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Atheism/Clarification on belief and behavior


Are you saying that neither a belief or non-belief in God has anything to do with morals and behavior?


To your question, yes, that is what I'm saying.   It simply isn’t necessary to posit a god to account for morality. Human evolution itself can explain it. In the early agricultural phase, humans settled into cooperative farming and sharing food that was mutually grown. They thereby established a practical group morality or ethical code. Common sense dictated this, not any deity.

The agrarian humans realized if they allowed stronger, bigger members to always take food from babies and mothers, or rape female community members, their tribe wouldn’t last very long. Nor would it if theft and lying were tolerated. So rules had to be laid down ….by flesh and blood humans

By contrast, what about following a deity-based  morality, say the one described in the Bible?

One glance at assorted passages - especially in the Old Testament - would disclose many problems.

We see:

1)Deut. 22:22"If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman and the woman; so you shall purge the evil from Israel"

2) 2 Kings 2, 23:24 (Concerning Elisha siccing "God's She Bears'" on little children)"And he went up from then unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him and said unto him: 'Go up, thou bald head, go up , thou bald head'. And he turned back and looked at them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and teared up forty and two children of them"

You can find a satirical re-enactment here:

3) Deut. 21: 18-21"If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and - though they chastise him he will not give heed to them, then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of the city,'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones, so you shall purge the evil from your midst"

Now, on examining and considering these examples, consider what would happen if any living human tried to follow such biblical “morality” literally? Well, for sure they’d be locked up with the key tossed away today, or maybe given a lethal injection! (Say  some religiou elder for sending a pet grizzly after some kids who called him “baldy”)

So, divine standards – especially as expressed in the Bible- are useless. No one would be advised to follow or apply them unless he has several screws loose. Even the New Testament evokes moral ambiguity with Christ one minute telling followers to "turn the other cheek" and on another occasion insisting he's come to "bear a sword".

What about more generic divine standards? Not even close!

A first test, as Kai Neilsson inquires (Ethics Without God) depends on us asking:

"Is an act good because God did it, or is it good independent of such action?"

Consider: if a human parent knows his child is trapped in a burning house, s/he will try to save it however s/he can. There is no way the human parent will simply walk out and allow 'fate' or "free will" of the child to make the decision. If the human parent has an ounce of common decency s/he must intervene out of love. This is exemplary human morality in action!

To be realistic or pragmatic, a divine entity must at least DO or demand as much! If not, it’s worthless. However, theists seem quite happy to let their deity off the hook, when and where it suits their fancy. Start then with the standard deity template, say espoused by most Christians. This entity is posited as both omniscient and omnipotent (all knowing and all powerful).

Let us say, as occurred back in 1994, It knew from before all time("omniscient") that a twister was headed for its house of worship in Alabama. Being omnipotent, it also had the power to deflect said twister and let it tear up some nearby forest or woodsheds- as opposed to its church with people inside. Did it? No it did not! It permitted the tornado to demolish the Church and many of those children within it. All innocents. All dead.

Those who would defend such a deity (or worse, claim "ignorance of its purpose") but who would hold a human parent accountable for negligence or manslaughter by allowing their child to perish in a house fire (when the child could be saved) - disclose inchoate ethics. To wit, demanding a vastly lower ethical standard of behavior for their deity than for fellow humans. Bottom line here? For a genuine ethical basis, any human action must be totally independent of whether a god did it (in scriptures) or ordains it. It must be good on its own merits. And those merits, in their given context (of living humans) must factor in HUMAN WELFARE.

We conclude from all this that there is no absolute divine moral standard worth human attention, and further likely no absolute moral standard. How can we say so? Look at the evidence of history! Jacob Bronowski,  when he visited Auschwitz and pointed to the gas chambers, in the BBC documentary 'The Ascent of Man' (and the book by the same name),  put it (p.235):

"This was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave."

And of course, the Christian Inquisition as he notes, was no different. Heretics, atheists ...anyone not kowtowing to the then Church's dogmas could be burnt at the stake or tortured...because the Church held supreme absolute authority- and no one was permitted to question it.

Because of this, Bronowski was painfully aware of what he calls the "principle of tolerance" - which he ties to the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty in physics. As he puts it (p. 232):

"The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once and for all the realization that all knowledge is limited."

Because knowledge is limited, and further - the human brain is limited in its processing of it, then no absolutist propositions to do with morality or ethics can be entertained

What do we have instead? Moral provisionalism or provisional ethics. See: Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil.

According to Shermer:

"Provisional ethics provides a reasonable middle ground between absolute and moral relative systems. Provisional moral principles are applicable to most people, for most circumstances, for most of the time - yet flexible enough to account for the wide diversity of human behavior"

An illustration of moral provisionalism would be the case of the American nun excommunicated by the Catholic Church in Arizona several years ago for saving a 27 year old mother’s life at the expense of her fetus’. Her moral choice was either to let the birth occur and see both mother and infant die, or prevent the birth (because of the mother’s blood pressure complications) and save the mother.

In provisional morality the *greater relative good* is always chosen over the lesser one. In this case, two deaths with two life saving efforts represents the lesser good, while one death with one life saving effort represents the greater one.

The error of the Bishop that excommunicated the nun was in upholding an absolute right to life ethic for both when in practical terms both could not survive. But this is the very danger of moral absolutism. It prefers all involved in a case to perish to preserve an abstract principle, rather than allowing any to survive- but keeping the abstract principle intact.

Hopefully this answer will make some sense.


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Philip A. Stahl


I specialize in the areas of scientific materialism and consciousness described as a materialist epiphenomenon. Also can answer questions pertaining to general atheism, atheist-agnostic differences etc.


I have been an atheist for over 36 yrs. and have written four books on the subject: 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism'(2000), and 'Atheism" A Beginner's Handbook', 'Dialectical Atheism' (2011), 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God' (2013)

Intertel, Mensa, American Mathematical Society, American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union

Atheist articles: 'The American Atheist' magazine, assorted U.S. newspapers (e.g. Baltimore Sun, Denver Post); papers-articles published in Intertel's Journal: Integra. Books: 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism'(2000), 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook' (2007), 'Dialectical Atheism' (2011), 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God' (2013)

Master of Philosophy in Physics. Also took more than 3 yrs. of theology and metaphysics courses at a Catholic University (1964-67) - before I became an atheist. Thus, I have much more religious familiarity & background than many atheists.

Awards and Honors
Writers' Digest Award for the essay 'The Atheist in America' (2000), Government of Barbados research in solar physics award (1980-84), AAS Solar Physics Award (1984)

Past/Present Clients
American Atheists, Barbados Philosophical Society, Harrison College- Barbados, Colorado Springs Freethinkers

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