God belief is a third wheel

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Having just read this bit on former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s raving about the necessity of religion, I’m reminded again of how god belief has such a successful track record of tagging along as a third wheel, and by successful I mean fooling people into thinking it’s anything but a third wheel. Certainly here in the US, it’s successfully joined itself at the hip with patriotism that most can’t distinguish them to the point where they incorrectly identify efforts to expunge the parasite as an attack on the host.

Blair makes claims about the importance of the role of religion, specifically the Catholic church, in the development of nations and argues for it’s voice to be heard in the public square, saying, “it is extremely important that this religious aspect exists; it is not a coincidence that the Pope writes that humanism without God is inhumane.” Now replace all of his uses of faith, religion, the church, and even god with morality, and suddenly none of it seems very objectionable, does it? Who would argue against the importance of the role of morality in the development of nations? Who thinks morals should be ignored when deciding how to use technology, or for making policy? Who really is going to object to moral arguments in the public square? Who says there can be humanism without morals? I’m thinking very few.

As many have been tricked into thinking god belief and patriotism are one and the same, so too most have been convinced god belief and morality are one in the same. They most certainly are not. True, most religions use god belief to force compliance to their moral system, but a good deal of their moral codes don’t require a supernatural incentive (neither a positive one nor a negative one). Such things as murder, rape, and enslavement don’t require god belief to learn or infer that they’re inhumane acts. In fact, god belief may well impede or block altogether any real understanding of how these acts are atrocious, allowing only an understanding to value other human life under orders to do so.

Nearly every atheist has heard the question from the religious, “if you don’t believe in god, then what’s stopping you from just killing people?” The frightening thought is that god belief apparently is the only thing keeping someone who asks such a question from perhaps killing you or me. Certainly for such a person, any attempt to remove religious impositions such as a manger at City Hall in December is seen as an attempt to remove morality, and with such a misguided belief, it’s then easy to convince them that social and economic ills are a result of this removal of morality.

Indeed, last year there was a great deal of outrage over the depravity of Wall Street, to which religious leaders capitalized on the tragedies as justification for a new infusion of religion into Wall Street. The same idea is seen in prison, where again these lost, depraved people need to find god. Well in all those cases I doubt if any of us would disagree that an infusion of morality would be good, but how does convincing such people to accept an irrational belief going to make matters better? God belief is not morality, and that’s something the religious have to learn and we non-religious have to learn about the religious. Consider again what I said above about replacing Blair’s religious words with “morality”. It’s important to realize how, if you do so, we probably would be in agreement often with the religious, but yet how such a failure to see that god belief and morality aren’t the same thing leads them to react so vehemently and, to us, so irrationally whenever there’s a move to shed religious impositions into public life.

A bit of empathy is needed on our parts if we’re going to not only understand morality ourselves, but help them realize what it is, and what it certainly is not.

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42 Responses to “God belief is a third wheel”

  1. If people believe in God, what's stopping them from killing people? I must assume people are afraid to go to hell, but should fear be the only motive for not killing people? Not that atheists don't fear the consequences of killing somebody (guilt, revenge from the family, a tarnished record, death row, etc), but it would be imbecilic to kill somebody unless it's clearly in self defense or in defending your family, group or country. In the case that somebody does get killed, is "god enabled me" a good argument? Or how about something like "they were breaking into my house and they threatened me with a knife" or "this guy tried to rape somebody so I stopped him"….those latter justifications don't require a god, only the former one and that isn't going to fly in the court of law anyhow.

  2. If you have to believe in God to keep from killing people, then you need serious psychiatric treatment and probably a rubber room to keep you from harming yourself and others. God doesn't keep you from killing anyone, look at the Bible, it's filled with mass murder caused directly by the belief in God. 9/11 was mass murder caused by belief in Allah. The list goes on and on and on, it becomes clear that morality doesn't come from imaginary men in the sky, it comes from both enlightened self-interest and empathy for those around you.

    Too bad theists aren't that bright.

  3. I obviously didn't bring up the issue of how one could use god belief to justify killing. I figured there was already enough meat in this sandwich.

    A bit OT, but have you seen this story?

  4. I'm not one of those people who thinks atheists can't be moral, but I understand where the people who ask "what's stopping you from killing" are coming from. I imagine what they're trying to say is that in an atheist universe, us killing one another is no different than any other animal that kills another for a reason besides a meal. I think in a certain sense, atheists are wusses in that they don't take their philosophy all the way to the end. To people who value life – whether they're atheist or not – of course killing is called "wrong," but what about the person who has different values? If morality is relative, then who are we to judge?

