The following is a transcript of the lecture delivered by Joe Sampson to the Humanist Society of Victoria on 9 February 2014.
Some people argue that a person or society cannot be moral without a belief in God. For example, a few years ago a woman who co-owned a fruit shop that I shopped at one day began talking about religion (she was a Jehovah’s Witness) and when she found out that I did not believe in God she said, “You’re an atheist: you think it’s okay to murder people.” My reply was that I don’t think that it’s okay to murder people, unlike the God of the Bible, who sent a flood that killed most of the world’s inhabitants. Her reply was God made the moral rules and hence he can break them. So God has double standards.
The God of the Bible is not a model of morality; as well as sending a flood he killed the first-born infants in Egypt, he told Moses to stone a man to death for collecting firewood on the Sabbath, he told Joshua to slaughter all the inhabitants of Jericho and other towns, he killed all the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, he had Lot’s wife turned to salt, he had his son sacrificed for humanity’s sins, he sends people to burn in everlasting hellfire for the most trivial reasons; the Bible documents lots of other cruel actions by him. He behaves like a dictator.
I was brought up a Catholic and taught that morals derive from God’s commands. I gave up belief in God at age 16 because I found the arguments for God’s existence presented in year 11 school unconvincing. After I gave up belief in God at age 16 I started reading books on humanism and rationalism and identified with humanism and got a lot of my ideas on morals from humanist thinkers. A humanist is one who (i) rejects the supernatural; and (ii) has a belief in consideration for others. Corliss Lamont, the philosopher who wrote the book The Philosophy of Humanism, defined humanism as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.”
Humanists believe that science is the best method for gaining knowledge about the world: scientific hypotheses are tested against evidence. The scientific picture of the Universe is that it is billions of years old, not about 6,000 years as the Bible implies. Humanists believe that humans are social by nature and that relationships are an important part of a happy life. Humans vary in the amount of empathy they feel, as do animals; empathy has a natural origin, not a supernatural origin. I will now present and comment on the arguments of some thinkers who argue that a person or society can be moral without a belief in God plus provide evidence that societies without a belief in God are happy societies.
First I will discuss the arguments of British psychologist Margaret Knight in her book Morals Without Religion, which was originally a series of talks on the BBC in 1954. She said:
I argued at length that the social or altruistic impulses are the real source of morality, and that an ethic based on these impulses has more claim to our allegiance than an ethic based on obedience to the commands of a God who created tapeworms and cancer-cells. … I proposed a constructive alternative to Christianity – Scientific Humanism … the moral act, to the humanist, is the act that is conducive to human well-being, not the act ordained by God.
She goes on to say:
At different times very different views have been held about the nature of humans. At one extreme was the view held by the philosopher Hobbes that humans are essentially selfish. On this view all behaviour is self-interested – if we help our neighbour, it is just because we think that it may induce her to help us later on. At the other extreme is the view, of which Rousseau was the chief exponent, that humans are naturally unselfish and cooperative, and that if they behave otherwise it can only be because their natural development has been interfered with. ‘Humans’, said Rousseau ‘are naturally good. Only by institutions are they made bad.’ Neither of these extreme views is correct; the truth lies between them. It is natural for us to be to a large extent self-centred and to be hostile and aggressive towards people who obstruct us in getting what we want; and it is also natural for us to co-operate with other people, and to feel affection and sympathy for others. In community life, and especially in the sort of highly organised community life that we lead today it is desirable that the social impulses shall be well developed and the ego-impulses kept to some extent under control. … There is one principle which is common to all moral codes, in all types of society, however different they may be; … and that is ‘We must not be completely selfish; we must be prepared , at times and within limits, to put our own interests second to those of our own family, or our friends, or of the group or community to which we belong.’ This does not mean that we must always be making sacrifices; we have a duty to ourselves as well as others. … Why should I consider others? These ultimate questions can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy student knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the humanist one – because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards, is much happier and fuller and richer if members are friendly and cooperative than if they are hostile and resentful.
I understand Margaret Knight to be saying that we get a lot of our happiness from others. If we consider only our own happiness and not the happiness of others we will get hostility in return causing ourselves unhappiness. Even if we acted purely from self-interest we would consider the happiness of others. She pointed out that we don’t act purely from self-interest: it is natural to feel some affection for others; she does not mention that perhaps there is an exception in the case of psychopaths. If we were all psychopaths presumably society would not be able to function.
