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A Basis On Which To Construct Morality - If Such There Can Be!


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This one was prompted by many things I have read recently regarding the subject of Godless Morality (this, I believe, is the title of more than one book on the subject). The most notable queries being: "How is it possible to have morality without god/religion?" and, "On what do you base morality if not on God's law/Jesus' teaching?"

 

Okay. Here are my thoughts on the subject - just in case anyone finds them helpful or useful, or even just interesting and worthy of discussion or argument :)

 

Firstly, my thoughts tend towards the rightness of accepting responsibility for one's actions, and any probable consequences thereof. It follows that if you are not prepared to accept the probable consequences of your actions - taking into account the reasonable reactions of others with whom you may be involved - then you should not commit the action in question.

 

However, if you feel that the consequences, when weighed for both positive and negative impact, are worthwhile, then it is likely that the action is right.

 

This, of course, depends upon the individual and his/her circumstances. It also depends upon the conception of harm - whether this is harm to the physical, sentient person or harm to the spiritual, transcendent soul (if you believe such exists), or perhaps even harm to the community to which you belong.

 

I do believe that it is wrong to do harm. However, I also believe that harm is connected directly to suffering, be it physical or emotional. I also believe that harm is something that has to be considered in relative terms, and in relation to the concept of accepting responsibility. To take a couple of favourite, heated topics for Christians - abortion and euthanasia - these can both be considered in terms of harm and responsibility.

 

If you take the case of a woman who has become pregnant through an act of consensual sex, one can reasonably assume that pregnancy could result, since that is the way we are biologically wired. However, if steps were taken to avoid that outcome - by which one could assume it was not the intention of the act - and pregancy occurred anyway, to whom does an abortion cause harm? Does it cause suffering to the foetus, whose ability to process pain is entirely doubtful before a certain stage of development, or whose supposed right to life is called into question? Does it cause suffering to the woman - either because she is not prepared to carry, bear and raise a child, or because she is not prepared to cope with the emotional fallout of abortion? Or does it cause harm to the prospective father of the foetus - and if so, how does one weigh this harm against his readiness to accept responsibility for the sexual act and the resulting conception, and/or his ability to cope with the emotional fallout of an abortion? On the other hand, if a woman is raped and becomes pregnant as a result, is it advisable or even possible for her to accept responsiblity for something that was not her choice to bring about? (Personally, I would presume the rapist is not entitled to an opinion on this, but feel free to disagree if you see fit).

 

On the subject of euthanasia, my feeling is that if a person of sound mind makes the decision that they would rather end their life before they feel their personal dignity would be compromised, that is their choice. The person who experiences suffering first-hand - and I guess this has relevance for other moral issues as well - ideally has the first say in how the situation pans out. I know that for myself, I would prefer on the one hand not to be a burden to those who might feel obliged to care for me, and on the other to preserve my personal dignity according to my own notions thereof. If I were kept alive by machines, or maintained in a state of more-or-less complete inability of either mind or body, I'd really rather not hang around, to be honest. And I'd rather my friends and relations didn't have to see me that way for longer than necessary. I know there are problems inherent in legalised euthanasia - for example, I would hate for people to be disposed of for the sake of mere convenience - but I do believe that people should have a say in the amount of suffering and indignity they personally endure, particularly if it is through a cause over which they have no control.

 

What do you all think? I am interested to hear others' perspectives.

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The common argument against the morality of atheism is that it lacks an immovable foundation, and thus is left up to the individual opinion to decide what is good or bad. If one person has a particular morality, the next will have a different one, and thus there is no true definition of good and bad. The argument continues that the only immovable foundation is one that is above the authority of man (God) and thus we must either have a God or have moral chaos. It is similar to having a reference standard for measurement: with no reference standard, units like inches and centimeters and ounces will vary as widely as desired and thus be effectively useless for accurate measurements.

 

The problem with that logic is twofold. The first is that those that do have a God continue to sin daily, thus violating their own code of morality, and their God does not seem to intervene or openly punish. Then there are the violations of man's laws such as the commonly reported crimes against children, as well as the less reported but even more common adulteries, greed, cruelty, lies, arrogance, and so on that believers engage in. This makes it plain that belief in a God, even with a clear moral code, does not automatically bring about a strict moral life since it is still up to the individual to choose to follow it.