    I guess what I mean is, a theist can say, "Killing is wrong because it makes others suffer and because God said so." An atheist can say, "Killing is wrong because it makes others suffer." But what about the person who says, "It doesn't matter if I kill these fools or not because in the end I'm just gonna cease existing so who cares?"

    On what grounds can an atheist say the latter person is wrong? In the end, if we do live in an atheist universe and/or no objective morality exists, then what they're saying is really true.

  5. On what grounds do we want to kill people cl? I, for instance, am just happy with being their friends assuming they've built my trust. Perhaps you could ask any such question:

    What is to stop an atheist from being friendly to people? What is to stop an atheist from loving people? What stops an atheist from from farting in a crowded elevator?

    Oh, but when it comes to killing people, the only thing stopping us from doing that is something supernatural, right? God needs to intervene in order for atheists or theists to not steal your wallet, am I correct? Oh, what would we do without our imaginary friend, it would just be total mayhem without your saviour there to keep us from doing anything at all, correct? NO! This is entirely incorrect! Our evolutionary programming has evolved us, atheist and theist alike, with plenty of emotions to cause us from doing that which is socially unacceptable, that evolutionary psychology is what keeps us from acting like lions and tigers and bears. Primates to varying degrees, simply, are social creatures with intelligence and feelings, that is because they've evolved to be that way.

  6. Morality isn't objective. The moral code you abide by, you do so by choice, be it a religious one or not, be it self created or not.

    One needs no warrant to label good and bad, but to convince others of agreeing with such labeling requires a warrant.

    I agree with Nietzsche's call for a perpetual revaluation of all values, however there's no need to reinvent the wheel, either. There's much that has been worked out and proven acceptable already, and I believe it's this solid and seemingly growing body of morality which leads people to think that there is such a thing as an objective morality, and we're just slowly uncovering it. The other view of an objective morality is to imagine an invention or a work of art which merely requires some more minor tweaks to finish. I think this is how Austin Dacey is referring to objective morality, and basing that on the fact that we do currently have a pretty solid, large body of morality now.

  7. QF,

    Our evolutionary programming has evolved us, atheist and theist alike, with plenty of emotions to cause us from doing that which is socially unacceptable, that evolutionary psychology is what keeps us from acting like lions and tigers and bears. Primates to varying degrees, simply, are social creatures with intelligence and feelings, that is because they've evolved to be that way.

    That's totally cherry-picked and ignores the other half of human nature. All I'm saying is that fear of punishment keeps some people in line. Remove that fear and you remove those people's restraint. Even if I were an atheist I'd see value in religion for its ability to keep people in line.

    PhillyChief,

    Morality isn't objective.

    I'm not sure whether I agree or not, but that's what I'm assuming for the context of this discussion. Since according to an atheist like yourself morality is not objective, then – for the person who sees no valid reason not to kill others – aren't they perfectly moral? Why or why not?

  8. Nearly every atheist has heard the question from the religious, “if you don’t believe in god, then what’s stopping you from just killing people?” The frightening thought is that god belief apparently is the only thing keeping someone who asks such a question from perhaps killing you or me.

    I always wonder if the people asking that question have actually thought about what they're saying, or if they're just parroting a line they've heard. I hope it's primarily parroting rather than asking a question born of actual moral conviction. If it's the latter, then those people truly are scary.

  9. Fear of punishment can make people kill just as easily as it can make people not kill. I'm sure the NAZIS were afraid of Adolf Hitler's retaliation if they didn't kill the Jews, as I am also sure that the Jews were afraid of God's retaliation if they killed the NAZIS.

  10. The idea that morality is objective just isn't rationally defensible, all one has to do is look at the variety of morality worldwide today to see that. But if you want to take a look back at, say, the Aztecs, who practiced ritual blood sacrifice, we even found that the captured enemy warriors would willingly stand in long lines waiting to be sacrificed and would even help in the process because they believed that their deaths would appease the gods and ultimately help their families and villages after they were gone. For the Aztecs and their "victims", ritual sacrifice was perfectly moral. Prove otherwise.

