Can You Know Right From Wrong Without God?

Penn Jillette“The question I get asked is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all
I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want, and the amount
I want is zero. And I murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero.
The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person
watching over them they would go on killing, raping rampages is the
most self damning thing I can imagine.” ~Penn Jillette

Many theists believe that, without a god, without some formal higher power, a supreme law giver to which we are beholden, you cannot tell right from wrong, good from evil (or more accurately, that those words become meaningless).

They’re right, but only in the sense by which they define those terms. Since the theist defines good as that which is supernaturally declared to be good, then to know “good” there must necessarily be a god (Christians take it a step further, and say it must necessarily be their God. Keep in mind that this is an example of the deism proves theism argument (found here), and just as with the prime mover argument (here), is only an argument for a higher power. One can grant both this and Prime Mover, it doesn’t mean Jesus died for your sins).

But what if we developed our morals first, and then invented myths imbued with these morals as a means of codifying, enforcing, and giving them form? What if, in the broad strokes, we all know that it’s wrong to rape and murder, that we should love and care for each other, and intuitively develop compassion and empathy as we grow? Could we call that intuition “good” without having to appeal to a higher power?

I once saw a dog dive across four lanes of traffic to rescue an injured dog trapped on the freeway. What god did he pray to? When dolphins rescue swimmers, when a bear rescues a drowning crow… How did they do the right thing without God (YouTube is replete with videos of animals from nearly every species displaying what we would consider “moral” behaviors and concerns)?

The instinct evolved.

Wolves, coyotes, elephants, monkeys, whales—all pack animals, all social animals, necessarily have an innate understanding of the ethics required to operate within their social structures. We look at a wolf who might eat a four-year-old for dinner and say that’s terrible, but it’s not an immoral act by the wolf, it’s just hungry and it doesn’t know any better. But when a wolf is in a pack, it would never eat wolf pups–it’s sense of morality applies there. There’s a strictly defined pack leader, there are behaviors within the pack which are considered acceptable and those which aren’t, and breaking those rules have serious consequences. A pack of wolves has a rudimentary social compact. This enables the pack to thrive in conditions that would kill an individual wolf. The wolves in the pack give up some autonomy for the benefits of being in a community (wolves are monogamous, too).

Nobody teaches them this. They just know it.

Dogs are the same thing. We bread them for loyalty and companionship. We’ve seen dogs give up their lives for their human families—good, noble behavior. They didn’t get this from god, but from years of artificial selection, from breading dogs to have these traits. The first dogs in fact were wolves who adapted to work with man instead of competing against him.

Flocks of birds, schools of fish, nearly any animal that engages in social (or monogamous behavior, another moral construct; animals which mate for life, and there are many, aren’t doing it because they’re afraid of breaking the seventh commandment).

We bread dogs, domesticated them to have traits we value (traits we learned ourselves through millions of years of evolution). In fact, the smarter the animal, the more likely it is to have a social instinct, to have a sense of values, of right and wrong, specific it’s community.

We are the smartest animals on the planet, and the animals with the most complex, evolved social instinct. As we formed the first societies, those who rape, steal and murder, were kicked out or killed. As our pre-frontal lobes grew, we got better at understanding how to work together, how to form more complex and efficient societies, and were willing to give up more of our base instincts for participation in a larger community. These communities survived only because rape, murder, and theft were not tolerated (even cannibalistic cultures prohibit the murder of their own). And to re-enforce these beliefs we created myths imbued with terrible consequences for breaking these rules, and wonderful blessings for those who follow them.

Children want to have their parents be proud of them—and this instinct never goes away, even at 40 children can still be seeking the approval of their parents. We have a need to be of service (there’s a reason every 12 step program recognizes this. Inability to integrate into your community, with your culture, is a leading cause of suicide, and being of service genuinely feels good. There’s a reason that, left to their own devices, many atheists do donate to charity, or do great work like Doctors without Borders. They want to. The instinct is there).

