Why scientists believe: morality

Let’s finish up this short series with statements of faith by a few more scientists.  These come from Andrew Zak Williams’s article in the New Statesman, in which he asked public figures and scientists to explain why they believe in God.  The emphases in bold are mine.

First, Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at The University of East Anglia:

There are many reasons—lines of evidence, if you will—all of which weave together to point me in a certain direction (much as a scientist or a jury might do before reaching a considered judgement), which we call a belief.

[I believe] because there is non-trivial historical evidence that a person called Jesus of Naza­reth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, and it just so happens that He predicted that He would . . . I believe because of the testimony of billions of believers, just a few of whom are known to me and in whom I trust (and hence trust their testimony).

I believe because of my ineradicable sense that certain things I see and hear about in the world warrant the non-arbitrary categories of “good” or “evil”. I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created—willed into being—by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

David Myers, professor of psychology, Hope College, Michigan:

[Our] spirituality, rooted in the developing biblical wisdom and in a faith tradition that crosses the centuries, helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

Douglas Hedley, reader in metaphysics, Clare College, Cambridge (he’s a philosopher/theologian, but we’ll dub him an honorary scientist for this post):

Do values such as truth, beauty and goodness emerge out of a contingent and meaningless substrate? Or do these values reflect a transcendent domain from which this world has emerged? I incline to the latter, and this is a major reason for my belief in God.

The common theme of these three is morality: morality must come from a “transcendent domain” of religion.  Religion gives us a “mandate for morality,” and those “non-arbitrary” distinctions between “good” and “evil” are strong arguments for God.

I’m starting to realize that for many the presence of human morality is the most powerful argument for a god.  Certainly Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health director, thinks so: he claims that there is no explanation other than God for what he calls the “Moral Law”:  the internal feeling of right and wrong we have about many acts.

Yet none of these people seem to even consider the alternative arguments for morality.  For one, many moral sentiments may have been instilled in our ancestors by natural selection (Frans de Waal has almost made a career of showing the building blocks of morality in our primate relatives), so that of course they’d feel instinctive.  Too, the faculty of reasoning about our behavior, unique among animals, combined with instruction from parents and peers, could produce equally innate feelings. After all, religion comes from instruction and tradition, not God, and yet people feel innate religious drives.  Innateness is no evidence for divinity.

There are many other counterarguments, which I’m taking up in a newspaper piece I’m writing.  If you derive morality from God, how come atheists and religious people give similar answers to moral dilemmas (the work of Marc Hauser and colleagues)?  And if morality comes from God, why has what we view as “moral” changed so much in modern times?  Most of us now feel that slavery and the subjugation of women, racial minorities and gays are immoral, but they weren’t seen that way a few centuries ago. Did God’s orders change?

And what about the “morality” of scripture? Clearly God once ordered all kinds of genocide and murder, including rape and (my favorite story) inducing a bear to murder forty-two youths for simply making fun of Elisha’s bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24).  Believers don’t really see that kind of morality (death for insulting a man of God) as mandated by scripture: we all know that they pick and choose what they see as moral from their scripture.  (It’s also obvious that different scriptures give different moralities: Muslim “morality” differs from Christian “morality”).

This picking and choosing is symptomatic of the real basis of morality: innate feelings or reasons that are logically prior to religion.  Religious people have yet to come to grips with Plato’s Euthyphro argument (originally couched in terms of piety rather than morality, but the principle is the same): we would not follow God’s “morality” if God decreed that we perform acts like taking slaves or killing the wives and children of our enemies.  That’s because we don’t really think that morality is equivalent to the dictates of God. Rather, we have an prior notion of what is moral. If you respond that God is good, and would never ask people to commit immoral acts, that too shows that you have a notion of morality that’s prior to God.  (It also shows that you haven’t read the Bible.)

This is absolutely supported by changes in morality over the centuries—changes that have not come from religious dogma or scripture, but from either science or secular morality dragging religious “morality” kicking and screaming into the modern era. (This drastic temporal change in what we feel is right and wrong is perhaps the strongest evidence that morality is not divinely decreed, but largely man-made—perhaps a social coating around a Darwinian core.)

I don’t see any way around this argument, though I’m sure clever theologians have found a way to circumvent it.  But, based on experience, I’m pretty sure their circumambulations won’t be convincing.

Now many of my readers have read far more theology than I.  So how do theologians deal with the Euthyphro argument that morality cannot come from God?

It’s incumbent on us to learn about these arguments, for the morality card is fast becoming the most popular rationale for faith.


  1. Hempenstein
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    Morality indeed. Images of the Inquisition Museum in Columbia that you posted keep coming to mind.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      Erp! Colombia!

  2. Egbert
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    It is sad to see otherwise intelligent scientists forego their critical thinking when it comes to morality.

    Like everything else, morality is naturalistic. We are not born more or less as a blank slate, and it takes years of experience to begin to understand the complexities of how to interact with others.

    We use our senses but also our emotions in interacting with others. Our emotions are intimately tied to our complex social interactions.

    Paul Ekman did some research which discovered around seven universal facial expressions which communicated non-verbally and directly to others their emotional state.

    The truth is, there is no coherent correlation between belief and morality. They simply believe they are moral by following their religion. But people are moral or immoral because they’re human, and has nothing to do with following anything. In fact it even goes beyond humanity into the greater animal kingdom. No other animal needs a book to tell them how to behave.

    • Egbert
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

      Sorry, slight correction: “We are born more or less as a blank slate.”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        I think both of those works.

        As the article notes, “the building blocks” seems to be there and moral reactions are more or less universal. So it isn’t an entirely blank slate that is presented us.

        Then again, as you note it takes years of experience to activate these blocks and build universal reactions in proper context. And on top of that we have morality or at least moral intent that differ over populations and time. So it isn’t an entirely written slate that is presented us.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

          I absolutely agree: I preferred Egbert’s first formulation, too.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        Actually this can be qualified further. I read that, as in so many other cases, what we do reactively and what we do deliberately differ on morality too. (But I can’t find that paper again. :-/)

        So there may be two types of moral response. I would tentatively identify those as “moral reaction” and “moral intent” respectively.

  3. Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    As Michael Shermer pointed out several years ago: beliefs come first, then supporting reasons are found or invented. That’s why these reasons and “evidences” invariably sound so lame to unbelievers.

  4. Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    “First, Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at The University of East Anglia:”

    Oh, so NOW the opinions of climate scientists count?

  5. Ian
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    A website:
    explains why this mauling occurred. You say that secular morality dragged religious morality into the modern era isn’t true. The philosopher Hume had a very low opinion of blacks and was racist, whereas Wilberforce was not. According to Simon Schama the British acquired an accidental empire in Africa because missionaries were going in to stop the slave trade organised by Muslims and African rulers. The American slaves used passages in the Bible of Moses and Isrealites being freed from slavery of Egypt in their own fight for freedom.

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      OMG, this is an explanation?

      In summary, 2 Kings 2:23-24 is not an account of God mauling young children for making fun of a bald man. Rather, it is a record of an insulting demonstration against God’s prophet by a large group of young men. Because these young people of about 20 years of age or older (the same term is used of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:7) so despised the prophet of the Lord, Elisha called upon the Lord to deal with the rebels as He saw fit. The Lord’s punishment was the mauling of 42 of them by two female bears. The penalty was clearly justified, for to ridicule Elisha was to ridicule the Lord Himself. The seriousness of the crime was indicated by the seriousness of the punishment. The appalling judgment was God’s warning to all who would scorn the prophets of the Lord.

      “Clearly justified” punishment? That shows that God is evil, for he killed 42 kids for making fun of “God’s prophet.” That’s insane. That’s not an explanation, but a pathetic and invidious rationalization. I can’t imagine anybody who would worship such a malicious, arrogant, and self-centered god.

