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Fake Morality

41 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 November 2007 09:32PM

Followup to:  Fake Selfishness

God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes.  If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from murdering each other left and right?

Suppose Omega makes a credible threat that if you ever step inside a bathroom between 7AM and 10AM in the morning, he'll kill you. Would you be panicked by the prospect of Omega withdrawing his threat?  Would you cower in existential terror and cry:  "If Omega withdraws his threat, then what's to keep me from going to the bathroom?"  No; you'd probably be quite relieved at your increased opportunity to, ahem, relieve yourself.

Which is to say:  The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not.  If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.

If Overcoming Bias has any religious readers left, I say to you: it may be that you will someday lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral direction.  For if you fear the prospect of God not punishing some deed, that is a moral compass.  You can plug that compass directly into your decision system and steer by it.  You can simply not do whatever you are afraid God may not punish you for doing.  The fear of losing a moral compass is itself a moral compass.  Indeed, I suspect you are steering by that compass, and that you always have been.  As Piers Anthony once said, "Only those with souls worry over whether or not they have them."  s/soul/morality/ and the point carries.

You don't hear religious fundamentalists using the argument:  "If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from eating pork?"  Yet by their assumptions - that we have no moral compass but divine reward and retribution - this argument should sound just as forceful as the other.

Even the notion that God threatens you with eternal hellfire, rather than cookies, piggybacks on a pre-existing negative value for hellfire.  Consider the following, and ask which of these two philosophers is really the altruist, and which is really selfish?

"You should be selfish, because when people set out to improve society, they meddle in their neighbors' affairs and pass laws and seize control and make everyone unhappy.  Take whichever job that pays the most money: the reason the job pays more is that the efficient market thinks it produces more value than its alternatives.  Take a job that pays less, and you're second-guessing what the market thinks will benefit society most."

"You should be altruistic, because the world is an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, and the strategy that fares best is Tit for Tat with initial cooperation.  People don't like jerks.  Nice guys really do finish first.  Studies show that people who contribute to society and have a sense of meaning in their lives, are happier than people who don't; being selfish will only make you unhappy in the long run."

Blank out the recommendations of these two philosophers, and you can see that the first philosopher is using strictly prosocial criteria to justify his recommendations; to him, what validates an argument for selfishness is showing that selfishness benefits everyone.  The second philosopher appeals to strictly individual and hedonic criteria; to him, what validates an argument for altruism is showing that altruism benefits him as an individual: higher social status or more intense feelings of pleasure.

So which of these two is the actual altruist?  Whichever one actually holds open doors for little old ladies.

Comments (95)

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Comment author: razib 08 November 2007 09:42:55PM 1 point [-]

God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes. If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from murdering each other left and right?

many (most officially i believe) believe that we are justified by faith alone and that divine grace comes without our own action. this is why calvinists generally accept predestination. there are some really byzantine logics which allow believers in this to still live lives which accept a de facto element of free will, but the point is that officially most protestants belief that your place in heaven or hell is not contingent upon your moral behavior, but rather your face in the savior.

now, there is a difference between the "official" party line, and how people act and process their ideas. but a rational attempt to discuss this probably needs to start with explicit concepts.

Comment author: thatoliver 06 June 2012 10:37:42PM 1 point [-]

Certainly in the British charismatic mainstream, of which one of my parents is a member, the accepted notion is that the only decision which has any bearing on your eventual judgement is whether or not you "accept Jesus as your saviour".

I get the feeling that this is an even less useful philosophy than the "bad folks go to hell" line, as God -in his infinite wisdom- has essentially cancelled himself out. However, the result is that Christians who accept this tend to be more genuinely altruistic than those who still believe the celestial carrot-and-stick are in play, because they at least follow their own moral conscience rather than a set of fixed laws.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 November 2007 09:47:00PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: douglas 08 November 2007 10:41:57PM 1 point [-]

The point about the two philosophers is fantastic! Using religion in an attempt to make people act right out of fear saddens me.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 08 November 2007 10:52:05PM 4 points [-]

If I thought there were a God, then his opinions about morality would in fact be persuasive to me. Not infinitely persuasive, but still strong evidence. It would be nice to clear up some (not all) of my moral uncertainty by relying on his authority.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 November 2007 11:06:24PM 13 points [-]

If you think there is a God, you should only regard Its speech about morality as direct evidence (that is, bring your own opinions into correspondence) if you have reason to believe that Its utility function or other moral criteria resemble your own and that It is being honest with you. Natural selection has some goddish properties (such as being our creator), but we don't say regard the outputs of evolutions as evidence because we don't regard inclusive fitness as a good validator of moral arguments. In other words, some particular process being labeled "God" doesn't suddenly create a free ride with respect to moral advice, any more than Suicide Rock.

Comment author: ochopelotas 30 November 2011 07:40:30PM 0 points [-]

True but on the other hand, we're left with moral relativism as you yourself pointed out in your babyeaters parable. The only reasonable thing we can say about morals wrt to any posited God is that morals given by a God are an absolute guideline as defined by a "higher authority".

The systems of laws we have evolved as guidelines today in western countries are not bad in terms of maximization of benefits for most of the population, but they are subject to corruption by free-riders and those who seek to change the rules for their own benefit even if others lose.

Any case, good post.

Comment author: thomblake 30 November 2011 07:46:12PM 2 points [-]

Appeal to God doesn't really push in either direction on moral relativism, as Socrates showed with the Euthyphro question. If X is moral because God says so, then morality is just whatever God says it is, and thus morality is just as objective or relative as it would be in the case where morality is whatever I say it is. And if God says so because X is objectively moral, then I could just as well say so because X is objectively moral.

Comment author: douglas 08 November 2007 11:37:52PM 0 points [-]

Robin, and that would be a good use for religion. I had to lose one (a religion) because of the fear factor-- I didn't lose my morality (as Eliezer predicts), but I'm not sure anybody knows God (assuming existence) well enough to speak for him. That was incredibly difficult for me to accept for a while.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 08 November 2007 11:44:33PM 0 points [-]

A true fundamentalist would say that you're not rationally justified in behaving morally - you just do it because of force of habit or social convention.

Any idea where the lie that rationality equals self-interest comes from?

Comment author: Selfreferencing 09 November 2007 01:05:37AM 3 points [-]

Overcoming Bias DOES have a religious reader left. Me. I'm a philosopher with strong interests in political philosophy and philosophy of religion. I had several problems with the post:

You say that if we lose our belief in God that we won't lose our moral compass altogether. But that isn't the only issue for the theist, it's also whether the moral compass will point in the right direction all the time. If I become an atheist, I might still believe that murder is wrong, but I won't believe that a respect for the sacred is particularly important, and I'll probably start to reject, say, traditional teachings about sexual morality. Theists might well be worried about that.

Further, I think it's silly to imply (as you appear to) that most theists are divine command theorists. Most theistic philosophers today are not and neither were most theistic philosophers historically. Many of us (theistic philosophers) think that natural reason can tell us what moral rules we should follow.

I should also say that most theologians and philosophers who are religious (I guess all theologians are religious, but I think I have some exceptions in mind.) don't think that the primary reason to do as God says is because of external reward or punishment. That's just a silly caricature. Most theistic philosophers think that communion with God is our summum bonum. It's the whole point of our existence - He is our final end - our eudaimonia. They think we're naturally motivated to seek God and that those who are not have been corrupted by sin and rebellion. Pascal once said that everyone's heart has a God-shaped hole. Most of us believe something like that.

Note that much of what you say in your posts is pretty offensive to religious believers. We're not a bunch of morons, you know. Please see these philosophers and read their work as counterevidence.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 November 2007 01:12:00AM 11 points [-]

Selfreferencing, I know that there are many religious people who would declare that God cannot, even in principle, convert torture into an act of inherently positive value. That's why I specified "religious fundamentalists" on this particular post.

Calling it a "caricature" is unfair, though, because there are sincerely religious people out there who use that argument.

Comment author: Mathew_Wilder 09 November 2007 01:29:44AM 2 points [-]

The point about the two philosophers reminds of what Nietzsche wrote:

"He that humbleth himself wishes to be exalted."