  11. I think in a certain sense, atheists are wusses in that they don't take their philosophy all the way to the end.

    Well, cl, since there is no monolithic atheist philosophy, we don't all have the same end. I consider myself to be a humanist. By recognizing that other people have rights and recognizing that we need to be good stewards of the Earth, I am taking my philosophy pretty close to its end.

    Since according to an atheist like yourself morality is not objective, then – for the person who sees no valid reason not to kill others – aren't they perfectly moral?

    No, because morality has to do with how we conduct ourselves in relation to one another in a way that is equitable and just. Killing other people for pleasure or other inherently selfish reasons cannot be moral because the act of killing denies moral rights to the victims.

    And since no one (apart from perhaps the suicidal or the extremely apathetic) wants to be murdered, it is only to be expected that any society would have as one of its organizing principles laws against murder.

  12. As I keep having to point out, religious people do not have "objective" morals. Rather, they buy into a prepackaged belief system that wraps its subjective morals in the guise of a divine command system in order to present it as the one true objective system. What we currently have, and will probably always have, are competing subjective moral systems that in many ways will overlap but in certain aspects will be in conflict.

  13. TommyKey, the moral goes like this "Kill and (increase the probability of) being killed" or "Kill or (increase the probability of) being killed" …. those are the two morals related to killing depending on the circumstances that you find yourself in. For you see, if the situation isn't "Kill or be killed" then it becomes one of "kill and be killed".

  14. Of course the third option is "don't kill and don't be killed"

  15. A bit off topic (morality) but IMO patriotism and religion tend to blur distinction due in part to the fact that they are so similar and so divisive. When two nations who both hold identical religious beliefs (and both claiming "Gott Min Uns") go to war unnecessarily, we secularists can't blame the war on religion. But patriotism is often the culprit – or at the very least it got in the way of peaceful settlement.

    Can we start the new world order now? The U.S. is not innately superior to other nations. It does some things better, other things it does as well as most and some things it is considerably worse than most. Ideally we put the best aspects of all nations together and form the Sapient States of Earth. And no, not "kumabaya", assholes! There will be plenty of problems still, just as there will be if religion gets relegated to the same status as astrology and tarot cards.

  16. There's a problem, and I was guilty of it to in the OP, of equating moral and morality with good. If morality isn't objective, then obviously that's a mistake. The Aztecs ritually sacrificing people were behaving morally good according to their morality, but not according to mine, and hopefully not according to yours, either.

    Where the logical end lies for people's formulation of their moral code depends on where they start, and what determinations are made from there.

  17. I have no problem with thinking US uber alles, but only in terms of some form of demonstrable superiority. That's why, as an American, I'm deeply dismayed by our nation's unwarranted invasions and occupations of foreign nations, abducting and torturing people, and denying all of it's people both equal rights and other rights and freedoms which I feel are due. These things diminish us.

  18. Tommykey,

    Here's what I'm getting at: atheism claims that when we die, that's it, the show's over. There will be no judgment, there will be no equilibrium. Regardless of how much pain we caused others on Earth, we will never be made to answer for that pain, and once we die, it's all over anyways. If that's the case – why shouldn't the thug proceed in his or her thuggery? I don't see any cogent way to claim that thugs shouldn't thug sans objective morality. So if morality is not objective, what is our basis for condemning thuggery? The thug might not share our values. Who are we to say that's wrong?

    Well, cl, since there is no monolithic atheist philosophy, we don't all have the same end. I consider myself to be a humanist. By recognizing that other people have rights and recognizing that we need to be good stewards of the Earth, I am taking my philosophy pretty close to its end.

    Sorry to be indistinct there, Tommykey. While I'm fully aware of the fact that not all atheists reason identically, I disagree that "there is no monolithic atheist philosophy" and think that's just a cop-out many atheists employ to avoid cognitive dissonance. I understand this, however, because if I was one of those atheists who thinks that religious believers are the intellectual scum of the Earth, I would probably fight tooth-and-nail to avoid being compared to them.

    No, because morality has to do with how we conduct ourselves in relation to one another in a way that is equitable and just. Killing other people for pleasure or other inherently selfish reasons cannot be moral because the act of killing denies moral rights to the victims. And since no one (apart from perhaps the suicidal or the extremely apathetic) wants to be murdered, it is only to be expected that any society would have as one of its organizing principles laws against murder.