      • Helena Constantine
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        Its also bad philology. The Hebrew term involved does not refer to adult men, but to the gang of boys too young to work (i.e. 8 years old or less) that forms in every subsistence-agricultural village.

      • gk4c4
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

        Justification! It justifies what you wrote about the bald-head!

        LOL! iz d00dz kul wats?

        (love your kittish talkz – wonder if you would produce a guide to the kittish 😀 )

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      This calls for the recrudescence of a perennial classic is cinematic grandeur.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        “-So on! – The onnest!”


        She-bears were a nice touch too.

        • Posted April 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          Love the necklaces.

          If you mock a story about people getting punished for mocking, do you get punisheder?

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      Everyone who reads this site knows that there are good Christians, evil non-Christians, good non-Christians, and evil Christians. You’re picking examples from the first two groups, and that’s a really amateur mistake. It’s called “anecdotal evidence”. Also, it’s a really black and white view of people and history. Have you ever met a person? They’re really complicated. There is no way that the way you just described the world is the way you really think the world works. What you said probably just made sense to you long enough to construct what you thought would be a good enough argument. If you want to have this argument for reals, you need evidence of an overall trend, not just isolated examples.

      • Helena Constantine
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        The point is that Christinaity is an inherently evil religion. it is a testament to human worth that some Christians are good people despite being Christians. If they really followed biblical morality they would be justified in oppressing women and homosexuals and owning slaves, which would make them evil (and it is Paul who endorses those practices, not only the Hebrew Bible).

        • Ian
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

          I believe the Christian argument is that this is a fallen world, so slavery and oppressing women can be tolerated, especially as you weren’t going to survive much beyond the age of 40 at the time of Paul

          • Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            “So”? Jeepers.

            • Ian
              Posted April 23, 2011 at 1:15 am | Permalink

              So the Early Christians were pragmatic. The Greeks and Romans they were trying to convert would only accept a certain level of morality. Suppose they had tried to push a stricter moral code on them, such as Jainism, do you really think they would have got anywhere? You could say that the present society is evil because people do not take a broom with them so as not to kill animals in that person’s path

              • Posted April 23, 2011 at 4:04 am | Permalink

                So much Wrong in one short paragraph.

                1. If the New Testament is to be believed, the “stricter moral code” the early Christians considered pushing on would-be converts was that of the Old Testament — which involves, er, slavery and oppressing women.

                2. Your original statement was that Christians say the world is “fallen” and therefore slavery and oppressing women can be tolerated. What you’re saying now has *nothing whatever* to do with that.

                3. Since when was “we have to do X, because otherwise we won’t get all the converts we want” any sort of moral justification for doing X?

              • Ian
                Posted April 23, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

                I am taking my comments from this site where this is more or less what he says. I might have paraphrased what he says wrongly, so apologise for that. It is at:http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/58944/was_the_apostle_paul_proslavery_pg2.html?cat=9
                I am no expert on early Christianity

              • Ichthyic
                Posted April 23, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                you’re no expert on ANYTHING, Ian, and are a chickenshit who won’t even take responsibility for expressing their own viewpoint, but when called on it’s inanity, instead point to someone else as the source.

                If you don’t realize how pathetic that is, it’s time you did.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      And American slavers used passages in the bible to defend the practice.

      No kidding, if that’s not the worst argument ever in favor of “divine” morality, I don’t know what is.

      • Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

        Oh, I can top that. Easy. Too easy.

        In Mein Kampf, Hitler uses extended scriptural quotes and references as the foundation for all he did.

        And Mein Kampf wasn’t exactly an original work; Martin Luther could well have written the book, instead.



        • Kevin
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

          Ben: Luther did write the book.

          On the Jews and Their Lies

          Some quotes:
          “…everyone would gladly be rid of them.”

          “If I had power over the Jews, as our princes and cities have, I would deal severely with their lying mouth.”

          “They [rulers] must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did…If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs.”

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      I can name a glaring example of Ian lying, and that is his statement about “missionaries trying to stop slavery”. That is not what Simon Shama says. In fact, what he mentions is that despite the brutality if slavery in the empire, for a very long time, essentially no one spoke a word against it. (Even though everyone was presumed to be a devout christian).

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Way to make Coyne’s point for him. It is this type of behavior that reflects from the dragging (lying for “God”) and the kicking and screaming (arguing a moot point) respectively.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      the present day rationalizations are even more troubling that the evil that God is portrayed doing. I don’t have high moral expectations for the authors of Kings who lived 2500 years ago. I do expect that we have advanced as a culture enough in 2500 years that “they mocked a prophet” is not considered a moral justification for killing children . Religion tells people again and again that morally disgusting acts are commanded by God. Is it any wonder that people turn around and do them?

      • Tim
        Posted April 23, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. Ian is a shining example of the evil of Christianity. He offers up a truly pathetic defense of God’s having had 42 people killed because they had the temerity to mock God’s prophet. (And he thinks it’s OK because they weren’t children – whether his web site is right about the translation scarcely matters, and he doesn’t see that either.)

        Ian: If any HUMAN leader had 42 people summarily executed because they had mocked some of his acolytes, s/he would be consider a vicious, murdering megalomaniac. When God does it, it’s justified. THAT is what is scary about religion.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      The youths’ behaviour was uncouth, but they were given cruel and unusual punishment for exercising first amendment rights.

      What’s also amazing about this story is not just God’s vindictiveness, but the ability of two bears to catch 42 youths who must have stood round waiting to be mauled.

  6. Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    If morality comes from god does that mean if god told me to kill my babies that would be a moral act?

    If killing a baby cannot be immoral, then did god have a choice in deciding what is moral or immoral?

    If killing babies is immoral then why did god do it? Or is it only moral when god kills babies because god is exempt from morality?

    Morality is possibly a deist’s strongest argument, but not Jews/Christians/Muslims are on very thin ice.

    • Matt G
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Theists can rationalize acts of evil (killing babies, in your example) while atheists/agnostics cannot. Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things, but for good people to do bad things requires religion (does anyone know the origin of this paraphrase?). I think you could also use ideology in place of religion – that whatever evil you are doing is serving a higher cause (i.e., ends justify means).

      • Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Steven Weinberg — quoted many places around the web

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

          It is pertinent to the discussion, Ian made it so:

          “It is certainly true that the campaign against slavery and the slave trade was greatly strengthened by devout Christians, including the Evangelical layman William Wilberforce in England and the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in America. But Christianity, like other great world religions, lived comfortably with slavery for many centuries, and slavery was endorsed in the New Testament. So what was different for anti-slavery Christians like Wilberforce and Channing? There had been no discovery of new sacred scriptures, and neither Wilberforce nor Channing claimed to have received any supernatural revelations. Rather, the eighteenth century had seen a widespread increase in rationality and humanitarianism that led others—for instance, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan—also to oppose slavery, on grounds having nothing to do with religion. Lord Mansfield, the author of the decision in Somersett’s Case, which ended slavery in England (though not its colonies), was no more than conventionally religious, and his decision did not mention religious arguments. Although Wilberforce was the instigator of the campaign against the slave trade in the 1790s, this movement had essential support from many in Parliament like Fox and Pitt, who were not known for their piety. As far as I can tell, the moral tone of religion benefited more from the spirit of the times than the spirit of the times benefited from religion.

          Where religion did make a difference, it was more in support of slavery than in opposition to it. Arguments from scripture were used in Parliament to defend the slave trade. Frederick Douglass told in his Narrative how his condition as a slave became worse when his master underwent a religious conversion that allowed him to justify slavery as the punishment of the children of Ham. Mark Twain described his mother as a genuinely good person, whose soft heart pitied even Satan, but who had no doubt about the legitimacy of slavery, because in years of living in antebellum Missouri she had never heard any sermon opposing slavery, but only countless sermons preaching that slavery was God’s will. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.