Comment author: Caledonian2 09 November 2007 01:34:02AM 1 point [-]

There's really no downside to letting people use the bathroom more often. It doesn't harm me at all if my neighbor decides to violate the stricture.

If the punishment for murder is removed, or the belief that murder will be punished ceases to be generally retained, then it is entirely likely that my neighbor may wish to murder *me*, and that decision has lots of consequences that concern me greatly.

People who believe that societal indoctrination is necessary to get people to accept certain principles, and that religion is an essential part of that indoctrination, will object to the removal of the threat of god-punishment. Without that threat, they believe societal habit alone won't be enough to keep them safe.

They may be right - when societal controls are relaxed, people act pretty nastily towards each other. Primates are nasty beings.

Comment author: danlowlite 28 January 2011 04:58:49PM *  2 points [-]

If your neighbor uses the bathroom more often, they use more water (not only by flushing, which may be considered inevitable), but by washing their hands perhaps more than necessary (going to the bathroom twice instead of once) and using anti-bacterial soap, which could lead to stronger, resistant bacteria. Of course, the use of said soap might result a long-term difficulty and the results would not be immediately apparent. So not only must an act have consequences, but those consequences must be reasonably immediate and apparent (and, as stated in Eliezer's main post, necessarily negative). A current human morality system could not track the actions and the consequences.

An omniscient god (or being) would be able to measure the harm. Further it would be able to track the consequences of ones actions. My use of anti-bacterial soap could cause a MRSA infection in someone else and kill them.

I do not think anyone (except aforementioned omniscient being) would be able to say I caused that infection on purpose. And yet, that person is still dead. A key here is intention. But unfortunately, we can harm and even kill others without intending to and yet we are held responsible. I would rarely think, say, a drunk driver would intend to get into an accident, but we punish them anyway because they intentionally increased the risk we all experience on the road.

But that risk (one that includes drunk drivers) is something we all assume, anyway. So wouldn't an accident victim also be culpable. That seems distasteful.

So, an immoral action must have a negative consequence that is reasonably immediate and apparent and must have been done intentionally, or at least without an undue amount of risk outside normally applicable ranges.

But that's probably not right. Does it exclude god? No, because that belief isn't necessary. It doesn't exclude unicorns, either.

I guess the gist of what I'm saying is that you need to be careful with your soap.

Comment author: ochopelotas 30 November 2011 07:42:58PM 0 points [-]

God punishment isn't needed, just punishment is. It's simply that God-punishment is more difficult to challenge in the courts.

Comment author: GreedyAlgorithm 09 November 2007 01:42:38AM 7 points [-]

Selfreferencing: unfortunately there is an enormous gulf between "most theists" and "theistic philosophers". If you don't believe this then you need to get out more. Perhaps in the U.S. South, for instance. It might be irritating that most theists are not as enlightened as you are, but it is a fact, not a caricature.

I'm pretty sure, for example, that almost everyone I grew up with believes what a divine command theorist believes. And now that I look back at the OP and your comment, I notice that in the former Eliezer continually says "religious fundamentalists" and in the latter you continually say "theistic philosophers", so maybe you already recognize this.

Comment author: David_Williams 09 November 2007 02:16:15AM 0 points [-]

I'm a theist...and I'm not offended.

Unlike my fundy brethren, my understanding of faith has been largely formed by the writings of 20th century existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, who conceptualized faith as the state of being ultimately concerned. Meaning, in essence, that faith is that end or purpose towards which we direct our lives, and which provides a framework from which individual actions can be given valuation. Clearly, non-theists can have faith and normative structures, but their morality is contingent. It is by necessity grounded in either individual or collective interests...and as such, can only claim to be one competing paradigm among many.

Morality, from a religious standpoint, is about positing from faith a moral framework that transcends the contingent and the culturally mediated...hence Kierkegaard's conceptualization of faith as the teleological suspension of the ethical. It is less about simplistic images of heaven and hell, and more about an ultimate metric from which valuation of actions is be asserted.

Comment author: Selfreferencing 09 November 2007 03:36:02AM 1 point [-]

Eliezer said: "If Overcoming Bias has any religious readers left, I say to you: it may be that you will someday lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral direction."

He's addressing all religious people here, right? I responded to this comment as a theistic philosopher.

Further, specifically to Eliezer, I consider myself a religious fundamentalist (many Christian philosophers do), so I took him to be addressing me on that score as well. I guess I don't know what you mean by it. Plantinga suggests that most people who use the term mean something like, "Sum'bitch." I take it you mean something more.

I think that most theists may be divine command theorists, but I'm not sure most theists have thought about it. Of theists who've thought about it, it's hard to say.

I do think, however, that most serious Christians do not think that the primary reason to obey God is to secure reward or avoid punishment. I *do* think that's a caricature. Yes, televangelists use that term and a number of rural preachers, but in my own experience and the experience of many others I know, we're primarily exhorted to obey God because He loves us or He wants us to, etc. Christians, at least, know that God is love, and while some talk up hell, that is rarely their primary emphasis.

Comment author: Stefan_Pernar 09 November 2007 03:57:33AM -1 points [-]

The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not. If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.

What a religious person realizes with such a fear is that truth matters – just not in a sense one would assume intuitively.

Philosopher 1 is promoting altruism on the basis of selfishness Philosopher 2 is promoting selfishness on the basis of altruism

It is a contradiction. But only in thought – not in reality. For which our language is to blame as it is poorly adapted to where the solution to said contradiction lies. The solution lies in the fact that both are in fact promoting to increase group fitness:

The first one on the fallacy that a higher paid job contributes (aka increases the fitness of) only to his personal fitness while in reality the society as a whole benefits.

The second one on the fallacy that his recommendations are truly altruistic while they are actually increasing the fitness of society as a whole including himself.

Both beliefs thus become false while still increasing fitness. That’s what I call 'irrationalist’s edge.

Comment author: Skyfort 09 November 2007 04:04:33AM 3 points [-]

You wield the word fundamentalist like an accusation, as if fundamental principles are to be avoided. Stop that.

Also, please be aware that very few people will assert that our moral compass comes wholly from a fear of punishment. Biblically speaking, people were generally expected to know the difference between right and wrong. That is our inheritance, of course. Mankind has eaten the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, see? ;)

When God-worshiping fundamentalists say that God is the source of all morality, we do not mean that we are conscienceless critters, automatons always needing a nudge. Better to say "Only God is good" and makes good things. God is the source of goodness as the North Pole is the source of northness...if our compasses point that direction, chalk it up to natural attraction. (But in this case the compass points heavenward, not northward, and we could never make the hike).

On another note, you're mixing up judgment and discipline. Judges do not (or should not) punish wrongdoers in order to "teach them a lesson" or "set an example". Judgment is the punishing of wrongdoing because it is wrong and deserves to be punished. Mercy in judgment is an obstruction of justice for the sake of love -- it is a withholding of punishment. Mercy in discipline may be something else entirely, may even put the beloved through pain and misery. That is because discipline IS concerned with "teaching a lesson"...and a good judge will only punish you in proportion to your wickedness, but a good father's discipline might stretch on seemingly for ever, an unearned gift in proportion to your need.

So do not confuse God's Judge Hat with his Father Hat, as so many people do. Even his worshipers get confused. Judgment exists because evil is intolerable. Discipline exists because Love is inexhaustible.

As a final point, does anyone here really believe that if people think something is wrong, they will never do it? There was no direct implication of that in the article...but perhaps a whiff of the sentiment. No man with standards worth mentioning has ever lived up to them.

Comment author: douglas 09 November 2007 08:34:39AM 1 point [-]

selfreferencing, skyfort, David Williams, Thank-you. I've always been an immortal spiritual being. Unfortunately my experience with religions has not always been all that religious and I can relate to what Eliezer is saying here. (using religion to spread fear bugs me-- I don't feel the need to be afraid at all.) It is a pleasure to read that you have gotten a better understanding from your theological studies than I got--perhaps I have some bias to overcome before I can see what you do. Thank-you again.

