Revisiting the argument from morality–one of the most peculiar non sequitur arguments from religious apologists

It sucks being on a Facebook ban yet again. While I do end up writing more here, this blog lacks the engagement I crave… It gets loads of views but not much interaction which differs quite a bit from the dozens of reactions and comments I’ve become accustomed to on social media. Anyway, while I’m a Facebook ghost, lurking there and reading without being able to interact, I do find some gems to use for writing material.

Case in point, this.

Comic

Any atheist will spot the main problem with this right off the bat, namely that someone who grows up in a secular household will not make that association; they will not connect morals with a deity. So they would never ask the question asked at the bottom of the first panel. Without that association, the straw man set up in panel two could never happen. Not that anyone would claim that evolution “does away with morals”. Not anyone who knows what evolution is.

Evolution is about the gradual change of living organisms over time. We humans, the most advanced species of great ape on the planet, are social animals. Our society depends on us cooperating with one another, and we tend to care for each other through empathy with them. We’re emotional animals and we project our emotions onto others. Do you think it would be an evolutionary advantage for us to do harm to each other? Obviously selfishness benefits individuals but when it goes too far, it harms the group, and being smarter than other animals, we have evolved rules and laws, customs and values, and we find ways of punishing those who don’t adhere to the rules, which at the most basic level are all about empathy we feel for one another.

It should be fairly obvious that if someone right now goes out with a gun and starts shooting random people, sooner or later someone who is responsible for enforcing the law will stop that person. Likewise, if someone went into a public place thousands of years ago and just started beating everybody with a big stick, whoever was responsible for enforcing the rules there would stop them. And thousands of years ago, there was no Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, or any of the other gods currently worshipped.

Religions are a part of our social structure, just like courts of law. If you go to any worldbuilding forum and read the questions, which are generally in the form, “How do I build a cooperative society where the inhabitants do X and not Y?”, there are invariably answers suggesting using religion to control the members of society, using religion to create and enforce rules. And religion often does that, enforcing a set of quite arbitrary rules about what you can and cannot wear, what you are allowed to eat, and so on. But those rules are arbitrary and rely on an already existing framework of morals and values.

In short, morality exists before gods. God doesn’t tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, but rather, we create gods who only know what right and wrong is because they are based on us. Gods are thus projections of an idealized human, with our rules, our morals and values, and our culture. That’s why there have been so many of them over the years.

From Wikipedia:

Psychologist Matt J. Rossano muses that religion emerged after morality and built upon morality by expanding the social scrutiny of individual behavior to include supernatural agents. By including ever watchful ancestors, spirits and gods in the social realm, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups. The adaptive value of religion would have enhanced group survival.

Not that the quote proves anything… My point here is to demonstrate that my view is not unusual.

I see I haven’t even mentioned anything about the argument from morality, the religious apologists argument that god is the source of all morality, and therefore if objective morality exists, god must exist. Honestly I shouldn’t need to. It doesn’t take anything other than common sense to notice that morals and values differ by both geographic region and time. Morals change drastically as society changes, and you won’t, for example, find people burning anyone for witchcraft in modern Christian societies of the West. That’s because morality is subjective. Without objective morality, which the religious apologists claim originates from their god, the argument from morality is clearly nonsense. I refer to it as a non sequitur because it does not follow logically that morals come from a god. Of course, believers in different gods all use the same argument for their specific one, making the whole thing quite silly.

Also, in practice, such as with your typical keyboard warriors for Christ on Facebook, they never make the whole argument. Instead they generally write something else, wherein a premise assumes that atheists don’t have morals.  It makes debating them a complete waste of time because to do so, you will need to point out that their premise assumes an argument from morality and the existence of objective morality. Normally this isn’t even something they want to debate. It’s just something they assume true so they can get on to the subject that really matters to them, which is some derived bullshit not even worth considering. Actually that’s where debates with theists come apart… we ask for evidence and point out that their arguments include all kinds of ridiculous premises, such as the assumption that objective morality exists and creation being a fact, while they expect the conversation to begin at that point where their conclusions have already been assumed true. We literally have two completely different conversations going on, with no middle ground.

