First, we need to establish what morals and morality are.
A doctrine or principle of moral principles or conduct.
Pertains to character and behavior from the point of view of right and wrong. Good and virtuous in behavior and character. Concerned with the principle of right and wrong, ethical, and capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. To have a conscience which is often confused with conscious.
What makes humans unique is our ability to behave in a society in such a way that benefits the society in which we are living. We are social animals just like ants. Our behavior is based upon our societies and our societies are based upon our behavior. Our behavior can be altered and controlled based upon the needs of our societies (Nazi Germany is a good example).
We have a conscience that tells us right from wrong. We know right from wrong based on the needs of our society and, more importantly, from our experiences when we perceive wrongs committed against us. For example, if you feel sad when someone steals from you, then you associate that feeling with that action and do not commit that action yourself against others.
Why is it wrong to steal? Stealing is not beneficial to the overall society. If everyone ran around stealing all the time then you would not hold onto stuff very long. What you stole would only turn around and be stolen by someone else. You would have chaos and the society would crumble.
Killing someone only creates enemies out of the loved ones and allies of the person you killed. That is not very beneficial in the end is it? Alliances and friendships are important in societies.
Unfortunately this societal based morality can be (and has been) perceived as immoral when societies clash. For example, the Germans thought they were doing what was morally right as dictated by their society. Other societies thought their actions were immoral.
To understand humanity and the morality thereof you need to understand the cycles of societal behavior and the establishment thereof. For example, I can answer a question as an individual, as a member of the human race (society of humanity), or as a member of the many societies and sub-societies that we form. Examples of these societies are:
- Our immediate familial society includes our spouses and children.
- Our extended familial society includes our blood and marital relatives.
- Our neighborhood society includes the surrounding homes on our street.
- Our cultural society includes societies based on our religions, our gender, our sexual orientation, our activities and hobbies, and even our careers.
- Our village, town, and city societies orientate themselves around the places we call home.
- Our state society brings the villages, towns, and cities under a common flag, if you will.
- Our country society brings the states under a common flag.
- Our world society brings all countries and creeds together, for a common good or to fight amongst each other – united in humanity.
Each of us plays a different role in each of these societies. Within each major category of society are sub-societies that we participate in both directly and indirectly. As a member of each society we are required to justify ourselves to said societies. Take away the society and the need for justification (or morality – which is a higher form of justification) goes away.
Where does the “you can’t have morality without religion” come from?
The biggest proponent of religious based morality is the Fundamentalist. This group of theists composes less than twenty percent of the world’s population and is unmistakably the most vocal group of all.
We have already discussed the psychological needs of theism and gods. These psychological needs and the religious answers we generate to quench those needs mandate that our societies become spiritual and religious in nature.
Throughout history, our religious beliefs have based laws and rules. Leadership dictates morality by Divine Right of Law. God is said to grant sovereignty to the leader and the leader rules under the premise that god granted him or her power to dictate morality. This system worked until the Feudal Systems died out at the realization that state-mandated morality through god oppressed the people. Other governments and countries tried different variations of this theme and some hid the mandated morality behind other forms of government that appeared in essence to help the people.
The founding fathers of the United States realized this and wrote a Constitution that ensured the government could never mandate morality or religion through a singular group. Mandating religion through laws based on our personal religious beliefs is not the same thing, by the way. There are still countries where Divine Right of Law exists, though, even today.
What came first? Did societies form before organized religion? Of course, societies formed first. Why would there be a need for god authorities if there were no one that needed a god authority? Societies formed and established a societal code of morality based on their personal experiences. As religion developed, the morality incorporated into the religion and the religion swallowed up morality. To this day, many insist that there cannot be morality without religion.
Does that mean that without religion there can be no morality? We know that some of our laws are “based” on the religious convictions and views of our lawmakers – but that does not mean that the laws are religiously moral. For example, our laws surrounding murder are supposedly of a religious nature. If you look at the Ten Commandments, it is easy to make that connection. However, the sixth Commandment says, “Thou shall not KILL“. It does not say MURDER – it says KILL (although newer Bibles are replacing Kill with Murder (how convenient)).
As a nation that made those laws we wage war and kill others. If religion based our laws then we would never KILL. There would be no argument about the death penalty, abortion, war, or euthanasia. Therefore, while the religious beliefs of the lawmakers helped them formulate the law – it did not dictate it. The religion did not dictate the morality.
We use many things to create our laws. Where is the religious morality in the laws about no speeding, swimming after dark or illegal fishing? Our experience and non-religiously based morality base those laws.
There is no denying that belief in gods and the religiously dictated morality have shaped some of our current laws. When Tennessee has a law that any sexual position other than missionary is criminal then you know religious beliefs played a major part in making that law.