          [“A Designer Universe?” by Steven Weinberg, address at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. in April 1999; my bold.]

          • Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            Thanks, I’ve heard the phrase many times, but hadn’t actually known its context.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        “Theists can rationalize acts of evil…while atheists/agnostics cannot.”

        Not true. Religion is certainly convenient for this purpose, but any broad, large-scale social ethic can be used to justify small-scale acts that appear to be unethical. Of course, the acts aren’t evil in this context, but you know what I mean.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

          Yes. Framing. ʘ‿ʘ

          Just kidding. The ethic of gnus, do not cover up facts, can indeed be used to justify unethical acts, say unnecessarily hurtful and/or inflated exposure.

          [Do I need to say it? Criticizing religion isn’t any of that, as long as religion is pervasive and/or hurtful.]

      • Posted August 8, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        I think you’d have to include ideology otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense in relation to reality.

        Arguably though a good person who would do evil in the name of anything isn’t a good person at all.

        It’s easy to be good when you haven’t the need, means or opportunity to do bad.

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    because there is non-trivial historical evidence that a person called Jesus of Naza­reth rose from the dead 2,000 years ago…

    Uh, what? We have accounts written by religious wackos several decades after the alleged events. Despite the fact that several of those accounts are clearly not independent, they disagree over the actual events. We have no mention by any writer from the time of the alleged events, and some of the reported ancillary events (earthquakes, daytime darkness, hundreds of zombies rising from their graves) were so unusual that if they really had happened, it would be odd indeed if they had not been noted by historical writers who inhabited the region. How does that rise to the definition of “non-trivial historical evidence”?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      Then there are the Gnostic gospels, which give some very different accounts of what went on. But somehow the believers are able to sort out which of the Gospels are reliable historical accounts and which ones can be ignored.

      • Helena Constantine
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        That’s nothing to with belief. The Gnostic writings are much alter than the Gospels and are clearly disinterested in history. They certainly have nothing to do with the historical Jesus (who is barely discernible in the Canonicals and Thomas, and Secret Mark–those two being the only other late first century witnesses).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Good. Needs more intestines though.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        Sorry, that was better _”May need”_. Taste vs unwarranted criticism.

  8. debunk
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    William Lane Craig has this to say on the matter:

    “So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

    On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.”

    Basically, whatever god orders is good by definition. It has nothing whatsoever to do with morality, in my opinion.

    • John D Stackpole
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      Did Craig really spout such twaddle?

      Did he go on to explain what was the communications conduit thru which an individual learns of such “divine commands”?

      • debunk
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:25 am | Permalink

        No, Craig doesn’t go into that on that page. I’m sure he has come up with excuses, but I’ve exceeded my daily Craig limit, so I’ll leave it to others to research it.

        Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go scrub out my brain with bleach.

        • GroovyJ
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

          In the recent debate with Sam Harris, that point was raised several times, and Craig refused to address it, claiming that epistemic questions were outside the scope of the debate.

          So yeah, my assumption would be that he has no convincing answer.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Those who carry out commands of God which would be wrong were they not commanded of God need something stronger than a mere “communication conduit.” They need to have a method of discovery which cannot be wrong — it cannot be mistaken, distorted, misinterpreted, misunderstood, invented, or be subject to any kind of error or uncertainty at all.

        Even when used by fallible humans. Without any method for cross-checking themselves.

        Sheesh. I would argue that such an “infallible method” could NOT be used by fallible beings without being subject to failure — which entails that the “infallible method” can’t exist, it’s a self-contradiction. And for examples I would point to any “false” bit of special revelation that a believer would admit was both sincere, and yet wrong.

        There is nothing more arbitrary than whatever the heck people think they are getting from subjective, untestable, unprovable, unworldly sources beyond human ability to understand or question whose existence depends on making an unwarranted leap of “faith.” And this is supposed to anchor human morality to a rock?

    • debunk
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I forgot to include a link, it’s from his own website.

    • Aqua Buddha
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      God applies stricter moral standards to others than to himself. That’s the exact opposite of what decent moral beings do.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

        Indeed. The way religion resolves (to keep) this particular cognitive dissonance is by yanking the demand for observing moral agent behavior and replace it with a mandate that “God” is a moral agent by fiat. So this agent killing (say, as Elisha is on the table) is OK.

        In short, the same ol’ special pleading as always.

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      It’s a very authoritarian mindset – obedience is more important than independent thought. Which is a horrible moral system in itself, because it is pretty much set up to be abused.

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created—willed into being—by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

    And what about ugliness, falsehood and hatred? Does God embody those also? Or do you have to go to a dual God-Satan pair to cover that stuff? And if so, how can God be both all-powerful and all-good if he allowed Satan to happen?

    There is better evidence that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” that that beauty requires a supernatural explanation.

    These people are giving some very unconvincing reasons for their belief.

    • That Guy Montag
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      I believe the standard reply to the Euthyphro is that goodness is an intrinsic property of God. For God to give an evil command would apparently be something akin to a square being circle or something to that effect. I think it’s safe to say that the argument against would possibly start “imagine the perfect island…” or maybe by challenging the (Pan?)gloss on their interpretation of good.

      • JBlilie
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        Yes: Making up new definitions of good (if we can’t understand it to be good, then it isn’t good) is a form of invoking magic. Magic is impermissible: It violates the rules of logic, evidence, and correct debate.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          Also, it magically transpires that something that can explain (predict) everything does not explain (predict) anything. While that certainly applies to “God” as explanation, it obviates the need to further discuss morality of omnibenevolent constructs.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        Or the argument could start by asking the person who uses it by what standard is the ‘goodness that is an intrinsic property of God’ really, truly good? How do we figure that out? And who decides?

        • That Guy Montag
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Maybe but isn’t that just repeating the Euthyphro against their reply? I guess we could but I think we could also point out, as the reference to the Ontological Argument was supposed to, that you don’t get to arbitrarily define God as anything and expect it to stick. The reference to Candide builds the argument a little further in that direction.

          • Sastra
            Posted April 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            Maybe, though I would be cautious about bringing the Ontological Argument and all its ofuscation into the Moral Argument in hopes that it will help clear up some of the confusion in the latter. The OA probably isn’t going to be good at clearing up confusion for anything. But I think you’re right — the problem is that both arguments are trying to do way too much with a definition. You don’t avoid the innate subjectivity in an evaluation by stipulating a value in a definition.

            • That Guy Montag
              Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure that’s how I’d put it. It makes it sound as if the reason we think divine command fails is because it’s insufficiently subjective which is a different argument. In fact surely it’s better to keep the Euthyphro as a catch all argument and not tie it down too much by bringing subjectivity into it?

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      when people speak of beauty they think of high mountains or flowers. They tie beauty and sight. But no god can explain the beauty of Mozart’s music.

      • Posted April 24, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        Easy. Mozart was a god.

        • Posted April 27, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          That reminds me of the old joke (and I thought it was Steve Martin’s, but I can’t find a proper attribution)

          1. God is Love
          2. Love is blind
          3. Therefore, Ray Charles is God

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      They aren’t reasons to believe. They are reasons not to give up their belief. That’s all we’re getting nowadays.

      • Wowbagger
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

        Exactly. None of it has any effect on non-believers (who see it for the sophistry it s); all it does is give those actually think about their faith an intellectually dishonest way of alleviating their cognitive dissonance.

  10. Insightful Ape
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    So beauty, truth and love exist, therefore god must personify them? Interesting. How about ugliness, falsehood, and hate? Those exist too. But god doesn’t personify those?
    “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I the LORD do all these things.”