    I understand all that. What I don't understand is how somebody who doesn't believe in objective morality can turn around and then establish an objective morality – like you just did. If morality really is subjective and up to each individual, then on what grounds can you or PhillyChief or myself or anyone else say the thug is wrong? Sure, you can say that denying moral rights to other humans is wrong – but why the hell should your opinion matter to the thug if morality is not objective? Just because you value all this high and noble morality stuff doesn't make the thug who doesn't share your values automatically wrong – does it?

  19. Regardless of how much pain we caused others on Earth, we will never be made to answer for that pain, and once we die, it's all over anyways

    You are made to answer for that pain here on Earth while you are still alive when you are punished by real live people for your crimes. True, some people will get away with their crimes. Stalin never had to face the fate of his fellow dictators like Mussolino or Hitler. Would it be nice if he could receive some form of punishment in the after life? Yeah, sure. But just because I would like that doesn't mean it's going to happen.

  20. So if morality is not objective, what is our basis for condemning thuggery?

    Good grief, I can't believe I have to spell this out for you. People don't like to be victims of thuggery. So, whether individually or collectively, they will try to establish a means to combat thuggery. There's no need for an invisible sky daddy to tell people "Thuggery is an abomination to me, don't do it!"

  21. because if I was one of those atheists who thinks that religious believers are the intellectual scum of the Earth

    And where do you get off claiming that I think that religious believers are the intellectual scum of the Earth? I don't fall into the "anyone who is religious = a moron" camp.

    Lastly, your claim of moral objectivity is just a special plea for your particular morals to be considered objective status. Now, why should I grant you that privilege?

  22. Whether a moral code is subjective or objective, you're still left with the question of why should anyone abide by it. If you're going to argue that a god is necessary to force compliance, that doesn't address the issue of whether morality is subjective or objective, but rather that a great threat or reward is necessary and if that is so, why must it be divine? The threat of years of prison ass rape or perhaps worse in a Gitmo-esque camp would suffice, no?

    But I don't think forced compliance is the only way to have people subscribe to and abide by a moral code. I would hope that the value of doing so would be recognized. As I said in the OP, understanding doesn't come from being threatened, only compliance, but if the argument is going to be simply one of compliance, then again, no god is necessary.

  23. Tommykey, how about dropping the assumption that I'm some dimbulb who needs you to spell this out for me? Trust me, I don't. I understand that people don't like to be victims of thuggery, and I've not said that we need God to be moral. I'm trying to draw your position on morality in order to find the consistency. Presuming you agreed with my comment to Philly that prompted your response in the first place, you're telling me on the one hand that morality is not objective. Okay fine – but if that's the case, then the murderer becomes moral.

    I'm still interested in hearing your response to the arguments I've raised, if you could just take God out of the discussion. What I'm interested in here is discovering whether or not you and/or Philly can justify your positions.

  24. ..where do you get off claiming that I think that religious believers are the intellectual scum of the Earth? I don't fall into the "anyone who is religious = a moron" camp.

    Dood, RELAX – I've not ever claimed that you were in that camp Tommykey – you're jumping to all sorts of unjustified conclusions here. "one of those atheists" does not entail "Tommykey the atheist with whom I'm talking." When I'm addressing you personally, I'll let you know. Until that point, chill out!

    Lastly, your claim of moral objectivity is just a special plea for your particular morals to be considered objective status. Now, why should I grant you that privilege?

    What claim of moral objectivity have I made?

  25. Whether a moral code is subjective or objective, you're still left with the question of why should anyone abide by it.

    You just used 21 words to say something totally obvious. Why?

    If you're going to argue that a god is necessary to force compliance,

    God is not necessary to force compliance. The world is full of decent individuals who willingly comply with morality without God's force.

    I don't think forced compliance is the only way to have people subscribe to and abide by a moral code.

    Look, I realize jokes are your specialty, but try to get your head around this as I repeat it again: I don't think "forced compliance is the only way to have people subscribe to and abide by a moral code."

    Now, if you'd like to discuss what I'm discussing, which is the glaring inconsistency of your own positions on morality, why not answer the question I asked you a little further back in the thread?

  26. I've not ever claimed that you were in that camp Tommykey
    You'll have to forgive me, but since you wrote that in your remarks specifically responding to me, I interpreted the comment as being directed at me.
    What claim of moral objectivity have I made?
    Well, you're arguing here that objective morals come from God and you believe in the existence of this god, ergo morals are your exclusive province and I might as well go on a killing spree because I have no valid reasons not to.

