Action Arena #1:
Reality about Human Morality
Comments by Brights Regarding This Issue
These are excerpts from a sampling of emails received, selected from many more to illustrate diversity. Some below represent just a fraction of the individual's full commentary.
Audrey: I favor making a big push in this area. From a personal experience of a discussion with some friends who are fundamentalist in the extreme (American missionaries living and working in Mexico), they truly cannot understand how I can have morals and from where they derive if not from on high, even though they know me and like me and, I'm sure, think me a good person. Surely, there is adequate evidence in the fields of philosophy and psychology to explain how a sense of morality is acquired. We need to refute the connotation of "godless" meaning "evil". We need to separate ethics from religious belief. We need to explain how a person can decide right from wrong without relying on some divinely-given code. We need to emphasize that we are not anarchic or amoral, and certainly not immoral. I think that these friends not only cannot understand the source of my morality, but also cannot fathom that I truly do not care about salvation or going to heaven or some other religious outcome of my behavior. These are meaningless to me. So, what IS my reward for behaving morally or ethically? What IS my conscience? Is my feeling of satisfaction at having acted according to my ethics and moral code enough to motivate me to do the right thing? Is my personal discomfort, my disappointment in myself, enough to prevent me from acting immorally? As a psychologist, I know that my sense of myself, my self-concept (which each person has to formulate and modify throughout life) is the standard for my behavior. I could go on and on about this. ... I guess what I'm saying is, we need a scientific explanation of how an individual's ethical and moral sense develops--the process and the determinants.
Roger: Brights understand that a higher standard of ethics has evolved from universal human values through the Western secular tradition. We need to reclaim ethics from religious misappropriation. ... More than defending ourselves from religious persecution, we can raise the level of the human ethic. Making ethics independent of religion removes religion's greatest appeal.
Keith: Arena 1 is top priority. We cannot make progress in Arenas 2 & 3 until we can argue convincingly that a Naturalistic World View does not erode morality. ... We should also be prepared to explode another common criticism of the Naturalistic World View: "Religious people are spiritual, non-religious people are materialistic." This falsehood has been propagated by many clerics from the Pope down (or up depending on your perspective). If a non-religious person is moved and inspired by human relationships, music, drama, literature, nature etc., as many are, does that make them materialistic? Of course not.
Angela: (S)ociety has bullied its members into believing that in order to be moral, one must carry a religious label and that all others are "heathens". This is the single most devastating factor in preventing otherwise-intelligent people from coming out of the atheist closet - the fear that they will be seen as bad people, incapable of moral behavior, and shunned by society. This MUST stop, and must be made a priority of any organization worthy of support by intelligent, thinking people promoting a naturalistic world view!
Amy: I think this would be a great arena to focus on. Overturning the reigning misconception that people who do not believe in God are less ethical than those who do would go a long way to combating the prejudice that brights face in today's society.
Bess: A depressing number of people think naturalists have no morals, or indeed emotions. A darwinist is presumed to be a social darwinist as well. Having the same conversation with people over and over again gets oppressive, so could we try to send the message together?
Rebekah: My personal experiences show that Arena 1, regarding the misconception that we non-supernaturalistic folk are more likely to be immoral than our counterparts, should be our primary focus. I have lost several "friends" who had "thought [I was] a good person" until they discovered my naturalistic worldview. I am hesitant, now, to announce my beliefs either in public or to new acquaintances, though I do sometimes suck it up and do so anyway…
Unless we address the immorality misconception with style and persistence (Arena 1), freeing our children from institutionalized supernaturalism and freeing ourselves to openly contribute in the civic arena will be impossible.
Tony: I think Arena1 is a perfectly good (and appropriately limited) place to start. As a communications professional, I think there is nothing more important than making your message clear and concise. So, before attempting Arena 3 (though it should be next), Brights should really get a handle on how we want to make the case for a naturalistic worldview -- ("lack of morality" just being the first of many subjects to address).