  11. David Leech
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Short version.

    Mike Hulme.

    I believe because of my family and culture believes.

    David Myers.

    I believe because I need a big daddy in the sky.

    Douglas Hedley. Honourary scientist my ass he’s a theologian and I mean that as an insult.

    Look at the pretty flower therefore god.

  12. Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    “So how do theologians deal with the Euthyphro argument that morality cannot come from God?”

    Change the subject or muddy the water.

  13. daveau
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    There is just so much to respond to here. But it really just boils down to the inability to be self-critical or intellectually consistent. Nice things: therefore god. Sheesh.

  14. Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I think part of the problem is that many people are unable to imagine how morality could possibly be the result of evolution, just as they’re often unable to imagine how the eye could be either.

    And, so, I think it would be immensely helpful to explain, in simple terms, similar to what Richard did for the eye many moons ago in his Christmas lecture, just how morality could be the result of evolutionary processes.

    Let’s start with the position that theists so love to claim is the inevitable result of godlessness: a world without morality in which everybody goes around murdering and raping and pillaging.

    The result should be patently obvious: such a society would instantly self-immolate in a mass orgy of death. Every time two individuals met, one would wind up raping the other before feasting on the remains, preying-mantis-style. None of its members would survive long enough to reproduce.

    So, let’s now suppose that a very few members of this society had a random mutation that somewhat lessened their blood lust, enough to the point that they’d wait a bit before killing each other. This small pocket of lessened barbarity might actually survive long enough to reproduce; as a result, the wait-before-killing gene would become ubiquitous after only a single generation.

    Some generations pass, and another mutation randomly arises, one which causes the mutants to come to the defense of other mutants. Suddenly, the mortality rate of these particular mutants plummets in comparison with the non-mutants and, again, they become the dominant members of the species…

    …and, whaddyaknow, this species now has a rudimentary form of morality that we’d all recognize. They don’t go on murderous rampages at the drop of a hat and they come to the aid of their neighbors when their neighbors are in trouble.

    I’ll close with a challenge to anybody who rejects the notion that morality is something other than an evolutionarily-driven behavioral strategy (in the game theory sense of the world) that provides optimal results: name one single fill-in-the-blank that you yourself can defend as being moral that is a net detriment to a species in which its members have a propensity to whatever-you-pick.



    • daveau
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      a world without morality in which everybody goes around murdering and raping and pillaging.

      The result should be patently obvious: such a society would instantly self-immolate in a mass orgy of death.

      Therefore, God. Sorry, man. Hoist by your own petard…

      • Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Sure, for those who think that Darwin himself wrote that it’s impossible for the eye to have evolved. But there’s no way one can even pretend to reason with such mendacity.



        • daveau
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

          I just love the smell of quote-mining in the morning…

          • Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

            Meh. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer napalm.


      • Kevin
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        Numbers 31…just sayin’.

        • daveau
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

          Pay no attention to that god behind the curtain!

          (No! Not Zur! Please, not Zur…)

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      I’ll close with a challenge to anybody who rejects the notion that morality is something other than an evolutionarily-driven behavioral strategy (in the game theory sense of the world) that provides optimal results

      Quibble: evolution doesn’t strive for optimality. Eyes aren’t perfect (blind spots, glasses, etc) and clearly, neither is morality. Which actually makes an evolutionary origin of morality a lot more sensible than a divine origin.

    • gk4c4
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      “.. a world without morality in which everybody goes around murdering and raping and pillaging..”

      this is not a valid proposition, no such world in primates, even mammalians.

  15. Kevin
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    OK. If there are “nonarbital” morals …

    1. What are they?
    2. Where in the holy books does it say so?

    I’m pretty sure that everyone can agree that not raping a child is a nonarbital moral standard.

    Where, please, does it say in the Bible that one should not rape a child? Chapter and verse, please.

    Oh wait…there is no such prohibition. And famously, Numbers 31 lists virgin women AND children as spoils of war that the men may “keep for themselves”. Um…er…well…

    Child rape is a BENEFIT.

    Oh, I know. I’m being harsh for pointing out the rank hypocrisy.

    • JBlilie
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Really intolerant and strident of you!

    • gk4c4
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Yea. In a time when you died young, no pensions, no social benefits.. what do you expect when you go to war for your kings or gods?

      Booties, virgins, and children as sexual or whatever subjects ! (heh)
      Moslems are much more direct about these, since Mo had to split the booties, but the old-testament is definitely the same guide.

      That’s not ok, but that’s history, something in the past that we all are not proud of but nonetheless happened.

      The crazy thing is if you try to justify “morality” based on these old-time stories for today’s world.

  16. Quikmerc
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I can elaborate a bit on the fundamentalist evangelical Christian response. I have a Bachelor of Science in Advanced Biblical Studies (I find that to be an ironic juxtaposition of words only now that I am an agnostic). The arguments from a fundamentalist evangelical Christian would go something like this:
    Let’s take a step back from the discussion of morality to look at what determines the rightness or wrongness of an action. We need to look at it in terms of sin and righteousness. An action is morally wrong because it is a sin, an offense against God’s commands and even his very nature. God is the definition of righteousness and anything contrary to God’s righteousness is sin. God cannot command anything unrighteous or immoral because it goes against his nature (fun with circular reasoning).
    Our view of morality, sin, and righteousness has been skewed by the presence of sin in the world and we are incapable of making moral judgments on our own. Therefore, if God commands something that seems immoral in the Bible, it is because he has larger designs and plans and knows the hearts of those who were being punished. We cannot judge God’s actions because he is righteous, we are not, and he knows what we do not. We must simply trust that God is just and righteous because he is. (pay no attention to the man behind the curtain)
    Finally (this is the fun part of evangelical Christian discussions – a theology called dispensationalism), God dealt with his people Israel in the Old Testament differently than he deals with people today. Under the Old Covenant God made specific promises to the nation of Israel, to grant them land and prosperity so long as they followed him alone. In modern times we are under the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus Christ and do not share in the specific promises to Israel. God no longer speaks to people directly but we have the bible as our source of communication from God, so we don’t have to worry about God commanding us to kill our neighbors and take their houses. We also now have the example of Christ to follow because he serves to explain the intention of God in the Old Testament. (and don’t argue that God changed his mind, I am sure he planned on having 2 covenants the whole time) Another facet of dispensational theology is that we read scripture in a normal (historical-grammatical) sense, which could be described as literal interpretation. All scripture was written by people who were inspired by God but it still reflects the individual who wrote it and the culture who it was written for. Thus, the authors of scripture may have been accommodating cultural practices (slavery, subjugation of women, etc…) but these do not necessarily fit for us today. Proper interpretation of scripture requires historical study of the original text, but also the influence of the Holy Spirit ( you atheists couldn’t understand it if you tried because you don’t have Jebus in your brain).
    As a recovering theist I have been quite interested in the moral sense, much to the confusion of my friends and family who all assumed I would become an absolute hedonist upon rejecting my faith. I enjoyed Sam Harris’s recent work (and the lecture you hosted earlier in the month), so I am really looking forward to reading your article.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Yep. Pure unadulterated bullshit from top to bottom.

      You explained it very well — and I’ve had pretty much that exact worldview espoused to me by active Christians.

      To which I commonly reply, “In that case, stay away from my kids. No kidding, if I see you near my kids, we’re going to have a problem.”

      And that usually shuts them up.

    • daveau
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      I’m curious. Did your evangelical education raise all these questions in your mind, resulting in your agnosticism, a la Bart Ehrman? Or did you need to ponder it (i.e. mature) for a few years?

      I respect everyone’s right to privacy; all the same, I wish that some of the WEITers could have been identified and gotten together after the Sam Harris lecture for further discussion. Even though I felt like crap at the time.

