Ethics and Morality without the Inhibition of Religion

Lady Justice with sword, scales and blindfold on the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen in Berne, Switzerland—1543

One of the most irrational complaints that I have heard about atheism is that without some sort of written code of morality handed down from spiritual authority, there is no ethical or moral set of rules for humans to live by. Essentially, without god, us sinners would simply live out our wicked ways unhindered.

Personally, I believe the absurdity of this statement presents itself quite obviously. However, the thought and the argument stand.

From where I stand, and so I believe atheists should rightly stand, religion is overwhelmingly the basis for greater immorality and unethical behavior than any atheistic group has ever even fathomed. The atrocities committed in the face of religion outnumber any argument by apologists for atheist atrocities. (The article linked is presented by a fellow atheist.)

The problem with morality based on religion is that there is always present, somewhere in the text or the tenets of that religion, some bias towards another group. Within that bias comes the rationalization approving of the atrocities committed.

To state some examples, antisemitism by Christians and Muslims. Or, the hatred for one another by Islam and Christianity. The conflict between China and Tibet concerning Buddhism. Conflicts over the past millenniums between two or more faiths, sects of the same faith, or even people of the same faith with slightly different interpretations of their respective mythology. Even the story of Jesus, crucified at the orders of Pontius Pilate under pressure from the Jewish Sanhedrin, who sentenced him based on his refusal to abide by their traditions.

I believe, in many cases, that many of these incidents would have never taken place if only religion had not been involved. Of course, many still would, as the violent tendencies of humanity still bare their bloody fruit.

Photograph of military personnel carrying bodies of the victims of the Jonestown massacre out of a helicopter.
Photograph of military personnel carrying bodies of the victims of the Jonestown massacre out of a helicopter.

The Need for Ethics and Morality

Not being an extensively studied philosopher, I will not start with quotes and references to outside scholars of the issue at hand. Rather, I would prefer to state my thoughts under the presumption that logic and reason speak for themselves and often translate across methodologies.

That being said, the logical need for ethics and morality, regardless of religious intent, is to regulate and promote the advancement of the human race. No more. No less.

Our advancement should move in a direction in which we can eliminate suffering, promote advancements in technology that will help us improve our way of life, explore the galaxy and the universe, and have the broadest and deepest understanding of all things as is humanly possible. I am certain that an extensive list of “where we should go from here” can be derived.

Ethics and morality are necessary as a framework for defining the way in which we as humans approach our lives. They are fundamentally part of who we are, whether they are written out exhaustively, or simply inherent in our individual behavior,

The difference between ethics and morality is a simple one. Ethics dictate the ways in which we should behave based on the morals that we define. Morals are the principles of right and wrong that each of us hold.

The trick in creating a set of common ethics is defining common morals. This is where everything meets paradox, folds in on itself like a dying star, and implodes into a black hole. Morality, as it happens, is often defined through the concept of nature versus nurture, I believe, and is influenced heavily by individual experience, which elicits a whole pantheon of emotional responses.

Emotion, as it were, is often the enemy of reasonable morality. I believe that the human condition, the whole of our existence up to this point in time, has been in so many ways a hindrance to our ability to evolve in a meaningful way into a future which is devoid of suffering.

Furthermore, I believe that emotion is the culprit behind religion. Namely: rationalization about our fears.

The paradox here, unfortunately, is that emotion is so directly linked to a life not just devoid of suffering, but full of happiness, contentedness, and fulfillment. It is also directly linked to a life full of sadness, anger, fear, and suffering of all sorts.

As part of our journey to logical morality, we must start with emotion in mind. We must not let our negative experiences, which organically create biases and predispositions, cloud the path to a better future.

To clarify this string of thought, humanity needs to define our ethics and morals in order to regulate ourselves, lest we derive our behavior from our own innately flawed experiences. As history has demonstrated with abhorrent acts of brutality throughout, humanity cannot live in peace without a code of ethics to guide us into a better future, lead us away from our inherent “evil”, and bound us from committing anything further.

Where to Start? (Skeptics Start Here)

The scientific method begins with an unanswered question, which we will call the problem statement. The intent of the problem statement is to define the problem. This may seem obvious, but in most cases, the problem is complex and the scope can often have gray areas.

So, as an atheist with a foundation in engineering, I will begin with a very simple problem statement.

What is right and wrong?

Now, this is an experiment, so this is what I believe to be a logical start to the moral dilemma. Of course, the first thought of most people is that, because I am an atheist, I must be a nihilist. So, I must digress for a short prose.

Nihilism and My Atheism

Michelangelo's painting of the sin of Adam and Eve from the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Michelangelo’s painting of the sin of Adam and Eve from the Sistine Chapel ceiling

Yes, I reject any and all belief in any god or gods. As part of that rejection, I reject the idea that the roots of “good” and “evil” are derived from any supernatural source. Even further, and on this one point I do agree with nihilism, there is no such thing as “good” and “evil.” That is to say, there is no measured judgement waiting for me somewhere in the expanse of the cosmos to tell me what things I did that were okay, and not okay, and why.