On the assumptions and arrogance of the argument from morality

I’m tired. Tired of seeing articles trending weekly where preachers claim that atheists have no morals because they don’t believe in god. I’ve written about this several times but was thinking it would be good to tackle it yet again, and hopefully produce something I can link to next time someone mindlessly repeats this argument.

In case you don’t know, the argument from morality is the argument that all morals come from god, and this supposedly proves that god exists. Of course to make the argument, you must first assume that god exists and then go from there, but that’s not the worst part. Theists who make this argument normally switch it around and claim that atheists don’t have morals.

So… let’s examine it logically, but instead of doing what religious apologists who make this argument do, which is to assume implicitly that their god exists, make some points that don’t add up, and then conclude what they assumed up-front, let’s do this in a syllogism that’s a little more honest, and actually state the assumptions as premises, state the inference that those premises lead to, and then sincerely ask if the world behaves as this syllogism tells us it does…

  1. Premise one: Assume god exists.
  2. Premise two: Assume god is the source of absolute objective morality.
  3. Premise three: Assume that somehow we are all bound (magically?) by this objective morality.
  4. Premise four: Assume that god also created free will, and that because of this free will, we may choose not to be moral.
  5. Conclusion: If all the above is true, we can infer that this objective morality binding all of us should be observable, across time and geography.

That’s a heck of a lot of assumptions (all of which are wrong) but that’s what the religious apologists assume. They’re just dishonest about them and rather argue pseudo logic that conveniently concludes what they assumed, but let’s ignore that. Does the world work like the conclusion says it should? Does it? Really?

The thing is, people of the same religion don’t all have exactly the same moral values. In fact, we have compassion for others, and that’s about all there is that’s close to absolute. Unless you’re a psychopath, you probably have some common values because you care about other people. The rest is learned… from our parents, our peers, our laws, and other factors in the societies where we live.

But those values change over time. We don’t burn witches or stone brides who are found not to be virgins. Not anymore. Except some people in less modern, and more religious cultures… still do those things. Interesting, isn’t it? Behaviour that most of would regard as primitive and less moral than ourselves, is linked to religion. But certainly there is no observable evidence of any kind of objective morality binding us.

More significantly though, even if we assume that objective morality exists, why would disbelief (in the god who you assumed created this morality) lead to a person without morals? It doesn’t follow logically at all.

As an atheist, I don’t believe in god, but that doesn’t mean I’m not good. It does mean that I’ve put a lot of thought into the religion I was brought up with, and that I rejected it. It also means that unlike some Christians who read their prejudices into their religion as an excuse for having them, for example for women, people of colour and people with different sexual orientations, I can’t do that. Having grown up a white man in apartheid South Africa, having heard racism “justified” by twisted religious rhetoric (and hearing in again recently from the likes of Donald Trump and his ilk), I had much time to think about those things and reject all kinds of prejudice, including misogyny, racism, and homophobia. Without religion to hide behind, I am a far better person.

The truth is, when someone claims that atheists don’t have morals, they out themselves as arrogant and narrow-minded people with hatred for their fellow human beings, but who are really saying, “I’m better than you because you don’t believe exactly what I believe”. They out themselves as people who aren’t terribly bright and who have poor moral values.

Reminder: There is no objective morality that comes from your god. Not all Christians being homophobic demonstrates this.

One of the most common claims I read in atheist vs theist debate groups was that atheists have no morals. It’s the flip side of the argument from morality – the claim that morals come from your god. Incidentally, it doesn’t follow logically that atheists wouldn’t have morals, even if we were to assume the claim that they came from your god was true. Does disbelief “uncreate” your god’s creations?

I have always responded to this claim by arguing that morality is subjective, and that since moral values are different in different locations, even in the same year and same religion, this demonstrates that the claim of objective god-given morality is nonsense. But I forgot about something: homophobia.

asshole_god

Not all Christians are homophobic. That inconsistency should tell you something. Some of them claim that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin. Some do not. In fact, one has to reach and use some creative interpretation to find anything that truly refers to homosexuality in the Bible. As always, believers read their own morals into the Bible, so those who hate LGBTQ people will always tell you it’s a sin. Those who don’t, will not.

