One of the questions that atheists are often asked is how a set of morals are established without having them handed to them from ancient, desert-wandering, superstituous tribes. (There's a similar thread on Think Athiest in the forums here.)

I address this issue by first admiting that, as an atheist, I have no moral standards--I have an ethical standard instead.

The reason is that the term morals has a religious connotation to it. There's no getting around that. By trying to argue that an atheist has morals but simply arrives at them differently than a theist is not a position that can be won. Morals are derived from religion. It's simply a fact I concede.

However, because I don't give religion any weight, I replace morals with ethics, a secular standard which is superior. It's superior because an ethical standard is based on evidence of the worth of a particular behavior. It can be debated openly and changed as needed. When new evidence is obtained that tells us a particular ethical position is misguided, we should change it--we should want to change it. New evidence should be readily incorporated into one's thinking and appropriate changes should be made in response.

Try and get someone to agree that a moral standard is flexible. Fat chance.

As a bottom line, I never try to jump into the ring set up by any religion; it is nearly impossible to maneuver. The rules are rigged against reason and thinking. There are always better alternatives to what a set of myths and superstitions offer to us. Look for them.

If you don't do battle on their terms, they have no one to fight.

Views: 65

Comment by Reggie on September 24, 2009 at 9:52am
Maybe the best route to take here is to disregard our personal connotations with the word "moral" and its derivatives, and focus on what the word means to religious people.

I politely protest such a notion. Why does anything hinge on what meanings religious folk derive from it? Should we cede "theory" as in scientific theory? Should we cede "good" because the religious define a good man or a good woman as one who obeys and loves God?

It doesn't matter where theists claim their morals come from. It means essentially the same to them as the it does to atheists. The particulars and the origins may not be in agreement, but the definition certainly is. If the premise of the argument for letting them have morality was correct, then I would agree. But so far, I have not seen anything compelling to persuade me to accept this premise.

People may be weary of fighting the same battles, but that isn't justification to throw in the towel. Granted, you don't have to fight the battles, but neither to you have to wave a white flag for the rest of us.
Comment by Prazzie on September 24, 2009 at 11:31am
If you wish to get through to religious people, specifically on the "atheist morals" issue, then the meanings they attach to words, er, causes something to hinge on the meaning. And that's why!

No, I meant the best route to take here, in this specific comment thread, is to let go of whether "moral" has religious connotations for me and you, but not for him and her, but to focus on what it means to religious people. In other words, I was attempting to steer the discussion in a new direction, because it was ending up in "agree to disagree" territory and horror of horrors, links to dictionary definitions ;)

I like NixManes' suggestion, because I imagine the start of the discussion with a religious person, who asks with that smug expression, "Okay, where do atheists get their morals from if there is no God?" And then I would say, breezily, "Oh, I don't subscribe to morals. I live my life according to an ethical standard that can be adjusted as societies and technologies change. I've read your [insert Holy Book of choice here] and according to my ethical views, your moral values are repugnant!" Then I imagine the look of consternation on their faces, because if an atheist admits to not having morals, WHAT DO THEY HAVE LEFT?

Polystrate trees, my friend, polystrate trees.
Comment by Nix Manes on September 24, 2009 at 11:53am
Prazzie,

I was soooo trying to steer clear of links you mentioned. I hate that, too. A lot. That's why initially I just mentioned for people to do a search on their own. But after that idea didn't get taken up, I did do a couple of links, which still got ignored. Oh, well. You do what you can.
Comment by Reggie on September 24, 2009 at 12:03pm
If you wish to get through to religious people

That would be a fool's errand! Hehe. But what kind of religious people are we talking about? Most people that I consider that are religious are religious in a non-fundamentalist way. They carry their religion like they carry their gym membership card, in their back pocket and mostly forgotten during their normal day. Morality, for them, does not invoke deep feelings of piousness or godgasms. It is, for the most part, something they only loosely associate with religion and more concretely if they are pressed to explain the origins of their morals. And even then, many will try to rationalize them without invoking the Bible. This has been my experience and may not be that of others. But the point is, that while switching up the terminology for the fundie may be a better plan in order to explain a certain point to them about how atheists "divine" their ethics, it may only confuse the majority of religious moderates. Also, this would invalidate the claim that most people see morality as deeply connected to religion...if I am correct.