Pat Robertson said that hurricane Katrina was the wrath of god for the sins of America (and New Orleans in particular), and for so many of us moving away from God. And yet for all of our sinning and God’s wrath (which doesn’t appear to differentiate between a sinner and a five-year-old girl, at Katrina didn’t), we live in the single most prosperous time in human history. Worldwide the Church has less power than ever, and people live longer, happier, healthier lives with record lows in violence, disease, and death(1)There will be a great plague someday. We know how and why. It will, as the black death was, be “proof” of God’s displeasure, but will actually be from natural causes. Deaths to environmental factors will soon go up dramatically—we know why this will happen—it’s the fault of bad policy, denial of science, and arrogance on our part. Rest assured, however, knowing full well why this will happen won’t stop theists from claiming God, and religion will, I fear, grow again as disease and famine return to us. In the meantime, a great article on JUST how we’re in the most peaceful and prosperous time in human history can be found here. In fact the only places where violence is going up, and not down, is in the realm of religious violence, places where theistic religions and sectarians are trying to grab a foothold to assert God’s morality(2)Another great article here(whatever that is. Once again we come up against a faith problem. Which religion is right?).

And now, when weapons of war are powerful enough to extinguish every human soul from the planet, I must hope that we’ve learned to evolve enough that our communities, cities, states and countries can learn an even more evolved social compact, to overcome our baser instincts of raping, pillaging, and humiliating those who oppose us, of having to beat our chests to prove our worth, or conquer other countries to impose our ideals on them, or we may go the way of the 99.9% of all the other species on the planet, unable to see our common humanity and the gift of working together and being part of a global human race, a global social compact, and extinguish ourselves from the planet. And if history has showed us anything, it’s that if we obliterate ourselves, it won’t be in-spite of a theistic belief in any particular god, but because of it.

"[Jews] had been dragging themselves around the desert under the impression that adultery, murder, theft and perjury were all fine, and they get to Mount Sinai only to be told it's not kosher after all…. No, if we believed that perjury, murder and theft were all right, we wouldn't have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else."
“[Jews] had been dragging themselves around the desert under the impression that adultery, murder, theft and perjury were all fine, and they get to Mount Sinai only to be told it’s not kosher after all…. No, if we believed that perjury, murder and theft were all right, we wouldn’t have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else.”
Nature, evolution, has instilled a code of ethics into us. Theists have taken credit for it, but it’s in us already. In fact, one look at how religion operates (as opposed to how the religious claim it operates) is proof enough.

How many people actually follow the church, against their better judgement, in its commandments? Almost nobody. If your church starts going too far afield of your innate beliefs… you don’t change your beliefs to accommodate your church, you change your church to accommodate your belief.

In fact, the reason we live in such a historically peaceful time, the reason we have a civil society, is because the church has lost the power of forced conversion. Without the power to murder dissenters, common sense has been allowed to thrive. Society has moderated, stopped burning witches and heretics, and the church has had to follow. (dragged kicking and screaming, I might add). The power of people to walk out on their church (a power we didn’t have in this country during its founding, everyone went to church all day, every Sunday) has forced churches to moderate, to be reasonable, to adapt to the morals of society or risk obsolescence.

From women’s suffrage to abolitionism to the treatment of homosexuals, it’s been secular leaning societies which have taken the lead, resisted by the vast majority of theistic leaders, until the religion faces obscurity and ridicule, and has no choice but to “re-interpret” old—purportedly immutable and perfect—texts to allow for the improved moral code. They lead from behind, rushing to the front so they can claim leadership in these areas they once obstructed.

And the worst systemic problems in our society today, from terrorism to the treatment of gays and women (who are still very much second class citizens) stems exclusively, not from common sense, but from the vestiges of a time when Religion was in charge, and imposed this “morality” on us.

It’s a simple undeniable fact—people choose the church to which they want to belong, the church does not (anymore) choose them. This is the proof of innate morality, that you already have a strong moral compass. You choose a church which re-enforces the direction of that compass, not one which radically alters it. Religion gets its moral code from people, not the other way around (and indeed plays on people’s desire to be moral. If we had no interest in being moral (or freedom from morality), we’d not explore religion).

When it’s teeth are pulled, when the threat of forced conversion is blunted, religion actually adapts to man, not the other way around.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. There will be a great plague someday. We know how and why. It will, as the black death was, be “proof” of God’s displeasure, but will actually be from natural causes. Deaths to environmental factors will soon go up dramatically—we know why this will happen—it’s the fault of bad policy, denial of science, and arrogance on our part. Rest assured, however, knowing full well why this will happen won’t stop theists from claiming God, and religion will, I fear, grow again as disease and famine return to us. In the meantime, a great article on JUST how we’re in the most peaceful and prosperous time in human history can be found here
2. Another great article here

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