Where does morality come from?

Moses - St John's, Wall, Lichfield, Staffordshire.

I was a Christian for most of my life but these days I am an atheist. I wrote about that journey on this blog a few months ago. Following the “militant secularism” accusation by Baroness Warsi recently a friend asked me to consider how to arrive at an idea of what is moral or immoral without deriving morality from God. He went on to mention it on his blog and also mentioned a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics called After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? which has caused some controversy recently. In Phill’s own words:

The problem with that – with respect to the governance of this (or any) country, is that I think theism in general and Christianity in particular provides the only sound, rational foundation for any kind of ethical system. […]

Let me try and explain: in atheism, you don’t have many options for morality. I’ve heard a few different explanations, including reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day when he explains that morality comes from the cultural ‘Zeitgeist‘ (his word) – in other words, what people think is right and wrong at the time. But the general principle is that there is nothing objectively right and wrong – in other words, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are simply labels which we have almost arbitrarily come to define in a certain way. That definition may well change in the future.

Now this isn’t a new question and it has been addressed by people far better informed on the topic than I am, so consider this an exploration of my own thoughts and not a precise statement of what I believe.

There is no doubt in my mind that my idea of morality does come from nurture not nature; it is a product of my life to date. Like many other things, it is something that was influenced by my parents and by the way that they brought me up, and by the people around me, and by what I saw on the TV. (Although we didn’t always have a TV when I was young.) It was influenced by what I got away with doing and what I was punished for. Of course the way that everyone around me behaved was in turn shaped by the same things in their lives, in a chain as far back as humanity goes. The way that everyone around me behaved and viewed my behaviour is also influenced by their religious beliefs.  My parents are Christians and so that shaped their decisions and it shaped what they told me was acceptable. Since in turn my parents where brought up by Christians it is clear that societal values and religious values are intertwined and impossible to separate, or even to judge the total influence of each.

But there are factors apart from that, internal factors. If I behaved in a way that upset others then I would no doubt observe the effect that had on them. When a very young child hits their sibling or takes away the toy that they want it normally leads to upset and crying, and experience of having been in the reverse of the situation should lead to empathy and understanding. That doesn’t guarantee changing behaviour to avoid upsetting other people.

A possible explanation of ethics and morals is that they give an evolutionary advantage. In an article in New Scientist in 2007 Evolution: Survival of the selfless [New Scientist] the authors present the idea that group selection – a theory previously rejected by the mainstream – could be responsible for altruism both within and between groups. The article sums it up as:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

– New Scientist 03 November 2007, David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson

So we could conclude that morals come from this evolutionary advantage, either instinct or something that emerges from society or both. We could also be moral because we can empathise with others, and therefore treat them the way in which we would like to be treated. There is also the way that our actions are perceived by others. As much as some people might want to beat up someone who insulted them, or to murder someone and take all their possessions, that is not behaviour that others will accept. We lock up people who murder and steal because the rest of us can see the impact of those things on everyone else. We fear being murdered, so we collectively abhor murderers. Some people would still commit murder if they thought that they could get away with it, but most people would not, perhaps because they have absorbed the idea of treating people as they want to be treated at a deeper level.

Going back to Phill’s argument quoted earlier, I think the idea that you can’t be moral without God relies first entirely on the idea that there is a God at all. If you don’t believe in God but you do believe that humans follow a moral code of whatever kind, then you must conclude that you can be moral without God. The existence of morals isn’t an argument for the existence of God either, since in the opinion of an atheist, the values taught by religion or written in the bible are simply a product of society at the time that those values were set, and as such these values are simply a more rigid expression of the values that are passed down through society anyway.

I understand the revulsion at the idea that there is nothing objectively right or wrong, but revulsion at something does not mean that is not the way things are. It is very clear that values and morals do change radically over time and between societies. The desire for God to provide an absolute moral base does not call God into existence except in the minds of those who wish it.

