It doesn’t get much different than a Mormon and an atheist — so that’s precisely who we have engaging in a monthly debate on matters of spirituality.
Donna Carol Voss is a Berkley grad, stay-at-home mom, former pagan and devout Mormon. W Cassity-Guilliom grew up with interfaith parents and landed as an irreligious apatheist, which evolved into atheism and skepticism with education.
In this first installment, the two debate the question of whether humans can develop morality apart from the existence of God.
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Donna Carol Voss:
Morality is knowing the difference between right and wrong. People who have never heard of God or Jesus or Moses know the difference between right and wrong, but it is inherited morality that began with a biblical God.
European socialized medicine promotes itself as so much less expensive than our healthcare system here, but meanwhile leverages the United State’s enormous monetary investments in pharmaceuticals and surgical techniques without taking on its own risk of investment. Similarly, other allied countries can afford to have smaller militaries because they know we have their back if anything real goes down.
Without [God] as a reference point, how would humans ever have learned the sanctity of life?
Morality may indeed exist apart from God today, but its origin must be located in him or it makes no sense. Universal right and wrong requires a universal mind and a universal set of commandments. It’s interesting that the Golden Rule is found as a core principal of every major religion.
Without God-given (i.e., absolute) morality, it would be wrong to kill only one of our own group. It would be expedient to kill a member of another group, especially if it benefitted our group in some way.
Even the concept that human life is precious arises from God telling us we are his children, that we are precious to him. Without him as a reference point, how would humans ever have learned the sanctity of life?
Imagine a lifeless planet, like Pluto. If one were to smash an asteroid into it, would anything immoral have been done? Of course not — maybe something aesthetically displeasing, but not immoral. We recognize this immediately because morality is solely about the wellbeing of experience and encompasses every action related to it and nothing unrelated to it. Creatures with brains are capable of thought and experience; they are sentient. Without sentient creatures, there is no morality, as on the frozen surface of Pluto. Compassion and empathy have evolved within social animals, which allows us to connect with and care about the experiences other animals have.
A thought experiment: reality is as it currently is, except we know for certain Loki is the one real god. Unfortunately he’s something of a malevolent rascal who doesn’t care much for humans. If morality were based in divinity, then Loki’s morality would be the absolute morality, as Christians believe to be the case for Yahweh.
The consistency of the godless morality I explained comes from its basis on empirical facts about reality.
In that circumstance, the religious morality model, also known as Divine Command Theory, would dictate that killing one another is not wrong or right since Loki doesn’t care one way or the other about it. My model of morality would dictate it’s still wrong as it still causes harm to the experiences of sentient creatures.
Another thought experiment: reality is as it currently is, except we know for certain no gods are real. Divine Command Theory is completely incoherent in this exercise and cannot make any predictions about what morality is. However, sentient creatures continue having experiences and affecting one another’s experiences, so the godless morality applies just as well as it would if Loki or Yahweh existed, regardless of their opinions about morality.
The consistency of the godless morality I explained comes from its basis on empirical facts about reality. While Divine Command Theory is rooted in the supposed opinions of a sentient being, as told to us by other humans, godless morality is rooted in the actual experiences that real beings really have.
Donna Carol Voss:
Without sentient creatures there is no morality? I would have to agree with that. Rocks and rills are neither moral nor immoral.
Compassion and empathy have evolved within social animals? I’m not sure that makes logical sense to me. I’ve learned the hard way from adopting attachment-disordered kids that empathy is rooted in early childhood experiences. We all have the same evolutionary basis as human beings, but some of us have empathy (a conscience) and some of us don’t — the most extreme examples of which are sociopaths who are incapable of caring about anyone else’s feelings.
It’s true that humans incapable of empathy are very maladaptive, but tremendous empathy can be experienced by immoral people, like Godfather Michael Corleone who loves his family, but kills his sister’s husband for business. So I don’t see a direct correlation between empathy and morality.
Your thought experiments are thought provoking, but you’ve defined one parameter that doesn’t exist in reality: we cannot know for certain anything about God — whether Loki is the one true god, whether there are any true gods, whether Yahweh is it.
When someone else’s wellbeing threatens my own, am I allowed to maximize my wellbeing at their expense?
To know something for certain means to be able to prove it, and no proof exists or ever will exist in religion; it’s all faith, a hope for things unseen, yet experienced by an inner sense. Without proof, it’s all just conjecture anyway. Belief is the scaffolding we use to reach Absolute Truth, but we’ll never get there in this life.
If my morality is to focus only on the wellbeing of experience, whose wellbeing do I include? Life is a complex web of competing wellbeings. If a mother kills her ex-husband to prevent him from sexually abusing their son after the ex-husband is given legal custody by a court, is that moral or immoral? If the father is allowed unsupervised visitation with his son, how is the son’s wellbeing protected?
My wellbeing and that of those I love will always carry more weight than that of strangers. When someone else’s wellbeing threatens my own, am I allowed to maximize my wellbeing at their expense?
I think that only a God who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves gives us the framework for maximizing all of our wellbeings at the same time. We will take turns winning and losing because we are all beholden to a standard above us and not a standard within us, which can be modified according to what we need and want in the moment.
With the questions in your response, we’ve moved past the first principle of godless morality — from its basis in the experiences of sentient creatures to using it in conflict resolution.
Here the godless morality system trumps the religious model in several ways:
Change is encouraged as new evidence is brought to bear about the reality of experiences. Centuries ago, there was a school of thought that all non-human animals were not sentient, and we’ve since learned that’s not the case. This new evidence should logically make no difference in Divine Command Theory, because only the opinion of god dictates right and wrong, but it makes all the difference in godless morality.
When there are many ways to equally improve and maintain wellbeing, we become more accepting of different practices.
Results-driven rather than piety-driven goals exemplify the right motive and leave the wrong motive in the dust. Those who want to please their god are pressured to act differently in certain circumstances than those who want to improve the lives of others. It seems we subconsciously recognize this fact to some extent because the degree to which these two motives diverge is the degree to which people are viewed as morally insane, like Andrea Yates, and the degree to which they converge is the degree to which we applaud those individuals, like the Dalai Lama.
Multiple right answers allow for diversity in the moral landscape. When there are many ways to equally improve and maintain wellbeing, we become more accepting of different practices. But when there’s only One True God and his Absolute Moral Commandments, any dissent is impiety.
Donna Carol Voss:
Atheism assumes that humans and would-be gods are at cross-purposes. The deepest truth of religion is that because we are created in the likeness of God, our wellbeing and his are indistinguishable.
Gods, whether their presence, absence, or commandments, are not relevant to morality. Morality exists where sentient beings are concerned and nowhere else.
This piece was originally published at the Original Thinking on 21st Century Living blog.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.