Is Fear Of God Evidence Of Morality? genre: Hip-Gnosis & Six Degrees of Speculation

Fear & Morality

Many of those who believe in god labor endlessly to refute those who do not...and in that effort lie the answers to the questions they often pose to atheists. The latest attempt comes from Michael Gerson of the Washington Post in an article in which he asks the question, "If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality"?

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion. On evidence found in every culture, human beings can be good without God. And Hitchens is himself part of the proof. I know him to be intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind, when not ruthlessly flaying opponents for taking minor exception to his arguments. There is something innate about morality that is distinct from theological conviction. This instinct may result from evolutionary biology, early childhood socialization or the chemistry of the brain, but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose.

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: "Obey your evolutionary instincts" because those instincts are conflicted. "Respect your brain chemistry" or "follow your mental wiring" don't seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: "To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I'm going to do whatever I please." C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: "When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains."

Gerson's question, and more importantly his conclusion, offers evidence of several misconceptions. One, it seemingly ignores the evidence that those who do not believe in god have already demonstrated an ability to operate with decency and morality...historical evidence he even acknowledges. Despite this admission and Gerson's own statement that he knows atheists with ample morality (see his reference to Christopher Hitchens), he still proceeds to make his argument...virtually ignoring his own acknowledgment that believers do not hold a monopoly on good behavior. A scan of the daily newspaper will provide further evidence of that fact. Therefore, one's moral compass need not have its origin in the fear of a deity.

In believing that the absence of god removes a necessary deterrent of bad behavior, Gerson is apparently offering a tacit confession of innate immorality within those who do believe in god...and in doing so he invalidates their ability to act appropriately without the fear of consequences (a deity with rules and standards is watching). By doing as much, he is in essence suggesting that believers are one debunked deity away from anarchy and immorality...negating or marginalizing the potential that they possess an authentic adherence to their professed religious doctrine.

In fact, Gerson's assertion imparts the notion that the actions of the believer is simply a thin veneer intended to win the favor of a higher being...the same higher being that is supposed to be capable of knowing what lies within the hearts of all men. If Gerson is correct in his assertion, then those who believe under the construct he posits are destined to fail god's judgment since doctrine clearly states that god will judge what lies within, not what has been worn as a false badge of piety. This means that acts to impress an all knowing deity or acts not committed to avoid the wrath of a deity betray the sincerity of the soul and will not be met with favor.

Gerson validates something I have long speculated existed in many of those who cling to religious doctrine as if it were a life boat in a sea of sin and temptation. If he believes a deity begets morality, then his own words expose insincerity and a lack of authenticity in those who believe. If fear is the only barrier between the believer and wanton immorality, then the believer mocks the deity he or she follows and insults the willful morality of those who act appropriately by choice and out of an apparent belief in the sanctity of their fellow human beings...regardless of the existence of a deity and any presumed consequences.

In fact, the believer Gerson describes must have a disregard for his or her human counterparts that is only kept at bay through the fabrication of a deity that will inflict an unwanted punishment should he or she allow his or her actual immoral nature to escape.

If Gerson is correct in his hypothesis, he has in essence offered an unmitigated indictment of the collective heart of those who believe in a deity...he has exposed what many atheists have feared for many years...that the actions of many believers are nothing more than a fraudulent attempt to win the favor of their fellow humans and to deceive the deity they purport to follow...all the while possessing a fallen heart.

If god exists and there is a day of judgment, then I cannot fathom that he will select those who acted appropriately because they feared him over those who acted appropriately because they chose to voluntarily acknowledge and honor the inherent value of their fellow human beings. A chosen morality must trump a feigned morality.

Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.

This form of "liberation" is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.

In the end, Gerson has provided and made the best argument for the adoption of atheism...and his own argument points out that atheism is not just a is, by its nature, an established belief system that honors the sanctity of humanity. Taking Gerson's rationale a step further, one might presume that the abandonment of one's deity places one in the camp of the atheist. That is a misconception born of a belief that atheists believe in nothing. Being an atheist is, in fact, a choice that requires moral considerations based upon the inherent value of our shared humanity.

If Gerson has properly described the heart of the believer, then if and when a believer abandons their deity, they would not automatically be welcomed and embraced by atheists...especially if Gerson's description of the heart of the believer is accurate. For the most part, atheists have a chosen moral compass and any believer that presumes atheism is a license for unbridled immorality and the abuse of his fellow man is living under a misconception and is no doubt in for a surprise.

