Stupid Theist Tricks: Claiming Ownership of Morality
How many times have we heard theists claim that atheists can't say what is good or bad because they deny the existence of objective morality? How many times have we heard them claim that atheists have no morality at all, or that there can be no morality without God? Anyone who makes such claims does not understand human nature. They deny that human behavior is truly human, and attribute it instead to God. They think that if God didn't give us morality, we would all be savage beasts, unable to distinguish right from wrong. Many think that atheism necessarily entails moral nihilism. They are wrong.
What is our human nature?
With or without God, we all share a basic sense of morality. We are averse to killing or hurting others. This is true for theists and atheists alike. Where does this morality come from, if not from God? It is a product of our evolutionary history. We certainly don't need to appeal to any supernatural force to explain it. Science gives us a much better way of understanding our morality.
Many theists don't understand how evolution could bring about anything other than self-interest. "Survival of the fittest cannot account for altruism", they proclaim. But they are wrong, because they don't understand evolution. It's not about survival of the fittest. It's about success in replicating the genome, which can be achieved in many different ways, including mutual cooperation. A paper called The Evolution of Morality, by Douglas Allchin, describes some of the evolved behavioral attributes that form the basis of human morality. These behaviors are not unique to humans, either.
But human morality is more refined and complex than that of any animal. Beyond our inherent basic sense of morality, there are many learned and societal influences on our behavior that we also see as part of our moral makeup. These societal influences are not part of our genetic heritage, but they have strong impact on our behavioral norms. Whereas genetic-based morality is common to all of us and remains fairly constant, societal-based morality changes with time and place, and it can be beneficial or detrimental with respect to survival.
In any case, the theistic view of morality is certainly not needed to explain human behavior. Our morality is fully explained by natural means. There is no need to invoke religion (except as a societal influence), or God, or any other supernatural forces as a source of morality. Sorry theists, but morality doesn't belong to you.
What are moral values?
If morality is part of nature, then how can we have moral values? Strictly speaking, I think there are no objective moral values. Certainly, nature doesn't have any. Yet we feel that there are real moral values. Remember that our sense of morality stems from more than one source. The genetic-based morality that we all share gives us a rule of thumb to guide behavior that may best be summed up as the golden rule. Aside from that, there are societal influences and norms of behavior that can be much more specific in requiring or proscribing certain behaviors.
The golden rule is ubiquitous among humans because it is built into our genetic makeup. It provides general guidance for many aspects of our behavior, but since it is non-specific, it isn't a source of specific objective moral rules or values in many of life's situations that require us to decide the best course of action. In those cases, we make an intuitive decision about what to do. Now, this is where many theists will step in and insist that our moral intuition comes from God. The problem with that theory is that moral intuition is not uniform. Different people will make different moral decisions. How could that be, if God were dictating our moral values? No, those intuitive decisions are driven by our personal experiences and knowledge, under the general guidance of our genetic morality. We do have moral values, but they are very much subjective, rather than objective, when it comes to specific moral situations.
On the other hand, societal-based morality can be very specific. There are moral rules and laws that are written down for all to see. Those can legitimately be called objective moral values. But they are only objective within the context of a particular society, or segment of society. Same-sex marriage provides a good example. Religious beliefs of some people teach that it is immoral, and to them, it is a clear-cut, objective rule of morality, not subject to dispute. But others see nothing wrong with it, since it is a fulfillment of love that causes no harm. Who is right?
Is it true that there are objective moral values that are independent of time, place, and society? Certain moral rules, such as don't kill and don't steal, that are based on our genetic morality, may qualify as genuine objective moral values. But as I said, those are general, and don't provide specific guidance in many real moral situations. All the rest is either subjective, or it changes along with society, and so it can't be called real objective morality. We may see many of these values as being objective and permanent, but that is just because of our conditioning within our present society. The hard moral rules of today may be seen as absurd some time in the future. No matter how much we may insist that a particular moral value is objectively valid for all times and places, there may be a time and a place where the society doesn't agree.
And if morality really came from God, none of this would be a problem.