Humans used our brilliant intellect to derive good and evil and I believe that this was an evolutionary phenomenon. To put it simply, doing “good” things typically promotes our species, and doing “bad” things does not.

This is still a derivation. To make a case for this, I refer to a list of killings committed in the name of god. This link to the Huffington Post lists a number of these related attempts to end the lives of others based on the belief that “God Told me to Do It.

The point is that repeatedly throughout history, and even still in this modern age, people take actions that many of the rest of us see as “evil,” or “wrong,” or “bad,” or what have you, while believing, themselves, that what they did was “good,” or “acceptable,” or just plain dandy. There was no interference by some higher power to stop them. And, furthermore, to believe that a woman who drowned her children because she wanted to make sure they went to Heaven, who is clearly acting out of her own psychosis; to believe that she is to burn in Hell for the rest of eternity, or that she should be hung, or electrocuted to death, or anything like that… punishment for our “sins” committed in the throes of a self-defined moral dilemma, is “wrong.”

The point of this digression is to say that I do wholeheartedly believe, based on the natural state of all things, that morality, ethics, and the standards of human behavior, are things that are derived. Furthermore, I find this belief to be relieving, because now we can define our standards are human behavior logically, in a way that will promote humanity to a future that benefits all of us, rather than a future that damns those who cannot fall in line.

I would like to add that I believe that existence does have a purpose. I do not believe that this purpose has anything to do with a divine creator, nor do I believe that there is some great supernatural, preternatural, or metaphysical super-“thing” that decided we should be here. I think that we are here by evolutionary mutation, the result of probabilistic phenomena brought about by collisions in the vastness of space. We are here because we are here. Our purpose, as passed down by evolution and nature, is to exist to be better than we have been.

Our purpose is to build a future that is better than our past. Done and done.

What is Right and Wrong?

So, again, I begin with this problem statement: What is right and wrong?

Let us place this question in a vacuum. At least, in the closest thing to a vacuum. Forget our biases and our beliefs. Leave out our personal experiences, our judgments of others based on our joy and pain. Eject the thoughts of old Uncle Bob who thought it was acceptable to refer to minorities with every form of racism. Let it all go and come back to this question with a clear head. If necessary, meditate on a sheet of blank white paper and let everything melt away.

Now, return to the question: What is right and wrong?

Let us expand this question: What is right? What is wrong?

Now, the purpose: What promotes humanity to a better future? What does not promote humanity to a better future?

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but as soon as I put this question this way I am suddenly overwhelmed with thoughts of what a better future looks like.

Here is my vision, another digression, I know. However, please follow me into this rabbit hole and see where I go.

The Better Future

Internal view of the Stanford torus space station design.
Internal view of the Stanford torus space station design.

Utopia – an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.

What does the perfect future of humanity look like? Is it unreachable? Is it definable? How do we get there?

I believe that technology holds a much better future than our present. People will live longer, as the aging process will be decoded and simple programmed out of our DNA. Medicines will advance in a way that all sorts of maladies will simple be removed by the use of a pill. Cancer will be a sad part of history, like polio. So will heart disease, obesity, asthma, crone’s disease, etc.

There will be world peace. Humanity will realize that we can and should get along. Greed will be abolished by the presence of resources made available to everyone. We will no longer have to work for a living. Instead, we will have everything available to us, including education, food, water, clean living spaces, sexual freedom (yes, I went there)…

Religion will be gone. (I am an atheist, after all.) Rather than battling with our insecurities over what will happen when we die, we will simple not have to die. “God” will be a part of whatever mythologies we study, just as Zeus and Thor are today (for most).

Humans will have mastered space travel. It will be possible to take a trip to the moon, stay in a luxury suite, perhaps, and watch the earth spin above, (or below?).

This may be a fairy tale, but this future is what I hope for. This, or something like it. Something where pain and suffering may exist, but not because we have hurt one another.

Once Again…

What promotes a better future? What does not promote a better future?

Mandala of Amitayus. 19th century Tibetan school.
Mandala of Amitayus. 19th century Tibetan school.

The Ten Commandments, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Socrates, and a wealth of other religious figures, had some great wisdom on these issues, despite their fantastical beliefs. As I have said, I believe that religion, as well as right and wrong, are concepts that were derived by humans in response to our environment, and our fears.

So, I propose that there are some great places to start in religion, with a very large grain of salt.

By contrast, I am certain that many atheists, in the past and the present, have also expounded on this issue and have, themselves, also derived some very intelligent standards for human behavior.

Let me put the drama to rest and state that I am not writing this to say what the answer to this problem statement is. I am writing to state my own basis for beginning the conversation. Or, more appropriately, my personal basis for entering the conversation.

Morality is something that we define, and we should define our morals, and then our ethics, based on building a better future for all of us. I propose that ethics and morality can only be made logical in a forum devoid of religion.

[1] Featured image is “Sculpture symbole de “Non-Violence” réalisé par Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd (Malmö – Suède)”


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