Gerson may be right that something dies if we abandon the notion of a deity. However, may I suggest that what may die might well be the propensity to treat our fellow humans with morality only because we fear the judgment of a deity? What might emerge is an authentic morality that maintains an appreciation for the one thing that is certain...our need to honor and sanctify our shared humanity...sincerely and by choice; not because we're afraid.

Tagged as: Atheism, God, Hitchens, Morality, Religion

Daniel DiRito | July 13, 2007 | 9:03 AM
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1 On July 14, 2007 at 7:34 AM, Craig wrote —

On what basis do atheists decide that behavior A is right/good and behavior B is wrong/bad and then reward those who do A and sanction those who do B?

2 On July 14, 2007 at 7:44 AM, Daniel wrote —

I moved some comments from another forum on this posting over to Thought Theater as I felt it would enhance the dialogue. The first one above is from Craig. I've listed several below and I've included names with each.

From Admin:

Actually Daniel, as an outed-atheis t, I have to disagree with Gerson. An atheist is not a human secularist, or have soem deep abiding belief in humanity etc. Most atheist do, but being an athiest is a statement about your disbelief in supernatural beings running the world on high. It implies nothing about the moral code of the non-believer one way or the other. There have been horrible examples of immoral atheists, just like there are millions of examples of immoral theists.

Luckily, most people who reach the conclusion that God makes no sense and is not necessary for either Life, the Universe or Anything, also reach the conclusion that human life is precious and that reason will lift us out of the abyss of violence, hatred and stupidity that has been inflicted upon the worlds masses.

I know it’s a nitpicky. Of course Atheist believe in something, but what that something is is up to the individual to ascertain.

My response to Admin:


You are correct that being an Atheist doesn’t define a moral code…it is, as you state, about a disbelief. H owever, to the extent that there is no evidence that atheists have a lesser moral code than believers, then they must have a moral code at least equivalent to the moral code of those who believe in a deity (in other words a moral code is not stated but it seems to be implied based upon some measure of their collective behavior and its comparison to the collective behavior of those who define with a rigid set of deity derived morals)…and if it is relatively equivalent…and it is adhered to by choice rather than out of fear, it still remains, in my opinion, a more valid morality.

I should have clarified how I infer that atheists mus t have adopted a moral code. Unless I’m unaware of any specific evidence suggesting that atheists, as a group, have a lesser moral code and therefore perpetrate more immorality, I believe one can reasonably conclude that their moral code exists and is at least as legitimate as the codes adopted based upon a fear of a deity.

In fact, I would argue that atheists would be well served to make this very argument…not because they need to be morally superior to theists; but to dispel the belief held by many that they are morally inferior to theists. Explaining the morality that can be reasonably attributed to the group (atheists) is a legitimatee xercise in defining the moral code that must exist. Since self-reporti ng a moral code is not evidence of a moral code or of compliance, atheists would benefit from pointing to real and relative behaviors and then drawing the important comparisons and distinctions .

Thanks for providing that important clarificatio n. The fact that Gerson provided the definition certainly didn’t make it accurate and I should have better developed the argument outlined in this comment.



My response to Craig:


If the argument I have made in the prior comment has validity, the answer to your question would be the innate morality that must exist in humanity given the relatively similar behaviors of theists and atheists.

In that regard, I contend that morality is a function of an understandin g that we have a shared humanity which instructs us how we ought to treat each other. We know innatel y what would constitute mistreatment because we have the experience of the treatment we receive from other humans that we can identify as immoral or inappropriat e. In other words, for the most part, that which we know hurts us, we can concl ude will also hurt others. All that remains outstanding is one’s choice.



Craig's response to me:

Daniel, Innate morality? But quite obviously, not everyone seems to have the same innate morality, or to care one way or another whether action A hurts someone else, as long as it doesn’t hurt them. So is it just that the majority of people, theists and atheists alike, agree to do A and not B because they know from experience that having done otherwise to them would hurt that makes your answer superior to the other?

My response to Craig:


I don’t think my answer is superior. I do think choosing to act morally without fear of a higher being is relatively better than choosing to not act immorally out of fear of being punished (if one’s goal is to measure such). Notwithstanding, relative outcomes may lead one to conclude that the reasons for moral behavior are irrelevant. Perhaps one is a choice based upon a negative consequence (an intervening avoidance motivation) and one is an act of altruism (an intervening selected motivation)… both of which can be considered self-serving .

