January 19, 2006

Morality exists independently of, and prior to, religion

There were some very thoughtful and lively comments to yesterday's post on the topic Should atheists come out of the closet?

It was suggested that one of the other reasons that atheists might feel uncomfortable about revealing their point of view is because of the common perception that morality is derived from religion and that to say one is an atheist is to run the risk of being thought to have no moral standards and be capable of any atrocity.

This view does persist in the face of evidence (and arguments) to the contrary. For example, Marc Hauser and Peter Singer in their paper Morality Without Religion reported on the results of survey of 1500 people, asking the following questions:

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank with morally "obligatory," "permissible," or "forbidden."

1. A runaway trolley is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the trolley onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is ____________.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is _________.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical care, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital. There is however, a healthy person in the hospital's waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person's organs, he will die but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person's organs is _______.

Taken the quiz? Here are the results of the study:

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test []. On the view that morality is God's word, atheists should judge these cases differently from people with religious background and beliefs, and when asked to justify their responses, should bring forward different explanations. For example, since atheists lack a moral compass, they should go with pure self-interest, and walk by the drowning baby. Results show something completely different. There were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man's organs. . When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that can not account for the differences in play. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

Gregory S. Paul did a transnational study that argues that being religious actually leads to negative social consequences. In his study titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies published in the Journal of Religion & Society Volume 7 (2005), he finds:

Large-scale surveys show dramatic declines in religiosity in favor of secularization in the developed democracies. Popular acceptance of evolutionary science correlates negatively with levels of religiosity, and the United States is the only prosperous nation where the majority absolutely believes in a creator and evolutionary science is unpopular. Abundant data is available on rates of societal dysfunction and health in the first world. Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly.

Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel argues that the idea that morality is derived only from religion does not make logical sense. He says (p. 331):

Let us suppose...that moral values comes only from God's authoritative word, that moral value is by definition that which God commands. If so, then if God commands us to love one another, then loving one another is morally good, by definition. However it is equally true on this view that if God were instead to command us to hate and enslave all those who are of a different race then, still by definition, the hate-filled slave - holder would be morally good and praiseworthy. Similarly, if God were to have created us such that our purpose was to kill each other for fun, then the peacemaker would be a demon and the serial murderer would be a moral saint, again by definition. Indeed, the creationist will likely say that such ideas move beyond irreverence and into blasphemy and that it is impossible to think that God would ever command such immoralities. However, notice that such a reply would contradict itself in the mouth of someone who says that morality is merely that which God commands...Plato's point is that this view - that God's authority as the origin of value - is fundamentally flawed. It is rather the second view that makes more sense, namely that God commands something because it is indeed good. That means, therefore, that goodness must have a basis that is independent of God. The lesson for us here is that...the existentialist fear is ill-founded - the possibility of value, purpose, and meaning are not lost even if God does not exist.

Of course, I do not expect these arguments to persuade anyone who is convinced that it is only belief in god that prevents people from torturing and killing people, without even pausing to reflect on the seeming contradiction that it is a supposedly religious President Bush who actually authorizes both these things.

POST SCRIPT: What Christians think about atheists

One intrepid atheist blogger (Lya Kahlo) spent two months at Christian websites and chat rooms engaging the natives in dialogue about what they thought about atheists, and compiled an interesting set of lists. Of course, Kahlo does not claim any scientific status for this highly idiosyncratic survey.

Kahlo reports on the 11 most common misconceptions about atheists:

1. Atheists hate god/are jealous of theists

2. Atheists are arrogant and don't want anything "superior" to them

3. Atheists have never experience religion

4. Atheists have never read/don't understand the bible

5. Atheists just don't want to receive the truth

6. Atheists are bitter/angry

7. Atheists just don't want to admit they sin

8. All atheists support abortion/evolution/liberal politics/communism/fascism/etc

9. Atheists are gay

10. Atheists want to destroy/limit religion

11. Atheists think they know everything

There are also lists of the five most common excuses for having no evidence of the existence of god, the 14 most commonly used fallacies, and others. Check out the site. There are some surprises. It's fun.


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I might be guilty of #11, but I know plenty of Christians who are just as guilty as I am (Bill O'Reilly comes to mind).

I can't remember if I got this link from you or not, so I apologize in advance if I'm doubling up on the info:

Ethical Athiest's 10 Commandments

As for the morality test, my gut answers were right in line with everyone else. Then I stopped to think about it - what is the difference between #1 and #3? In both scenarios, you have the chance to spare 1 person's life in order to save 5. Would it matter if we added that the one person killed by the trolley was healthy and a father of 2?

Posted by Barry on January 19, 2006 02:51 PM

Thinking for a minute of the intense religiousness of America's poor... and coming from a disadvantaged background, I recall clearly how much time one spends in church basements, getting the necessities of life.

It makes me wonder if there shouldn't be a Secular "Salvation Army" out there...

Posted by Marie on January 19, 2006 04:11 PM

When I did the quiz, I first said forbidden for both 1 and 3. But after I thought about the wording more carefully, I felt that permissible was the correct one for #1 because what I understood by "permissible" is that although I personally would not have flipped the switch, I would not say that someone who did it was guilty of doing something wrong. But I had no doubt that #3 was forbidden.

