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Sunday, May 20, 2017

If there is no God, is everything permitted?

The eternal wisdom of Meat Loaf.

T he great philosopher Meat Loaf said:

Everything is permitted, everything is allowed
And all our gods we have outwitted, we are running with the crowd.

Of course, Dostoevsky said it before that. I always get those two guys mixed up.

So, is everything permitted? Atheist Michael Shermer over at skeptic.com (blog link here) uses the question to rehash some familiar arguments against religion. I paraphrase his argument here:

  1. Divine command theory is fallible. If murder is really wrong, it doesn't matter what God thinks, or if there's a God or not, it's still wrong.
  2. It's an either-or fallacy. We have to choose between a God-based absolute morality and a godless relative morality where right and wrong are just opinions.
  3. The religious source of morality is unreliable. Different religions say different stuff.
  4. The belief in absolute morality leads to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently is immoral and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations.
Sistine Chapel – God handing forms to Adam
God handing lists of rules to Adam (Artist's conception).

What the religious guys are really saying is that we get our concept of right and wrong from something outside ourselves, maybe even outside the universe. This ‘something’ imbued the universe, in some ill-defined way, with the concept of right and wrong, in much the same way as with causality and mathematical truth. Therefore, we couldn't just define our own morality based on our personal opinions, even if we wanted to. The universe itself has what you might call a moral magnetic field, and we humans possess a moral compass that responds to that.

That may or may not be literally true, but I will argue that it's one of those things that acts as if it were true.

Shermer summarizes the argument made by Plato like this:

Is what is morally right or wrong commanded by God because it is inherently right or wrong, or is it morally right or wrong only because it is commanded by God? For example, if murder is wrong because God said it is wrong, what if He said it was okay? Would that make murder right?

Plato's question is irrelevant here. It's a gross oversimp­lification to call it a dictum, a rule we must follow because someone in authority said so. It was baked into the universe, religious people say, and therefore came from the Creator. We can't escape it.

Population geneticists tell us that morality and conscience have their origins in natural selection. We also see how values change according to our politics. But this doesn't invalidate the possibility that, however we acquire them, right and wrong could be as much a part of the structure of the universe as mathematics. We can ignore mathematics too, but doing so is neither expedient nor edifying.

When we say right and wrong are mere social conventions, we really are asserting that, in some particular society, people could think murder is okay. Of course, they wouldn't call it murder. They would always say they're doing something beneficial: cleansing society, or eliminating parasitical beings. For psychological reasons we must dehumanize what we are about to kill. It doesn't change the fact that it harms social cohesion, perhaps ultimately destroying society. When that happens, the citizens become people with no past and no future. It would be indistinguishable from punishment. And, in a real sense, it would be.

There's some evidence that this is how the ancient Israelites saw it. When a warrior returned from having killed someone in battle, he was required to remain apart from the tribe for a period of time, in order to avoid contaminating the tribe's collective soul. Who can say that the laws derived for tribal societies don't apply to modern ones? Losing respect for life is slow poison to a society. Maybe it explains the slow-motion loss of the European will to live. And maybe it explains some of our problems here.

Now, of course I cannot speak for religious people, but it seems to me that what they call God, we would call natural laws, just as we speak of Newtonian laws of gravity.

I'm putting a lot of words into believers' mouths. But if you're going to slam religion, you need to slam it not for what the Bible says or what believers think it says, but for its basic concepts. Fundamentalists talk about God as if he is a conscious being. In my view, it's only a metaphor.

What if looking for evidence of the existence of God makes no more sense than looking for evidence for the existence of 1+1=2? It is an abstraction, useful as a rule, but cannot be proved (not that Bertrand Russell didn't try), yet it works as if some omnipotent being were making it happen. The early Gnostics tried to go down this road, and Christianity would have been better for it if they had succeeded.

At the very least, we wouldn't be hearing all these corny arguments about why God does or does not exist because of what some fundamentalist did or didn't say.

Created may 21, 2017; last edited may 21, 2017, 6:33 am

See also

Atheism, ducks and Bananas
Atheists and religious people both need to work on their sense of humor.

Hell and Damnation
We should interpret religious concepts as hard-earned wisdom about what civilizations need to survive.

Particle Religion
Religious metaphors in science are a sign that our beliefs are changing.

Forging the universe
Why is there something instead of nothing? Science, religion, and philosophy have different ideas.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
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