May I suggest that part of the problem is that too many of us want our answers to be everyone else’s answers? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that if someone thinks stealing and murder works for them, then it ought to be alright. Conversely, I think we may have gone too far towards the other extreme in trying to identify every single good and every bad (universally) and unfortunately there are so many versions of theology, it becomes a battle of righteous certainty.

My dad’s mom used to pose a question to her children and the question was, “Why do you think all these people build little houses and live apart from their brothers and sisters?"…and then she provided the answer by saying that “people are different and we can’t all live together so we find those we can live with and we make a life". Her husband…my grandfather… then went on to say, “If you go over to the neighbors and they’re all sitting around eating horse crap…but they’re all smiling and happy…leave them alone. We may not like eating horse crap but if it makes them happy, so be it."

In other words, there isn’t a universal approach that can be applied. Finding some point of moral stasis or stability may be the best we can achieve. Now if the neighbor invaded my home and insisted we also eat horse crap…even if we didn’t like it, then that may well be deemed to be morally wrong. In other words, instead of looking for moral certainty, we may need to look at the relative impact of our own chosen actions upon the ability of others to enact their choices and visa versa. If a family likes horse crap and they all consent to it, perhaps we need to allow them their choice.

On the other hand, if they grab the mailman and invite him to dine with them and he objects to the horse crap but they force him to eat it anyway, then one could see fit to evaluate the immorality of that situation. In essence, they have wrongly imposed their will on another and that has prevented him from exercising his equivalent right to choice.

In the end, I think it has to come down to choices. If one person can choose to do the right thing, then all people must have that same ability. If we begin with that assumption, we establish a standard capability and then we set out to measure proximity to the standard. As such, each individual has the capacity to make good choices mindful of impact as well as the potential to choose an action that disregards impact. Society then monitors proximity and intent rather than an absolute list of rules.

I also think that social order has rewards and that tends to lead people to better choices. A successful society likely leads to a successful individual. On the other hand, we can all cite examples of bad people that have elected to harm others…but by and large…society has chosen to correct those wrongs and put an end to such actions that deviate too far from the collective standard.

Granted that process has taken time and lots of good people were aggrieved or even killed in the interim…but no doubt some sense of innate morality has always led to a correction…a nd it frequently includes former enemies joining together to right a wrong…suggesting that despite some naturally expected differences, we still possess some level of a shared and innate morality.

Is it possible that people have an ability to recognize an immoral heart…one that routinely disregards the welfare of his or her fellow humans…and at some point those with good hearts rise up to extinguish the negative actions of the immoral heart? History seems to support that notion and I don’t think it can be proven to have always correlated with a deity driven motivation.

I guess in the end, what I am defining is an indeterminate characteristic that can only be proven to exist through a review of empirical evidence…a s opposed to identifying a fundamental causality that can be used to predict a behavior.

If we humans generally succeed in deciding which behavior A is right/good and which behavior B is wrong/bad and then reward those who do A and sanction those who do B, then by deduction, it should be safe to conclude that a causality must exist…even if we cannot definitively identify it (which may suggest an innate trait). At the same time, if a comparative analysis of theist and atheist behavior proves that the differences in moral behavior are statistically insignificant, something besides a fear of god must be at play. That may be the nearest we can get to an absolute answer…which would again reinforce the danger of employing absolute principles.

From a philosophical perspective, one might conclude that all choices are motivated by self-interest. That would mean that the underlying motivations and perceived rewards for a theist and an atheist must be different. Determining which one is morally superior would be a separate endeavor. One could pursue a means to measure same…or one might also conclude that if the end result is an equivalent demonstration of moral behavior, the reasons and their relative moral quotients are inconsequential…which may bring us back to concluding that a point of moral stasis and stability is the best we can achieve and is, therefore, an acceptable goal.



3 On July 14, 2007 at 10:22 AM, Rainbow Demon wrote —


Your Grandparents' "horsecrap" illustration is the best example I've ever seen used to explain the whole conundrum.

Rather than divisively listing differences it is wise to draw conclusions from similarities. Wheather one uses a dogma or not to guide them through this journey in life, we would all be best advised to respect everyone's 'horsecrap' if we'd like to partake in it or not. If someone is trying to force you to eat their horsecrap is where we draw the line.

Religion, when it is annointed as the only way, only divides us as humans; as the Pope so notoriously is doing at the present. It's the last thing we need at this point in time. Moving backwards is the most parochial way to escape progress in a world that desparately needs it.

Tolerance is a word which could be ideal, if only it didn't have the connotations of coming from a superior place that go along with it...

Thanks for sharing your expertly conceived insight.


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