So in the end, I had the same problem as Barry had with 1 and 3. Logically they seem to be equivalent but at a gut level they evoke different responses and I am not sure why.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 19, 2006 04:13 PM

I don't think morality/moral values have anything to do with "religion".   They may match (the values heard externally from religion may match your internal values), but I don't think true morality can be imposed from the outside in.  It's an inside job - I'm not sure how the internal process works - but I think personal experience is one of the catalysts.  We cannot truly value something we don't understand, and I don't think one can truly understand anything unless we've experienced it on some personal level.   

Intellectual understanding alone (which is what is attained from external sources i.e. religion, parents) is skin-deep, and the first thing to go when faced with adversity. For example the behavior of Hugh Thompson during the Ly Mai massacre which was mentioned in a previous post - does anyone believe Thompson did what he did solely because of something he heard in a pew?  It's only when we are faced with an experience like that can we differentiate between our real moral fiber (in our gut) from the ideas of morality (in our brain).  

I think very few people truly know themselves, (their true moral character), especially those who proclaim to be "religious".

Posted by Mary on January 19, 2006 05:58 PM

If the Christians Lya Kahlo talked to lived in Case housing, they would get written up for #9.

Posted by on January 19, 2006 10:13 PM

I had the same issue with #1 & #3 on the quiz also. I suspect many did.

I think the issue is that throwing the switch of a train will lead to certain results. Surgery is not so certain. Even though it is a hypothetical and we can say that one will die while 5 live, in our gut we know that things are not so certain with surgerical procedures.

Also, maybe it has something to do with the fact that the victim in the surgery case would be cognizant of the situation. The victim would have a chance to defend themself.

Interesting in any case.

Posted by drew on January 20, 2006 10:13 AM

I think Drew is on to something noting that if the victim is aware, it becomes a different scenario. That shouldn't change anything in the big picture, but I guess morally speaking, it adds to the guilt of the person involved.

Excellent topic, btw.

Posted by Barry on January 20, 2006 12:56 PM

I think there's a few key difference between situations 1 and 3 is that haven't been touched on here.

First, one person is probably a lot more likely to be able to get out of the way of the trolley than all five of the others can. I don't think that interpretation was intended by the survey author(s), but the wording does leave the option open, and I couldn't help think about that when deciding how I felt about the dilemma.

Second, situation 3 is vastly different in my mind, not just because taking the organs would guarantee the donor's death (unlike my reading of #1), but also because the potential donor is also another patient, which means he's there to ask for help, but the question is proposing sacrificing him instead of helping him. I would be morally opposed to #3 even if that weren't the case, but that's certainly a big part of what makes it an easy decision for me while #1 is more complicated.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on January 21, 2006 02:35 PM

This was the funniest article on atheism and how it is viewed by the theist intelligentsia! Oh lord, this has to be a classic!


Posted by S. de Silva on January 23, 2006 08:32 PM

I agree with Mary, I think the notion that religion and morality are connected is an incorrect one.

Paraphrasing Joseph Campbell, religion is a guide to an experience of being alive--the ultimate experience, in fact. The main problem being that this experience is beyond words and sybolic speech. This is largely the problem of religion, where so many people become tangled up in the symbols and words that those become the "law" (hence religious fundamentalism), and those tangled souls will never experience the transcendent. I view religion as a pointer to the ultimate experience--of being alive, god, whatever you want to call it.

If religion is supposed to be a moral compass (deuteronomy, etc.--although the Judaic tree of religions is far from tolerant of anything), it is far from accurate in its orientation.

Posted by Tom on January 26, 2006 10:51 AM

I too agree with Mary. Morality is not connected with religion. Our moral values all differ; what we think is right, may not be so in the eyes of society.

Posted by Tehreem on April 25, 2006 02:55 PM

Gregory S. Paul's "study" was just pseudo-scientific.

Posted by Pseudo-Paul on January 6, 2007 07:09 PM

Am I the only person who thought #1 and #3 are both obligatory.
Probably means that I'm a bad person and all, however personally i would sacrifice myself so that 5 others could live- I feel all people have the same standing and so the survival of 5 instead of 1 is always the preferred option.

Posted by bmt on December 17, 2008 02:05 PM

I also noticed the similarity between #1 & #3. However, I decided the difference was in choice. Flipping the switch, the one person to die had no choice in death, it is the choice of the switch master. The person in the waiting room of the hospital whose organs might save the five, surely has a choice in whether or not to give up his own life for the five. So, in that way I believe both are permisable. However, if for some reason the waiting room healthy person could be utilized without his own choice but only the choice of surgeons, it is forbidden. Although the choice in #1 doesn't matter. This is simply because no matter what in #1 someone will die; either the five or the one. But in #3 the five will surely die, but the one doesn't necessarily have to, therefore the choice the individual makes to live or die should be his own. In #3, the only one with a choice is the switch-master, and he should choose the least life lost, because it is clearly a senseless loss of life. Not like choosing between people on death-row and a school bus full of children. That's how I see it anyway.

Posted by Harmony on December 14, 2009 03:08 AM

Funny, maybe I am the only one who absolutely thinks that #1 and #3 are forbidden. Both are murder of an innocent and the saving of more innocents cannot justify such taking of a life. Yes, it is true that others will die by my decision not to throw the switch but there is a difference between taking an action and refusing to take an action from a moral (as well as legal) perspective.

As to #2, I regard that as obligatory and I weep when I think that 3% of all people did not.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on May 31, 2010 01:27 AM