Morality is not what religious people think it is.

It's so much worse than that.

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At some point during our merry journey through secularism, we all encounter some benighted religious people who incredulously ask: “If you don’t believe in a god, where does your morality come from?”

Religious people believe that the source of their morality is their god and that their religious belief is the exercise of that morality. There is very little evidence to support this belief and much to refute it. The journey to the point of refutation is itself fraught.

First, if they outsource their morality to a god, then they should have some evidence that their god exists. Otherwise, they’re not just making it up as they go along; they’re outsourcing their entire moral decision-making matrix to “making it up as they go along”. If they were only making it up as they go along, they would at least have some flexibility and control over their opinions.

Second, demonstrating the existence of the source of their morality is the start of the conversation, not the end. If they’re outsourcing their morality to a god, they next need to demonstrate a reliable method to determine what that god wants. The history of religion testifies to the mercurial nature of these methods.

Third, once they’ve demonstrated their god is real and they’ve demonstrated a reliable way to determine what that god wants, they next need to demonstrate that what the god wants aligns with whatever they think “good” morality is. After all, a god could conceivably exist who wants nothing but chaos and destruction.

The history of religion is littered with gods who willingly engaged in, or encouraged, destruction of property, war, rape, genocide, slavery and the murder of anyone who rejects belief in them. No one wants one of those in charge of morality.

What if a god were in charge of morality?

If their god is the source of objective morality and their religion is a method of working towards that objectivity, religious people still have to answer some questions.

They’ll have to explain how atheists make up less than one percent of U.S. prison populations. If they regard family values as a moral issue, they’ll have to explain how atheists have one of the lowest rates of divorce. If they regard public health as a moral issue, they’ll have to explain how atheists are far more likely to get the COVID vaccine. Whether their morality concerns itself with animal rights or refugees or the use of torture, they’ll have to explain why atheists consistently outperform religious people. Across a wide range of moral issues, the more religious they are, the less likely people are to care about others.

A god could conceivably exist who wants nothing but chaos and destruction.

Sometimes the best way to get clarity on an issue is to change the variables and ask questions. Here is a question: “If someone killed every living creature on the planet except for one guy and what he could fit on his boat, would that be morally good?”

Religious people who believe that story literally almost always retreat into the Nixon Defence. If “morally good” means “whatever god says” then it’s no surprise that atheists are de facto immoral. That discussion ends here.

Religious people who don’t believe the literal truth of story of Noah’s Ark are nevertheless aware that millions of people do. This itself should be a concern. I have more questions.

“Does your source of morality have lots of rules about how to handle your slaves but never once suggests that slavery is wrong? What about a god who thinks men should have more than women? What about a god who thinks men are literally worth more than women?”

None of this indicates that atheists are morally superior to religious people. However, it might indicate that religious people are morally superior to their own gods. Again, this itself should be a concern.

Morality cannot be based on a series of religious instructions from books written centuries ago. Morality is more like a series of agreed-upon principles for communities to function optimally. That can be tied to a religion, but it would be a category error to consider it necessary

Perfect is the enemy of good

Religious people want morality to be connected to a god because they want to compare their behaviors and attitudes and thoughts to an unimpeachable external standard. After all, that’s how most things work. If you want to know if a table is the right length, you don’t need a committee to work it out. Just find a ruler and measure it.  

Unfortunately for these moral absolutists, there’s not much evidence to support their position. There may be a nagging feeling somewhere that this is the way it “should” be, but this is not a reliable source of information.

More relevantly, our models for absolute morality tend to be uninspiring. The Christian god, for instance, doesn’t seem to have a problem with the mass murder of men and women who are not virginstortureslaveryrape and perhaps surprisingly, abortion

On the other hand, there is much evidence to suggest that morality is relative. Our attitude toward various moral principles seems to fluctuate wildly depending on where they are located in time and space.  

Many societies since the dawn of history regarded various forms of child abuse as well within their range of moral behavior. Child abuse has adopted a go-to role in modern societies as the Worst Thing Imaginable. Rape (runner-up Worst Thing Imaginable) was similarly not seen as morally depraved for most of humanity’s history. Most early objections to rape frame it as property theft. It wasn’t until after the Middle Ages that the word “rape” meant anything other than “burglary”

The conclusion is uncomfortable even for non-religious people. Morality is relative and even that’s not enough. Morality is a conversation we have with ourselves about the evolving needs and aspirations of our communities. It would be very odd if a community in Egypt in 1200 BCE had the same needs as a community in Arabia in 650 CE or a community in New York in 2022 CE.

Our sense of “right” and “wrong” is not beamed down from the mothership. It is highly context-dependent, most of it based on a general consensus of how we should behave in a society. As the needs and abilities of communities (religious or otherwise) change, our notions of “right” and “wrong” will also change. The belief that “right” and “wrong” are somehow immutable and objective has historically not been the basis for good policies.

Morality is more like science than religion. It’s a series of best guesses based on currently-available evidence. It’s never “done”. No one owns it. This is both terrifying and liberating.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...