Comment author: savagehenry 09 November 2007 10:00:28AM 1 point [-]

Hmmm. I used to be a Southern Baptist and since my turning to atheism I most certainly have lost much of my sense of morality. I'm far more of a moral relativist than I ever thought I could become and I find myself seldom convinced by anything that attempts to appeal to morals based on tradition. But by and large my actions in my day to day life have not changed one bit. God (and what my parents taught me) was my moral compass. Now that compass is gone and I have no moral navigation, but I'm still walking in the same direction I was before out of habit. I'm not sure how I feel about that at all. =/

Comment author: Rob_Spear 09 November 2007 12:27:31PM 1 point [-]

Religious communities of people seem to have more of a "moral compass" than non religious ones, judging by my experiences of living in the UK and the US. The poor in the US South are far better people than those in the UK, I think as a result of still having some kind of religious identity. Wealthy middle class intellectual workers are pretty much the same anywhere, whether religious or not, but the poor and struggling need an emotionally satisfying story which gives them a reason not to turn to drugs, desperation and violence far more than they need welfare handouts.

Comment author: Benquo 09 November 2007 01:16:36PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer Yudkowsky says: "If Overcoming Bias has any religious readers left, I say to you: it may be that you will someday lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral direction. For if you fear the prospect of God not punishing some deed, that is a moral compass. You can plug that compass directly into your decision system and steer by it. You can simply not do whatever you are afraid God may not punish you for doing. The fear of losing a moral compass is itself a moral compass. Indeed, I suspect you are steering by that compass, and that you always have been. As Piers Anthony once said, "Only those with souls worry over whether or not they have them." s/soul/morality/ and the point carries.

You don't hear religious fundamentalists using the argument: "If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from eating pork?" Yet by their assumptions - that we have no moral compass but divine reward and retribution - this argument should sound just as forceful as the other."

This is of course true. But I think you might be underestimating the number of people who say that, but really mean something more like "who will help me overcome the law of the flesh?". We all (or most of us, at least) do things from time to time that our better selves disapprove of. It seems like a belief in a divine judge might help one keep oneself on the strait and narrow.

Comment author: Darin 09 November 2007 04:29:53PM 0 points [-]

This is a strawman.

You seem to be suggesting that "fundamentalists" (whatever that means) believe God's rules for moral behavior were printed out single-sided, double-spaced and delivered as an appendix to the ten commandments or something. This isn't how religious people, at least Christians, think about morality at all. A Christian would say that God has imprinted his concept of morality on you, so when you talk about "natural law" or "aversion to murder," you're talking about God's word on the subject.

Also, the emphasis on carrots and sticks, reward and punishment, is something non-Christians talk about a lot more than Christians. Christians DO NOT BELIEVE that your behavior determines whether you go to heaven or hell. It's as simple as that.

You know, in some ways your post boils down to the same silly thing you hear when Christians, say, oppose marriage for homosexuals. "You're anti-gay, you're probably afraid you ARE gay." You're saying, "You're afraid without God everybody would commit murder. You probably think YOU would commit murder." Yawn.

Comment author: Benquo 09 November 2007 04:50:02PM 2 points [-]

@ Jacob Stein:

What do you mean by control, and what are your criteria for it? Modern Europe doesn't seem to be experiencing much mass murder right now, for instance. If you mean a society with no theists at all, then you're making a rather narrow claim that doesn't really have many implications.

Also, why do you think "atheistic" is the relevant category? Stalin and Hitler didn't kill millions out of a lack of direction; they did so out of bad directions: Communism, and racist Fascism, respectively. Why aren't their positive political beliefs, rather than their negative metaphysical ones, the primary reason for their actions?

The Greeks also don't seem to have derived moral guidance in any meaningful way during the glory days of Athens. Their excellence/virtue ethic doesn't seem to have made them less moral than, say, the Crusaders (or the contemporary super-religious Egyptians!). Does that count as a society "controlled" by atheists?

Comment author: DaCracka 09 November 2007 05:13:38PM 1 point [-]

"You know, in some ways your post boils down to the same silly thing you hear when Christians, say, oppose marriage for homosexuals. "You're anti-gay, you're probably afraid you ARE gay." You're saying, "You're afraid without God everybody would commit murder. You probably think YOU would commit murder." Yawn."

Darin, if being gay is a choice for you, and you enjoy sex with men, but choose to abstain only because God says it's not OK, you're not just afraid you're gay, you are, in fact, at least bisexual.

Which is OK, man, it's ok. Jesus still loves you. Stop fighting it, it's unhealthy.

I couldn't choose to not be attracted to women, no matter how much God dissapproved, which makes me straight. Unfortunately. Purely on a financial level, gay is fantastic. Then I could hook up with rich men, and live on my good looks.

Jacob:

Which aetheist societies are these? Aren't you forgetting about the crusades, the inquisition, and the witch hunts? Aren't religious societies, historically, at least as likely to commit murder?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 November 2007 05:19:46PM 1 point [-]

You're saying, "You're afraid without God everybody would commit murder. You probably think YOU would commit murder."

"You" element-of "everybody".

Again, this is not a strawman, this is an argument put forth by (admittedly only some) theists that without believing in judgment everyone loses their moral compass, therefore you should believe in God.

Comment author: rvman 09 November 2007 05:33:39PM 1 point [-]

Having the 'divine judge' to 'help one keep oneself on the strai(gh)t and narrow' doesn't make god the source of the morality, or necessary to it. By the same token, the laws against murder, and punishment under those laws, do not define the morality or immorality of killing, they just enforce it using collective means. Society collectively (or the majority of individuals in it individually, or the leaders individually or collectively) determined/defined/believed that murder is wrong enough to warrant state action. Having murder be banned by law does not cause or define or create the immorality of murder, except to the extent that personal consequences of an action are morally relevant. Nor, in my mind, does social consensus NECESSARILY make actions to enforce a law moral. I consider drug laws immoral, because though drug use and sale may not always be moral, per se, they are less immoral than using force to prevent them. Use of force, even to enforce moral or legal rules, is a necessary evil, not a good, and has to be balanced morally against the acts they (actually) prevent.

By the same token, that 'god' judged killing as wrong in the bible doesn't necessarily create the immorality of killing, it just necessarily enforces it. Morality could exist through social definition of right and wrong, or as a part of the natural or supernatural universe separate from (or bound to - that isn't ruled out) the existence of a godhead, which may be accessed logically or empirically.

It could even be that morality is binding on a god, depending on your beliefs(priors?). (Eg. I believe morality is sufficiently separate from godhood that, even if god, by whatever name or definition, exists, his status as 'creator of the universe and of man' and his power to force his will on everyone would be insufficient basis for him to overrule the moral status of murder to say (for example) 'killing this baby is ok, I command it' - he could order this, but it would be wrong of him to do so. He would be morally culpable just like any other morally-conscious being. IOW, the biblical flood would have been an act of extreme evil, had it occured.)

To Jacob's point, I submit that the beliefs of the religious simply reflect the moral understanding of the social group the religious belong to. Fundamentalist morality reflects an social difference - a social group where the understanding of morality is different from that of social groups consising of the less fundamentalist churches. "Using drugs is bad" isn't lifted from the bible, it is a social norm which has been retrofitted onto Christian belief by some denominations. An even better example are the denominations which ban alcohol, despite Christ explicitly turning water to wine for his followers. Rationalization about 'it was grape juice, not wine' simply demonstrates how moral understanding is projected onto religion, rather than flowing from it. (See also the scrambling to justify belief that homosexuality isn't wrong while remaining Christian believers in a bible which is fairly explicit in saying the opposite, by more liberal denominations.)

Comment author: George_Weinberg 09 November 2007 05:39:18PM 1 point [-]

I think a genuine altruist, or even most self-professed altruists, would not make the sort of argument described, or at least not primarily. They would argue that the world as a whole is better if more people are altruists, and that therefore people should be altruistic even if each individual suffers as a result of his own altruism.

Comment author: logicnazi 09 November 2007 05:43:09PM 0 points [-]

Actually there is an (almost explicit) contradiction in the way most religions talk about morality and god.