In the end it is the actions of people which will shed light on this argument. Yes, there are people who don’t follow the morals that most people do, but it is important to note that they as often from a religious background as not. There are some people who might think that killing babies under a year old is acceptable, but the vast majority of people are utterly revolted by the idea, whatever their religious beliefs. (And I think that the paper which presented this idea is an academic exploration of the ethics of abortion rather than a call to murder babies.) Most of the atheists that I am in contact with also like to be nice to others and dislike people who are nasty. To these people, to suggest that they cannot have morals, or that their morals only come from someone else’s religious beliefs somehow, is quite insulting. There are many millions of atheists, some formerly religious and some not, who do not go around stealing and raping and murdering just because there is no God.

Militant secularism

“Sorry, I don’t mean to be impolite, but can these people keep their imaginary friends and sky fairies out of law and public policy? Thanks.”

– David Allen Green tweeting as @jackofkent 11/02/2012 (Tweet now deleted.)

What struck me about this quote is that it clearly was meant to be impolite despite what he claimed. Mr Green used the phrase “imaginary friends and sky fairies” which is fine for him to think and to say, but he is clever enough to know that it would offend the people that he was nominally aiming the message at. Adding a false apology to this message simply reinforced the offensiveness of the message. I suspect that the message was not really meant for the people it was addressed to, but rather as something to stir up popularity among followers and controversy and reaction among religious people. Trolling, in fact. Something that newspaper headlines were also doing on Saturday:

Daily Mail front page - "Christianity under attack"Times front page - "Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer"

Images read “Christianity under Attack” (Daily Mail) and “Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer” (The Times)

These misleading headlines were a reaction to a high-court judgement on Friday which found that Bideford Council could not hold prayers as part of their council sessions.  The objection by the National Secular Society to requiring people to attend these prayers was that they made it very uncomfortable for  Councillor Clive Jones – or indeed any other non-Christian – and left him with a choice of sitting through the prayers or walking out and looking bad. This is not a problem unknown to Christians, and the NSS cite the example of a Christian councillor who walked out of a Portsmouth council meeting because they invited a muslim imam to pray. I accept that this councillor does not represent all Christians but the example does show that the problem affects all sides. The ruling on Friday disagreed with the argument put by the NSS and found that prayer in council meetings does not violate human rights and is not discrimination.

Part of the judgement said:

“A local authority has no powers under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.

“The saying of prayers in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend.” – Mr Justice Ouseley

This judgement did not forbid prayer by the council members, nor prayer in public. What it did was to assert that the council had no power under the current law to hold prayer as part of the formal council meeting (in this case, included in the minutes) or to make it compulsory for councillors to attend those prayers. In fact the law that was referred to does not refer to prayer at all, merely as to what other things the council can include in meetings to support their work.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles hasn’t even grasped what the judgement is. He said:

“Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.”

This of course is exactly what the the ruling said, as I quoted earlier. Pickles has stated that the Localism Act which will come into force in a few weeks does include powers that will make it possible to include prayer as part of council meetings, reversing the judgement anyway. What is very worrying is that Pickles has publicly stated that councils should “continue to have prayers if they want to” in violation of the law as it is now.

Secular State

The United Kingdom is officially a Christian country. I firmly believe that all government should be secular and there should be no state-endorsed religion, instead leaving everyone free to believe or not as they wish. The concept that the state should not impose a religion on anyone is not new. In the USA the first amendment to the constitution says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In a letter  to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 Thomas Jefferson expanded on this when he wrote:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” [Quote via Wikipedia]

US courts have found that organisations such as schools should not hold formal prayer as a result of the first amendment, as in the recent ruling against a school having a prayer displayed on a banner in Ahlquist v Cranston. [Daily Mail] Despite the law being on their side people who object to prayer in schools in the USA are often the subject of abuse and death threats.

I believe that the backlash against the people involved in these cases is a very good argument as to why the state should be secular. It is obvious that people in a minority will be discriminated against and marginalised, even more so when they point out this fact. I think that the very existence of human rights is down to a need to protect minorities and vulnerable groups from tyranny by the majority, and actions by those above show a need to protect the freedom to not be part of a religion as much as they protect the freedom of those who are part of a religion.