  27. OT, but do you have to subscribe to Intense Debate to be able to write longer comments? I'm not a subscriber, and I notice that I am not allowed to type in more than a few sentences here, which is why I have to keep breaking up my responses the way I have been,

  28. Okay, let me try this again. What I deny is that there is an "objective" morality that has a divine origin that we are subject to. As I wrote above, what we have is a host of competing moral systems, many of which overlap. What I consider to be objective morality is what enables us all to peacefully coexist together. Once one arrogates to oneself the right to do unto others whatever he or she likes, whether it be murder, rape, theft, or other acts that inflict mental and/or physical harm, then one is acting according to one's own subjective preferences. I believe there are standards that can be considered objectively the best standards we can strive to attain.

  29. The thing is, there is always going to be a shifting moral zeitgeist. 250 years ago, the idea of abolishing the enslavement of African-Americans in this country was considered extremely radical and impossible. But once you accept the notion that some people ought to be free, then eventually the situation will arise where another group and its supporters will say, "Hey, what about me?" The highest possible standard, full equal rights for African-Americans, becomes the objective standard. All it takes is for one person to conceive of it and try to propagate it.

  30. Dammit, I posted two replies in response to this and now they are gone. Let's see if I can remember what I wrote. When I say that there is no "objective" morality, what I mean is that there is no moral code imposed on us from a divine source. What I view as objective is that which best enables us to peacefully coexist with one another and which is universal in its applications. If you inflict physical and/or mental harm on others such as stealing, rape, murder, assault and so forth, you are acting according to your own subjective preferences, therefore your actions are not universally applicable.

  31. Oh wait, I see now, I had to click on the 4 replies thing to open them up. Sorry!

  32. Thuggery is perfectly moral assuming that you channel it properly

  33. Well, you're arguing here that objective morals come from God and you believe in the existence of this god, ergo morals are your exclusive province and I might as well go on a killing spree because I have no valid reasons not to.

    Ah, screw it let's just forget this one because that's nowhere near what I said and you're not even trying. Especially the "morals are your exclusive province" part. That makes me think you're not even trying to understand what I'm saying. In fact, you've actually thanked me for affirming the opposite of what you claim here, on my blog. What, you think I would just suddenly abandon my position that atheists can be moral, and that God is not needed to be moral? Hardly. I restated them here precisely to avoid anybody thinking I thought such stupid things. And while I don't know you, I know you enough to know that you do have valid reasons not to go on a killing spree – because you're a moral man.

    Anyways. It just sucks not being heard.

    As far as the other thing, I believe you don't have to break your responses up. You can simply cut and paste from a text-editor. The text-fields in "intensedebate" are a bit quirky depending on the browser.

  34. I honestly don't know.

    If you keep typing, it should start to scroll down. I know there's that little do-hickey in the corner right that looks like you should be able to stretch the window, but it doesn't.

  35. What, you think I would just suddenly abandon my position that atheists can be moral, and that God is not needed to be moral

    Yes, I do hear you cl. But up above you said that atheists are wusses for not taking atheism to what you believe to be its logical conclusion, that we can do whatever we feel like because we have no god to be accountable to in the after life. I apologize if I am misunderstanding you, but I am making the effort.

  36. From my About page…

    "Argumentation is an art, and it’s respected here as such and as a means to test, hone, or abandon your positions. Naturally, there will be trolls who lack such respect. Generally, if they’re known trolls, I will ignore them and encourage you to do the same, but feel free to respond any way you wish. It’s your time."

  37. LOL!

  38. cl "All I'm saying is that fear of punishment keeps some people in line. Remove that fear and you remove those people's restraint. Even if I were an atheist I'd see value in religion for its ability to keep people in line."
    And that was said less than a week after the anniversary of 9/11.

  39. LOL!

    One of the many problems with 'ends justify the means' thinking is when the desired ends aren't met.

  40. As many have been tricked into thinking god belief and patriotism are one and the same, so too most have been convinced god belief and morality are one in the same. They most certainly are not.

    An insightful observation. These are not the only examples. Theists have been known to claim exclusive province on Good Things ™ such as love, community, justice, charity… you name it they've tried to bag it.

    Glad you're pointing these things out. Next is to claim them for all humanity… hmm, that sounds a bit grand.

    ps: It's good here, I must drop by more often.

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  42. Aila.. I just did it :- )

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