 

Secondly, since the above paragraph shows that moral decisions are still an individual choice, I put it to you that religion has no more moral benefit than the atheist stance (that one must make his or her own choices about how to behave), and that the vast majority of people do choose to generally behave lawfully and within the bounds commonly recognized in their societies. The religion argument looks good on paper, but in practice is no more moral than atheism. In fact, as is noted frequently on the forums here, religion is used to justify misogyny, physical abuse of children or spouses, genocide, shunning, time consuming religious duties, as well as fostering genuine terror over God's fury or demonic influence. Some practitioners of religion go so far as mutilating their own flesh, both as a sign of devotion and as an attempt to master normal desires that conflict with their religious ideal.

 

While atheists are not bound by religious rules, they are still governed by the laws of the land, and they often have a simple moral code of their own: enjoy your life and don't hurt others while you do it. It is a simple approach that incorporates the "golden rule" of many religions. And atheists don't feel compelled to hate themselves for human feelings of sexual desire, pursuit of wealth, enjoyment of food, enjoyment of movies or novels, and so on. Atheists do not have to constantly monitor their own thoughts to keep them in line with the edicts of an intrusive deity that could at any moment kill them and throw them into a fire to be burned forever. Atheists don't have to maintain the cognitive dissonance of the opposing characteristics of a deity that is said to be all-loving, selfless, holy, and good, while at the same time jealous, spiteful, angry at the slightest fault, and who will torture 99% of creation in fire for all eternity.

 

Thus, the atheist approach seems to yield a more stable, calm, joyful, and moral life than the religious approach.

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This one was prompted by many things I have read recently regarding the subject of Godless Morality (this, I believe, is the title of more than one book on the subject). The most notable queries being: "How is it possible to have morality without god/religion?" and, "On what do you base morality if not on God's law/Jesus' teaching?"

 

Okay. Here are my thoughts on the subject - just in case anyone finds them helpful or useful, or even just interesting and worthy of discussion or argument :)

 

Firstly, my thoughts tend towards the rightness of accepting responsibility for one's actions, and any probable consequences thereof. It follows that if you are not prepared to accept the probable consequences of your actions - taking into account the reasonable reactions of others with whom you may be involved - then you should not commit the action in question.

 

However, if you feel that the consequences, when weighed for both positive and negative impact, are worthwhile, then it is likely that the action is right.

 

This, of course, depends upon the individual and his/her circumstances. It also depends upon the conception of harm - whether this is harm to the physical, sentient person or harm to the spiritual, transcendent soul (if you believe such exists), or perhaps even harm to the community to which you belong.

 

I do believe that it is wrong to do harm. However, I also believe that harm is connected directly to suffering, be it physical or emotional. I also believe that harm is something that has to be considered in relative terms, and in relation to the concept of accepting responsibility. To take a couple of favourite, heated topics for Christians - abortion and euthanasia - these can both be considered in terms of harm and responsibility.

 

If you take the case of a woman who has become pregnant through an act of consensual sex, one can reasonably assume that pregnancy could result, since that is the way we are biologically wired. However, if steps were taken to avoid that outcome - by which one could assume it was not the intention of the act - and pregancy occurred anyway, to whom does an abortion cause harm? Does it cause suffering to the foetus, whose ability to process pain is entirely doubtful before a certain stage of development, or whose supposed right to life is called into question? Does it cause suffering to the woman - either because she is not prepared to carry, bear and raise a child, or because she is not prepared to cope with the emotional fallout of abortion? Or does it cause harm to the prospective father of the foetus - and if so, how does one weigh this harm against his readiness to accept responsibility for the sexual act and the resulting conception, and/or his ability to cope with the emotional fallout of an abortion? On the other hand, if a woman is raped and becomes pregnant as a result, is it advisable or even possible for her to accept responsiblity for something that was not her choice to bring about? (Personally, I would presume the rapist is not entitled to an opinion on this, but feel free to disagree if you see fit).

 

On the subject of euthanasia, my feeling is that if a person of sound mind makes the decision that they would rather end their life before they feel their personal dignity would be compromised, that is their choice. The person who experiences suffering first-hand - and I guess this has relevance for other moral issues as well - ideally has the first say in how the situation pans out. I know that for myself, I would prefer on the one hand not to be a burden to those who might feel obliged to care for me, and on the other to preserve my personal dignity according to my own notions thereof. If I were kept alive by machines, or maintained in a state of more-or-less complete inability of either mind or body, I'd really rather not hang around, to be honest. And I'd rather my friends and relations didn't have to see me that way for longer than necessary. I know there are problems inherent in legalised euthanasia - for example, I would hate for people to be disposed of for the sake of mere convenience - but I do believe that people should have a say in the amount of suffering and indignity they personally endure, particularly if it is through a cause over which they have no control.

