Morality without God:The case against religion

A few days ago, popular conservative/classical liberal commentator and talk show host Dave Rubin tweeted a thread outlining his reason for why our society is collapsing. There is, of course, an argument to be had about whether our society is collapsing at all. As Steven Pinker argues in Enlightenment Now, our society seems to be heading towards a generally progressive direction. However, for the sake of argument, lets assume that Rubin is referring to the worst of our society. In the thread, he specifically refers to “wokeism” and claims that secular liberals have no defense against our collapsing society. Rubin here is basically echoing the rhetoric of his mentors i.e. Jordan Peterson,Ben Shapiro&Dennis Prager. What all these individuals share is a belief 1) that society will crumble without a religious substructure 2) Objective morality is preferable and is not possible without invoking God and 3) “Judeo-Christian” values are superior and form the bedrock of western civilization.

I intend to deal with all three of these arguments but first we must define what morality is.

Defining Morality

Further, moral systems can be defined as “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible”(Haidt). When the likes of Peterson claim that western society is founded on “Judeo-Christian” values,they’re saying that the moral system that western society adheres to is “Judeo-Christian” in nature.

Judeo-Christian Values

The idea that the entire western civilization is founded on a Christian god of morality is a relatively recent fabrication. Yet, it is a principle widely adhered to by many orthodox Christians as well as conservatives. The conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, for instance, claims that “the values that resonate most with human are eternal. They are universal.” According to Shapiro, these values are embedded in the Ten Commandments. The same beliefs are echoed by other conservatives like Dennis Prager and Steven Crowder. Jordan Peterson, the most influential public intellectual in the Western world according to NYT, claims that in “order to make a rational argument,one must start with an initial proposition and the proposition that underlies western culture is a transcendent morality”.

In the 2016 election, Christian nationalism was “the only significant religious predictor of voting for Trump”. The idea that western world in general and America in particular was founded on Judeo-Christian values is a standard conservative belief. It has been re-iterated by the likes of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum etc. etc.

While the term itself is not vague,the arguments underlying it are not only notoriously difficult to define but also equally difficult to find. There are,of course,many arguments for the belief that objective morality is not possible without God/religion(we’ll deal with this later in the article). This is not the same as the statement that Judeo-Christian values are the foundation of Western civilization. This proposition is taken as an axiom.

The phrase in question was initially used as a descriptive term to refer to Jewish converts to Christianity. It was only in 1940s-50s that the term gained traction as a shared value system between Judaism and Christianity. This belief seems to havemade its way,at least partially, to some US local courts. For instance, former Judge James Taylor displayed the ten commandments in his courtroom. He believed that the religious faith of America’s founding fathers considerably influenced the creation of Constitution and the institutions of government.

This claim is not just absurd but extremely easy to falsify. The only times US Constitution mentions religion is to separate religion from the state. The first law to be passed in the United States was “An Act to regulate the time and manner of administering certain oaths”. The initial proposal contained two clauses mentioning God(“in the presence of Almighty God”&”So help me God”). Both were seen as anti-thetical to the principle of separation of church and state and were thus excluded for good. In 1862, at the height of the civil War, both sides claimed that God was on their side. Both sides quoted the Bible. The confederates quoted it to justify slavery while the abolitionist quoted it in support of their opposition to slavery. However, it was only the confederate States of America which officially included the mention of God. The Preamble of the confederates were the same as the the preamble of the United States with one major difference. The confederates included the line- invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God”.

It was in this background that Mark Watkinson, a pastor, wrote a letter to Salmon P. Chase(the then US Secretary of Treasury). Watkinson claimed that the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins” has been “seriously overlooked”. He warned that future generations would judge America as a “heathen nation” based on the heathen emblem of “Goddess of Liberty” which then featured prominently in American currency. Watkinson was certain that “no possible citizen would object to this”. Further, it will relieve the Union from “ignominy of heathenism”. Chase recommended the same to the director of Mint James Pollock(who happened to be a strong Christian). Pollock considered America to be a “Christian Nation” and so had no problem with the suggestion. This is how the phrase “In God We Trust” came to be inscribed on American currency. The Founding fathers themselves decreed coins which were “emblematic of liberty”(Hamilton’s suggestion). One of the coins had “Liberty:Parent of Science and Industry” inscribed in it. As the US constitutional lawyer Andrew Seidel writes in his magnificent book “The Founding Myth”, “The three fearmongers of the 1860s(Pollock,Chase&Watkinson) sought to undo the work of these great men. The original idea expresses(E pluribus Unum)the belief that people or states with differences can come together to form a great country. The religious myth expresses an inherently divisive religious belief and applies to only a portion of the population”

