By Jeremy Fejfar, September 29, 2013
Published in the La Crosse Tribune.
At 7 PM on October 20th, in the Cartwright Center at UWL there will be a debate between an atheist and a pastor titled, “Morality: Can we be good without God?”
This topic was chosen because possibly the most common question non-theists are asked is, “How can you be moral without god?” Atheists are underrepresented in prison populations, and countries with a majority of nonbelievers (Sweden, Denmark, Japan, etc.) have much lower rates of violent crime, are less corrupt, and are generally happier than the most religious nations. While nonbelievers are just as moral as believers, if not more so, many theists cannot seem to make sense of this established fact.
Many books have been written about morality, and some have appropriately divorced it from the misappropriated authority religion claims. Two such books are Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil”, and Harris’ “The Moral Landscape.”
Morality concerns how living beings interact with each other. A universe absent living beings would be absent of morality for this reason. Further, morality concerns actions only. While some religions try to tell us that thoughts can be immoral, only if thoughts result in actions affecting another being do they have moral implications. As a society we agree on this, as evidenced by the absence of “thought crime” laws.
We share similar experiences in life and have similar goals. It is not a subjective statement to say that health is preferable to sickness, that comfort is preferable to pain, and that life is preferable to death. There are aspects to the human condition, truly to the condition of all sentient beings that transcend subjectivity.
However, morality is typically not black and white, rather many shades of gray. In a criminal trial, we consider all kinds of information when determining guilt, including motive, intent, and mitigating circumstances. Because of this, it may be difficult, or even impossible, in a given situation to determine what the “best” action may be, however that does not mean that we are unable to analyze the options available to us and determine which actions are morally superior to others.
Moral decisions can be compared to a game of chess. There are certain moves that are objectively bad, and others that are better, because there are rules governing play, and a goal to the game. Similarly, in life there are a finite number of actions one may take in any given situation — some are objectively more moral, or better, than others. For instance, choosing to starve your child rather than feed him or her is immoral; society agrees on that, and we don’t need to consult a holy scripture to know it.
Recently, an Islamic court in Dubai sentenced tourist Marte Deborah Dalelv to 16 months in jail for having sex outside of marriage. The twist to the story is that her only crime was in being raped. This is the kind of lunacy we often see when religious moral codes are dogmatically enforced, whereas a secular moral accounting of this punishment shows just how absurd it is. Similarly bizarre rules can be found in the Bible (Deut 22: 23-24 & 28-29).
Those who wish to maintain morality’s divine origin must contend with the Euthyphro dilemma, which asks whether something is morally good because god says so, or whether things are moral or not of their own merits and god simply relays to us their moral status. If we assume the former, god could decree today that stabbing your children was moral, and we would have to conclude it was so because god said it. Unlike Abraham, the founder of the 3 major religions, I find this kind of “Might-makes-right” thinking unacceptable and untenable. So we are left with the latter arm of the dilemma, which means god is merely acting as messenger, telling us what is good or not. This would mean morality transcends god, thereby rendering god unnecessary for us to make moral decisions.
Nonreligious men and women all over the world are beginning to step forward and rightfully claim the superiority of secular morality. We find nothing admirable in complying with a voice in your head that tells you to murder your son, nor in jailing women for the “crime” of being raped, nor in denying homosexuals equal rights. We will not condone killing those suspected of the nonexistent crime of witchcraft, nor in issuing death warrants and rioting over men drawing a cartoon or arresting others for insulting Islam on Facebook.
The nonreligious are discovering their voice, and the ethereal and vaporous moral justifications religions offer will not sate their appetite for meaningful moral conversations and tangible justice.
Those who are interested in hearing the subject explored further are encouraged to attend the free aforementioned debate, where audience questions will be encouraged following the event.