 

What do you all think? I am interested to hear others' perspectives.

 

I think your ideas are a bit like utilitarianism, balancing the benefits and harms. There's nothing wrong with utilitarianism, but I think it defers the ethical problem without really providing all that much insight. For example, in your abortion senario the woman has to balance the benefit to her (because she is not financially ready to have a baby) against the harm to her (which you describe as emotional fallout).

 

I'm not sure how that analysis leaves us any better off because there isn't any princple for her to gague the emotional fallout. If she thinks abortion is wrong, the fallout will be great. If she doesn't, then it won't. But we still haven't answered whether abortion is moral under the circimstances you've described.

 

The Golden Rule that Phanta describes might be helpful, but how? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you doesn't really seem to apply in the abortion model. The fetus isn't capabable of doing anything and more importantly the fetus isn't an "other" in the sense the rule contemplates. The other great moral principle is that beings should be treated as having intrinsic worth and should be treated as end-in-themselves, and not means to an end (Kant says this). Again, in the abortion example, this principle also breaks down because the fetus is probably not a being, though usually we do think that it can be a being.

 

This is why abortion is such a tricky subject. None of our moral rules really apply. Perhaps abortion really is outside the moral sphere. We really can't talk about abortion in the way we talk about other moral issues. It's entirely mysterious and beyond our ability to determine right and wrong. The best we can do is say that whatever a woman decides is right but unfortunate, and a moral society is one that cares for women so that these choices are infrequent and as soft-edged as can be.

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The common argument against the morality of atheism is that it lacks an immovable foundation, and thus is left up to the individual opinion to decide what is good or bad. If one person has a particular morality, the next will have a different one, and thus there is no true definition of good and bad. The argument continues that the only immovable foundation is one that is above the authority of man (God) and thus we must either have a God or have moral chaos. It is similar to having a reference standard for measurement: with no reference standard, units like inches and centimeters and ounces will vary as widely as desired and thus be effectively useless for accurate measurements.

 

The problem with that logic is twofold. The first is that those that do have a God continue to sin daily, thus violating their own code of morality, and their God does not seem to intervene or openly punish. Then there are the violations of man's laws such as the commonly reported crimes against children, as well as the less reported but even more common adulteries, greed, cruelty, lies, arrogance, and so on that believers engage in. This makes it plain that belief in a God, even with a clear moral code, does not automatically bring about a strict moral life since it is still up to the individual to choose to follow it.

 

Secondly, since the above paragraph shows that moral decisions are still an individual choice, I put it to you that religion has no more moral benefit than the atheist stance (that one must make his or her own choices about how to behave), and that the vast majority of people do choose to generally behave lawfully and within the bounds commonly recognized in their societies. The religion argument looks good on paper, but in practice is no more moral than atheism. In fact, as is noted frequently on the forums here, religion is used to justify misogyny, physical abuse of children or spouses, genocide, shunning, time consuming religious duties, as well as fostering genuine terror over God's fury or demonic influence. Some practitioners of religion go so far as mutilating their own flesh, both as a sign of devotion and as an attempt to master normal desires that conflict with their religious ideal.

 

While atheists are not bound by religious rules, they are still governed by the laws of the land, and they often have a simple moral code of their own: enjoy your life and don't hurt others while you do it. It is a simple approach that incorporates the "golden rule" of many religions. And atheists don't feel compelled to hate themselves for human feelings of sexual desire, pursuit of wealth, enjoyment of food, enjoyment of movies or novels, and so on. Atheists do not have to constantly monitor their own thoughts to keep them in line with the edicts of an intrusive deity that could at any moment kill them and throw them into a fire to be burned forever. Atheists don't have to maintain the cognitive dissonance of the opposing characteristics of a deity that is said to be all-loving, selfless, holy, and good, while at the same time jealous, spiteful, angry at the slightest fault, and who will torture 99% of creation in fire for all eternity.

 

Thus, the atheist approach seems to yield a more stable, calm, joyful, and moral life than the religious approach.

 

I disagree because I don't see how "enjoy your life and don't hurt others while you do it" is either simple or how it incorporates the golden rule of any religion.

 

First, it is not simple because it doesn't give any guidance as to what enjoyment means or what harm means. If I enjoy eating beef, am I harming cows? If I am harming cows, is that wrong? Do cows have inherent value that I am obligated to respect (such that eating them is wrong)? Am I really enjoying watching pornography? Am I enjoying that more or less than listening to the Moonlight Sonata? How do I know?

