Friday, 26 September 2014

Morality in the absence of a god

In the never-ending battle between eager theists and the dastardly non-theists (and atheists and agnostics), the core question appears to be not so much whether god exists or not, but how we should live our lives given that the question is not settled – and may never be settled.

Some theists (but not all) argue that we must believe in their god or we aren't going to get the benefits that accrue after we die. But that's after we die and non-theists don't share that belief so managing our lives to get a post mortem benefit doesn't appeal. Some theists (but not all) argue that we must obey the strictures laid down by their god, but the gods involved all vary, the strictures vary and there is even variation in the interpretation of a single text that the theists on this forum almost universally hold sacred. No heists seem to have anything close to evidence that their god exists, which would be a prerequisite to a notion of obligation to obey that god – or rather they have no evidence that is convincing to anyone who does not already believe in that god.

However, there is no evidence and will never be any evidence that conclusively demonstrates the non-existence of a non-specific god. Therefore, if a theist wants to believe in his or her god, he or she may certainly do so – but this dispensation does not convey the right to enforce any morality that derives from an unshared belief, in other words, fellow believers may watch each other to ensure that they obey their mutual morality, but they cannot justify forcing others to obey.

What we can all do, to varying degrees, is arrive at shared emergent moralities that arise from quite different foundations.

For example, I don't personally think that there is any absolute or objective right or wrong. For me, right and wrong is contingent. If I want outcome x and to get outcome x I have to perform action y, then y is the right action to perform – or it is good to perform action y if I want to achieve outcome x. So the rightness (or good) of y is contingent on my desire to obtain outcome x. Clearly what I want isn't necessarily going to pertain to every being on the planet, so we have to find an outcome that we can all share.

I choose survival as my foundation, both physical and legacy survival and from that I obtain a morality that is strikingly similar to that at which the theists arrive. Why they align so well is another story, but the fact that they do align means that we can agree that killing each other is bad, harming each other is bad (into which I fold psychological harms such as denying self-determination), stealing is bad, lying is bad and cheating is bad. I also think that there is a tacit agreement that not obeying the rules is bad, even when the rules are stupid, but not when the rules contradict the other "evils" (in other words a rule such as "thou shalt hold thy fellows in bondage" is a rule that we could reasonably argue should not obeyed – even if it's written in a holy text.

The question now, then, is whether we should obey a rule set that the theists seem to be trying to impose, namely "believe that that which I believe to be true is true and do not ask for evidence in support of my belief". I don't think that this rule has any power, in part because I don't agree that everyone should believe that that which I believe to be true is true. It really doesn't matter if anyone doesn't believe it, even if I am right with regard to that which I believe to be true.

Are theists trying to impose their beliefs, or the consequences of their beliefs on others? It often seems so.

Are non-theists trying to impose their lack of belief, of the consequence of that lack of belief on others? Maybe, but to a lesser extent if so. Most of us, if not all, are merely asking to not have beliefs and consequences imposed on us. Where those who believe try to impose their belief, we ask for evidence in support of that belief. After all, if that belief is correct, it follows that the consequences may be reasonable to accept. However, if believers are unable to provide any convincing supporting evidence for their belief and merely expect their word to be taken on faith, then non-theists (I believe) are quite reasonable in asking that a theist accept a broader morality that is based on nature rather than scripture (and if they want to apply a narrower morality to themselves and their fellows, they can go right ahead so long as they do no harm).

Note that this should not be a problem for a theist because the average theist believes that his or her god created this universe with a rule set attached – including natural rules. One could reasonably expect, in a universe presided over by a god, that a morality approved of by that god would lead to the survival of proponents of that morality.

And if it is true, as some theists suggest, that the only thing that matters in this life is that we believe correctly about existence of the correct god despite evidence that indicates that that specific god does not exist, then we non-theists will either suffer an eternity of torment (of some sort or another, perhaps as mild as the regret that comes from messing up as we watch from a distance as theists gambol happily in the presence of god) or be snuffed out of existence when we die (notionally as a punishment but ironically causing us to be correct in our view of what will happen to us – individually – when we die). If we non-theists are willing to accept that risk, why not just let us do that?


I should also point out that these concepts are equally applicable for a hidden god as they are for an absent/non-existent god.