I'm most familiar with christianity (specifically catholicism) but I believe the same goes for most major monotheistic religions.

1) They claim that morality arises from god, i.e., they wish to define morality as obeying god's commands.

2) "God is good," is an explicit part of their doctrines.

The tension here is obvious. Clearly the members of the religion take themselves to be saying something substantive and meaningful when they all intone "God is good" but yet if they really believed that morality was merely obedience to god then you aren't actually asserting anything of substance when you claim that god is good.

So not only does the theory that morality come from god have some philosophical problems the people who advocate it don't even really seem to believe it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 November 2007 06:13:01PM 6 points [-]

The problem with religious belief, as Sam Harris has observed at length in "The End of Faith", is not so much belief in God as belief upon bad evidence in anything. Did Stalin and Hitler champion free debate? Or did they command, as does the Old Testament:

"If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods," unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the peoples surrounding you, whether near you or far away, anywhere throughout the world, you must not consent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God." (Deuteronomy 13:7-11)

This was also the rule which Stalin set for Communism, and Hitler for Nazism: if your brother tries to tell you why Marx is wrong, or why Jews are not actually plotting to take over the world, then do not debate him or try to set forth your evidence, do not perform replicable experiments or examine history, but turn him in at once to the secret police.

It is not God, but belief upon insufficient or distorted or unreasonable evidence; it is not God, but the imposition of beliefs by force rather than reasoned argument; it is not just God that is the problem. Which is a more damning condemnation of all religions and Communism and Nazism, as special cases of this one unifying rule, than anything you could say about one particular God.

For the argument that violence follows empirically upon bad rationality (that from socially systematized belief in insane things upon bad evidence, will nearly inevitably follow imposition of beliefs by force) I refer you to Sam Harris's The End of Faith.

Comment author: MugaSofer 11 July 2012 03:40:08PM *  -2 points [-]

That is absolutely true, and yet somehow you just compared him to a nazi.

So much for godwin's law.

Comment author: MugaSofer 05 August 2012 03:30:34PM 0 points [-]

Why the downvotes? That wasn't criticism!

Comment author: Michael_Sullivan 09 November 2007 06:36:56PM -1 points [-]

If I thought there were a God, then his opinions about morality would in fact be persuasive to me. Not infinitely persuasive, but still strong evidence. It would be nice to clear up some (not all) of my moral uncertainty by relying on his authority.

The problem (and this is coming from someone who *does* still believe in God, so yes, OB still has at least one religious reader left) is that for pretty much any possible God, we have only *very* weak and untrustworthy indications of God's desires. So there's huge uncertainty just in the question of "what does God want?". What we know about this comes down to what other people (both current and historically) tell us about what they believe god wants, and whatever we experience directly in our internal prayer life. All this evidence is fairly untrustworthy on it's own. Even with direct personal experience, it's not immediately obvious to an honest skeptic whether that's coming from God, Satan or a bit of underdone potato.

Comment author: DaCracka 09 November 2007 07:25:35PM 1 point [-]

"I'm sorry, Morman was the correct answer."

~South Park

Jacob, cannibalism isn't a religion, per se, and I don't know of any modern religions that include it. Satanism is a worship of self, despite the shocking name, and doesn't have any belief in any diety. Perhaps if you spent half the time reading up on other beliefs that you spend on denouncing them, you'd be slightly more informed.

Comment author: Tom3 09 November 2007 07:39:22PM 4 points [-]

Jacob Stein:

"Are religious societies better? Cannibals and Satanists, perhaps not, but it's a tough call. Orthodox Jews, Quakers, Mennonites, probably yes."

Well Jacob it's just such a coincidence that you'd say that, because I am a cannibal satanist! Cool, right?

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is you say that Orthodox Jews and the like have better societies, but you are a jew, aren't you? (There's probably a bias or something there, I dunno). But since I think (to paraphrase Selfreferencing) that we're naturally motivated to seek Satan and that those who are not have been corrupted by sin and rebellion, I would much rather live among fine, upstanding flesh-eating devil-fearing folks like myself.

You see, Satan is the source of good as the south pole is the source of southness. Without him, I would just have to copy the morality of the rest of society or use my own faculties of reason and intuition - but then I wouldn't know that it was good to eat babies and have sex with goats! It hardly bears thinking about. I mean, it's a matter of faith, isn't it? Can't argue with that.

Comment author: Skyfort 09 November 2007 07:47:38PM 0 points [-]

>> 1) They claim that morality arises from god, i.e., they wish to define morality as obeying god's commands. >> >> 2) "God is good," is an explicit part of their doctrines.

There's no tension between these two statements, and "God is good" is meaningful. :) Statement #1 follows directly from Statement #2. Swap the numbers on those statements and you'll have the right of it.

Comment author: DaCracka 09 November 2007 07:48:58PM 3 points [-]

Tom makes an excellent point.

*eats a baby and fornicates with a goat.*

Thank Satan for my moral guidelines.

(Doesn't Leviticus condemn eaters of shellfish and wearers of polycotton blends right next to homosexuals? Why aren't there picket lines at Red Lobster and Ralph Lauren? Doesn't it also outline that having sex with your slaves is ok, as long as you compensate the buyer for any depreciation you caused by doing so?)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 November 2007 09:08:55PM 10 points [-]

Have you ever tried to find a copy of "Lolita" by Nabokov in a public library?

3 copies, 2 available in the Santa Clara City Library.

Comment author: Skyfort 09 November 2007 09:39:52PM 0 points [-]

Tom, clever as it is to substitute antonyms, you're a liar. :)

(When ever people knowingly worship demons, it is because they feel that the "dark gods" will actually get things done.)

Comment author: TGGP4 09 November 2007 09:48:42PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, if you had been raised a Yanomamo you would not consider murder to be so horrible. You use prohibitions on using the bathroom as absurd, as of course they are because nobody here believes that. If people were genuinely taught to believe that God hates using the bathroom at that time as an abominable sin, we would fear it. Many religious people who do not accept a biological basis for homosexuality think its the result of a decadent and insufficiently religious culture which is turning their precious children gay. Most atheists think this is absurd, but they also don't think there is necessarily anything wrong with it.

I discuss the connection between irreligiosity and other beliefs/behaviors (including the greater charitable giving of the religious) here.

The Overcoming Bias contributor Utilitarian is a Christian, and has some writings in defense/promotion of those beliefs.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 18 June 2012 08:11:55PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, if you had been raised a Yanomamo you would not consider murder to be so horrible.

I believe the a sizable portion of Yanomamo killings are revenge killings, which indicates that Yanomamo do think murder is something really horrible. Otherwise, why risk life and limb to avenge/deter it?

Chagnon also stated that occasionally Yanomamo tribal leaders took measures to prevent warfare, such as deliberately underproducing and overproducing certain goods in their village in order to give them an excuse to trade with each other, making it easier to cement alliances. He also recounted that more cool-headed, logical members of the tribe (Kaobawa was one he talked about a lot) seemed to better understand the inherent problems of killing and took action to prevent war. This indicates that Yanomamo are probably psychologically normal in their response to violence, and the reason they are so violent is due to local conditions, not because (as I think you imply) humans are blank slates who only dislike killing if they're taught to.

Also, there is considerable controversy over whether the portrayal of the Yanomamo as so incredibly violent is accurate, although I did not have time to figure out which side of the debate was correct.

If people were genuinely taught to believe that God hates using the bathroom at that time as an abominable sin, we would fear it.

No one is disputing that, the question is: Would we keep fearing it if we then learned there was no god? We probably would still exhibit fear behaviors due to cached thoughts, but it seems likely to me that our conscious minds would know that those fears were irrational.

Comment author: wedrifid 18 June 2012 08:48:02PM *  1 point [-]

seemed to better understand the inherent problems of killing

Specifically: It really sucks when it's done to you. "Live by the long-stick-with-sharp-rock die by the long-stick-with-sharp-rock!"

Comment author: Anonymous13 09 November 2007 10:13:41PM 1 point [-]

TGGP,

Utilitarian buys into Pascal's Wager and thinks that Christianity wins in that calculus, but admits that Christianity is almost certainly false in the process of calculation. Most religious people would be unwilling to say that there is less than a 1 in 1000 chance that their religion is correct.

