Ginx.


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