 

Second, I can't see how this incorporates the golden rule of any religion--I'm most familiar with Christianity, so I'll use Christianity as my baseline. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not equivalent (or even related) to "enjoy life, but do no harm."

 

Imagine the following example, a homeless person asks you for money. Jesus's gives clear instructions on how you are to handle this situation. Of course Christians don't ever follow those instructions, but that is another matter. The guidance is clear, and it's more or less something like "Give the person money or buy some food for him."

 

But your rule permits either giving him money (if that would make you happy) or not giving him money (if that would make you happy).

 

Is happiness the goal of human existence? Maybe, but the content of that happiness is important and I don't see where that content is supposed to come from.

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I disagree because I don't see how "enjoy your life and don't hurt others while you do it" is either simple or how it incorporates the golden rule of any religion.

 

First, it is not simple because it doesn't give any guidance as to what enjoyment means or what harm means. If I enjoy eating beef, am I harming cows? If I am harming cows, is that wrong? Do cows have inherent value that I am obligated to respect (such that eating them is wrong)? Am I really enjoying watching pornography? Am I enjoying that more or less than listening to the Moonlight Sonata? How do I know?

 

Second, I can't see how this incorporates the golden rule of any religion--I'm most familiar with Christianity, so I'll use Christianity as my baseline. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not equivalent (or even related) to "enjoy life, but do no harm."

 

Imagine the following example, a homeless person asks you for money. Jesus's gives clear instructions on how you are to handle this situation. Of course Christians don't ever follow those instructions, but that is another matter. The guidance is clear, and it's more or less something like "Give the person money or buy some food for him."

 

But your rule permits either giving him money (if that would make you happy) or not giving him money (if that would make you happy).

 

Is happiness the goal of human existence? Maybe, but the content of that happiness is important and I don't see where that content is supposed to come from.

 

Wow, you have a unnecessarily complicated view of morality that is way outside the Christian/Atheist realm. Does the Bible tell us about the morality of harming cows? No. Hinduism does, and possibly Buddhism. Your other questions might be interesting to someone questioning the basis of reality itself, but they strike me as dumb. "Am I really enjoying watching pornography?" What the hell is that supposed to mean? If you are a guy and have a hard-on, then yes you are enjoying it. If not, then not. What does that have to do with anything? No religion gives guidance to "what enjoyment means". It is assumed that everyone knows what they like (except perhaps in philosophy classes). Christianity forbids lust, but Christians still enjoy it while feeling guilty about it. Bah!

 

Enjoy life, but don't harm others while doing it is exactly the equivalent of "do to others as you would have them do to you", except that it adds "enjoy life", though perhaps the "do to others" points to more compassion. "Do to others as you would have them do to you" assumes that you treat yourself well, and calls you to do the same to others. I added "enjoy life" since that is often lacking in Christianity.

 

You make my point for me. Religion may provide a structure for morality, but it is always up to the individual what will actually take place. The theoretical structure is nullified by the act of the will, regardless of the clarity of instructions within any religion. You seem to be seeking an overall morality to the universe, and there is none but what we make. Thus giving money to the poor is neither good nor bad, just a choice. We assign it meaning (compassion to one in need; salving guilt for having more than others; a trite act of obedience to a religious rule; enabling alcoholism; etc). However, most people tend to have a fallback morality of the "golden rule" of being compassionate to those in need, since they may someday need the same compassion. This doesn't require an artificial framework of religion or ultimate meaning, just a simple choice.

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I disagree because I don't see how "enjoy your life and don't hurt others while you do it" is either simple or how it incorporates the golden rule of any religion.

 

First, it is not simple because it doesn't give any guidance as to what enjoyment means or what harm means. If I enjoy eating beef, am I harming cows? If I am harming cows, is that wrong? Do cows have inherent value that I am obligated to respect (such that eating them is wrong)? Am I really enjoying watching pornography? Am I enjoying that more or less than listening to the Moonlight Sonata? How do I know?

 

Second, I can't see how this incorporates the golden rule of any religion--I'm most familiar with Christianity, so I'll use Christianity as my baseline. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not equivalent (or even related) to "enjoy life, but do no harm."

 

Imagine the following example, a homeless person asks you for money. Jesus's gives clear instructions on how you are to handle this situation. Of course Christians don't ever follow those instructions, but that is another matter. The guidance is clear, and it's more or less something like "Give the person money or buy some food for him."

 

But your rule permits either giving him money (if that would make you happy) or not giving him money (if that would make you happy).