Comment author: Anonymous13 09 November 2007 10:15:58PM 0 points [-]

"is less than" rather.

Comment author: gutzperson 09 November 2007 11:07:02PM 1 point [-]

Ramble, ramble, ramble stone. Morals as means of control work quite well. Forbidding drugs and alcohol can be used for keeping people fit for their religious chores. Not killing somebody can mean do not kill anybody from my group but kill the other (the threatening entity). Kill the one who takes away my food (and supposedly my livelihood). Kill the non-believer. Kill the outsider. Happens all the time. Ryman has got a point (Nov 9th, 12.33) ‌ God punishes not murder per se but he punishes murder of a person in his own group. It does not matter if there is a god or not for morals and ethics. There are agreements in any group. Humanists, atheists, all religious groups and churches, etc.etc. have all their moralistic clubs. True morals are like true lies. An oxymoron? False morals are the morals of the other group. Fake morals are the ones used as means of control. All morals are fake then? Morals serve altruistic and selfish purposes. At the end the selfish person opens the door for the old lady hoping she might be a millionaire and marry him/her. The altruistic person opens the door for the lady because she/he hopes that she/he will be loved back. Possibly, it is just a habit because they are well trained monkeys.

Comment author: Stefan_Pernar 10 November 2007 01:04:50AM 0 points [-]

gutzperson: good points - it is all about increasing fitness and social control. You will find reading the following paper quite interesting: Selection of Organization at the Social level: obstacles and facilitators of metasystem transitions. Particularly chapter four: Social Control Mechanisms.

Comment author: douglas 10 November 2007 08:37:36AM 0 points [-]

For a rationalists reason for going from atheism to a belief in God see www.biola.edu/anthonyflew/index.cfm

For the scientific case for the existence of the soul see the books 1)Mario Beauregard "The Spiritual Brain, A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul" (This book is written by the leading brain researcher on spiritual experience and is suitable for non-experts) 2)"Irreducible Mind" by Kelly and Kelly et.al. (This book is writen for psychologists and advanced students-- assumes some knowledge of philosophy and psychology-- the authors inform me that they have no current plans to write a similar book for the general public. It is worth the trouble 10 times over in my estimation)

Comment author: gutzperson 10 November 2007 08:54:22AM 0 points [-]

I would like to query Flew's 'rationalist' reasons. Please read this article by Mark Oppenheimer about Anthony Flew in the NYT. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/magazine/04Flew-t.html

Comment author: Benquo 10 November 2007 05:44:05PM 0 points [-]

Jacob Stein said:

"I mean societies where the government has officially endorsed and encouraged atheism."

Well, then, we agree! The government should not officially endorse or encourage atheism. I would go so far as to say that the government shouldn't have any opinion on the subject.

Would you agree with me that many other, religious ideological governments share many problems with militantly atheistic ones? (The Inquisition is a classic example.)

Comment author: gutzperson 10 November 2007 05:59:39PM 0 points [-]

I suggest that you read 'Religion in the Public Sphere' by Juergen Habermas.

You can download this as pdf from http://www.sandiego.edu/pdf/pdf_library/habermaslecture031105_c939cceb2ab087bdfc6df291ec0fc3fa.pdf

Comment author: douglas 10 November 2007 06:54:48PM 0 points [-]

gutzperson-- I read the article. I am not surprised that there are self-interested parties that are making more of what Flew has said than what he has actully said. (A sad reality when passions are so thourghly engaged.) It seems to me that his basic point, there must be an underlying intelligence to this universe, was shared by Newton, Planck, and Einstein. It appears a belief in God does not hinder one from understanding the universe better than anyone that came before. That is not an arguement for the existence of God though, is it?

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 04 August 2010 04:25:00PM 1 point [-]

Einstein was a pantheist. He had no belief along the lines of a personal God meddling with the universe.

Quote: "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

Also relevant: "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

Einstein belongs solidly in the ranks of the freethinkers and not of the religious.

Comment author: byrnema 04 August 2010 04:52:10PM 0 points [-]

douglas said that Einstein believed in an underlying intelligence to this universe, not that he believed in a personal God.

In your opinion, is belief in an underlying intelligence to this universe not belief in God?

Comment author: ciphergoth 04 August 2010 05:09:44PM 0 points [-]

douglas is clearly mistaken on this point as the quotes Andy produces illustrates - pantheism does not posit an "underlying intelligence to this universe", it is as Dawkins describes it "sexed-up atheism".

Comment author: byrnema 04 August 2010 05:30:39PM *  0 points [-]

Andy selected a few quotes that show Einstein did not believe in a personal God. Einstein may have been a pantheist, but only to the extent that pantheists can believe in an "underlying intelligence to this universe" -- because from what I can reconstruct from Einstein's quotes, he did believe in something like that.

For example, this quote from an atheist site:

"The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that , compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."

Also,

"My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God."

Theist sites claim that Einstein believed in God, and atheist sites claim that he didn't, and I read the same quotes in both places. Belief in a non-personal God doesn't seem to have its place, and doesn't seem to be well-understood.

Comment author: ciphergoth 04 August 2010 06:32:55PM 1 point [-]

Hmm, interesting, thanks! I have to conclude that Einstein wasn't thinking very clearly about the whole thing...

Comment author: gutzperson 11 November 2007 09:49:52AM 0 points [-]

Stefan Pernar Thanks for the links. Interesting texts. I am dreaming of an anarchistic world . Just chaos. Just dreaming. Fearing that anarchy might only work for a metasecond. All this social control scenarios make me feel like an adolescent who wants to break all the rules.

Comment author: Caledonian2 11 November 2007 03:00:41PM 3 points [-]

It appears a belief in God does not hinder one from understanding the universe better than anyone that came before.

Since Newton explained away discrepancies between his models and the observations as an example of God needing to adjust the clockwork now and then, he missed the opportunity to realize that his equations predicted the existence of previously-unobserved masses. So I wouldn't be so quick to claim that deistic thinking doesn't impair understanding.

Comment author: douglas 12 November 2007 09:02:00AM 0 points [-]

Caledonian- I agree that Newton missed opportunities to improve his models. That was not what I said, only that his belief in God didn't hinder him from doing better than those that came before.
Here's an odd question-- If we took Newton as an example-
Which is currently a greater hinderance to scientific understanding-
A belief in God, or a belief in a materialistic/mechanistic description of the universe?

Comment author: Sharper 12 November 2007 08:23:00PM 2 points [-]

"God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes."

I suppose this may be a true position for some southern baptists or the like, I won't claim to know the normal religious arguments of every sect or region, but I've never heard it stated from anyone religious, only the "formerly religious" or the non-religious. So it seems like a bit of a strawman argument to me.

From my own "religious fundamentalist" position, a contrasting argument would be:

1. God is all knowing.
2. God loves us.
From which follows:
3. God knows what moral rules are best for us to follow in order to benefit ourselves and wants us to follow those rules.
As a result:
4. In order to maximise our collective benefit, we should follow god's commandments.

Comment author: Polymeron 21 March 2011 02:20:50AM 1 point [-]

This does not negate the proposition that divine command theory is false.

By your argument, what is good is not because God decreed it; God decreed it because it was good. That is the opposite of divine command theory. Rather than a contrasting argument, you are actually supporting Eliezer's conclusion - albeit by a different argument.

Comment author: Jacob_Stein 12 November 2007 09:43:00PM -1 points [-]

No library in my area has Lolita and Netflix won't even send me the film. http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Lolita/709389?trkid=189530&strkid=1144472631_0_0

Comment author: g 12 November 2007 09:47:00PM 0 points [-]

Douglas, how can it possibly be sensible to "take Newton as an example" of what are *currently*, 400 years later, hindrances to scientific understanding? So yes, it's an "odd question" indeed.

We don't have any way of knowing whether Newton's belief in God made it easier or harder for him to improve on those who went before him, because we don't have access to an alternative universe with an atheistic Newton in it. Is anyone actually suggesting that theism makes it impossible to do good science? That would obviously be insane, so I rather doubt it.

