Originally published on the STMetaNat site.
(Copyright 2001 by Shlomi Tal, reprinted with permission)
Does it not delight you, o godless heathens, when a champion of the One True Religion (whichever of those it may be) asks you about your basis for morality? Their aim is surely clear: that you should confess the immorality of your unbelief and turn to God the Creator as the source for morality. I will the atheist with morality arm and the theist of false sense of morality disarm.
This site, it should be clear, aims to propagate the truth of metaphysical naturalism: nature alone with no supernatural partners ascribed thereto, the unity of matter in multiple forms, the blind, pitiless flow of the river of fate. That last point may prompt one to ask, rightly, about the basis for morality: if nature is unmerciful, deaf to the cry of the lamb in the fangs of the lion, then why should mankind, who is as natural as everything, be moral? The question ought never to be ignored, and will keep being asked.
I distrust systems of reward and punishment, although they cannot always be avoided. Let it be known that there are no such inherent systems in nature, nor in the fate of mankind. Criminals may be punished by imprisonment or execution, but their end is the same as the end of those who abide by the law. I shall talk of heaven and hell later; for now it is enough to say they are human inventions. Using a carrot and stick is fit for donkeys, but for humans it has been shown not to work. Sanctions of reward and punishment must often be used on small children, for they do not have understanding. With the passage of age morality can be instilled by persuasion. That is a more difficult and time-consuming process than the carrot and stick system, but it takes deeper root.
Of other lives beyond this certain one we know nothing (the afterlife accounts of the religions are all fictions). We must make the most of this certain life. The goal is whatever makes us happy, and it is for happiness we must strive as much as possible. Best of situations is the most happiness for the most people. That means that our pursuit of happiness is subject to the condition that it shall not overrun the happiness of others, as much as can be done. All doctrines of self-sacrifice which does not cause happiness are to be rejected. It is my article of faith that if a person suffers all day without having at least two hours of joy, it is better that he or she had never be born. The time allotted for joy is to the discretion of each person, within reasonable limits, of course. Surely one cannot be happy all the time, but if one is happy for very little time then something is wrong. And the great evil is slavery - labour for no gain, suffering for no joy, a futile, wasted life.
Said the Romans: vivere non est vivere, sed valere. To live is not [just] to live, but to be healthy. Think of all the paralysed: if they can but read and think, their lives may still be justified, but they are in torture. Those who are born with brain-damage, or whose brain stops mental functioning because of old age, are in ultimate torture, the living dead. The flow of fate has caused it, but it is not a divine decree that is binding upon us. If medical predictions make it clear that a baby is destined to be a living dead person, damaged in brain, uncapable of motion or thought, then it is a crime - yes, a crime - to let such a baby be born. An aborted baby will not know, but a baby who is born to live a life of death is the victim of the cruelest torture. For the theists: if God exists and he decreed that a person should live in such suffering, then it is incumbent upon every feeling human being to disobey God. We are duty-bound to kill such a God who permits it.
There are few mental cases who commit crime, such as stealing or vandalism, for the sake of it; the most are of necessity. Stealing, for example, stems from disparity in the distribution of wealth. How easy it is to say "stealing is wrong" rather than uproot the cause. The causal flow brings the expected fruits. Those who would cut down on the welfare system of the state, let them not be surprised by the resultant rise in necessary crime. Similarly, the phenomenon of murder in schools is the result of insufficient allocation of resources for education. Private schools, funded by well-to-do individuals, have the resources for instilling morals into the pupils; the public system is neglected and therefore spawns immoral eruptions.
Has any thief been improved by corrective treatment - by imprisonment? Certainly not, for there is nothing to improve. They are often portrayed in ugly features: unshaven, torn of clothes, dirty and smelly. It is true for most, but such portraits erase compassion. If those people had the means, they would not be taking the means of others. Imprisonment for them is aspirin for cancer patients.
What about the white-collar thieves, those who have means but steal out of greed? They are, again, the result of educational neglect. Had they been educated, not even in morals but just in material facts, they would have known that the amassing of money beyond one's needs is senseless. Of course, there is still a chance people will ignore education and live in greed in spite of it, but we are seeking to minimize, not to eliminate (which is impossible).
The only key to morality is the following yardstick: if it makes me happy without removing happiness from others. Granted, there are some situations where unhappiness is necessary for ultimate greater happiness; that must be evaluated with thoughtfulness and compassion. Human judgement is liable to imperfection, for we are not perfect (note to Christian readers: "imperfect" does not mean "sinner"; the doctrine of all humans as sinners is to be discarded); however, we evolve with experience and correct our errors, trying as much as possible to select the best of outcomes and discard the worst. Our judgement is all there is, and we must take care to be wise in it. There is a chance of error in judgement, for which unfortunately there will be undesirable results, but such is life: progressing and growing with trial and error.