 

Is happiness the goal of human existence? Maybe, but the content of that happiness is important and I don't see where that content is supposed to come from.

 

Wow, you have a unnecessarily complicated view of morality that is way outside the Christian/Atheist realm. Does the Bible tell us about the morality of harming cows? No. Hinduism does, and possibly Buddhism. Your other questions might be interesting to someone questioning the basis of reality itself, but they strike me as dumb. "Am I really enjoying watching pornography?" What the hell is that supposed to mean? If you are a guy and have a hard-on, then yes you are enjoying it. If not, then not. What does that have to do with anything? No religion gives guidance to "what enjoyment means". It is assumed that everyone knows what they like (except perhaps in philosophy classes). Christianity forbids lust, but Christians still enjoy it while feeling guilty about it. Bah!

 

Enjoy life, but don't harm others while doing it is exactly the equivalent of "do to others as you would have them do to you", except that it adds "enjoy life", though perhaps the "do to others" points to more compassion. "Do to others as you would have them do to you" assumes that you treat yourself well, and calls you to do the same to others. I added "enjoy life" since that is often lacking in Christianity.

 

You make my point for me. Religion may provide a structure for morality, but it is always up to the individual what will actually take place. The theoretical structure is nullified by the act of the will, regardless of the clarity of instructions within any religion. You seem to be seeking an overall morality to the universe, and there is none but what we make. Thus giving money to the poor is neither good nor bad, just a choice. We assign it meaning (compassion to one in need; salving guilt for having more than others; a trite act of obedience to a religious rule; enabling alcoholism; etc). However, most people tend to have a fallback morality of the "golden rule" of being compassionate to those in need, since they may someday need the same compassion. This doesn't require an artificial framework of religion or ultimate meaning, just a simple choice.

 

I am not making morality complicated; morality is complicated. If you ask an addict if he enjoys shooting up, he will often say that he does. But of course he is not enjoying it. I doubt that sex addicts are enjoying their behavior, erections or no.

 

And Jesus says nothing about "enjoying life." Rather the opposite--he suggests that the life best lived is the life that is most difficult, and that the individual is closest to the divine when he or she is struggling and suffering. The ethics of the Buddha are different but not very far from this, since the Buddha makes clear that real happiness and real enjoyment come from enlightenment and the separation of the ego from the world of attachments--and this is not an easy process. I don't know of any serious ethical system that embraces your formula. If the foundation of moral judgment is simply "enjoying life while doing no harm," that principle seems to have eluded not only Jesus and the Buddha, but also Kant and J.S. Mill.

 

As you say, religion provides one (but not the only) structure for morality. Religion, law, national and local custom, and the family tradition all work in different ways to inform moral decisions. Your attempt to reduce these enormously complex and nuanced influences to a simple statement is misguided. After all, how does "enjoy life but do no harm" assist with difficult moral questions such as abortion or even the animal rights issue? I don't see how it can provide any guidance at all since it supplies no content.

 

Content is important. We need to know what sort of things to aspire toward. What sorts of things are good? What sort of thing elevate the human spirit? Christianity says nothing about the morality of killing cows. But, by observing the general progression of our history, we can that the franchise of rights has been extended to a wider and wider set of things--currently it encompasses all humans.

 

Thus we know that humans are the sorts of things that can be harmed: that's substantive content. We know thus that slavery degrades the human spirit. Does eating cows degrade the human spirit? Are cows the sorts of things that can be harmed? Well, we have to look at our traditions. Hopefully, we can get to a point where we can answer that question "yes." This is not an academic, philosophical point. This is a very real moral question--in fact, the of the earth may hang in the balance. That's why Christians have taken the time to produce the "Green Bible," which is an attempt to reinterpret Scripture so that the protections once reserved for humans are extended to the natural environment. Put otherwise, we are looking to Scripture to provide content.

 

We can and we should look to Scripture for content. I'm not a Christian in the traditional sense. I don't think that we have to look solely to the Christian Bible. I think we should look to Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic sources where appropriate (for example, Muhammad's hatred of cruelty to animals), or atheist sources such as the Declaration of Human Rights and so on. All of these things are good guides I suppose. None of them can be reduced to a simple formula.

 

I agree with you that there is no morality but what we make. But I think that the way in which we make morality owes more to the slow process of tradition (where we are in partnership with the past) than to an individual choice whether to do a particular act.