Comment author: Benquo 12 November 2007 11:12:00PM 1 point [-]

@Jacob Stein:

"Actually, it would be hard to beat Pol Pot's Cambodia and present day North Korea."

Fair point, as far as extent is concerned.

So perhaps there really is something about most religions that excludes the very most evil and dangerous ideologies. On the other hand, that hasn't stopped people from engaging in protracted, bloody holy wars. Religion might act as a brake, but it's not a very strong brake.

And I still don't see why "atheism" and "religion" are the relevant terms, as if atheism were itself an ideology. Marxism, liberalism, fascism, platonism -- and for that matter, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Animism, the Moonies, the Scientologists -- differ in more important ways than the formal belief or nonbelief in a deity.

Comment author: hrh 13 November 2007 01:10:00AM 0 points [-]

"God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes."

That semicolon contains a big jump. Most people who believe in some higher power do identify that power with good, or morality, or perhaps merely as its source (morality is a gift from God, therefore, without him there would not be good). However, "there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes" - you seem to define that as to mean that most religious fundamentalists believe that without God, people are incapable of moral behavior. I've heard that applied strictly to the beliefs of some schools of thought within Islam and Calvinism, and loosely used to characterize the beliefs of such diverse figures as William of Ockham and Thomas Malthus.

The strict opinion that a person who does not believe in a judge that rewards and punishes is incapable of moral behavior is very rare among religious believers, fundamentalists (in either the literal or colloquial sense) included. It's really a mistake to apply it as broadly as you are doing when you say "If Overcoming Bias has any religious readers left, I say to you: it may be that you will someday lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral direction." as if that is what "religious" people largely believe.

More common is the idea, as expressed in the combox here, that lack of religious belief weakens morality. And, furthermore, the aphorism that you took as the starting point for this article "Without God, man cannot be good" the way you are using it is, in my experince, usually bandied about more as one does a theory, in an attempt to explain, for example, the brutality of twentieth century in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mao's China, Cambodia, etc. Or the relationship between atheism in Europe and suicide.

Comment author: Caledonian2 13 November 2007 01:33:00AM 0 points [-]

What's immoral about suicide?

A more appropriate subject of investigation would be comparing the homicide rates of atheistic vs. theistic regions. Care to guess what the results are?

Comment author: hrh 13 November 2007 02:00:00AM 0 points [-]

Calcedonian:

The empirical evidence using micro datasets that I have read about does dispute much of the theory about religion and morality. Prison populations are much more religious than average. The Southeast has higher crime rates, etc. There's even the aphorism that "there are no atheists in the foxholes." The people who we, as a society, pay to kill people have higher religious service participation rates. On the other hand, charitable giving is perhaps higher among believers. My point there was that overall is that one of the most common usages of the aphorism, in all of my wide reading on the subject, is a highly debatable theory about general trends in human behavior - not a mechanistic theory about human behavior, as the above post implies.

hrh

Comment author: Caledonian2 13 November 2007 04:23:00AM 1 point [-]

Atheism is not a religion, but its an attitude

No, it's a position on a truth claim.

Comment author: gutzperson 13 November 2007 11:39:00AM 0 points [-]

Jakob Stein
“Atheists simply adopt the teachings of the surrounding culture, since that's the most comfortable thing to do. …
Atheism is not a religion, but its an attitude which tends to include cultural moral relativism, hedonism and narcissism.”

This is a quite damning and prejudiced statement on atheism. There is not one ideology of atheism, though. This is the nice thing about atheism that it does not adhere to an ideology. I am a very cultured, ethical and social atheist who does not want to become part of any ideology that is oppressive. I am also not more of a relativist than most people, be they religious or not. Hedonism is not a bad thing per se. Though the ideology of hedonism would be problematic. Narcissism is a psychological condition that can affect many people and groups regardless of their belief systems.
Atheism is not a religion. Here I would agree with Dawkins.

Theocratic dictatorships turned out to be as bad as the frequently mentioned Pol Pot. The emphasis is on dictatorship.
Marxism is a highly moralistic philosophy that has been abused by politicians.

“However when atheists themselves are in control of society, there are no moral rules at all and mass murder follows.”

Mass murder was a sport in Christian medieval feudalist societies, for example.

I would like to rephrase this: However when mad and power-mad people are in control of society, there are no moral rules at all and mass murder follows.

Mad and power-mad people come in all shapes and colours.

Comment author: Zubon 13 November 2007 03:28:00PM 0 points [-]

Nabokov: 2,996 libraries have at least one of 107 editions. Three libraries within ten miles of me have copies, including one with an audio edition. You can find your closest here: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/289704

Comment author: aminorex 14 November 2007 02:32:00AM -2 points [-]

Atheism is not a religion? Tell that to Athe! I could understand saying that agnoscticism is not a religion because it does not make a religious claim, but merely an epistemic claim, but to say that an explicit *belief* that God is non-extistent (incoherent though that is) is not a religious view, nor a form of religion, expecially when it is organized as a religion and conducts prostelytic campaigns with fundamentalist fervor -- well, that's just disingenuous.

Comment author: MugaSofer 03 August 2012 10:18:49AM *  0 points [-]

I thought "Athe" is a joke, a fictional goddess worshipped by Athe-ists? Besides which, it could be argued that it is possible to have a religion that endorses atheism - some forms of Buddhism, for example - but atheism itself is no more a religion than monotheism, polytheism, or dualism. I suppose this would change the analogy to "curly is a hair color".

Of course, definitions may vary.

Comment author: g 14 November 2007 04:34:00AM 0 points [-]

It's a religious view, obviously, in the sense that it's an opinion about a subject generally classified as religious. As to whether it's "a religion", equally obviously that depends on your definition since "religion" is so flexible a word, but it seems to me that you have to bend it a long way before classifying atheism as a "religion" starts making any sense. Atheism lacks, for instance, belief in superior spiritual beings; ritual observances; a code of conduct [note: that doesn't mean that individual atheists have no morals]; a clearly delineated class of people authorized to conduct rituals, pronounce on doctrinal matters, tell others what to do, etc.; places specially dedicated to atheistic activities; a non-trivial body of doctrine one's supposed to accept. Can you give, let's say, two examples of things generally regarded as religions that don't have at least three of those six features?

Comment author: gutzperson 14 November 2007 08:49:00AM 0 points [-]

“nor a form of religion, especially when it is organized as a religion and conducts prostelytic campaigns with fundamentalist fervor –“
Where are these prostelytic campaigns with fundamentalist fervor? Religious groups are omni-present and they interfere with everybody’s lives and concepts. Sometimes they are quite threatening. I have to come across a bullying atheist yet, who wants to convert others more or less forcefully. There are some atheistic organizations (not religions) in the USA and Europe, but they are not really trying to convert the world, are they? It seems to me that you have got your hick-ups because Dawkins, Grayling and Hitchens have written their well received books on ‘god delusions’.

G.s contribution explains very well why atheism is not a religion.

Comment author: James_M. 18 November 2007 09:54:00PM -1 points [-]

Selfishness is not in proportion to salary. Satisfaction and general happiness with personal values and their achievement however, is. If a person is happy to accept a job that pays less but that he himself perceives as a personal value is selfish. Accepting the higher paying job which is not in accordance to your values or against them is like selling your values to the highest bidder. If you allow your non-values to feed you and your kids, contradictions will develop. That would be a sacrifice, because in objective reality, good is that which sustains life, unless life is serfdom to non-values.

The ultimate judge of this is individual perception and judgement of objective reality, whether 99% correct or just 40%. The difference between a selfish person and an altruist is that the selfish person wants to know the difference, which is to say that the selfish person wants, which constitutes a value to gain. An altruist is torn between values. When buying an iPod, the selfish person enjoys his ability to do so from the labor he respects. The altruist whether in a job he likes or dislikes will be emotionally torn between spending money on himself instead of on others.