There is no cure-all, no panacea for the problems of morality. As long as mankind exists, wrongdoings and injustices will inevitably happen. The target to minimize unhappiness as much as possible, using rational thinking and compassion. The absence of those two moral essentials are an abundant source of unhappiness and suffering for mankind. That absence is especially prominent in the exclusivist, immanuelian religions.
Theistic Morality (or lack thereof)
I have coined the term immanuelian from Hebrew 'immanu el meaning "with us is God". Theists often ask, "if you do not believe in God, what is your basis for morality?", which I have attempted to answer above. Now will I invert: "if you believe God is on your side, what is your basis for morality?". There are many problems with the theistic claims for moral exclusiveness. I would say those claims are without foundation.
The theists make a logical claim: he who created us knows us best, therefore his guidance for us is the best moral guidance. I positively agree. No-one knows better about a machine than its designer, and no-one is more qualified in giving guidance as to its best operation. There are just two slight problems here, however:
The theistic believers claim the scriptures teach moral absolutes. Here again there are problems: times change and societies evolve, so what is the point of basing all morals on absolutes? Some things should definitely be carved in stone as absolute, but most morals are situational. Furthermore, the morals of the scriptures are just as situational as humanist morals. An example is Exodus 20:13, which says "thou shalt not murder" (Hebrew lo tirtsah). That law was de facto carved in stone, only to be de jure blotted out by the Biblegod in Numbers 25:6-15, when Phinehas murdered Zimri and the Midianite woman and received the blessing of eternal priesthood for it. Even if we ignore the immorality of murdering a man and a woman who harmed no-one, it should be quite obvious that the Bible cannot be trusted for moral absolutes. The Bible can be trusted for instructing genocide and murder of apostates (Deuteronomy 13:7-17), sacrifice of innocent animals and slavish obedience to a tyrannical deity.
The New Testament is less violent than the Hebrew scriptures, but it introduces the concept of infinite punishment - hell. Here is a sample in Revelation 20:10:
Finally, the last of the influential scriptures instructs believers to kill the infidels (especially polytheists) and says Allah will torture them eternally in hell:
The Bible, the New Testament and the Qur'an instruct violence towards innocent people - idol-worshippers do no harm by the very act of worshipping their idols; the monotheists will usually say it angers God that partners are ascribed to him, to which the reply should be that he is a very insecure being who is angered by a few humans paying homage to conjectural deities (and monotheism itself is not free of such defects of polytheism). The attitude has its roots in egoistic fear: the believers fear God may punish them all for the sins of the infidels, thus they must convert the infidels to appease the wrath of God. Love of God has nothing to do with it, just selfish fear, much as religious Orthodox Jews, for example, want secular Jews to observe the Sabbath so that God will not punish all Jews.
As for the immorality of hell, I have commented on it in full elsewhere. He cannot be called a loving, kind, merciful, compassionate being who is indifferent to the eternal cries of tortured people. That, I want to point out, is a moral absolute to which humanists adhere. It is a poor sign for the truth of a religion that it threatens hell on the unbelievers instead of using rational intellectual persuasion. One of the signs atheism is true is that it uses logic alone, and no threats - there is no atheistic hell for theists to burn in.
The heaven-exclusive ("we are the only way to heaven" etc), God-with-us religions are the source of much atrocity and suffering for mankind. When you believe God is on your side, then are you justified in committing any crime in his name. All totalitarian, blind-faith systems - and in that are the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin like religions - cause the followers to commit acts which no person would do in rational sanity. Blind faith is like a mental illness, and exclusivist religion is organized mental illness. I would welcome with open arms the pluralism of all religions (though I believe only metaphysical naturalism is the truth), if only the religionists would erase the anti-human, intolerant verses out of their scriptures. But they will not, for it is allegedly the immutable word of God, and they would further rebuke me for judging the word of God by human standards. I say to this: according to the theistic descriptions of God, he must be much more moral than any human; how then can anyone attribute words of immorality to God? That is true blasphemy.
I have had many talks with Palestinian Arabs. The territorial conflict is, to be sure, not awfully easy to solve, but it could be done if religion is shoved away from it. I have seen secular Jews and secular Arabs manage to reach strained but impressive agreements, convincing me peace is not impossible. Culpable for perpetuating the flames of violence are the religious Jews and the religious Muslims, who agree in their lack of compromise and in having God on each of their sides. They show their love of God by hating mankind. I say, even if there is a God, surely he is infinite and in no need of being loved by humans; then even for theists is humanism the only justified way. Peace and morality will be much increased when all religions adopt humanistic views. True for Palestine, also for Northern Ireland, and other regions where God is the pretext for silencing the human conscience and killing for the sake of killing, without mercy.
"The belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man" - Thomas Paine (author of The Age of Reason)