I'm suggesting putting together a short list of reasons and reasoning for our points of view on various subjects and posting it on the website -- similar to the "Brights Principles"...but as it grows, maybe something akin to "The Skeptic's Dictionary" in its searchability. This way, Brights and others could read-up on the latest and best-articulated arguments for the many distinctly "Bright" points of view. Links to existing well-written essays, commentary, etc. that address these subjects would also be a good idea.
I think this would be a great resource for Brights in spreading a favorable message -- equipping us with clear, concise, and convincing responses to common disparaging or mistaken remarks.
Aldo: (A)ccording to Hume and other philosophers, the feeling of moral approval is a result of the natural tendency to sympathize. Sympathy is a key factor in human nature, especially as human nature affects social life.
The factor of sympathy is a very important things for ethics and people can sympathize with us (brights) if we are known by some evident moral qualities, i.e. always tell the true and keep our promises (Pact sunt servanda) which presupposes that we are honest persons.
Unfortunately a main factor of people religiousness is irrationality and ignorance of the simplest scientific notions. I have read that evolution put religion in the mind of men for the development of the society, but it failed!
Robert: Brights must address this 'morality problem' head on--with zest, and with profundity." Well put. While belief in an infinite afterlife can create a strong incentive to behave in this life, it has just as often been used to excuse the shortcomings in this life. We need look no further than 9/11 to see that this "morality problem" would not be solved by making everyone religious.
Jerald: I believe that the three arenas are valid projects. The false presumption cited in ARENA 1 is probably the most damaging thing that we face. And, if that were addressed well, it is likely that progress in the other two ARENAS would naturally flow from progress in the first.
Will: Hi there, I think that the first of these is perhaps our main agenda - to counter the idea that you don't have to believe in god to be good. It is as you suggest, most likely to be the main reason why people are not willing to be open about a naturalistic world view. I think this is more the case in the US than in the UK (where I am). In the UK it is possible that the issue of representation, of 'faith communities' being consulted without reference to humanists and others, is the more pressing issue.
Kerry: I feel that 1 is a key issue. There appears to be a view amongst those of various faiths that they somehow have a copyright on morality and we, those without a belief in a god, do not. If the Brights can raise awareness on this issue I feel that 2 and 3 would begin to happen as a consequence. I would certainly like to see groups such as ours, involved in discussions where presently in the UK the "key groups" involved on any social or moral issue seem predominantly to be from the various faiths.
David: I think that having an easy explanation of why someone with no supernatural beliefs can have morals and where these morals come from is the most important of the three arenas you've listed. Perhaps this even exists and I just haven't found it yet. I know that I have "morals" and they seem logical to me, but I can't readily come up with an explanation of what they are based on. I can't point to a book and say "here".
Actually, that is a problem in general. A believer can also just pull out a bible and say "this has the answers". I have to go to the library and point to section after section of science texts, and usually they don't want to come along to see them, or bother reading any of them.
The more succinctly I can make my point, the better.
Chuck: Our task is to launch a “Thinking is Fundamental” campaign. To be precise we must launch a “Critical Thinking is Fundamental” campaign...(W)e have been graduating from our schools and colleges young people with no understanding of the science of reason. A curriculum labeled “Critical Thinking” is now being introduced into our educational system... The CT Program is an introduction to the fundamentals of Epistemology and Aristotelian logic...
Brights can aid in the teaching of CT in our schools and colleges by introducing to our adult population the CT meme. The best that can be accomplished in the beginning is to develop an awareness of CT within the adult population. I am not suggesting that we teach CT, only that we make the public aware of the concept... (F)or a period of time we should concentrate primarily on spreading the meme without a lot of concern for significant detail. I would think some catchy slogans and bumper stickers might be the best way to start.
I suspect the average intellectual sophistication of our society can be significantly increased by the wide spread appreciation by our citizens of the fundamentals of CT...(We must) develop future adults with the capacity to reason cogently and critically.