      • Quikmerc
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        It took a few years of pondering to come to my conclusion. In Bible College I was so caught up in the fact that I was right (I suppose that is true of college students in general) that I didn’t look at outside evidence. I reached a point a few years later while teaching a Sunday school class on systematic theology where I stopped asking “How can I make these opposing theologies fit?” and started asking “Why don’t these opposing theologies fit?”. That led me into reading some historical criticism (Ehrman and others) and the bottom started to fall out. Then after watching some excellent episodes of NOVA on evolution I started reading Coyne and Dawkins and finally saw the huge array of evidence for natural explanations of life.
        If you are still interested in discussing Harris with other WEIT readers I would definitely be up for meeting over a pint sometime. I work downtown Chicago so I am nearby.

        • daveau
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          That’s a good story. I’m always interested in further discussion or a pint. You (or anyone) can reach me at my handle plus the numeral nine at gmail.

        • Observer
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          Your story can’t be true, because we all know Gnus only ever turn people away from science;)

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand a word.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        I actually got “Let’s” and kept up until “sin”, at which point I lost it. I’m not sure what that is; an immoral deed I can get, but “sin” – what is that? Saying that it depends on “righteousness” doesn’t really help, circular as noted.

        [I’m not saying that circularity is necessary bad. A theory predicts the facts that it is based on among other things. But that is _after_ testing. You can’t do anything with something if it is constructed to be untestable.]

      • Quikmerc
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        I would elaborate further … but it is easier to just play the Intelligent Design argument card of Irreducible Complexity.

    • gk4c4
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Yep. Reading your text I believe you got the degree fair and square … LOL!

      Some people believe unust gods, some believe great catness in the sky ….
      everybody has his own medicine.

      All is fine, the only important thing is that public servants, and those in power, should not exhibit these personal quirk or craziness with intention to spread them.

      Wait! this is the separation of state and church! we already got them, d00dz!


    • Dave Ricks
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      Dan, thank you so much for your explanation or description of a fundamentalist Christian view. I saved it into a word processor and I printed it out because I see it as a model of what is going on (versus dismissing it as nonsense).

      In my experience, I see kittehs can be affectionate with each other, and fight with each other — and I see humans can be affectionate with each other, and fight with each other — so I see kittehs and humans as the same (ain’t nothin’ but mammals), except humans have some extra degree of foresight about their tools (vaccines, A-bombs) and their consequences.

      But I need a story to say, Well, how did I get here? Mary Shelly’s monster in Frankenstein was tormented existentially by his lack of a place in the world, and the (Jewish) story of Adam and Eve is one myth I can respect in the Joseph Campbell sense to give that sense of place. But while that myth may explain a difference between humans versus other animals, if we take the myth to mean a separation between humans versus other animals — plus a Christian “fall” — then that opens a door for what you wrote to make sense.

  17. Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Not related, but a special a nice piece of our public servant science denial:


    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      That’s more related than you think.

      Texas has two possible courses of action: to take short-term steps to remedy the situation (water rationing, open-flame restrictions, the usual) and long- steps (reduction of CO2 emissions); or to sit on their asses and mumble into their hats.

      Which of those two options is the more moral one?



      • Kevin
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

        A couple of years ago, Georgia had a pretty severe drought, and the governor came up with the exact same “solution”.

        Of course it rained “eventually”…and then there were floods.

        I guess god does not have very tight control over his rain-making powers.

        • daveau
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

          Well, you’re clearly not praying hard enough.

        • Helena Constantine
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          Yahweh’s pretty old (ancient of days after all). Probably needs depends.

          (and, on a Christian view, that blasphemy gets me the same punishment as Hitler or Stalin–but their morality is so wonderful).

          • Posted April 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

            “Probably needs depends.” Wha? Probably needs deepen? Probably needs deep ends?
            Or should that be “Probably needs Depends™.” where the brand is of a diaper for the incontinent old? (Please remember we’re not all in the US. Our brands may differ.)

      • Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Third option: to sit on their hats and mumble into their asses.

  18. GroovyJ
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    I know one response that I’ve heard used back when I was studying philosophy, so I’ll try and pass it on. I’m not a Christian, though, and found it unconvincing, so note that my restatement of this argument may not be as complete or persuasive as the original would have been.

    That response is to claim that morality is teleological in nature – that is that to be a bad human being is much the same as to be a bad knife. If a man makes a knife, and it fails to cut well, or it breaks in his hand, it is a bad knife. Why is it bad? Because it was created to serve a purpose, and it is failing to do so.

    Similarly, humans were created by god, and therefore we are good humans to the extent that we serve god’s purpose in creating us, and bad to the extent that we fail to do so.

    As god was created, he himself is not subject to teleological evaluation. It therefore makes no sense to talk of god as being good or bad. He has no purpose, no function, and thus can not fail to fulfill it.

    Now, just to reiterate: I myself found this pretty unconvincing, and still don’t see how god could be described as good under this argument, BUT it’s not my argument. I’m just passing it on as the response I received to the Euthyphro argument from someone who, if anyone qualifies under the rubric, is surely a sophisticated theologian.

    • GroovyJ
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      The opening of paragraph 4 should read “As god was NOT created…”


    • Screechy Monkey
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Yes, ultimately all that “explanation” does is redefine the terms.

      Your criticism of the argument is that you “don’t see how god could be described as good under this argument”; I’d put it differently and say that I don’t see how “morality” (as redefined) can be described as good under that argument.

      By redefining “morality” as “fulfilling the purpose of one’s creator,” the argument just invites the question of why we should strive to do so; it really just rephrases the Euthyphro dilemma rather than answer it. Nor does it provide a reason why it would be such a bad thing if there was in fact no creator.

      It’s not like most Christians take the idea of “fulfilling the will of one’s creator” that seriously as a moral command. Even if you believe God is the ultimate creator, one’s parents are still “proximate” creators, so to speak. But few Christians would agree that children are morally obligated to live exactly the life their parents “created” them to live: honor thy mother and father, yes, but you don’t have to become a lawyer (or whatever) just because that was their plan for you.

      • Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        Curiously enough, that’s also how the “Free teh Willies!” response to the Epicurean Riddle works: it merely attaches a label to the nature oh the gods’s incompetence and / or malice without attempting to address why the gods are prohibited from having their Kate and Edith, too.

        As Epicurus would have observed, of what use is a god that can’t end evil while keeping teh Willies Free? Or, Why should one worship a god that prefers evil to Freedom Willies?

        (For the clueless godbots out there, that was a pair of leading question. The correct response is, “The gods are figments of human imagination and the theoidiocy problem is equally fantastic as a result.”)



      • Sastra
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        The entire “God” concept suffers from the fact that it tries to escape from all the hard work of a difficult concept by putting solutions directly into the definition.

        If everything needs a cause, then what caused God? Can’t ask that question: God is defined as The Thing that does not need a cause. What is God made out of? Can’t ask that question: God is defined as the Thing that isn’t made out of anything. How does God work? Can’t ask that question: God is defined as the Thing that doesn’t need any means or mechanism to work. Where is God? Can’t ask that question: God is defined as the Thing that is transcendent, everywhere and nowhere. How can we be sure that God exists? Can’t ask that question: God is defined as the Thing that MUST exist.

        And so forth and so on… It’s easy. There’s no work.

        So what does it mean to say that God is “good?” Can’t ask that question: God is defined as the Thing that is good. Simple.

        Except it’s not. It contains not one viewpoint, but multitudes. Implicit in the acceptance of that assumption is the further assumption that whatever “good” is and whatever it means, when it comes to God it will be always and ultimately and all-things-considered be considered “good” by the person who accepts that assumption. Everyone can read into it whatever they want, or whatever they need — and still be left with the comfortable feeling that they’re not depending on their own fallible understanding, but on the perfect nature of a Perfect Being and its perfect goodness.

