Relatively Absolute

A new video on atheism where I talk about the theist’s concept of moral absolutism and why I think it is an incorrect and impractical view to have.

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Hello, I’m Al. I’m an atheist, I believe that supernatural gods don’t exist.

I’ve seen and received some comments from theists asking about where atheists get their morality from. Some of these have been thinly-veiled accusations that atheists have no morality at all since, they argue, only God can create morality. Since atheists don’t believe in God, and don’t believe they’ll be punished in the afterlife for their wicked behavior in this life, then apparently there’s nothing to stop them from becoming violent, thieving sociopaths.

At first this disturbed me, because I thought that a belief in God was the only thing keeping these moral theists from becoming violent, thieving sociopaths.

But then I realized that of course they wouldn’t. Most people wouldn’t. But the reason they thought atheists would is because they’ve never had to think about life without God. I don’t mean all theists, in this video I’m talking about the many theists who specifically make this amoral-atheist argument.

I’m going to talk about this question, even though it’s a ridiculously silly one. Because the fact is you don’t need a reason to help people, or show concern or act ethically. But religion gets itself tied up with morality so often that theists are used to thinking that one can’t exist without the other.

Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill because God says so. And that sounds about right, so they don’t. And that about ends the discussion. They don’t have to consider a world without God because that isn’t the world they occupy. It’s like imagining a world without sunlight, it’s just seems so obvious. “God says so” makes it fairly straight-forward, because then it’s just a matter of self-control and following all these religious precepts that are laid out for you. And you can be sure of the validity of these morals because God is by definition the supreme moral authority. For the atheist, who draws upon his or her sense of empathy, fairness, philosophy, altruism, the greater good, these are seemingly on fairly shaky grounds, because the atheist is just a person. Just a person whose thought about it. And maybe they’ve thought wrongly. The theist sees this as moral relativism, whereas morality from God is absolute, dictated to man, and steady as a rock.

This idea that we have the one true, absolute morality is a very comforting one. Because real life is full of complicated, ambiguous situations where we don’t know if our actions, whatever our good intentions, will end up doing more harm than good. It’s the sort of thing that keeps one up at night: am I doing the right thing? Is doing my best going to be good enough? Or worse, what if I’m doing the wrong thing, and the better I do it, the worse I’m making the world? Religious dogma claims to solve this because even if we fail to live up to its principles, we can be sure that the principles themselves are true.

Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, these are fairly obvious. It’s like don’t drive drunk or don’t stab a kitten. It’s a good idea in and of itself. Except when it isn’t. You can probably think of rare but plausible situations where these things wouldn’t be prohibited, or even encouraged. It’s okay to stab the kitten if in self-defense, for example. Use your imagination.

My point here is that these simple, obvious rules are too general to be absolute in all cases. “Thou shall not kill” is a very valuable rule, but we can’t and arguably shouldn’t live strictly by it in every possible circumstance. Which tells us this absolute moral standard isn’t going to be simple. And there isn’t really an obvious absolute standard to follow, is there?

I’m not talking about the minor differences between the amillenial AOG initial evidence pentecostal protestant Christian and the post-millenial AOG initial evidence pentecostal protestant Christian. I’m talking about the major differences. Is your holy book entirely literal, or are some parts metaphorical? Which parts? For that matter, which one is your holy book? Where do you stand on eating pork, or eating cows, or eating babies? Depending on which absolute morality you subscribe to it’s either okay, horrible, or barbacue. And if you think those are inconsequential, petty things, where do you stand on two gay men adopting a son, or a rape victim having an abortion? Those are very disputed issues, despite whichever one of our absolute moralities has to say on it.

That’s the great thing about absolute moral standards, there’s so many of them to choose from. And we do choose them. We choose which religion we convert to by personal choice of what feels right to us. Does that make it sound arbitrary, or relative to personal preference? It is. And no less than staying with the religion one happened to be born into.

Even within a single religion, the contradictions or various interpretations that are there allow that you to use religion to back up whatever preconceived moral attitude you have, and still have the weight of “absolute morality” on your side. There isn’t a whack-job group out there that didn’t toute some holy book verse or political ideology to justify their own ends.

So simply having religion-defined absolute morality doesn’t free us from having to justify our beliefs with sound reasoning. Saying, “my religion says so” isn’t good enough. I’m not saying there is no absolute, objective morality, but that making a claim to absolute morality, for example the way most religions do, is the height of unthinking arrogance. Because the theist’s choice of which religious belief to follow is as human-based as the atheist’s choice of which ethical morality to follow.

Countering that your beliefs are the one true religion is convenient, but not very convincing. Every religion makes that claim. To prove the morality of one set of religious beliefs over another, you will have to rely on argument and your critical reasoning, which are as suceptible to flaws as anyone elses.

But if you just claim that you are absolutely right on faith, you aren’t obligated to argue or defend your point. You don’t have to, you’re right, and the “why” doesn’t matter. And religions do make claims in this way. Religious moral values often have a, for lack of a better word, sacred status that philosophical moral values do not even pretend to have. Absolute morality is tool religions use to convert a moral opinion into a moral fact regardless of any reasoning.

That isn’t to say that religious values are automatically wrong. But my point is that there are no absolute absolutes, because your holy scripture, whichever one it is, does not free you from the responsibility of being critical about your own thinking and the possibility that your religion’s values are dead wrong. And you WILL have to decide, atheist or not, because falling back on a superficial acceptance of some moral ideology is no better than saying “I was only following orders”.

I do think there is an absolute morality where, given perfect information and consideration of every possible factor, you can reason what is truely the most just and fair decision to make in any given situation. But we’ll never have anything close to perfect information, so good luck figuring it out. Moral relativism in it’s extreme, stereotypical sense is a cop out. Saying something is either tolerable or intoleratable based on the what the local culture is or what the current century is is the just simple hypocracy. But the claim to moral absolutism, the kind made by the theist who places religion above critical reasoning, above even the possibility of dissent, is the exact same thing, except it is stated with more assertiviness.

But then again, I could be wrong.

Thanks for watching.

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