I don’t care what your Bible says about it. It’s a book of nonsense anyway. The only reason it matters to me is that these different interpretations of it apparently result in Christians who have very different moral values, right now. A couple of hundred years ago, Christians’ morality involved accusing people of witchcraft, and punishing them for it. So without even considering that Christians, who mostly no longer believe in witches, used to stone or burn them hundreds of years ago (and still  do in some remote places), we can see that right now, morality among Christians is subjective.

That’s the way it has always been. You get your morals regionally… from your parents, your peers, and the beliefs prevalent in society. Then, if you are religious, you read those morals into your religion, and claim that they came from your god. And as the meme used shows, if those “morals” happen to be hateful, you claim it’s not you, but the rules of your god.

If you credit god with your morality, do you also thank him for teaching you not to chew with your mouth open?

Assuming you have table manners, of course…

Over the years, I’ve heard and read the crazy argument from morality, the idea that our morals come from god via religious teachings, from many people, even my own brother. He was quick to remind me of my religious upbringing, as if that somehow gave me my moral values. I honestly don’t get it. Maybe he can’t remember back to before Sunday school? I can.

I remember the first time I attended, at six years old. I remember arriving late my first day, to everybody in class singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”… and feeling isolated because they knew the words while I did not. I remember a couple of weeks later, going to Mass alone, until the rest of the family attended with me. My brother, being two years younger than me, missed those years when our family wasn’t too religious.

I remember sitting alone in Mass, thinking of the stories I’d heard about crazy old Uncle Steve and the crazy Old Apostolic church – looking for the holy spirit under the benches. I played a little game… looking around the church, under the benches, in the front of the church, the back of the church, and so on… Where is this god guy? I don’t see him. Maybe he’s hiding behind the alter?

I soon caught on. God is just an idea. An abstract concept (though I did not know that word), but one that I must believe existed in physical form and actually showed up around two thousand years ago. Same goes for angels. I didn’t buy it. I still believed in god then, but never really believed in Jesus, confession, or a while bunch of other things. I was never very good at being Catholic.

The point is, I remember. I remember already having my moral values before I ever attended Sunday School for the first time. I remember not being taught my morality there, but instead being taught a bunch of nonsense, a bunch of prayers to know off by heart, and when I was older, a bunch of harmful nonsense about contraception being wrong.

So my question stands. If you credit god with your morality, do you also thank him for teaching you not to chew with your mouth open? Because it’s the same thing… Like table manners, you learn most of your morality from your parents, and the rest from your upbringing, from the accepted rules and norms of society around you.

Today I’ve written only about the way we actually learn our morality. If you aren’t much of a critical thinker, and don’t look around and observe the way morality differs in geographical regions, even among the same religions and time period, you might still argue for some kind of god given objective morality. But you have to be willfully ignorant to think that.

I found this eloquently written rebuttal of the so-called argument from morality, and had to share it…

I don’t normally do this – share the writing of other atheists, I mean. But this article is so well stated that I just can’t help myself. Please go and read it here. (Note that the argument from morality is the fallacious argument that morality is objective, absolute, and comes from god.)

The writer is in my Facebook friends list, not that I can remember how he got there. But I love the way he approaches the subject. Morality is subjective, and I love the way this post describes his journey and his search for truth, through his belief in god.

He’s passionate about atheism, but it’s how he got there that interests me, and his writing is not dismissive of Christian sensibilities, as mine is… It’s fascinating how he reached atheism through a sincere and thoughtful exploration of his understanding of god, and that through his belief he ultimately rejected god as being a false teaching.

Whereas I rejected god outright long ago through logic alone, without caring to study it, much like I don’t care to study other bullshit I don’t believe in, his path to atheism through the exploration of his sincerely held belief was longer and more difficult. Yet he came out of it a man who can write a thoughtful and respectful take on this difficult subject. I only became passionate about atheism because, through rehab and then 12 step bullshit recovery culture, I had the nonsense of religion imposed on me. It turned out, despite my Roman Catholic upbringing and professed Christianity, I never truly understood the message of Christianity until then. Once I did, I found it insulting and rejected it.