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If I understand you correctly, you are saying that we should be trying to form a structure of morality and use the existing thoughts of the various religious ways to help form that structure, since they represent thousands of years of human thought and approach to life. The problem I see with that is that many of us have experienced the suffering that religion brings by its claim of ultimate authority (God) while encouraging systems of slavery, abuse, and other things we now consider reprehensible. I've seen abuse of the adherents in all the major religions, except perhaps Baha'i. Any claimed authoritative writing either has to be agreed upon or enforced by fiat.

 

My statement about enjoying life seems to irritate you. There have been a handful of religions or philosophies that promoted enjoying life (Epicureanism, Hedonism, the pagan faiths, and Satanism). Many major religions promote denial of self and pleasure as the best way. Though even the Westminster Shorter Catechism states "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." I reduce it down to the concept that if there is a God, he/she/it has not done much to guide mankind into any semblance of orderly conduct, and given that the scriptures of the major religions are rife with error and fake gods, it remains up to man to choose the best way (even for those within a religion). Our various cultures have laws that usually share a common morality about murder, theft, and acceptable conduct, and these can usually be boiled down to the concept of not doing harm to others while pursuing our own happiness. Nevertheless we still make the laws to enforce this common morality, because rather a lot of people seem to enjoy harming and stealing.

 

The original poster is asking for a basis for constructing morality. I still hold that the general thought of the pursuit of happiness while avoiding harm to others is the most simple and adaptable approach. And since things like slavery were once legal and done with the blessing of the church, morality must be something that we can tweak (adaptability) even if it alleges to come from an immutable source like God. It then becomes an issue of group versus individual, and whether even an agreed-upon morality may be rightfully imposed on an individual. This is a can of worms, but it is the basis of much of the legal and political wranglings we see everyday.

 

But as far as the playing out of morality, it will always effectively be reduced to the choice of the individual, regardless of the religion or authority behind the moral structure of the individual. And I think this was my main point, that law, religion, or other moral structure does not change the heart, as Paul pointed out in Romans 7 and 8. He felt that Christ really brought about an inner change, a new creation. But with 2000 years of experimental data standing in stark contrast to his conclusion, I think it is clear that even those that think they are born again are reduced to the same condition as an atheist when it comes to making a moral decision when they'd rather not.

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Let me take your response one paragraph at a time:

 

1. Yes, you understand me correctly. In fact, you put the point more clearly than I did. We should be "trying to form a structure of morality and use the existing thoughts of the various religious ways to help form that structure, since they represent thousands of years of human thought and approach to life" because there's nothing else to do. We're stuck with what we have and we should, I argue, work within the established tradition despite all of the problems that you mention--and to reiterate the important point--we should do that because there's nothing else to do. You're absolutely correct about all of the abuses. They are inseparable parts our hertiage. For example, slavery. It's regretable that Jesus did not explicitly condemn slavery. It's regretable that Paul implicitly condoned slavery. These are moral failings on the part of both Jesus and Paul. We have to accept that. It's regretable that slaveholders have been able to quote Scripture to support slavery. But, ultimately, we figured it out. We got it right because we interpreted Jesus's message to condemn slavery. Our spiritual ancestors, such as Henry Ward Beecher, said something like, "If Jesus had thought about the issue, he would have condemned slavery. Therefore, Jesus condemned slavery."

 

2 &3 . Your statement doesn't irritate me at all. I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I just don't think it gets us anywhere. I don't think we can avoid the difficult and communal work of investing our lives with meaning and ethical value. Of course, we should live happily and do as little harm as possible. But that's merely the beginning of the discussion. So I agree that it's a can of worms, but we can't avoid dealing with it.

 

4. I agree with you here. The Christian generally does not stand in any better position to "do the right thing" than does the Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, etc. It always does comes down to the individual. So then what's the point of "trying to form a structure of morality and use the existing thoughts of the various religious ways to help form that structure, since they represent thousands of years of human thought and approach to life"? After all, it won't necessarily lead to better choices and the individual is still left to his or her own devices, right?

 

Well this is where we have to be careful. See, I'm willing to say that a Hindu, a Muslim, and an Atheist are just as likely to "do the right thing." But I'm not willing to say that India or Pakistan provides the same sort of rights to all of its people as does a Western society. So it's not merely the Christian framework that I'm fighting for, it's the Western framework, as flawed as that framework is. I'm fighting for that tradition because it's the only one I have and also because it has produced some good results, most recently the 44th President. We've also produced the Holcaust, slavery, and nuclear anihilation. But that only means we have much work to do. I've made a related point elsewhere. If I can find it, I'll repost.