the founding fathers of USA

As far as the religion of the founder fathers is concerned, it is true that many of them were indeed Christian. Some, however, stood out for their opposition to orthodox Christian. All of them agreed on one principle:- the strict separation of the church and state. George Washington, for instance, advocated “the absence of any regulation respecting religion from the Magna-Charta of our country”. James Madison wrote “The experience of the U.S. is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting Usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious & civil polity, neither could be supported.” Thomas Jefferson considered himself to be an “epicurean”. The Epicurean conception of God is much closer to deism than it is to Judaism or Christianity. Epicurus thought Gods were made up of atoms. They were supreme beings who did not concern themselves with human affairs. Instead, they simply idled away in a higher sphere. Jefferson created his own Bible by removing almost all mention of the supernatural in the New Testament. Thomas Paine was more vocal in his opposition to Christianity and organized religion. He claimed that “more than half” the Bible was full of “obscene stories,voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions and unrelenting vindictiveness”. He claimed it’d be more consistent to refer to the good book as the “word of demon” than the word of God. Even if the founding fathers were all devout evangelical Christians, this would not make the United States a “christian nation”. It is clear from the many documents that we have that they wanted a strict separation of the church and state.

Instead of looking at what the founding fathers thought about religion, shouldn’t we look at the morals/rules that the Bible prescribes? The claim is not merely that America was founded on “Judeo-Christian” values but that western civilization as a whole was founded on those values. As I have mentioned above, the likes of Shapiro think it is these values which are eternal.

Are the ten commandements,which are considered to be fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity, the backbone of western civilization? Are these ideas reflected in the law of the land? We need to keep in mind that there are different sets of the so-called ten commandments in the Bible. However, the ones shown in Cecil DeMille’s cinematic masterpiece remain the most popular, for cultural not theological reasons. The first few commandments are affirmations of monotheism(historically monolatrism but popularly monotheism,See Wright, Robert. 2009). God prohibits the Israelites to worship other Gods, make “graven images/idols”, take the Lord’s name in vain and keep the sabbath holy. These first four commandments are clearly opposed to the values and principles followed by most secular democracies. In fact, Pope Leo XIII used these commandments to proclaim that it is “unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, or writing, or of worship, as if these were so many rights given by nature to man”

These commandments aren’t as simple as they might seem from a first look. If one reads the commandment in their entirety,a more horrifying image emerges(considering the fact that they are already horrifyingly absurd). The fourth commandment recognizes slavery and also differentiates implicitly between Israelites and “foreigners/alien residents”(as we shall see, God seems to be a tribalist)- “You must not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or donkey, any of your livestock, or the foreigner who lives within your gates, so that your male and female slaves may rest as you do.”

In case this does not appear as an explicit endorsement of slavery, consider the verse below:-

“As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness”. — Leviticus 25:44–46

This verse not only endorses debt-slavery but hereditary slavery. Precisely the kind of Slavery which was prevalent during the civil war. This point is re-iterated in Exodus 21:4, which states that children of slaves are born into slavery. The Bible even endorses the beating of slaves, only emphasizing on regulation but not abolition. For instance, Exodus 21:20–21 states that the master is to be punished if a beaten slave dies but not if the beaten slave survives a “day or two” for “the slave is the owner’s property”. The New testatement also endorses slavery( here and here). Jesus himself references slaves in his parables without a hint of condemnation,even going so far as to recommend beating. Ben Shapiro claims that this is a “simplistic reading”. The Bible, according to Shapiro, was written in a way so that it’ll be easier for the people to understand. Since slavery is a “human universal”, God narrated the rules in a way in which people will be easily convinced. Thus, slavery was meant to exist only for a certain period. The problem with this argument is that it has no scriptural support. Nowhere in the scripture does it say or even imply that God wanted slavery to exist just for a while. Moreover, this argument goes against the idea of an “objective morality”. Abolition of slavery came not due to Christianity, but despite it. Many non-”Judeo-Christian” cultures,like the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese, had abolished slavery completely or partially even before Christianity was instituted as a religion. The idea that humans were incapable of comprehending the immorality of reducing another member of their own species to mere property is falsified by the fact texts arguing against slavery existed around the same time and even in the same places where Christianity/Judaism emerged(Read this and this). One can also cite examples of Biblical sexism(here, here , here, here, here,here,here and here ) and homophobia to prove that the Bible is not a good moral guide. In fact, if you or I had the opportunity to write the Bible, it’ll be infinitely more moral than it is now(presuming that you dont support slavery or sexism). The same problem arises with most other religions. I’m not discussing them here because the point remains the same(and this piece is already long enough).