Why logical fallacies interest me

A while ago I wrote about circular reasoning. Today I read another example of it, which better illustrates the other name for this fallacy: begging the question:

twat

(Oops. Forgot to blur the twat’s name. Hopefully she won’t be in that group for much longer anyway.) Sorry, twat.

Not that it needs explanation, but the above meme assumes indirectly that god created us, then asks about god as if the assumption answers everything. That’s a classic example of begging the question, since the premises includes the claim that the conclusion is true.

I hadn’t even heard of logical fallacies until about four years ago. The truth is, I started out as gullible as could be… In the throes of meth addiction, I was interested in the occult, just like everybody else (on meth). My girlfriend was interested in Wicca, white magic, black magic, astrology and so on… I even bought us each a deck of tarot cards at one stage, though admittedly I chose mine because I liked the art – mine were all depictions from the legend of King Arthur. (Those cards were sold long ago, but I think it was this deck. Not that it’s relevant to this post, but selling stuff was something she did back then… including those cards and many other things that I bought. I don’t know if all addicts do that… I didn’t.)

It became my duty (since I was the one working) to research all her interests online. (No, really. If I didn’t take her every interest seriously, I was accused of “not being supportive”. And I was interested in some of it too.) I tried to be as fair as I could, and found as much information as I could on each topic, then printed it all out for her. But in my objectivity, I didn’t limit myself to articles written by believers, as I thought it would be best to get different points of view. So my credulity didn’t last terribly long, and within days of starting my research, I began debunking everything she believed in. (She was not happy with that.) Then my skepticism got helped along by accident… I’d believed in astrology for a while, and printed out our generated charts… proper Natal charts and reports using the most popular Astrology software I could find. But in my methamphetamine-addled stupor, I somehow mixed up our charts… yet the wrong chart, with it’s plentiful Barnum statements, applied to me just as well as my own. That was the turning point for me, and I soon found myself believing in nothing without evidence. For a couple of years, it became my pet obsession, something to tweak on while I was high. But with sobriety, although my obsession isn’t quite what it was while using, I have something I didn’t have then; a genuine passion for skepticism.

As I mentioned, about four years ago I discovered bad arguments and logical fallacies, and I have gradually been learning about them ever since. I find them fascinating, because in my opinion, I am using that same part of my brain that drove my gullibility and my credulity, the pattern-matching part of my brain, except rather than use it to see patterns and find meaning or significance where none exists, I now recognize patterns in arguments of believers. Once you start to see them, they’re hard to miss. Especially when it comes to religious apologetics, there are no logical arguments and no new arguments… Just the same assumptions made, and logical fallacies stated. (I mostly debate believers of Abrahamic religions, and it doesn’t matter which religion they are; their arguments are interchangeable.)

At first when debating, I wasn’t at all confident, but after a couple of years, it has reached a point where I’m not just spotting patterns anymore – Now, I often recognize the person’s thinking that’s going on behind their statements. It makes for a fun debate, because I can attack the thought process, and the often subconsciously held illogical assumptions and  motivations behind somebody’s statement aggressively, and that makes them angry. It makes them angry because they don’t want to face their own contradictory beliefs and irrational assumptions… They often think that they are rational, so facing their subconsciously held nonsensical assumptions causes a feeling of discomfort. For example: Read their statement… then instead of countering the straw man of atheism they try to impose on me, point out the implicit assumptions they have made, the fallacious belief behind the straw man (usually argument from morality, or circular reasoning, sometimes with an argument from first cause and its sprinkle of special pleading, or maybe an argument from ignorance), and deny them their request for evidence of a negative. Remind them how burden of proof is supposed to work.

Of course, debating people and making them angry doesn’t help them, but I don’t care. It’s the audience I care about – those who read or hear the debate, not the delusional believer.