A person who steals an iPod cannot be said to be selfish, if words are to mean something. If we agree that selfishness paves the way to the achievement of values, which are by definition life-affirming, when a person resorts to violence instead of productive labor, to obtain something he wants by using violence, a non-value, non life-affirming, or to think of it in another way: as a loss of his ability to claim that one cannot use violence against him, he is committing a sacrifice by exchanging what is life-affirming--living by his own achievement--to force, something that could justifiably be used against him to deprive him of that which did come to him by values.

While people are not like clockwork, choices will be made in proportion by the individual's need and ability to know. The deeper the need and the knowledge, the more objective the choice.

Comment author: MrHen 03 July 2011 07:33:07PM 1 point [-]

Which is to say: The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not. If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.

If someone built a complicated morality system around the morality of God and suddenly changed it, they should be afraid. This fear doesn't necessarily stem from an, "Oh crap, I will now murder!" vibe. The idea that everything one believed about morality was wrong (or, at the very least, right for the wrong reasons) should shock them to the core. If it doesn't... then I find this statement severely misleading:

God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes. If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from murdering each other left and right?

It takes time to put everything back into place. If a moral system was built with a non-God-source but the person thought it was a God-source, sure, then your post makes sense. But what if that isn't actually what is happening? What if the question of wanton murder is actually just a different phrasing of the question "If not God, what is the source of morality?"

The answer to this question begins nonsensically. The issue of a religious God-sourced morality isn't that there is a real morality system behind the curtain acting as if it were God-sourced. The issue is that this external non-God-source system isn't being identified as a morality system at all and, in the extreme cases you have labeled religious fundamentalists, this external system cohabits the same control structure. "Thou shalt not murder" is not equivalent to the statement "I do not want to murder." But both thou-shalt-not-murder and I-do-not-want-to-murder result in the behavioral pattern of not-murder.

A good example of the split between these systems is the simple answer, "Because it is illegal and I will be incarcerated." Made even simpler, it is the equivalence of a knee-jerk reaction to touching a hot stove. In practice, this has little to do with morality (unless you want it to.) The idea that a hot stove hurts is a fundamental cause but I don't personally consider it a relevant indicator of a moral compass. This will certainly bleed into a morality system at some point and it makes sense that murder is closer to that bleed than eating pork. But it is my opinion that there is a distinct difference between a religious claim of a God-source morality and their pragmatic reaction to reality.

This could be a great segue into a handful of interesting topics about the definitions of morality and behavioral patterns and where the lines cross and so on. Instead, I am choosing to focus on using the claims of "murder is wrong" and "I do not want to murder" to distinguish between a moral reason to not murder and a pragmatic reason to not murder.

Stripping out the morality system doesn't (necessarily) change the other system -- nor does it necessarily change one's behavior. The idea that a behavior survives the first system (the God-source-morality system) does not imply that the second system performs the exact same role. In other words, a second system re-enforcing behavior patterns in the first system does not imply that the first system isn't really there.

Likewise, being scared of opening up, working on, and potentially dismantling or replacing the God-source-morality system is justifiable. A rebuilding of the morality system with a new source will (or should) have drastic behavioral effects. But these effects can be supplemented and carried by what I am calling the second system until the new morality system gets up and running. Disbelieving in God is not going to turn someone into a murderer because there are still plenty of good reasons to not be a murderer.

Eventually tying this back into a morality system isn't likely to be as difficult as it appears to the religious fundamentalist. In my opinion, I think it is likely that the replacement system is built independently of the God-source system and when the non-God-source morality system provides a plausible alternative, one can actually begin considering a switchover. In the meantime, there are a lot of uneasy sounding questions like, "But what about murder?" Fortunately, there are answers to those questions.

But the actual point of my comment is directed at this statement:

Even the notion that God threatens you with eternal hellfire, rather than cookies, piggybacks on a pre-existing negative value for hellfire.

Negative values are not necessarily morally negative values. "Hellfire" is likely to rack up negative points in nearly any value system -- that is sort of the point. Noting that the fear of hellfire exists outside of a God-source morality is not, in my opinion, a strong argument against God-source morality. It could simply mean that another value system is in play.

That being said, one could proffer the idea that all value is moral value and that all moral value is from the God-source. Then I would agree that such a system could not explain the intrinsic fear of hellfire. But such a system would also describe the pain from touching a hot stove as a God-source evil. In essence, "God" would just be the answer to everything which isn't really an interesting problem to solve as a rationalist. But addressing a weakness of that system as an argument against a more typical God-source morality system seems misplaced.

I could, of course, be completely missing the point... in which case, oops. :) All thoughts, corrections, what-have-you are welcome. If I am wrong, I want to know.

Comment author: byrnema 04 July 2011 03:39:53AM *  1 point [-]

Would you be willing to summarize your view in a couple sentences, even if doing so would result in a caricature of your position? The main idea I drew from your comment is that when we think about how murder is immoral, this feels like something different than just that murder is not in our best interest (even after folding in that we have self-interests in being altruistic).

Another way of putting this idea is that while I currently have no motive to murder --- you wrote:

Disbelieving in God is not going to turn someone into a murderer because there are still plenty of good reasons to not be a murderer.

sometimes people are motivated to murder. Presumably I could be motivated to murder, and in that case, why shouldn't I? If there was a higher moral authority, I might find that the moral authority compelling enough to tip things in favor of not murdering. However, without that moral authority I'm free after all.

I think the effects of the absence of a moral authority is more obvious in more mundane aspects of life, especially in cases where you are making a choice and one choice is not obviously more moral. Perhaps it is a complicated choice and there are positive and negative moral consequences with either choice. In these cases, I feel that there are a couple 'moral compasses' working simultaneously. Some of them I would describe as more immediate and pragmatic, some of them are more deontological. There is one which feels quite distinctly different, which may actually point to an action that is not immediately intuitively moral but which nevertheless feels most like the right choice. Religious training causes us to recognize this different compass, call it "God", and trust in it.

By studying religious texts that identify this compass and how it is different (mostly through examples) atheists articulate what is special about this compass and determine (individually, I suppose) if this compass is trustworthy and superior to the others.

There are spectacular examples of religious people following a terrible wrong compass they've mistaken for God's (mostly in novels that I've read) but on the other hand there are lots of morally successful theists that claim they have found through experience this compass is reliable.

A religious upbringing could be largely about developing a feel for this nuanced, more reliable compass within ourselves. Without a reason to elevate it, I'm afraid we might never develop a reason to 'trust' it -- especially in cases where it seems contradictory -- and instead we would follow more immediate and pragmatic compasses that aren't really reflecting the full morality we're capable of, and on top of that not have the security of following a compass that has God's approval behind it.

Perhaps these thoughts are overly biased by a theistic childhood. Maybe there isn't a single 'superior' compass. Maybe the single superior compass is just a recognition that in complex cases, the moral choice is more felt than decided. How do we teach a generation of atheists that morality is very subtle, so that it is difficult to hear and easy to misinterpret, and that they need to listen carefully, without causing the anxiety that they aren't getting it right? What should we say they are listening to?

Comment author: MrHen 04 July 2011 01:38:40PM 1 point [-]

Would you be willing to summarize your view in a couple sentences, even if doing so would result in a caricature of your position? The main idea I drew from your comment is that when we think about how murder is immoral, this feels like something different than just that murder is not in our best interest (even after folding in that we have self-interests in being altruistic).

Someone making a choice to do X is not necessarily making this choice for moral reasons. If (a) they are doing X for moral reasons and (b) you suddenly take away those moral reasons but (c) they continue doing X it does NOT imply that (d) there are more moral reasons lurking behind those mentioned in a.

Furthermore, if you replace b with "they fear suddenly taking away those moral reasons", d becomes less likely.


sometimes people are motivated to murder. Presumably I could be motivated to murder, and in that case, why shouldn't I? If there was a higher moral authority, I might find that the moral authority compelling enough to tip things in favor of not murdering. However, without that moral authority I'm free after all.

I don't understand this comment. Some people do murder. Do these people consider themselves immoral? To be clear, I was only talking about murder because the article did.

I think the effects of the absence of a moral authority is more obvious in more mundane aspects of life, especially in cases where you are making a choice and one choice is not obviously more moral.