 

One of the problems that we face in our society is that there appears to be an unresolvable conflict between advertising standards and freedom of speech. I suspect that there are quite a few such clashes. One example is this recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency that a flyer given out by a group called Healing On The Streets (HOTS) violated advertising standards by promising healing. Not only did the flyer make claims which could not be proven or backed up with medical trials, they also offered prayer for healing from cancer. It is actually illegal to talk about treating or curing cancer in advertising in any way at all under the Cancer Act 1939:

(1)No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement—

(a)containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof;

It is important to note that the ASA ruling affects advertising only. It does not prevent HOTS from believing that god can heal these afflictions or praying. The originator of the complaint was concerned that people might stop taking medication and then suffer as a result. She took pains to point out on her blog that she has also made complaints against claims made for homeopathy and is not opposed to Christianity.

Human Rights

There can also be conflict between human rights law and religion. For an example of this we can look at the case of Christian owners of a guest house in Cornwall who refused to allow a gay couple to stay in a double bed in their guest house because they thought it would be promoting sin. The couple lost a legal case brought against them and their actions were found to be discrimination under equality laws. This wasn’t an attacked by secularists, the couple violated human rights law which was put in place by government to protect people. That same law allows freedom of conscience and religion which also allows freedom from religion.

Militant Secularism

Chair of the Conservative party, Baroness Warsi has reacted to recent court cases by claiming that “a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies.” She goes on:

“We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. It seems astonishing to me that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity”

Leaving aside the accusation of militant secularisation for a moment, Warsi’s comment about the constitution frightens me. I believe that just like the first amendment of the US constitution, all constitutions and governments should be distinct from religion. This isn’t to wipe out or reduce any religion, but to ensure that people of all religions and none will be protected from discrimination. Putting Christianity in to the European Constitution would discriminate against Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus as much as it would against agnostics and atheists.

Writing in the Telegraph, Warsi continued:

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.

None of the people pursuing complaints against false advertising, prayer in council meetings, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or prayer in schools were doing anything they shouldn’t. They were all trying to uphold the law as it stands by having it enforced. The laws already exist and others are merely pointing out this fact. And this seems to be what “militant atheists” do. We aren’t exactly overrun with atheist suicide bombers. Instead they object to the law being broken. They make complaints when they are discriminated against. They attend an occasional protest rally such as the One Law For All event last Saturday. They fail to respect religion in what they say. But why should anyone have to avoid saying things that aren’t respectful? It is everyone’s right to believe that Christianity is nonsense just as much as it is for them to believe in Jesus. If you turn that around, Christians fail to respect atheists when they shout that Jesus saved them. The phrases “militant secularism” or “militant atheism” seem to mean that someone has been offended by atheists. Atheists can’t help it if religious people are offended by their mere existence or by what they talk about with each other. Both parties are being daft about this – Christians and atheists must learn not to take offence at each other’s statements when they disagree.

Militant Atheist
Comic from atheistcartoons.com. Note, portrays extremists, not everyone!

Having said that, it is clear that Christians and secularists are caught in a loop where their offence is feeding from each other and growing as a result. I want a secular society where all faiths and none can live together.  Baroness Warsi’s accusation of militant secularism made me react by getting angry and wanting to become militant which is probably not what she intended. But conversely, the quote which I opened with made Christians that I know who also want a secular society react angrily against the sentiment expressed. They agreed with the sentiment, but were furious at the insult contained in the statement. Insults turn everyone against your message, not just the ones that are affecting you.

No one has a right not to be offended. Human rights guarantee freedom of conscience, religion and expression but they don’t force anyone to listen. However, setting out to deliberately offend people does not win them over to your side. Either side.

Further reading

Council loses court battle over prayer sessions before meetings [Guardian]

Council Prayers unlawful rules High Court [NSS]

Government tells councils to carry on praying despite High Court ban [Telegraph]

Christian guesthouse owners lose appeal over ban on gay guests [Telegraph]

We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith [Telegraph]

Militant secularisation threat to religion, says Warsi [BBC]

George Carey: time to say that Christians have rights too [Telegraph]

Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011 [Ipsos MORI]

Healing claims being made across the UK [Hayley is a ghost]

Healing on the Streets & why I am not ‘a group generally opposed to Christianity’ [Hayley is a ghost]