November 10, 2006

Bases of a Natural Morality 

Atheists, including agnostics, are constantly reviled by theists for being amoral, cynical and in short the source of all evil. Christians don't know who to blame for something going the wrong way? Blame atheism, the Enlightment and evolution. I've seen some twisted folk saying that atheists are even worse than Muslims - and this being on Little Green Footballs should give you an idea of the depth of hatred and contempt.

A reason for this behaviour is reaction to the ridiculous and obnoxious figure of the militant atheist, those convinced that their position is the only logical and rational one and hell-bent on proselytizing and mocking religious beliefs.

There is still no way to reach a conclusion about god using only logic and reason; whatever the position, it takes some act of faith. Agnosticism maybe less so, but it's an intermediate position that leaves many unsatisfied.

But there's a lot of atheists who instead are upstanding citizens and moral people, and respect theists even across the wide gap of worldview.

I think that the recent rise of atheism is in great part due to an increase of scientific knowledge. When more and more aspects of the world become clear, it is also more and more difficult to accept divine or supernatural intervention. We can explain lightning, earthquakes, floods, droughts, comets and epidemies without needing a god. In this view, evolution does indeed have a special place, because it says that from a biological standpoint men aren't all that special; just monkeys with little hair but good hands and an impressive brain. While christianity and other religions instead regard mankind as god's greatest achievement.

But if we deny the existence of god, or at least is capacity/willingness to intervene, where can we find the bases for morality? I say, even in nature itself, if we look at it properly.

To start with, the idea that evolution is anti-life is bull, to put it clearly. There is an assumption so obvious and basic in the evolutive model that non-one bothers to state it clearly: living beings must reproduce in order to evolve. If a species fails to reproduce, it will be extinct no matter how wonderful it is (though humans may be close to cross this border becoming able to build artificial lifeforms).

Going further, I maintain that most of the precepts regarded as god-given can in fact be explained through evolutive adaptation. Back when early humans and even hominides lived in tribal societies, orderly tribes which followed some rules had a definite advantage over more chaotic ones. Because observing rules increases trust between the members of a tribe, and the capacity to work as a team. While hunters are out in the wilderness, they don't have to worry too much about someone else stealing their possessions back in the village, or bedding their women. This means a more effective hunt, and thus more food for the whole tribe which in turn can prosper.

And in an historical perspective, societies which are based on family and values are generally more robust and succesfull than the vacuous and hedonistic ones (notice that in this context succesfull does not mean good).

Also Kevin wrote about atheism recently, and as he and others point out in the comments, while humanism produced atrocities the past of religion is far from spotless as well. It would seem that humans can always find an excuse to kill and pillage. Also Paul Kurtz on the Skeptical Inquirer dealt with closely related arguments.

I think that the real damaging positions are the rejection of reason and objective reality, which can be found both among atheists and theists; collectivism (that is also a severe lack of confidence in the individual); hedonism and vapid egocentrism; lack of self-sacrifice.

It is possible to reject all this through reason, examining which societies and ideologies succeeded and which didn't. Yes, faith can be a stronger motivator than mere rationality, but it does not always motivate to do the good thing. Many Islamic suicide terrorists are truly steadfast in their faith, I'm sure.

Or, you can see all this from another point of view. I am unable to believe (and it's not that I never tried) but I also want to live as a decent person, and not let my society crumble to dust. So I'd rather find a valid foundation for my worldview.

This post (which isn't great, I know. My inspiration is still wobbly) does nto want to be exaustive, but only to shed some light on the possible foundations of ethics that do not require divine pronunciation, at the same time avoiding the shortcomings of humanism as we know it.


Fabio, I'm curious. Most people when they think of Italy think of Rome, Catholicism and the Vatican. Italy is considered to be extremely Catholic. As many have noted, fervent belief in God seems to correlate to high birth rates, yet Italy is reproducing at well below replacement rates. As you have noted yourself, the government there is offering incentives to get people to have babies.

Just how pervasive is religion in Italy? Are the churches and cathedrals filled every Sunday, or are the pews occupied mostly by the elderly? Have the youth embraced secularism? Do they pay any real attention to the Pope?


Religion is still quite pervasive, but I'd say more as tradition than deep belief. Churches can be quite crowded, but not many youths (not in that sense) go there.

Though, a real crowd of youths attended some gatherings organized by the Pope. And yes, many listen to what the Pope says, even if it's just to criticize him.

Of my mates, some are secular (but very few nihilists), and a few are devout catholics.

But there is a cultural movement, quite exclusive of Italy, called Cathocommunism... as you can infer, it combines parts of catholic and communist doctrines. It is strongly pauperist, anti-globalist, pacifist and basically
an obnoxious pain in the back. And quite popular, even.


(T)here is a cultural movement, quite exclusive of Italy, called Cathocommunism... as you can infer, it combines parts of catholic and communist doctrines. It is strongly pauperist, anti-globalist, pacifist and basically an obnoxious pain in the back.

Actually, that's one of the problems I have with Christianity. It's far too easy to take the concepts of Christian charity and selflessness and extend them into a system of government that mandates behavior that is, in essence, socialism. A long time ago I fisked an essay by someone who thought it was the job of government to enforce "obligatory charity" upon the taxpaying (i.e., wealthy) public for support of those less well-off.

The problem is, if it's "obligatory" it's not "charity." The bigger problem: too few people understand that. I think you're seeing "Cathocommunism" in extremis across the Channel with the Anglican church, so it's not limited to Catholicism. And, I think, if the truly Radical Right here in the States got its hands well and truly on the reins, you might very well see something of the same behavior here.

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