Friday, September 26, 2014

What is the source of morality?

A common theme running through many a post by one theist or another is that without religion, you cannot possibly be moral.  I disagree, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.  The question to isn't what is the source of morality, but whether or not the source is important?

Morality, in it's simplest form is nothing more than behavior that is characterized as 'good' or 'bad'.  It's a standard that is set by society.  Regardless of the source, morality is what tends to keep people from doing things they realize are unacceptable to the society they live within.  The issue at hand isn't whether or not a particular behavior is moral, but is the source of the standard important to the application of the standard.

There's where I have issues with the whole religion = morality argument.  Yes, some of the moral standards we live with can be traced to one religion of another.  Others can be traced back to one legal system or another.  Still others have formed through custom and courtesies we see and practice ourselves.  Regardless of the source, morality is a driver of a surprising amount of our behavior.  Most of us try and make daily decisions based on our understanding of morality, often unconsciously.  I mean we rarely think specifically about morality unless it's a blatant issue, like abortion or pedophilia, but our morality comes out in much smaller ways.  How we treat other people, how we communicate, how we go about our day-to-day lives.  We might consider morality as we read about the latest school shooting, or how other people are treated around the world, but while we think about it, do we consider the source of the morality?

Rarely!  The source is less important than the imprint it left on us.  I look at it this way, it is immoral to murder someone.  Does it matter to me whether or not I learned it as part of the 10 Commandments or that I learned it from watching the news and forming an opinion?  When I consider the concept, the source is pretty much irrelevant.  For one reason or another I am full of what I consider 'moral' standards.  I am sure my upbringing as a Catholic was one of the sources, but they also include my parents and the rest of my family, my friends, my education, and most especially my own experiences added to the mix.  All of these things have formed various opinions that I use to judge my own and other people's behavior.  When I hold the door open for someone, it's a moral decision born of politeness and also of education from my mother and father.  My mother expected it and I saw my father do it regularly and I more or less picked it up.  Sure earth shattering it's not, but it's one of the judgements I make about my behavior and recently it made me think about the source of my morals.

I started a job in a secure building, one you needed a swipe card to enter.  The rules were such that if you let someone else in on your swipe, you could get fired.  So I had to develop the most uncomfortable behavior of literally closing the door in someone's face so the locking mechanism can engage and they can swipe themselves into the facility.  It might not sound like much, but it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.  Closing a door in anyone's face is really hard, but it was actually harder when it was a woman.  Yes, it might be sexist of me, but that's how I was raised.  The first time I did it, I could see my mother standing over to one side looking at me with a very disappointed look.  I knew the rules and I am sure the lady behind me knew the rules, but it made me very uncomfortable performing that very simple act that in any other environment would have been considered rude and  . . . yes . . . immoral. Again, not earth shatteringly immoral, but immoral just the same. 

I am sure technically since it was an enforced rule you could argue that it is moral of me to shut the door in their face, but that didn't change how it made me feel.  Last night while I was think about it, one of my favorite online comics, Jesus and Mo had a perfect one and one that followed some of what I was thinking:

I haven't read the study they reference (Morality in everyday life), but the idea that theists and atheists could be identical in a moral sense made me think again about the source of my personal morality.  Once again I came to the conclusion that being moral is about behavior and the source that drove that behavior is immaterial to the result. 

So when any theists makes a claim of moral superiority simply because they are a theist, it makes no sense.  Believing in a religion doesn't make you moral.  It's your behavior stacked up against what society considered morality that makes you moral.  So when someone like kennie ham lies to get someone in an interview (Turnabout is fair play!) and even using the excuse that God will forgive such a little transgression because it's for some higher purpose, his beliefs matter little because his behavior is immoral.  When Philip E. Johnson (One of the founders of the modern Intelligent Design Movement) commented "When our leading scientists have to resort to the sort of distortion that would land a stock promoter in jail, you know they are in trouble." he should have been addressing the morality of their position rather than simply complain about the lack of scientific progress.

My conclusion is being a theist does not make you a moral person, just like being an atheist or agnostic doesn't make you immoral.  It's your behavior in large and small things by which you are judged by your fellow human beings.  Lies, distortions of the truth, and deliberate mis-characterizations are immoral whether you think you have a deity looking over your shoulder or not.

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