Secondly, I will discuss the views of Paul Kurtz, an American philosopher, who helped set up the Council for Secular Humanism. These views were proposed in his book Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism. He said:
The question is constantly asked: What is the ethics of humanism? Can a society or person be moral without religion? Yes, indeed, affirm secular humanists. Morality is deeply rooted in the ‘common moral decencies’ (those that relate to moral behaviour in society) and the ‘ethical excellences’ (as they apply to a person’s own life). The common moral decencies are widely shared. They are essential to the survival of any human community. Meaningful coexistence cannot occur if they are consistently flouted. Handed down through countless generations, they are recognised throughout the world by friends and relatives, colleagues and coworkers, the native-born and immigrant, as basic rules of social intercourse. They are the foundation of moral education and are taught in the family and the schools. They express the elementary virtues of courtesy, politeness and empathy so essential for living together; indeed they are the very basis of civilised life itself. The common moral decencies are transcultural in their range and have their roots in general human needs. They no doubt grow out of the long evolutionary struggle for survival and may even have some sociobiological basis, though they may be lacking in some individuals or societies since their emergence depends upon certain preconditions of moral and social development.
The common moral decencies are:
- Personal Integrity: telling the truth, being sincere, keeping promises, being honest;
- Trustworthiness: loyal, dependable, reliable, responsible;
- Benevolence: :goodwill, lack of malice; in sexual relations: mutual consent; beneficent, sympathetic and compassionate;
- Fairness: accountability, gratitude, justice, tolerance of others, cooperation, negotiate differences peacefully, without hatred or violence.
The ethical excellences are:
- Autonomy (self-reliance);
- Self-respect, which is vital to psychological balance. Self-hatred can destroy the personality. We need to develop some appreciation for who we are as individuals and a realistic sense of our own identities, for a lack of self-esteem can make one feel truly worthless, which is neither healthy for the individual nor helpful to society at large;
- High motivation;
- A positive attitude;
- Joyful living;
- Good health;
- Happiness (or well-being or exuberance).
Kurtz sees morality as necessary for the effective functioning of societies. Kurtz sees morality as based not only on how we relate to others but also how we relate to ourselves. He sees morality as partly based on self-interest and partly on inbuilt altruism.
The third thinker whose views that I will discuss is philosopher and mathematician and outspoken critic of religion, Bertrand Russell, as outlined in his essay, ‘The Faith of a Humanist’. He says:
Every kind of hostile action or feeling provokes a reaction by which it is increased and so generates a progeny of violence and injustice, which has a terrible vitality. This can only be met by cultivating in ourselves and attempting to generate in the young feelings of friendliness rather hostility, of well-wishing rather than malevolence, and of cooperation rather than competition. If I am asked ‘Why do you believe this?’ I should not appeal to any supernatural authority, but only to the general wish for happiness. A world full of hate is a world full of sorrow. Each party, where there is mutual hatred, hopes that only the other party will suffer, but this is seldom the case. And even the most successful oppressors are filled with fear – slave-owners have been obsessed with dread of a servile insurrection. From the point of view of worldly wisdom, hostile feelings and limitation of sympathy are folly. Their fruits are war, death, oppression and torture, not only for their original victims but also for their perpetrators or their descendants. Whereas if we could all learn to love our neighbours the world would quickly become a paradise for us all … no supernatural reasons are needed to make people kind and to prove that only through kindness can the human race achieve happiness.
Russell is agreeing with Knight that a society based on co-operation is needed for general happiness.
Fourth, I will discuss the arguments of Albert Ellis and Irving Becker, both psychologists, as presented in their book, A Guide to Personal Happiness. Albert Ellis, an atheist, regularly wrote a column entitled ‘The Happy Humanist’ in the U.S. magazine The Humanist. They say:
Morality, when it is sensible (which it often isn’t!), consists of two basic rules: (1) To thine own self be true, or Be kind to yourself, (2) Do not commit any deed that needlessly and deliberately harms others – because you, in being true to yourself, normally live in a social group or community that may not continue to exist, or to exist in the manner in which you would prefer, if you do harm to others. … Social interest, in other words, fuses with self-interest. … Because humans are gregarious or social animals, you tend to find happiness when you are relating, both generally and intimately, to others; and although you have the ability to be happy when you are completely alone, you would rarely choose to be for any considerable length of time. You naturally enjoy talking to, being wit, encountering, concerning yourself about, affecting, and having love-sex relations with other humans. Why? Largely because that is your nature: your innate tendency to commune and share.
Once you decide to cater to your gregarious desires you subscribe to a social contract which we call morality or responsibility to others. … For group life entails some restrictions and rules of conduct. As a hermit you can fearlessly make all the noise you want or defecate wherever you wish. But not as a member of a family, a clan or community! Nor, when you decide to live with others, are you perfectly free to grab all the food you want, appropriate all the available land, steal any thing in sight, or physically harm or kill your intimates and associates – at least not for very long.
The authors point out that self-interest and social interest are not necessarily in conflict. They do also point out that always putting one’s own interests second to those of others is not conducive to one’s happiness and is therefore not sensible morality.
Fifth, I will briefly discuss a comment by atheist psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in his book Motivation and Personality. He says:
… if the release of anxiety causes the patient to become more affectionate and less hostile, does this not indicate that affection is basic to human nature, while hostility is not.
Maslow seems to me to be saying that when we are at our happiest we are at our friendliest.