Oh, I don't subscribe to morals. I live my life according to an ethical standard that can be adjusted as societies and technologies change. I've read your [insert Holy Book of choice here] and according to my ethical views, your moral values are repugnant!" Then I imagine the look of consternation on their faces, because if an atheist admits to not having morals, WHAT DO THEY HAVE LEFT?


I still don't see the need to abandon the word. I am perfectly content saying that I do have morals, they are just not derived from the Bible. I would also point out that the theist to whom I speak does not derive their morals from the Bible, either. I think this would be a better route and easier to explain than adopting ethics as our name for morals and trying to explain why they are different. Pointing out that, even among different religious cultures, there are differences in what is perceived as being moral and immoral. Morals stands to describe X, not explain who or what decided X.

To me, ethics is better used for a set of principles that are not intuitive or harder to ascertain. A doctor, lawyer, or psychologist has ethics to which they are professionally obligated to abide by. These are rules that the lay person is not familiar with and may not easily intuit. It is similar to a moral code, but morality is usually something a society as a whole is in general agreement on and can easily understand. Professional ethics is not.
Comment by Prazzie on September 24, 2009 at 12:23pm
Nah, I was just teasing. As someone who collects dictionaries and thesauruses, I am the last person who would reprimand others for linking to dictionary definitions.

The suggestion you put forth in the original post is an interesting one. It certainly deflates their argument from the get-go. I brought up the "theory" debacle in my earlier comment, but that's not the only word that is problematic. It's damned frustrating for me to have to check my language when I correspond with creationists. They refuse to accept the scientific meaning of "theory", you can't say "I believe" because then you have faith, "darwinism" is out, because then Darwin is my God, gah! They twist your words into a hundred different meanings so as to avoid actual arguments and confrontations with reason.

Your solution really cuts out the boring word play and allows me to get right to the heart of the matter, usually "why god?". I'd much rather be discussing the lack of evidence for any particular god, point out how "God did it" is no answer at all and get to the juicy stuff than have to try and prevent my eyes from rolling as I try to explain, yet again, morals -> evolutionary advantages to being good -> common sense -> golden rule that predates Jesus and all that jazz. It is especially annoying to explain this to people who refuse to understand on purpose/principal.

And again, I find the idea of agreeing that "yes, I have no morals" and the reaction to that absolutely delightful.
Comment by Reggie on September 24, 2009 at 12:51pm
I was soooo trying to steer clear of links you mentioned. I hate that, too. A lot. That's why initially I just mentioned for people to do a search on their own. But after that idea didn't get taken up, I did do a couple of links, which still got ignored. Oh, well. You do what you can.

Well, maybe I am just the stupid one here, but I don't see how when defining words, through dictionary definition or connotation, how linking to the dictionary source is such a crime. I rejected your explanation of making such changes based on connotation and that is the root of the problem that is being ignored. I have said repeatedly that morality is not exclusive to religion even in usage, yet this objection was ignored and the claim reasserted. I am not trying to be difficult, but I don't agree with your arguments based on the fact that I am unconvinced of the premise of religious ownership of the word "morality".

I missed your post with the links, or the links themselves, but did read through them. I found them unconvincing. I can search and find plenty of examples of morals being used in a secular connotation. And not just in the dictionary, either. So, now I have connotation as well as well as the dictionary pointing me towards a secular use that is perfectly fine.

But let me try and change this up a little so that we are not simply trading volleys over the same point. How do you think abandoning the use of "morality" as a secular term will help? You or Prazzie sort of touched on it a little, but didn't really explain how using "ethics" in lieu of "morals" would accomplish anything other than to differentiate ourselves from theists. If that is the sole purpose, then my objection would turn to a point that theists and atheists have very similar moral codes, thus Doug Reardon's to-Ma-toe vs. to-may-toe would apply quite aptly. Society and culture typically dictate morality, not purely old books or solely by deduction of reason. This is why I brought up the siblings on a train scenario and why I point out that theists do not follow the Bible's morality.

