Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Atheist Morality

After losing my faith in God, I was unsure about what should be my basis of morality. I discovered part of the answer in Sam Harris's TED video on how science can answer moral questions, and his book The Moral Landscape. The basic idea is that morality should be based on promoting human well-being, or in other words, based on empathy, compassion, and loving your neighbor like yourself. So I'm a big fan of Jesus's 2nd greatest commandment (although obviously not so much his greatest).

The traditional basis of morality is tradition, usually religious tradition. Using compassion as the basis of our morality means that it can progress, and there are several reasons that it might:

Tradition may be mistaken

There are a lot of commandments in the Old Testament that seem objectionable to us today. For example, most of us would consider it wrong to kill someone for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, for worshiping a different God than us, or for being the child of someone who worships a different God. I realize Christians don't follow those rules now, but were any of those things ever right? If not, then maybe we should question whether scriptures are a good source of morality.

Our environment may change

For example, as we become more and more exposed to advertising, and that advertising becomes better at causing us to want to buy things, we can re-evaluate its effect on our well-being. We may realize that advertising does not promote our well-being, and we should take steps to reduce our exposure to it. What's right can depend on our personal circumstances.

We may learn more about human nature

After we learn that sexual orientation is largely immutable, and that most gays and lesbians are happier accepting their sexuality than repressing it, we can become more accepting of our gay and lesbian peers, or even encourage them to accept their sexuality rather than repress it.

People are different

What's right for one person may be wrong for another. Maybe pre-marital sex is a terrible idea for some people, but fine for others, depending on their personalities, desires, and situation. Maybe getting married and having a family is a really great idea for some people, but not others. We shouldn't think that what's good for many people necessarily applies to everyone.

For these reasons and others, I think loving your neighbor as yourself is a superior basis for morality than religion or tradition.


bryce said...

Overall a good read, an honest summary of general moral guidelines. I'd be interested to hear more about critical issues on which atheists would submit unique perspectives. What of egoism and altruism, or the cultural dogma of monogamy? How about family cohesion or patriotism? What of greed, ambition, idleness, or [type sin here]? Thanks Benny Boop.

Bennion said...

Thanks for reading and commenting! I'd like to write some more posts on specific issues like that, so I'll keep those in mind.

beezerbrit said...

For the most part, I agree with this post. Actually, I can't really see anything in here that I don't agree with completely. I never really put much thought into the idea of morality changing over time, but it makes sense. I don't base my morality now on things I have read in the Bible or even the Book of Mormon. I have a set of moral principles that I guess I was brought up with being a member of the Church. And that works for me.

I don't believe by any stretch that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is for everyone. While I believe the Church is Christ's restored church, I can understand that it is not possible for everyone to feel that way. For some people, another church or no church at all might be THE truth.

The beauty of being individual is that each person's truth is vastly different from the next, even between members of the same faith. I like that we all have different interpretations of the same material, and that morality between individuals varies so widely. I don't really know what I'm driving at here, but I like your blog Bennion.

Bennion said...

I'm glad you like the blog. I'm sure it challenges some people's beliefs, but I'm glad you can read it and take what works for you and leave what doesn't. I have a similar approach to the church: I try to keep what I like and agree with, and leave what I don't.

beezerbrit said...

Some people in the church frown on this idea of a "cafeteria plan" approach to morality: Taking what you want and leaving the rest, "picking and choosing" which commandments you will follow and which you won't. I think in general this is okay.

We know the basics of right and wrong, but it totally destroys the idea of accountability and agency if we're not allowed to make our own decisions regarding what we view as right and wrong. The church has standards and while I feel these standards are an acceptable model for my standards of morality, I don't think they are totally inflexible.

Bennion said...

Yeah, I've heard people preach against the "cafeteria plan" as well, but seriously 1- Apostles and Prophets have been wrong on some things before 2- A lot common teachings in the church don't really have a basis in scriptures or even any revelations and 3- I think we should each think for ourselves. Heck, prior to correlation in the 1960s Apostles themselves publicly disagreed on all kinds of things. It wasn't until correlation that the church started to really push for the kind of unity in teachings that we see in the church today.

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