When Jordan Peterson discusses “Judeo-Christian” values,he’s not referring solely or primarily to the Bible. His argument and definition is very different from the definition that most of us are aware of. He has accused Sam Harris of not dealing with the “heavy hitters”. Who are these “heavy hitters”? Dostoyevsky, Jung, Eliade but most importantly Nietzsche. Which brings us to…..

Nietzsche’s Christianity

Nietzsche

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that suffering was an integral part of human existence. In this, he was no different from Arthur Schopenhauer, who proclaimed that “suffering” can be legitimately seen as “the direct and immediate object of life”. For Schopenhauer, suffering was the general norm. Nietzsche disagreed only slightly. Suffering was simply a symptom for him. The problem was “the senselessness of suffering” which “lay spread over humanity”. Religion or the “ascetic ideal” as Nietzsche referred to it answers this question. Religion provides a meaning to our suffering. Once the senselessness of suffering is answered, we actively “seek out” suffering. The Islamic terrorist is willing to die for the “ascetic ideal”. But so does the political radical. It was this “ascetic ideal” which closed “the door to all suicidal nihilism”.

For Nietzsche, Christianity’s essense was not in the ideas of salvation, resurrection, heaven, hell, trinity, miracles, existence of a supernatural diety etc. The essence was its adherence to dogma itself. It was this “will for truth” which laid the foundation of the religion. This “will for truth” can be generally understood as the belief that there exists one ultimate objective truth. According to Nietzsche, atheism is not the opposite of the “ascetic/Christian” idea but its most “severe” and “clever” formulation, one which keeps the “kernel” and “strips its outwork”. “Unqualified honest atheism” is the final phase of the evolution of the ascetic ideal. Christianity turned against itself. It was this adherence to the truth, the “Christian morality” which leads a Christian to atheism. Just like Feuerbach used Hegel’s method against himself, Nietzsche used Christianity(or his definition of it) against itself. Nietzsche writes“unqualified will for truth is the faith in the ascetic ideal itself”. Even Science cannot exist without a hypothesis/philosophy. An example of this philosophy today would be Karl Popper’s idea of empirical falsification.

Another value which Nietzsche credits Christianity with is the value of compassion. He thought Christianity was a religion of pity, valorizing the weak, the poor over the strong.In this sense, the communists, socialists and enlightenment thinkers were actually putting forth a version of radical Christianity. This assertion would obviously be too far for conservatives to take. Jordan Peterson, for instance, claims that it is impossible for a Christian to be “Marxist”. It might also interest fans of Peterson to know that one of the “heavy hitters” arguing for religion that Peterson cites happened to believe that anarchism was inherent to Christianity(Leo Tolstoy,who is also one of my idols). On the other hand, Nietzsche also despised the Christian idea of “sin” and the fact that perfection, the “highest good” is unattainable. The Christian, according to him, hated “intellect, pride, freedom, courage and joy”. The Christian also hated himself and others, particularly the unbelievers. Thus, there is a “will to persecute” in Christianity. He contrasted Christianity with Buddhism. He saw Buddhism as the “only positive religion” which is “hundred times as realistic as Christianity”. Buddhism is “objective” and “yields to reality”. In this sense, Nietzsche is actually much closer to Sam Harris than he is to Jordan Peterson. Nietzsche was a staunch but nuanced critic of Christianity.