        It’s a trick, but people who think God is necessary to ground morality in some non-arbitrary, non-subjective, non-human sense will eagerly fool themselves into being fooled.

        • Arthur
          Posted April 23, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

          That’s just the awesomest up-summing ever.

        • Amy
          Posted April 24, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          This is exactly how I felt the first time I heard the ontological argument for god, and it’s pretty much how I view almost any philosophical argument for god. All they seem to do is define god into existence.

  19. Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Definitely. We’re looking for the clever reply that the theologians will come up with next, and I’ll bet it’s going to be another clever argument from ignorance. Because these unfortunate smart people just haven’t taken game theory seriously yet.

    People have this natural tendency to think that ruthlessness is the key to success in all things. I think this tendency is paranoia, ironically part of our evolved moral strategy.

    If we could just calm people down and run through the numbers, it would occur to them that morality is a viable strategy. But that’s only the beginning of our struggle. Then, we’ll have to deal with them freaking out because, “Morality isn’t real, it’s just another strategy! Oh noes! Life is meaningless!”

    While I agree that the arbitrariness of that kind of sucks, it’s no worse than the arbitrariness of a creator’s will. It’s a matter of personal preference whether you prefer your life ruled by circumstances or a personality. A lot of arguments on both sides come down to someone picking one of those choices and trying to say it’s objectively better. Those idiots.

    But the real ray of hope in this is that if once we get people thinking clearly about where morality comes from and how it works, we can do a better, faster job of improving it. That’s the point that Dawkins made in The Selfish Gene, which got so many unfortunate smart people going, “Oh noes! He’s saying we’re robots! Must terminate uncomfortable thoughts!”

    So yeah, argument from ignorance. Anticipate it.

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      That was meant as a reply to 14, so that’s why that “Definitely” might seem meaningless. Oh noes.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      While I agree that the arbitrariness of that kind of sucks, it’s no worse than the arbitrariness of a creator’s will.

      My thinking is that it isn’t really arbitrary.

      So – we are free to choose our own purpose:

      – First, circumstantially, this is liberating so should be positive for most.

      – Second, this is now constrained by our non-god-dependent morality. We can’t arbitrarily pick a purpose, but morally need it to be useful and non-harming to ourselves as well as others.

      – Third, the real deal is when people can pick a purpose that have meaning in the social context. Some devote their life to education, science et cetera.

      So there are constraints and, if you will, goals. Goals that need constant checks of outcome and revision to societal progress. That makes the process non-random; and indeed quite vital at times.

      It is the stasis of the religious “purpose” that is scary. Waste of life and minds, hell on Earth!?

      • Posted April 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        That still seems pretty subjective to me. I can’t foresee anyone successfully arguing that their worldview is more pleasing, and I don’t think it’s possible. A person will find comfort in their idea of the world, and I don’t think they can be wrong in doing so. We should argue for truth, not appeal.

  20. Neil
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    The argument from morality for the existence of god is to me one of the most puzzling. Given that moral norms vary so widely across cultures and through history, why would anyone think that “morality” is evidence of anything other than the fact that humans evolved a capacity for empathy, which makes possible varied beliefs about what is good?

  21. Tulse
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    If you derive morality from God, how come atheists and religious people give similar answers to moral dilemmas

    I think this question misunderstands the claim, which is that all humans, being created by the Christian god, are imbued with the innate morality that the god provided. Thus, even if you don’t consciously believe in the god, you still have that innate sense of right and wrong.

    In addition, it is common for the religious to claim that societal secular morality is derived from “Judeo-Christian” values, and thus even those who don’t believe in the god of those traditions nonetheless implicitly absorb this moral framework.

    So I don’t think the “atheists have similar morals” argument is very effective.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Greek and Roman thought before the 1st Century was wholly uninfluenced by Christianity (obviously) and I’ve never heard of any Jewish influence in that period either. There is frankly more of moral worth in Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, and the Stoics than in the Bible. It also likelier that Christianity was influenced by secular Greek philosophical works (which were after all a part of a general education) than the other way around. Even if it incorporates philosophical ideas though, Christians have suppressed secular philosophy for millennia because it’s the competition. See, Colossians 2:8.

      See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

      That is just about the clearest statement I know of of the conflict between the naturalistic, philosophical worldview prevalent at the time and Christianity.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Greek and Roman thought before the 1st Century was wholly uninfluenced by Christianity (obviously) and I’ve never heard of any Jewish influence in that period either.

        Again, this misunderstands the one Christian response that I laid out (at least as I follow it), which is that a sense of morality was imbued by the Christian god into humans when they were created, regardless of what religion they practice or what point in history they live. It doesn’t matter that the Greeks lived before Jesus — the claim is not about social transmission of ideas, but about a divinely instilled sense of right and wrong that all humans have shared since their creation by the sole virtue of being human.

        This of course is a crock, but it’s important to get the claim right.

        • Bernard J. Ortcutt
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          I was responding to what is in the paragraph starting “In addition”.

        • Wowbagger
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

          At least some Christians rationalise using the argument that pre- and non-Christian societies weren’t awful and lawless because (calendar systems notwithstanding) there never was a time ‘before Christ’; i.e. he was present as part of the trinity and influencing the world from the beginning.

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      I’d like to add that this argument very much assumes an interventionist designer god. That should make this rebuttal all but unusable by one of those mythical sophisticated theologians who fully accept evolution. For those that accept that humans evolved, but morality didn’t, it’s still a bit of a problem.

  22. shmuel
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I am interested – when people say that morality needs god to exist, do they mean god in the personal sense – somebody-who-gives-rules, or god in the sense of “something in the universe which is not just matter and meaninglessness”?

    The first option is just ridiculous authoritarian-thinking : in order for something to be true, SOMEONE needs to say that it is true. And the bigger and more important that SOMEONE is, the stronger are the laws.

    The second option is more interesting, and stresses that morality needs to be based upon something OBJECTIVE.

    (For which, I do not think that evolution is a good answer. We could have evolved without a sense of empathy, for one. Also, we come with “bad” things inside us (rape?), which also probably “evolved”. Even if evolution can provide the explanation as to how it happened, the more important is the rational question – why it should be so?)

    Can anyone religious (or ex-religiuous) help me?

    • JBlilie
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      “ridiculous authoritarian-thinking”

      W. L. Craig: “Divine Command Morality”

      If God commands you to murder, then it by definition is not murder and is made moral by the originator of the command.

      Craig capitulates in the face of Weinberg’s quip:

      With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion

    • Rootboy
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      This is a very good comment. Most argument-from-morality stuff I’ve come across is in the latter sense, and I don’t think Jerry or most of the Gnus have done a lot to explicitly address it.

      When someone like Francis Collins talks about the “Moral Law”, that’s more than the empirical observation that humans exhibit moral behavior. He’s saying that morality exists independently of human beings, that right and wrong is like a law of nature, built into the cosmos, even in the times and places where there are no intelligent beings around for it to matter (which is of course nearly all times and places in the universe).

      And I think this is because a morality derived ultimately from our evolved sense of empathy (whether relativist or not) is just too arbitrary for some people; it has to be more cosmically fundamental than that, and God is a shortcut to getting that certainty.

      Moral philosophy is wide and deep and I’m not an expert, but I think a lot of the discourse on this topic conflates subtly different definitions of the word “morality” in a destructive way.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        He’s saying that morality exists independently of human beings, that right and wrong is like a law of nature, built into the cosmos, even in the times and places where there are no intelligent beings around for it to matter

        And what possible evidence could there be for such view? How can a notion like morality even make sense without intelligent beings to embody it? That’s like saying that traffic jams or comedy or baseball is inherent to the cosmos.