Before a theist (especially the Fundamentalist) can assert that God dictates morality, they must answer a few questions:
What morals have your god dictated to you?
Remember that laws of worship have nothing to do with morality so “have no idols before me” is not a moral issue. Also, remember that laws of justice have nothing to do with established morality; so stoning someone to death for adultery is not a moral issue. The adultery is the moral issue not the punishment. Also, remember that laws are not morality, either. So “eat no pork” is not a moral issue. It is a law. Please write down every moral established by your god.
The reason I ask this is that before one can assert that there can be no morality without a belief in a god, several issues need proving:
- There can be morality with the belief in God.
- God is a good moral role model.
- God does not promote, condone, endorse, or sanctify immorality.
- God defines morality and the morals thereof clearly and concisely.
- God adheres to his definition of morality and the morals thereof.
Once done, then one can make a beginning assertion: there can be no morality without a belief in god.
Once asserted, it will need proving. It will need proving that atheistic religions (such as Buddhism) are immoral. It will need proving that atheistic beliefs derive their morality from god.
Is Our Morality Just a Social Convention?
Yes and no. The major influence is societal but other influencing factors act directly and indirectly in the role of societal influence. The human animal is a social animal. If the social drive were to disappear overnight, things would change drastically. The compelling need for moral guidelines goes away when the influence of society and the drive to be social disappears. The need for cooperative living goes away. The need for self-preservation increases and the desire to preserve self over all others becomes a primary mission.
There is still self-preservation within a society but focused differently. If human beings were not social animals, the self-preservation factor would increase drastically. That is to say, that flight or fight become more important than it is now. Another human being in your territory becomes a threat and you must eliminate it. Human beings would only gather to copulate and reproduce.
Human beings living in isolation away from other humans and feral children show no signs of increased morality because they lacked a society that created a need for morality. The isolated human becomes aggressive and territorial. The image of the “mean old man” living in the woods by himself is somewhat based on the reality that isolation from society removes the need for a larger morality and self-preservation becomes the main driving factor.
It is the fact that we are social animals that requires morality to form. As social animals, can we run around killing everyone that walks through our grass? As social animals, can we run around stealing everything we want? No, a society will not last long under such conditions as those.
The question then becomes, what guidelines did the first societies use to establish the rules and guidelines that evolved into a complex moral structure? Several factors play into the formation of the rules and guidelines.
Why are we social animals? What drove the solitary hunter/gatherer to associate with others of his kind and form the first mini-societies? We have all heard the phrase, “There is safety in numbers”, and we take it for granted. There really is safety in numbers. We can gather more food, hunt larger prey, more females tend to the young, and more males protect the group.
At the formation of the group, the guidelines and rules had to be established and they had to pick a leader. Obviously, there is no way to know exactly what procedures did they use to choose a leader back then. By looking at primitive cultures today, we have a basic idea of what may have happened. When they choose a leader and the guidelines and rules are set up, they have accomplished two things. They created the foundation for a moral structure and a moral “law enforcement”.
Personal experiences, group experience, knowledge of the known world, etc., is what developed the guidelines. In other words, if someone steals something from you how does it make you feel. Do you feel bad because you know its wrong, or do you feel bad because someone took your stuff? Because you feel bad, you associate that act with being bad and create a rule against it. The first societies established their rules and guidelines based on their personal experiences. They established new rules and guidelines as new situations developed, which required the intervention of a leader. The leader would make a choice and that choice would become a new guideline.
What it boils down to is that our personal experience with things done against us helps us to establish what is wrong or right. When someone does something to us and it makes us feel bad then we know what that someone did was wrong. We know what we did is wrong by instinct and feeling – not because someone tells us, it is wrong. If morality were nothing more than a code of laws, dictated down by a Supreme Being, then there would be no emotion attached to things done against us. We would know something is wrong because god told us it was wrong – not because we felt it was wrong.
Our leaders, regardless of how chosen, create the guidelines and rules we live by based on those experiences and other factors. Even to this day, our representatives in government make guidelines and rules based on their experiences. Our feelings about actions against others and us create laws and morality.
We, as an animal species, want to protect our species and specifically, our young. We know how it makes us feel when our young are threatened. We know what a mother and father’s protective instincts feel like. These feelings toward our young reflect in our social morality and the laws we create based on that morality. We create child restraint laws (mandatory seat belts), laws requiring children to use bicycle helmets, and a multitude of other laws to protect our children. Does religion base these laws? No, they are based exclusively on our personal experiences that we have had with our children and based on our feelings when we hear of a child’s death that could have been prevented if “a” was used or “b” was prevented. Then we create laws to ensure that “a” is used and to prevent “b.”
Of course, that does not justify emotional unthinking legislation. Unthinking legislation is another issue altogether.