My other question is how do you think it would be detrimental for atheists to continue using the word "moral"? Aside from attempting to get through to theists, that is, since that is mostly an exercise in futility no matter what you want to call things.
Comment by Dave G on September 24, 2009 at 12:53pm
I agree with Arthur C Clarke when he said that one of the great tragedies of the modern world is the hijacking of 'morals' by religion. And like Reggie, I'm not particularly willing to just hand over another word/concept/reference to religion's sole purview without a fight.
Comment by Reggie on September 24, 2009 at 1:00pm
I brought up the "theory" debacle in my earlier comment, but that's not the only word that is problematic.

Now theory, I have heard talk of altering because the colloquial use is so ingrained in the layperson to mean "wild guess" or what have you.

It's damned frustrating for me to have to check my language when I correspond with creationists.

Same here. Especially with evolution. Most people are so used to explaining things in ways that have a tendency to personify them, especially with evolution. Even stridently atheistic biologists constantly describe evolution in ways that can be misinterpreted as having purpose or design.

They refuse to accept the scientific meaning of "theory"

And that is sort of my point, too. They'll only believe what they want to believe. We could call it ethics, morals, or whatever. They will still think we lack it and they are morally superior.

And again, I find the idea of agreeing that "yes, I have no morals" and the reaction to that absolutely delightful.

As strongly as I disagree with that, I do now really want to give it a try, just for fun and to see that reaction!
Comment by Prazzie on September 24, 2009 at 1:05pm
My previous response was directed at NixManes, I hadn't seen your response, Reggie.

What kind of religious people? Anyone who asks where atheists get morals from.

My reason for considering abandoning the word is that we have, even here on Think Atheist, tried to explain to theists that atheists also have morals, they are derived from this and that, their morals don't come from the Bible, etc. I don't know how successful you have been, but I can't seem to get through to them that way and pretty soon I'm enmeshed in an argument about Biblical cherry-picking and evolution being false so I cannot use that as a source of morality and then I become addicted to drugs (ok, not yet, but one day, maybe).

To me, ethics is better used for a set of principles that are not intuitive...
To me ethics and morals are synonyms, but after reading NixManes ideas, I think that claiming "ethics" for ourselves and so bypassing the whole morality issue sounds like a clever compromise.

I'm not saying let's do it, I'm not saying fine, the definitions have now changed, I'm saying let's engage in a thought experiment here, where would this lead us? Considering the difficulties I have already mentioned with certain religious people and their issues with words, this could be a healthy alternative to me taking up trichotillomania.

My own language is spoken in two countries in the world and is slowly dying out. Perhaps that causes me to be less attached to fixed meanings of words, so I don't mind if we claim some words and abandon others in order to facilitate understanding.
Comment by Nix Manes on September 24, 2009 at 1:06pm
(First, my thing on the links wasn't directed at you.)

I'll try one more time, I guess.

There is a strong connotation of religion with the term "moral." If that's disputed, we can't go much further. I know it's there. If you were to catalog all the sermons given over any period of time, you would, I'm sure, see the use of "moral" many times greater than "ethical." If you were to read through all of the religious books written over the last 100 years, you'd find "moral" much more frequently used, too.

The two links I posted also mention this religious context. And there are lots of others in many writings. When someone uses any term of the word "moral," the relgious baggage gets pulled in with it. The connotation is too strong to separate at this point.

A form of "moral" can be used by some in a secular context if they choose, which is what I'm against doing...the basic point of my post. The fact that others use it this way is the problem.

It's detrimental to use "moral" in a non-religious context because you can't split it from the religous baggage attached to it. Sorry that you don't think that's true, but I can't help that. The tern "ethical" just doesn't have the relgious baggage. It's used, as has been pointed out, in mostly "professionial" settings with no religious underpinnings.

Finally, the point is exactly to separate ourselves from the theists. Because you think the codes are similar is also not true. They overlap, but they are not similar. That is a huge difference.

I think we need to do as much as possible to separate theists from athesits when it comes to how we approach life. Proper use of language is a major step in doing that. Let them be. I don't need their myths and superstitions. Trying to tie us together could be anlogized as trying to mix oil and water. Try as you might to keep them together, they'll always separate in the end.

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