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[i'd be surprised if anyone really reads this. In any event, it's an amalgam of different posts and responses to several other participants, including Antlerman, Florduh, Devalight, HanSolo, and Vigile. I hope I do none of them any wrong by consolidating these responses.]

 

Point: Why work within the Christian Tradition started by Jesus? There are certainly better role models than Jesus out there.

 

Response: It's true that there are better role models, just as there are better mothers than my mom. But I love my mom and she is special to me simply because she is mine.

 

I don't think that we get to chose our spiritual ancestors anymore than we get to chose our biological ancestors. I'm speaking losely becuase of course it's not so simple as this because there is an element of choice where there really isn't with your parents. But I think there is validity to the comparison, so I hope you will allow it.

 

If you'll allow another stretch, it's a lot like saying that Americans are the descendents of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was deeply flawed, but I don't think that we can divorce ourselves from him in favor of some other, better ancestor. Nor do I think that we can simply embrace the abstract concept of "liberal, representative democracy," or whatever. We don't live in an abstract world of pure reason where we can really separate pure ideas from the muck of human experience from which these ideas grew and took shape.

 

So we're stuck with Jefferson, slave-owning, hypocrite that he was. I embrace this. I have come to terms with him and have made him mine. When I do so, I am responsible for Jefferson. Jefferson and I (and I hope you) are partners, and we are responsible for each other in making certain type of thing called American Democracy.

 

Similarly with Jesus. He’s just a part of me. I'm not just responsible to Jesus. Instead, I also feel responsible for Jesus. We are partners in making a certain type of thing called, well I don’t know what to call it--Christianity perhaps.

 

Thus I find quick dismissals of Christianity unsatisfying because Christianity is the vehicle for how we got here. It’s not like biological ancestry--we can abandon that vehicle on an individual basis if we want but I think we should be clear exactly what we are giving up and what, if anything, is supposed to replace it.

 

Christianity was the cauldron of Western civilization, so even where it was an obstacle to progress, the Christian experience created the space wherein progress took place. For example, toleration: we take if for granted that all people should live in a pluralistic, tolerant society where individuals maintain their own subjective beliefs about religion. However, that notion of tolerance is an outgrowth of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. There was no toleration before that. Huguenots fought for toleration and the rights of conscience, and now we have that.

 

But it's clear that Western modes are not universal: they are specific. Our ideas about toleration grew organically from a specific experience. They were not handed down, as from above, in their current form. It took time for them to grow out of a particular experience. If the failures of the war in Iraq have taught us anything, they have taught us that democratic principles are not “natural” or “universal”--those principles grew out of a particular experience and can't easily be grafted onto a different people who do not share in our specific heritage.

 

I once had a debate with a good friend who I work with. I asked him the following hypothetical: Imagine that you are on sinking ship and you can save only one person but there are two people in dire need of rescue. You don't know anything about the two people and they are indistinguishable in every way, except on is American and the other isn't, which one would you save. I told him my answer to the hypothetical--I'd save the American for no better reason that I'm American and share some sense of kinship with other Americans. He thought this was completely irrational. He likened it to saving someone because they are over six feet tall or not.

 

But of course, he is right. We would probably be better off if we took no notice of things like nationality. But we do, or at least I do. I am being irrational, but I can't help it.

 

Nationalism can lead to bad things, such as war, bigotry, and, at the extremes, Nazism and fascism. As a purely intellectual matter, we can see that we would be better of without nations. We know there is some bright future out there without national boundaries and obstacles to justice, peace, and environmental sustainability that nation-states create. We know that nations are not inherent parts of human experience because the nation-state is a recent invention in human history.

 

However, right now nations are a big source of our identities as human beings. Nations protect us, educate us, and provide us with security. Most importantly, nations give us rights--and a language of rights--that we can use to figure out and explore the world. Nations are the locus of where we become who we are.

 

So while we can see all the benefits of creating a post-national world, we can also see that we are not there yet. Moreover, we can see that the best way to a post-nationalist is not to simply abandon nationalism, but to work within nationalism to transcend nationalism. There is no contradiction in saying that a post-nationalist future is achieved by means of nationalism.

 

Similarly, if we want to achieve a post-religious world, we have to be very careful. We have to examine our own religious histories and really come to grips with them. We shouldn't be too hasty in dismissing the whole thing as just a bunch of superstitious nonsense. It is superstitious nonsense. But it is also the most valuable and important storehouse of our aspirations, our secrets, our dreams, our nightmares, our art, music, and our way of being.