Sixth, I shall discuss some comments by Jacob Bronowski, mathematician and biologist, in his book, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. In speaking of science he says:
The scientific enterprise takes its strength from the fact that everybody can believe what everybody else does. You are only allowed to employ perfectly honest means. This … puts you in a position of special trust. And this is a deeply ethical principle … other values derive from truth. There are the personal values – respect, sensitivity, tolerance – without which science could not be carried on. They are … the values of the scientist working by himself or herself. And then there are the communal values, the ‘ought’ values – honesty, integrity, dignity, authenticity – which bind the scientific community together.
I see Bronowski as saying that in order to find out the truth about the world we are bound by certain moral values.
Seventh, I discuss some of the ideas in the book Individual Morality by humanist psychologist James Hemming. He was a member of a group working on moral principles that can be accepted equally by Christians and Humanists. He says:
The modern choice must be for a democratic society, since only such a society can harmonise individual fulfilment with social order … The road to personal fulfilment … is not via egocentricity but through the establishment of reciprocal, sensitive, creative relationships in friendship, love, work, play, appreciation.
Like other authors Hemming sees morals as necessary for happiness.
Eighth, I discuss some of the ideas in the book, The Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values, by atheist and neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris. Harris is CEO of Project Reason, a foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. In his book Harris says that moral questions can be decided using science. He says:
I believe that we will increasingly understand good and evil, right and wrong, in scientific terms, because moral concerns translate into facts about how our thoughts and behaviours affect the well-being of conscious creatures like ourselves …Taking others’ interests into account, making impartial decisions (and knowing that others will make them), rendering help to the needy – these are experiences that contribute to our social well-being. It seems perfectly reasonable … for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate selfish interests will often be superseded by considerations of fairness. It is only reasonable, however, that everyone will tend to be better off under such a system. As, it seems, they will.
Harris seems to me to be saying that for our own psychological well-being we need moral rules. Harris quotes a survey that says that “fifty seven percent of Americans think that one must believe in God to have good values and be moral.” He then goes on to say:
… on almost every measure of societal health the least religious countries are better off than the most religious. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands – which are the most atheistic societies on earth – consistently rate better than religious nations on measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrolment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability and charity to poorer nations, etc … as societies become more prosperous, stable and democratic they tend to become more secular.
Ninth, and finally, I discuss the book Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman, a U.S. sociology professor. Zuckerman lived in Scandinavia for fourteen months, interviewing nearly 150 Danes and Swedes. He says, “one study reports that only 51 percent of Danes and 26 percent of Swedes claim to believe in a God. Another study found lower rates: only 24 percent of Danes and 16 percent of Swedes.” He says:
I argue that society without God is not only possible but can be quite civil and pleasant. This admittedly polemical aspect of my book is aimed primarily at countering the claims of certain outspoken Christians who regularly argue that a society without God would be hell on earth; rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. Well, it isn’t. Denmark and Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral and prosperous societies. In fact, a good case could be made that they are among the ‘best’ countries in the world, at least according to standard sociological measures. In an age of growing religious fundamentalism and strengthening ties between religion and politics – in the U.S. as well as in many other countries – this is important information. It is quite crucial for people to know that it is actually quite possible for a society to lose its religious beliefs and still be well-functioning, successful, and fully capable of constructing and obeying sound laws and following rational systems of morality and ethics. Worship of God can wane, prayer can be given up, and the Bible can go unstudied, yet people can still treat one another decently, schools and hospitals can still run smoothly, crime can remain minimal, babies and old people can receive all the care and attention they need, economies can flourish, pollution can be kept at a minimum, speeding tickets can be paid, and children can be loved in warm, secure homes – all without God being a central component of everyday life.
As Harris and Zuckerman point out, the evidence shows that where many people are non-theists, there are happy, flourishing societies.
I have looked at a number of what I consider are convincing arguments that persons and societies can be good (i.e., empathetic) without a belief in God.
Bronowski, J., The Origins of Knowledge and Information, Vail-Ballou Press, Birmingham, U.S.A., 1978.
Ellis, A. and Becker, I. A Guide to Personal Happiness, Hal Leighton Printing Company, North Hollywood, U.S.A., 1982.
Harris, S., Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values, Bantam Press, London, U.K., 2010.
Hemming, J., Individual Morality, Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, U.K., 1969.
Knight, M., Morals Without Religion, Dobson Books, London, U.K., 1960.
Kurtz, P., Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism, Prometheus Books, Amherst, U.S.A., 1988.
Lamont, C., The Philosophy of Humanism, Humanist Press, Amherst, U.S.A., 1997.
Maslow, A., Motivation and Personality, Harper and Row, New York, U.S.A., 1987.
Russell, B., ‘The Faith of a Humanist’ in Humanist Anthology, Knight, M., Herrick, J. (eds), Rationalist Press Association, London, 2005.
Zuckerman, R., Society Without God, New York University Press, New York, U.S.A., 2008.
Copyright © 2014 Joe Sampson