He denounced the “idea of equality” as an insane Christian idea,which manifests itself in the political form as socialism and utilitarianism. Nietzsche distinguished between “noble morality” and “slave morality”. For the purpose of this article, I’ll simplify the terms. Noble morality is essentially the kind of morality which asserts the superiority of certain “excellent” individuals. There is an implicit agreement in society about the superiority of some. Nietzsche actually cites the Indian caste system as an example of this. In fact he prefers this kind of morality over slave morality, which according to Nietzsche, emerged as a revolt by the oppressed and demands equality of all. Nietzsche was an anti-egalitarian. He supported slavery and believed that all morality is mere interpretation(though he clearly preferred one over the other). His scepticism of truth is partly why almost all postmodernists are influenced by him. Its also why Christians admire him. The likes of Peterson claim that without the metaphysical substructure, society would break down. This is what Nietzsche meant by the “death of God”. “The death of God” was an event worth mourning. With it, humanity lost its moral foundation which would naturally give way to nihilism. Since almost nobody considers Nietzsche’s version of morality or his idea of the “eternal return” to be a practical solution, it follows naturally that “Judeo-Christian” values are the best solution at hand.

But are they? Peterson defines “religious” as “what you act out”. Everything that a human acts out is predicated on implicit axioms, says Peterson, and since everybody has certain axioms everyone is religious even if they claim not to be. The first problem with both Nietzsche and Peterson’s definition is that of redifinition. There is a colloquilly understood definition of “religious/Christian” which everybody agrees on. What Peterson does is redefine the term in such a way that everyone qualifies for being “religious”. This is mere word-play. Let me illustrate this with an example:- say,I redefine “atheist”as anyone who doesn’t believe in the existence of Zeus. Under my definition, the overwhelming majority of world’s populations would be “atheist”. It’d quite simply be absurd for me to do so. There’s a reason specific definitions exist. It is ironic that Peterson has accused the “radical leftists/postmodernists” of redifining specific definitions when he himself is guilty of the same.

Scientific skepticism or the belief in an objective truth is neither a “religious” value nor a “Judeo-Christian” value. Louis Liebenberg has observed the scientific method among the hunter gatherers of the indigenous San people. The San people engage in inference i.e. they track animals through their spoor,determining age,sex and “direction of flight” as well as deduction and reasoning. The arguments from authority is not accepted. Majority opinions are allowed to be challanged and if the group is convinced by “evidence”, it is accepted. This helps in increasing their chances of “accuracy”(Pinker, 2018). It seems like Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on “truth”. The idea of dogma,objective truth as well as the earlier manifestation of the scientific method can be found in many cultures. Empiricism,reasoning and skepticism, for instance, are elaborated/appear in many ancient Indian texts long before the enlightenment. These traditions even inferred the non-existence of God and asserted the truth of only that which can be verified through perception and experiment.

Some have argued that it is due to the “Judeo-Christian” value of the the protestant work-ethic that capitalism and individuality emerged. It is true that protestant-work ethic is a real phenomenon. However, it emerged despite the scripture not because of it. It used the same narratives/heroes to tell a different story with fundamentally different values. The idea of predestination and the belief in work as sacred is in no way unique to protestanism. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna asks Arjuna to “perform his prescribed task” since it is only by “work” that “ancient saints reached blessedness”. Arjuna is advised to perform work regardless of the outcome(Make thine acts thy pity). This is an integral idea in Hinduism.Yet, capitalism did not develop in India. As Weber points out in his work, it is not just protestant work-ethic which led to the growth of capitalism. It is protestant work ethic along with a variety of other factors(systemized government,for instance) which led to the growth of capitalism. A multivariate analysis would reveal as much.

The evolutionary origins of morality

A young Frans De Waal

The primatologist Frans de Waal has conducted lots of research on altruism in chimpanzees and apes. In one of these experiments, chimpanzees were given two “tokens” of different colors. Choosing the “selfish” token will ensure only they get food while the Chimpanzee next to them(locked in a different cage) doesn’t. Choosing the “prosocial” token will ensure that both the chimpanzees get food. Chimpanzees overwhelmingly prefer the pro-social token. However, when the other chimpanzee tries to force them to choose the “pro-social” token through display of aggression/threat,the choices actually go down. In another experiment done with monkeys, de Waal checked monkey’s reaction to unequal prize. Two monkeys are supposed to pass on a rock in order to get food. There are two different kind of food on the table:- Cucumber and Grapes. Grapes, in monkey land, is a superior food. One of the monkeys gets grapes when s/he passes on the stone while the other gets Cucumber. When the monkey observes this, she/he throws away the Cucumber and starts rattling the cage and banging the table(see this clip). It seems like monkeys too want equal pay/fairness. Other animals, like Elephants, have elaborated mourning rituals when a member of their own species dies.

