June 12th, 2009
So I have been talking with a friend of Husband’s, from back in his uber-religious days. And something quite interesting has come out our discussion. She tells me she figures atheists just want to get away with doing anything they want, that our real problem is we don’t want to submit to the authority of God. All the arguments and whatnot are just so much window dressing.
This blew my mind. I haven’t heard this before but Husband tells me it was quite common in his community of Christians back in the day. To be honest it’s just never a thought that has ever crossed my mind. For one thing it implies an ongoing belief of God (behaving as a good Christian curbs my good time, so I’m going to reject the restrictions); when I say I don’t believe in God, I really, truly do not – and if there is no belief, it is meaningless to say there is rebellion against the figurehead.
But I certainly don’t just do anything I like, and I never considered atheism as a state which permits that when other states do not. So I really am not sure what to say to her about this. To my mind it’s just self evident that you don’t need Christianity to be a moral person – the mere existence of someone like me proves it, but so do the cultures world wide which have not been Christian yet embrace the usual moral precepts.
Which begs the question, what is morality?
Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.
-Jonathan Haidt, psychologist, morality researcher
The specifics vary with culture and time, but there are five general categories (“virtues”) of moral emotion/thought that all humans are heir to, according to Haidt:
1. Fairness/reciprocity. Anyone who studied first year psychology learned about this when they studied Kohlberg, who thought all morality came from these principles. And they are ubiquitious – but they aren’t the whole story.
2. Harm/care. Carol Gilligan famously challenged Kohlberg with these additional moral principles. Her error was attributing them to women, saying this is the basis of a distinctly women’s morality. Actually they are an intrinsic element of all people’s moral sense. Even men.
5. Purity/sanctity. Disgust regularly trumps other feelings on tests of moral reasoning. We see this element in restrictions on hand washing, eating, sex (and menstruation), and so on. When someone says, “Sacrilege!” this is the moral sense which has been offended.
Virtues are socially constructed and socially learned, but these processes are highly prepared and constrained by the evolved mind. We call these three additional foundations [3, 4 & 5] the binding foundations, because the virtues, practices, and institutions they generate function to bind people together into hierarchically organized interdependent social groups that try to regulate the daily lives and personal habits of their members. We contrast these to the two individualizing foundations (harm/care and fairness/reciprocity), which generate virtues and practices that protect individuals from each other and allow them to live in harmony as autonomous agents who can focus on their own goals.
People who self identify as liberals endorse the first two virtues, whereas people who self identify as conservative (which has huge overlap with religiousity) endorse all five. Conservatism, in this light, hits more of our moral senses.
In my experience many atheists fall into the “liberal” camp insofar as they consider justice and harm primary considerations for moral thought and behaviour. Yet what the conservatives, and religious, have on their side is a conception of morality that is broader than mere “right and wrong,” extending also into “community maintenance and building.”
Haidt levels the following criticism of the new atheists, whom he says mount straw man attacks against religion:
a) The new atheists treat religions as sets of beliefs about the world, many of which are demonstrably false. Yet anthropologists and sociologists who study religion stress the role of ritual and community much more than of factual beliefs about the creation of the world or life after death.
b) The new atheists assume that believers, particularly fundamentalists, take their sacred texts literally. Yet ethnographies of fundamentalist communities (such as James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh) show that even when people claim to be biblical literalists, they are in fact quite flexible, drawing on the bible selectively—or ignoring it—to justify humane and often quite modern responses to complex social situations.
This is something I have written about here before. The arguments against religion are not irrelevant, but they’re only a part of the story. Husband’s friend who feels in her gut that my atheism is little more than a bid to sidestep responsibility to moral behaviour is expressing something that we can predict from this model of morality. It’s why the contradictory, nonsensical and unbelievable content of the Bible is really not very important to Christians. There is something bigger going on, and it is hitting all the moral receptors, and that makes it tremendously urgent and tremendously powerful. We’re talking about the underpinning of what makes society possible for humans – moral behaviour as so much more than just what is fair and what avoids suffering. The Bible, in this sense, is carrying a lot more baggage than at first glance it seems to.
I find this interesting because it gives a window into why religion is so important to people. I don’t believe religion is necessary for the stable functioning of good societies, but the fact that stable, good societies are necessary goes some way to explaining the importance of religion, which satisfies all those related moral senses.