Fear and Ethics

One of the most disturbing arguments against atheism and agnosticism that I come across on a regular basis is the idea that without some form of religious belief – and when I say religious, I note that the religions in particular that seem most amenable to this idea are Christianity and Islam – it is impossible to live a moral or ethical life.

Politely, this is balderdash. Less politely, the rest of this piece will consist of an unforgiving examination of why.

There are three possible interpretations of why belief addicts think this way. Let’s look at the superficially kinder, but actually more self-serving one first.

Basically this interpretation says that God is the source of all morality, and that therefore, those who believe are innately more moral than those who do not. This is the same cult bullshit that every religion ever goes on with – that those who are members are chosen and special, and most importantly, superior to those who are not. Unsurprisingly, for those who think themselves superior, the only moral these people seemed to have learned from God is the privilege he cheerfully arrogates to himself throughout the Bible: that of being exempt from the laws he hands down to govern others. So as much as these people bleat about morality, they’re not actually doing it to be moral or to help anyone else be moral – they’re doing it to feel better about their lives (and I’ll speculate on why they need to when I get to the second interpretation).

So the assertion here is that without divine inspiration, we mere humans are incapable of finding morality on our own. If atheists are correct, than this is self-evidently false, but since I am an agnostic, here’s a brief thought experiment on whether this would be true if God does exist. The Bible itself tells us that humans learned about morality not through God’s teaching, but in fact through direct disobedience to God’s teaching. When Eve and Adam ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:6-7), they learned of morality then. In fact, it’s a valid reading of Genesis that learning about morality in the first place was the actual crime of Adam and Eve, the one that saw them sent forth from Eden to suffer in this world.

Moving on to the second possible interpretation, this is basically the idea that morality derives from authority. God appears here less as a divine figure, and more as the ultimate source of authority. Authority in this context is basically another way of saying temporal or political power. I’m sure we all remember where Chairman Mao – himself no stranger to authority or its exercise – was wont to state that political power came from.

In other words, the religious argument for a necessarily religious source of morality essentially states that people will not be moral unless they are afraid of the consequences of being immoral. That there is no chance for morality or ethics to be innate, or arrived at through reason, but that the only way humanity will ever have morality is for it to be beaten into us.

Looked at in that light, it’s easy to see why believers might have a pressing need to feel better about themselves, since their own belief expressly classifies them as incapable of being moral without the fear of retribution. Anyone who thinks differently to them is therefore a threat, since their mere existence does not merely imply that the believer is wrong, but also that they are a less morally capable and mature person than the non-believer (or other-believer, for that matter).

Finally, there is the simplest interpretation: that those who prate loudest about morality are incapable of believing that anyone could ever find morality via a different route to theirs – a curious failure of the imagination considering some of the more ludicrous things that these types do believe in.

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