Val: In order to reach our goals we must be listened to, which means we must be seen as people worth listening to, which means we must "prove " or be able to show and explain that we behave like all others, that we have a sense of "morality", that we are simply decent people.
Eva: I feel strongest for arena no 1, but the other two are of course important too. In Sweden we do not have the same problem with the government, but people "in the street" believe as much in astrology and ghosts as scientific data.
Steve: The reality about human morality. I think this is the most important endeavor which should be undertaken. People must understand that morals do not necessitate religion. Brights and Atheists should be considered more moral than others because they are good for the sake of goodness and not simply out of fear of god’s retribution.
Chris: The morality issue is the one I find to be the biggest misunderstanding: people think that the purpose of religion is to make people behave morally and ethically, and that those without religion have no guidance for moral values. We need to make the majority of people see that lack of a religious belief does not in any way lower one's ethical standards! (I.e. we don't need the threat of suffering in the afterlife to coerce us into behaving properly in this world!
Rich: Indeed, you correct identify the Morality Issue as an encumbrance to those with naturalistic worldviews as it is. Always we are on the defensive and it should be the other way around. You have also correctly identified the crux of the matter: presuppositions.
The issue that we are always dealing with when discussing the “morality issue” with super-naturalists has nothing to do with morality by any means. Imagine, someone coming from a worldview which justifies terrorism, beheading, torture and the like as acceptable methods in promulgating their beliefs accusing someone else as unable to be moral because they don’t believe in a particular flavor of Santa Claus. Yet, this is precisely what happens over and over again.
The reason for this is the super-naturalist believes that there is some sort of overarching moral code that governs the universe in the same way that gravity governs the behavior of matter. The existence of this moral code, which almost everyone I have debated has always assented to, is never brought into question in a pointed manner. Adherence to this code can only be accomplished by adherence to the belief that the code has an author and this author is god. In fact, adherence to the code is how believers follow the will of their god. Since a naturalist does not believe in god he would be unable to follow the moral code, so the reasoning goes…
Samantha: It has been my own experience that the belief that atheists (and other brights) are evil and incapable of compassion, fairness, goodness is the biggest reason so many people are afraid to even consider this idea. When I told my family I was an atheist, my mother let out a gasp and said, “No, you can't be!! How could you!" She clearly was under the impression that I had turned bad and was a moral failure!
It will take a long time and a lot of perseverance, but it only makes sense that everyone can learn that your moral center can come from yourself and not from some spirit in the sky.
Bill: (T)here is a shadow side to the Enlightenment successes of the last 300 years and that is the discounting of the Poetic, Mythic side of human understanding. I'm not talking about verse. I'm talking about the way metaphor and fact blended together before the Enlightenment. Now there is a split. Properly so. But there needs to be a restored understanding of the place of metaphor if the split between science and religion is to be healed.
Richard: "If you no longer fear hell, what’s stopping you from running amuck?" This is one of the most insulting questions I have ever been asked. I have however noticed an encouraging sign in the more liberal sectors of popular Religion. Whilst they will never say it from the pulpit, a minority of ministers are impressed by the often superior moral fibre of atheists to God fearing believers. It is rare I stress but it is present.
Becky: I think that all three of your "arenas" are of immense social and cultural import. But before Brights can make their influence felt in the areas of education and the media, there must be a rational statement of what the Bright worldview is. This MUST include a consistent and well-articulated moral vision. Philosophy without morality and ethics is empty solipsistic head-stuff. Our morality shapes not only the quality of our actions, but our choice of actions as well.
To teach the children, to teach the world, we must be sure we know what we ourselves value. This will provide a foundation for the other two arenas. By having a firm and consistent moral context, we can then evaluate and expose the hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and paradoxes inherent in other belief systems, and undermine their claims to moral superiority at their roots. Thanks for the opportunity to speak.
Brad: A difficult choice, but societal acknowledgment that Brights can be moral people needs to be achieved before reasonable success can be expected in unencumbering youngsters from supernaturalism and getting traction in media circles.