        • TomZ
          Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          That reminds me of the old riddle, “If a larger galaxy applies gravitational force to a smaller neighboring galaxy, and there’s no one around to feel it, is it still moral?”

          Truly an important question, and the answer is “Ya! Srsly!”

      • Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        And I think this is because a morality derived ultimately from our evolved sense of empathy (whether relativist or not) is just too arbitrary for some people; it has to be more cosmically fundamental than that, and God is a shortcut to getting that certainty.

        Which makes this belief wishful thinking. There, we’ve dealt with it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      This too falls on the Euthyphro argument, why would you judge evolved morality as “good”?

      The answer in empirical terms is you do this because a) morality is useful (which is why “bad” behavior tend to be excluded – say, murdering one’s children) and b) it is evolved (ie if you consider it “bad” the resulting tension is bad for you).

      So I have to disagree that evolution doesn’t provide a good answer. It describes how morality isn’t objective but may feel so.

      (I definitely agree with Rootboy though, that “morality” is used as a catch-all and need some careful deliberation to be useful in an analysis.)

  23. shmuel
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I am toying with the notion that if there is anything that the argument the other side is presenting can prove is *karma*.

    Karma is the idea that there is a certain law according to which the universe functions, specifically here – a law that consciousness functions according to. Reincarnation occurs according to certain karmic laws. And “cosmic justice” does happen (accross reincarnations).

    According to buddhism at least, “gods” (which are not really gods as we understand it, but merely creatures with some “extra-powers” and a longer lifespan than we do, nothing supernatural) are also subject to the law of karma.

    At least, according to tibetan buddhists teachers consciousness is not something that has evolved, but has always existed; so, according to them, there is some “cosmic law” in the nature of the universe.

    I have not met a term like “meaning” in a buddhist text, but perhaps one could argue that if consciousness is an inherent part of the universe, and not an evolved-artifact then the meaning “consciousness” can have, is the meaning “universe” can have.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink


      Buddhism is definitely supernatural, as per the characteristics you mention (either characteristics are natural, say natural life-span, or not).

      Dualism is a non-starter for a naturalistic explanation, because we haven’t seen such phenomena.

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      If you think about it, karma isn’t really that great of a moral system either. It blames the victims (our their soul, or their past life, or whatever) for their hardship. Inequality is “just” karma.

  24. Paul
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    The morality argument is just another “I don’t have any evidence for the existence of God so let’s talk about something else,” which gives believers an escape hatch to avoid dealing with the only point that matters, or will ever matter- which is, where is the evidence for the existence of a supernatural realm or deity?

    • Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      No, it’s also more. It also serves to establish the speaker as a moral person.

  25. Aqua Buddha
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    There is nothing scary about morality being based entirely in our attitudes. Nothing rests on whether moral values are, in some sense, “true” or whether they are preferences that change over time and are possibly rooted in some “moral faculty” that we gained during the course of evolution.

    The threat of losing objective morality shouldn’t be unpalatable, let alone justify irrational claims about gods.

  26. That Guy Montag
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Just to clarify some of what going on here, the idea that’s motivating religious arguments for morals is the way we talk about morals. The terminology in philosophy is that our normal moral talk is Cognitivist. All this means is that we talk as if moral claims are true or false. When I say X is a good the form is essentially the same as saying “The ball is green”. The question then is what is it that I could possibly be talking about that is true or false. It’s generally assumed that it’s not terribly clear what it means for X to be good.

    So some people who think this sounds funny try to reinterpret the meaning of sentences like “X is good”. They might for instance believe it means some version of X is good *for you*. Another way of taking this line of argument is to say what it really means is something more like “Yay X”.

    Theists who are arguing for some version of moral command basically buy into the natural form of our moral talk. Their goal as I see it is to attack any attempt to reinterpret that nature of our moral talk, in particular the *for you* relativists, though I’m not sure what they make of the yay-boo expressivists. The Divine Command therefore is what they see as being the thing that makes sense of our normal moral talk.

    Me, personally, I’m a moral realist so I don’t think we need to redefine our moral talk. I do think there are safer ways to redeem our normal moral talk without needing to resort to divine command. I also don’t think evolution does the job, it’s just another way of redefining the terms we use, but all of *that* is a question for another day.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Um, you can’t juxtapose “philosophy” with “clarify”. A valid juxtaposition would be with “just-so story”.

      [The implication being, of course, that “philosophy” juxtaposes with “muddying the waters”. But by now I’m “strident”. :-/]

      • That Guy Montag
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink


        Let’s pick the point I raised then. Why doesn’t it clarify the issue when I choose to concentrate on the specific question of what does our moral talk look like it commits us to? Do you really mean to tell me that we can engage in a reasonable discussion about the question if we don’t make clear what it is we’re talking about first?

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        If you think that philosophy never clarifies, then you should really read some contemporary meta-ethics. There is this practice moral beliefs and moral claims. So, the questions arise of what do those claims mean, how do I know if they are true, and what if anything makes them true. Those are the basic questions of meta-ethics. I don’t see how they are avoidable.

    • shmuel
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink


      What do you think comes first in moral realism, and what is decisive – the intuition, or what-you-think-exists )god, no god?)

      • That Guy Montag
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure I follow your final point about god. Just so we’re not talking at cross purposes, I’m as atheist as they come. My realism about morals is thoroughly naturalist.

        I think your question about which is primary, intuition or facts-of-the-matter is a good one. As a question it draws on so much that I’m not sure I can really give a good answer. In any answer I would like to give I’d need to explain why I think for language or thought to have content it needs to be *about* the world. I’d also need to draw out two ways in which intuition, read here a little more broadly as the facts about the internal experience of human beings, plays a part in any moral story we’d need to give: on the one hand internal human experiences are at the very minimum a major feature in a lot of the problems that count as moral, and on the other hand there is that old chestnut about trees falling in woods. The final point would involve some account trying to distinguish between the metaphysics of moral facts of the matter and the epistemic necessity of facts of the matter as an important norm, probably the most important, about when we are genuinely perceiving facts about the world.

        Is that good enough or is there something more specific you’re looking for?

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        I really don’t know what you’re getting at, but you can read more about Moral Realism at the Stanford Encyclopedia. It has plenty of references as well. The related entries are also very relevant to this discussion.


    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Well. Non-cognitivism is good deal more advanced than “Yay X”. It’s also not about “redefining” moral talk, but about what theoreticians think the right account of the semantics of moral talk is. As with most philosophical subjects, the Stanford Encyclopedia is a good place to start for people who want to know more.


  27. Sastra
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I believe because I have not discovered a better explanation of beauty, truth and love than that they emerge in a world created—willed into being—by a God who personifies beauty, truth and love.

    The “explanation” God provides is otherwise known as “Like comes from like.” It’s a lazy, sloppy way of avoiding any analysis at all.

    What is beauty? It’s a force. Where does it come from? It comes from a beauty source. How? Through beauty power. What is the beauty source made of? Beauty essence. Which uses? Beauty energy.

    Repeat and substitute “truth” and “love.” Also “morals,” “creation,” “reason,” “mind,” “life,” and any other abstraction you think can be reified if you just don’t think very hard.

    Those are not explanations. Those are questions moved around so that they look like answers.

    So … where did we get morality? From a Moral Source, which is moral in its very essence, giving morality through the moral power of the force of morality. We call this Being “God,” which is goodness itself, goodness personified in its nature of goodness, which it grants to us through the good force of its power of goodness. Which probably vibrates, in a harmony of good-osity, no doubt.

    Isn’t that just so satisfying? I mean, so satisfying you just want to puke???