Sure. My point was that the quasi-pragmatic behavior causer-thingy kicks in here, too. So does a complicated morality system. I don't have a problem with either of these things coming into play at a mundane level. What gets interesting is when the two systems collide.

For instance, if a cashier accidentally gives me five dollars extra in change, is it more or less moral to return the change? Is it more or less pragmatic? This seems to touch the same topic as EY's last bit about the two philosophers. But I don't consider this terribly relevant to my original point (even though it is interesting.)

This is slightly different that what you referred to as two moral compasses. While that is also interesting, I am currently fascinated by what happens when a moral compass disagrees with a non-moral decision making system. How does the contention get resolved? But this is mostly unrelated to my point. My point revolves around the idea that the moral and non-moral decision systems can -- and often do -- work in tandem. Removing the moral system and noting no behavior change implies more about non-moral system (or the alternative compasses) than it does about the removed system.

This is similar to EY's point but I think the distinction between a moral reason to not-murder and a non-moral reason to not-murder is key.

There is [a compass] which feels quite distinctly different, which may actually point to an action that is not immediately intuitively moral but which nevertheless feels most like the right choice. Religious training causes us to recognize this different compass, call it "God", and trust in it.

I referred to this as God-source style morality. This obviously differs drastically from person to person in terms of details (and values; and scope) but my actual point was that you cannot use the idea that someone would not become a murderer after throwing away the God-source morality as evidence against the God-source morality. There are too many other things affecting the behavior of not-murder.

That being said, the opposite is also true. You cannot (necessarily) use the idea that God-source morality systems result in not-murder as evidence for the God-source morality. In other words, the causes behind a particular behavior are complicated. Sifting through them isn't as simple as saying, "We fear becoming murderers if God stops existing; therefore there is an external morality system" which is how I interpreted the article.

That isn't to say there aren't issues or problems with God-source morality. I think the idea that all morality "comes" from God is either misleading or inaccurate. But this delves into the greater discussions around ethics which wasn't what I was intending. My point was to show why I do not consider this statement necessarily true:

The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not. If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.


A religious upbringing could be largely about developing a feel for this nuanced, more reliable compass within ourselves. Without a reason to elevate it, I'm afraid we might never develop a reason to 'trust' it -- especially in cases where it seems contradictory -- and instead we would follow more immediate and pragmatic compasses that aren't really reflecting the full morality we're capable of, and on top of that not have the security of following a compass that has God's approval behind it.

Except most religious upbringings are filled with drastic moral differences. Visiting a friend's house or a different church will shift all of the moral teachings. In my opinion, God-source morality is ridiculously difficult to measure. How do we externally determine who has a developed feel for the nuances and who is off their nut? The best I can tell, the answer is to compare their actions with those in the Bible. (This is assuming Christianity, since we've been talking about God this whole time.) Namely, look at the results of the Fruit of the Spirit.

But at the end of the day, you can fake that. Fakers are the wolves in sheep's clothing but... how do you know? How do you study it and poke it and walk away with an answer? Is it possible to walk up to someone and challenge their actions from moral grounds using rationality?


By the way, hello! I remember you from the last time I posted things here.

Comment author: byrnema 08 July 2011 01:21:44AM *  0 points [-]

I don't understand this comment. Some people do murder. Do these people consider themselves immoral? To be clear, I was only talking about murder because the article did.

You wrote that disbelieving in God is not going to turn someone into a murderer because there are still plenty of good reasons to not be a murderer. And your point was that there is a back-up system while they are rebuilding their morality. But I don't think this back up system is enough or that their morality will necessarily fully recover.


Anyway, I see now your model regarding two separate systems prescribing overlapping behaviors that to some extent would compensate for the other...but I don't see why theu would be afraid of losing one system other than because they are afraid they will lose their morality (and become murderers). What is the other reason for being afraid?

Except most religious upbringings are filled with drastic moral differences.

I agree. I would guess these are exploring the development of moral intuitions in different directions with different emphasis. I guess each religion is the result of the developed moral intuitions of some group of thinkers, if not just one person, and if their versions of the God-source morality ring true to more people that religion will grow. In tiny towns one pastor can influence a bunch of people to buy into their version through charisma, but that religion will outlast them only if their version teaches itself to some extent thereafter without too much alteration.

Comment author: MrHen 08 July 2011 02:48:49AM 0 points [-]

You wrote that disbelieving in God is not going to turn someone into a murderer because there are still plenty of good reasons to not be a murderer.

This was intended to be a counter example -- not a description of how all people work. I can imagine that someone out there would very much become a murderer if they lost religion.

...but I don't see why theu would be afraid of losing one system other than because they are afraid they will lose their morality (and become murderers). What is the other reason for being afraid?

Introspection is scary. Dismantling any large area of your belief system is also scary. I would expect that knocking over one's central morality system would (and should!) have drastic effects that would filter down throughout particular behaviors.

My only point was that pointing at the fear of becoming a murderer (or any other particular thing) does not imply an external moral system which is what I read out of the original post.


I guess each religion is the result of the developed moral intuitions of some group of thinkers, if not just one person, and if their versions of the God-source morality ring true to more people that religion will grow. In tiny towns one pastor can influence a bunch of people to buy into their version through charisma, but that religion will outlast them only if their version teaches itself to some extent thereafter without too much alteration.

The adaptability of a meme is related to truth but people often follow what they think sounds nice. Is there anything that makes religious beliefs immune to the dilemma of advertising or political rhetoric?

A central God-source morality would imply a deeper, er, source. But is it theoretically possible that some other system of morality is at work that is just as (or appears as) common as what a God-source morality provides?

(These are honest questions, but somewhat rhetorical.)

Comment author: Manfred 17 October 2011 12:54:17AM *  3 points [-]

Blank out the recommendations of these two philosophers, and you can see that the first philosopher is using strictly prosocial criteria to justify his recommendations; to him, what validates an argument for selfishness is showing that selfishness benefits everyone. The second philosopher appeals to strictly individual and hedonic criteria; to him, what validates an argument for altruism is showing that altruism benefits him as an individual: higher social status or more intense feelings of pleasure.

The selfish argument for selfishness, or the altruistic argument for altruism, is already known to the audience. Plus, it doesn't sound very clever. And so of course people often go with the new and clever-sounding argument and omit the old and obvious one.

Comment author: smk 24 May 2012 12:22:42AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Mat 04 August 2012 10:08:19AM *  0 points [-]

The fear of losing a moral compass is itself a moral compass

Doesn't this sound like a belief in belief?

I don't want God to be my moral compass, because I don't believe in it and I don't want my good behaviour (and others' behaviour, too) to be built upon a sand castle. But I don't like this foundation of morality, too: it sounds absolute, which makes it incomparable with others'. Also, what about sociopaths who don't have this moral commanding hard wired in their brain? Should them be allowed to kill?

I prefer to give value to human life, just because I acknowledge that it has a great potentiality, and then maximize the utility function. This kind of argument for morality is the safest (at least, among intelligent people: intelligent sociopaths would understand it, dumb ones would not)

Comment author: Yosarian2 31 December 2012 12:48:05AM 2 points [-]

They're probably both actual altruists.

The second guy is just an altruist who doesn't trust that everyone else is altruistic, so he's trying to convince selfish people to be altruistic using selfish logic.

Comment author: blacktrance 11 March 2013 10:06:35PM 0 points [-]

The first philosopher sounds like an egoist trying to convince altruists. The second philosopher sounds like a sophisticated egoist trying to convince vulgar egoists. I have to question the terminology, though - the goal of egoists is to win, so "acting selfishly" is whatever behavior benefits the egoist, even if it requires benefiting others.

Comment author: Houshalter 31 March 2013 03:55:00AM 3 points [-]

To be fair the religious argument does make some sense. Even if the religious person does have a sense of morality that is separate from their own faith, other people might not. They could claim that the fear of hell, or weekly preachings about morality at religious institutions, or religious charities, etc, make many people far more altruistic than they would otherwise be and therefore makes the world better off.

I don't agree with this actually, but it's a very reasonable argument that is separate from the truth of religion or what moral values the person arguing it actually has.