 

In the end, I hope that humanity will get past all this--the limiting categories of religion and nationality. I hope we will cast aside the imprint of our past. But I don't think that we are there yet, and I don't see any way of accelerating the process. So I think it's useful to come to terms with whatever parts of our ancestry we can, while we move to a point where that ancestry does not matter so that by working from within, we will overcome our myths by means of our myths.

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While atheists are not bound by religious rules, they are still governed by the laws of the land, and they often have a simple moral code of their own: enjoy your life and don't hurt others while you do it. It is a simple approach that incorporates the "golden rule" of many religions. And atheists don't feel compelled to hate themselves for human feelings of sexual desire, pursuit of wealth, enjoyment of food, enjoyment of movies or novels, and so on. Atheists do not have to constantly monitor their own thoughts to keep them in line with the edicts of an intrusive deity that could at any moment kill them and throw them into a fire to be burned forever. Atheists don't have to maintain the cognitive dissonance of the opposing characteristics of a deity that is said to be all-loving, selfless, holy, and good, while at the same time jealous, spiteful, angry at the slightest fault, and who will torture 99% of creation in fire for all eternity.

 

Thus, the atheist approach seems to yield a more stable, calm, joyful, and moral life than the religious approach.

 

I love the way you've put this. One of the biggest benefits to me of my deconversion was the sense of psychological freedom it gave me - I used to be a very paranoid Catholic, monitoring my every thought that tended towards impurity. No longer being Christian has made me a much more complete - and much happier - person.

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The common argument against the morality of atheism is that it lacks an immovable foundation, and thus is left up to the individual opinion to decide what is good or bad. If one person has a particular morality, the next will have a different one, and thus there is no true definition of good and bad. The argument continues that the only immovable foundation is one that is above the authority of man (God) and thus we must either have a God or have moral chaos. It is similar to having a reference standard for measurement: with no reference standard, units like inches and centimeters and ounces will vary as widely as desired and thus be effectively useless for accurate measurements.

 

The problem with that logic is twofold. The first is that those that do have a God continue to sin daily, thus violating their own code of morality, and their God does not seem to intervene or openly punish. Then there are the violations of man's laws such as the commonly reported crimes against children, as well as the less reported but even more common adulteries, greed, cruelty, lies, arrogance, and so on that believers engage in. This makes it plain that belief in a God, even with a clear moral code, does not automatically bring about a strict moral life since it is still up to the individual to choose to follow it.

 

Secondly, since the above paragraph shows that moral decisions are still an individual choice, I put it to you that religion has no more moral benefit than the atheist stance (that one must make his or her own choices about how to behave), and that the vast majority of people do choose to generally behave lawfully and within the bounds commonly recognized in their societies. The religion argument looks good on paper, but in practice is no more moral than atheism. In fact, as is noted frequently on the forums here, religion is used to justify misogyny, physical abuse of children or spouses, genocide, shunning, time consuming religious duties, as well as fostering genuine terror over God's fury or demonic influence. Some practitioners of religion go so far as mutilating their own flesh, both as a sign of devotion and as an attempt to master normal desires that conflict with their religious ideal.

 

While atheists are not bound by religious rules, they are still governed by the laws of the land, and they often have a simple moral code of their own: enjoy your life and don't hurt others while you do it. It is a simple approach that incorporates the "golden rule" of many religions. And atheists don't feel compelled to hate themselves for human feelings of sexual desire, pursuit of wealth, enjoyment of food, enjoyment of movies or novels, and so on. Atheists do not have to constantly monitor their own thoughts to keep them in line with the edicts of an intrusive deity that could at any moment kill them and throw them into a fire to be burned forever. Atheists don't have to maintain the cognitive dissonance of the opposing characteristics of a deity that is said to be all-loving, selfless, holy, and good, while at the same time jealous, spiteful, angry at the slightest fault, and who will torture 99% of creation in fire for all eternity.

 

Thus, the atheist approach seems to yield a more stable, calm, joyful, and moral life than the religious approach.

Fuego, this whole paragraph is brilliant. You have just put in words what I have been trying to grasp and search for in myself for nearly 3 months. Thankyou. That summed it up precisely for me. I feel more settled now. :HaHa:

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My basis comes from Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other."

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Fuego, this whole paragraph is brilliant. You have just put in words what I have been trying to grasp and search for in myself for nearly 3 months. Thankyou. That summed it up precisely for me. I feel more settled now. :HaHa:

 

Thanks! I wrote that up recently because my best friend (who is still a believer) brought up the concept the last time we met, so I pondered it and that concept settled out.

 

I like your avatar... *sigh*

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