    There’s something I find really unsatisfying about scientists who apparently have so little curiosity, clarity, and consistency that they can consider this sort of “explanation” an explanation at all, let alone one that fills them with a sense of a deep truth “discovered.” All the advantage of theft over honest toil, as they say.

  28. Contrarion
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    One of the faulty presuppositions I see being made in a lot of the postings here is the notion that people are inherently rational or that people are supposed to be rational in what they believe and this idea creates exasperation by some here at the arguments that religious people put forward to defend their beliefs. Well the reality is that humans, both religious and non religious are highly irrational and illogical in a lot of the things they choose to do and believe. Just think deeply for a minute about some of the choices you make on a daily basis and some of your own presuppositions. We don’t think in a logical if – then – else ‘programmatic’ way. There is this thing called emotions that guides a lot of the choices that we make and beliefs that we hold dear. We kid ourselves in all sorts of ways – even the non religious. If it makes me feels good, if it brings comfort, then it must be right. So as long as emotion remains a significant determining factor in what we do and believe religious belief will always be with us. Because again if it brings comfort and reassurance then it must be a good thing.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 22, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      If the religious are putting forth rational arguments for their belief then they are making a case for their beliefs being reasonable — or at least not unreasonable. It’s hardly a defense to say that sure, their beliefs are silly — but aren’t we all silly at times? You could “defend” anything that way.

      So I think your point is irrelevant to this issue. But sometimes I’ve said things that are irrelevant to an issue, elsewhere. We all make mistakes. So all’s well that ends well.

      • Contrarion
        Posted April 22, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

        The point I am making is that the reasons for religious belief are driven primarily by emotion. The rationale, reasons or logic behind it are secondary. So people here become exasperated when they see the obvious illogicality of the reasons being put forward to ‘explain’ religious belief and discount emotion as a primary motivating factor. Religious people largely kid themselves when they unwittingly say they were driven by reason to their religious convictions – that was sort of my point.

        • shmuel
          Posted April 23, 2011 at 12:25 am | Permalink


          I think there is a deeper point of how to remain a civil society? (And perhaps – a democracy).

          Part of the beliefs behind the idea of civil society is that people *can* be rational (at least, if needed), and certainly won’t pretend they are rational when they are not.

          I think part of what exasperates “new” atheists so much is that they think and feel this “promise” is not held. That what also makes “new” atheists “new” – they are politic.

        • latsot
          Posted April 24, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

          I’m not very concerned when people decide to go around believing silly things.

          But my ears prick up when – as inevitably happens – believers try to use the trappings of science and logic (although never *actual* science or logic, that would be too hard) to rationalise their beliefs.

          Stick to faith, you fools, and all we can say is that you’ve got no evidence. It’s a powerful argument, but you don’t care about evidence *anyway*. Try to employ reason and you’re on our turf, cupcake. Do you really think that’s likely to work out well for you?

          But back to the point. I think it’s probably right that most believers’ motivations are not rational. But I don’t see how this understanding moves us very much forward. People believe irrational things for irrational reasons. Isn’t the charge still irrationality either way?

  29. Myron
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    “I cannot see any force in an argument to the existence of God from the existence of morality.”

    (Swinburne, Richard. /The Existence of God./ 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. p. 215)

    The man who writes this is not an atheistic but a theistic philosopher, whose “work over the last 30 years or so has resulted in the most powerful, complete and sophisticated development of natural theology the world has so far seen.” (Alvin Plantinga: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-science)

  30. phil
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    JAC: the faculty of reasoning about our behavior, unique among animals …

    Is there much evidence for that, or merely lack of evidence that other animals possess that faculty? I’m inclined to the (in absence of much evidence either way) that many other animals may in fact possess such a faculty, since we are evolved from other animals. If there is anything “unique” about our possession of it, it is that we possess it in such abundance. “Abundance” may need some qualification; there are plenty of humans who might appear to lack it.

    “[H]aving their Kate and Edith, too.” Hmm, that sounds nice.

    • latsot
      Posted April 24, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      “Is there much evidence for that, or merely lack of evidence that other animals possess that faculty?”

      Think about what you’re asking here before you dismiss lack of evidence as ‘mere’. Think about how you might construct experiments: evidence only makes sense in the context of a hypothesis and a bunch of experiements.

      It’s a good question though: is this sort of thing binary or a matter of degree? Would a bad-feeling-about-this that popped up in the brain of an animal faced with various choices constitute reasoning about its own behaviour? How do we distinguish between presumably genetically programmed dont-jump-in-the-fire behaviour from presumably reasoned matches-matches-never-touch behaviour?

  31. Doug
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    If you derive morality from God, how come atheists and religious people give similar answers to moral dilemmas

    Oh, I got this one. Remember the story about Neils Bohr and the horseshoe? Same deal…

  32. latsot
    Posted April 24, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Humans have vastly more common with each other than they have differences. I myself am human and I can barely tell other humans apart on a good day. We have things like legs and eyes and torsos and we behave in ways that are easily recognisable as particularly human. Contemporary pop music really does get worse as we all get older, regardless of when we were born. The film and television industries – not to mention the news industry – are built entirely on the fact that we automatically recognise our own motivations and desires in the observed behaviours of others.

    And yet bloody great swathes of people seem to pick on the idea that one particular thing we tend to have in common – a sense of morality – as evidence for god.

    I find this extraordinary, especially since a shared sense of morality is exactly what we’d expect to evolve in a sociable species, that behaviour very similar to shared morality has been observed in other species and that there’s nothing obviously special about morality as a loosely-coupled bunch of behaviour types.

    As many have pointed out, shared morality would seem to be evidence of the NON-existance of god (or at least a god who bestows morals on us from his holy book).

    • That Guy Montag
      Posted April 25, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      Brilliant point and too rarely put. You did leave out the other kind of perverse stupid though where people pick on the little differences, Yahweh/Allah, science/religion, and ignore all the giant commonalities like “understands human language”. We can’t get supercomputers to do that! I personally think that overplaying the small and petty differences, and I’m blaming mostly the other side for that here, is the source of far too much human misery.

      • latsot
        Posted April 25, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        You flatter me, but I think you’re right about the little differences and I now wish I’d made that point too. Then someone could have rounded it all off nicely by illuatrating how those various sects which loathe each other because of picky – sometimes semantic and always pointless – er, points drop their objections to each other the instant an enemy of faith itself hoves into view.

        The interesting part is that this kind of mealy-mouthed accounting really would show some differences in morality between religions, which is perhaps what they’re scared of.

  33. Posted April 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    The bible says God commanded the destruction of the Caananites and the mauling of the youths who mocked Elisha.

    1. God did evil
    2. The bible is wrong
    3. The destruction and mauling was good.
    4. Other?

    How stupidly perverse to pick 3.

    • Posted April 24, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      If, as William Lane Craig says, whatever God does is good by definition, it is meaningless to say “God is good” and to give him praise for it. By definition he can’t be anything else.

      (Does that mean he’s not omnipotent?)

  34. Posted April 25, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Now that Prof Coyne has weighed in on determinism, morality, and science, I’ll add some historical comments about the views of some other people from Chicago, relative to the same general topic. The essay I will point people toward discusses individuals such as Clarence Darrow, Jacques Loeb, Ralph Lillie, and Arthur Compton–a diverse group. Readers may find Compton’s views on this rather different from those of Prof Coyne; indeed, Compton believed that science itself was possible only if the actions of experimentalists are *not* determined in advance, but are genuinely free.

    I don’t mean to imply that Compton was obviously “right,” or that Prof Coyle is obviously “wrong,” but I do mean to imply that those who think this is a slam dunk may be fooling themselves.

    The article (part 2 of a 3-part series on Compton) is available at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2009/PSCF9-09dyn.html

    A nice article by cosmologist Rob Mann (on a very different topic) is available at the same URL.

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