Paul Bloom’s research on babies and infants has shown that a lot of human morality is innate i.e. we are born with a sense of right and wrong. Religion evolved partly as a control mechanism and partly as an avenue for exchange of goods and services which cannot be attained through secular means. This includes good weather and reincarnation/immortality. This is known as the rational choice theory of religion. Religion is one of the earliest social institutions developed by human beings. As such, it is also the worst. It is interesting to note that religion developed only in tribes which were too large to control. The anthropologist Jared Diamond has pointed out that in New Guinea God is never invoked to justify how a human being should behave towards another. Religion as a social institution served as a way to unite members of in-group against the out-group. Despite adherents of almost all religions claiming their religion to be universal, almost all religion is in fact tribalistic. In Deutronomy 20:10–18, for instance, God asks the Isralites to “lay siege” to a city and “put to sword all the men in it” while the women,children and property should be taken as “plunder”. “Do not live alive anything that breathes” commands the “universal” God. The “in-group/outgroup” distinction is inherent to all human beings. The Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin asked to over a 1000 school students(aged 8–14) about their opinion of the biblical story of Joshua’s destruction of the city of Jericho. According to the biblical narrative, God saw it righteous of Joshua to burn the entire city and kill all its inhabitants. The students were asked whether they thought it was right of Joshua to do so. An overwhelming majority replied in the affirmative. However, when the story was changed to that of a Chinese General Lin who destroyed and killed the inhabitants of a city based on a command from the “war God”,the majority expressed their disapproval. Religion seems to strengthen tribalism and force us to care less about the well being of people who are not members of our “in-group”.

Objective morality

God can tell us what is right and wrong. This, in fact, can in theory be objectively true if we have specific definitions of right and wrong/good and evil. This will lead us to the Euthyphro dillema. Is good “good” because God commands it or does God command it because it is “good”? In the former case, it merely becomes an argument from authority. In the latter,it makes God redundant since “good” can exist independently of God. The irreligious person does not face this dillemma for she can choose to believe in a subjective or objective morality.

Even if we accept that God defines right and wrong objectively,we’re still left with a dillema. Remember the definition of morality? Morality is not simply the distinction between good and evil,it is also the idea that we should do whats good and not whats bad. Why should we do whats good? Because God asks us to? Why should we do that which God asks us to do?{infinite regress} “Commands/orders” cant by definition be facts. If I say “you should read this article”, I’m not making a factual statement. If your boss asks you to “do the job”, she/he is not making a factual statement. They’re giving you orders/commands(close the door, eat the carrots,do your homework etc.) Similarly when God asks us to do what’s God, he is giving us “orders”. He’s not making a factual statement. The religious person can claim that we need to do whats good in order to go to heaven. Fine but then you’d be making a consequentialist argument,not an argument for “objective morality”.

The statement-“society will crumble without a religious substructure” is a consequentialist argument. In essence the claim is that without religion, the world will be chaotic and everything will be permitted. This is a falsifiable claim. Out of the top 10 ranked countries in the Human Development Index, the majority in 8 countries consider religion to be unimportant(In Norway 78% consider religion to be unimportant, Switzerland-57%, Hong Kong-74%,Germany-59%,Sweden-85%, Australia-68%,Netherlands-67% and Denmark-81%) Religiousity is highest in poorest countries i.e. Bangladesh,Somalia,Oman,Ethiopia,Niger etc. One can find the same pattern when it comes to World Happiness Report. If this proves anything then it proves that there is a negative correlation between development,happiness and religion. We expand our moral circle(to use Peter Singer’s term) despite religion not because of it. Moreover there are many secular alternatives to morality which are infinitely better than the regressive commands of a bronze age deity(Kant’s categorical imperative, Dancy’s moral particularism, social contract, effective altruism, secular humanism etc.).

If our intention is to progress, to diminish animosity towards fellow members of our species, to increase the well being of our society and to fight tribalism and bigotry, then we must cast bronze age superstition aside. We must grow the hell up!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store