A common comment that will be thrown at you when debating or discussing with a theist will be that "if you don't get your morality from god, where do you get your morality" or "are atheists then immoral" or something else of that flavor. There are many way to address these comments such as discussing where morals come from and the definition of morals, which can be tricky, or that morality is intrinsic in each being and you don't need god to have them or that morals preceded religion and there are plenty of examples that can go along with that last point. These can all be very effective but I heard something the other day that I felt made a lot of sense.
When asked "were you a moral person", the person, who was an atheist said, "you're right I'm not moral because morals is a set of behavioral guidelines derived from authority whether real or imagined and I don't use morality in my day to day life to make decisions, however I'm a very ethical person, and I think that social ethics as they evolved out of social dynamics, are a better course to pursue then morality, because if you're being a moral person, and you are doing what the authority has instructed you to do, that authority may not in itself be moral. So for me social ethics are the way to go."
Now I understand that by ethics are defined as moral behaviors. But the distinction is blurry to me. So I would like to hear your opinion on a) the differences between the two if there are any in your view and b) your preferred method to answer this question. How do you answer someone who comes at you with the "morality" argument?
"And why wouldn't you just be selfish and cutthroat? This would be the strategy that would pay the greatest dividends for you with the least amount of input."
In a social setting survival is dependent on cooperation. The selfish and cutthroat attitude would destroy the dynamics of a group. No man is an island.
Which is why you will find selfless behavior and altruism in many social animals.
The primitive "survival of the fittest" misconception some theists have is completely divorced from what is actually observed in nature
Nelson, I think you sum up the arguments very well. These are all questions that need answering.
For example, we can choose to be nice because we like to be nice and unselfish; but that's not good enough: we are always going to be selfish beings at heart. Being nice is the best strategy for our own long-term self-interests, in a relatively closed society with a low turnover of people. I believe that we all benefit from living in a co-operative culture: however there are cheaters who will always be able to take unfair advantage of this because there are always new people they can rip off. Does religion do any better in this regard? That isn't the point, exactly, but the answer is probably no. Religion succeeds well at encouraging people to be moral, not because it frightens people to death, because bad people always find a crummy way to justify themselves; but because [often,] religious people constantly struggle so hard to honestly figure out their everyday moral issues. I very rarely see atheists do this. Religious people also fail epically to be moral, due to the possibilities for abuse caused by thinking thinking God is on your side all the time, and the intense psychological territory. I also very rarely see atheists do this: their equivalent would be "I am rational therefore I am right" which just has less potential for disaster.
I think one good tactic would be to answer a question with a question. What is their definition of morality? They may either say, "Atheists are not moral!" or "How can atheists be moral?" and the question would be effective either way... because it continues the conversation and determines whether or not they really want to engage you about this.
What I find is that they like to make these blanket statements with no intention or learning anything. They wouldn't listen to even the most clever comeback. But if you ask them what morality means to them, their vanity kicks in and they'll go further and then reveal more to you what they think.
Do they think morality is obedience to authority, or mercy on other beings? Then we can get at the heart of things.
I definitely feel that saying something to the effect of "I don't have morals; I have ethics" would appear to be a cop-out in their mind. They won't get the nuance. I think it's sort of arguing above their head... pearls before swine, if you will.
If we really want to get through to them, it's best to speak to them on their terms. If morality is simply behaving and being considerate, then they really cannot say atheists are without morals. They will have to back up their position when you offer your own testimony and examples of other moral atheists. If atheists are not moral, then no atheist can be moral. If religion is the basis, then they need to give an explanation for why anyone would be able to be moral without it. After all, aren't they making the claim?
It's not our responsibility to prove to them something they obviously don't want to be contradicted on. Most cannot resist the urge to give their opinion, though. Hopefully you can keep them engaged long enough, and ask enough investigative questions, that a little crack appears in their worldview.
This is a good point Cara. It's a good way to get into a discussion and as Nelson said defining the terms give you a clearer point of reference to refute and respond.
I don't have morals. What I have is COMMON SENSE.
My answer to anybody who asks me how I can be moral without God's direction, I say "No, it's YOU who can't be moral without God. I behave morally and ethically because I have a natural empathy for other living things. I can put myself in their place. You, on the other hand seem to believe that you would be a wicked person without God to constrain your evil impulses. I think that says a lot more about you than it does about God."
I guess they would then say, that "natural empathy" came from god.
I think you hit it Dale - "empathy" is the key. In fact, a sociopath is one who has absolutely no empathy for anyone. I would suggest that both the Bible's and Confucious' versions of the "Golden Rule," are based on exactly that, empathy, - feel what your neighbor/others feel.
No one needs biblical commandments to feel empathy - sometimes a reminder couldn't hoit, but no need for commandments.
I like that answer a lot.
I would have replied earlier but I was busy stealing people's wallets and handing out lesbian "rainbow badges" at the local school ;-)
Hey, FumbleFingers - I picked up three wallets while I was writing that post, and if being a lesbian means thinking about girls all day, I suppose I could use one of those ribbons myself!